It’s the James Bond movie 50th anniversary! The new film Skyfall is in cinemas at last! The entire 007 oeuvre has been remastered and released in a classy new Blu-ray package! Digital TV has a whole channel devoted to playing Bond flicks on repeat for a whole month! Yes, it’s much ado about Bond at the moment.
This October we’ve been experiencing a fresh outbreak of Bondmania that’s sent us collectively back through the pop-cultural ages, parachuting off memory mountains (the parachute is a Union Jack) and powering through waves of nostalgia in Wet Nellie.
We’re all wrapped up in the 007 mythos tighter than a Xenia Onatopp thigh-squeeze and I approve of this, because I’m a connoisseur of the Bond canon with considerable affection for the series. I was raised on these movies, and as an obsessed kid, spent tremendous amounts of time watching the films over and over, playing the GoldenEye videogame, messing about with merchandise bits and imagining up my own 007 adventures. (I swear, the never-to-be James Bond movies my younger mind made up were all miles better than Die Another Day.)
On reflection, I realise that the 007 series was an essential part of my upbringing and, actually, educated me in many ways. The Bond franchise introduced me to very mature adult concepts like death, sex, organised crime and megalomania. It made me aware of far-flung geographical destinations and international political features such as the Cold War and terrorism.
Rewatching the utterly awesome opening sequence of GoldenEye recently (dam bungee jump; punched-out Russian in a toilet cubicle; Sean Bean executed; escape by skydiving into a plummeting plane, remember?) I acknowledged that it was the movie that introduced me to the idea of ‘suspension of disbelief’. That was the first feature film to really illustrate to me the power of movies to make the spectacular and seemingly impossible happen on screen.
I’ve found it quite interesting observing the particular focuses of the mass media during the current collective nostalgia trip. The attention is laid on the character of Bond himself, his lifestyle, the cars, the Bond girls and the other swish, glamorous features of the series. Those are all, obviously, essential aspects of the formula, but the thing that resonates most with me personally is the villainy. Say “James Bond” and the first thing that comes to my mind is “eccentric evil henchman”.
Maybe if I’d come to the Bond franchise as an adolescent, I’d have more interest in the curves and moves of the cars and the girls but, alas, the 007 movies gripped my mind when I was an asexual pre-pubescent about the same height as Nick Nack.
Actually, maybe it’s because I’m an aspiring megalomaniac with antisocial tendencies and a suppressed sociopathic streak. Regardless, in my view, the thing that makes 007 movies magic are the eccentric array of evildoers that oppose Her Majesty’s best field agent – specifically the prestige henchman who really put in the hard work and tackle Bond personally.
I love the supervillains – Dr No, Scaramanga, Ernst Stavro Blofeld in any incarnation – but I hold a special place in my heart for their servile underlings. Those figures are the most fascinating, provide the most fun, and are more of a threat to MI6’s main man than the masterminds pulling the strings. Malign criminal head honchos may be holding the world to ransom, but for all their button-pushing and Persian cat stroking, it’s the sinister sidekicks who really shake and stir Bond.
It’s also true that the henchmen and henchwomen – is the non-gender specific term ‘henchpersons’? – leave a greater impression because they have more screentime. They exploit the opportunity and make their presence felt by battling with Bond (whether it be in actual fighting or in vehicle chases) and by using the time to showcase their special skills and defining physical features. Aloof antagonists like Stromberg and Hugo Drax are memorable but don’t echo in popular infamy unlike Jaws the metalmouth giant who everyone remembers from, respectively, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.
Considering Richard Kiel’s colossal form and steely dentures, I once again find myself coming back to childhood. I see afresh that the pantheon of peculiar sub-villains played a crucial role in my formative education, and taught me a lot about the world. For instance, they introduced me to the idea of ‘the Other’ and made me aware of what might be termed ‘abnormalities’.
What’s more, they showed me that irregularity, deformity or disability needn’t be absolutely abhorrent or an obstacle, but could be wielded as a weapon and worn as a badge of pride. For an undersized and slightly odd lonely little boy, this was an incredibly important, powerful point.
I had (and still have) a tremendous affinity with the likes of Jaws, Nick Nack and Oddjob, and they stand as appealingly weird access points into their movies. James Bond is an ever-reliable touchstone of heroism, but I’m simultaneously drawn to sympathise with these compelling creatures caught helplessly between the main antagonists, larger than life but inevitably doomed to a tragic demise before the end credits. (Sometimes that doesn’t happen, but of the implied survivors, only Jaws gets a happy ending with a new girlfriend and the promise that mainstream society will no longer fear and revile him.)
Sometimes, they deserve better than the quip-studded death they are dealt by 007, and I often feel that these interesting, relatable personalities are worthy of so much more. I care about these characters and wish to hear backstories or see spin-off adventures where they aren’t predestined to perish unlike in the individual canon film they exist in.
Altogether, the henchpeople, for me, remain the aspect of the Bond movie formula that I treasure the most and it’s, thus, unsurprising that baddie-thick flicks From Russia With Love and Live And Let Die rank as two of my favourite 007 films.
It’s a shame that in the recent Daniel Craig run, this stock character type has been undermined by the drive to focus on grit and gravity in order to groove to the tune of real world politics and the action beats of other films like, say, the Bourne series. The current trend in spy cinema is to have faceless henchmen solely serving serious narrative developments and a lot of attention on grave faces staring at computers. The consensus seems to keen to consign quirky visual villains to comic book adaptations.
As a result, the James Bond series is slightly deficient in terms characteristic irreverent spirit and humour. It’s not a catastrophe – especially if the main villains are really good – but my inner child would love to see the lovable freaks and unusual icons of evil back in force for future franchise sequels.
For now though, back to Skyfall excitement and the 50th anniversary reminiscing, both of which are making me smile. I love these shiny new steel dentures.
James Clayton is an aspiring megalomaniac looking for a decent plastic surgeon and staff to help him maintain a fully-functioning subterranean lair located beneath a dormant Japanese volcano. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.
You can read James’ last column here.