In 2012, we began counting down the days until the release of Skyfall by looking back at the James Bond movies of the past. This entry recognizes the importance of the relaunch of 007 with Pierce Brosnan’s debut as Bond in 1995’s GoldenEye.
For diehard fans of the James Bond franchise, each and every film is sacrosanct in some small fashion or another. Even those titles that flirt shamelessly with being totally unwatchable will offer at least a kernel of merit for those willing to hunt for it. Yes, even Die Another Day. That being said, an obvious hierarchy exists to stratify these films in terms of both excellence and their overall significance to the franchise. The natural assumption here is that, much like the geological methodology on which this metaphor is predicated, the strata composed of the oldest material would be of most significance. In other words, a Bond film’s recency is inversely proportional to its importance within the franchise.
The fact is that one of the franchise’s most important films was released thirty-three years after its inaugural entry.
In 1995, GoldenEye relaunched the James Bond film legacy in tremendous fashion. It offered a unique balance between Bond’s past (the title being a reference to Ian Fleming’s Jamaica home in which he wrote most of the novels) and his future. Among many, Bond connoisseur and novice alike, GoldenEye is well-regarded, so assigning it underrated status is wholly inaccurate. However, what does often get overlooked is how critical the success of this one movie was to ensuring the series’ continuation.
This oversight is not at all surprising given so much of the film’s importance is rooted in circumstances existing behind-the-scenes. The historical context and production challenges facing GoldenEye placed it into an unenviable and precarious must-win situation; a charge that, thankfully, the filmmakers were well-equipped to meet.
Under The Gun
So what were these challenges? Much like James Bond in each film’s signature opening moment, the franchise was looking down the barrel of a loaded gun. License to Kill may have underperformed at the box office, but in hindsight, those involved probably look back fondly on the film’s poor financial showing as the least of the problems that followed its release. Less than two years after Licence to Kill’s arrival in theaters, the Bond family lost two of its most integral members within a few months of one another.
First passed screenwriter Richard Maibaum, who had penned the scripts for the vast majority of Bond films up to that point going all the way back to progenitor Dr. No, followed shortly by Maurice Binder whose opening title sequences had become as indelible to the series as James’ finicky cocktail proclivities.
Then came a squabble over the rights to the James Bond character. Eon Productions, the brainchild of long-time Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, was involved in fierce litigation that nearly struck the rights from their grasp and threatened to inexorably derail any subsequent films. This is the reason for the six-year divide between License to Kill and GoldenEye; the longest gap between entries in franchise history. The other issue that caused a great deal of friction behind the scenes was that Timothy Dalton, who still had at least one more Bond film on his contract, decided to renege on his deal and abandon the role. This took many people by surprise, but none more so than the new screenwriters who had already put the script together with Dalton in mind.
Interesting side note: they actually had to rework the script after the release of True Lies because the original draft was far too similar. Dalton’s departure cast further clouds of doubt over the continuation of the series until Irish actor Pierce Brosnan — who had actually been in the running to take over the character before Dalton’s first outing but was contractually bound to the show Remington Steele — eventually took up the 007 mantle.
This was the logistical hill faced by not only this one film, but the entire future of one of the most prolific characters in the history of film. And yet even that wasn’t the full extent of the burden placed upon GoldenEye’s shoulders. Since the release of Licence to Kill, the Berlin Wall had come toppling down like so many SPECTRE strongholds, and Communism was no longer the prevailing political policy of Russia. This effectively made GoldenEye the first Bond film to be released after the Cold War. Given how much of Bond’s various escapades, and his very origins as the archetype superspy, were symptomatic, or at least a function, of Cold War paranoia, this shift in sociopolitical ideology presented no small quandary for the filmmakers as to the direction the franchise should now head.
Campbell to the Rescue
All of these upheavals placed Martin Campbell, the first non-British Bond director no less, and his screenwriters in a very uneasy position. How does one re-re-invent, in more ways than one, a character so beloved by film fans the world over? After all, after Roger Moore’s twelve-year tenure, Dalton had only lasted two films and audiences were already being asked to reassign allegiance to a new actor. More to the point, how should the major changes in society since the last film be adequately addressed while simultaneously giving the audience enough familiar yet exciting action set pieces to reward their heretofore unprecedented patience? Oh, and how do you do all of this while ensuring that the film is a success? As close as the franchise came to destruction, the studio could ill-afford another bust.
Campbell, and the script, hurdled this challenge by attacking it head-on, very literally. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not only addressed, but post-communist Russia was made the centerpiece of the story. GoldenEye was the first film in the series that was permitted to shoot in Moscow, and Campbell took full advantage. The scene set in what is essentially a graveyard for fallen statues of Lenin is a powerful reminder of the new era in which Bond found himself.
But Campbell wasn’t satisfied until he had violently ripped this iconic protagonist away from the political conflict that once defined him like a dysfunctional organ being hastily excised by a battlefield surgeon. In this regard, there are few approaches less delicate than to have James Bond drive a tank through the streets of Russia’s capital city. It’s a bold stroke that dramatically turns the tide for the whole Bond film canon.
This boldness is echoed in the casting of Dame Judi Dench as M. Many people have taken note of the extremely progressive decision to cast a woman as James Bond’s boss, the head of MI-6 codenamed M. While this forward-thinking choice is to be applauded, there is something equally innovative at play here apart from having nothing to do with gender. Dench’s M represents the first acknowledgment of any change in the performer behind that famous desk. Prior to Dench, there had been two actors who’d occupied the role of M: Bernard Lee and Robert Brown. When Bernard Lee was replaced by Brown upon his death in 1981, the relationship between M and Bond continued as if nothing were different.
However, Dench’s M is not shy about referring to her “predecessor” and even addresses the frustrating challenges of being a woman in that typically male-dominated position. It’s an interesting nod to a changing of the guard that juxtaposes the fact that, with the exception of one woefully silly piece of dialogue in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, no such acknowledgment had been made of the ever-changing lineup of actors playing Bond. By giving the audience such a stark changeover in the M position, one that Dench fell into with masterful ease, they were subconsciously being massaged into more readily accepting Brosnan as the new Bond; facilitating the showcasing of his own aptitude toward the role in which he was cast.
What makes GoldenEye so vital to the entirety of the Bond franchise is rooted in the incomparable odds it faced in pre-production and the ensuing overwhelming demands made of it. Like the gripping sequence at the beginning of the film, the future of the series was hurtling toward certain doom and Martin Campbell’s 1995 entry was its sole lifeline. It is no surprise that when the series required another reboot in 2006, Campbell was the one they called.
If GoldenEye hadn’t been as great as it was, who knows if we’d be seeing Skyfall in a couple of weeks.