I started writing a review of The Living Daylights (1987) for my Groovers Video Vault, it quickly became clear that I was not writing about the movie but about its star, Timothy Dalton. He probably isn’t the best James Bond, but he is certainly the most underrated, probably the closest to the character Ian Fleming wrote, and possibly the most influential since Sean Connery. The review of The Living Daylights will have to wait for another day.
In 1985 a 58 year old actor played James Bond, the actor Roger Moore was playing the part for the seventh and final time in his twelve year tenure. An older Bond could have made an interesting character as it did when (the younger) Sean Connery reprised the role for the unofficial Never Say Never Again (1983), but thanks to lazy writing, Moore still playing the part as if he were a much younger man. This was exacerbated by the over reliance of silly gadgets and comedy one liners. In essence the small elements that made Bond, Bond had taken over. It was a bit like watching an aging rock star putting all their effort into an extravagant stage show but forgetting to sing the songs. The final nail in the creative coffin was that they had run out of Ian Fleming novels and were writing new stories, bad stories. Bond had become a parody, the result A View to a Kill was a terrible film, the franchise was an unsustainable mess, something had to be done. There was little of merit in the Roger Moore movies after his third outing, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), the series really needed new direction back then. I suspect that remembering the failure of George Lazenby as Sean Connery’s replacement, the producers were scared of upsetting the status quo and kept Moore in the role for an extra decade. As bad as the films got (Moonraker (1979), Octopussy (1983) and A View to a Kill (1985) being the low points) they still made money.
Producers, particularly Cubby Broccoli courted a young little known Irishman Pierce Brosnan who was staring in the TV show Remington Steele. Contractual obligations prevented Brosnan from taking the part so attention turned to Shakespearean actor Timothy Dalton. Dalton had been approached to replace Connery in the late 60’s but felt he was too young, and then again in the early 80’s when Moore’s contract was in dispute. Comments in various interviews have suggested Dalton was not happy with the direction the franchise was going, he also suspected that he and other actors were used force Moore’s hand. When he eventually took the part he did it on his own terms. A fan of Flemings source novels, Dalton insisted on scaling back the sci-fi/fantasy elements of the plot in favour of a grittier more plot driven story. He played Bond as a reluctant hero who like his literary counterpart drank and smoked too much. He was a man clinging to small pleasures while he tried to take away the taste and guilt of the repugnant side of the job. This can be seen early in his first movie, The Living Daylights (1987). It took its name from an Ian Fleming short story that was originally published along with Octopussy.
The story saw a jaded Bond on sniper duty, his mission to take out a KGB sniper and aid an agents escape from East Berlin. On realising the KGB sniper is a beautiful, blonde cellist he had seen on her way to and from practice earlier, he decides to shoot her weapon from her hands rather than killing her. Captain Sender his local contact, explains to Bond that he had to mention Bonds actions in his report stating “You should have killed that sniper whoever it was” Bonds response:
James Bond Said wearily “Okay with any luck it’ll cost me my Double-0 number. But tell Head of Station not to worry. That girl won’t do any more sniping. Probably lost her left hand. Certainly broke her nerve for that kind of work. Scared the living daylights out of her. In my book, that was enough. Let’s go.”
It is with this defiance that Timothy Dalton played the part. Most of the short story makes it to the screen reworked into the plot of the movie. Bond’s words became “STUFF my orders! I only kill professionals. That girl didn’t know one end of her rifle from the other. Go ahead. Tell M what you want. If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it.”
Bonds relationship with Saunders (based on Captain Sender from the short story) is unusual within a Bond film, in that it brings out many emotions in him. Initially the two don’t get on, but they grow to respect each other. When Saunders is killed Bond loses heart in his cover and becomes agitated and on edge. There is nuance in this performance you don’t expect from Bond. This isn’t a new Bond this is a return to the real Bond, the Fleming Bond. We can see this in his interactions with General Pushkin, the new head of the KGB. This the Bond we have seen on screen and read about on the page who has always been more interested in following his instincts than his orders. Dalton’s second and final Bond film Licence to Kill (1989) takes Bond a stage further refusing M’s orders and resigning in order to seek personal revenge. The film was both praised and criticised for darker and more violent tone of the movie taking it away from the family audience and more towards contemporary Hollywood thrillers. Interestingly it wasn’t that well received by American audiences. Receiving a 15 certificate in the UK and Rated PG-13 in America probably didn’t help.
In 1990, MGM/UA was sold, this led to various legal disputes that are too complicated to go into. The legal disputes caused delays and the next film due to go into production in the early 90’s was delayed until early 1994, this again was delayed and Dalton resigned from the role despite originally signing a three picture deal.
The interesting thing about Daltos time as Bond is what happened when he quit, Cubby Broccoli got his man, the actor he always wanted to play Bond, Pierce Brosnan. After a promising start GoldenEye (1995) the series descended into something very similar to the latter Roger Moore films, farces filled with silly gadgets and product placements. Bond as a character was conceived during World War II and was a cold war character, for that reason he lost a little of his relevance after The Living Daylights. While he was away fighting drug dealers and on a brief hiatus, the world was changing, Russia was changing. To their credit this became an underlying plot point in Brosnan’s début film but it was never expanded on or played with in future films. Then in 2006 in the wake of the Jason Bourne movies for the first time ever, Bond wasn’t recast, it was rebooted with Daniel Craig getting the part to the surprise of almost everyone. His début Casino Royale (2006) was a return to form, its sequel Quantum of Solace (2008) (a direct sequel is another Bond first) was less well received. And now the Zenith of what Dalton started, Skyfall (2012) has taken Bond further from Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan than many thought possible. He may have taken it too far to be recognisable as a Bond, but it is proving popular with fans (including me), audiences and critics. Don’t expect the ever humble Dalton to take any credit where Bond is today, but I don’t think he would have got to this point without the new direction he took the character in 1987.