The 23rd James Bond film, Skyfall, finds Daniel Craig barreling into an uncertain future as agent 007 while calling back some familiar elements from earlier entries in the long-running series. He drives an Aston Martin (with an ejector seat) and packs a Walther PPK while chasing baddies in Turkey, China, and his native Scotland. MI6 secretary extraordinaire Eve Moneypenny and quirky quartermaster “Q” are back on board, working from a “new” London headquarters whose interior décor mimics the one depicted in Cold War films like Dr. No and The Spy Who Loved Me.
Skyfall drops on DVD next month. To commemorate 007’s golden jubilee on the big screen, the editors of LIFE Magazine have compiled 50 Years of James Bond—a colorful, image-laden, 176-page tribute that’s just as handsome as the iconic hero.
The book guides fans through over a half-century of Bond literature and lore, starting with the character’s inception in the mind of English author Ian Fleming, who made Bond “a compound of all the secret agents and commandoes” he met while serving in WWII as a lieutenant commander for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
Richard Corliss bids bond a “Happy Anniversary” and prefaces the movie retrospective, noting that 007 has—incredibly—outlasted “nine Presidents, four popes, two Tonight Show hosts, and 2,500 issues of TIME.” Fleming himself died in 1964, just three films into the series, leaving behind twelve Bond novels and two story collections. We’re given a look inside the big machine that brought Fleming’s superspy to cinema, including the producer partnership of Harry Saltzman and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli.
A survey of Bond women is followed by profiles of the six most recognizable Bonds—the actors who portrayed the super-sleuth in the “official” EON Productions films. Here, we’re reintroduced to Scotsman Sean Connery, Australian George Lazenby, dapper Brit Roger Moore, brooding Welshman Timothy Dalton, Irishman Pierce Brosnan, and devastating Englishman Daniel Craig. Several pages are devoted to Fleming, his novels, and a history of MI5 and MI6 before a run-down of the “lucky 8” who famously became Bond for the cameras.
Yes—eight men assumed the role of 007, starting with American actor Barry Nelson, who played CIA operative “Jimmy Bond” in a 1954 television adaptation of Casino Royale. David Niven—perhaps more famous for his part as “The Phantom” in Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther series—was an aging Bond in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale (which featured Peter “Inspector Clouseau” Sellers as one of several 007 imposters). The book also mentions that other thespians had a chance to voice Bond for radio renditions of the Fleming novels, like 1956’s South American broadcast of Moonraker, starring Bob Holness.
But then it’s full steam ahead into “dossiers” of the real McCoys…er, Bonds—the guys who turned 007 into the stuff of legend with their appearances in the official (and one non-official) big-budget Bond movies. We’re provided with a little background on each actor (prior TV and film appearances), plus statistics (eye color, height, age when Bond, etc.), box office sales figures, and trivia. Former milkman and Mr. Universe contestant Sean Connery wore a toupee for his six Bond outings—but the 6’2” had no trouble injecting the role with a “sulfurous masculinity.” So imposing a physical specimen was Sir Sean that Fleming complained the “overgrown stuntman” wasn’t what he’d envisioned for 007.
Yet Connery became Bond and had so much fun doing it—at least for four outings—that replacing him at the end of the Sixties was no simple easy task. 29-year old Aussie model George Lazenby beat out four other contestants for the part in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which saw 007 get married (and widowed) after thwarting Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) again. Lazenby dominated with his cleft chin, right hook, and savior-faire with the ladies (even when posing as a gay genealogist)—but decided early on he wouldn’t reprise the role. In fact, he annoyed the director and producers by turning up at the OHMSS premiere with long hair and a full beard; the book shows a decidedly hippy-looking Lazenby lounging with an acoustic guitar.
Roger Moore’s tenure lasted through the Seventies and half the Eighties (seven films). Known for playing Simon Templar on the British TV series The Saint, the “amiable and reliable” Moore imbued 007 with elegance, even if some felt he “walked through his part like a waxwork on casters…like Bond embalmed.” It was the writers—not Moore—who loaded his Bond with goofy gadgets and one-liners, and pumped movies like Live and Let Die and Octopussy so full camp that they threatened to pop (like Yaphet Kotto’s Mr. Big) by the Eighties. The book mentions that Moore embraced the role more so than the other Bonds; he maintained ties with Broccoli, lampooned 007 in Cannonball Run, and liberally filled his 2009 memoir My Word is My Bond with fond Bondian memories.
Theatre actor and miniseries go-to man Timothy Dalton brought the “iconic scowl of a serial killer” to 1987’s The Living Daylights and 1999’s License to Kill, remaking the character for a world in which perestroika prevailed and glasnost was gaining momentum as the Berlin Wall came down. The Dalton films did respectable business, but the text surmises (perhaps rightly) that Americans never warmed to the Welsh. Enter Brosnan, star of popular ‘80s TV spy show Remington Steele. Appearing in four films whose titles and plots didn’t reference any Fleming source material, Brosnan successfully “escorted the series into late middle age.” The critics derided Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, and Die Another Day, but Brosnan drew huge numbers and brought Bond into a new century—a politically correct age wherein the once-misogynistic character takes his marching orders from a woman (Judi Dench).
The franchise was rebooted in 2006 with yet another take on Casino Royale. But rather than satirize Fleming, director Martin Campbell had pouty-faced blonde Daniel Craig re-imagine 007 as a brusque rookie spy with a chip on his “Sisyphus shoulders.” Gone were the gadgets, cutesy quips, and superhuman sense of confidence. Did Bond still prefer his dry vodka martini “shaken, not stirred?” The impulsive newbie agent tells the bartender he doesn’t give a damn. Craig, then known mostly for bit parts in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Road to Perdition, and Munich, returned for Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, and is contracted for two more episodes. Little known fact: The shortest of the Bonds, 5’10” Craig wears lifts as 007.
50 Years provides at least two pages of notes and photos on every James Bond movie, including the non-canonical 1983 “renegade production” of Never Say Never Again. Connery is pictured doing handstands with Ursula Andress on the set of Dr. No and playfully fencing on the green (with golf clubs) with Goldfinger goon Gert Frobe. Some bond girls—like Shirley Eaton and Maud Adams—receive generous coverage, while other Bond girls are discounted or omitted entirely. Likewise, some bad guys aren’t mentioned or pictured; there’s just not enough room.
There’s a chapter devoted to “imposter” spies like Robert Vaughn’s Man from UNCLE (Napoleon Solo), Bill Cosby’s I Spy, Dean Martin’s Matt Helm, Patrick MacNee’s The Avengers, James Coburn’s Our Man, Flint, Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer (The Impress File), and Tony Ferrer—the “James Bond of the Philippines.” Modern spoofs like Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English and Mike Myers’ Austin Powers are included (along with Don Adams and Get Smart!) in “Teasing Commander Bond.”
The book boasts several Best Of (and Worst Of) lists like “In Praise of Bad Guys,” “Horrible Henchmen,” “Near Death Experiences,” “Best 007 Girls,” and “Bad Girls.” Still, a few comprehensive charts or pictograms would have gone a long way in organizing the films and their villains (Blofeld, Largo, Goldfinger), thugs (Jaws, Nick Nack, Oddjob), and girls (Honey Ryder, Pussy Galore, Sylvia Trench). A list of greatest movie stunts seems obligatory given the many skydives, ski jumps, car chases, and boat flips that have appeared on 007 celluloid—yet only a couple key action sequences are discussed here. And while most facts are dead-on, there are a couple discrepancies and / or errors. For example, the entry for You Only Live Twice claims the film was the first (at that point) wherein Bond “did not pilot any kind of vehicle.” Perhaps the editors meant another film; in YOLT Connery spends at least fifteen minutes flying over Japanese skies in his “Little Nellie” auto-gyro copter to survey Blofeld’s volcanic lair.
Nevertheless, when it comes to encapsulating, examining, and celebrating 007 in print and at movies, no book does it better than LIFE: 50 Years of James Bond.