Whether you went to film school or just love films, I’m sure you’ve heard that same old song: you need to study film history. All of a sudden, you’ve gotten yourself hundreds of films on your watchlist. Here’s an unpopular opinion: stick to James Bond.
What is a James Bond film? A big commercial. From Aston Martin to Bollinger champagnes and Omega watches, those films are designed to sell luxury stuff to the audience. Did you ever wonder why James Bond ended up at the wheels of a Ford Mondeo in Casino Royale? That’s right. Ford paid big bucks for 007 to do so. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. Films cost hundreds of millions to make. Producers gotta find that money somewhere. And to make sure they’ll find the hundreds of millions to make the next film, the film must be successful. At least financially. How do they do that?
They follow the current trend in films. That is why, since 1962 Dr. No the James Bond films has been the only film franchise to capture almost 60 years of film history. Let’s face it. Every James Bond film is kind of like the one before, right? With the notable exception of the formula being adapted, or rather adjusted, to today’s standards. That doesn’t make them bad (except you two Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace), they are ranging from average (late Moore’s era) to very good (late Connery, early Moore, Dalton and Brosnan’s eras), and some are excellent (early Connery and Craig’s eras).
Introducing Bond… James Bond
I think it is rather fascinating to watch the whole film series chronologically. The first Bond films could be summed up to Sean Connery pacing across sets, in an establishing shot. More than 50 years later, Daniel Craig goes from the street to a local hotel room and then the adjoining roof, in one continuous shot. Film techniques have evolved so much in such a short time that it’s easy to forget how films looked like not so long ago. There are definitely some things we can learn from the 007 film franchises, starting with filmmaking.
While the James Bond films have mainly stuck to film as far as production goes (with the notable exception of Skyfall), the tools have evolved drastically. As I said, the first films mainly consist of establishing shot of Bond pacing across rooms in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This starts to give way to more modern filmmaking and editing with Goldfinger and then Thunderball (first to be shot in anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio). The cinematography, however, sticks to global lighting for very long. Fortunately, with each new director coming aboard the 007 train, come new ideas. More creative lighting appears in the early 70s, with Diamonds Are Forever and Moore’s first outing as 007: Live and Let Die.
Through the 70s and 80s
Then, in the late mid-70s, something huge happened. Star Wars happens. And with it, a generalization of optical effects. The audience didn’t wait long before Bond himself went out to space in 1979 Moonraker. From there, it’s all downhill. The 80s are right around the corner, with its lots of action-packed blockbusters filled with special effects. And while James Bond will keep his feet down on earth, that doesn’t mean he’ll keep himself from dangerous situations to cheesy stunts. It sure didn’t help that 007 was in completion with… 007 himself.
James Bond is a relic of the cold war.
Sean Connery came back in 1983 for Never Say Never Again, not produced by Eon Productions, while Roger Moore starred in Eon Productions’ Octopussy. May the most grotesque win. Moore gave way to Timothy Dalton in 1987 for The Living Daylights, which I consider to be the first “Reaganian” Bond, following the trend of the latest action blockbusters starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Dalton is cold, and always up for a fight. Licence to Kill box-office results were disappointing, and the Bond franchise went dormant for 6 years.
Refreshing the Licence… to Kill
During that 6 years gap, another big thing happened. Jurassic Park happed. Computer-generated imagery is now a thing. Oh, and the Cold War ended. Which is to say, the whole point of James Bond was gone. Or was it? 007 came back in 1995 GoldenEye, starring Pierce Brosnan. Notably, the first film not based on Fleming’s materials. Could they have done otherwise? Has Judi Dench “M” states; [James Bond is] a relic of the cold war. James Bond fights the new trend of the 90s: technology. A technology ever-present in the tools: non-linear editing is here and with it faster-paced editing for more grandiose action pieces.
Until 1999 The Matrix, which―again―changed our whole perception of films. Sure enough, 2002 Die Another Day gave us the photorealistic CGI 007 surfing on waves. I guess it tempted to emulate the then-current trends brought by Fast and Furious and the like. James Bond needs to be call and have all those sick gadgets. Look at him driving on ice with his invisible Aston Martin! Did I mention that this film is just plain bad? Fortunately for us 007 fans, the franchise went dormant again, for about 5 years.
Time for a New Start
Enters Daniel Craig. In that 5 years gap, the film franchise went for worst to best. Casino Royale breathes new life in the franchise, following what I like to call the Batman Begins formula. But that’s not all. Digital color grading is now around. It’s been experimented with before. That’s just additional tools for the director to craft the perfect Bond film. The film must look good (especially Skyfall, thanks to Roger Deakins). Must feel good. And needs to be engaging for the audience.
Casino Royale breathes new life in the franchise, following what I like to call the Batman Begins formula.
That’s basically what the Craig era did for the franchise. It brought it to the 21st century, while notably going back to the roots. Back to Fleming’s first book. And it did something that’s never been done before in the James Bond film series. It gave 007 a character arc, that spans over the 4 films and supposedly ended with Spectre, before the producers decided otherwise and called Craig back for a 5th installment. It also gave James Bond a past, a broken heart, and motivation to go after each new villain he has to face. How it will end remains to be seen, and there’s much to expect from No Time To Die, as it will be Craig’s final outing as 007.
There you have it: a “quick” (24 films and counting) overview of film history from the 60s up until now. It’s not by any means a deep study of history, but I reckon you’ll get the idea. So, if you haven’t done so, I’d highly suggest watching the film series from start to finish. There’s much to learn about how cinema evolved over the past 60 years. Even the bad ones are worth watching for that fact alone. Or if you don’t feel like watching 24 Bonds, stick to the ones I mentioned.
Keep in mind, the producers have basically been making the same spy film, with beginning, middle, and end, for almost 60 years. The same film at different points in time, each one is representative of the techniques and narration of that time. James Bond needs his car, his gadgets, and most importantly his James Bond girl. While there has been some deviation in the formula, it existentially stays the same at its core. Each film can be watched independently from the others, even the most recent ones. If you take, say The World Is Not Enough, you’ll have a glimpse of how action films were made in 1999. It lacks character development, it’s cheesy and features not so good performances, but I guarantee you’ll never get bored.