James Bond’s patriotism shaken not stirred
To mark the 50th anniversary of the James Bond films, ‘Skyfall’ asks audiences to question the agent’s patriotism. What kind of country has the England he serves become?
The scene is a secret rendez-vous, much like that featured in any self-respecting spy thriller. The hero is waiting on a bench in London’s National Gallery to receive his gun and gadgets from the quartermaster, Q. But this time James Bond, quintessential man of action, is asked to think.
Sitting in front of JMW Turner’s famous painting of The Fighting Temeraire, Bond insists that all he sees is ‘a bloody big ship’. He leaves it to Q to describe the pathos of the scene: a once powerful warship being towed off to the scrapheap, possibly marking the end of England’s glory days as a sea power.
Later, as the action builds to a tense shootout in Whitehall, Judi Dench, playing the spymaster M, beautifully intones some lines from the Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson. They evoke a nation struggling to remain confident in its values after losing much of its former role on the world stage: ‘We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.’
The movie’s villain mocks Bond’s love for his country. And Raoul Silva, played with glee by Javier Bardem, has good reason to be cynical: he is, it turns out, a victim of ‘perfidious Albion’. Once a brilliant agent of the Crown, Silva was sacrificed by M during the Hong Kong handover: his suffering at the hands of Chinese torturers and his feelings of betrayal are at the centre of the film’s plot.
How appropriate: relinquishing Hong Kong was one of the moments that marked the passing of the British Empire.
Against this background even James Bond, played by Daniel Craig as fallible and past his prime, starts to have a few doubts about what he is fighting for. How unassailable is the patriotism of perhaps the most famous fictional Englishman of all time?
My country right or wrong
By the closing credits James Bond has definitely got his mojo back. But the hero of this film is a good deal less arrogant than in the previous 22. Perhaps that is a good thing. Some will say that national pride should be based on a realistic assessment of the post-imperial nation as it is today, not on nostalgia or exceptionalism. As Tennyson puts it: ‘that which we are, we are.’
Others will insist that a fantasy essentially designed for escapism and self-congratulation can never help the British understand their present – only trap them in the past.
- Are you patriotic? Do you think this is a positive quality?
- Is it a good thing that the British Empire has passed into the history books?
- Write a poem or song lyric about your own country: it can be patriotic or critical, or both.
- Research the history of ‘declinism’ in Western nations and make a presentation.
Some People Say...
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Samuel Johnson”
What do you think?
Q & A
- You are having me on, James Bond is pure entertainment!
- Of course it is. You don’t have to look beyond the car chases, the elegant outfits and the jokes if you don’t want to. But if an action movie also has something interesting to say about the spirit of the times, why not?
- Sounds pretentious to me. Is any of it relevant?
- Well, the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, which inspired the films, were set in the era of the Cold War, when the West was in a terrifying stand-off with Communist Russia. Today’s real threats are from terrorists and cyber-criminals: the films are trying to keep up with those changes, so there is lots of hacking inSkyfall. But Ian Fleming originally invented the character of Bond to maintain British pride in a declining nation after the end of World War Two.
- Alfred Tennyson
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson is one of the most popular poets in the English language. Among the most famous of his stirring, rhythmic verses are Charge of the Light Brigade and Break, Break, Break, and he coined such often-quoted lines as ‘Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’
- Hong Kong handover
- In 1842, after aggressively subjugating China in battle, Britain claimed the small but wealthy island of Hong Kong as part of its empire. It remained a British colony until 1997 when, after long negotiations, it returned to Chinese control. However, British influences on its culture, law and politics remain, and Hong Kong governs itself more independently than any other region in China.
- British Empire
- Between the 16th Century and the Second World War Britain built up the largest empire the world has ever seen, covering almost a quarter of the world’s land and a fifth of its population. For a long time it was a source of enormous national pride – and for some, this pride remains. But since imperial decline in the second half of the 20th Century, many historians have condemned the Empire as a racist, grasping and oppressive campaign of conquest.
- The street in the middle of London’s Westminster on which many government ministries are situated. It is taken as shorthand for the hub of state power, where the vast British Empire was once administered.