EQUIPPING JAMES BOND: Guns, Gadgets, and Technological Enthusiasm
By Andre Millard
Johns Hopkins University Press, $49.95, 212 pages
While this highly readable book will not tell you how to make exploding pens, shoes with hidden knives or shoot death rays out the back of the family Buick, it does tell you how and where Ian Fleming, the author of the 12 James Bond novels, came up with these “fiendishly clever” devices. In other words, this book resembles the old bait and switch: The title overpromises, but the subtitle is more accurate.
Along the way, the author (a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who has written books on Beatlemania and Birmingham’s rock ‘n’ roll years) provides one of the best capsulized histories of technology in warfare I’ve ever read. It also traces the development of the Bond character from the books of the 1960s to the movies of the present day, or, to put it differently, from George Lazenby to Daniel Craig.
Andre Millard puts Fleming in historical perspective: “Winston Churchill and Ian Fleming were perfect representatives of two generations of Englishmen — the Victorians and the Edwardians — who saw their world transformed. Churchill (born in 1874) and Fleming (born in 1908) lived through the Second Industrial Revolution, which brought a host of wonderful new inventions that changed life in ways large and small … The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued that ‘the greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of inventions.
“The technological enthusiasts believed they had the cure for all of mankind’s ills. For those who lived through it, the Second Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of a new modern age.”
While most modernists praised the positive possibilities of this new age, Ian Fleming, a British Navy commander-turned-high-level-bureaucrat-turned-journalist-turned-spy-turned-world-famous-novelist, chose to explore the dark side. Like Churchill, a gentleman born into privilege, Ian Fleming was, also like him, fascinated with inventions, fast planes, cars and boats, and was a known tinkerer. He was also nostalgic for the good old days of Her Majesty’s secret operations branch, which in the books Fleming called M16.
Having been deeply interested in clandestine operations both as a naval man and as a journalist, Fleming admired the rough-and-tumble WWII-era British rogue who was, of course, at the same time a proper English gentleman from the upper classes whose passing Fleming mourned. Chivalry may be dead, but snobbery is always with us.
In the Bond books and the many highly successful films made from them, there’s always a strong hint that the ever-more-clever technological advances may pull — push? — civilization over the edge and into the abyss. As Andre Millard writes, “Audiences also saw a wide variety of nuclear weapons in the Bond films the device Bond must defuse [in “The World is Not Enough”] is a much more complicated and dramatic-looking device; shaped like a satellite, with a metallic, spherical head, and filled with a mass of wires, this silvery, futuristic device owes a lot to the aesthetic of space travel.”
And he notes that the movies sometimes upped the technology. “Fleming described several homing devices in the books that work with vacuum tubes and dry batteries But in [the film version of] ‘Goldfinger’ the clumsy vacuum tubes have been replaced by transistors, which reduce the size of the equipment, allowing Bond to place a signal generator in the sole of his shoe In the book ‘Thunderball’ Bond and his colleagues fight underwater battles with knives tied to broom handles, but in the film he has a multitude of specially designed weapons.”
The later Bond books, and especially the films, mirrored the world’s growing fear of a nuclear holocaust, but the reliance on machines rather than men to combat evil did not sit well with Ian Fleming, and while he used them, he didn’t like it. As Andre Millard writes toward the end of the book ” old soldiers like Churchill would lament the mechanization of their trade and the replacement of their heroes with machine minders and lever pullers” and “old intelligence operators like Ian Fleming would lament the replacement of their wartime heroes with quiet men who listened in to telephone calls or examined photographs taken by satellites.”
The author makes the interesting point that while James Bond never changes, the bad guys do, morphing from leftover Nazis into corporate master criminals, from Le Chiffre to SPECTRE.
The final three short chapters are each worth the price of the book, which in this case is saying something. In addition, the book’s readability is enhanced by 15 pages of excellent source notes.
Did Ian Fleming write fantasies? Consider this: Toward the end of his writing days he remarked, “Personally I am sufficiently in love with the myth [of the British secret service] to write basically incredible stories with a straight face.”
• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).