The view that the primary concern of British films of the 1960s is cot class or Britishness but the nature of masculinity

Original Theatre Trailer, ‘Goldfinger’1

England of the 1960’s was a place of great transition. The economic boom of the 1950’s was beginning to loose its hold and with it the extra wealth enjoyed by the people of Britain. Combined with the loss of the nations international power, underlined by the Suez crisis, things were beginning to look somewhat bleak.

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The British cinema industry was on it’s last legs. Cinema receipts had declined by over two thirds, causing studios such as Ealing to close down after the release of “The Siege Of Pinchgut” in 1959. This caused a large number of new faces to join the cue at the Job Centre along with a large number of other professionals at this time.

In order to try and kick-start the cinema industry and stimulate the production of British films, the UK offered subsidies to the US film industry. The American studios were able to take advantage of the vacant lots and unemployed talent and produce films in Britain at a cheaper rate than they could in USA. Companies such as MGM (at one point the MGM outpost was headed by Ealing chief Michael Balcon2) set up subsidiaries in the country to take advantage of the Governments tempting subsidies.

At this time the definition of a British film held by the government was that the picture was filmed mainly in the UK, with British star and director. If the film contained these properties the American studios were eligible for a subsidy.

What the British people really needed however was someone to look up to who both men and women could call their own and see giving a positive impression of themselves.

The answer to this came from the character from a fairly non-descript author Ian Flemming and his series of books about a British secret agent working for MI5. The first incarnation of Bond occurred in the 1950’s when Bob Holness, of ‘Blockbusters’ fame played him in a radio version of ‘Casino Royal’, the first of the 007 novels. Casino Royal was later made into a television film starring David Niven, but it was the James Bond played by former Mr Universe Sean Connery in the film ‘Dr No’ that inspired so many members of the British public.

“A pre-eminently English hero, single handedly saving the world from threatening catastrophe, Bond embodied the imaginary possibility that England might once again be placed at the centre of world affairs during a period when it’s world-power status was visibly and rapidly declining.

T. Bennett ; J. Woollacott, ‘Bond and Beyond’3

The character of James Bond himself is a very ambiguous one. His origins are rarely mentioned; we know little about his schooling or life previous to the film other than he was a commander in the Navy. The casting of Sean Connery, a little known actor from Edinburgh, did much to emphasise this vague aspect of the character. His seemingly classless accent makes him hard to place in terms of society, which made him accessible to people of all ethnographic origins.

“Classlessness was to mean that everybody had a share in upper-class luxury as well as working- class jollity and gutsiness”

Robert Murphy, ‘Sixties British Cinema’4

The British people now had a hero they could all relate to in terms of class and his patriotism but there was a special ‘X factor’ involved in the character that made him such an icon. From within this traditional institution that is Her Majesties Secret Service, comes this ‘maverick’, who is quite happy to go out on a limb for Queen and country as long as it involves meeting lovely ladies along the way. The promiscuous nature of James Bond made him, as producer Harry Saltzman once said, ‘the idol of every women and envy of every man.’

“Bond thus embodied a male sexuality that was freed from the constraints and hypocrisy of gentlemanly chivalry, a point of departure from the restraint, a sexuality or repressed sexuality, of the traditional aristocratic hero.”

T. Bennett ; J. Woollacott ,’Bond and Beyond’5

This ‘new masculinity’ was something the audience really latched on to, and with the unexpected success of ‘Dr. No’ after it’s release in 1962, (grossing $22million by 1976), producers Broccoli and Saltzman started production of more 007 films at Pinewood. The rugged secret agent found fans not just in the British market, but over seas as well. The American market was especially fond of the series, making the films an international commodity. This meant that the films had to be angled accordingly so as to appeal to this worldwide audience. Although the patriotic image of Bond stayed, the focus moved to a far greater international concern and world politics.

“Bond, though undeniably patriotic, was driven more by the need to defend his right to enjoy tiptree strawberry jam and speckled brown eggs and have his cigarettes made for him specially by Morlands of Grosvenor Street.

Robert Murphy, ‘Sixties British Cinema’6

This was illustrated in the films immediately following ‘Dr. No’, ‘From Russia With Love’ and ‘Goldfinger’, the chief in which were issues of world politics.

As a result, ‘Bond-esque’ characters started to pop up all over, especially in television based series such as ‘The Man From Uncle’ and ‘The Avengers’, taking the masculine and patriotic aspects of Bond and moulding them for more culturally specific audiences.

Harry Palmer, the character played by Michael Caine in the BAFTA award winning film ‘The Ipcress File’ released after ‘Goldfinger’ in 1965, was another rule bending secret agent. Palmer though was written with the British people in mind rather than an international audience which would explain the greater references to his history, something that is kept disclosed about Bond. His class, in this a cockney is an issue of real relevance, being able to achieve a result far more efficiently than his ‘upper-crust’ superiors.

“Harry Palmer in the films, is a deliberate contrast to Bond. Where Bond is urbane, handsome, upper middle-class, an officer and a gentleman (even in the films, Connery is suave and well heeled), Palmer is a grammar school boy from Burnley, vaguely left wing… and continually trying to fiddle his expenses to make ends meet.”

Robert Murphy, ‘Sixties British Cinema’ 7

One of the major advantages of Bond was that he was able to move from different social environments with the greatest of ease. The introduction sequence of ‘Goldfinger’ shows Bond swimming, disposing of guards, setting a time bomb before peeling off his dry suit, to reveal a white dinner jacket and join the party. If Palmer were to do the same he would probably stick out like a sore thumb. Bond’s ability to change environment is largely due, I believe to his classless persona, he is equally at home in the swamps of a Caribbean island trying to find Dr. No or playing a round of golf at Ulrich Goldfinger’s country club.

This could be why the women found him so attractive. One of the key elements of Bond’s popularity was the introduction of the ‘Bond Girl’. First seen emerging from the water in ‘Dr. No’, the Bond Girl was a crucial part in the development of Bond’s sexuality and masculinity. These free spirited women weren’t seen as being used by this man. They were free, single, liberal minded and independent individuals who matched the promiscuous nature of Bond.

“The ‘Bond Girl’ is tailored to suit Bond’s needs: was likewise… a free and independent sexuality.’8

T. Bennett and J. Woollacott

The international lifestyle combined with the ‘playboy’ girls on his arm was a masculine image every man wanted to have a part of. The introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1960 along with the greater success achieved by the women’s rights movement at this time, lead to this far more liberal woman who to most intensive purposes was standing on a level pegging with men.

This is something the men of this period, especially older males, found quite difficult to adapt to. James Bond however was the reassertion of their masculinity. It could almost be said that he was masculinity personified.

Men could associate with this understated, suave and debonair man because they could they could see themselves as being him. Despite his numerous brushes with death, not least being strapped to the ‘laser cutter’ he still found time to keep a calm head and wow the ladies.

Even when the odds were severely stacked against him, for example in the vault at Fort Knox with ‘Odd-Job’, his British guile and manly grit saw him through. His love of fast cars, women and technologies summed up the male population’s desire for an icon. Not only did James Bond represent images of masculinity, he constructed them.

Even Harry Palmer, a secret agent of the same period, despite being slightly more upper class, still found time to charm the ladies in attempt to reassert his masculine nature. From his general demeanour, we get the impression that enjoys the finer things in life. He has discovered the delights of high culture which may give a slight effeminate image, yet will still rough it up if and when it is required. For instance, the ‘brainwashing sequence’ where it his ability to control the self inflicted pain that allows him to defeat the enemy.

These public fears and ideals are not static. Opinions change and evolve over time with men and women adapting to the new social standings they were now operating within. Characters like Bond, if they were to be successful over the long time were forced to adapt to the current feeling amongst their target audiences.

“As a ‘sign of the times’, the figure of Bond has not always stood for the same values or represented a constant position in relation to the ideological concerns… Indeed, it has been the very malleability of Bond in this respect… that has constituted the basis of his popularity.”

T. Bennett & J. Woollacott

A direct link between Bond and 1960’s society can be seen in the illustration of their cultural anxieties. The wish from the men for a cultural icon that personified their need for masculine ideals to reduce the impact of the social equilibrium that was re-working the gender positions at that time. Women themselves wanted to see a man that could appreciate their new liberal lifestyles: Bond certainly didn’t expect to settle down with ‘Pussy Galore’! Other British films of the 1960’s such as the ‘The Ipcress Files’ or ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’ aren’t so much concerned with notions of class or nation because at this time, these issues were of little interest to the public. To make a successful film, you have to tap into the mood of the market and that is what happened.

That doesn’t mean these issues were dropped altogether, but they were lowered in importance. James Bond was working for the British government as was Harry Palmer and Charlie Croker (The Italian Job, 1969), tried to get one over on the Italians. This had a dual function, as it opened up the films to foreign audiences allowing extra income to enter the ailing UK film industry. Issues of class were also mentioned, ‘M’ and ‘Q’ for example are both very much upper class, but like the concept of nationhood it served very much as a sub plot behind the main narrative drive of reasserting masculinity in the nations male population of Great Britain.