Let’s be honest. There’s only one answer to the question, “Who was the best James
Bond?” It’s Sean Connery. By every measure. Daniel Craig, who has played 007 in the
three most recent Bond films, is a distant though quite respectable second, and can
lay claim to the most emotionally complex portrayal of the British secret agent. But
you can just toss out the rest. The late Princess Margaret, as portrayed by the comedian
Tracey Ullman, once shrewdly concluded that Timothy Dalton is forgettable, Roger Moore
looks like someone who should be selling socks at Harrod’s, and Pierce Brosnan ought
to go back to doing “Remington Shaver ads.” (The actor did star in the 1980s series
Remington Steele, and did not, to my knowledge, ever hawk men’s grooming products, but the point still
None of this is to diminish the acting chops of these men. (Except for Moore.) And
in all fairness, George Lazenby only did one film, so who knows where he might have
taken the character if given the chance? But I’m guessing we wouldn’t have seen a
better Bond, nor a more interesting one. The trouble is, Bond is an endlessly satisfying
but terribly static character. With the exception of the most recent three films—particularly
Skyfall, which tells the Bond origin story, and 1969’s
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when Bond’s wife is violently murdered—we have learned precious little of his inner
life or his past, and we have rarely seen his vulnerable side.
Bond is a foil, meant to illuminate the truly memorable characters of the films: the
villains. And there can be no claim to best Bond villain, because there are too many
good ones. Goldfinger. Dr. No. Blofeld, who recurs in more films than any other bad
guy. Bambi and Thumper. Mayday. Emilio Largo. Max Zorin. Each one delightfully depraved
and uniquely ruthless.
The villains, more than Bond, tell us about the times we’re living in. They reflect
our fears and anxieties, often before we’ve fully understood them ourselves. A new
exhibition opening Friday at the International Spy Museum, “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years
of Bond Villains,”
is a tribute to the great torturers, terrorists, and criminal titans of the Bond epic.
And walking through its halls, one is reminded how well the Bond antagonists have
reflected, and even predicted, the great tensions of our time: the Cold War. The rise
of drug lords and corrupt oligarchs. The power of terrorism. The suitcase-size nuclear
bomb and the renegade, nationless evildoer determined to use it were recurring tropes
in Bondworld years before the 9/11 attacks.
At the new exhibition, you will find no heroes, only the glorification of the merciless
and the menacing. Jaws’s silver chompers. Le Chiffre’s torture rope. Even the animals
are evil: a killer tarantula, the suffocating cephalopod from Octopussy, and, naturally,
sharks—a whole room of them.
“Bond doesn’t really have any meaning without villains,” says
Mark Stout, the historian and curator for the Spy Museum. “And the villains change with the
world around us.”
Maybe it’s because our own real-life spies are currently playing in a cheap, lowbrow
drama that I found myself craving the higher meaning in the Bond oeuvre. David Petraeus’s
sordid affair reads like a treatment for some new espionage-themed reality show,
The Real Housewives. James Bond does not send dirty e-mails. Paula Broadwell is no Pussy Galore.
Mostly, though, the exhibit was a reminder that our need to perceive evil is persistent.
And that’s a good thing. Spy fiction has always been an outlet for discussing the
nature of threats and fears we’re not sure how to confront in reality. It’s a barometer
of our collective anxiety. Into every new villain we pour our latest dread. Take Silva,
Bond’s nemesis in
Skyfall—he’s a brilliant and shadowy computer hacker whose reign of terror requires only
a laptop. Hmm. Wonder where they got that idea.