The mythical James Bond, 007

BOND AND KING ARTHUR

King Arthur

In the 23rd James Bond thriller,  Skyfall, director Sam Mendes sought to elevate super spy James Bond, from mere Hollywood action star, to a heroic symbol for England.

By employing poetry, imagery and story elements of Arthurian legend, Mendes stretches an umbilical cord through time to connect Britain’s most modern fictitious national hero, Bond, with it’s most ancient and legendary, King Arthur.

In Le Morte d’Arthur (pub. 1485), Thomas Malory codified the legend of King Arthur from disparate sources and established what we now consider to be the definitive legend.

Arthur is an orphan who wields a weapon only he can command and must fight a traitor, his step-brother Modred, to save his kingdom. Arthur is betrayed by a woman, is mortally wounded in action and hidden away from the world by the lady in the lake. There he will await until his return to once again rescue his land at the hour of his country’s greatest need.

In Skyfall these events and all occur, though not in this order, and are there to subliminally underscore how mythical Bond is.

In the pre-title sequence we see Bond shot by fellow agent Eve, before falling into a river and being pulled under water by a godlike female hand. Being brought low by a woman named Eve is obviously a very Christian idea, reminding us how closely Arthurian legend deliberately echoes the story of Jesus Christ, his betrayal, death and his resurrection.Skyfall

Bond undergoes a symbolic Christian death at the hands of his followers, but remains in limbo waiting to be reborn. He only returns from the dead , when England is threatened by terrorists lead by a former British agent.

In Skyfall Bond/Arthur are tasked with defending Britain from Javier Bardem’s Silva/Mordred. All are orphans raised to be warriors.De la croix

And just as Arthur and Mordred were related, so we have lots of references to Judi Dench’s M as their metaphorical mother.

Bond is revealed to have a birth mother with the name De la Croix.

De la Croix translates as ‘Of the cross’ and so ties in with the idea of resurrection. This feeds neatly into the conceit of Bond regenerating every time a new actor assumes the role.

It’s also a nod to Ian Fleming’s socialite mother, Evelyn Beatrice St. Croix Rose.

Bond’s Merlin figure of course, is Ben Whishaw’s Q. He provides Bond with a pistol registered to his unique palm print so only he can use it. It’s an updated Excalibur, the sword in the stone.

Bond sails through a dragon’s mouth prior to sleeping with his enemy’s mistress.

Dragon mouth

Compare this to how Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon has Merlin invoke the Dragon’s breath to seduce lgrayne, the wife of Duke of CornwalI. John Boorman vividly illustrates this in his excellent telling of the Arthurian legend, in 1981’s Excalibur .

We hear how following the loss of his parents, the barely  teenage Bond spent three days in a tunnel before emerging an adult. An echo of the vigil an aspiring knight had to endure before being allowed to join the chivalric order.

Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson wrote a cycle of narrative poems concerning King Arthur called Idylls of the King (pub. 1859). This is the pertinence of Judi Dench’s M quoting Tennyson as Bond races to her rescue.

All we’re missing is a character called Mallory to appear and oops, that just happens to be the new M’s real name.Fiennes

I don’t believe a director as erudite as Mendes would incorporate these details by coincidence. It would almost impossible to do so by accident.

These details in the subtext of the film echo in the subconsciousness of the viewer. They reinforce the idea of Bond as heroic saviour of the British people.

The conflation of Bond and Arthur places 007 at the centre of British literary, cinematic and Christian cultural tradition, elevating him from the contemporary to the mythical, the once and future king of the franchise.

Queen and Country

Director: John Boorman (2015)

A young conscript fights emotional battles on the home front in this stately coming-of-age post-war drama.

Based on the experiences of writer/director John Boorman, it’s a sequel to his well-received Hope and Glory (1987).

It’s handsome but unsteady in tone, lurching between army larks, misfiring satire, languid romance and dull family drama.

In 1952 the idyllic life of Boorman’s daydreaming alter ego Bill (Callum Turner) is interrupted by his conscription into the British army.

The script is keen to highlight the absurd rigours and regulations of army life, a closeted world of petty point-scoring, arbitrary discipline, paranoia and stupidity.

There’s a healthy contempt for superior officers, embodied by the brandy drinking and desk bound Major Cross (Richard E. Grant).

They are far more concerned with a missing clock from the mess than adequately preparing the troops to fight in Korea. A campaign of which the film is deeply cynical.

Alongside fellow conscript Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) Bill is quickly promoted to sergeant. Percy clearly has issues and veers alarmingly from charming lad about town to angry, officer-baiting seditionary.

They fall in with Irish skivver Redmond (Pat Shortt) and fall foul of Regimental Sergeant Major Digby (Brían F. O’Byrne) and stiff-backed stickler Bradley (David Thewlis).

We’re told Digby is an horrific bully but apart from one brief wrestling exercise and a lot of bigoted shouting, we’re forced to take the boys’ word for it.

Telling not showing is a mistake in any film and not one we’d expect from as experienced a director as Boorman.

An odour of locker-room homo-eroticism drifts through the barracks in several semi-clad fights and there is frequent questioning of heterosexuality.

It becomes more prevalent when a trooper is charged with ‘seduction of a soldier from the course of his duty’.

However once outside the barracks Percy is chasing a pretty nurse called Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards).

Meanwhile Bill is entranced by an elegant, unobtainable blonde. Without embarrassment he nicknames her Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton) after the tragic figure in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The return from Canada of Bill’s sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby) complicates his life, not least due to her racy personal history and seemingly incestuous leanings.

Despite the female performers gamely following the director’s lead, none of their characters convince as people. Each is more of a projection of a teenage boy’s idea of womanhood.

Maybe that’s the point but it’s far from clear. Maybe Boorman finds it difficult to write female characters.

The script is sympathetic to those suffering the effects of war but the issue of post-traumatic stress – which is taken very seriously – sits uneasily with the humorous elements such as the choreography of a typing room.

Bill is not a particularly engaging chap and the exception of Ophelia aside, not much of a participant in his own life. Though events happen to him, he isn’t much affected.

With no-where else to fall, our sympathies land upon Bradley. Thewlis chalks up another excellent performance and not for the first time he’s the best thing in somebody else’s movie.

Sets and wardrobe perform a first rate job of convincing us of the era. Seamus Deasy’s graceful and seductive cinematography captures the period with a palette of greens and browns with a tender regard.

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II is watched on a new-fangled TV set. It signals a changing of the generational guard and the ushering in a less deferential, media-led age.

But the friction of small class distinctions generates little dramatic heat while the inter-generational conflict passes with barely a ripple of interest.