SPECTREs of the Past - How the Bond Franchise Just Defeated Its Nemesis

SPECTREs of the Past - How the Bond Franchise Just Defeated Its Nemesis

Dec 05, 2014

James Bond is a man with many enemies, but one who seldom looks over his shoulder. The James Bond franchise has been one of the most successful in film history, if not in sole ownership of that distinction. For decades, the film series plowed forward despite the character’s changing faces and the real world’s monumental shifts in political climates. In fact, it took more than 20 films before it was decided that Bond himself needed to be reborn.

Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond has been marked by a return to the character’s roots; a shakeup of tone and style that redirects the series’ future by redefining Bond’s past. This second genesis has sought to retrace familiar franchise steps with an entirely new gait. Case in point, the 21st official Bond film, Casino Royale, was based on the very first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. In the 2006 film we were introduced to the origin of the indelible gun barrel and let in on which assassinations earned James his 007 classification. With Skyfall, we even learn the inception of Q and Miss Moneypenny. Yet one key component still proved elusive.

On Wednesday, the title of the next James Bond film was announced. The title itself represents that elusive component: SPECTRE.

SPECTRE, in the Bond universe, is an acronym chosen by the SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. If one of the principal appeals of a James Bond film is the idea of how one person can stand against an innumerable, insurmountable evil, SPECTRE is the epitome of that evil. This was the terrorist organization headed by Bond’s arch nemesis: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Wednesday’s announcement carried with it the revelation that Christoph Waltz would be joining the cast, and many have speculated that he will actually be playing Blofeld.

So if the Daniel Craig era of this series was so intent upon recontextulizing seemingly every characteristic of the Bond canon, how did it take four films into the reboot before we again broached the subject of our hero’s greatest nemesis? It turns out, the road that led us to this point has been rather arduous and this moment, this announcement, this new Bond title, is one of the franchise’s greatest victories.

The story, and more aptly the trouble, started many decades ago over many more drinks between Sir Ian Fleming and his friend Kevin McClory. 

McClory tells Fleming about an idea swimming around in his brain for a new, underwater filmic adventure for Fleming’s already popular James Bond character. Fleming had been trying to adapt Bond for the screen, managing only a woefully awful American TV version up to this point. Later, after the liquor haze had worn off, Fleming wrote the book Thunderball, which was essentially the novelization of McClory’s idea, only without a single credit lent to McClory.

McClory sued Fleming for plagiarism, won his case, and was subsequently awarded worldwide film rights to Thunderball. The patrons, in fact the godfathers, of the early Bond films, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, made a deal with McClory to license these rights for a period of 10 years, also agreeing to make McClory a producer on the Thunderball film. Their hope was that after the decade had passed, McClory would give up his desire to remake Thunderball, which the court ruling awarded him the right to do. For obvious reasons, Broccoli and Saltzman viewed the concept of Bond films being produced independently of their own EON Productions to be the death knell for the series. McClory however, was as patient as he was determined. He waited his 10 years and, after a few false starts, was allowed to remake Thunderball in 1983 as Never Say Never Again. Though competing with the EON Bond outing Octopussy, Never Say Never Again had the advantage of managing to convince Sean Connery to return to the role he had made famous 20 years prior; an obvious spite move against Cubby Broccoli, with whom Connery was feuding at the time. This is the reason that tabulations of the number of Bond films must be qualified as “official” versus “total” films.

So McClory got to make his version of Thunderball, and all obligations to him had been satisfied. Or at least, that is what everyone believed. But in reality, McClory had believed since his victory in court, and the subsequent death of Fleming, that Bond now belonged to him. Over the next several years, he caused no end of legal difficulties for EON as it continued to make the more recognizable mainstream series. Cubby’s daughter Barbara Broccoli, who began producing the films alongside her father in 1987 and would take over the duties after her father died, said this of the situation in an interview, “we were getting the sense that this was an adversarial situation that was probably never going to go away.”

In 1989, Timothy Dalton, the fourth actor to play Bond, left the franchise. What followed was the single greatest lapse in time between Bond releases: from License to Kill to Goldeneye. Though this was partially due to EON and United Artists’ in-fighting with Pathé -- the French company that had just purchased its parent company MGM -- it is interesting to note that during this same year, McClory tried to produce his own original Bond film entitled Atomic Warfare. He was unsuccessful, but this would be far from the last time he would prove himself an adversary to the franchise.

Even before Brosnan’s departure from the role, the future of the series was jeopardized by McClory. Even though he only owned the rights to Thunderball, he knew that Columbia Pictures held singular ownership over Casino Royale. He attempted to join forces with Columbia with the intention of making a series of Bond films independent of EON, MGM and Cubby Broccoli. However, his efforts were thwarted when, after much legal hemming and hawing, Columbia, owned by Sony, opted to exchange the rights to Casino Royale to MGM in exchange for MGM’s film rights to the character Spider-Man.

Curses, foiled again.

The part of this story that many don’t know is that when the script work began for EON’s Casino Royale, it was written with Brosnan in mind. However, Brosnan, now almost 50, opted to resign his 007 post fearing he would sink into self-parody as did Roger Moore; the latter inhabiting the role until he was pushing 60.

Furthering these issues, and strengthening McClory as an adversary, were the elements of Thunderball’s original screenplay (originally titled Longitude 78 West), the rights to which now also ipso facto belonged to him. It is an unfortunate coincidence that the most legally controversial Bond film is born of the screenplay that introduced the series’ most recognizable antagonist unit. Filmwise, though Blofeld and SPECTRE had been featured in From Russia with Love, that film was released prior to the court’s 1963 ruling. From that point forward, all usage of SPECTRE or its enigmatic puppet master required the permission of Kevin McClory. Broccoli and Saltzman’s 10-year licensing agreement provided the umbrella for Blofeld’s next two appearances in You Only Live Twice (1967) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971), but the two producers knew their relationship with Bond’s nemesis had an expiration date; leading them to apparently kill off Blofeld at the end of Diamonds Are Forever.

SPECTRE disappears from mainstream cinematic Bond canon after 1971. Keen-eyed fans will contest that Blofeld actually does appear in the precredit sequence of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only. In the scene, Bond boards a helicopter only to have his pilot electrocuted and a mysterious foe take radio control of the craft, sending 007 on a most unpleasant ride. While it is true that this bald, cat-stroking miscreant is intended to be Blofeld, at no point is he referred to as Blofeld. This moment serves as Cubby Broccoli’s playful jab; subversively painting McClory as his own nemesis. That jab may have further provoked McClory to produce his competing independent Bond flick Never Say Never Again in 1983.

Kevin McClory died on November 20, 2006, just days after Casino Royale saw its British release. But much like the Blofeld-like figure from the prologue of For Your Eyes Only, McClory continued to vex Bond from beyond the grave. Finally, on November 15, 2013, MGM settled with the McClory estate, ending, as they put it, “the legal and business disputes that have arisen periodically for over 50 years.”

So what? Big deal. The Bond films have survived without SPECTRE and Blofeld since 1971, so why is it so important that they win back the rights now? The fact is that reclaiming the rights to SPECTRE and Blofeld was both the logical next step for the current run of Daniel Craig-helmed films and the absolutely essential missing link between classic and contemporary Bond. If we look back over Craig’s run, the one glaring weak spot is undoubtedly Quantum of Solace.

The 2008 sophomore outing for the rebooted Bond suffered from two chief issues. First, its villain and his ultimate plot fell well short of effectively menacing. Second, there are many interesting conspiratorial seeds sewn in the film that fail to bear fruit.

Now imagine Quantum of Solace if “Mr. White” were allowed to be called Blofeld, the organization Quantum were permitted to be called SPECTRE, and the story been built around them. Both are clearly the intent, but the legal limitations made for an unsatisfying execution and impotent resolution. If James Bond 2.0 is to complete his rechristening in the manner established by Casino Royale and furthered by Skyfall, he must be allowed to confront the character’s oldest and most identifiable villain. The fact that SPECTRE lends its name to the title of the next movie is acknowledgement of precisely this notion; a loud, orgasmic release of decades worth of pent-up frustration.

In all fairness, Kevin McClory was not a bad guy. He loved James Bond and so deeply desired to create his own vision of the character. I think 007 would agree that a master spy must respect his enemies, and McClory’s supposed stake in the Bond legacy is entirely understandable. He’s not an actual villain; he’s just the villain of the piece. Still, it can’t be denied that earning the right to once again use the name of Bond’s arch rival, and the criminal empire over which he resides, means the franchise’s most formidable foe has finally been bested.  

 

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