In the opening scenes of Skyfall, the latest instalment of the James Bond franchise, the world’s favourite MI6 operative chases a bad guy across Istanbul on motorcycles, through the city’s Grand Bazaar and over its minaret-backed rooftops. Bond jumps and weaves with such verve and ease it’s like he knows his way around the city. Has he been here before? Well, no. But: yes.
Skyfall hits the cinemas here on Thursday, half a century after the first Bond movie, Dr No. It is the 23rd official Bond movie and the third with Daniel Craig, the sixth man to play 007 on the silver screen. Craig plays a decidedly muscular Bond, less of a gentleman and more of a street-fighter than previous incarnations – an attempt to align the slightly time-worn gentility of the series to grittier espionage oeuvres.
A producer of the Bond franchise, Barbara Broccoli, claims Istanbul was Bond writer Ian Fleming’s favourite city, but it is not the only foreign city to feature prominently in three different Bond movies – Venice and Hong Kong share the accolade. In those 50 years and 23 movies with ”her majesty’s secret service”, James Bond has seen a lot of the world.
The man not only has a license to kill, but also a travel allowance to kill for. Which is understandable: you can’t conference-call your way out of some madman’s diabolical plot to wreck the planet.
The sum of Bond’s 23 erratic itineraries reveals something of the cinematic imperative behind the franchise – Bond movie locations need to be exotic, spectacular and/or glamorous. But there’s also a lingering geopolitical motive. After all, Bond’s mission is to preserve, protect and promote British influence and interests in the world.
Bond has visited just under 50 countries, many of those multiple times. About 20 are in Europe, with about a dozen each in Asia and the Americas. With a mere four visits, Africa scores pretty low on the list. Only two of those were in sub-Saharan Africa – Madagascar and Uganda, both in Casino Royale – which obviously did its best to fill in a blank on Bond’s world map. The other two were Morocco, in The Living Daylights, and Egypt, twice: in Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me.
Mentioning those Arab countries touches upon a defect of the Bond franchise: he doesn’t really go where the action is. Four Bond movies have been released in the post-September 11 era, but none deals even obliquely with the supposed clash with (or within) Islam that has been animating newspaper columns and battlefields ever since. Apart from an unconnected, brief foray into Pakistan in Casino Royale, Bond never comes near the giant, throbbing conflict zone from Israel to Kashmir.
This is quite in character. In previous decades, Bond never was the West’s fiercest cold warrior. Although the red menace is a theme throughout the early oeuvre, with forays into Yugoslavia (From Russia with Love) and East Germany (Octopussy), Bond only infiltrates the evil empire itself in its final years – merely retrieving a microchip in Siberia in A View to a Kill. In those three movies, however, it’s never the Communist establishment that is the enemy, but rogue elements within it.
It’s a fantasy world in which the filmmakers have the luxury of choosing Britain’s enemies; ones that bear only the slightest resemblance to its real-world opponents. Forget Islamic fundamentalist terrorists blowing up public transport on the streets of London. Instead, it’s cartoonish geniuses that practice evil for its own sake, or for monetary gain. This takes the politics out of global conflict, and allows Britain to assume the mantle of high morality