Ypotron is a light and airy espionage adventure with sci-fi elements and almost no interest whatsoever in its own plot, so enamored is it instead with low-budget globe-trotting and extremely large hats. Like many Eurospy movies, Ypotron‘s lack of plot can sometimes fool you into thinking it has a really complicated story. A couple of times during the movie, I looked away or was distracted for under thirty seconds. When my attention returned to the film, I found in that very brief amount of time I had become hopelessly lost as to what was going on. However, after I rewound the movie and picked up where my focus flagged, I realized that no, I hadn’t missed anything. The plot just doesn’t care to keep itself front and center, not when it could itself get distracted by bikini girls, gratuitous Riviera type shots, and the donning of futuristic sunglasses.
As was the case with Scorpions and Miniskirts, the opening scene wastes no time in establishing the film’s disdain for logic, and if you can roll with it then you will probably be, like me, rather delighted throughout the movie even while recognizing how sloppy it is. Anyway, a futuristic door slides open to admit our hero, good-looking, rock-jawed Lemmy (or Robby, depending on your dub) Logan (Luis Davila, Mission Stardust, Espionage in Tangiers), to a room across which he slowly stalks whilst clad in a tuxedo and some weird sci-fi eyeglasses. Behind him, a slot opens in the metal wall, the barrel of a machine gun emerges from it…and Logan is mercilessly riddled with bullets.
Of course, he is OK, and it is soon revealed that he was simply helping to test out a new type of bullet-proof vest using the sort of test that would absolutely never, ever make sense. There is nothing about the testing of said vest that would require your top field agent to pretend to sneak around in a room until a hidden assailant cuts him down with live ammunition, but in the world of Ypotron, you will quickly discover that this nonsense is the most sensical of the nonsense with which you are about to be assaulted.
When it comes time to develop some sort of plot, Ypotron goes with the tried and true Eurospy chestnut about a kidnapped scientist with (naturally) a gorgeous young daughter. Said scientist is Professor Morrow (or Leikman, again depending on which version of the movie you have) played by Alfredo Mayo (Mission Bloody Mary, Special Mission Lady Chaplain, Espionage in Lisbon), and his daughter, Jeanne, is played by Gaia Germani (Hercules in the Haunted World, Castle of the Living Dead with Christopher Lee, and the Lemmy Caution film Your Turn, Darling with Eddie Constantine). Logan is assigned to track down the missing scientist, which naturally leads him all over as much of the world (or Europe) as the production can manage to afford. Along the way, he acquires the help of Eurocult staple Janine Reynaud (Two Undercover Angels, Succubus), forever plagued to have movies slather way too much make-up on her face.
After a seemingly endless (but not unwelcome) and ultimately pointless series of twists and turns, the plot leads Logan and Jeanne Morrow to the Sahara, where they discover a rocket base cleverly disguised as, well, a huge rocket launchpad. It turns out the shady SPECTRE-like organization that kidnapped Professor Morrow has designs on ushering in a new era of…oh, you know, the usual really vague and ill-conceived villain notions of what they’ll do after they hold the world hostage. Luckily for Logan and all mankind, they went to the “now I shall bring you into my sanctum sanctorum and explain all my plans to you while not really keeping an eye on you” school of villainy.
Ypotron is a slight film, even by the forgiving standards of the Eurospy genre, but just because it’s slight doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. I am always up for an espionage fantasy that throws a little science fiction into the mix, and although Ypotron doesn’t come close to the crackpot insanity of Operation Atlantis, where the plot is so far-out that I can barely even explain it (suffice to say it has to do with the Chinese building an entire underground Atlantis civilization, complete with wizards in shiny robes, just to cover up a clandestine mining operation), Ypotron still delivers candy-colored confectionery satisfaction. Many Eurospy films suffer from a lack of decent prints in circulation, which means the genre’s stock in trade — exploiting Europe’s many scenic locations — doesn’t come across, and renders cheap films even cheaper looking. Luckily, Ypotron is in relatively good shape, and thus we can indulge in its travelogue footage as Logan trots around in pursuit of the missing scientist. The villain lair may leave a little to be desired — it looks like they set up shop in an old boiler room — but there’s enough on-a-budget jet-setting throughout to keep the film looking more expensive than it actually was.
Luis Davila makes an excellent and handsome square-jawed hero, while Gaia Germani is simply stunning, if largely useless. Jeanine Renault (Kiss Me Monster,Succubus) adds a flash of life on the female side of the equation as a femme fatale, albeit one on the side of the good guys. She’s always a welcome performer. There’s a fair amount of action, and director Giorgio Stegani (who also directed the Eurocrime film The Last Desperate Hours) keeps everything snapping along so that you don’t notice (or barely notice) how silly it all is. It’s a shame he didn’t direct more Eurospy films, or more films in general. Screenwriter Remigio Del Grosso’s script may be slight on plot, but he heaps on the outlandishness to keep things interesting. He was an old hand at this sort of thing, and he wrote a number of highly entertaining movies, including Journey Beneath the Desert, The 300 Spartans, Secret Agent Super Dragon, and the gothic horror classic Mill of the Stone Women. Together, it’s a cast and crew that managed to eke out a mild victory with Ypotron.
It’s been said that in an effort to appeal to as massive a population as possible, the average Hindi film tries to cram every film genre into a single movie. Asambhav is the rare entry that maintains a relatively narrow thematic focus — this is an action film, stripped of the romantic comedy and estranged mother that appear in almost every other film, be they action or horror or whatever — but it makes up for its lack of schizophrenic genre-hopping by trying to cram every single editing and camera trick from the last fifteen years into one film, and often into one scene, and occasionally into a single shot. The result is a dizzying nightmare of over-direction that turns an otherwise average action film into a complete wreck that could almost amuse you if it wasn’t so busy inducing seizures.
Arjun Rampal plays Aadit Arya, super-duper Army commando and part-time international spy. When evil Kashmiri Muslims hatch a scheme to kidnap the President of India while he is in Switzerland, it’s up to Arya, and for some reason only Arya, to foil the dastardly scheme. You might think that the kidnapping of a country’s president would inspire a slightly more forceful reaction and better security, but I guess the security here is orchestrated by the same people who arranged the security for the transport of weapons-grade plutonium in James Glickenhaus’ The Soldier. I also thought by the time of this movie, the whole evil Pakistani/Kashmiri Muslim thing was played out. Didn’t Sunny Deol single-handedly defeat the entire Pakistani army and all radical Muslim terrorists groups simply by staring at them in an intense fashion with a flag waving behind him in slow motion? Years after the fact, however, Rai returns to that seemingly eternal well, though frankly, the whole Kashmiri/Pakistani thing is really little more than window dressing by this point. It doesn’t feel like the movie’s heart is really into it. I reckon they assume you pretty much got the gist of things at this point, so they throw the Kashmiri terrorists in as a way to get the ball rolling without having to explain motivation.
In Switzerland, Arya poses as a reporter and meets the obligatory gorgeous female pop star, Alisha (Priyanka Chopra). Since this is a Bollywood film, we can’t have just one plot. So Alisha is the unwitting drug mule for slick Switzerland-based Indian criminal Sam Hans (Naseeruddin Shah, who steals the film, though that’s no big feat considering the rest of the cast), who works with her handlers to hide the drugs inside musical instruments. Having Alisha in the movie means that we now have our excuse for gratuitous musical numbers, though in all honesty, they’re pretty tame by comparison to many musical numbers. Most of them are just passed off as club performances or video shoots, which is kind of weak even if it is more “realistic.” None of the songs are all that catchy, and the choreography is pretty listless. In an effort to add to the realism, we frequently cut from people who do look hot and are able to dance to people who don’t and can’t. Seeing big hulking gangster henchmen beaming big, goofy smiles and doing that “I can’t really dance” dance is pretty funny, though.
Eventually, we learn that Sam is involved with the terrorists who kidnap the president, but he’s hardly in the scheme for political reasons. And since he’s the coolest character in the film, you can also figure that he’ll be the one with ulterior motives and depth of character that allow for the obligatory “moment of redemption.” There’s another subplot that unveils the fact that someone in the Indian Embassy has betrayed their country as well and is in league with the terrorists. Incidentally, the Indian Embassy in Switzerland is apparently staffed by a number of leggy bombshells in micro-skirts and cleavage-revealing tops.
Naseeruddin Shah seems to be channeling a bit of Gary Oldman crossed with Graham Norton’s wardrobe in his portrayal of Sam Hans. He’s flamboyant but stops just short of scene-chewing or going needlessly over-the-top, though he does wear lots of lavender silk suits and whatnot. Whatever the case, he turns in a good performance made better by the fact that everyone else is pretty bad. The hitman in the long shiny blue trenchcoat is just silly, and he looks sort of like Benny Urquidez mixed with Christian Slater, but with none of the menace such an abomination would actually exude. Our hero Arya is pretty much a non-entity through most of the film. He shows up from time to time to kungfu the crap out of people, but Arjun Rampal really isn’t much of an actor at this point in his career. He looks good, he handles action believably, but his character is thoroughly uninteresting. Villains are always the better and more complex characters, and it takes an actor of tremendous talent or a very good (for the hero) or bad (for the villain) screenwriter to make the hero more interesting than the villain. Compared to Sam Hans, Arya barely even registers. For long stretches of film, you’ll forget that he’s even in it.
Priyanka Chopra has little more to do besides tag along, get captured, and look beautiful. She does all these things well, and also handles most of the movie’s musical numbers. The one that doesn’t involve her is also the only one that isn’t set in a club and grounded in some daft semblance of reality. Upon successfully kidnapping the president, the vile terrorist organization retires to their lair of villainy to celebrate with a musical number that involves a scantily clad woman singing and dancing with a whole cast of bald gay guys in short shorts, combat boots, and chain mail. It’s like these terrorists pack an entire dance troupe of Right Said Fred clones with them. Maybe they should have just unleashed their nightmarish Right Said Fred army on the world. No one would be expecting some Islamic Fundamentalist to stand in front of a camera and broadcast through Al Jazeera that he’s “too sexy for this Jihad!”
But then, this terrorist organization does have a martial arts hitman in a shiny blue trenchcoat, and a squad that drives around Switzerland in generic “mercenary” fatigues, including a woman in camo booty shorts and a halter top. And you thought the revolution was all chadors and guys with scraggly beards. This is by far the battiest musical number, and as such, the best.
There are a couple of things this film does differently than the average Bollywood film, and even the average Bollywood action film. Most noticeable is the more or less complete absence of a romantic subplot. Oh sure Alisha and Arya are going to fall in love, but the film spends hardly any time at all on this. There’s not even a musical montage of them set against the various famous landmarks of the world. No, they simply meet, and then we assume they’re in love because this is a movie and they’re the male and female leads. Some Bollywood films would spend a good hour on a romantic comedy subplot, but Asambhav is content to simply take the well-worn path all action films take, and just say, “Look, they fall in love, OK?” Then it’s on to some kungfu. There’s also precious little comic relief. Arya gets saddled with a comic relief sidekick agent in Switzerland, but his mugging is graciously limited.
Even with all that, the director must have thought that the real star of the film was the director, because he crams every cheap trick and technique he can into the film. It’s like watching distilled essence of 24 mixed with Mission: Impossible, which seems to be this film’s main inspiration, especially since “mission asambhav” translates more or less to “mission impossible.” Or if that’s too good for you, then Mission: Impossible 2. For starters, this film can’t go ten seconds without a split screen. Sometimes, it’s five or six different frames in one shot. And it’s not just in scenes where split screen might heighten the tension or give us an alternate point of view. No, much of the time, it happens when something as mundane as a guy reaching for a tissue is all that’s going on. Need to pick up a pencil? Show three different angles, and make sure one of them is in slow motion with thumping techno music in the background. This movie also loves that thing where you start in slow motion, then the action speeds up to super-hyper fast motion for a second, then goes back to slow motion. Once again, this is used at the drop of a hat, often with no meaning at all. Walking down the street? Why not shoot it slow-hyper-slow? And it’s not like anyone is walking to a fight or anything. They’re just walking down to the mailbox to see if their new issue of India Times has arrived.
There’s also the tendency to have “ghost images” of a person appear, again for no real reason. Rather than augmenting or working with the action in the movie, all these goofy tricks simply distract you. They muddy the waters. They stink of a first-time music video director getting final edit on a feature film, though Rai is not a first-time director. He’s just a bad director. The one thing I will say in his defense, however, is that as far as I remember, there was not a single instance of “bullet time.” And let that be a lesson to all other directors: if bullet time is too tired even for Rajid Rai, who has never seen a stupid editing trick he didn’t like, then it’s really past its prime. So let bullet time go, people. Let it go. Rajit Rai did, and he replaced it with doing four-thousand split screens in one shot.
It’s amazing just how crippling over-direction can be. Asambhav would not be an especially good film even if it had a good director, but Rajid Rai’s relentless over-indulgence really pulls the carpet out from under what was otherwise an unimpressive-but-enjoyable action film. At the same time, I might have been bored if this movie had been competently directed. The sheer insanity exhibited by Rai does, I must admit, turn this film into an absolute disaster, but one that is largely entertaining. I don’t like to pull the “so bad it’s good” card all that often, but it sort of applies here. You have an average film. It’s made awful by an over-indulgent director. But then, it becomes so over-indulgent, so awful, that it comes full circle and manages to be sort of entertaining in a way. It’s by no means much of a recommendation, but it’s the best I can do. The fight scenes are solid but uninspired. The acting is mostly below-average. The musical numbers are largely unengaging. But you know, the whole thing is such a hideous eyesore that it kept me watching.
Plus, Sam Hans was all right. Every single time he shows up on screen, no matter how mundane his appearance, the soundtrack blares with “O Fortuna.” And it can’t bear to stop the song. They thought it was so cool that even when Sam talks, they keep “O Fortuna” rolling, only at a nearly inaudible level. As soon as Sam pauses, the song volume rockets back up, then back down if he speaks again. So Asambhav really has few redeeming features (Naseeruddin Shah’s hamming is the only one I can think of at the moment. Well, that and Priyanka Chopra’s midriff, and that crazy-ass hard gay musical number the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists put on).
It’s a crummy action film with awful direction. It’s a completely soulless, paint-by-numbers action film that could have been churned out by a computer. It’s never thrilling, and the lead male and female character disappear for large swaths of film, and you don’t even notice or care because they were pretty boring anyway. This movie is a total bomb, and that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. Don’t listen to me, because I’m going to tell you to go ahead and see Asambhav. The near universal chorus of bad reviews this movie received are right, and I am wrong. Don’t do it. Why do you even trust me any more? For God’s sake, man, that’s the road to madness!!!
One of my early film memories, and still one of my favorite films, is The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Kate Hepburn. It was an early model for what I assumed my life would be, fueled as I was at the time by golden age adventure films and Illustrated Classics versions of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. Naturally, I would become a grizzled adventurer and lead the kind of life where I spent a lot of time drinking whiskey at the end of a jungle bar in a joint of French Colonial design and where I was known simply as “the American.” While my life hasn’t been without its adventures, both grizzled and clean-shaven, they’ve rarely attained quite the rarefied airs of dragging a boat through a leech-infested swamp, though I did once find myself caught in the middle of a massive frog migration in Paynes Prairie, Florida. In the summer of 2015, however, I came a little bit closer to my childhood (and later) dreams of living an African Queen adventure, thanks to the fact that the actual African Queen ended up, through a circuitous series of events, docked in Key Largo (a fittingly Bogart location) where it is available for tours of the canals and coastline.
If you haven’t seen the movie, my first suggestion is that you get on that. Bogart is at his unshaven, sweaty best; and despite decades of “strong female characters” since, the single toughest moment in cinema history is still Katherine Hepburn sliding into the black, leech-filled water to help pull the boat through razor-sharp reeds at which she’s hacking with a machete. There’s not enough adjectives in the English language to describe how cool Katherine Hepburn was. In a nutshell, it tells the story of prim missionary Rose (Hepburn) in German East Africa who is forced to cast her lot in with a drunken riverboat captain named Charlie (Bogart) when, upon the outbreak of World War One, German soldiers descend upon the mission, burn it down, and kill Hepburn’s brother and fellow missionary. Charlie mentions to Rose a German gunship that patrols a large lake at the end of the un-navigable Ulanga River, preventing any sort of British response to German aggression. Rose then come sup with an utterly insane plan: to take Charlie’s shambling little boat, the African Queen, down the impossible river, emerge onto the lake, and destroy the German ship.
The boat that would serve as their home for most of the movie was built in 1912 at Lytham shipbuilding in England and was originally christened the S/L Livingstone. As the Livingstone, the boat plied the waters of the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert on the border of the Belgian Congo and Uganda, carrying mercenaries, missionaries, cargo and hunting parties in the service of the British East Africa Railways company. In 1951, when sniffing around for props and locations, director John Huston happened upon the S/L Livingstone and cut a deal to use the boat, shabby but full of character, for his movie, at which time it was rechristened the African Queen. The boat was not functional at the time, so for most of the filming it was towed behind another boat. It was discarded again until 1968, when a San Francisco restaurant owner bought it to refurbish and use as a novelty charter. From there, the venerable old girl had an improbable journey that led to Oregon and, finally, to what looked to be her final resting spot, rotting away in a field in land-locked Ocala, Florida.
By some stroke of fortune, an attorney named Jim Hendricks, himself a big Bogart fan, tracked the ship’s circuitous trip to Ocala and purchased it in 1982 with the intention of saving it from decay. After substantial restoration, the African Queen was water-worthy again in 1983 and was employed in the service of entertaining holiday goers in its new port of Key Largo, Florida. Under Hendricks’ stewardship, the African Queen not only toured Florida’s Upper Keys but was also sent overseas to appear at special occasions, showing up to put-put around waterways as far-flung as Ireland and Australia. In 2001, however, the old engine gave out, and while the African Queen was still cared for and maintained, it was as a non-functioning display outside a Largo Holiday Inn.
The African Queen stayed on display but not seaworthy until 2012, when Key Largo locals Lance and Suzanne Holmquist bought the Queen from Hendricks’ son and set about restoring it to its film state, including once again making it a functioning boat. Employing a small army of dedicated restoration artists and working from original plans and with as many original materials as possible, the Holmquists patched the African Queen back up, complete with a cooler hidden inside a wooden Gordon’s Gin crate. The broken down old steam engine was replaced with a “new” one built around the same time as the original. Later that year, on the boat’s 100th birthday, the African Queen was lowered into one of Key Largo’s winding canals and chugged out to sea once again. It’s been in operation ever since, and in June of 2015, I celebrated a hot, sunny birthday of my own (not a centennial) aboard the determined little boat I’d been watching since I was a child. And in case you are thinking that surely I’m not nerdy enough to have purchased a Bogart-as-Charlie style outfit specifically to wear while tooling around on the African Queen, well then you really must be new to my writing.
We stepped aboard along with a few other old-timers and listened to the captain run through a history of the boat and the production of the film, which was about as fraught with sickness and hardship as you would guess. For most of the filming, Hepburn was suffering from severe nausea and other maladies, as was much of the rest of the cast and crew. They contracted stomach illnesses when they drank water. Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston remained oddly unaffected, though. It turns out that’s because they skipped the water and spent most of the shoot drinking scotch. After flipping through a book of photos, many of them donated by collectors and fans and a few straight from Bogart’s son, the captain coaxed the ancient engine to life, and with a cry from the steam whistle and the incessant signature chk-chk-chk of the engine, we were off at a pace slightly faster than a man might walk on dry land.
The canals of Key Largo are not as fraught with peril as the river down which Rose and Charlie struggled, but the lack of rapids, swamps, impenetrable clouds of mosquitoes, and leeches are replaced by more modern dangers more indicative of the African Queen’s new home in the Florida Keys. Gentle manatees replace leeches, and the rapids are simulated by the wake of passing giant yachts and dive boats. Still, the Keys are frequented by a pretty quirky bunch of people, so the houses and boats lining the canal offer plenty to see on your way out to the open ocean even if you don’t get to blow anything up at the end. Sadly, bottled water has replaced Charlie’s beloved Gordon’s gin, but given how sweltering our leisurely trip along the winding canal was, perhaps that’s for the best. From time to time, the captain will let one of us passengers take hold of the till and steer the boat around. Jumping into the water and pulling the boat along by a rope was strictly forbidden however, and rarely requested. The entire cruise lasts about two hours, with most of that spent puttering along the calm waters of the canal and, ultimately, into the open waves of the Atlantic. No arrangements had been made for us to torpedo an old German warship, but I suppose one must leave something for next time.
007 is no stranger to New York City. He was here for Live and Let Die, both the film and the novel, and returned for the (really) short story “007 in New York,” which Ian Fleming was compelled to write by way of a “make peace” after his travel book, Thrilling Cities, peppered readers with an unending barrage of insults directed toward the city. In fact, he visits several more times, in Diamonds Are Forever and Goldfinger, both by Fleming, in For Special Services and Brokenclaw by John Gardner, and in the short story “Blast From the Past” by Raymond Benson. But it is Live and Let Die that gives us the most involved look at James Bond’s New York. He arrives in New York via John F. Kennedy International Airport. Only in 007’s case, he gets to emerge from a terminal we denizens of the 21st century cannot: the Pan-Am Worldport.
A lot about New York’s John F. Kennedy airport has changed since it first began operation as New York International Airport in 1948, commonly known as Idlewild until it was rechristened John F. Kennedy Airport in 1963. It was, during the heyday of jet-set travel, a model for the sleek, modernist style that defined journeys by air. Over the decades, that futuristic architecture has been trimmed, pruned, and demolished for any number of reasons. In some cases, the original buildings simply couldn’t be brought up to modern codes of safety. In others, the airline that paid for them went belly up, taking their space age showpiece terminals with them. In many other cases, it was simply the depressing march toward a more mundane, less tasteful sort of “conference room dreariness” that seems to travel in-step with cost-cutting measures. One by one, the jewels in JFK’s crown were pried up.
Terminal 3, known as the Worldport, was once the distinctive flying saucer shaped home of Pan Am. It was designed by two firms: Ives, Turano & Gardner Associated Architects and Walther Prokosch of Tippets-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton and adorned with statues derived from the Zodiac by sculptor Milton Hebald. It’s signature was the giant flying saucer roof, notable not just for the ambition of its design but also for the fact that it made the terminal one of the first to offer passengers protection from the elements as they boarded or disembarked the plane (this was before the era of covered jetways connecting the interior of the terminal directly tot he plane’s hatch). It also boasted the Panorama Room, a restaurant with a view of the entire concourse, and a museum dedicated to the history of Pan American Airlines.
The designers meant for it to be the shining example of jet age design and the glamor of travel. When it opened in 1960, it was known simply as the Pan Am Terminal, or more officially, the Pan Am Unit Terminal Building. In 1971, it underwent expansion in order to accommodate the gigantic new Boeing 747 jets, which vastly expanded access to international jet travel. It was at that time Terminal 3 got its new name: the Worldport. Not too long after that, James Bond strode confidently through the terminal en route to the adventures comprising Live and Let Die.
For twenty years, the Worldport remained an example of the ambition and creativity of the jet set era and was one of the largest terminals in the world. That all came to an end in 1991, when Pan Am folded and Delta took over the terminal. In an effort not to completely demonize Delta, I’ll say that it is likely by that time, the Worldport was probably in need of a lot of upkeep and modernization that the failing Pan Am had not been able to provide. However, Delta had no interest in doing anything but the minimum required to keep the building from collapsing — at least until such time as they decided to collapse it themselves. They allowed it to deteriorate into a shell of its former glory until, in 2013, it was decommissioned and demolished to the sound of much public outcry.
I flew out of the Worldport a couple times before Delta destroyed it to make a parking lot for its airplanes. One could find, if one searched, remnants of the terminal’s former glory, but by and large it had been the victim of the creeping cheapness and disinterest that typifies modern air travel, which treats itself less as a wondrous adventure and more as just a fast food conveyor belt sort of experience. When Delta announced plans to demolish the terminal, preservationists around the world mobilized to protect the historic Worldport. They didn’t succeed. On May 23, 2013, the final departure from the Worldport left the terminal. Delta Air Lines Flight 268 to Tel Aviv departed from Gate 6 at 11:25pm. The next day, Delta shuttered the entire terminal, 53 years to the day from when it opened. On June 23, demolition began despite sustained outcry, protest, and attempts to halt the destruction of such an iconic piece of aviation and architectural history. On November 22, the signature flying saucer was destroyed. By the summer of 2014, the Worldport existed only in photographs.
James Bond was not the only famous person to put in an appearance at the Worldport. Heck, it wasn’t even Roger Moore’s only appearance. He walked through the terminal during a bit of location shooting for an episode of the series that got him the gig as James Bond, The Saint. In 2011, as Delta was signing the death warrant for the terminal itself, it found brief renewed glory via sets and CGI in the short-lived nostalgic television series Pan-Am, which incidentally, also boasted an espionage plot as one of its major threads. James Bond’s port of arrival is often misidentified as the similarly famous, even more architectural ambitious TWA Flight Center. But that’s not the case. And unlike the Worldport, the TWA Flight Center still exists, as the TWA Hotel.
Nestled with irony between a McDonald’s and a casino is Prague’s Museum of Communism (only the KGB Museum has a more deliciously ironic location, next door to the heavily guarded U.S. embassy). It walks the thin line between being another tacky tourist trap museum (which I love) and an actual educational experience (which I also enjoy), with the over-arching message of, “Communism — that sure did suck.”
Tracing the history of Communism from it’s beginning and the founding of the Soviet Union to its rapid spread through eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II, the museum makes no claim at being unbiased. The people who established the museum lived through Communism in what was then Czechoslovakia, and they make no bones about criticizing the political system and the paranoia, tyranny, and oppression that came with it. It’s a fascinating look behind the Iron Curtain and exploration of how ideas can so quickly become corrupted, how revolutionaries can so quickly become reactionaries. After strolling through so many artifacts of a dark time, it’s at least refreshing to end the museum with a detailed look through relics and video at the Velvet Revolution, the uprising and demonstrations that led to the overthrow of the Communist Czech government in 1989.
And then one emerges onto Wenceslas Square, once the sight of mass demonstrations and street battles with police and soldiers, now a polished promenade for dining, shopping, saucy nightclubs, museums, and amazing architecture. A strange trip indeed, and one well worth checking out.
For most of its history, the the story about the making of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service overshadowed the film itself. It was the first Bond film after Sean Connery’s departure from the series. It featured Diana Rigg, one of the most popular actors in Britain and best-known for her iconic role of Emma Peel in the quirky espionage show The Avengers. It introduced George Lazenby as the new 007, an unknown Australian model with no experience, who beautifully conned his way into the role—then left it all behind after a single film to grow a beard and wander the world. And, it was based on the most intimate and harrowing of Ian Fleming’s original novels, with a shocking emotional depth and devastating ending. Although a success at the time of it’s release, Lazenby’s one-and-done appearance, followed. y the return of Connery and then the introduction of Roger Moore as Bond, garnered On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a grim reputation. However, as the availability of the 007 films on home video and streaming stabilized over the past decade, OHMSS underwent re-evaluation, and these days it enjoys a prime stop in the Bond canon, with many people (myself included) naming it among the best of the 007 films.
It was one year ago on this very day (February 20), before the world was thrown into disarray by COVID-19, that I boarded an aerial tramway that whisked me out of a lovely valley and to the peak of the Schilthorn, atop which is perched one of the most famous locations in James Bond movie history: Piz Gloria, the base of operation for Bond’s arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (played by Telly Savalas in a furry cap). Coincidentally, the plot to OHMSS involves Blofeld attempting to disrupt the world with a virus, so given what happened a few weeks after my return, I guess I was less successful than James Bond in preventing catastrophe during my visit to Piz Gloria.
With the exception perhaps of “James Bond Island” (Khao Phing Kan) in Thailand, the location used in the finale of The Man with the Golden Gun, no location is more recognizable or higher than Piz Gloria on the must-visit list for James Bond fans. It’s location well deserving of its lofty status, surrounded by some of the most famous peaks in the Alps: Monch, Jungfrau, and another mountain made famous by an espionage film, the Eiger. The spot was discovered, still only partially constructed, during OHMSS location scouting throughout Switzerland. Bond film producers agreed to finance the completion of the construction in exchange for using it as a location—and they also insisted they be allowed to build a helipad. Since then, it has remained a popular tourist destination and ski spot.
It’s easy to get to from the nearby cities of Bern and Interlaken (where I stayed). It’s about an hour from Bern to the tram, and about 25 minutes from Interlaken. There’s a Schilthorn tourism center in Interlaken, so if at any point you want the steps perfectly plotted out for you, they’re there to help. Train station agents are also polite and well-acquainted with people traveling to Schilthorn and Piz Gloria, so if you are wondering what ticket to buy, they’ve got your back. The same company that runs the trains runs the trams, so you can take care of the entire trip with a single ticket. From Interlaken, the train takes you to the almost absurdly picturesque town of Lauterbrunnen, with majestic Staubbach Falls serving as the backdrop. The description of getting to Piz Gloria itself can sound complicated, what with the network of trams one has to navigate, but it’s actually simple. In Lauterbrunnen, you have two options: board the aerial tram there and begin your ascent, or take a free shuttle bus to a different station and start there. Why? Different view. Many people like to take one way up and the other down. Either way, you’re going to end up at the top of the Schilthorn.
Once you are on the tram, Bond fans and crowds (at least when there’s not a pandemic) are carried leg by leg up the Schilthorn. The aforementioned transfers happen, because you can only build an aerial to go so far up in a single shot. Navigating the transfers is easy. It’s never a mystery which way you need to go next. Just follow everyone else. The aerial makes a stop in the mountain town of Mürren. Like everything in Switzerland, it’s almost absurdly picturesque. This is the town that struggled to house the sprawling cast and crew during the making of OHMSS; now it has returned to catering to skiers. Another transfer in Birg afford you the opportunity to take a “Thrill Walk” (parts of which are closed during the winter) along a glass—and at times mesh—walkway danging off the side of the mountain. A final tram ride delivers you to Piz Gloria itself.
As tourism has increased over the years, Piz Gloria has not been shy about embracing and promoting its ties to James Bond. Buildings are emblazoned with the official 007 logo. Outside—aside from the awe-inspiring mountain view—is the James Bond Walk of Fame (a bit treacherous during the winter), the helipad, observation decks, and access to some of the best ski slopes in the Swiss Alps. Inside is the James Bond World interactive museum, which recounts the story of the making of the film, including the impact on tiny Mürren when it suddenly needed to host and entertain a massive movie production crew. Many of the exhibits are interactive, in case you ever needed to see what was beneath James Bond’s kilt (a video screen!) or try your luck shooting Blofeld while in a bobsled. There’s also the much-discussed bathrooms, featuring sexy silhouettes, motion-activated dialogue, and in the mens’ room, a sign that says “Shake. Don’t Stir.” The Roger Moore era would have been delighted. Finally, there’s the rotating restaurant in the most recognizable interior from the movie, Blofeld’s mod lounging room. The restaurant serves a James Bond breakfast, or later in the day, a passable (if unspectacular) cafeteria-style burger branded with the 007 logo.
Naturally, you can get a Martini—shaken, not stirred—though if you’re going to be navigating the snowy slopes outside, I recommend going with the lower-alcohol option of a glass of Bollinger champagne.
First and most obvious: I took this trip in February, 2020, when people were still discussing whether or not COVID-19 was something to really be worried about. It was (and as of this writing, still is). The pandemic has of course impacted travel (which you shouldn’t be doing until this thing is under control), the tourism industry, and restaurants, bars, and nightlife.
If you stay in Interlaken, I can recommend a few restaurants:
If you don’t mind a bit of a stroll, Little Thai Restaurant specializes in satisfying Thai food and a rotating line-up of great craft beer.
Interlaken sports quite a bit of nightlife, though much of it is of the “EDM DJ and tripping college kids” variety. If that’s your scene, I hope you have a great, late night, but I’m not able to offer much in the way of advice. If you are looking for a slightly more relaxed evening, I suggest Whiskyness Bar & Lounge.
In 1964, James Bond creator and sole author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, passed away. While the future of the movies, which had taken on a life of their own, was not in doubt (at least not for a couple more years, which was when Sean Connery left the series), the novels seemed like they might go to the grave with Fleming. After scrambling around for a way to continue the series, the Fleming estate and its publishing wing, Glidrose, chose acclaimed British novelist and well-known asshole Kingsley Amis to continue the series. Amis, who had previously written some Bond non-fiction and seemed to take the job solely so he could indulge his hatred of the character M, wrote the first post-Fleming Bond novel, 1968’s Colonel Sun. Critically, it was received about as well as one could expect (actually, about as well as any of Fleming’s novels), with common criticisms being that it wasn’t Fleming enough, or that it was too Amis, or it was Amis “writing down.” So on and so forth.
Whatever the case, plans were for Amis to continue, though when one hears some of the ridiculous ideas he had, including killing Bond off with an exploding Martini, one thinks that it was perhaps for the best that these plans fell through. Similarly, plans to hire a series of authors who would all write Bond novels under the same pen name—Robert Markham—never came to fruition. While the Bond franchise flourished on screen, it was dormant throughout the whole of the 1970s in print other than the occasional adaptation based on one of the movies. By 1980, however, with the movies still bringing in massive box office returns, Putnam Publishing—which had acquired the rights to the character from Glidrose Publications—figured it was time to hire someone new to put pen to paper (or probably finger to keys) and start authoring new James Bond novels.
The job fell to John Gardner—no, not that John Gardner; the other John Gardner. The one who didn’t write Grendel. Having grown up with an Anglican priest for a father, and during the war having proved himself not much of a military man (Gardner described himself as “the worst commando in the world”), young John Gardner was prepping for a life in the priesthood when he realized one day that he didn’t believe anything he was studying or preaching. His loss of faith ended any religious aspirations, and Gardner became a drama critic and depressed alcoholic.
By 1964 however, his drinking was under control, and he published his first novel, Spin the Bottle. That same year, he also wrote The Liquidator, his first adventure novel. It tells the story of Boysie Oakes, an icy, calculating, tough-as-nails bruiser who is recruited into the British Secret Service—where Oakes is terrified they will discover he is, in fact, a queasy, weak-kneed coward. The book was written as a response—a negative one, mind you—to the popularity of James Bond. Gardner was not alone in his desire to skewer Bond. A host of authors, including John le Carré, started writing books that were consciously “anti” Bond. le Carré went grim and bleak. Gardner went with humor. He built a fair career for himself as a novelist who didn’t mind dabbling in the world of espionage thrillers.
When it came time to chose an author to continue Ian Fleming’s legacy, the publisher found it difficult to fill the job. Most authors of note did not want to step into the shadow of Ian Fleming and James Bond, feeling that it was either too much cultural baggage to lift or that they were above such material. Eventually, the job was offered to Gardner, who after careful consideration, perhaps figured that this was a way to rectify some of the things he had always thought to be wrong with Bond.
Assuming the mantle of “author of the James Bond novels” was a loaded situation. Fans of Fleming would dissect the pages to see how “Fleming” they were, tolerating no deviation from how they thought Fleming might have written the book. Fans of Gardner would inevitably want to see the author’s style in the story, a new take and new direction for Bond, rather than a man trying to mimic Fleming. And a lot of other people, those who knew James Bond as Sean Connery or Roger Moore, would demand that the new books be like the movies, while others would inevitably complain they were too much like the movies. All of this you could predict would happen before Gardner had even typed his first word.
Expectation and misconception (in retrospect, many of the criticisms that say Gardner’s books aren’t enough like Fleming’s betray a lack of memory regarding Fleming; they are, in fact, remembering traits from the film and projecting them onto Fleming’s books) were only a portion of what Gardner had to deal with. The publisher was understandably protective of Bond and had a number of demands and restrictions. Gardner had to submit outlines for approval. There was a long list of things Bond, M, and the rest of the recurring characters must and must not do (M never curses, for example). And there was, overall, a specific formula and tone to which Gardner had to stick. It was a lot for a creative person to agree to. But agree he did, and in 1981 License Renewed, the first original Bond novel since Colonel Sun, hit the shelves.
License Renewed sets the stage for the entirety of Gardner’s run. They are contemporary stories, rather than being set in the ’50s and ’60s as were Fleming’s (contemporary themselves, for the time they were written). Some minor lip service is paid to Bond being older (he is greying at the temples), but the flow of time has been tweaked, so he’s not that much older (more Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever, less Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again). Basically, it is as if the dozen or so years since Colonel Sun happened, but they only took a few years. In that time, a lot has changed for Bond, intelligence services, and the world in general. The 00 section has been disbanded, and Bond finds himself something only a step or two more active than a desk jockey. He’s also switched to low-tar, filtered cigarettes and has traded in his beloved Bentley for a more fuel-efficient Saab 900 Turbo.
The frustrating idleness in which we first reacquaint ourselves with Bond affords Gardner to do one of the things he really wanted to do with the character: show more of his life outside missions and MI6. While it may not sound fun to read several pages of Bond puttering around the house, it’s actually something I found interesting. Granted, it doesn’t last—even I don’t want a Bond book entirely about Bond doing household chores and wondering what’s on television. That’s more of a Harry Palmer thing.
When MI5 (In England, MI6 like the CIA takes care of international affairs, while MI5 is like the FBI and handles domestic incidents) starts to get suspicious about a temperamental, brilliant, disgraced nuclear scientist living in the remote wilds of Scotland, they ask MI6 if they might borrow a man for a bit of work. Partially agreeing, M privately reactivates the 00 section under the name Special Services and assigns it a single agent: James Bond.
After getting a new gun and bedding the assistant armorer (the books never had a Q; they had Major Boothroyd. License Renewed splits the difference, giving us a female assistant to Boothroyd who is irritatingly—extremely irritatingly—referred to as Q’ute), Bond is off on a typically convoluted mission to ingratiate himself with the reclusive, likely mad, billionaire genius Dr. Anton Murik, Laird of Murcaldy, though his lordship is highly suspect (I guess Gardner read On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). To figure out what it is Murik is planning, and why he seems to be consorting with known terrorist mastermind Franco, Bond sells himself as a mercenary looking for work. Despite being on the verge of a major terrorist plot that will shake the world, Murik doesn’t seem especially suspicious when a stranger shows up out of the blue at a horse race looking for work that would make him privy to all of the doctor’s secret machinations. Helping Bond out along the way is the forgettable Lavender Peacock as Murik’s niece, the first in a long line of terrible female characters written by John Gardner. And I mean terrible. Almost incomprehensibly terrible. If female representation is important to you (it is to me), you’ll find yourself thinking even Ian Fleming was better at writing women.
I went into this book pretty excited and prone to liking it. I knew that it and all of the Gardner Bond books received lukewarm receptions, but that didn’t matter to me. Unfortunately, “lukewarm” is a pretty apt description of License Renewed. I understand the restrictions under which Gardner had to labor, and I understand what he was trying to do, but License Renewed never comes together. It feels like a promising draft but not a final novel. It’s not the usual things that are cited that bug me. I don’t mind that John Gardner isn’t Ian Fleming. This is a different author writing the same character in a different era. It shouldn’t read like a Fleming imitation. In fact, the whole “he’s not like Ian Fleming!” criticism rings false. His style is close—mechanically, if not quite in spirit—and like I said, before his death, Fleming’s style was often as savaged by critics as was Gardner’s.
What does irk me, and this may be purely an “in retrospect” effect because I am reading this book in now instead of 1980, is the late ’70s cheeseball factor that creeps in. Gardner’s handling of “sexy banter” between Bond and the three main female characters—Q’ute (oh God, how I loathe that nickname), Lavender Peacock (itself a pretty dumb name), and Murik’s mistress, Mary Jane Mashkin—is dreadful. I would say it’s only worthy of Roger Moore’s Bond at his worst, but that would be selling Moore short. Bond operates with all the cool of a middle-aged lounge lizard with new hair plugs working divorcees at the bar in one of Reno’s less popular casinos. The double entendres and sex talk are less James Bond, more Dean Martin as Matt Helm. I groaned aloud several times (which I’m sure Gardner’s Bond would have used as occasion for another lame double entendre), but never so often as I did during the ridiculous “assembling the gun” scene between Bond and Q’u…oh, let’s just call her Ann.
The primarily plot, in which Murik wants to hold the world blackmail by sending terrorists out to take over nuclear power plants, is a bit on the far-fetched side, but not unbelievably so. Within the world of James Bond, it’s perfectly passable as a mad scheme. Murik is a decent villain with the usual Bond villain shortcomings, and his henchman is…well, he’s just muscle. Like Red Grant without any of the interesting back story or character motivation. The secondary plot, about Murik’s fake lordship and the true heir to the Lairdship of Murcaldy, is inconsequential for most of the book.
Bond himself is about the same character as when last we saw him, except for the sub-Roger Moore sex quips. Complaints that this Bond is a little more wishy-washy, a little more unsure of himself, are again remembering Sean Connery more than the books, where Bond was frequently conflicted and, frankly, a bit over-emotional and even panicked from time to time. Lavender Peacock exists primarily so Bond has someone to bed, someone to assist him, and someone who can constantly say, “Oh James, you will protect me, won’t you?”
Gardner can’t write women, but he does write action well. Bond’s initial stalking of Murik’s remote castle, a car chase in the dead of night, and the finale on board a cargo plane are all fun. Once again, we have a villain who for no believable reason keeps Bond alive and brings him along to where he can muck things up, but I reckon that’s just one of the things you have to roll with, like Bond always getting captured.
Overall the book is as about as good as Casino Royale and about as flawed, though in different ways. For the most part, I enjoyed it just enough not to mind the flaws. License Renewed is not the sort of book I would go to war for. If you were bored by it or actively hated it, I would understand, but I thought it was perfectly acceptable. If you, like me, are interested to see where Bond would go after Fleming (and Amis) now that it was the 1980s, then License Renewed isn’t going to let you down, but it’s not really going to excite you either.
The official books that continue the adventures of James Bond beyond those written by Ian Fleming constitute a long, occasionally rewarding, often perilous minefield of reading material. For every success in the series, there is a scene of…oh I don’t know. James Bond visiting Euro Disney. Or James Bond sitting down at University of Texas student party hang-out Chuy’s to eat out of plastic basket while slurping flavored frozen margaritas. Which is to say that being “better” than most sanctioned 007 adventures is something of a loaded compliment. Apart from these official books, there has been of late a bit of a cottage industry in spin-off Bond adventures, from the semi-official “Young Bond” series to books that recast Ian Fleming himself as a secret agent. One of the earlier examples of these “expanded universe” type books was The Moneypenny Diaries (later subtitled Guardian Angel, after two more books were added to turn it into a series) by Samantha Weinberg, writing under the pseudonym Kate Westbrook. Framed as excerpts from the secret diary of Jane “Miss” Moneypenny, it’s a surprisingly complex, bittersweet, even realistic (within limits) alternate view of James Bond, as well as a meditation on the politics of the 1960s and the impact of Bond’s lifestyle and attitude on those around him — especially the women. It’s also a damn sight better than most of the official Bond continuation novels.
Moneypenny is one of the most interesting characters in the Bond franchise because she is one of the least interesting. Or rather, she is one of the least developed. Very few authors or screenwriters, Ian Fleming included, have given much thought to Moneypenny as anything other than a chance to fire off a couple of gags. Only John Gardner saw fit to take Moneypenny out of the office and have her join in one of Bond’s adventures (1986’s Nobody Lives Forever), but for most of that book, she is simply missing. When she does appear, she’s a victim of the fact that Gardner’s odious handling of women makes Fleming’s old-fashioned chauvinism seem positively enlightened. Moneypenny is basically in the story to yell, “James! Help me!” Beyond that book, it really wasn’t until the film Skyfall that anyone bothered to think of Moneypenny as anything other than a woman behind a desk trading a couple de rigueur double entendres with Bond before telling him he can go in and see M now. Skyfall‘s recasting of her as a junior field operative works within the context of that story and the tone of the Daniel Craig films, but it wouldn’t have worked for the literary Moneypenny, especially not if she is still grounded in the time and events of Fleming’s novels.
My initial trepidation about this book was that it would do to Moneypenny what other authors have done to Ian Fleming: position themselves as the true story of the subject, recasting them with a fannish over-enthusiasm and super secret agents cut from the same cloth as James Bond. “Oh, did we never mention that Moneypenny is a super kungfu bad-ass who punched Hitler and also loves tea?” sort of nonsense. It shows very little understanding of a character and does little more than cater to the modern need to turn everyone into a superhero. Such reinvention of established characters, such “shock reveals” can be fun, but we live in a time of their over-abundance. To do so would be not just a violation of the character, but a disservice to the many women (and men) who served in the secret service in capacities other than “Double-0 killing machine.” My fears proved unfounded. Samantha Weinberg understands espionage fiction. And she understands Moneypenny. Although the endlessly sexually harassed personal assistant to M does end up in the field, it’s not as a slam-bang action caricature. She’s not suddenly possessed of skills and strength she never had before. Instead, what Moneypenny faces is something much more in line with a John Le Carre novel, though slightly less bitter and more bittersweet.
The gist of the book is that they are portions of a diary Moneypenny kept in violation of her employment, discovered decades later, and after Moneypenny’s death, by her niece (the pseudonymous Kate Westbrook), who then took it upon herself to research, corroborate the entries, and add footnotes. The period of time covered by the diary begins immediately after the murder of Bond’s wife Tracy at the hands of Blofeld (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and his departure for Japan on a mission of revenge (You Only Live Twice). It is a time during which Bond is emotionally crushed. Depressed, inattentive at work, self-destructive. Such things are mentioned in Fleming’s books, but here we get a much more detailed look behind the scenes. While dealing with the impact of 007’s crack-up at work, Moneypenny also has a problem of her own: she’s been approached by an agent, presumably East German, offering information about her long-missing father (he disappeared on a botched mission during World War II) in exchange for seemingly innocuous information from her office. Complicating matters is the fact that her boyfriend, already under suspicion simply because anyone dating someone from MI6 is automatically under suspicions, seems like he might very well be in league with the agent, passing personal information about Moneypenny that can be used as further leverage against her.
Like John Le Carre, much of Weinberg’s book deals with the toll intelligence work takes on a person’s personal life, rendering it all but impossible to forge any sort of meaningful relationship and turning everything from a person’s past, no matter how innocent, into something that could be potentially used against them. Weinberg isn’t as serious minded as Le Carre, or as angry, but neither is she as frivolous or fantastic about tradecraft as was Fleming and most of the other Bond authors. In this aspect, The Moneypenny Diaries is a thoroughly grounded, low-key espionage thriller. Privy as we are to Moneypenny’s predicament, we understand the temptation, even when she knows the reward offered is probably a lie. Against this plot, we get glimpses into her past, from growing up in Kenya to the death of her mother, the disappearance of her father, and how she came to be in the employ of British Intelligence and M. And looming over this, but by no means overshadowing it, is James Bond and her relationship with him. It’d be easy to simply turn The Moneypenny Diaries into a critique of Bond’s treatment of women, but while that is certainly part of the story, it’s more complex.
Granted we are catching Bond at his worst in his own timeline. His banter, his come-ons, his flirtatious invitations take on an air not so much of sexism as they do desperation, loneliness, and self-loathing. Pitiful in their way, a life-preserver cast out by a man who has only ever forged a single meaningful relationship in his life only to have it yanked away. This might set some Bond fans against the book — unless they remember that this part of Bond was very much there in the Fleming books. So bad was he that at one point in the Fleming novels, M even considers the possibility that they might have to not just push him into retirement, but kill him. Moneypenny finds herself as the receptacle for Bond’s depression, the woman forced to make the man feel better. Smile at them. Defer to them. Tolerate their intrusions. There is a quiet power, and a deceptively profound comment on the way women are expected to — forced to — behave around men when Moneypenny quips with Bond about a dinner date then writes, earnestly and in private, “I wish he wouldn’t say things like that.”
A rather mundane seeming series of events (well, as mundane as they can be when they involve nuclear war and John F. Kennedy) in which Moneypenny accompanies M to a summit in DC and Miami culminates in Moneypenny taking a clandestine trip to Cuba, where Bond has been sent because 1) there’s a job to be done, and 2) because in an office full of people who have lost loved ones, his drunken ennui is starting to seem self-indulgent and they are hoping a mission will snap him out of it. In Cuba, Moneypenny is meant to do nothing more than deliver a radio transmitter to Bond, but of course, this is the James Bond universe. 007 is captured by the Soviets and, Moneypenny observes, seems to actually welcome the thought of his own execution. The only person on the ground who can help him is, of course, her. This entire adventure, which despite the shoot-out on a Soviet ship, is relatively grounded, is built upon the mention in one of Fleming’s book of a job that the depressed James Bond botches (before he is sent off to Japan). Of course, Fleming never implies that Moneypenny had anything to do with saving James’ bacon. In this, as well as in a return to Cuba to finish what was started, Weinberg shows a flare for writing action without going overboard. Again, Moneypenny is trained and competent, but she is also not a field agent. She doesn’t suddenly turn into a backflipping killing machine. She does her best, a believable best.
The Cuban mission serves to lend the book its political backdrop. Fleming never had much time for politics, but the structure of this book, as a diary being annotated after the fact, allows for much more in-depth fleshing out of the political climate (which begins shortly after the Bay of Pigs and culminates with the Cuban Missile Crisis). Bond remains characteristically apolitical, but M and Moneypenny (and Bill Tanner! Good ol’ Bill Tanner!) do not have that luxury. Real political figures and crises are woven organically into the story, with Weinberg-as-Westbrook providing copious footnotes explaining people and events, both real and from the James Bond universe). When the book puts Moneypenny and M in the same room as John Kennedy, I had momentary flashbacks to the awful John Gardner book where Bond hangs out with Thatcher, Reagan, and Gorbachev (to say nothing of the Thatcher role in For Your Eyes Only). But The Moneypenny Diaries is a much better book than Win, Lose, Or Die and the meeting between our fictional Bond characters and the actual U.S. President is brief and well-handled.
Upon its initial release, people obsessed with canon (oh, those people) fretted over whether or not The Moneypenny Diaries is part of the official 007 timeline. you know, the one that has gone on since the early 1950s but still features a man in his late-30s/early-40s despite being a veteran of WWII. Apparently there were even some folks taken in by the gag that these were the actual diary entries of an actual “Jane Moneypenny” writing about an actual James Bond (code name) whose exploits Ian Fleming became aware of in his capacity as personal secretary to the head of British Naval Intelligence (making Fleming much more a Moneypenny than a Bond) and fictionalized in a series of books. I’m thinking perhaps those claims were a bit of clever marketing, but you never know when it comes to the gullibility of people. Some of this stems from what I find to be the book’s one misstep: mentioning Ian Fleming. In the notes added by Moneypenny’s niece, Fleming is mentioned several times, turning him into a character, however tangential, in his own creation. It’s kept to a minimum, and only in the notes, but its a bit jarring and serves to shake, rather than expand, the reality Weinberg/Westbrook has created. My other small criticism is that at times the voluminous nature of the footnotes can interrupt the book’s actual narrative flow. On the other hand, most of the footnotes are interesting, fleshing out real world events and people or adding new dimension and new context to people and events from the Bond books.
Confusion over whether or not this book was “Bond Canon” even delayed it’s release int he United States. Published in 2005 in the UK, it didn’t reach American shores until 2008. In the end, it was announced that, yes, The Moneypenny Diaries “count.” While debates regarding canon are utterly uninteresting to me, what is interesting is that the decision by Ian Fleming Publications gives the official Bond series its first female author and…OK, technically, it’s the series’ second book written from a female point of view, but I think we’d be unwise to saddle The Moneypenny Diaries with comparisons to The Spy Who Loved Me. That puts a lot of weight on Weinberg’s shoulder,s unfairly or not, but she’s an abler carry of the Bond baggage. She brings something new to the franchise without subverting it, and she shows a keen interest in the history of Bond as well as the thematic and emotional make-up of the series — far more so than some of the other authors have shown. Inspired perhaps by the more emotionally complex approach of the Daniel Craig movies, she’s the first author since Fleming himself who has been willing to really dig into Bond, to portray him as vulnerable and confused, even as petulant and spoiled.
But while she pays ample attention to 007 himself, this is still Moneypenny’s story. She is not pushed out of the spotlight, even though she is a character that remains forever out of the spotlight. Her escapade in Cuba with 007 is thrilling, but the book’s real tension comes from the trouble she faces back in London. Sure, we know in the end Moneypenny is not going to betray England, even on a small scale; but Weinberg makes it exciting regardless. The Moneypenny Diaries succeeds where Ian Fleming failed with The Spy Who Loved Me, in looking at James Bond from the point of view of characters in his periphery, his colleagues, his victims, those who experience him and are then left with the wreckage he inevitably leaves behind, physical and emotional. Fleming might have fared better with his experiment had he not chosen to try to write it from the viewpoint of a twenty-something American woman. But then, analyzing Bond’s impact on the life of a woman is more interesting than the impact on a man. Even Fleming must have thought this about his creation. He just didn’t have the experience (as a gender; not writer) to pull it off. Weinberg does, and she does. The Moneypenny Diaries succeeds most of all not just because its insightful analysis of James Bond, not just because of its tense spy action, but because of the empathetic connection the author — and by extension, the reader — forges with that mysterious, impish woman sitting outside of M’s office.
Golgo 13 was (is) a long-running Japanese comic book aimed primarily at bitter guys in dead-end salaryman jobs who harbored daydreams of being tough-as-nails murderous sex machines but, in reality, were just nerdy guys reading a comic book on the train. So, much like me, except we don’t have a company cheer that I know of. The series was created by an enterprising writer named Takao Saito, who got his big break in the business doing manga adaptations of the James Bond stories. Saito’s Bond comics were fully-licensed components of the James Bond world, but they played fast and loose with the original books, often having very little to do with them other than the title and some character names (basically the same as what would happen to the movies).
Under Saito, James Bond became a radically different character in some respects, including being a master of disguise when the Ian Fleming books go to great lengths to point out that Bond refuses to use disguises (which was, to be fair, an aspect of his character that was dropped by the time Saito was writing the manga). Regardless of the lack of faithfulness to the Fleming novels, the comics were wildly popular and generally well-received by the average fan. However, the series eventually got canned in 1967 after covering Thunderball, Man with the Golden Gun, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Live and Let Die.
It has been postulated that the fact that the comics were so radically different from the original stories from which they took their name was one of the main reasons for the cancellation — this would have been shortly before or right around the same time as You Only Live Twice was released as a movie, which was the first Bond film to really differ dramatically from the original novel. More than likely, however, the comics were considered to be original James Bond stories, and after the death of Ian Fleming, his caretakers was keen to see that no one else continued writing new, original James Bond adventures outside the strict control of the Fleming estate.
Saito’s reaction to the cancellation of his Bond series was to keep on writing it anyway, but change the character’s name to Duke Togo, aka Golgo 13, a stone cold killer who will off anyone for the right price. Guilty or innocent, male or female, young or old, it didn’t matter at all to Golgo 13. Saito’s James Bond was drawn to look like Sean Connery (more or less), and anyone who has seen Saito’s James Bond will instantly recognize it as being pretty much the same as his design for the mysterious assassin Golgo 13. Over the years, the Golgo 13 stories would get much more explicit than they ever could have under the banner of James Bond, but it’s obvious that Golgo 13 is a direct outgrowth of the James Bond stories (with a dash of Lupin III thrown in from time to time), albeit one that’s filtered through a gleeful willingness to embrace the increasingly permissive environment of the 1970s.
Free of the shackles of conforming to the Bond character, Saito was able to indulge his every whim and extreme and finally show the people that he, as a writer, was completely insane. Not quite as insane as Kazuo Koike (creator of Crying Freeman and Lone Wolf and Cub, among others), but still plenty nuts. The world of Golgo 13 quickly plumbed the twisted depths of pulp storytelling, serving up a steady stream of wildly popular action stories dripping with gratuitous sex and violence, which as I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, are the best types of sex and violence. Golgo 13 worked as a throwback to the hardboiled detective fiction of writers like Mickey Spillane married with the gritty sex and violence of 1970s pop culture. It was trash through and through, but deliriously cracked in the head and unique in its approach, as opposed to being a simple regurgitation of pulp conventions. It was obvious that Saito had become some sort of sick, mad genius, the comic book creating equivalent of one of his James Bond villains.
Golgo 13, who even after decades of comic book stories, has never revealed anything about his past. He is eternally thirty-something, with no home, no family, and no name. “Duke Togo” is just another pseudonym, since you can’t sign into hotels under the name Golgo 13 — don’t think I haven’t tried. What we do know about Golgo 13 (whose name is derived from Judas and the hill upon which Christ was crucified, as the Japanese love Biblical reference nonsequiturs) is that his life consists of killing and sex. He is an expert marksman who prefers a modified M-16 but is at home with just about any weapon. He’s an expert at karate, speaks just about every language known to man (even the clicking language of the Kalahari bushmen, I bet), is a trained medic, and can instantly become a master of any other discipline the plot requires of him.
And frankly, that’s all you need to know about him. Golgo 13 operates within the arena of pulp fiction, which means it relies on audiences recognizing a series of archetypal stock characters who are what they are because that’s what the story says they are. Golgo 13 is a master assassin, and that’s all we need to know about him. Whatever expectations that character type has associated with it are expected to already be known by the reader or viewer. There is no call for complicated back story, or any back story at all, because pulp fiction doesn’t dwell on such things. Whatever history you think of when you hear a brief description of Golgo 13 is probably right.
The Godfather Goes Golgo
During the 1960s, Ken Takakura was the king of Japanese genre film. With a pile of yakuza films to his name, among them the long-running Abashiri Prison series, Takakura became the face of the Japanese gangster film. But when upstart Nikkatsu Studio started messing with the tried and true “honorable yakuza” formula, they ushered in a new era and a new type of film: borderless action. With it came younger, hipper, weirder stars in younger, hipper, weirder movies, and guys like Ken Takakura and the “gangster with a code of honor” movies were suddenly old-fashioned. By 1973, when Japan got around to making the first cinematic version of Golgo 13, Takakura was a man on the way out — too old to fit in with the young stars, but too young to be sold as “an elder statesman” reclaiming old glory. That said, he was still a bankable name able to get work, and so he found himself cast in Golgo 13, a somewhat bizarre production partially funded by an Iranian film studio, shot almost entirely in Iran, and with — apart from Takakura Ken — an entirely Iranian cast.
If you only know Iran as a problematic theocracy who keeps threatening to figure out how to make nuclear weapons, then you are missing out on the vast majority of the country’s history. It wasn’t always under the thumb of mullahs and fundamentalists. In 1941, control of the country of Iran was assumed by Mohammad Reza Sah Pahlavi, supported by both the United States and United Kingdom. Commonly referred to simple as the Shah of Iran, he began a program of reform meant to turn Iran — a super-power in the ancient world — into an influential modern state. Many of the reforms were aimed at lessening the power held by rural landlords and the clergy — ostensibly to free the Iranian people, but also to further solidify The Shah’s own power by eliminating the competition. In the end, the “White Revolution” proved to have the opposite effect. Charges of corruption, of being nothing more than a puppet regime for the United states, of poking at deep-seated religious beliefs, precipitated the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which deposed the Shah, established a theocracy, and set up, more or less, what we know as Iran today.
Among the efforts of the White Revolution was the creation of a film industry. There had been Iranian films before — the first one was made in 1930 by a professor named Ovanes Ohanian. However, it was difficult to get a fledgling film culture off the ground when World War II reared its ugly head shortly after you started making movies, so it wasn’t until after the war, with the establishment of the National Iranian Film Society in 1949, that the Iranian film industry really took off. Although responsible for many films that gained substantial critical acclaim, Iranian cinema never gained the global following enjoyed by many other national cinemas, and even their pulpier fare — and they made plenty of it — remains obscure even among fans of the obscure. Landing a deal with a Japanese production must have been a big deal. The Japanese film industry was in a sorry state during the 1970s, but many Japanese films still enjoyed a level of international exposure even the best Iranian films could only dream of.
So Takakura Ken, director Junya Sato (Bullet Train), and a small Japanese crew packed up and headed to Iran for what ended up being equal parts a Golgo 13 film and an advertisement for the Iranian tourism board. For the film, Golgo 13 is recruited to kill an Iranian gangster and human trafficker whose primary attribute is his love for his pet parrot. The vast majority of the film consists of an expressionless, emotionless Takakura Ken driving around Iran, pausing for a series of shoot-outs and chases that are certain to take in the most famous tourist sites of the country. Dogging Golgo every step of the way is a noble Iranian inspector. And of course there are some dames, because it wouldn’t be a Golgo 13 story if there weren’t some women to die either because of him or by his hand. If that sounds like a James Bond movie, well, remember the pedigree of Golgo 13.
Sato’s direction makes good use of the many Iranian locations at the film’s disposal, and he shoots wide-open deserts and distinctive ancient ruins to great effect. The end result is a film that feels a lot like a Eurospy film from the previous decade. Takakura Ken is suitably one-note, but he’s an able performer who manages to get the most out of a very difficult character to make interesting. The story is a lot less perverse and twisted than your average Golgo 13 manga, but it’s still a solid action adventure, and the final shot (so to speak) is pure Golgo 13. All in all, it’s a successful, entertaining film — in execution, anyway.
At the box office, it tanked. Japanese cinema was already in dire straights, and the combination of domestic disinterest, a fading star, and a problematic and expensive cross-cultural production doomed this film in particular and the entire idea of a Golgo 13 franchise. Despite being based on what could be extremely graphic and shocking source material, and despite coming out at a time when Japanese film was pushing the envelope in terms of on-screen sex and violence, Golgo 13 the live-action film is curiously old-fashioned and tame. Measured against the frenetic, visceral nature of contemporaries like the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, or the Female Prisoner Scorpion films, Golgo 13 is strikingly…quaint. It’s an Elvis film, when people had moved on to the Beatles. Provided Elvis was a stone cold assassin and the Beatles were, I don’t know, Meiko Kaji or something. This metaphor really doesn’t hold up, does it?
Part of Golgo 13‘s problem probably had to do with Iranian financing. While the Iran of the early 1970s was not the ultra-conservative religious state we know now, it’s unlikely that the levels of sex and violence required for a proper Golgo 13 film (or a proper Japanese exploitation film in general) would have been a bit much. They might have been a bit much for Takakura Ken as well. Try as he might, it’s hard for Takakura Ken’s old “killer with a code of honor” to stay away from this material, where it doesn’t belong. And saying that it’s there might not even be fair. After all, the Golgo 13 of this movie makes some mean-as-sin decisions to leave certain characters to die, or leave others to a cruel fate simply because it makes his mission a little easier. But it’s Takakura Ken, man, and I think anyone with a history with the actor can’t help but inject some of that into this film, even if it’s not really there.
And so, despite being a quality production, Golgo 13 was quickly shuffled into the dustbin of history, forgotten by almost everyone. It would be several years before Toei would dust off the franchise, once again as a live-action production, and once again as a co-production with another country — although this time, one much closer to Japan and with a much more promising willingness to indulge sex and violence.
Sonny Goes Shooting
The second movie adaptation of Golgo 13 came to us in 1977, starring the legendary Sonny Chiba wearing some legendaryly 1970s clothing, and directed by Yukio Noda, who brought the world the 1974 pinky violence exploitation “classic” Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs (which later begat that horribly boring series of DTV Zero Woman movies in the 1990s). That is a much more promising pedigree when it comes to the sort of stories usually associated with Golgo 13. The plot is pretty basic, as all good Golgo 13 stories should be: Golgo 13 is hired to kill someone, and the Hong Kong police department tries to stop him even though the guy he’s killing is sort of a dick.
Sonny Chiba does look a lot like Golgo 13 in many shots, though sometimes it looks like the humidity is turning his coif into a frizzy fro, and he’s certainly an actor who has shown a willingness to play ruthless and evil. As with the first film, this one was also a co-production, this time between Japan and Hong Kong. One would hope that means a lot of primo Hong Kong kungfu talent would be showing up. Unfortunately, it looks like the production skimped on hiring locals for the Hong Kong sequences, so instead of potentially cool team-ups like Sonny Chiba versus Ti Lung, we get Sonny Chiba casually evading a string of ham ‘n’ eggers like Callan Leung. Who the hell is Callan Leung?
Surely Sonny Chiba had Lo Lieh’s telephone number and could ring him up for a cameo and grimace-off. Sonny does bring Chiba movie staple Etsuko Shiomi with him, and she always looks fabulous in action, even if she’s only in the movie long enough for one fight scene before she gets offed. Sadly, a single Sue Shiomi fight scene and a lot of Sonny Chiba walking down the street don’t make for edge-of-your-seat cinema. I guess there wouldn’t have been much point to hiring top-notch Hong Kong talent for the action scenes since there are hardly any action scenes anyway. Japanese live action cinema was pretty zany in 1977. Lots of weirdness all over the place, and yet somehow Kowloon Assignment, based on such crazed material, is still relatively tame. Less so than Takakura Ken’s outing, but it’s still old-fashioned. The bloodshed is minimal, there’s a naked breast or two (if you count Sonny’s), the fights are few and far between, and Golgo 13 isn’t nearly as cool as he should be, possibly because that sort of stone-faced killer is more dynamic as a drawn piece of art than as an actual guy.
Plus, Sonny Chiba is always at his best when he’s allowed to go bug-eyed and over the top, which is not Duke Togo’s style. All in all, a major disappointment on all fronts. However, it’d seem unlikely that the Golgo 13 comic wasn’t an influence on better, more successful Sonny Chiba films, and that more successful Chiba films would likewise prove to be influences on Saito’s writing (or his stable of writers, as he was one of the few popular manga writers who doled responsibilities out to a team rather than doing all the work himself). In particular, there are some pretty significant parallels to be drawn between Golgo 13 and Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter anti-hero, Terry Tsuruga, a merciless killing machine who will take anyone out if the price is right, and kidnap your sister and sell her into sex slavery if you can’t pay his fee.
In fact, the original Street Fighter was the first to use a little gimmick where someone gets punched and the movie cuts to an X-Ray showing crushing bones and whatnot — a technique that is repeated during the finale of the Golgo 13 animated film. It’s too bad that the venomous mean spirit, nasty violence, and all-around sickness of The Street Fighter isn’t evident in Kowloon Asignment. It would have been a better and more authentic Golgo 13 movie if that had been the case. Instead, what we are left with is a film that is only mildly more exploitive than the first, with more outrageous fashion but a lack of the international scope Takakura Ken enjoyed by shooting in Iran. It would seem, then, that the only way to really bring Golgo 13 to life was to avoid bringing him to life — which meant eschewing live-action film and going animated.
Pull My Trigger Again…Softly and Gently
In 1983, Golgo 13 was brought to the big screen for the third time, but for the first time in the medium best suited for realizing the depth of the property’s depravity. Chances are, if it had been an animated feature in the 1970s, Golgo 13 still would have failed to capture the twisted nature of the manga. Anime had to become “80s anime” before Golgo 13: The Professional could exist. The task of making an animated Golgo 13 fell upon the shoulders of directors Osamu Dezaki, Shichiro Kobayashi, and Hirokata Takahashi. It was a bizarre trio of men to direct a movie packed to the gills with blood, gore, and sex. Shichiro and Hirokata both worked on Miyazaki’s Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, the friendliest of all Lupin III incarnations. Shichiro is best known for his work on the Urusei Yatsura series, while Hirokata dabbled in Rainbow Brite.
Osamu Dezaki was, at the time, best known for The Rose of Versailles, a flowery shojo anime that is every bit as emotional and melodramatic as Golgo 13 is mean and violent. Dezaki’s trademark is a unique style of playing with the artwork, using split screens and freeze frames (all fairly common nowadays) that would become richly detailed still drawings that helped tie anime to its manga roots. All three men worked on Space Adventure Cobra in 1982, however, which must have prepared them for their work on the over-the-top macho Golgo 13 a year later.
Needless to say, anyone following Dezaki into Golgo 13 thinking the babe-bangin’ assassin was suddenly going to have big eyelashes and find himself walking through spontaneous clouds of flowers while writing poetry as Vivaldi played in the background was going to find themselves somewhat out of their element. Working on original stories from Saito, Golgo 13 the movie is a shamelessly over-the-top work of grindhouse theater exploitation; an endless and welcome parade of cold-blooded murder, grim-faced psychopaths, statuesque naked women, and wanton acts of depravity, all of which revolve tornado-style around the central character.
he movie wastes no time jumping immediately into the action. We meet Golgo 13 (voiced by relative newcomer Tetsuro Sagawa in the original Japanese, Greg Snegoff in the dub) as he is wrapping up one assignment and taking on another — the assassination of a billionaire industrialist’s only son, who is being primed to take over his father’s empire. Enraged by the murder, industrialist Leonard Dawson (Goro Naya — who has a lengthy list of voice acting and regular acting credits to his name, including Lupin, Peacock King, Vampire Princess Miyu, various incarnations of Kamen Rider, and both the live action and anime versions of Casshern) swears bloody revenge upon the wily assassin, even if it destroys everything he’s built, and even if it means sacrificing his daughter-in-law to the perverse whims of disgusting hitmen.
And that’s the plot. From there on out, Golgo 13 kills people, and people try to kill him. When he’s not killing people, it’s because he’s having sex. Golgo 13 is a heady showcase of all the excesses that made the 1980s one of Japan’s most infamously decadent decades. There’s a lot of nudity and a lot of blood. People die in slow motion, with blood spurting brightly from gory knife and bullet wounds as their faces contort into that bug-eyed, twisted-jaw mask of death that is familiar to so many fans of ’80s anime. No one gets shot once when they can get shot a dozen times, and no woman goes very long before coming out of her clothes, either by choice or by force. Golgo 13 even shoves a grenade in a guy’s mouth and we get to watch the flaming body run around directionless while the surprised, fire-engulfed head tumbles to the ground in slow motion. Everyone, Golgo 13 included, is present merely to be abused in the most merciless fashion imaginable.
So it should be fairly obvious that I embrace the seedy excesses of Golgo 13 with unabashed enthusiasm. It plays the source material perfectly in that it never once goes for the ironic wink, nudge, or comedic interlude. Everyone is dead serious about even the most outlandish scenarios (like Golgo 13 killing a Nazi war criminal in the middle of an orgy by climbing a building and shooting all the way through another building to hit the Nazi in the third building right in the middle of the head), which really puts Golgo 13 among the ranks of the poliziotteschi from the 1970s, like Violent Rome and Violent Naples, which handled similarly outrageous sequences with the same sense of gravity (and also indulged in gratuitous perversity that would have been totally at home in Golgo 13). In fact, Golgo 13 the movie is equal parts poliziotteschi and Eurospy film, drawing on the aesthetic and amoral thematic climate of both genres (right down to Golgo’s wardrobe, which wavers between the turtleneck and slim suit look of sixties spies and the safari jacket and ascot look of the 70s). Although released in 1983 and rightly considered “80s anime,” Golgo 13 definitely maintains a blend of that and the previous decade.
Dezaki’s approach to the artwork makes wonderful use of his trademark split screens and other bizarre framing devices. The quality of the art is superb, achieving a raw and heavy gritty feeling that succeeds remarkably well at mimicking the shadowy noir look of old films, grafted onto the glam and neon of the 1980s — sort of like an animated Michael Mann film, in a way. Golgo 13 isn’t nearly as sleek-looking as something like Odin (it’s also not as boring), relying less on intricate backdrops and more on shading and mood, but the rougher approach suits the material perfectly. You’ll find a similar though slightly more polished approach in Wicked City, albeit with the added bonus of a woman whose vagina is a giant, drooling, fanged spider.
Unfortunately, you can’t really talk about the artwork in Golgo 13 without mentioning the ill-conceived and thoroughly abysmal CGI helicopter sequence. Dezaki and Shichiro worked together on something called 3-D Animated Homeless Child Remi, which sounds like something you really want to rush out and look for. I’m guessing this 1977 collaboration sparked their interest in the early days of CGI animation, and against all better judgment, they were hell-bent on cramming some into Golgo 13 at some point. And so we get the infamous helicopter attack sequence, in which the movie abruptly shifts from the richly realized cel animation to crudely rendered, jerky CGI completely devoid of detail. It looks like something you’d see in a real estate company demo at a county fair’s expo hall. It’s just so insanely bad that I can’t even express how truly bad it is. The entire sequence only lasts a minute or so, but it seems like an eternity, because everything that has been so good up to this point grinds to a whiplash stop so Dezaki and Shichiro can fart around with their Amiga or whatever they used to cough up this sequence.
OK, you can’t fault them for trying, but surely someone somewhere looked at it and said, “Fellas, this looks pathetic. I mean, this looks astoundingly awful. I’m not putting this in the movie.” But somehow, the CGI animation made it into the finished project, along with some crude CGI during the opening credits, which is a lot less offensive because it’s just during the credits and not integrated into the rest of the animation. Plus, that animation is of a skeleton with a Smith & Wesson, so that’s all right.
Golgo 13 has roots firmly planted in the sensationalist action-adventure fiction of the sixties and seventies, as well as in the gritty sleaze of 1970s grindhouse cinema which now falls under the banner of pulp fiction to many people. And that said, Golgo 13 is hardcore grindhouse insanity. It’s brash, offensive, mean, and so completely absurd that there’s no real way for me to find it truly offensive. It’s cheerfully perverse and delightfully violent. It didn’t make all that big an impact upon its release in America, and despite the enduring popularity of the comics, Golgo 13 only found his way to the screen once more, in Golgo 13: Queen Bee,released some years later. Since then, the Golgo 13 anime has sort of fallen through the cracks, which is a shame because it’s a spectacular and totally irredeemable piece of gloriously squalid movie making.
Obviously, the anime is the way to go, but if you find yourself with a chance to watch the Takakura Ken live action film, it’s a solid action movie. Sadly, the one I thought would have the most promise, starring Sonny Chiba, is the least of the three, though it’s still possessed of enough sleaze, violence, and incredibly garish blazers. Plus, so much sideburn on Sonny. But yeah, nothing pulls the trigger quite as lovingly or softly as the anime version, a stunningly tasteless yet gorgeously animated example of everything that was base, indulgent, and wonderful about anime in the 1980s. As for the future of Golgo 13 himself, one assumes he lies even now in some posh hotel room, expressionlessly making love to a woman while he contemplates the day his services will once again be called upon.
If you can roll with the first five minutes of Scorpions and Miniskirts (1967, Italy/Spain/West Germany. AKA Der Sarg bleibt heute zu; Death on a Rainy Day)—a movie that shows utter contempt for bothering to explain anything at all or connecting one series of actions to the next—then you are probably going to be able to walk away from the viewing experience with a sense of having been entertained while, at the same time, feeling like you didn’t quite get everything for which you’d hoped from a movie with a title as wonderful as Scorpions and Miniskirts. After all, Scorpions and Mini Skirts is a title that demands the benefit of the doubt.
Scorpions and Miniskirts begins with an initial minute that seems like the movie might earn its more giallo sounding alternate title, Death on a Rainy Day. We open with a funeral, complete with all the bell-tolling gravitas of a continental Gothic horror film. If Peter Cushing stepped out wearing a pilgrimy black Puritan minister’s outfit, it would not have seemed out of place. Surrounded by weeping mourners, accompanied by glum James Bernard sounding music, a coffin is lowered into the ground. The eulogy begins, and as dirt is being shoveled onto the coffin, the lid suddenly creaks open…
…and out pops a dapper spy in a smart suit, who immediately begins gunning everyone down as the music switches to breezy lounge-style spy jazz, with all the nonsensical “zabba doo zee ba ba zow!” vocals composer Jerry van Rooyen can summon. The mourners all whip out their own Lugers and MP40s and blast away at the spy until a helicopter swings in, latches a hook to the coffin, and spirits our hero (we assume) to safety, or to as much safety as you can expect while in a coffin with an unsealed lid, swinging wildly from a rope dangling beneath a helicopter.
There’s no denying that this whole sequence, like the title of the movie, is awesome. We’d be better off as a society if all movies began like this. But, awesome though the beginning of Scorpions and Miniskirts may be, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, even within the relatively liberal definition of “making sense” that exists in the world of Eurospy films. Who did these people think they were burying? How did this guy get into the coffin instead? What the hell was his mission? Was every single person at this funeral a villain? Given that he has killed just about everyone at the funeral, why does he opt for such a risky, overblown method of being extracted from the hot zone? Well, the answer to the last one is, “because it was cool.”
“Because it was cool” is pretty much the only explanation this movie has for just about everything that occurs in its free-form, meandering plotline, and if you are prone to close examination of a plot’s logic, then Scorpions and Miniskirts is going to be a hopeless endeavor for you. By the time this movie rolled off the Eurospy assembly line, film makers had largely given up taking the genre seriously—not that many of them had taken it very seriously to begin with. Even Goldfinger, the template for most Eurospy films, was already showing signs of tongue in cheek silliness…or did you think James Bond’s “duck on the head” disguise was supposed to be taken seriously, to say nothing of that baby blue terrycloth romper suit Connery parades around in when he’s hanging poolside in Miami. Sure, Daniel Craig made those little blue swim trunks work, but is he man enough to succeed in a Connery onesie?
Spy movies were always quick to spoof themselves. By the time they got to Scorpions and Miniskirts, everyone seems to be pretty much just goofing off until the trend collapsed for good. This entire movie seems nothing more than an elaborate joke pulled at the expense of its two main characters, Paul Riviere (Adrian Hoven) and Bruno Nussak (Barth Warren), a couple of swinging spies so over-the-top in their macho “grab any woman’s ass and give her a kiss” behavior that pretty much everyone seems to be rolling their eyes at the two rubes and humoring them until they leave the room and everyone can get on with life. Their antics are so awkward, so over the top, and generally so unsuccessful, that it seems like it must have been a conscious decision on the part of the film to take the typical spy movie sexual harassment and tweak it to the point that it comes across as genuinely creepy, sleazy, and kind of pathetic.
The plot, not the movie is particularly interested in it, sees France’s swingin’est swingin’ spies assigned to recover a mysterious vial of perfume that actually contains—and this is absurd even in the world of patently absurd Eurospy movie MacGuffins—a sample of human RNA, which the dastardly Chinese terrorist organization the Red Scorpion Society plans on injecting into the US Secretary of Defense so they can mind control him into starting World War III. If you have some scientific problem with the notion that RNA can be used to take over someone’s mind, or with the idea that the Secretary of Defense can unilaterally declare nuclear war on another country without any input from the President or Congress, then you’re probably also the same person who had a problem with that whole pointless coffin shootout prologue. I suggest you abandon this film now and go watch The Lives of Others. It’s fantastic.
Don’t worry, though. Even if you think the RNA perfume is the stupidest world domination plot since Agent for HARM‘s spore gun, you’re not going to have to deal with it, since this movie, as mentioned, has basically no interest at all in its own plot. It’s only there so the heroes have an excuse to visit scantily-clad women and smell them. Whatever minimal effort the screenwriters put into this script is really nothing more than an excuse to indulge in scene after scene of our two leads smacking women on the ass, dealing out terrible one-liners, and punching or gunning down endless waves of white guys dressed as Chinese henchmen—and we know they’re Chinese henchmen because they all dress the same and are bald. I guess that’s a step up from having a Manchu pigtail and a long pinky finger, though if that had been the uniform at this point in the game, it would have been pretty funny.
Scorpions and Miniskirts walks the razor’s edge between being a non-stop parade of fabulous and being so pointlessly free-form that it gets a little bit boring. Part of the problem with the movie are the leads, who I assume are meant to be parodies of the sort of casual-date-rape heroes in which spy movies of the era reveled. Their clumsy, aggressively blunt attempts at seduction (just grabbing random women and kissing them) are absurd even in a genre where extremes in macho chauvinism were the norm. I kept hoping that at some point they would be rebuffed by more than a put-upon smirk, and that one of these women would just haul off and sock one of these sleazy dudes in the face. No luck in that regard sadly, and as it stands the satire of the ladies-man man’s man hovers somewhere between kind of funny and kind of awkwardly off-putting. Pat of the problem is that the two leads here, despite never closing the deal, seem possessed of a considerable degree of malice and misanthropy that stops them from being truly funny or entertaining the way Tony Kendall was in the Kommissar X movies.
Actually, it’s worth bringing up the Kommissar X films in general. Scorpions and Miniskirts has the feel of a film that is trying to ape that series but without the charm and therefore plays out in a much…ickier…fashion. Kommissar X had about it a genuine sense of playfulness, and even if Jo Walker was a butt-slapping ladies’ man, he never seemed as obtuse or threatening about it. Plus, he was always balanced out by Brad Harris as the endlessly put-upon straight man. Because Tony and Brad had such good chemistry together, and because the films were so fast-moving and breezy, they worked well even if the plots had an air of “making it up as we go” about them. Adrian Hoven and Barth Warren do not have the same camaraderie, and they do not have the charisma of Kendall and Harris. That means Scorpions and Miniskirts meandering lack of focus isn’t always as easy to deal with as the same lack of direction in any of the Kommissar X films.
Even though Scorpions and Miniskirts has odious leads (even if it’s done for comedy reasons) and a level of violence that borders on some of Jess Franco’s crankier days, in other ways it’s oddly more sympathetic to its female characters than the usual Eurospy adventure. For one, although the women must suffer the fumbling come-ons and random attempts at kissing, none of them ever have to bed down with our two sad-sack heroes. Second, this is a rare spy film where the women don’t die or have to sacrifice themselves so the villain can make a point or the hero can get the point. The plot, such as it is, means that we visit a number of women with reasons to be wearing exotic costumes and micro-minis, and every time a new one is introduced, she joins the convoy trailing behind Paul and Bruno until, like everything else in this movie, it reaches the point of total absurdity. All of the women are beautiful, though as is par for the course, few of them really have anything to contribute besides enticing figures and long legs.
Similarly absurd in the levels to which it soars (or sinks), Scorpions And Miniskirts seems to spoof the racism that is often inherent in the genre. Decades later, the same thing would be done (considerably better) by the “OSS 117” films starring Jean Dujardin. Scorpions And Miniskirts is trying for the same thing, but just as with the parody of the irresistible hero, it’s done in a way that is meant to be a joke, but doesn’t actually come off as very funny. For Scorpions And Miniskirts, we’re in Yellow Peril territory, like Sax Rohmer turned up to eleven. Sometimes the jokes work—for some reason, a stereotypical Chinese guy in this is a bald guy in a turtleneck rather than the old Mandarin jacket and pigtail—and sometimes they don’t work as well, like when one of the heroes gets in a rooftop fight and keeps hurling Chinese people off the side of the building, causing a couple cops down below to shrug in bemused fashion and exclaim “I’m telling you, it’s raining Chinamen!”
So a bit of an odd duck of a film, but if my picking at the negative in it has led you to believe I didn’t enjoy it, then I made a mistake. I did enjoy it. It is insane. It is garishly gorgeous to look at. It tries to lampoon the racism and sexism of the spy genre while still also being offensively racist and sexist. But it’s also a delirious, out of control ride that has no interest in ever getting itself under control. It’s jammed to the gills with go-go dancing, fist fights, stunts, mini-skirts, sharkskin suits, and baffling stupidity. It’s not nearly as fun as a Kommissar X film, but it is still fun, as long as you go into it armed and ready, knowing that it has no point and knowing that it reels about somewhere between parody and genuine offensiveness, then it’s pretty easy to let yourself get carried away on waves of space age bachelor pad pop music and heroes who pucker up only to get sapped or fall off the side of a bed or something.
When Ian Fleming passed away in August of 1964 after suffering a heart attack, his reported final words—said to the crew of the ambulance that was rushing him to the hospital—were “I am sorry to trouble you chaps. I don’t know how you get along so fast with the traffic on the roads these days.” His untimely passing left in doubt the future of his most enduring creation: James Bond. While the movies had taken on a life of their own, the novels were still very much of Ian Fleming, and without him, it didn’t seem like there was any way they would continue. His final book in the series, The Man with the Golden Gun, was published posthumously and against Fleming’s desire. He had just finished the first draft before his death, and he felt the entire thing was rather a mess and wanted to redo it. His publisher, perhaps feeling that any Bond was bankable Bond, insisted that the book was perfectly fine.
It wasn’t. The Man with the Golden Gun was a weak follow-up to what had been an epic previous two books, starting with the marriage of James Bond and murder of his wife at the hands of Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and continuing with an unhinged Bond out for revenge in You Only Live Twice. The finale of that book sees a destroyed, amnesic Bond picked up by Soviet agents who, recognizing the opportunity before them, take Bond back to the Soviet Union, convincing him that he is Russia’s top secret agent. That thrilling cliffhanger opened the door for Fleming to continue in the spirit of those two books, which were much more emotionally involved and exciting than even the best of the other Bond books. Unfortunately, that entire premise is dealt with and discarded within the first few pages of The Man with the Golden Gun, and what follows is a thin and unengaging study in padding and half-baked ideas that, as Fleming had said, needed more work.
Unfortunately, his opinion became moot when he passed away, and even though the book was given to another author for a rewrite, in the end few of that author’s suggestions were taken. The Man with the Golden Gun was published as-is, and everyone who read it probably felt bad to have so many negative things to say about Ian Fleming’s final novel. After its publication, two more short stories were published: “Octopussy” and “The Living Daylights.” “The Living Daylights” is a simple but enjoyable Bond short story, and while “Octopussy” pulls a “Quantum of Solace” and has Bond stand around while someone else tells a story, at least the story is a good one and involves mountain climbing and lost Nazi loot instead of a jilted lover. With the last of Fleming’s contributions in print, and this being before the era of “completed based on the notes of” follow-ups, publisher Glidrose Productions started wondering what to do. If they didn’t get a new Bond product out soon, they would lose the rights to the character. At the same time, the polite but disappointed reaction to The Man with the Golden Gun meant that they couldn’t really just slap something together. Not only would it be disrespectful to the memory of Ian Fleming; it would also, very likely, sink their greatest cash cow.
After a bit of consideration, it was settled that a new James Bond book would be written. Initially, the idea was to go the route of a stable of writers, each one contracted to write a different novel. But that didn’t pan out, since only one author agreed to subject himself to such scrutiny as would inevitably befall anyone writing a new James Bond book. The author would be the very man to whom they’d given—then ignored the advice of—The Man with the Golden Gun. Kingsley Amis is an author of no small renown. It is practically a given that one won’t get out of any university level English literature course without reading Amis’ first novel, Lucky Jim. Known primarily for humor and satire, often aimed at upper-class British academic and intellectual culture, he seems a curious pick to carry on the work of Ian Fleming, a writer whose popularity was indisputable but whose quality of writing was up for debate. But to know Amis only as a sly British satirist is have an incomplete picture of the man.
Amis frequently dabbled in other genres, including science fiction, and his love of James Bond was so great that he’d already written two books about the character. The first, The James Bond Dossier, was an exploration of the books from the viewpoint of a literary studies critic. The second, The Book of Bond or, Every Man His Own 007, Amis wrote under the in-joke pseudonym Lt.-Col. William (“Bill”) Tanner (a character from the Bond novels). It is a joke “manual” to becoming a James Bond-esque international man of mystery, relying on quotes, locations, and brand names from the book. Although something of a lark, it actually ends up being a pretty good guide to such things in the Bond novels. It must have been daunting to assume the mantle of keeper of the James Bond novels, something Amis did under the pen name Robert Markham—somewhat pointlessly. Everyone knew he was the author, and his name often appeared on the covers alongside the Robert Markham pseudonym.
Colonel Sun‘s story begins not long after the conclusion of The Man with the Golden Gun (Bond thinks to himself about the wound left by Scaramanga’s bullet; a later reference is made to the events of You Only Live Twice as well), with Bond and his friend Bill Tanner playing a round of golf while Bond worries that he has settled into an easy life of routine that has dulled his edge. This doesn’t last long, of course. Bond calls on M at M’s home, where the old man is convalescing after a prolonged illness. But when Bond arrives, M is gone, his two elderly house servants have been executed, and a group of no-nonsense gunmen are waiting to take Bond prisoner. The wily British agent manages to foil their plot and escape, but he’s still left with a house full of corpses, a kidnapped head of the British secret service, and a single obviously planted clue pointing him toward Athens, Greece.
In short order, Bond meets a Greek woman, Ariadne, who is working with the Athens branch of the Soviet Red Army’s GRU (the military’s counterpart/rival to the KGB), and they discover that this isn’t a case of “us versus them.” Or rather, it is, but everyone forgot there might be more than one “them.” In a reflection of the thawing of relations between the west (specifically, Great Britain and the United States) and the Soviet Union, as well as the rising power of China (a frequent thorn in the side of the USSR), Bond discovers that it was the Chinese, not the Russians, behind M’s kidnapping. And an attempted kidnapping of Bond in Athens was interrupted by the Russians, who wanted to kidnap Bond for the totally unrelated reason of, “James Bond just showed up in Athens, so something crazy is probably about to happen; let’s find out what.” Bond agrees to team up with the local Soviets in a joint effort to uncover and foil whatever plan it is the Chinese, led by sadistic People’s Liberation Army colonel Sun Liang-tan, are hatching. Sun’s gunmen put a premature end to the collaboration when they kill the local Soviet bureau chief, leaving just Bond, Ariadne, and a tough old Greek partisan named Niko Litsas to save M, track down Sun, and spoil the Chinese plot to frame England for the murder of a bunch of world leaders at a secret meeting with the Soviets on a remote Greek isle.
Colonel Sun reads like Kinglsey Amis partially imitating Ian Fleming, but not in a bad way. Overall, it’s a close approximation to Fleming’s style when he was firing on all cylinders. At the same time, there is a richer weaving of the story than was customary in Fleming’s writing, which could at times have a youthful energy about them that resulted in some slapdash writing, so anxious to get to the action was Fleming. But there is also the undeniable hint of Amis the satirist lurking just beneath the surface. Sometimes it’s a good-natured ribbing of Ian Fleming’s books, as when Amis prominently mentions the warm, dry handshake of a couple of people whom Bond befriends (mentioning this would later become de rigueur in Bond novels, only without the self-awareness Amis brings to it). Other times, Amis is poking fun at the Bond movies, as when Bond reflects on the uselessness in the end of all the gadgets and clever tricks given to him by Q branch before the mission (a mission Bond completes, ultimately, with nothing but a knife).
Amis brings more political machination into the plot than was common under Ian Fleming, a reflection perhaps of the changing times. Published in 1968, Colonel Sun came out at a time when the west and the USSR were getting along (more or less), and the perceived threat to freedom and peace had moved on to Asia and the terrorist cells of the Middle East and Europe. Underneath it all, however, is the classic Bond plot of an unexpected third party trying to frame England and the Soviets for a crime against the other. Colonel Sun moves quickly, with interesting twists and plenty of action. Bond has typically good local support in the form of beautiful Adriadne and crusty old Litsas, and while Colonel Sun himself is perhaps a bit underused, he’s still a satisfyingly slimy villain without going too far afield into the realm of Fu Manchu-esque Yellow Perilism (though no one would claim his portrayal is without typical racist overtones). The only weak character is M, though as an older man, recently infirm and then drugged and dragged around, it’s perhaps understandable. Also, Amis is on record as having always hated M, so this is also the author’s chance to humiliate the cantankerous spymaster.
Ariadne is a fairly good female character for a Bond novel, tough and competent and not in need of Bond saving her (well, he does, but only after he himself has been saved by a different woman, so I think that cancels out). Of course, this is still a Bond novel written in the 1960s by a man, so there are certain attitudes about sexual assault that are predictably problematic. After Sun has captured everyone, he offers Ariadne up for rape by his minions. Afterward, when she has escaped and Bond asks her how she is, she shrugs it all off as if rape is really no different from being socked in the jaw. To the book’s “credit,” at least it doesn’t rape and kill her as some motivating factor for Bond, but that still doesn’t mean the entire idea isn’t handled with a bit more shrugging than perhaps it deserves. Remember, this is a series of books that includes The Spy Who Loved Me, where the young female point-of-view character (written by old British guy) muses at one point that all women like to be semi-raped. In Colonel Sun, it’s largely a pointless indulgence in bad taste. The rape motivates neither Bond nor Ariadne nor adds anything to her character. It is performed by minor characters, so it doesn’t even have the cheap point of making us hate the main villain more. It’s an altogether mean little aside.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Colonel Sun has the most explicit descriptions of Bond’s amorous liaisons yet written. Fleming may have lived like Bond, but he was still too polite to get overly descriptive with sex. Amis, always keen to kick a taboo around, isn’t writing porn here, but he certainly takes James Bond farther into the realm of, say, a Nick Carter spy novel than the series has previously dared venture. It’s some consolation that, in the end, Bond’s sweet love doesn’t result in Ariadne abandoning her Communist beliefs or begging to come with him to experience the freedom and sexy secret agents of the West. She remains true to her cause. All things considered, she is a fair enough female character, and she ‘s not plagued by the thing where writers of spy thrillers will describe a female agent as tough and competent, then write page after page of her crying, being terrified, or messing up the job (we’ll have years of John Gardner Bond novels for that).
Bond himself is familiar and seems more or less like the Bond who would emerge from the emotional wringer of OHMSS and YOLT, with time to recover down in Jamaica. He’s a bit more haunted, and perhaps his feelings about killing and about his job are a bit more complex and conflicted (multiple times he goes out of his way not to kill someone, even when that person is identifiably an enemy). When Colonel Sun was initially published, the reviews were mixed, and many of the negative ones focused on Amis’ writing of the Bond character, which they saw as not being in line with the character as written by Ian Fleming. I think many of these critics were thinking of Sean Connery more than Ian Fleming’s James Bond, as the Bond of the novels has always been a complicated storm of emotions—doubt, cunning, ruthlessness, uncertainty, charm, and vulnerability. In terms of character evolution, Colonel Sun is a much more fitting follow-up to You Only Live Twice than was The Man with the Golden Gun.
It was inevitable that Amis’ entry in the Bond canon would be a lightning rod. It is, in many ways, similar to the film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the sole Bond adventure starring George Lazenby and which was, for years, regarded as a oddball black sheep. Like that film, Colonel Sun has undergone reconsideration in more recent years. Some of the criticism is not without merit. The plot is labored in places, and Bond depends on the luck of a last-second rescue even more than usual. But claims that the plot eschews the realism of Fleming’s novels and enters the preposterous realm of the films are entirely unjust—or did these critics forget that You Only Live Twice disguised Bond as a Japanese man chasing after Blofeld, who has sequestered himself away in a poisonous suicide garden where he strolled about in full samurai armor? The plot of Colonel Sun is straightforward, the action fairly grounded in reality, and the ultimate goal of Colonel Sun and his crew is not outside the realm of plausibility, at least by the standards of the espionage novel. Although it was a bit shaky in the initial pages (Amis has a tendency to refer to James Bond frequently by his full name, a quirk that is, thankfully, abandoned once the story really gets rolling), Amis hits his stride once the action moves to Greece, and rather than this being a “pale imitation” of Fleming or a weak example of Amis, it’s a satisfying adventure fully deserving of the James Bond lineage.
Despite mixed reviews, the book was a success (it’s not like Fleming didn’t get mixed reviews all the time), and all signs pointed to Kingsley Amis writing a follow-up. He even had a plot in mind, with Bond on a train through Mexico. Colonel Sun was based in Greece because Amis had recently been there on holiday; the prospective Mexico setting was for the same reason. It would allow Amis to express his personal distaste for Acapulco. It was even rumored that the next book would feature the death of Bond and an end to the series as a whole. Amis himself even joked (one assumes) that Bond was to be killed by a bazooka-wielding bartender. But a bit of confusion here, a bit of complication there, and in the end no second Bond adventure from Amis was ever to be. A shame, as Colonel Sun was a pretty entertaining first stab at it, spiritually in tune with Fleming’s novels but an evolution of that style, and certainly more than an imitation.
In time, Colonel Sun was mostly forgotten, allowed to go out of print and chalked up by many as a curiosity, the George Lazenby of the Bond literary world. Its disappearance was not total, however. The movie For Your Eyes Only, though ostensibly based on the short story of the same name as well as another of Fleming’s short Bond stories, Risico, features action partially set in Greece and an ally whose background is very much that of Colonel Sun‘s Niko Litsas. In 2002’s Die Another Day, the plan was initially to use Colonel Sun as the main villain, albeit with a nationality swap from Chinese to North Korean. Since that would have necessitated paying additional royalties for use of the character, however, the film just made up its own guy and petulantly named him Colonel Moon. Excepting a couple of novelizations of the movies, the entire Bond literary franchise went into hibernation for the whole of the 1970s. It would be over a dozen years before someone put ink to paper and wrote a new James Bond novel. That writer was John Gardner (not to be confused with John Gardner, the American author who wrote Grendel), and the novel was 1981’s License Renewed. But that is another story.
Peter Fleming is fated to forever be referred to by his full legal name, “Peter Fleming, Older Brother of James Bond Creator Ian Fleming.” Even those of us who come to praise Peter’s talents, as I do, can’t resist mentioning Ian. Never mind that Peter lived the sort of life his brother might have written about. While Ian himself spent much of his time behind a desk, Peter was plunging headlong into the jungles of the Amazon basin in search of lost explorers and walking across China, possibly in the service of the British secret service (he spends an awful lot of time documenting the location and movements of Japanese soldiers). Before Ian struck gold with Casino Royale, Peter was the star of the family, a successful writer and officer, while Ian was the prodigal screw-up, kicked out of every school he attended and fired from a good many jobs before he lucked into a position with Naval Intelligence. When Ian did get around to writing a travel book, Thrilling Cities, it was something of a wholly different spirit than Peter’s.
No matter how dire the situation or how grim the suffering, Peter could never manage to be anything other than affably self-effacing, dwelling with humorous light-heartedness on his own shortcomings as a writer, an adventurer, and a man. He was also brutally honest about the experience of travel. In a genre that trades in breathless passages about exotic wonders, in which nothing is so important as assuring the reader that every single moment was magical and thrilling and inspiring, Peter was more than happy to admit that he spent huge swathes of time bored and indolent and unable to muster much in the way of interest in museums and other marvels of the world. He freely admits his own ignorance, his own shameful British upper-class biases and prejudices, and while he doesn’t make a point of illustrating how his travels open his mind, they do. But in the end, Peter would rather, if for no other reason that for the sake of entertainment, remain the somewhat bumbling Bertie Wooster of the adventure world.
His first book of note was Brazilian Adventure, published in 1933. From the outset, Peter sets the stage by calling out previous tales of exploration and adventure for frequently exaggerating the peril in which the explorers found themselves. In contrast, he admits, his was a farce of an expedition in which he was never really in any danger and never suffered any particular hardship. Ironically, this itself seems like something of an exaggeration, as there are indeed several encounters which, Fleming’s breezy nonchalant language notwithstanding, do seem at least a tad precarious — especially after you’ve seen the photo of an emaciated, naked Peter Fleming proudly holding up a bit of game. Fleming also freely admits that he, like every person on the journey, was utterly unqualified. If Fleming has a saving grace in comparison to the others, it’s that at least he is well aware of his own ridiculousness. Also ironically, it was bumbling, goofy Peter who would be one of the men to last the longest and go the farthest.
The Bungle in the Jungle
“Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance leaving England June to explore rivers central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Percy Fawcett; abundant game, big and small; exceptional fishing; ROOM TWO MORE GUNS; highest references expected and given. Write: Box 1150, The Times, EC4.” —The classified ad that started Peter Fleming’s career as a travel writer
The goal of the expedition was to discover the ultimate fate of famed explorer Percy Fawcett, a seasoned veteran of harsh Amazonian bushwhacking, who some years earlier had vanished while searching for a fabled lost city along with his son and his son’s best friend. Fawcett was one-of-a-kind to be sure, a hardened jungle adventurer who traveled light in an era when vast baggage lines trailed behind expeditions. He was also convinced utterly and in stark opposition to almost every other white explorer that the opinions, customs, and cultures of the natives were to be respected, and that in doing so you were far more likely to succeed and far less likely to get killed by a tribe who was unenthusiastic to have you clomping about in their home. He also struggled with his finances, and as he got older, became obsessed with mysticism and a story about a lost civilization deep within the Amazon, vast and on a scale no one had dreamed could exist. He disappeared in pursuit of this obsession, though decades later, LiDAR technology would indeed reveal the existence of a huge lost city not so far from where Fawcett was thought to be heading.
His disappearance was an international sensation. Expeditions to find, perhaps even rescue, Fawcett and his two-man crew were hastily mounted. Rumors abounded that he had been sighted in one small village or another, or had come wandering out of the jungle, or had been glimpsed as a prisoner of this tribe or that. The truth of the matter was probably the simplest answer: that he had run afoul of a tribe whose hostility he could not assuage, or that his luck at survival simply ran out and some illness or injury did them in. Whatever the case, it was big business for a while to set out in pursuit of the answer.
Such expeditions were fraught with complications, not the least of which being run-of-the-mill things like disease, floods, hostile terrain, and hostile tribes. It turns out that no one knew exactly where Fawcett was heading. He was deeply paranoid that someone with more money would follow his clues and claim the glory of finding the “lost city of Z” before he did. So he coded his maps and notes, and he created false itineraries. To a certain point, one could trace his steps based on the tribes he was known to have contacted and stayed with, but exactly which direction he was going when he disappeared was something at which people could only guess.
Of all the expeditions that set out to find Fawcett, few were as ill-prepared as the one for which Peter Fleming enlisted. Brazilian Adventure revels in the self-important buffoonery that causes comical calamity before it even leaves London. Fleming is amazed every time they manage to accomplish something as mundane as getting down the street or checking into a hotel. They are poorly equipped but have lots of it. Fleming assumes that any expedition that would have him is doomed to failure anyway, and he reckons theirs will indeed be a swift collapse. As it went, they got a little further than he predicted…but not by much.
What makes Brazilian Adventure such a treat to read isn’t just the steady stream of mishaps and bungles. Fleming does a lot to let the air out of what can often be a pompous, self-aggrandizing field of writing (I recommend Teddy Roosevelt’s account of his own trip through the Brazilian wilderness — err, Through the Brazilian Wilderness — which by his standards was a constant parade of privation and near-death experiences, and which Percy Fawcett once characterized as being a reasonable stroll for an old man). He also subverts one of the most common traits of adventure books and travelogues written by white westerners. If there is an air of colonialism in some of what Fleming writes, he employs it primarily in the service of making himself and anyone else possessed of such haughty snobbishness seem absurd. He will look down his nose at the locals while winking at the reader and illustrating how much more capable the “savages” are than the brave white men in khaki jodhpurs. This isn’t’ to say that locals are exalted, especially government officials and soldiers (one of the many setbacks the party experienced was that the region was in a bit of a civil war the day they arrived).
At the same time, there are moments of genuine, poetic beauty. Fleming is quick to dismiss himself as a posh lout with no capacity for introspection, but that’s not actually the case. His introspection is disguised by self-effacing humor, and the experiences that strike him as profound and moving are nestled among tales about tedium and slapstick misadventures, but they are there nevertheless.
High Road to China
Brazilian Adventure proved a hit for Peter Fleming and cemented his position as a fresh, funny voice in a field overpopulated with stern, serious writers. He followed it up with an epic tale of a journey across China, recounted in two parts: One’s Company: A Journey to China in 1933 (published in 1934) and News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir (published in 1936). A third book, To Peking: A Forgotten Journey from Moscow to Manchuria, was published long after the fact in 1952 and recounted the trip Peter took by Trans-Siberian Express to actually get to China in the first place. When Fleming arrived in China, it was in a state of extreme upheaval. The 1911 revolution that overthrew the final dynasty had begun to collapse in on itself. Japan had invaded and conquered much of the north. Brigands, warlords, and communist insurgents divided up the countryside in an ever-shifting patchwork of territories.
Once again, Fleming acknowledges his inadequacy for the task which has been assigned to him, beginning his account with the passage, “The recorded history of Chinese civilization covers a period of four thousand years. The Population of China is estimated at 450 million. China is larger than Europe. The author of this book is twenty-six years old. He has spent, altogether, about seven months in China. He does not speak Chinese.” The selection of China as the young travel writer’s next adventure at a time of such importance has led many to speculate that Fleming was not just writing dispatches for a newspaper back home, but was, in fact, also collecting intelligence. In 1933, World War II was still some years away, but many could already feel the storm coming.
For the first leg of his journey, Fleming is under the care of Japanese military administrators who are in the process of realizing just how impossible it’s going to be to make China a colony of Japan. Wrapped once again in acidic wit and his keen ability at making himself look the fool, Fleming manages to put together, as best he can from such a limited vantage point, a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of Japanese-controlled Manchuria. Being, officially, neither friend nor foe to Japan, he has no issue admiring certain aspects of the Japanese presence while condemning others. He is, in a rare moment of raw emotion and frankness, horrified by the glimpse he catches of Korean sex slaves sent for use by the soldiers, and wrenched by his inability to do anything beyond report it back to his readers. He handles the tangle of Chinese nationals in much the same way, doing his best to decipher the hopeless jumble of freedom fighters, bandits, and soldiers. The one group to which he has the most limited exposure are the shadowy communists, who always seem to be maneuvering just outside the field of vision. The journey takes him through what were then the most developed parts of China, and so the bulk of the hardships he faces are administrative in nature. Still, between an occupying and increasingly paranoid foreign army and the rich tradition of Chinese bureaucracy, there is plenty of comedy to be mined.
The second leg of the journey is markedly different. For his journey to the west, an attempt to travel overland to India (coincidentally, an interesting route to explore if one was attempting to, for instance, assess its feasibility as a passage for troops with an appetite for invading the crown jewel of the dwindling British Empire), Fleming is forced to eventually abandon modern modes of travel and rely on horses, camels, and donkeys. As fate would have it, while attempting with little success to navigate the labyrinth of official permits and letters of introduction he would need to make the journey, he ran into another westerner attempting the same. This was Ella Maillart, a singularly fantastic and infinitely interesting Swiss adventurer who agrees, perhaps against her better judgment, to join forces with Peter Fleming and make the journey together. As Fleming is quick to point out, she proves far more capable than him at almost every leg of the journey.
As he did with his jaunt through the Brazilian rain forest, Fleming is quick to diminish the hardship he, Maillart, and their cranky rag-tag band of local guides endured, though once again he’s probably being coy about things. It is, by any measure, a grand adventure however, and like many grand adventures, there are long stretches of boredom as they trudge across desert landscapes. Fleming and Maillart do their best to amuse one another, but you can only do so much with a portable photograph and the few records you can carry with you. Unfortunately, this also means the narrative lapses into occasional stretches of tedium in a way that did not happen in the brisker Brazilian Adventure, where they had less open ground to cover. Still, as with travel itself, the grand moments are worth the occasional slog across a salt flat. Although Fleming is adamant that he is doing a terrible job as an anthropologist, he still manages, to the best of his limited ability, to paint an interesting picture of the many different cultures that make up what was then and still remains a region of China considered remote and unknown even by many people in China. Shanghai and Kashgar tend to be pretty different.
Ella Maillart wrote her own book about the trip, Forbidden Journey – From Peking to Cashmir, in 1937. It was her second travel account, having written Turkestan Solo – One Woman’s Expedition from the Tien Shan to the Kizil Kum in 1934. Hers was a remarkable life, especially at the point in which it intersected with that of a woman named Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a period during which the two traveled by motor car from Geneva to Kabul. But just as Peter Fleming deserves to be (but never is) discussed without pushing him into the shadow of Ian, so too does Ella deserve to be written about as something much more than the intrepid woman who kicked across central and western China with Peter Fleming, so let’s save her for her own post.
Predictably, there are moments where once again whiter European bias seeps in, but for the most part the butt of most of Fleming’s jokes is Peter Fleming. I’d even put forth that, in his unflattering description of certain places and people, he’s doing more to humanize them than many travel writers who hold locals up as some sort of enlightened, magical source of inspiration, so free and pure compared to us decadent westerners. In Fleming’s eyes, even devout monks in remote temples are, for the most part, just another bunch of guys with the same good and bad as everyone else. If he encounters rascals and con artists, it’s because the world of full of rascals and con artists, no matter where you go.
And perhaps that is how Peer Fleming sees himself as well: a bit of a rascal, certainly a bit of a con artist who got away with something that by all rights he shouldn’t have. They wouldn’t have made it to the end of their journey if he and Ella hadn’t been willing to indulge in a bit of chicanery. That trait, no matter how tiny the village, no matter how baffling the culture, embodies the theme lurking beneath the humor and the occasional grumpy marches: we may all be different in many ways, but in many more ways we are the same. We are a species of hustlers, dreamers, comedians, villains, thieves, heroes, and people just trying to make it through the day. Against the vast backdrop of China, in the midst of world-changing political events, Fleming sees the tiny slices of every day that concern the people who, be they a seedy camel salesman or a sturdy guide, have no say in Big Events but keep moving forward regardless.
“Three years; three interesting, fairly hard journeys. Three books which all fell on their feet. It was all great fun. The feeling that you had the run of the world. The chance of leading an almost entirely out of door life. But what good did it do anyone, except me and, I suppose, my publishers. Perhaps a few sick or lonely people whose lives were made briefly less intolerable by the stuff I wrote. I should say precious little probably none at all and I’m quite prepared to believe that I would have turned into a more useful citizen if, instead of just ’swanning’ I’d spent my middle twenties studying chartered accountancy or quantity surveying or grassland management but, well, I didn’t and there it is.” —Peter Fleming
Peter continued to write, and write well, including books on history and even a short story about a werewolf. However, nothing quite reaches the sublime levels attained by his first three books, all of which (along with To Peking, which is by Peter’s own admission more of a supplement than a fleshed-out work of its own) were recently reprinted (though sadly without the photographs that appeared in the original editions). News from tartary and One’s Company have also been combined into a single volume, Travels in Tartary – One’s Company and News from Tartary.