Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"You've Had Your Six"

I feel I should write something to mark the 50th anniversary of the James Bond movies, but the internet's already clogged with lists of favourite Bond girls/films/gadgets/actors/locations so I'll keep things simple by looking at a scene in Dr. No that marks a turning point in film history and also helps explain the cachet of the Bond character. Here it is:

Pretty cold-blooded, eh? This was shocking stuff for 1962. Up until this moment heroes did not shoot unarmed villains, even the ones who were determined to kill them. Bond even gives his enemy a second shot for good measure, and it's a shot in the back, no less. And what makes this scene even more unusual for the time (and became a hallmark of the Bond series) is that James makes a quip as he kills his would-be assassin. "You've had your six" is a cricket reference, which makes this witticism at once one of the driest and also the most English in film history.

This one brief scene was, with its combination of lethal viciousness and humour, a watershed moment in film history. It was the first depiction of a hero who is absolutely ruthless and even cruel. The unwritten rule prior to Bond was that a hero always "played the game" more honourably than the enemy; unarmed men aren't to be shot, especially in the back, and levity has no place at a killing. Bond's role as a remorseless jester of death struck a chord with audiences, and I think the answer to why that happened lies in World War II. Bond is the personification of the character of that war. My dad and John F. Kennedy had only two things in common: they both loved James Bond and both were WW II vets. The things they saw in the war were never shown in films. When men died in war movies there was no blood, no viscera, and the Allies followed the rules of the Geneva Conventions to the letter. My dad and J.F.K., like millions of other vets, knew better. They knew first hand that war was about killing that was without remorse or regret and by any means possible. Bond was not fighting WW II, but the manner in which he waged his war against SPECTRE and SMERSH was an accurate reflection of what a large chunk of the viewing and reading public had experienced less than twenty years previously.

Bond's gallows humour also has its roots in the war. Thanks to some of the more recent histories of  WW II by writers such as Paul Fussell, Stephen Ambrose, and Max Hastings we have a better idea of how dehumanizing the war was for its participants. And one way they reacted to its horrors was to make fun of them. One of the great slaughters of WW II took place in the battle of the Falaise Pocket in Normandy, during which the entire German Army Group B was essentially wiped out. There were so many German dead they couldn't be buried, and the ones lying on the roads were simply driven over by Allied vehicles. My dad's unit drove through the pocket and he and his buddies, as he told me later, found the sight of pancaked Germans to be hilarious. Everyone took turns cracking bad jokes about the flattened enemy. And when he was part of a detail burying the dead the gags kept coming. The bodies, the ones not made wafer-thin by trucks and tanks, were bloated to an enormous size and their stomachs had to be pierced to release the gases before they could be moved. Cue the laugh track as Private Watson and the men manhandle blimp-like corpses emitting odours from Hell. So when Bond was cracking wise as he dispatched a baddie in some absurd way, what my dad and others were hearing was a very watered-down version of their own black humour.

The action hero as a pitiless, joke-spewing killing machine started with Bond, and soon became the norm for a great many other film heroes. The next in line was The Man With No Name character in Sergio Leone's westerns, although in those films the humour was more muted. In the ''80s and '90s Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger built their careers around playing this kind of character.But divorced from the context of a war, these kinds of heroes begin to seem like homicidal maniacs, fantasy figures for sadists. As Bond celebrates 50 years in film, his main competition is represented by the Jason Bourne types: heroes who are more like hyper-efficient killing apps than flesh and blood people. There's something comforting in Bond having a taste for booze, games of chance, and casual sex. It makes him human. The soullessness of Bourne makes him less of a hero and more like one of the all-star villains Bond has bumped off over the years. And perhaps that's why Bond lives on and the other guys end up looking forward to doing cameos in the next The Expendables movie.


Sue Dunham said...

Re 'You've had your six.'
Thank you. I've wondered about that line delivery for 50 years. I didn't have the cricket reference, so it always seemed a bit brusque.
I'm going through your back postings, and enjoying your blog very much. Literate writing and eclectic tastes sometimes similar to mine.

Cary Watson said...

Thanks, Sue,
Yes, the cricket reference is a bit obscure for we North Americans.