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.

Upstate Johnnie G said...

I'm afraid II have to disagree regarding cricket as a basis for "you've had your six." The full line is "That's a Smith and Wesson and you've had your six." Bond has recognized that Dent's auto pistol was made by Smith & Wesson and thus knows that the magazine only holds six rounds. In those days S & W would only have produced auto pistols in .45 APC caliber, with six-shot magazine capacity, so once Bond recognized the brand, he would automatically know the number of shots it was capable of. He had counted the number of shots Dent fired, so he knew the gun was out of cartridges. Therefore he's toying with Dent the whole time, essentially daring him to pick up his pistol and try to shoot Bond. It's a set-up and Dent must not have been a very accomplished hit man or he would have known that he was out of ammunition. Dent's choice of weapon and usage also mark him as an amateur. Automatics eject their empty shells after each shot. Therefore, if a hit man does not want to leave the shells behind for forensic reasons, he would have to take the time to find the all and pick them up. Instead, a pro in those days at least, would be much more likely to use a revolver with silencer. The empty shells stay in the cylinder, so there's no evidence scattered about. Such a weapon won't be as quiet as an automatic, due to the gap between the forcing cone and the cylinder face which allows the escape of hot gases and some sound, and for that reason (and another) a .22 revolver was a typical choice for US Mafia hit men. The .22 is a very small cartridge and makes very little noise to start with, so it's use in a silenced revolver is acceptably quiet. In addition, a .22 revolver typically held more than 6 shots. These small caliber weapons were perfectly lethal when used in the correct manner: close-range head shots. More than one Mafia boss was killed in this fashion. What Dent should have done was walk right up to the bed and shoot (what he thought was) Bond in the head multiple times. Bond would still have captured him of course, but would have had to have worded his quip a bit differently.

As for cricket, a six is what a batter scores when he strikes a ball that clears the boundary of the pitch on the fly. Rather like our "home run." It doesn't seem to fit very well with the situation in the film. The line "you've had your six" in the context of cricket does not make sense because after hitting for six a batter continues his at-bat until he is "out". Dent is not "out" so the line doesn't really work. The better line for a cricket reference would have been "you've had your innings" because when a team's batters have all been put out, the team's inning is ended. Actually, the innings line appeals to me quite a bit as it would have been so quintessentially British, but I suppose the producers probably felt that it would have been lost on an American audience and that the Smith & Wesson reference would sound more "masculine" to American men.

upstate Johnnie G said...

I forgot to add that Bond was lucky in this scene. Why? Because when you put a loaded magazine in an auto pistol, the firing chamber is empty. If one pulls back the slide and releases it, the first round will be chambered and ready to fire. The hammer can then be lowered by hand without firing. The magazine now only holds 5 rounds (because the top one is now in the firing chamber). It is a simple matter to remove the magazine and load one more round into it, giving you 7 shots (one in the receiver, 6 in the magazine) instead of 6. You just cock the hammer with your thumb when you want to fire your first shot. After that slide will cock the hammer as the recoil drives it back. That might have cost Bond his life! On the other hand, it is typical of an auto pistol for the slide to lock back in the open position after the last shot is fired. This is so that when a fresh, loaded magazine is inserted, one only needs to trip the slide release lever and the slide will move forward, pushing the first round from the magazine into the firing chamber and leaving the hammer cocked. Thus you are instantly ready to fire again. The producers conveniently overlooked that as well. If Dent had emptied his S & W it should have locked the slide back. Both Bond and Dent would have seen this as they glanced at the gun on the carpet, and Dent should have known what that meant.

Of course this all would have ruined the scene if Bond couldn't have deduced the empty state of the pistol simply by; noting its brand! I can't think of a way to do that scene with either one round still in the gun, or the slide locked back, that would work. So I guess the producers should be forgiven for "getting it wrong" because it gave us a memorable scene and a great line, and some insight into just how cold a killer Bond could be, something we wouldn't see until the age of Daniel Craig.