How do we explain the enduring appeal of James Bond? As the Bond franchise celebrates 50 years of success on the big screen, it is timely to reflect on our love affair with this most famous secret agent. Indeed the Queen’s very own ‘Skyfall’ at the Olympic opening ceremony was the ultimate validation of Bond’s unique position in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The character of Bond is intriguing. Although complex, James Bond 007 is unquestionably a hero. Flawed perhaps but a hero nonetheless. So is the attraction of Bond about our need for a hero?
The concept of the hero is integral to our being. The hero endeavours to represent the best of ourselves. In the classical world of Homeric culture, honour was vitally important. The hero could not endure insults, and he felt that he had to protect his reputation — even unto death. The hero’s duty was to fight, and the only way he had of gaining glory and immortality was through heroic action on the battlefield; thus, he continually prepared his life for the life-and-death risks of battle. Like James Bond.
Yet the hero is also a bundle of contradictions. C.S. Lewis captured brilliantly the essence of this concept: “each hero is human, a rainbow of thoughts and emotions; subject to quirks, failures, triumphs and, yes, even flaws.” In an age where our real life heroes are subject to such intense media coverage we are less inclined to forgive the flaws. We like our heroes to be “vanilla” – we don’t want to entertain any notion that they could be subject to human frailty. And we are swift to condemn those who are deemed unworthy – who have let us down.
This peculiarly twenty first century hubris is perhaps best captured by the fortunes of our sporting heroes. This summer we witnessed the greatest sporting show on earth. The Olympian and Paralympian athletes were challenged to inspire a generation. We basked in the heroics of both our athletes and exceptional athletes from other countries. Both winners and plucky losers won accolades from a grateful nation keen to elevate our sportsmen and women to the status of hero. Contrast this with the extraordinary fall from grace of Lance Armstrong, the seven time Tour de France Champion. The extensive news coverage surrounding Armstrong has in some ways surprised me – with a world convulsed in conflict was this drugs cheat really worthy of headline news? Yet the very fact that Armstrong dominated the news across the world speaks volumes about the way we interact with our heroes. Integral to this narrative is Armstrong’s personal heroics in fighting and surviving cancer, and the generosity of his spirit in supporting fundraising. The fine line between hero and villain is surely what is so absorbing about this story.
Of course, William Shakespeare knew this and it is why the names of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and Lear still resonate with us today. Just as Shakespeare appreciated the complexity of humanity it is, in my view, important that young people are educated to see beyond cartoon like heroes. We need heroes because they do inspire us in so many different ways. Which takes me back to Bond. His cinematic representation by Daniel Craig is so human. He is heroic in his deeds but not necessarily a hero as a man. This is a perfect lesson for the legions of young Bond fans as they flock to see “Skyfall” this weekend.