Spectre – or rather SPECTRE – has an important place in the history of the James Bond books and films. It first appeared in Bond author Ian Fleming’s ninth book, Thunderball (1961), as an international criminal organisation attempting to blackmail the NATO powers by hijacking nuclear bombs and threatening to blow up a major city unless a ransom was paid.
SPECTRE, as every Bond fan knows, stands for “Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion”. Fleming used this new villain to shift Bond away from the Cold War background and Soviet villains of the books of the 1950s.
When the Bond film series began in 1962, the producers adopted the SPECTRE formula, rewriting non-SPECTRE stories such as Dr No and From Russia With Love. Again this was seen as a means of detaching the films from a specifically Cold War context. SPECTRE and its leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld were the villains in every Bond movie bar one from Dr No in 1962 to Diamonds Are Forever in 1971, the one exception being Goldfinger (1964).
But SPECTRE didn’t have an assured future. A rival producer called Kevin McClory had collaborated with Fleming on a Bond film project in 1959 which was never made. He claimed that Fleming had used plot elements from his script, including SPECTRE, in the 1961 book Thunderball. Although McClory then collaborated with Bond producers on the film of Thunderball in 1965, he attempted to mount a rival Bond film – eventually realised as Never Say Never Again (1983) – based on the original unmade screenplay. With the Bond films such a lucrative cash cow and teams of highly-paid lawyers involved, SPECTRE disappeared from the official James Bond series.
But only into hibernation, it now seems. Eon Productions has now reacquired the legal rights to SPECTRE, and so the announcement of the name suggests that the next Bond will see the return of 007’s arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld. We’ll have to wait and see.
But if Blofeld is to return, I doubt very much that it will be in the same guise as in the classic Bond movies. I don’t expect to see a bald man in a Chairman Mao tunic stroking a white cat and hijacking space rockets from his hidden base inside a hollowed-out volcano. That sort of villain was so brilliantly spoofed by Dr Evil (and his cat Mr Bigglesworth) in the Austin Powers films that it would be near impossible to play it straight now.
In any event the recent Bond movies have seen a shift away from the megalomaniac criminal masterminds of the past to a more plausible form of villainy rooted in contemporary geopolitics. The three Daniel Craig Bond films so far have given us a banker to the world’s terrorists (Le Chiffre in Casino Royale), a multi-national corporation involved in destabilising governments for profit (Quantum of Solace) and a cyber-terrorist with a personal vendetta against the British Secret Service (Skyfall). None of these villains had a pool of piranhas or a giant henchman with steel teeth (and I, for one, have felt the lack!)
Hard to Beat?
The last Bond movie, Skyfall, was a massive success, one of a handful of films to have passed the $1 billion mark at the global box office. So there’s going to be a lot of pressure on director Sam Mendes and producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli to match it.
But the success of Skyfall might have been extra-special. It was always going to attract more attention than usual as it marked the 50th anniversary of the Bond movies – a quite extraordinary production achievement regardless of what one thinks of the quality of the films themselves.
It was also the Diamond Jubilee Bond. There’s always been an association between Bond – who, as the title of the tenth book informs us, works On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in the year of the Coronation, 1953 – and there were Bond movies coinciding with the Silver Jubilee in 1977 (The Spy Who Loved Me) and the Golden Jubilee in 2002 (Die Another Day).
Skyfall also came on the heels of the London Olympics and tapped into 2012’s sense of pride in Britain and British identity. This was hammered home not only in the use of London locations and Judi Dench’s quotation from Tennyson’s Ulysses but also in the specially-made insert film that brought together Bond and the Queen for the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
Daniel Craig’s Bond films have rebooted the character of 007. They have disregarded the continuity of the previous films and presented a new Bond for the 21st century. But perhaps they’re veering back into the past again. Familiar characters such as Q and Miss Moneypenny were absent from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace but reintroduced in Skyfall. And the ending of Skyfall – which saw the death of Judi Dench’s M and the casting of Ralph Fiennes as the new Secret Service chief (“So, 007, lots to be done – are you ready to get back to work?”) – seemed to be pressing the reset button. Naming the 24th Bond film Spectre confirms these hints – it seems that the next Bond movie is going to return to more traditional 007 territory.