A short while ago, whilst working through all the James Bond movies, you declared that you were coming to the conclusion that was no such thing as a good Roger Moore Bond film. But I have quite a different take: there’s no such thing as a bad Roger Moore Bond movie - only different ways to appreciate the brilliance of Roger Moore Bond movies. Yes, they are sexist, but markedly less so than Sean Connery Bond movies. Yes, they have content that if filmed today would be outrageously racist, but they were not filmed today and the cringes of hindsight do not undo the gains for cultural inclusion these films may strangely have achieved. Indeed, so much do I rate the late Roger Moore’s stint as Bond that for our first family movie night experience, my wife and I choose these films for my three sons to share with us. Are we mad? Probably. But there is definitely method to our madness and I should like to share that with you without any attempt to persuade you that your perception of these films is mistaken. It is not. I rather suspect you just haven’t the prior experience required to enjoy these particular (very particular!) movies.
My wife is from Tennessee like you (unless I’m mistaken) and comes to Bond on my suggestion having really loved the first (and only the first) Austin Powers film. As such, the Sean Connery Bond movies were a Where’s Waldo? extravaganza for her! “It’s Doctor Evil!” she exclaimed upon seeing Blofeld for the first time because, well, of course it undeniably is. When we finished watching the first Roger Moore outing, Live and Let Die, she declared “I don’t know if that was the best movie I’ve ever seen or the worst.” That is the greatest description - and highest praise! - of Moore’s Bond films I can imagine. For you must be able to enjoy bad movies for what they are good at to love Moore as Bond. The 1981 Clash of the Titans is quite the same; it’s a masterpiece. It’s also a cinematic dumpster fire with LA Law’s Harry Hamlin totally unable to anchor his own action movie and upstaged quite inevitably by Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion menagerie.
This brings me to the first reason to love these films: Derek Meddings. A special effects genius at a time when such things required immense practical skill, Meddings is best known for his amazing work with Sylvia and Gerry Anderson on their incredible Supermarionation shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. My boys and I are working through these on Saturday mornings (along with classic Doctor Who), and are currently enjoying Stingray. Meddings contributed model work to five of the seven Moore Bond films, and was Oscar-nominated for Moonraker. You can spot a Meddings model shot from a mile away, although I do wonder if you have to have watched those classic 1960s sci-fi puppet shows to truly appreciate the craft involved. Appreciation flows from our prior experience; I never appreciated shot composition until I watched Seven Samurai, still my favourite film of all time. But Kurosawa movies are brilliant in almost every way. That’s not what Moore’s tenure as Bond is about. Meddings work carries a lot of appeal for me, holding the same joy as a beautiful matte painting, which is so much more wonderful than anything you can do in CGI to my eyes. I’m so delighted Meddings won an Oscar for his work on the 1978 Superman film. He was to miniature shots what Harryhausen was to stop-motion: a legend.
Neither is Meddings the only such mythic cinematic contributor to these films. John Barry, perhaps the greatest and most influential orchestral film composer Britain has produced, does some of his best work during Moore’s run, although his work with Shirley Bassey is more striking in the earlier Bond films and his magnum opus is arguably Louis Armstrong’s "All the Time in the World" from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which I believe we both rate highly as a Bond film). I think, on balance, his score for that movie and for You Only Live Twice are a head and shoulders above his work for Roger Moore, but the British Film Institute did pick up on the score for Moonraker as one of Barry's ten best. I personally think videogame orchestral scores almost always draw from Barry when they are not instead stealing from John Williams. But the significantly insignificant difference here is that John Barry is British.
This British connection is important. Unlike my wife, I’m British, quite the mongrel actually - half English, quarter Scottish, with Italian and Belgian bloodlines also in my family history too. Roger Moore is the most British of all the Bonds, and his movies are so intimately caught up in British culture that comedian Steve Coogan could write a comedy scene in which his most enduring character (Alan Partridge from The Day to Day) recites verbally the entire opening sequence to The Spy Who Loved Me - including those lurid Maurice Binder titles - in an utterly hilarious irritable deadpan. It's worth noting, then, that Moore was the first English Bond. Connery? Scottish. Lazenby? Australian (not British). And afterwards: Dalton? Welsh. Brosnan? Irish (not British). It's only when we get to Craig that we get English again. And what a step down that is, from Moore to Craig - although presumably not for you!
Britain, of course, has an extremely chequered history from its time as a world power, which peaked in the nineteenth century, just as the United States' empire is peaking seems to be peaking in the twenty first. In 1973, when Live and Let Die arrived, Britons (especially the English, but not only...) were rather struggling to get to grips with the reality that whiteness is not Britishness. This was especially the case with respect to the burgeoning West Indian population - half a million arrived between 1948 and 1970 seeking jobs, which they were expressly invited to emigrate for but whose welcome was not always (or indeed often) warm. But there were still vanishingly few black actors on TV in the 70s. Doctor Who is one of a rather short list of shows to have had multiple black actors in key roles by Moore's debut. Britons were simply not used to watching black people in 1973. And then here is Live and Let Die - a suave, black supervillain, multiple black henchmen all with great charm - and none more so than dancer Geoffrey Holder as the quite literally marvellous Baron Samadhi. And black allies who are there for something more than just being killed! The message to spellbound Brits watching was that black people can be spies and criminal masterminds, just like white people. Yes, there’s massive influence from Blaxploitation films at work here. But the benefits for British cultural integration should not be underestimated.
So too with Vijay Amritraj and Kabir Bedi in Octopussy. Okay, we have to endure every cringe-inducing Indian cultural stereotype imaginable - but at a time when the Indian population of Great Britain were almost entirely invisible on recorded media, here is a film saying Hindus and Silkhs can be spies and superpowered villains too. The location shots from Udaipur are among the greatest in the entire Bond movie run, although as with the miniatures shots I mentioned above it takes a certain kind of film appreciator to enjoy location shots independently of their role in the narrative. Still, watching Amritraj pal up with Moore sends a clear message that Indian people can be superspies too - and that counts for something. Please do not underestimate these gains because they are tied up with casual racism... acceptance that Britishness need not entail whiteness begins with films like these, and while I do not know what black and Asian people in the 1970s made of them, the predominantly white audience for the movies here in the UK were, I suggest, subtly and positively affected by the inclusion of heroes and villains of colour. Even if these actors were not themselves British, they opened doors in the media industries for black and Asian actors who were.
What of Moore himself? Here we cannot tell any story without first acknowledging the centrality of Sean Connery to the Bond mythos. He embodies the phrase that was ironically said (by film critic Raymond Mortimer) in connection with the first Eon Productions Bond movie without Connery: "James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets." This is of course a problematic claim unless it is preceded with the phrase “in the imagination of men...” Which men? Why, 1960s stereotype men of course who, on the basis of Connery’s Bond, fantasise about striking women across the face so that they will then want to have sex with them - something Connery’s Bond does with embarrassing frequency.
But not so Roger Moore’s Bond. Whilst still sexist by contemporary standards, his version of the iconic character is markedly more respectful of women in that his technique for attracting women isn't to physically abuse them. Clearly, Bond is still at heart an adolescent power fantasy - but what action hero is not? More than that, Moore’s Bond isn’t just a fantasy for teenage boys, he is emotionally a teenage boy - with his distinguishing feature being that unlike any actual teenager he is written with the skills, gadgets, and sheer luck to actually succeed at everything instead of merely falsely believing that they would do so. Moore’s Bond is an absurdly dangerous teenage boy in a man’s body, who is always inches away from death by misadventure but is repeatedly saved by script immunity or, more often as not, by the magical science provided by Q’s gadgets.
Moore’s casting was not any kind of accident. His quasi-predecessor, George Lazenby, had the fatal flaw of not being Sean Connery, while Moore had the immense benefit of not being George Lazenby. Moore was chosen precisely because he had already shown himself more than capable of playing a gentleman spy, having done so as Leslie Charteris' 1920s hero Simon Templar in the TV show of The Saint, which aired from 1962 to 1969. Templar is a thief not a secret agent as such, but he is still very much part of the spy thriller genre broadly construed. And like Moore’s Templar, Moore’s Bond is impossibly skilled, implausibly righteous (yet never quite good, per se), and bucks authority with a glint in his eye, an impish grin, and more than a few raised eyebrows. Transplanting Moore into the Albert R. Brocolli film series was a safety play - and boy, did it work! The movie series’ success grew substantially during Moore’s tenure - he even got to ‘win’ against Connery in the much publicized ‘Bond vs Bond’ box office duel of 1983, when Octopussy outgrossed Never Say Never Again.
What I love most about Moore’s dangerous teenager is that quite unlike the brutal, emotionally stunted Bond of Daniel Craig, or the woman-beating Bond of Connery, Moore’s Bond is always respectful to those serving in the military (but never entirely to the civil command, which Bernard Lee's and Judi Dench's M represent) and largely avoids being a murderer - except for two instances, which apparently Moore himself was vehemently opposed to. Yes, enemies are killed, but largely in self-defence. Moore’s Bond is a warrior with honour, something quite unthinkable in contemporary cinema without transplanting the story back in time more than a hundred years. In the twenty first century, our spies and military are now permitted to murder even our own citizens with unquestioned yet utterly questionable impunity. But Moore’s Bond has an ethic to his spycraft that is as unrealistic as the magical science of his gadgets, but that makes him far easier to love because we somehow want to believe that spies could be this noble, even though we know they are not.
As I said at the outset, it’s not my intent to convert you to Moore, but rather to show how Moore’s Bond is tied up with British culture in a way that Connery’s Bond really isn’t (although some of his filthiest puns - penned by children's author Roald Dahl for Your Only Live Twice - require a grounding in British schoolboy humour to appreciate). Connery (Scottish) and Brosnan (Irish) are the most Americanized Bonds - and very enjoyable for it! But Moore is quintessentially English, his Britishness rooted in Oxbridge, the Officers’ Training Corps, and London gentlemen’s clubs (by which I do not mean strip clubs!). As problematic as this may be in retrospect - the false equation of Britishness with Englishness being a papering over of the aforementioned whiteness problem - it has an inherent charm that is also part of the appeal of Sherlock Holmes, another quintessentially English hero with magical science at his disposal.
I love Moore’s Bond, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of why in this short missive - why, I haven't even mentioned how they let the always astonishing Grace Jones design her own wardrobe in 1985's A View to a Kill, which must surely be the greatest costumes ever seen in a franchise known for its outlandish clothing. There's so much to adore in these films once you let them beguile you, but I think appreciating Moore as Bond requires either an openness to archaic Englishness as an aspect of Britishness (which is also helpful for appreciating classic Doctor Who), or an ability to enjoy an action movie purely as a pulp romp and not as cinema, per se. The Moore Bond movies may indeed be bad films, but they are among the greatest bad films ever made. It has been a pleasure sharing them with my three young boys, and I hope in writing this letter that I can give you at least a glimpse of why that might be so.
Please continue to be the good and excellent person you are, and to write about films, games, and whatever else you choose to discuss. If you should find the time to reply, I would love to hear your thoughts on any of this, or indeed on the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, which I personally view in quite similar ways, as allowing a vast raft of phenomenal black musical talent a cinematic spotlight they could never have had at that time without teaming up with white comedians.
With love and respect,
Comments and further blog-letters are always welcome!