50 years ago today on October 5th, 1963, “Dr. No,” a fairly low-budget, modest spy thriller starring a Scottish actor known for the Disney film “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” was released in the U.K. The film was an immediate success, taking £840,000 in its first two weeks, and ending up the fifth most successful film of the year in Britain. It continued to be a hit across the world, not least in the U.S., where it received the approval of John F. Kennedy and had seen the source novels by Ian Fleming become bestsellers. Ultimately, the film made nearly $60 million worldwide.
That was, as you’re probably aware by now, only the beginning. Over the past half-century, the James Bond franchise has stretched to 23 official films (plus 1967’s “Casino Royale” and “Never Say Never Again,” two unofficial ones made possible by rights complexities), and taken $5 billion worldwide, making it second only to “Harry Potter” as the most successful film series of all time.
But it wasn’t a simple task bringing Bond to the screen in the first place. With today being designated as Bond Day thanks to the 50th anniversary, and hotly-anticipated latest installment “Skyfall” only a few weeks away, we thought we’d mark the occasion by taking you through 007’s journey from the germ of an idea in the mind of author (and former spy) Ian Fleming, through aborted early attempts to make a Bond movie, to the arrival of “Dr. No” fifty years ago today.
1. Fleming’s Early Life
Bond’s creator might be slightly less famous than 007, but his life before turning to spy novels was colorful enough that Duncan Jones, director of “Moon” and “Source Code,” is currently prepping a biopic of Fleming, and there’s more than enough material for a rollicking adventure to sit alongside any Bond movies. Fleming was born the scion of a wealthy banking family on May 28,1908. Within two years, his father, Valentine, would be elected Member of Parliament for Henley, but joined the Army at the start of World War I and was killed on the Western Front on May 20, 1917 (his obituary in The Times was written by none other than Winston Churchill).
At this point, Fleming had already been sent to a boarding prep school on an island off the Dorset coast and in 1921 he (like Bond) went on to the prestigious Eton College school. Bond, according to the novels, was expelled after “girl trouble” at the age of 13, while Fleming just about managed to see the school out, although he clashed with his headmaster due to his girl-chasing and owning a car. Fleming left Eton a term early to head to Sandhurst’s Royal Military College (which trains officers for the British army), but left after a year when he contracted gonorrhea (a bullet that 007 has somehow dodged so far).
He studied at universities in Munich and Geneva in the late 1920s and early 1930s, briefly becoming engaged to a Swiss woman named Monique Panchaud de Bottomes in 1931 (breaking it off when his mother, who by now was the mistress of artist Augustus John, disapproved). Returning to the U.K., Fleming failed the entrance exam to the foreign office, but eventually got a job as a journalist for news agency Reuters, being sent to Moscow on assignment in 1933. Later that year, however, he moved into the family trade, starting up an unsuccessful career in banking.
2. Fleming The Spy
When the Second World War got underway in 1939, Fleming (who’d recently begun an affair with Ann Charteris, the wife of Baron O’Neill) was recruited by Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence (the forerunner of MI6), and given the codename 17F. Fleming impressed quickly (he was promoted to Commander — later 007’s rank — after only a few months), and as the war got underway, he became increasingly important in planning operations, thanks to the so-called Trout Memo, in which Fleming suggested a number of schemes where German ships could be lured to minefields. One of his most prized plans was Operation Ruthless, in which a captured German bomber crewed by a British crew in German uniform would be deliberately crashed into the English Channel, in order to steal an Enigma machine. The operation was planned, but called off when a suitable German ship couldn’t be found.
Far more successful, and more famous, was Operation Mincemeat. Deriving from one of Fleming’s suggestions in the Trout Memo and inspired by a detective novel by former intelligence officer Basil Thompson, the plan (conceived by Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley) was to divert attention from the Allied invasion of Sicily by planting false documents on a dead body suggesting that Corsica, Sardinia and Greece were the actual targets. The plan worked (a Welsh man, Glyndwr Michael, who had died from rat poison, was used as the bait), and later became the subject of the book and film “The Man Who Never Was.”
By this point, Fleming wasn’t directly involved in the operation — he’d been put in charge of Operation Golden Eye, a scheme to shore up intelligence in Spain in case of German invasion (and which Fleming would later borrow the title of for his home in Jamaica, which would itself inspire the 17th Bond film, “GoldenEye“). Perhaps more crucially, he’d also founded in 1942 a commando group called 30 Assault Unit, whose job was to join the front line of an attack and secure key intelligence documents from enemy hands. The group was a huge success, inspiring another similar one called T-Force, although Fleming was unpopular with his men, who he referred to as “Red Indians,” and was replaced as the head of the group in June 1944 as the D-Day landings got underway. His time with the group has already inspired one film, the rather dismal “Age of Heroes” last year starring Sean Bean, Danny Dyer and James D’Arcy as Fleming.
3. The Birth Of Bond
After the war, Fleming joined the Kelmley newspaper group, who owned, among others, the Sunday Times, overseeing their network of foreign correspondents as well as writing articles for the paper. One condition was that he would take three months holiday every year in Jamaica where he’d built his new home, and where Ann Charteris (whose husband had died in the war, and who’d since married Viscount Rothermere, the chairman of Associated Newspapers, who she’d been sleeping with at the same time as Fleming before the war) would continue to visit him to continue their affair. She gave birth to a stillborn daughter by Fleming in 1948, and finally divorced Rothermere in 1951, marrying Fleming the following year. Not that that stopped their extramarital dabblings: Ann had a long affair with Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour party (the British opposition party), and Fleming romanced Blanche Blackwell in Jamaica, whose son Chris would go on to found Island Records.
Fleming had talked about writing a spy novel since the war, but finally settled down to start work in February 1952, to distract himself from his upcoming nuptials with Ann. His central character was inspired by a number of real-life figures: his beloved older brother Peter (who’d served as a spy during the war and was married to “Brief Encounter” star Celia Johnson); the amazingly named spy Conrad O’Brien-French, who Fleming had met while skiing; commando Patrick Dalzel-Job, who’d been a member of 30 Assault Unit; MI6 agent Biffy Dunderdale; adventurer, author and aristocrat Fitzroy Maclean; and playboy double agent Dusan Popov. The name, James Bond, however, came from an American ornithologist who was an expert on the birds of the Caribbean.
As for the plot of the first novel, “Casino Royale,” which revolved around an attempt to bankrupt Le Chiffre, the paymaster of a trade union controlled by Soviet counterintelligence organization SMERSH, in a high stakes game of baccarat, it too was inspired by a real incident. Supposedly Fleming had accompanied Admiral Godfrey on a trip to Portugal during the war, and claimed he had been “cleaned out” by a German agent, something that Godfrey later disputed. “Casino Royale” was published in Britiain on April 13, 1953, with the first print run selling out in a month, although its success wasn’t at first mirrored in the U.S., the book selling only 4,000 copies when it was published in 1954.
4. Bond On TV
Despite the book flopping in the U.S. initially, it came to the attention of CBS, who bought the rights to turn it into an episode of their new anthology series “Climax Mystery Theater.” Scripted by Anthony Ellis and Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett (“The 39 Steps,” “Sabotage“), the 48-minute live broadcast saw 007 become Jimmy Bond, an American agent working for Combined Intelligence, while his American colleague Felix Leiter became Brit Clarence Leiter. American actor Barry Nelson (who’d later play the hotel manager who interviews Jack Nicholson in “The Shining“) became the first actor to play Bond, while in a perfect piece of casting, character actor favorite Peter Lorre played villain Le Chiffre.
Few paid much attention to the broadcast, but as the books gathered more of a following, CBS became keen for another try, and four years later, hired Fleming to write a series of outlines for 32 episodes over two years of a James Bond series. Plans never developed much further, however, and Fleming turned four of these outlines — “From A View To A Kill,” “For Your Eyes Only,” “Risico” and “The Hildebrand Rarity” — into short stories, compiled in the anthology “For Your Eyes Only” (a fifth story was an odd, action-free homage to W. Somerset Maugham, which would lend its title to the 22nd Bond film, “Quantum of Solace”).
This wasn’t Fleming’s first flirtation with the small screen, however: in 1956, he’d teamed up with producer Henry Morgenthau III to write a script for a TV series called “Commander Jamaica,” about a British agent in the West Indies named James Gunn, who faces off against a sinister Chinese adversary. Again, it never came to anything, but Fleming was never one to waste material, and James Gunn would later resurface under a very different guise…
In the same year as the CBS series became a possibility, Fleming started to get attention from elsewhere in Hollywood. Producer Gregory Ratoff bought the film rights to “Casino Royale” in March 1958, although it mostly languished quietly, although according to Todd McCarthy‘s biography, Howard Hawks considered making it with Cary Grant as Bond.
Instead, Fleming decided to take 007’s filmic destiny into his own hands, teaming up with friends Ivar Bryce, Ernest Cuneo and Irish writer/director Kevin McClory to found Xanadu Productions, with the purpose of coming up with an original Bond tale for the silver screen. An outline for the film — the mooted titles for which included “SPECTRE,” “James Bond Of The Secret Service” and “Longitude 78 West” — came together quickly, involving the hijacking of a plane full of celebrities (it changed in subsequent drafts, when writer Jack Whittingham was brought on). But when McClory’s film “The Boy And The Bridge” was released to mediocre reviews, Fleming became disillusioned and drew away from the project.
Still, he eventually approved a draft at the end of 1959, and said he’d take it to MCA. Nothing materialized, and the following year, Fleming wrote a novelization of the unfilmed script, which was to be released the following year. When McClory read an advance copy in March 1961, he launched a legal action to stop publication. It made it to bookstores regardless, but the case came to court in November 1963. Fleming had a heart attack during the case, and was persuaded to settle out of court, with McClory winning literary and film rights to “Thunderball,” which came to screens in 1965 (the reason that unofficial Sean Connery-starring entry “Never Say Never Again,” a remake of “Thunderball” came to pass, and McClory tried to get a third version, “Warhead,” set up at Sony in the 1990s with Liam Neeson mooted to play Bond and Roland Emmerich directing). Fleming died nine months after the case was wrapped up.
6. “Dr. No”
Long before the “Thunderball” legal wranglings were nominally wrapped up (lawsuits would fly back and forth for the next thirty years), Bond had finally made it to the big screen. Producer Harry Saltzman had picked up the rights to most of the Bond books in the late 1950s, but had no real intention of doing anything with them at first. It was only when Cubby Broccoli approached him wanting to buy the rights that things moved forward: the two agreed to form a partnership to get the film made, setting up a pair of companies, Danjaq (which controlled the rights) and Eon (which made the films).
The pair initially wanted to make “Thunderball” as the first film, but the legal troubles forced them to look at “Dr. No,” Fleming’s 1958 novel, which had grown out of his “Commander Jamaica” script — problematic rocket testing at Cape Canaveral having made it unexpectedly topical. The duo hired Richard Maibaum (the forgotten creator of the Bond franchise, who would go on to write on almost all of the films until his death in 1991, and essentially created the formula for the movies) and his friend Wolf Mankowitz to write a script. The first draft, which turned the titular villain into a monkey, was rejected, but after Mankowitz left the project (he’d later ask for his credit to be removed after viewing rushes for the film), the script came into shape thanks to doctoring from spy novelist Berkely Mather and Johanna Harwood.
At that point, they begun to seek out directors, with Guy Green (“The Angry Silence,”), Guy Hamilton (who’d go on to direct four Bond movies, including “Goldfinger“), Val Guest (“The Day The Earth Caught Fire“) and Ken Hughes (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang“) among the directors who turned the film down. Terence Young (“Too Hot To Handle“) eventually got the job and would go on to direct the next two installments as well.
But finding a director was always going to be easy compared to finding someone to fill Bond’s tuxedo. Cary Grant was again mooted, along with “The Prisoner” star Patrick McGoohan, David Niven (who’d later play the part in “Casino Royale“) and Richard Johnson (“The Haunting“), while Fleming himself was said to favor real-life war hero Richard Todd (“The Dam Busters,” “Saint Joan“). When a public contest failed to turn up a viable candidate (the acting talents of the winner, model Peter Anthony, were said to be questionable), the producers turned to Scottish actor Sean Connery, who’d starred a few years earlier in Disney film “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.”
With Bond in place, things were almost there — Ursula Andress was cast as the first Bond girl, Honey Ryder, after Julie Christie was deemed to be not “voluptuous” enough. Filming got underway in Jamaica in January 1962 before heading to what would become the traditional home of the Bond films, Pinewood Studios, on a relatively meager budget of $1 million (production designer Ken Adams had only £20,000 to work with), and the film wrapped at the end of March. Barely six months later, the film was in theaters.