This year James Bond, the dapper British super-spy with a taste for violence and sex, turns 50, and in celebration of this momentous achievement a new deluxe Blu-ray box set is being released, a new film premieres in theaters this fall (“Skyfall” from “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes) and a new documentary, “Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007,” debuts on the Epix channel. Fifty years of thorny history snappily condensed into less than two hours is a challenge worthy of James Bond himself, but miraculously the filmmakers (including director Stevan Riley), have done the impossible. The result is a story full of just as much intrigue, suspense, and heartache as in your typical spy yarn. The difference is: this all really happened.
The film starts off as a kind of biography of Ian Fleming, a hard-drinking, pill-popping veteran of World War II and, at the time of the first novel’s creation, a disaffected journalist dealing with what the British would describe as a “dreadful bout of melancholia.” Although he was involved in the war (and, in the documentary, his distant cousin and one-time Bond villain Christopher Lee claims he had a literal “license to kill”), by all accounts he was more of a policy wag than an actual soldier. Instead he synthesized stories that he had heard from his compatriots and mixed in a liberal dose of his own insatiable sexual appetite and sadomasochistic fantasies. The final result was the first 007 novel, “Casino Royale,” written in a terse, hard-boiled prose that combined his journalistic background with pulp sensibilities, that was described by one of his friends in the film as “an autobiography of a dream.”
Fleming thought that Bond was destined for cinematic immortality, but the studios were not so sure. They found the material too overwhelmingly crass and sexual and, after a failed attempt on TV (wherein a dull American actor played “Jimmy Bond”), Fleming grew even more despondent. He still cranked out the novels but was leaning more frequently on the drugs and alcohol, while losing faith that the character would ever get the adaptation he deserved. Finally, Fleming found Harry Saltzman, a producer who desperately wanted to produce the films despite the fact that he couldn’t get anyone interested in putting up the money (again they said it was too expensive and violent and sexy). As the clock started to tick away on his option, Saltzman was approached by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, a brash American producer who had money and connections and loved the Bond character fiercely (he had tried, earlier and unsuccessfully, to gain the rights from Fleming); together they forged a deal and convinced United Artists to put up the budget for the first James Bond movie, “Dr. No.”
The relationship between Broccoli and Saltzman is the heart of the documentary, which is named after their production company Eon. These were two men who loved life and loved each other and loved James Bond. Throughout the documentary you watch as they stand by an unknown actor (Sean Connery) for the role, only to do battle with him later (in a late night appearance Johnny Carson asks him who the first James Bond villain was and he shoots back, “Cubby Broccoli”). Outside forces, too, threatened their beloved secret agent, most damningly a man named Kevin McClory, a vicious and embittered man from Fleming’s shadowy past who claimed that on a single drunken evening he and Fleming created the James Bond character and loosely crafted the story that would eventually form the novel “Thunderball.” If the story of James Bond has a single super villain, then it would be McClory, who mercilessly went after Broccoli and Saltzman, eventually winning the rights to remake “Thunderball” as “Never Say Never Again,” wooing Connery back to the James Bond character after the official productions had gone with Roger Moore. (“Octopussy,” released several months before “Never Say Never Again,” won at the box office and proved that there was a special alchemy in creating a successful Bond movie that extended beyond the casting of its lead.)
‘Everything Or Nothing’ moves at a quick clip, going through the initial set up of the franchise (the production designer described the postwar art movement in England as “like having an orgasm”), to the changes in the guard as one actor fell away and was replaced by another. Particularly fascinating is a prolonged section on George Lazenby, the Australian actor who charmed his way into the part by getting his haircut by the same guy who cut Connery’s and conning his way into the Eon production office. At one point Broccoli and Saltzman were worried that Lazenby was a homosexual so they sent a girl up to his hotel room to make sure he’d fuck her (yes, this is true).
Sometimes the documentary moves a little too quickly – there isn’t any real room for a critical evaluation of each leg of the series. Blame seems to shift away from the quality of the actual movies into outside factors. For instance, the fact that the Roger Moore movies quickly deteriorated into broadly farcical high camp is something that is never addressed, and the fact that Pierce Brosnan was replaced, after four successful films, in part due to the amount of Moore-like pastiche that was seeping into his films, is instead shuttered to focus on the franchise’s relevance after 9/11. Director Riley and his collaborators are more than happy to let the actors evaluate their respective legs of the series, with Timothy Dalton fiercely defending his two ink-black entries in the franchise and Brosnan laughing that he couldn’t remember which film is which, “I only remember ‘GoldenEye,’ the rest is a blur.” Us too, Pierce, us too.
Much of the minutiae of the James Bond mythology, too, is hardly addressed. If you’re looking for stories or anecdotes on the various Bond girls (and the series’ questionable views on sexuality) or villains, or an analysis of the various opening title sequences and songs, well, look elsewhere. This is all about Bond – the character, the men who played him, and his cultural importance. The documentary is so damn good, though, that you kind of wish Riley and his team would tackle the various aspects of the Bond universe in similarly thorough terms. That would leave us shaken and stirred. [A-]