"That's Detente, Comrade"- An Essay on For Your Eyes Only

Here we go with part III of the essay series, this time topically coinciding with For Your Eyes Only's forty-ninth anniversary later this week...

“That’s Détente Comrade”- An Essay on For Your Eyes Only

As the Eighties dawned, the James Bond series was experiencing one of its strongest periods of critical and commercial acclaim. The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 and Moonraker in 1979 had provided the franchise with its most sure-fire financial hits in years, bolstering the long-term stability of the films’ place in cinematic and public memory after the middling, at best, reception of 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun. In particular, Moonraker was ultimately able to achieve a total box-office return of over $210 million against a production budget of $34 million, a staggering revolution in both influence and profits for a series decried as approaching its last legs only five years before. Though retrospective appraisals tend to highlight the film’s leaping dive into the waters of self-parody, not least the recollections of scriptwriter Richard Maibaum: “we went too far into the outlandish…Roger spoofed too much”, at the time high-profile critics were more impressed. Vincent Canby of the New York Times dubbed the instalment “one of the most buoyant Bond films of all.”, and he was joined by Frank Rich of Time’s boundless enthusiasm: “a film that is truly entertaining as only mindless spectacle can be.” It appeared that the Bond series’ global success had been confidently re-established, and the natural next step was to build on the amiable humour and immense sweeping scale that made Moonraker such a widespread triumph. However, as the next Bond film proved, the expansively outlandish flourishes of Moonraker would be impossible to sustain. Foremost, the sheer nature of the ridiculous plotting of the 1979 film discouraged attempts at repetition; second, world events of the late 1970s acted to encourage a committed return to the Cold War politics that had defined Bond’s literary origins more than twenty-five years earlier.

In June 1981, For Your Eyes Only was released, and it was clear that advances in the global political situation since Moonraker’s premiere in the summer of 1979 had effectively informed the noticeably serious tonal leanings of the most recent Bond adventure. Throughout the Seventies, the relative importance of the Cold War in the screen Bond’s escapades had diminished considerably. Whereas tensions between superpowers in the realm of the increasingly competitive ‘Space Race’ had been exploited to provide the story for 1967’s You Only Live Twice, since that point onward the presence of high rivalry between East and West gradually diminished in terms of representation in the Bond films. Diamonds Are Forever and Live And Let Die entirely ignore the evolving international relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, while The Spy Who Loved Me mines a rich seam of character interaction from the scenario of Bond having to team up with a Soviet counterpart, Anya Amasova, in order to tackle the greater threat of Stromberg’s twisted schemes to transform the Earth into an underwater kingdom. Spy’s commentary on the Cold War follows the acknowledged détente philosophy of foreign policy championed in Washington at the time, in so far as it involves Bond setting aside such traditional conflicts to work constructively with a former enemy against a newer and more dangerous opponent in the shape of Stromberg’s evil machinations.

However, For Your Eyes Only pits Bond against the Soviet Union directly in the form of turncoat Greek smuggler and Russian agent Kristatos, as well as the previously friendly K.G.B. chief General Gogol, essentially a comic ally before, yet now recast in the mould of an implacable and resourceful nemesis. This dramatic move is evidently inspired by the global developments of the past few years. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, decisively ending hopes of maintaining positive relations between East and West based on mutual conditions of cooperation and trust. In one swoop the assumptions that had governed Western ruling attitudes towards the Soviet Union since the late 1960s were shattered. Six months earlier, President Jimmy Carter had hugged Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on camera, a clear public declaration of strong working bonds as well as reflecting on the generally affable direction in which U.S. foreign policy was moving. This show of personal diplomacy itself built on the goodwill created when President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975, a treaty binding the United States and the Soviet Union to promises of greater collaboration in the future. In particular, one clause agreed at Helsinki invited both parties to respect “the inviolability of frontiers”- an arrangement obviously endangered by the Soviet Union’s invasion of sovereign Afghan territory on Christmas Day 1979. This individual action provoked a ferocious response in Western capitals. Carter gravely condemned the aggression in bleak terms as “the most serious threat to world peace since World War II” and set about organising increased military spending rounds in the US Senate. Following Carter’s ousting in the 1980 election and replacement by the Republican Ronald Reagan, such words and deeds continued to dramatically intensify in significance. In 1980, for example, Reagan warned that the Soviet Union “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat…” and further enlarged the scope of funds destined for the US Army, including the deployment of nuclear weapons stationed at home and abroad. Compared to the stable consensus in play for much of the Seventies, the Cold War was now looking distinctly hot and unpredictable again.

In this context, it is notable that a particular distinguishing feature of For Your Eyes Only sets it apart; the Soviet Union is exclusively depicted as the primary villain, a portrayal unique in the Bond series. In no other cinematic Bond adventure is the Soviet leadership and its secret service, represented by the persona of General Gogol, shown to be such a malicious and antagonistic force. Whereas other Bond films, such as Octopussy or The Living Daylights, involve solitary Soviet agents or generals, they are usually established as renegades, ‘lone wolf’ characters behaving outside of the normal structures of Russian power; for example, the treacherous General Orlov is eventually shot dead while escaping from the clutches of Soviet border soldiers. On the other hand, in For Your Eyes Only the ultimate enemy for Bond to overcome is the Soviet government itself, and this ensures that the plotting of this instalment stands alone within the wider franchise. There are no power-crazed megalomaniacs or grandiose SPECTRE masterplans to foil, no fortified volcano lairs or space stations to be stormed at the climax. Indeed, the lack of cartoonish excess is signalled from the pre-title sequence in which Bond must take down a hijacker resembling Blofeld, dropping the cat-wielding foe into a large chimney to fall into the dark depths of murkily unresolved legal purgatory.

This strand of relative restraint can be glimpsed in the film’s nominal main ‘Bond villain’, the softly spoken Aristotle Kristatos, whose low-stakes ambitions involve recovering a naval computer. This plot focus on a single piece of gadgetry, eschewing the futuristic laser battles and spaceflights of Moonraker, brings the story back to basics with a limited and straightforward narrative. Kristatos himself lacks the physical quirks of Blofeld or Scaramanga, or the global prestige of Goldfinger or Largo’s world-shaping schemes. Rather than being larger than life, Julian Glover’s underplayed performance as Kristatos evokes precisely the opposite effect for the viewer, a villain whose deliberately bland demeanour masks an icy ruthlessness, representing an effective subversion of expectations. For example, his chosen method of despatching Bond, a brutal keelhauling, is just as menacing and gruesome as an industrial laser or incineration under the exhausts of a launching shuttle. The central focus on a cabal of relatively grounded Soviet villainy harkens back to Fleming’s From Russia With Love, a welcome nod to Bond’s origins as the film series approached its twentieth anniversary in 1982. Most importantly, the result is that the screen James Bond is cast – for the first and arguably only time- as the archetypal Cold Warrior, taking on the cultural mantle of a protecting guardian at a point when doubts over the safety and security of the Western democracies were at their height.

This general increase in realism, however, clashes at points with the random blundering of typically Moore-esque humour, especially the sequences of Bond receiving a vital clue to completing his mission from the words of a talkative parrot. This phenomenon, present throughout the film, reaches its apex with For Your Eyes Only’s ludicrous final scenes, in which Margaret Thatcher, lampooned in broad caricature by Janet Brown, attempts to congratulate Bond on the commendable accomplishment of recovering the ATAC device. This is noteworthy as the only time the Bond films have explicitly depicted a real politician involved in the course of Bond’s adventures- usually, generic references are made in dialogue to ‘the Prime Minister’ or ‘the President’, and we are not graced with comparable cameo appearances by Harold Wilson’s pipe in Thunderball or John Major’s spectacles in GoldenEye. This scene, then, is less a strangely timed party political broadcast than a contemporary commentary on the unique nature of Thatcher’s achievement as the only female leader elected to govern in the Western world, again emphasising just how strongly For Your Eyes Only comes across as a product of the politics of the time- making this entry one of the less escapist Bond films, and more grounded in the news headlines of the day than perhaps any before it.

In conclusion, For Your Eyes Only manages to retain a sense of duality, offering the expected accoutrements of car and ski chases, yet this paraphernalia is filtered through a more realistic lens in terms of both vehicles (the Citroen 2CV) and gadgets (Q limits his inventions here to computer ID software and a false beard, rather than underwater Lotuses and gondolas that can travel on land.) Similarly, the globetrotting conventions of international espionage play out against a backdrop of Cold War paranoia that informs the mechanics of the plot to a greater degree than ever before or since. All of these elements work to provide a Bond film heavily dependent on the world politics of the time, gritty but also laced with moments of trademark wit in the form of Moore’s breezy humour. In the end, For Your Eyes Only delivers a smooth combination of Bond ingredients that echoes back to Fleming as well as reaching forwards to Craig, ensuring that audiences in 1981 experienced a topical and thrilling re-statement of the classic formula that, perhaps, stands on reflection as a contender for the title of Moore’s best Bond film.

Any other thoughts on the serious plot/villain/contrast with Moonraker/overall 'basic' approach of the film?


  • BIG TAMBIG TAM Wrexham, North Wales, UK.Posts: 768MI6 Agent
    Another good essay. I'm not sure Maibaum & Wilson would have had their scripting chores determined by world events. They were more likely left with a couple of short stories to cobble together, framing them with a FRWL Lektor-style MacGuffin. And consciously bring it all down to earth after MOONRAKER's outer space exploits. But it's an interesting notion & worth exploring. I went off the film for a time (Bond & co chasing after a typewriter?) but I like it more now. Moore's presence is comforting (& once more under-rated), the action flows breezily & the narrative isn't over-complicated. John Glen's direction could be a bit more imaginative & a couple of gags are laboured but it puts its feet more times right than wrong. I like it.
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