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The Cultural Impact of James Bond

The Cultural Impact of James Bond

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published May 5, 2015.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond is one of the most recognizable and successful characters in modern popular culture.  The novels have sold over 100 million copies, and the film franchise is the second most successful in history, having been recently displaced by the Harry Potter series.  For most readers and viewers, 007 is merely a Western pop icon. However, there is much more at work in the novels and films than appears on the surface.  In fact, there are deeper undercurrents, themes, symbols, and messages that operate as psychological warfare propaganda and an in-depth semiotic analysis of the novels and films yields an interpretation that confirms this thesis.  Much has been written on the subject of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. From Umberto Eco’s older essay “Narrative Structures in Fleming” to Christoph Linders’ modern collections The James Bond Phenomenon and Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale, there is a wealth of critical work on capitalist/consumerist, imperialist, gender, and racial analyses in the books and films.  In this wealth of criticism, key elements have been ignored that will here be explored.


     The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader features Tony Bennett and Janet Woolacott’s article “The Moments of Bond,” which chronicles the rise of the franchise in terms of marketing and sales as well as the zeitgeist of Western Imperial capitalism and the sixties sexual revolution that propelled Bond to international fame.  Michael Denning’s “Licensed to Look” analyzes the consumerism that fueled Fleming and Bond and the mythical qualities Bond embodies that form a potent combination with the espionage genre.  Denning focuses on “eye” imagery and its utilization by film media as a particularly potent manipulative semiotic device.[1]  Linder offers an overview of criminology and the “global conspiracy” evolution the franchise exemplifies concurrent with the socio-political threats of the respective decades of Bond releases.  Particular attention is given to the Cold War and Bond “saving Britain’s image.”[2]

Even still, from Skyfall, to the coming SPECTRE, 007 plays an important role in fiction, based on real geopolitical espionage.

Even still, from Skyfall, to the coming Spectre, 007 plays an important role in fiction, based on real geopolitical espionage.

Cultural impact studies have been done with James Chapman’s License to Thrill and Edward Comentale’s Ian Fleming and James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007.  Chapman gives an analysis of different elements and themes in choice Bond installments, including the literary setting (detective novels) for Fleming’s early stories, the fact that Bond was first published in Playboy, comparisons of the early films with Alfred Hitchcock’s works, and the oft-repeated attempt to resurrect British Imperialism.  Chapman moves on to consider the reason for the franchise’s success, making no definitive statement about whether “Bondmania” is the result of the zeitgeist or the development and advancement of the film industry, or both.  “Bondmania” was well in place by 1964, and from there, Bond would dominate the sixties and make his way to American theaters, ultimately to become an international icon.  Chapman continues with analysis of the propaganda for imperialism and of Bond as the preeminent Cold Warrior.  Attention is largely given to Bond in comparison with other action films and heroes, but little attention is given to the deeper, mythical elements.

Edward Comentale, Stephen Watt and Skip Willman’s Ian Fleming & James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007 is a collection of articles similar to those of Linder.  Comentale’s article centers around the process of Bond in relation to the rise of corporatism and managerial control.  Bond is an example of modernity and, as such, simultaneously represents a rebellion against hierarchy, and the rise of a new, ensconced hierarchy that turns in on itself and eliminates the avant-garde nature of the early Bond.  The character of Bond becomes the corporate, company man. Comentale’s treatment also highlights the “Fleming Effect,” brought to light in the work of Kingsley Amis (The James Bond Dossier), which is Ian Fleming’s unique method of describing the fantastical in real terms.[3]

Bond has thus been explained from perspectives of imperialism, sexism, and racialism.  Toby Miller in his “James Bond’s Penis” argues that phallocentrism in Fleming functions as a form of propaganda in both book and film.  Joyce Goggin’s and Rene Glas’s “It Just Keeps Getting Bigger: James Bond and the Political Economy of Huge” treats the connection of Bond narratives and their constant presentation of largess and the ever-increasing capitalist consumerism and its obsession with largess. Linder’s “Why Size Matters” works from Slajov Zizek’s view of Blofeld, arguing forcefully that Bond is a representation of global capitalism as a force for the West’s ever-increasing expansionist attitude and wasteful consumption.  Blofeld and the Soviets are defective and thus economically useless, leading Bond and the West to become a force for modern global imperialism.[4] Even here there is still no analysis of the prevalent themes of eugenics, occultism, and phallic homosocial dominance and their interrelationships.[5]

Sexy Bond girls from "You Only Live Twice."

Sexy Bond girls from You Only Live Twice.

Claire Hines contributes to the same collection a comparison of Bond and Sean Connery with the rise of Playboy Magazine and the popularity of both concomitant with the hedonism of the sexual revolution, with Bond adopting a Hugh Hefner image.  At the same time, Playboy was printing Fleming’s stories.  Of particular relevance is Cynthia Baron’s essay “Doctor No: Bonding Britishness to Racial Sovereignty,” which correctly identifies examples of racial supremacy evident in the novels. Baron uses Dr. No as her exemplar, yet, as I will argue, she fails to recognize British eugenics as the real impetus, and she misses Live and Let Die as a more potent example of racial supremacy. Colleen Tremonte and Linda Racioppi analyze the use of Bond’s body and sexuality in “Body Politics and Casino Royale: Gender and (Inter)national Security” in Linder’s collection.  Tremonte and Racioppi correctly associate Bond’s own body as the incarnation of British national imperialism and its identification with the masculine and the identification of the feminine with the “object of desire.”[6]

In “James Bond, Cyborg Aristocrat,” Patrick O’Donnell surveys the interplay between Bond and technology, correctly describing him as more machine than human.  The ever-present technological gadgetry in Bond warns of the determinacy of the displacement of the human with the robotic.  This is useful insofar as Bond is presented as a machine beyond good and evil, which is the argument of Ishay Landa in “James Bond: A Nietzschean for the Cold War.”[7]  This appears contradictory, as Landa portrays Bond as an anti-elitist whose missions are represented as “good” British elitism which thwarts Blofeld’s evil Nieztscheanism.[8] However, Bond is beyond the common man’s binary moral schema, and formulates his own volitional will-to-power morality.  As Bond declares at the close of Casion Royale following upon the death of his love interest, Vesper Lynd: “Pass this on at once: 3030 was a double, working for Redland…..Yes dammit, I said ‘was.’  The bitch is dead now.”[9]

Aaron Jaffe discusses the marketing of brand names and the explosion of Bond memorabilia consumerism in “James Bond, Meta-Brand.”[10]  Product placement itself and advertising become intertwined with the film experience, which can relate directly to the use of psychological warfare and propaganda.  I will argue that along with such manipulation, the character of Bond himself becomes an advertisement for nostalgic British Imperialism.  This is effective in the Bond character because, as Drew Moniot argues, the novels and films are able to “dig deep into the sociological self-conscious of the audience….The screenwriters took every possible opportunity to mirror and satirize this nation’s [America] fears, misgivings, interests, pastimes, and values.”[11]  Moniot concludes the film formula “is cultural; it represents the way in which a culture has embodied both mythical archetypes and its own preoccupations in narrative form.”[12]

Political and espionage-focused analyses are available in Jeremy Black’s James Bond and Political Philosophy.  Black correctly identifies the eugenics theme present, for example in Goldfinger.  He writes:

Goldfinger was personally disordered, with a misproportioned body, not English, a “Balt” with possible Jewish blood, and psychologically warped—in part, Bond feels, due to his short man’s inferiority complex. “Napoleon had been short, and Hitler.  It was the short men that caused all the trouble in the world.”  Such characterization reflected both racialism and crude psychology.  Like much imaginative literature earlier in the century, Fleming had been influenced by the popularity of eugenic assumptions.  Ironically, in Live and Let Die, although the villain’s first name was Buonaparte, Mr. Big had “huge height and bulk.”[13]

Classical Manichaean dialectic, the nemesis Blofeld.

Classical Manichaean dialectic, the nemesis Blofeld.

And later, the Zorin character from A View to Kill states: “In a variant of The Boys From Brazil, he was a product of Nazi eugenics, born in Germany as part of an attempt to create a race of superhumans.  This, at once, links him with Drax, another manipulator of genetics.”[14]  Black’s passing references deserve a more indepth treatment of eugenics in the Bond novels, and the connection with psychological warfare. MoonrakerOn Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Live and Let Die are of particular relevance for eugenic considerations.

From a literary perspective, when Fleming’s secret agent first appeared, he did not have a favorable critical appraisal. This changed when world-renowned literary critic, semiotician, and author Umberto Eco analyzed Fleming’s novels,[15] giving them attention in academic literary circles.  Eco’s analysis helped gain them literary respectability, at the same time hinting at deeper meanings and subtle clues about the Manichaean structures and other patterns they contain, such as the “purifying process” that Bond creates in saving the sexually deviant women, leading to a unification of opposites, yet which leaves the “race uncontaminated.”[16]    This is a crucial eugenics concept. Eco is presently one of the world’s foremost “Bondologists,” demonstrating the popularity of, and thus confirming, the tremendous possibility for utilizing Bond as imperial propaganda.  Prior to such attention, such usage would not originally have seemed possible.[17]

Although Fleming himself hinted at the reality of the Bond stories and these deeper connotations of mystical imperialism,[18] as the films were produced and became increasingly popular, the possibilities for the use of such imagery as propaganda mounted.  Jeremy Black cites the Soviet organ Pravda as a perfect example of the anti-Western view of Bond:

His [Bond’s] creator is Ian Fleming, who posed as The Times correspondent in Russia in 1939 but was in truth a spy for the capitalist nations.  Although he is now dead, James Bond cannot be allowed to die because he teaches those sent to kill in Vietnam, the Congo, and Dominican Republic and many other places.  It is no accident that the sham agents of Soviet couner-intelligence, represented in caricature form, invariably figure in the role of Bond’s opponents, because Bond kills right and left the men Fleming wanted to kill—Russians, Reds, and Yellows.  Bond is portrayed as a sort of white archangel, destroying the impure races.

The Bond cult started in 1963 when American leader John F. Kennedy, unsuspecting that some American hero with the right to kill would shoot him, too, declared that Fleming’s books were his bedside reading.  As if by a magic wand, everyting changed.  The mighty forces of reaction immediately gave the green light to Fleming.  And in James Bond he has created a symbol of the civilization which has used bombs to drown the voice of conscience.  The men and women who allow their talents to be used in the making of films about the exploits of this man are guilty of furthering the aims of the Western Capitalists.[19]

The Soviets were thus prompted by Bond to respond with their own psychological warfare propaganda and analysis in the KGB-run magazine Pravda.  They were also correct in noting the racial and imperial undertones in Bond, yet here fall short of detailing either eugenics, Freemasonry or phallocentrism and their interrelation as the undercurrents.

Fleming’s novels and their film counterparts (especially so) are produced with the intent of illustrating an overarching story of the continuance of the Anglo-Establishment’s mystical, destined world supremacy, even with the historic decline of the British Empire. The narratives include the propaganda tactic of displacement, where immoral acts done by one side are blamed upon the enemy.  This thesis will examine the symbolism of the novel and film versions of Casino Royale, Live and Let DieMoonraker, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for their usage of eugenics, occultism, and phallocentrism.  Since the novels are, in places, a bit different from the films, all four books and films will be analyzed, with an emphasis on Bond as the icon of propaganda.  These four have been chosen as the best examples of occult propaganda for this form of eugenicist imperialism.

Roger Moore as 007 in the 1979 film adaptation, Moonraker.

Roger Moore as 007 in the 1979 film adaptation, Moonraker.

When the novels were adapted to screen, some details are altered for the purpose of historical relevance, and often these changes and details are significant.  The themes of mystical imperialism and Bond as the incarnate overman unify the entire narrative, but it is crucial to actually view the imagery in the films to understand the propaganda and its usage. “Mystical imperialism” is described by researchers Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould as follows (citing the literary example of imperialism par excellance, Rudyard Kipling):

As the end of the nineteenth century approached, that [foreordained British] destinty seemed more and more to favor Britain’s ambitions to empire and and no one better than Rudyard Kipling would capture the longing for conquest and spiritual fulfillment divine right brought with it….On a mystical level, their quests [Peachey and Carnahan of The Man Who Would Be King] to be come kings of Kafiristan brought them into realms more in keeping with the spiritual goal of the British Empire to weave the light of heaven and the darkness of earth together through an earthly conquest.[20]

This mystical warfare between light and dark is mentioned by Eco in his essay as a Manichaean form of dialectical propaganda.[21]  Indeed, Fleming’s Bond novels share the same Freemasonic connections and symbols with those of Kipling.  Historian Niall Ferguson traces the British eugenics movement and its connections to the royal societies and Cecil Rhodes, with support from the Rothschilds, that served in part as the basis for the 19th century British Imperial motivation.[22]  Not only do Ian Fleming’s novels portray this model of white British racial supremacy, but there is evidence to suggest that Fleming himself was influenced by eugenics (as critic Jeremy Black claims above), given the presentation of Bond, as well as the contents of Fleming’s personal library which contained numerous well-known treatises on eugenics and racial supremacy.

Included in Fleming’s private collection are rare editions of the Comte de Gobineau’s four volume Essai sur l’inegalite des races humaines, an early eugenics work; Hitler’s Mein Kampf;  Sir Francis Galton’s Fingerprints, forming the basic outline of British eugenics; and Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Master Race, devoted to Germanic racial supremacy.[23]  Evidence also suggests Fleming’s own special operations groups Assault Unit 30 and T-Force were very likely part of Operations PAPERCLIP and SURGEON, which led to the arrest and utilization of hundreds of Nazi scientists in the United States, England, and Russia, including the inventor of the V-2 rocket, Werner von Braun.[24]  This operation bears striking resemblances to Fleming’s 1955 novel Moonraker, which centers around former SS member Hugo Drax and secret rocket technology. While it is admittedly speculation based upon his personal collection and associations with PAPERCLIP, the tenor of the novels, and Live and Let Die in particular, demonstrate this racialist attitude.

Propaganda and psychological warfare using the arts are nothing more than the manipulation of symbols, and it is highly significant that Ian Fleming worked for years as the British Navy’s Political Warfare Executive, specializing in propanda, psychological warfare and rumors, becoming a “major force in British Intelligence.”[25] The film versions are crucial for semiotics due to the focus on the image of Bond, and that image’s promotion of a certain set of values for consumer consumption, as Michael Denning remarks in his “Licensed to Look: Jamed Bond and the Heroism of Consumption.”  However, to fill a gap in the available research, the thesis of this paper will be that Bond constitutes an iconic embodiment of the British establishment’s belief in its own destined supremacy.  From the time of Elizabeth I and her court astrologer, Dr. John Dee, the first “007,” to Cecil Rhodes and the Royal Society, the British Empire sought to fulfill the national myth of its own destined racial supremacy.[26]  Previous Bond research has not fully examined the philosophical implications of a national narrative that includes the idea of an alchemical, occult summation of a kind of Nietzschean overman, incarnate in the character of Fleming’s Bond.

Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen was written with the intention of exalting Britain as the legitimate successor to the previous world empires.[27]  Greece gave way to Rome, and Rome gave way to Britannia, according to the mythology of the Faerie Queen.  By the 1950s, the era of Fleming, a national hero archetype was needed to serve as a propagandist image of the belief in that perpetual dominance. Critics like Richard Carpenter and Drew Moniot have even comapred Bond to mythological characters like Hercules, with “M” functioing like the high deity and Q (of the Equipment Branch) being a version of Hephaestus.[28]  Bond researcher Philip Gardiner makes a host of claims about Fleming’s interests in the occult, arguing that there are patterns of alchemical and Masonic associations and references purposefully placed in the novels and films.  Gardiner is correct in tracing the lineage of 007 to John Dee[29] in The Bond Code: The Dark World of Ian Fleming and James Bond, and gives a masterful analysis of the occultism in Live and Let Die, but never connects these ideas to propaganda, race and eugenics.

Bond returns in the upcoming SPECTRE.

This occultic, British Imperial message that gradually emerges in the Fleming Bond novels and films.  Fleming himself must also be examined since his was  an upper class family where members worked in British Intelligence and propaganda.  Fleming married into the aristocracy,[30] all of which forms some basis for the character of Bond.[31]  Intelligence agencies have long used media and films for propaganda, from Operation MOCKINGBIRD, to the present day modus operandi of the Pentagon.[32]  The utilization of the Fleming franchise as propaganda was no different when Bond expanded to Hollywood.  I argue that themes such as Western capitalism, secret societies such as Freemasonry, alchemy, racism and eugenics, male social dominance and psychological warfare tactics of displacement (the tactic of blaming one’s own black operations on the enemy) are the crucial purposes and effects of the Bond stories themselves.  What emerges is a specific worldview of British Imperial supremacy with Bond as its alchemical summation—a veritable philosopher’s stone, completing the “great work” that Fleming and those in his aristocratic circles found so fascinating.[33]  MI6 historian and British Intelligence Specialist Dr. Stephen Dorrrill writes:

The modern conception of the world of the secret intelligence services and assassinations derives partly from the fictionalised activities of James Bond.  The licensed-to-kill operative is the model for the secret service agent of the public’s imagination.  While this is fantasy, the former naval Intelligence and one-time MI6 asset Ian Fleming based the plots and details for his 007 books on incidents in his own life and information he picked up during his career in the secret world.  However fantastic the story, there is always an element of truth in Bond.[34]

While it may seem highly speculative to deal with matters that are arguably “conspiratorial,” it should be remembered that the field of espionage is inetricably bound up in conspiracy, and this is no different for espionage fiction.[35]  As Fleming himself famously stated, “Everything I write has precedent in truth.”[36]

  • Jay Dyer


[1]  Denning, “Licensed to Look: James Bond and the Heroism of Consumption,” in The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader, 70-73.

[2]    “Criminal Vision and the Ideology of Detection in Fleming’s 007 Series,” in The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader.

[3]    Comentale, Edward P.  “Fleming’s Company Man,” in Ian Fleming & James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005), 19-21.

[4]    Linder, Christoph.  “Why Size Matters” in Ian Fleming and James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007, 224-37.

[5]    The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader, 285-99.

[6]    193-4.

[7]    Questions Are Forever: James Bond and Philosophy.  Eds. James B. South and Jacob Held (Chicago, IL: Open Court Press, 2006), 79-93.

[8]    Ibid., 93.

[9]    Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale (New York: Pengiun, 1953), 144.

[10]  Ibid., 86-106.

[11]  Moniot, Drew.  “James Bond and America in the Sixties: An Investigation of the Formula Film in Popular Culture,” in Journal of the University Film Association, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Summer 1976), 27.

[12]  Ibid., 28.

[13]  Black, Jeremy.  The Politics of James Bond : From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen  (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 37.

[14]  Ibid., 145.

[15]  Eco, Umberto. “Narrative Structures in Fleming” in The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader. Ed. Christoph Linder (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009), 34-55.

[16]  Ibid., 44-5.

[17]  Scheibel, Will. “The History of Casino Royale on (and Off) Screen,” in Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale, Ed. Christoph Linder (New York: Wallflower Press, 2009), 15.

[18]  MacIntyre, Ben.  For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond (New York: Bloomsbury Books, 2008), 62-7.

[19]  Black, Jeremy.  The Politics of James Bond (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 82.

[20]  Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2009), 37.

[21]  Eco, “Narrative Structures,” in The James Bond Phenomenon, 44-5.

[22]  Ferguson, Niall. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 185-220.

[23]  The Ian Fleming Collection of Indiana University. Web. March 5, 2012. <>

[24]  Cabell, Craig.  Ian Fleming’s Secret War (Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Military, 2008), 102-6.  Payne, Stewart “How Britain Put Nazis’ Top Men to Work” August 30, 2007. Retreived March 3, 2012. <>.  Matthijs, Herman “The Intelligence Life of Ian Fleming.” Web. July 7, 2010. Retreived March 3, 2012.  <>.

[25]  Cabell, Ian Fleming’s Secret War, 26-31.

[26]  Roberts, Brian.  Cecil Rhodes: Flawed Colossus (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987), 37-40, 55-7.  Quigley, Carroll.  Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time (New York: MacMillan, 1966), 950-6.  Ferguson,  Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, 185-91, 217-20.

[27]  Heale, Elizabeth.  The Faerie Queen: A Reader’s Guide (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 12-13.

[28]  Moniot, “James Bond and the American Sixties,” 29.

[29]  See Yated, Frances.  The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (New York: Routledge, 1972), xii-xiii, 124-5, 134-5, 161-3, 256-61.  Hoffman, Michael.  Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare (Oregon: Independent Press, 2005), 119-120.

[30]  Lycett, Andrew.  Ian Fleming (London: Orion Books, 1995), 205.

[31]  MacIntyre, Ben. For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, 62-7.

[32]  Moniot, “James Bond and America in the Sixties,” 27.  Riffee, Mark.  “CIA Pitches Scripts to Hollywood.” Web. September 16, 2011. Wired Magazine. Retrieved October 21, 2011. <>.  Axe, David. “Pentagon, Hollywood Pair Up for Transformers Sequel.”  Web. December 29, 2008.  Wired Magazine.  Retreived October 21, 2011. <>.  “Pentagon Spending Billions on PR to Sway World Opinion.” Web. February 5, 2009. Associated Press.  Fox News. Retreived October 31, 2011.  <>

[33]  Gardiner, The Bond Code, 70-135.  Roob, Alexander.  Alchemy and Mysticism (London: Taschen, 2006), 111-113.

[34]  Dorrill, Stephen. MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 610.

[35]  Hitz, Frederick P.  The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage ((New York: Vintage Books, 2004).

[36]  MacIntyre, Ben. For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond (New York: Bloomsbury Books, 2008), 62-7 and Sunday Times Online. Web. <>