October 4th, 2018
By Matthew Chernov
Narrowing down the secret to James Bond’s astonishing global popularity is tricky business. For some, it’s the character’s innate confidence and mastery over any situation, no matter how perilous, that brings them back to the franchise again and again. For others, it’s the exotic locations and fabulous stunt work that fuels their renewed excitement year after year. But in general, most fans attribute the series’ unprecedented success to the three Gs: girls, guns, and gadgets.
That’s welcome news to Dr. André Millard, whose upcoming book “Equipping James Bond” sheds fascinating light on two of those Gs; namely, the weapons and technology depicted throughout the 007 books and films. A professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Millard has written several scholarly works in the past on a wide range of subjects, including the history of the electric guitar, the rock ‘n’ roll culture in Birmingham, AL, and the influence of technological innovations on the music of The Beatles.
To learn more about “Equipping James Bond” – which will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in November – I spoke with Millard about Ian Fleming, British commandos, and all those incredible devices found in Q’s laboratory. Here are a few highlights from our conversation…
JAMES BOND RADIO: Before we talk about you forthcoming book, I’m curious to hear about your introduction to the world of James Bond. Was there a specific film you saw, or a novel that you read, that sparked your interest?
ANDRÉ MILLARD: It was one of the Fleming novels. A cheap paperback, I forget which one. I read a couple of them before the first film came out.
JBR: And what was your impression of the books?
MILLARD: I enjoyed the hell out of them! Ian Fleming was pretty racy at the time. I was reading him and Mickey Spillane, which just shows you what a sick kid I was. You know what Fleming said about Spillane?
JBR: No, I don’t.
MILLARD: He said that James Bond was Bulldog Drummond from the waist up and Mike Hammer from the waist down.
JBR: That’s a great quote! I love it.
MILLARD: It’s a good one.
JBR: Did you enjoy the Bond films as well?
MILLARD: Oh yeah. I mean, Dr. No was incredible. The Bond films were much bigger than any other movies were at the time. Today you hear about films becoming an event, like Star Wars or whatever. Well, the James Bond films were always an event, and they had an enormous impact on me. One of the reasons why I wanted to write this book is because of the successful Bond formula. Although the formula is repeated constantly throughout the films, to the point where it sometimes feels a bit tired and mechanical, people still love them. So, I asked myself, why is that? Why has this character’s popularity lasted so long? Because no one else can match the numbers or the appeal of Bond. And even though you’d expect audiences would be sick and tired of it by now, they still want to see the next James Bond movie and talk about it.
JBR: Did being English make the films even more relevant to you?
MILLARD: Oh, yes. Being English, these films were especially important. I believe the director of Dr. No described it as the first American film made in England, meaning it had the kind of high production values that we just didn’t get with English films. The Bond movies had crisp Technicolor and fast cutting, and they were just head and shoulders above everything else.
JBR: Why did you decide to write “Equipping James Bond” now? Was there a motivating factor?
MILLARD: I’d been teaching a timeline of World War II history for many semesters, and I’d read a lot about the SOE (Special Operations Executive) and British Naval Intelligence. Eventually, I began to notice all of these curious connections with Bond and Fleming kept turning up in the subject matter. Pretty soon I realized that I had enough material to really explore who James Bond was.
JBR: What do you mean by that?
MILLARD: Well, he’s not a spy. He’s more like one of these piratical elites that you find in the SOE or the SDS (Special Demonstration Squad). Espionage isn’t actually that important to him. He’s really a commando. That’s my thesis. He doesn’t gather intelligence like a traditional spy. Instead, he goes into places and beats people up, blows things to hell, and then leaves. So, that’s really how I started the book. I wanted to find a different way to look at James Bond.
JBR: What’s the response been like from your academic peers and students when they learn that you’ve written about Bond?
MILLARD: Oh, they’re very interested. I’ve published several books through Johns Hopkins, but my previous editor retired and my new editors weren’t so keen on the subject at first, because they can be quite politically correct. The interesting thing is that I taught this material as an honors class for our smartest students here at UAB. I’m talking about pre-med students, things like that. And the majority of them were women, which was a real eye-opener for me. Women are very interested in James Bond. Granted, there’s a kind of fringe feminist idea that James Bond is terrible, but my experience is that women find the subject extremely fascinating. In general, the appeal of Bond to students is very strong. Of course, they don’t know the Fleming books at all, but they know the films quite well.
JBR: I’m surprised more universities don’t offer courses on the 007 series.
MILLARD: The great thing about teaching a class on James Bond is that you’ve got so many different aspects to look at. You can bring in all sorts of things, like attitudes toward the third world, consumerism, and a variety of other topics.
JBR: What can readers expect to find in your new book?
MILLARD: They’ll discover a detailed account of the origins of the character, and the relationship between Bond and Fleming. The first half of the book tells you exactly where Fleming got his inspiration from. To be clear, I’m not talking about which character is based on a person in real life. I’m talking about the culture of World War II commandos. Fleming actually dealt with them while working in Naval Intelligence. Although in point of fact, he had a very limited role in Naval Intelligence and was primarily a desk man. But there’s a whole list of people who influenced him, some of whom are rarely talked about, that I discuss in the book.
JBR: And what about the second half of the book?
MILLARD: The second half is a critique of the Bond films in terms of the way they use technology. Ian Fleming and Winston Churchill were almost from the same generation, and they were the same kind of people. They were technological enthusiasts. That’s where Bond’s gadgets come from. They both loved cars, boats, airplanes, and cameras. Churchill and Fleming were on the same page about a lot of these things. I mean, Fleming was fascinated by the history of technology before there really was such a thing. But after the war, both men got really disillusioned with new technology, in particular the hydrogen bomb. So, what you get after all this enthusiasm is a real sense of fear, which works its way into the Bond films. You could say that each film in the series articulates the technological fears of that particular moment. The films give us a window on the things we’re frightened about in terms of the machines around us. And the reason why we love James Bond is that he always manages to beat the machine. Not with another technology, but with human ingenuity. Basically, it comes down to James Bond, an atomic bomb, and a screwdriver at the end of each movie.
JBR: You also deal with the real-life technology used in espionage, correct?
MILLARD: Yes, that’s included in the book as well. Back in Fleming’s day, spies used little Minox cameras, and beefy guys did heroic things with Sten guns and hand grenades, and that was about it. But by the time Fleming left the Intelligence sector, he realized that the machines were replacing the men. Intelligence suddenly became dominated by satellite cameras and surveillance technology. This ended up pushing real-life Bond types into the background, until by the late 1960s, the real-life James Bonds were just supervising the utility men who fixed bugs onto phone lines. That’s one of the things that inspired Fleming to create Bond in the first place. He was really depressed about what he saw happening to the people he admired in the war, so he created James Bond as a nostalgic figure, not a modernist one.
JBR: What are some of Bond’s weapons or gadgets that you find especially fascinating in the context of the book?
MILLARD: Well, the limpet mine is a great example. I talk a lot about the development of the limpet mine, because it’s a really simple yet important device that draws a line between engineering know-how and scientific theory. Churchill didn’t really understand how atomic bombs worked, but he loved the limpet mine! I mean, what could be clearer than an explosive with a magnet and a timer? So, that’s an example of a weapon that both Fleming and Churchill felt was really good technology.
JBR: You cover cameras too, I believe.
MILLARD: Yes, especially aerial reconnaissance. That’s something Fleming was personally involved with. Photographic technology really transformed espionage. I mean, why bother sending an operative into enemy territory when you can fly overhead in a satellite and read the name on a golf ball from outside the Earth’s atmosphere? You’ll notice, however, that Bond rarely gets any help from a photograph, which is exactly the opposite of what was going on in the world at the time. In a few of the books, he even manages to find things that aerial photography misses. Curiously enough, Fleming didn’t like having pictures taken of himself.
JBR: Is it safe to assume that knives are in there somewhere?
MILLARD: I include quite a bit of information on edged weapons, because that’s something Fleming liked a great deal. Edged weapons and poisons were his absolute favorites. I also talk about his interest in SCUBA technology, which is hugely relevant to many of his books.
JBR: What about more exotic weapons?
MILLARD: Well, I’ve always wondered why there weren’t more bow-and-arrows in the Bond books and films, because that was the ideal weapon for Fleming. An arrow with poison on the tip would be just about perfect for him. And it’s a great weapon to use in commando raids because it doesn’t make any noise. It’s durable and doesn’t break down either, which is crucial in espionage. Think about it. The number one rule in anything you use in espionage is that it has to work. Everything else is irrelevant. If it doesn’t work, you’re dead. So, in the book, I contrast Fleming’s practical technology with the movies as they get more and more sophisticated.
JBR: Throughout the 007 series, we’ve seen Bond use a wide variety of firearms, but the Walther PPK is the gun that we most associate with the character. Why is that?
MILLARD: The interesting thing is that Fleming was born in 1908, which also happens to be the year that Walther introduced their automatic. In Bond’s line of work, it’s not the type of gun that you really need for the job, but it has the right look. Do you know the film called The Ipcress File?
JBR: Sure, it’s one of the Harry Palmer movies starring Michael Caine.
MILLARD: Yes, it’s a great film, and it’s got the same scene in it as Dr. No, where Major Boothroyd calls Bond’s Beretta a lady’s gun. In The Ipcress File, Palmer isn’t allowed to use his automatic because automatic guns can sometimes jam. So, the Walther is quite inappropriate, but it looks good and that’s the point. Also, Broccoli and Saltzman had a nostalgic outlook where you could mess with the Bond formula but you couldn’t change it. They didn’t want to risk alienating Bond fans by changing things too much, so the DB5 and the Walther PPK are two examples of things that they considered to be part of Bond’s orthodoxy. Much later, they introduced the Walther P5, which is a more sophisticated gun with a lot of biometric technology. The idea was that if they were moving away from the Bond canon, they’d at least give him a Walther and an Aston-Martin.
JBR: Change is always risky, I guess.
MILLARD: Think about the outrage that happened when Bond switched from ordering shaken martinis to drinking Heineken beer. That shows you the pitfalls of messing with things. They say that Heineken paid them millions to put that in there, and it pissed everybody off. And the Walther is even more important because of how central guns are to Bond’s character. Literally the first thing we see in each film is a gun barrel. I actually own a Walther PPK, and it’s a really nice little weapon.
JBR: After all the research you’ve done on the subject, do you have a favorite gadget or device from the Bond series? Something you wouldn’t mind owning for yourself?
MILLARD: I’ll take a DB5 any day! Oh yeah, I’d die for one. I went to an auction where they were selling a DB5, and I befriended a guy who was bidding on it. He didn’t win, but his excitement and frenzy made such an impression on me. To think that you might own a DB5 is just too much to handle for some people. I mean, the guy was just losing it in front of me! It was such a beautiful car.
JBR: I’m pretty sure the DB5 is the correct answer.
MILLARD: Yeah, but Rosa Klebb’s knife-in-the-shoe is impressive, too.
To pre-order a copy of “Equipping James Bond,” visit the book’s Amazon page.
Interview and article by Matthew Chernov