A Radio Times survey last week, involving 14,000 participants, voted Sean Connery the best James Bond. This is hardly shocking news. The Scot has for years been regarded as not only the first but the best on-screen 007. Less predictable was the news of who emerged in the poll as everyone’s second-favourite Bond: Timothy Dalton.
A discombobulated Daily Telegraph article called Dalton’s placing – above Pierce Brosnan – a ‘big surprise’. Indeed, one would have expected the much-loved Roger Moore, who is almost as synonymous with the role as Connery, to have at least garned the runners-up spot.
I suspect there were many diehard Bond aficionados among the voters. Because for some years now, among the party faithful, Timothy Dalton’s interpretation has been held in reverence for being the Bond most faithful to Ian Fleming’s literary creation.
In his two outings as the secret agent, The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence To Kill (1989), Dalton’s Bond is a serious professional, an often violent, dark and ruthless character, who brought back an authentic air of menace and brutality to 007. He was a far cry from Moore’s suave, wise-cracking and flippant Bond, and indeed this incarnation was a deliberate move by Dalton.
Timothy Dalton had originally been approached to play James Bond in 1971, but turned down the part, believing himself to be too young. Eon Productions, who were behind the films, repeated the approach in 1979, but Dalton didn’t want to play a jokey and cartoonish Bond as now Moore had made it. When Dalton, a classical Shakespearean actor, was finally cast in 1986, he did so on the insistence that his Bond would be brought back to his literary origins. He said that year: ‘I intend to approach this project with a sense of responsibility to the work of Ian Fleming.’
Dalton reflected in a 1989 interview:
‘I think Roger was fine as Bond, but the films had become too much techno-pop and had lost track of their sense of story. I mean, every film seemed to have a villain who had to rule or destroy the world. If you want to believe in the fantasy on screen, then you have to believe in the characters and use them as a stepping-stone to lead you into this fantasy world. That’s a demand I made, and Albert Broccoli agreed with me.’
To bring back authenticity to the role, Dalton returned to the source material: Fleming’s novels. ‘On those pages I discovered a Bond I’d never seen on the screen, a quite extraordinary man, a man I really wanted to play, a man of contradictions and opposites.’ The result was not only a more gritty Bond, but one set apart from the fantasy worlds of megalomaniac baddies inhabiting volcanoes or space stations, and set instead firmly in real life scenarios – in war-torn Afghanistan (The Living Daylights) and among drug barons in South America (Licence To Kill), just as Fleming’s early Bond outings had been mired in the Cold War.
Dalton’s determination to return Bond to his origins may not have charmed younger fans who had grown up with Roger Moore, but the critics were impressed with his mission. ‘Latest 007 thriller is truer to original, violent nature of Ian Fleming’s hero.’ That was the Ottowa Citizen’s verdict on Licence to Kill. The Chicago Tribune agreed: ‘Timothy Dalton gives us a 007 that Ian Fleming would have loved’. The James Bond author Raymond Benson concluded that Dalton was ‘the most accurate and literal interpretation of the role … ever seen on screen’
Dalton’s films were dirty affairs, as the hard-edged Licence To Kill – released in an age Die Hard and Lethal Weapon films – was the first Bond movie to rated 15 in the UK. In this second and last outing, Dalton’s Bond is border-line psychotic, resigning from the Secret Intelligence Service in order to pursue his own agenda of revenge.
Dalton, who was 40 when he eventually assumed the role, was precisely the right age to be Bond. He even resembled the protagonist. While Fleming had described as six foot tall, with a slim build, grey-blue eyes, a ‘cruel’ mouth and with short black hair that leads to a point, Timothy Dalton was himself 6′ 2” with black hair, grey-blue eyes and slim build.
‘Half the world loved Sean Connery and half the world loved Roger Moore,’ Dalton once remarked, demurely. And while there are those who will always prefer Sean Connery’s sex appeal or Roger Moore’s naff humour to Timothy Dalton’s total lack of either, in the role, it’s heartening to see that Dalton’s Bond is still given the recognition it deserves.
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017). Twitter: @patrickxwest