Positively shocking: using James Bond to teach liberal arts – ‘Bondologist’ Martin D. Brown says the complex Bondian universe can be used to teach students about modern international history

Bond is back. Again. News that will elicit a frisson of excitement from some, or a groan of exasperation from others. James Bond, an unlikely hero of Cold War pulp fiction, has become a global brand and cultural icon. Love him or loathe him, you won’t be able to ignore the franchise over the coming months as director Danny Boyle starts filming the 25th Bond feature this December.

I’ll be watching the development of this new film with a professional interest. I have been using Ian Fleming’s creation to teach students about international history for more than a decade.

This all began when I was asked to design a first-year liberal arts module. My own experience with similar courses was that they were often worthy but could be more engaging. Of course, the scholarly ideal is that we teach to our research, but my cunning plan was to utilise Bond as a gateway to the critical analysis of key concepts, debates and historiography.

It’s easy to imagine that the study of Bond rests solely on Fleming’s 12 novels, two sets of short stories plus the 24 official films: but that’s far from it. There are at least another 25 novels that followed Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun in 1968. The latest continuation adventure, by Anthony Horowitz, was published last month.

Additionally, there’s John Pearson’s fictional biography of Bond, a young Bond series by Charlie Higson, comic strips, computer games and, of course, the 1954 CBS television version of Casino Royale with an Americanised, crew-cut “Jimmy” Bond.

The work of Bondologists is based on these core sources. Including the writings of Raymond Benson, British historian David Cannadine, Bond expert Umberto Eco, a fleeting appearance by poet Philip Larkin and even Roald Dahl, who wrote screenplays for the franchise. Klaus Dodds at Royal Holloway, University of London and Lisa Funnell at the University of Oklahoma have been especially prolific in their recent outputs, and there’s even a peer-reviewed International Journal of Bond Studies.

I’d argue that one of the most insightful pieces of Bondian analysis remains the earliest, Amis’ 1965 The James Bond Dossier. If you read only one book on the subject, make it this.

The long and convoluted process of transferring Bond from page to the screen merits attention, too. Again, it’s easy to presume that today’s Bond was a result of producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R “Cubby” Broccoli’s film adaptations. But the Irish producer Kevin McClory played a crucial, and controversial role, eventually roping in Len Deighton, creator of the 1960s anti-Bond, Harry Palmer. Casino Royale suffered the longest gestation of all, with two films being made before being rebooted for the “official” version with Daniel Craig in 2006.

The point being it is complex: there’s not one, but multiple, parallel and interlinked Bondian universes out there.

So just how is all this material related to a first-year liberal arts course?

Consider this overlapping chronology: Ian Fleming’s first book, Casino Royale, published in 1953, emerged just after the death of Stalin and before the coronation of Elizabeth II; the first Bond film in 1962, Dr No, was released after the Cuban Missile Crisis; 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me tackled détente; 1995’s GoldenEye dealt with the end of the Cold War, while 2017’s Spectre addressed the emergent threat of cyber-warfare.

The sheer breadth and longevity of the series means that there’s an embarrassment of riches to work with, the difficulty is deciding what to examine and how.

Take the torture scene in Casino Royale: Le Chiffre captures Bond and subjects him to cruel and unusual punishments to elicit information. The first of many similar scenes across the franchise. On the face of it, this is exactly the sort of juvenile combination of “sex, snobbery and sadism” that Paul Johnson later accused Fleming of promoting in Dr No. Yet, the prevalence of torture and extrajudicial killings in the series opens a door to the discussion of morality in post-9/11 international relations and its earlier Cold War mutations.

Johnson’s review cites the crudity of the Algerian war of independence, linking Bond to the global Cold War and decolonisation. In turn, this leads us to the works of French decolonisation activist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers and Harold Macmillan’s infamous “Winds of Change” speech.

Such a dramatic segway is entirely logical: Fleming’s Bond is clearly located in the post-imperial space, set across the remaining confetti of Empire, his superhuman heroism a response to the terminal loss of British geopolitical power. Links proven by Cannadine and foreign policy expert William R. Polk, and addressed in William Boyd’s Solo.

The Bond franchise never directly reflects the world in which the products were created, a core aspect of escapism was vital, but the creations are products of their times. Tracing Bond’s ascendancy across global popular culture provides a useful matrix in which to explore and critically asses a wide range of related cultural, economic and political issues. And I suspect that this won’t be coming to an end any time soon.