"Ejector Seat? You're joking!"
The dream job. To write about James Bond's gadgets for
From the lows of the gondola-cum-hovercraft in Moonraker to the awesome new Aston Martin V12 Vanquish in Die Another Day. How Bond’s gadgets became cool again…
If you’re James Bond, you don’t celebrate your birthday with cake and sausages on sticks, you employ a little more panache. So in Die Another Day the spy’s 40th anniversary and 20th official screen outing is celebrated in a variety of subtle ways. In homage to Ursula Andress’s iconic entrance in Dr No, bikini-clad Bond Girl Halle Berry appears from the sea with a knife at her waist, and most tellingly, the new movie includes a scene where Bond visits Q in his lab, picks up Rosa Klebb’s shoe used in From Russia With Love, and reacquaints himself with You Only Live Twice’s gyrocopter. It’s a nice touch, underlining the fact that, for the new movie – indeed all of Brosnan’s outings – gadgets have once again come into their own.
It’s widely accepted that the first ‘Bond Gadget’ was the briefcase given to him in the second movie, From Russia With Love, although chronologically he uses a pager and car phone earlier in the same film, both way ahead of their time. These were cameo roles compared to the case though, which came with throwing knives, ammo, a bonus sniper’s rifle and – best of all – an exploding tin of talcum powder which wasn’t talc at all, but tear gas. Prescient? But of course, Meester Bond. Never mind the pagers and car phones (his pager, incidentally, is about the size of a townhouse in Stevenage) even the exploding talc was on the cutting edge according to Michael Harvey, curator of the ‘Bond, James Bond’ exhibition at London’s Science Museum, who notes its similarity to booby-trapped banknotes, “so that an unauthorised person opening them is covered with red dye”.
Audiences apparently loved the gadgets in From Russia With Love, so for the next film the Broccoli-Saltzman partnership upped the gizmo ante. “They became important to the cocktail when Goldfinger was released,” says Graham Rye, editor and publisher of 007 magazine. “Mainly because of the Aston Martin DB5. And once they’d started, the public expected Bond to have this friendly confrontation with Q where he’d pick up new gadgets every film, and it went from there.”
There’s just such a scene in the new film. Q, played by John Cleese, has on offsite lab in a disused tube station, and there he issues Bond with the latest Aston Martin, a V12 Vanquish capable of performing in extreme temperatures. And if you’ve seen Die Another Day’s trailer you’ll know how essential that turns out to be.
The latest car is, of course, the offspring of Goldfinger’s Aston Martin DB5, the mack daddy of gadgets. Aston Martin executives scoffed at the Bond teams’ plans for the car, telling special effects supervisor John Stears there was no way it could be modified to allow for the gadgets. Stears scoffed back, and in the event the car was modified, and many of the tricks, such as the oil slick, were genuine (although the oil tank had to be removed for scenes involving the use of the bullet-proof screen). Even the famous ejector seat was done for real, using compressed air and a lightweight dummy in place of a hapless Korean thug. Other enhancements built into the car but never used were front and rear riders for ramming vehicles, a weapons tray beneath the driver’s seat, a nail chamber, and a radio-telephone inside the driver’s door panel. (Incidentally, not the first time gadgets have failed to make the final cut. If you watch the credits of Goldfinger you’ll see a Post Office truck-cum-machine gun that doesn’t appear in the film; in The Man With The Golden Gun a rocket-firing camera was cut, and in The Living Daylights a pen capable of duplicating the writing of any other pen was similarly excised).
If any film created the idea of Bond as having a formula – gadgets included – it was Goldfinger, and for the next movie, Thunderball, the makers went tonto with spy gear, both influencing, and being influenced by, the world of technology at large. The Bell Jet Pack used in the pre-credits sequence was an honest-to-goodness real-life bit of kit that really worked. Bill Suitor, who flew it, refused to do the scene without protection, meaning Bond had to don cinema’s nobbiest helmet. In grey. Later, members of the United Artists ad team were arrested for flying it off the marquee of a Manhattan theatre in a promo stunt, and the army considered the Bell for military purposes, although the twin cylinders full of jet fuel made pilots more than usually vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire. Meanwhile, Peter Lamont, chief draftsman on Thunderball, received a call from the Royal Engineers, asking him a about Bond’s mini underwater rebreather. “How does it work?” asked the mystified Royal Engineer. “Er, editing,” replied Lamont, who stayed with the Bond team, graduating to Production Designer, a position he holds for Die Another Day.
This symbiotic relationship between Bond gadgetry and real-life has continued throughout the movies. You Only Live Twice’s production designer Ken Adam was shaving when he heard Wing Commander Ken Wallis discussing his gyrocopter on the radio, and ‘Little Nellie’ was born. A similar situation occurred with Octopussy’s AcroStar jet, flown by its creator, John W ‘Corkey’ Fornof. And on The Man With The Golden Gun, Scaramanga’s flying car was based on an actual vehicle pioneered in California using a Ford Pinto and parts of a Cessna aircraft. Its creators never got their chance to star in a Bond movie, though: in 1973 while on a test flight, the Cessna wings and Ford Pinto became detached and the Pinto plummeted to the ground, killing both occupants.
As gadget use in Bond films increased, they moved further and further away from Fleming’s vision of Bond: “He became a push-button hero,” says Graham Rye. “Instead of using his wits he became a Superman by proxy and the films became cartoon adventure movies rather than thrillers.”
Bond, then, while helping to shape gadgets in the real world, was also being shaped by them. Gadgets were (and still are) part of the formula, but for many years it felt like the series’ producers were leafing through the instruction manual with no idea how to use them: either reining back completely (On her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only) or going way overboard. (Moonraker, Octopussy). Indeed, for the majority of the Moore era, gadgets had started to work Bond, rather than other way around. The Spy Who Loved Me – the keynote film of the period – was packed with technology (the Lotus of course, and a wet bike, then a cor-blimey novelty, now a staple of holiday resorts everywhere). It also had its fair share of jokes, and when it did gonzo business at the box office, film-makers naturally assumed that ‘gadgets n gags’ was the way forward. But it wasn’t. Moonraker sucked, and so did its gadgets.
“The dart gun,” spits Graham Rye, asked about his least favourite Bond gizmo. “There were some replicas made and I tried one on to see how comfortable it was and it doesn’t seem to me to be something that Bond would wear.”
He’s right. Gadgets had gone from being the cool items of espionage kit used by Connery’s Bond to simple props for Moore’s comedy years. And, crucially, they failed to touch a nerve with the audience. The trick–infested suitcase of From Russia With Love worked because every bloke in the early Sixties carried a suitcase, and it was cool to look at his symbol of corporate drudgery as very possibly an instrument of international subterfuge. Same with the exploding fags of You Only Live Twice; the Geiger counter watch of Thunderball. Even the ultra-aspirational Aston Martin DB5 tapped into the era’s sudden fascination with cars. But a gondola that turned into a hovercraft? Moonraker, bow your head in shame.
Producers were still in a tizz come Timothy Dalton. The Welshman professed a love for Fleming and his two films partly reflected that desire, but he was not best served by his gadgets which were deliberately downbeat but still jokey. A radio hidden in a broom? Come on. And Bond’s plastic explosive disguised as toothpaste is called ‘Detonite’. Rubbish gadget. Rubbish gag.
For the Brosnan era, Bond’s gadgets have entered their golden age, capitalising on the brand awareness culture by giving Bond household names that do spectacular things. Bond films have always linked into the brand leaders for their kit – the Nikonos underwater camera in Thunderball was in development at the time, and Scaramanga’s golden gun in the ‘The Man With The…’ was designed by Colibri. But these films were made in the pre-‘No Logo’ age. Now, every Tom, Dick and Harry expects to be touting the brand leaders, or at the very least recognise them. Thus, while critics have accused recent Bond films of product placement, they miss the point. In fact, his association with names such as BMW, Microsoft, Omega and Ericsson have leant the gear, and therefore the films, a sense of realism. Factor in a general awareness of new technology, and Bond’s gadgets have come full circle. Technology is commonplace, disbelief therefore easier to suspend, and Bond’s use of mobile phones in the later films simply echoes his souped-up briefcase in From Russia With Love, opening up the possibility of an everyday item. In Die Another Day, the new Q, John Cleese, echoes his predecessor’s most famous line when he says, “I never joke about my work, 007.” His work, thankfully, is no longer the joke.
//headline// “Now Pay Attention 007”
//standfirst// Who is the man with the gadgets?
The character we know as Q first appeared as ‘Major Boothroyd’ in Dr No, dissing Bond’s Beretta for being a ladies’ gun and supplying him with his famous Walther PPK. Played by actor Peter Burton, it appears as though Boothroyd was a representative of ‘Q Branch’, in keeping with the Bond books. In From Russia With Love, Peter Burton was replaced by Desmond Llewelyn and referred to as the ‘equipment officer’, though it wasn’t until Goldfinger that he was called Q, and the familiar onscreen banter with 007 was developed. Llewelyn went on to appear in all but one (Live And Let Die) of the Bond films before being killed in a car accident in 1999. The part is now played by John Cleese, introduced as an assistant in The World Is Not Enough and now holding the fort in Die Another Day.
//headline// What’s New?
//standfirst// The gizmos helping Bond Die Another Die
//minihead// Aston Martin V12 Vanquish
Since the DB5, Bond and Aston Martin have conducted one of cinema’s most enduring relationships. Here the car is fitted with some familiar old devices as well as a host of new ones. Grr.
Not just any ring. A single-digit sonic agitator unit that can shatter bullet-proof glass.
//minihead// Combat Knife GPS System
A knife featuring a small global positioning device which also emits a faint but detectable signal so people can find Bond.
//minihead// Night Vision Goggles
Hardly cutting edge these days, but Bond’s are a military-grade pair designed for long-distance use.
//minihead// Omega Seamaster
Continuing his association with Omega, the latest model has a laser beam, as well as acting as a detonator and a thermal image reader.
Bond’s surfboard has a hidden compartment containing a gun, plastic explosives and a detonator.