The Bourne Ultimatum grossed $70 million on its opening weekend in early August, surpassing the revenues of the opening weekends of first two Bourne films, The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy. This has led to speculation that the Bourne films may supplant the long-running James Bond series as Hollywood’s most popular spy-movie franchise.
What is the appeal of Jason Bourne over James Bond? “Bond is fundamentally different from Bourne,” says Matt Damon, who plays Bourne. “Bond is an establishment guy. He is a misogynist, an imperialist, he’s all the things that Bourne isn’t. He kills people then drinks a Martini.” Damon adds, “By the end of the second Bourne movie Jason is apologizing for killing people. I’ve never seen that in a big Hollywood movie before.”
The James Bond series is based on the novels of Ian Fleming, a Second World War British Naval commander and intelligence officer. The books chronicle the adventures of a British MI5 agent known by his codename “007,” which means he’s licensed to kill. In 1961, Fleming sold the film rights to all of his Bond stories, and the following year Dr. No, starring Scottish actor Sean Connery, was released. The Bond series is considered the most popular and financially successful film series in history.
Bond film producers Harry Saltzman and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, realized that the films wouldn’t be popular if they simply repeated Cold War clichÈs (the Fleming novels were usually about fighting the Russians), or if Bond was too much of an upper-class British snob, as he appears in Fleming’s novels. Fleming wanted fellow aristocrat David Niven to play Bond. Saltzman and Broccoli chose the macho yet self-possessed Scot Connery to play Bond and made SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) his main adversary, hoping that these changes would give their creation greater box office appeal.
Yet the Bond films were still shaped by the Cold War environment. Bond’s MI5 (and its big brother, the CIA) is a benign institution fighting evil in the world. SPECTRE plays upon rivalries between Russia, China and the U.S. for its own benefit, dabbling in everything from stealing hydrogen bombs to trying to destroy the U.S. economy.
There was always an over-the-top, fantastic quality to the Bond films, which were also infamous for their cavalier sexism, if not misogyny. Ernst Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE, for example, is a one-eyed, German-accented monster who repeats silly evil one-liners while petting his cat.
Women appear in the films for pure sexual titillation and have ridiculous names like “Pussy Galore,” Honor Blackman’s character in Goldfinger (1964). In Thunderball (1965), Bond deftly turns his dance partner so that she receives a bullet intended for him, sets her down on a chair, and says, “Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead.”
The series was so much of a self-parody (even more so in the Roger Moore era) that it required only small adjustments for Mike Myers to lampoon them in the Austin Powers series. During the 1970s and 1980s, when the real ugly world of British and American intelligence was exposed for the world to see, the Bond films seemed outdated, though the films were still popular money makers.
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IT WAS in this post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era that writer Robert Ludlum created the Jason Bourne character. According to one biographer, “His vision of the world was one where global corporations, shadowy military forces and government organizations all conspired to preserve (if it was evil) or undermine (if it was good) the status quo.”
The Bourne films are loosely based on novels by Ludlum, who died in March 2001, but who left behind outlines, rough drafts and unfinished manuscripts that continue to be published by ghostwriters.
The first Bourne film debuted in 2002, the summer after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when the country was still gripped by extreme patriotism and intelligence agencies were given broad authority to do whatever was necessary to combat terrorism. Yet, instead of being propaganda pieces for the “war on terror,” the Bourne films have take as their premise that the enemy is the CIA itself.
According to Damon, “The director of The Bourne Identity, Doug Liman, said to me before we started the first one, ëJames Bond does not speak to me at any level and I think it would be cool to have a James Bond that people our age can relate to.’ Bond is a character left over from the 1960s.”
The “James Bond character that people our age” can identify with is found floating on the ocean outside of Marseilles and is rescued by a boat of French fisherman. He is plagued by a crippling amnesia, but endowed with superior fighting skills and a knowledge of languages and electronics, not to mention superior driving skills that allow him to walk away from serious crashes with little more than a bad limp.
Not since The French Connection (1971) and Bullitt (1968) have car chases been so thrilling. Bourne is forced to constantly run (and fight) because his employers have decided that he is a liability and must be killed. Through the three films, Bourne discovers that he is a specially trained CIA assassin who has killed a large number of people for reasons that he doesn’t understand.
As his memories begin to surface, he is wracked with guilt and pain over his actions. He can only overcome the psychological torture that turned him into a killer when he finds and confronts the people who did this to him. In short, Jason Bourne is not a spy, he’s an anti-spy.
Joe Allen is a movie buff, who writes regularly for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He lives in Chicago. Email: email@example.com
Paul D’Amato is the author of The Meaning of Marxism.