Roundtable: James Bond 007: Timothy Dalton

Fantasy versus reality in the series.

Anton: The films of Timothy Dalton foreground the tension between fantasy and reality that has always been present in the series.

Anders: Yes, in Licence to Kill this tension is strongly felt. On the one hand, it offers a “grittier,” more violent Bond, grounded in the milieu of the real-life “war on drugs” in Central America. On the other, it uses this new reality-justified violence to foster the most blatant kind of revenge fantasy, in which the hero’s brutality is authorized by the hurt inflicted on his loved ones. If you read the film, as I do, as being as much about Bond getting revenge for his own wife’s death at the hands of Blofeld, as about revenge for the torture of Felix Leiter and the murder of his new bride, then Licence to Kill is the ultimate version of the “this time it’s personal!”-trope that the Bond series would go back to again in films like GoldenEye, Casino Royale, and Skyfall. Suitably enough, I would say those four films are the best Bond films of the last 30 years. So, this tension between “realism” and personal-revenge fantasy certainly works as a narrative device!

Anton: The fact that Licence to Kill has that moment early on where Della tosses Bond her wedding garter and it clearly upsets him provides suitable evidence for your interpretation, Anders. Bond has always had fellow agents die—for instance, at the beginning of The Living Daylights his teammates are snuffed—and it angers him, but there seems to be something more than his closeness to Leiter and Della fueling his revenge. It opens a wound of his that’s never healed. So if Licence to Kill is a more realistic Bond film—in contrast to, say, Moonraker, which is one of the more fantasy-oriented Bond films—it’s also forging connections to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, one of the other more realistic and psychologically complex films. (Interestingly, Leiter’s comment to Della, that Bond had a wife once, long ago, is evidence that the films, at least up until this point, are loosely operating in some sort of chronological order—I’m not sure how much it holds though. The series is pick-and-choose when it comes to chronology.)

Aren: I find it interesting that Licence to Kill seems to fully engage with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when the other films in the series mostly go out of their way to avoid connection to it. Save the short conversation between Bond and Anya Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me and the dreadful opening of For Your Eyes Only, there is no mention of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the series up until Licence to Kill. This unspoken emotional motivation for Bond—that Leiter’s experience mirrors his own when Tracy died and that he’s able to exorcise his own past demons in addition to getting revenge for his friend—is something that makes Licence to Kill unique. It also personifies Dalton’s Bond. He’s a charming, gifted secret agent, but he’s not entirely a fantasy figure.

Anton: Well, I think every Bond has to still be considered a fantasy figure to some extent. Let’s not forget Dalton landing on the yacht and being offered a martini by a beautiful woman at the beginning of The Living Daylights.

Aren: Sure, I’ll grant you that, but he’s much less a fantasy figure than the other Bonds. Think of it this way: Bond is always motivated by duty. He beats the villains not because he has personal stakes in the mission but because it is, in fact, a mission and his job is to save the world and protect Britain’s interests. However, for Dalton in Licence to Kill, it’s more than that. Sanchez is a criminal threatening peace and safety, but he’s one of many. He’s not a world-controlling megalomaniac. It’s the fact that Sanchez smarts one of Bond’s unhealed wounds and that he threatens the life of one of his few friends that draws Bond’s attention. This emotional motivation grounds the film’s fantastic elements. More than other Bond films, the Dalton films ground real, emotionally-relatable individuals in fantastic scenarios. You can actually empathize with Dalton’s Bond instead of merely idolizing him.

Anders: Dalton himself is a great embodiment of Bond in this mode. He’s handsome and dashing, yet seems credible as a secret agent. He fulfills the requirements of both a fantasy and “realistic”—or at least credible—spy better than either of the other two actors who preceded him since Sean Connery.

Anton: You make a good point when you say that Dalton seems credible as a secret agent. To his last film, Roger Moore inhabited the role of Bond, but by A View to a Kill, you wonder why MI6 hasn’t retired him yet.

I also want to catch up with something Aren said earlier about Sanchez threatening the life of one of Bond’s few friends when he feeds Leiter to a shark. In Licence to Kill, Bond has friends. In our Rogue Nation roundtable we discussed how much of a loner Bond is in comparison to Ethan Hunt and his team in the Mission: Impossible movies. We only see Bond privately with a woman, a sexual partner he has no emotional connection to. He banters with Moneypenny, M, and Q, and shows degrees of affection, but we can’t imagine them getting together for dinner after work. So during the wedding scenes in Licence to Kill, it’s almost startling to see Bond’s closeness to not just Leiter but also his bride, Della.   

What do you think about the fantasy elements though? Is there still too much goofiness that rubs wrongly with Dalton’s Bond?

Aren: I think fantasy elements will always be present in the Bond films, so I’m not voting for their exorcism from the franchise, even in films like Licence to Kill that skew more realistic.

Is the Dalton interlude a genuine divergence, or just more Moore without Moore?

Anton: Does Timothy Dalton mark a new kind of Bond film, or are we just getting more Roger Moore films in essence, with Dalton instead of Moore? John Glen does direct his two after all.

Anders: It’s hard to say, since John Glen’s presence as director certainly brings some kind of continuity with the previous few films in the series to his two Dalton Bond films. There is a certain kind of throwback element, a return to the classical mode quality to The Living Daylights in particular, as you mentioned in your review. But I can’t help but see The Living Daylights as a major improvement on A View to a Kill. It’s a return to the past without being boring or redundant. It’s funny without being cringeworthy.

I think part of the problem here is that it’s tempting to import our commonly held notions of “director as auteur” to such a situation and to read more continuity in this aspect than there actually is in this series. By and large, different directors definitely bring unique qualities to the films, as we’ve noted the marks of a Lewis Gilbert or a Terence Young Bond film in our reviews. But the great variance in the quality and style of the films takes away from our ability to place the director as the primary shaping force of this series. Guy Hamilton made both the masterpiece of Goldfinger and the miscalculation of Diamonds Are Forever. Likewise, if one is holding to the director as auteur, then Glen makes a comeback from his nadir in A View to a Kill and turns in his best two films with Dalton in the lead.

The truth is that the Bond series has always been driven a great deal by the production team rather than director. Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and his Eon Productions team are the ones who really shaped Bond on film, and it’s probably worth noting that Dalton’s two films were Cubby’s final two films as producer before his daughter Barbara and Michael G. Wilson took over the Eon reins.

However, in opting to centre our roundtable discussions around the actors who portrayed Bond, rather than the directors or screenwriters, are we not essentially suggesting that it is really the actor portraying Bond who is the auteur or creative voice of these films? The actor as auteur. And Dalton certainly, despite any other similarities between his two Bond films and those of Roger Moore, made it difficult to really say they are of a single piece. Dalton himself is the real change, but because of the long gap after Licence to Kill and the fact that he only made two films, it can seem like merely a kind of interlude or endcap to the Moore era.

Anton: That’s true, we do see the actor who portrays Bond as somehow defining his films.

Aren: You could make the argument that the actor chosen to play Bond is merely the frontman for whatever the goals of each era’s producers are. He’s the flagbearer. However, as indicated by, say, the involvement of Daniel Craig in crafting the storyline of Quantum of Solace after the Writer’s Strike robbed them of an ending, the Bond actors are hugely influential over the direction of their films. Certainly more than directors.

Anton: Yeah, it’s seems a bit “chicken and the egg.” Do the producers shape the films to fit the Bond, or does the Bond shape the producer’s filmmaking choices? It’s probably a bit of both.

Aren: I think in the case of the Dalton films, there is a marked contrast with the Moore films from the 1980s, even though John Glen directed them all. As Anton pointed out in his review, The Living Daylights certainly contains some similarities to For Your Eyes Only. It’s a soft reboot, realigning the franchise with the classical elements while grounding some of the fantastical stuff that seems to pop up every few years in Bond films. However, the fact that Dalton plays Bond so differently than Moore, and that the writing shifts how Bond interacts with others and the world, changes the tone of the films. The Living Daylights might share structural and narrative similarities to For Your Eyes Only, but the tone is not the same because the tone of each Bond film is dictated by the actor above all else.

I think in Licence to Kill you see Dalton starting to truly carve out his own version of the Bond mythos. It’s an era that died prematurely, not allowing us to enjoy its full potential, but I think it at least gives us a taste of a truly different kind of Bond film. This is not Roger Moore cavorting with all the women on screen, however much I love that. This is a rougher, more dangerous, more human Bond.

Dalton’s Bond.

Anton: Anger marks Timothy Dalton’s Bond more than any other emotion or feature. In The Living Daylights it’s more irritation, but it’s full on wrath in Licence to Kill.

As I began to analyze what makes Dalton distinct, it struck me that, perhaps more than any of the other actors to play Bond, Dalton also seems like someone playing Bond. Connery and Moore inhabit their Bonds so comfortably.

Anders: Yes. I’d agree. This puts Dalton in the camp of Lazenby, who crafted his suits and hair after Connery’s in order to win the role. Connery and Moore on the other hand are simply inseparable from any consideration of the character. As much as I love Dalton in these films, few beyond the most loyal Bond fans rank him as highly as I do.

For Dalton’s take on the character, the classic Bond elements—the martinis, the ladykiller attitude, the suave secret agent—are a pose that he puts on. Fortunately, Dalton is such an accomplished actor that it comes across as a conscious choice on the part of the character rather than as bad acting. He does so much even with poor script choices that would have sunk a lesser actor. In Licence to Kill, his portrayal does allow the mask to fall away a little bit, and we get Dalton’s Bond as a purer expression of that anger you mentioned before. In the film Bond is also forced to play act as part of his actions, to infiltrate Sanchez’s operation and convince them that he’s part of the team. But behind all of Bond’s play acting—as the spy, the seducer, the traitor—lies his anger and desire for retribution.

But this doesn’t leave his character as merely a brooding avenger, as so many modern film heroes could be characterized. Dalton’s Bond is still able to have some fun. Dalton’s comic timing is particularly sharp, and he’s able to pull off many of the series' groan-worthy one-liners without winking or mugging. Take his retort to M in Licence to Kill, upon being stripped of his weapon and 00 designation: “I guess this is a farewell to arms,” could be seen as a merely a bad pun given that he’s standing in the Hemingway House in Key West, but he makes it work! Dalton combines the kind of macho 80s action hero one-liner stuff with the delivery and elegance of the Shakespearean stage actor he is.

Anton: That scene has some of the best acting of any Bond in any film. Writhing emotions cut across Dalton’s face when M won’t let him pursue Sanchez. You can see how his deep sense of duty is being twisted and torn.

Actually, Dalton in Licence to Kill might give one of the best performances of any Bond. It’s a great performance regardless of how you think someone should play Bond.

Aren: I think that if Dalton had been able to continue longer with the role, playing more in the mode of Licence to Kill, he’d probably be my favourite Bond. It’s not just that he’s playing the role more in line with how Fleming wrote him. This means that unlike Moore or Connery (or Lazenby), we’re allowed to see Dalton as a man playing the role of secret agent. We get a glimpse of his internal dialogue, which shows a cold, angry man who is exhausted with his job. It’s also that Dalton’s Bond exists in a relatable emotional reality. We can connect to him and sympathize with his motivations, understand the fact that these missions take a toll of his humanity, more than we can with the icons Moore and Connery.

I also love his anger. It lashes out in shocking ways. Dalton is great at blanching the silliness of his quips with violence. Think of the bar scene in Licence to Kill that descends into a Road House-style brawl. When Dario and the other henchman sit down with Bond and Pam, the waitress comes up and asks if the men want a drink. When the nameless henchman starts to flare up at the waitress, Bond hits him savagely in the crotch and smashes his head on the table, before throwing him back in his seat. His quip: “He’s had enough.” It’s a corny line, but paired with the savage beating, it’s also kind of scary. Dalton’s Bond is not satisfied with verbally diminishing people who annoy him. Instead he utterly dismantles them, and then masks his outbursts of rage with a joke. It’s wonderful acting and reveals a psychological complexity to this iconic spy. It shows that his humour is a coping mechanism.

Do Dalton’s films match his performance?

Anton: What if Dalton had done a new kind of Bond film? That’s a possibility Dalton’s second film partially engaged with, but the full potential of this most dangerous Bond was never fully realized.

Anders: I do wonder what GoldenEye would have been like with Dalton in the lead. As I said earlier, I do think he has amazing acting chops, and he always seems more dangerous than Pierce Brosnan in the role. I don’t hate Brosnan, he has his strengths, but exuding danger was never his strong point. I think that this is why some suggest that Dalton’s Bond lines up more with Fleming’s character as written in the novels.

Licence to Kill definitely marked a desire to do something different with Bond, such as putting him into an 80s revenge action film, but the script isn’t particularly strong. It’s the film’s weak point. GoldenEye is more filled with ideas and an interest in what makes the character tick post-Cold War, and it would have been interesting to see Dalton with a great script.

Aren: I agree. Dalton is the stronger Bond, but GoldenEye is the better story. It’s a personal mission for Bond that also taps into the sociopolitical climate in a way that seems essential, and it connects that to the personal journey of Bond. I really want to see an alternate reality version of GoldenEye where Timothy Dalton starred. I think it would’ve been a nice fit.

Dalton never got his masterpiece or his definitive film. Licence to Kill is the closest to his hallmark, but it’s not quite there yet. He doesn’t have a Goldfinger or a Live and Let Die or a Skyfall that perfectly encapsulates the actor and the era. As it remains, he’s the Bond actor whose potential was never fully realized. He’s the best actor to have played Bond, but he never was allowed to be the best Bond.