Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Biggest and The Best: Remembering Lewis Gilbert

Lewis Gilbert directing Roger Moore in Moonraker (1979), his third and last James Bond film.

On February 23, 2018, director Lewis Gilbert passed away at the age of 97. He was the first "drama director" of the James Bond series, a path later followed by filmmakers like Michael Apted, Marc Forster and Sam Mendes. Curiously, while the later three "drama directors" embraced their genre and filled the characterization of Bond with complex internal conflicts about his feelings or dedication to duty, Gilbert tought differently.

Hired to direct 1967's You Only Live Twice (the first "last" Bond film starring Sean Connery) a year after the success of Alfie, starring Michael Caine, Gilbert said that 007 was meant to be a big entertainment and full of escapism without too much drama. And while Twice offers a rather poignant scene where Japanese secret service agent Aki accidentally swallows a poison meant for Bond and dies, the film would be the first extravagant Bond movie where the villain plots World War Three to his benefice, operates from a hi-tech lair (in this case, the interior of a volcano) and is run down after an epic battle between Bond's "army" (Tanaka's ninjas) and the opposing forces of SPECTRE guards.

1995 video artwork for The Spy Who Loved Me,
showcasing the climatic battle behind Bond
He wouldn't return to the series until the Roger Moore era with The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, released in 1977 and 1979, respectively. When Ian Fleming specified that the story of his 1962 novel (written in first person from the point of a kidnapped girl saved by Bond) should be avoided except of its title, screenwriter Christopher Wood had the huge challenge to start from the scratch for the 1977 film. This lead to a very suitable film for Gilbert to direct since the plot was very similar in structure and concept to You Only Live Twice: a powerful villain captures a Russian and a British submarine in order to use its nuclear missles to destroy human life and start again with "a beautiful world beneath the sea". 

There are enough quantities of chases and explosions in The Spy Who Loved Me that include a ski chase, a fight inside a train between Bond and the invincible Jaws and the patriotic finale inside the villain's supertanker which, according to author James Chapman in Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films, it's a hidden recreation of World War Two were Bond is joined by the British, Americans and Russians (imprisoned crewmen from the kidnapped submarines) against the villain Stromberg of German lineage (curiously, Stromberg's plot involves the creation of a "new race", just like Hitler). Notably, there was a little drama involved in the story as Anya Amasova, the main girl and a Russian agent who cooperates with Bond, threatens to kill the secret agent when she learns Bond eliminated her boyfriend on a mission. However, this situation is barely a sub-plot hidden under the big action scenes: something that Forster or Mendes would have enhanced in the story much more as Bond's thirst for revenge in Quantum of Solace or his loyalty to Judi Dench's M in Skyfall and after her death in SPECTRE.

German lobby card for You Only Live Twice,
featuring Blofeld inside his volcano lair

Moonraker follows again the same "villain with new world ambitions" predicament with Hugo Drax, who changed sides from being Ian Fleming's bridge cheater war hero who resented England to become an industrialist so interested in the space conquest to the point of eliminating the human race and creating a race of "perfect" specimens on his outer space station. 

The elements of action and humour in Moonraker exceed the extravagancy of The Spy Who Loved Mee and You Only Live Twice with a scene where Bond goes trough St Marks square with a modified gondola (camera takes a detailed shot of a pigeon and a dog looking surprised, a waiter slipping a drink to a costumer played by Gilbert himself, etc) or a Star Wars-like laser battle between the US Marines and Drax's forces floating into space. Far from hiding the fact Moonraker was a tribute to the sci-fi genre in many ways, the classic tune of Close Encounters of The Third Kind is heard as a passcode to enter Drax's laboratory.

After Moonraker, John Glen took over the director's chair and the rest of the Moore films and the two Timothy Dalton adventures had more doseage of thrills and violence. The Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig films have sometimes recovered the grandilocuence of the Gilbert style, but the audience was always remembered not everything in Bond's life were tuxedos, girls and Martinis and that being him was rather tough. Those were other times and other Bonds, and the prospect of a successful hero was far more welcome than today were audiences want to empathise with the protagonist instead of envying him.

Nonetheless, Lewis Gilbert was responsible to make Bond GREAT in every sense. In his films, he didn't save England. He saved the world. And stopped being a British icon to become a worldwide icon.

This is your second life, Lewis. Thanks for the memories.
Rest in peace.

Nicolás Suszczyk

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