James Bond | The films and franchises that followed in its footsteps

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The James Bond films, over time, have had their fair share of imitators. Here’s a look at the films that followed in 007’s footsteps.

Dr No wasn’t the first spy film – 1928’s German Expressionist epic Spione (Spies) claims that crown, spawning such genre-defining tropes as the numerically-codenamed agent, untrustworthy love interest and an evil villain. But there can be no doubt that the Bond films took the spy genre to previously unknown levels of global box-office success.

The Bond films are, after all, the longest-running Hollywood franchise in cinema history. 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then 007 saw copycats emerge from all quarters following the release of 1962’s Dr No.

Every film market sought to make its spin on the globe-trotting ‘super-spy’, most often in the hope of replicating a formula that by the early 1960s, had quickly proved to be lucrative for Eon, rights-holders to the Bond character.

Although with their smirking British superiority and casual colonial racism, the early Bond films may or may not have been vaguely representative of the United Kingdom of the time, the franchise’s paymasters, MGM, were distinctly American. In fact, the studio’s approach to those early films smacked of a Hollywood approach still in vogue today, with ‘genre upscaling’ (basically ‘spend more to make more’ just in case you don’t speak Hollywood Corporate) in full effect. Budgets for the first three Bond films doubled each time, but profits soared. The more lavish the production, the more audiences flocked to see it.

Dr No poster
The movie that started it all: 1962’s Dr No.

That type of financial largesse has never really smacked of Britishness however, and so when Bond producer Harry Saltzman’s working relationship with partner Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli became difficult, sometime before 1965’s Thunderball, the Canadian struck out on his own, optioning Len Deighton’s spy novel, The Ipcress File. 

As one of only two people in the world who owned the screen rights to 007, Saltzman was able to convince Deighton that owning Bond meant he was the only producer who could be trusted not to recalibrate the author’s paranoid thriller with the glitzy 007 formula. The gambit worked.

Saltzman produced The Ipcress File with a dour British sensibility that has always characterised some of the UK’s greatest cinema; it’s the antithesis of Bond’s sparkling Monte Carlo glamour. As a lo-fi, noir-infused spy yarn, it made a star out of Michael Caine, who only a year prior played a supporting role in Zulu. 

The Ipcress File, with its grungy, ‘kitchen-sink’ aesthetic (lensed by Otto Heller, who often fills the foreground of the frame to create a claustrophobic tension), was produced by several key members of the Bond franchise’s creative team, enlisted by Saltzman, including most notably a stylistically-familiar score by composer John Barry. 

While the film spawned two sequels, charting the adventures of cynical spy Harry Palmer, followed by further belated ones in the 1990s, its status as an ‘anti-Bondseries was ultimately undermined as the subsequent movies began to span the globe and embrace audacious plots involving billion dollar supercomputers and Texan oil tycoons. The kind of overblown ideas that were steadily driving the Bond films.

The Ipcress File
Michael Caine in The Ipcress File.

It wasn’t just The Ipcress File and its successors that gained popularity in the wake of 007-mania. In 1965, the year both Ipcress and Thunderball released, the market was flooded with dozens of films that tried to tap into the espionage craze. With the Cuban Missile Crisis making headlines in 1962, the hostilities between east and west seeped into popular culture, highlighting the vital nature of espionage throughout the conflict. 

The spy captured the public imagination, much like the ninja had in feudal-era Japan, spawning countless stories, including a deluge of derivative ‘Eurospy’ movies from France and Italy such as the OSS-117 series. Even spy films that didn’t seek to emulate or consciously ‘counter-programme’ the 007 franchise were boosted by Bond-mania.

1965’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, for example, is the type of moody, monochromatic, Cold War thriller, starring Richard Burton, that benefited from the explosion of interest in the genre, drawing in a wider commercial audience due to the booming popularity of its subject matter. 

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

A year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the standoff between American and Soviet forces at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin had also captured the eyes of the world. These overt moments of conflict formed visual motifs that marked an otherwise invisible war. Naturally, filmmakers channelled such imagery, and both Checkpoint Charlie and the politically (and physically) divided city of Berlin was fertile creative ground for the spy genre. 

While the Bond movies themselves typically breezed over such geopolitical conflict (007 didn’t cross the Iron Curtain from West to East Berlin until 1983’s Octopussy), a slew of other films including the aforementioned The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Funeral In Berlin (the 1966 follow up to The Ipcress File), The Quiller Memorandum and Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain which appeared in the same year all featured the Berlin Wall in some form.  

As the point at which the world’s two major ideologies of the era collided, the Berlin border is potent political imagery indeed, and continues to be used today, especially by films seeking to inject the action of the ‘super-spy’ genre with authentic political conflict. Most notably, 2015’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and 2017’s Atomic Blonde, both of which fuse action cinema with the legitimate tension of Berlin Wall border smuggling, to spectacular effect.

The Man From UNCLE
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015).

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. began life as a US TV show, created to capitalise on Bond-mania in the early 1960s. Ian Fleming, James Bond’s creator, even had a hand in conceptualising story elements, just before his death. As imitators go, this one cut close enough for Eon to take legal action, contesting similarities between characters and the original plan to use Fleming’s name in the title. Ultimately, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would descend into spoof, embracing the growing trend that lampooned the super-spy genre, such as 1966’s Our Man Flint. 

Bollywood launched several of its own Bond clones, with a signature Indian cinema flourish: James Bond 777 was one such example. Although Bollywood Bond clones were certainly superior to 007 in the singing and dancing stakes, cultural norms meant that sex was off the table (or anywhere else for that matter), and partial nudity was restricted to locations where such behaviour had a ‘functional’ purpose. As such, the swimming pool became a key location in Indian super-spy films.

Ultimately, the appetite for the spy spoof would permeate back into the Bond franchise, which was itself in a state of uncertainty as the 1960s drew to a close. Sean Connery’s departure, return and departure again had sandwiched the perceived failure of George Lazenby’s 007 debut, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Box office was dropping and the abundance of espionage parodies didn’t reflecting well on the 007 franchise itself, since it highlighted its many absurdities. 

1967’s You Only Live Twice elected to use a hollowed-out volcano for villain Blofeld’s base, following in the footsteps of Our Man Flint, a Bond parody from the year prior. Clearly, when the source material pastiches its own parodies, the creative life-cycle of a genre is in frail health. Over the next two decades, although the super-spy movie spluttered, the Bond franchise survived by grafting itself onto more fashionable genres such as science fiction (Moonraker) and blaxploitation (Live And Let Die) but it was now a case of 007 taking inspiration from other films, rather than the other way around.

Clear And Present Danger
Clear And Present Danger (1994).

As the 1990s dawned, however, the spy franchise, inspired in part by the 007 movies, mounted a comeback. Jack Ryan, the Tom Clancy-created CIA action hero would feature in a trilogy of films in the first half of the decade that would borrow some the espionage action beats of 007, whilst meshing them in a more grounded, Americanised political setting. 

The Ryan films (1990’s Hunt for Red October, 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear And Present Danger) clearly owed a debt to the Bond franchise’s action set pieces. Whether it was Alec Baldwin trying to transition from a helicopter to a submarine in the middle of a storm, or Harrison Ford (who played Ryan in the two subsequent films) brawling with terrorists aboard a flaming, runaway speedboat in Patriot Games, the shadow of Bond’s exploits loomed large. 

There were notable differences, too, however – ones that would eventually have major repercussions for the 007 films. Baldwin and especially Ford in his outings instilled Jack Ryan with an everyman quality that set him apart from the establishment snobbery of 007.

Case in point: Bond, whilst on the Orient Express in the novel From Russia With Love, once grew suspicious of a Russian mole simply because of his choice of tie knot (Windsor rather than four-finger in case you were wondering). This elitism was absent from Ryan’s character, who, fused with Ford’s blue-collar acting style became something of an anti-authority figure, even challenging the US President in Clear And Present Danger.

The cinema depiction of Ryan served as a self-portrait of America’s role as a world power in contrast to the extinct British Empire. Where Bond was callous, cruel and haughty, Ryan was unrefined yet compassionate, lacking perhaps the supreme capability of Bond but more than making up for it in willpower and integrity. In turn, Ryan’s humanised spy fused with action set pieces would go on to influence the Bourne films, perhaps the most transformative espionage films since 007’s cinematic debut in 1962. 

In 2002, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne (in The Bourne Identity) combined the human elements of the Jack Ryan character, cleverly suffused with the ‘damaged goods’ approach used by the harder-edged spy films of the 1960s. A gritty, documentary-style aesthetic, courtesy of director Doug Liman (replaced by Paul Greengrass in the two subsequent films), reinvigorated the genre’s visual style, but Bond wasn’t entirely forgotten. The fight scenes, car chases and double-crosses come directly from 007’s DNA, even if Damon himself would be loath to admit it. He told The Miami Herald in 2009 that Bond was ‘repulsive. Bond is an imperialist, misogynist sociopath who goes around bedding women and swilling Martinis and killing people.’

It’s ironic then, given Damon’s dislike of Bond, that the 007 franchise’s post-millennial resurgence is directly attributable to his memorable performances as Jason Bourne, alongside the soon to be fashionable post 9/11 stylings of the Bourne series. Prior to Daniel Craig-era stylistic reimagining in 2006, the Bond films arguably spent much of the previous two decades in something of a malaise, partly perhaps due to an identity crisis for the character.

The Cold War ended, the world changed and the hyper-masculine action heroes of the 1980s faded slowly into history. Apartheid was abolished, capitalism prospered and the traditional Bond girl stereotype found itself looking ridiculously out of place. It was a world where Bond, a womanising, alpha-male Cold War warrior, had become immaterial. GoldenEye directly addressed this in 1995, when Judi Dench’s M refers to Bond as a “sexist misogynistic dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War.”

Despite his growing irrelevance, however, the Bond series continued to inspire several other films in that period that would lay the groundwork for a new wave of espionage action cinema. 

True Lies
Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies (1994).

Arnold Schwarzenegger channeled his inner James Bond in 1994’s True Lies, which bolted 007 conventions to the Austrian superstar’s trademark action. The film performed strongly but plans for further sequels were quietly shelved in the wake of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, as two-dimensional, Middle-Eastern terrorist villains suddenly seemed far too real to be depicted in a breezy spy caper. 

One 90s spy thriller that had no problem spawning a franchise of its own was Mission: Impossible, a 1996 Tom Cruise vehicle directed in Hitchcockian style by Brian De Palma. Like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. before it, Mission: Impossible had started life as a TV show, created in response to 1960s Bond-mania. As with True Lies, the film incarnation stole liberally from Bond conventions, but grafted them onto Cruise’s winning charming movie star persona.

Mission: Impossible in turn spawned a number of further imitators such as xXx and later entries in The Fast And The Furious franchise. Along with the regular instalments of the Mission: Impossible movies, for a brief time, this new wave of action espionage ruled the box office, although over the last ten years it has had to share top billing with the superhero genre.

Naturally, as the spy movie flourished once more, parodies soon followed. Mike Myers’ Austin Powers series was the most successful, even resulting in Michael Caine returning to lampoon his Harry Palmer persona in 2002’s Goldmember. Get Smart, Johhny English and Spy followed, and the genre continues to do solid box-office numbers. 

For the Bond films however, a change was due. For 2006’s Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s incoming 007 would see, not for the first time, the series look to the success of other franchises for inspiration. Craig’s tenure saw the series borrow from the Bourne films, veering into both geopolitical realism and human drama, recasting its protagonist as a flawed and damaged agent – a flesh-and-blood human with real vulnerabilities. 

In turn, this created an empathy for the character that had been absent for decades. With Daniel Craig now having hung up his tux, however, both Bond and spy cinema occupy a surer foothold than they have for decades.

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