Orchids and Butterflies


Orchids and Butterflies:
James Bond as Mr. Know-It-All

By David Morefield

By the last reel of Goldfinger, James Bond has overcome countless obstacles in his battle against "The Man with the Midas Touch." However, his efforts are nearly undone when he finds himself utterly clueless about how to defuse the atomic device ticking away in the bowels of Fort Knox. Thankfully, an expert arrives at the last second to bail out our hero, not to mention the economic stability of the free world.

Defusing a bomb
Bond has no difficulty defusing a nuke in The Spy Who Loved Me. (MGM)

Twelve years and seven films later, Bond is trapped aboard the supertanker Liparus in The Spy Who Loved Me. With great care he knowingly removes, disables, re-wires and finally detonates the explosive trigger device from a nuclear missile, pausing along the way to explain the procedure to the crew of a nuclear submarine, whom you might have expected to know a thing or two about it already.

Obviously something happened between 1964 and 1977 to transform Bond from a well-dressed killer with little understanding of electrical and atomic engineering into a cross between Thomas Edison and Robert Oppenheimer. Moreover, Bond's expertise hardly stops with nuclear disarmament. By the mid-'80s, he's demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge on subjects ranging from deep-sea diving gear and electromagnetic pulses to butterfly collecting and even the history of rare orchids!

The latter makes for an almost surreal moment in Moonraker (one of many, I suppose!). Merely glancing at a complex schematic, Bond declares, "That's the chemical formula of a plant!" Then, when shown a photo of the plant, he instantly identifies it as the extinct Orchidea Negra. And despite Q's belief that it grew along the Amazoco, Bond knows it is actually from the "upper regions of the River Tiperathi."

"He (Bond) had no illusions about this fact, thinking of himself as a "blunt instrument" for Britain, a weapon used to crush the life out of the nation's enemies."

Fleming's Bond: No Brainiac

Needless to say, Ian Fleming hardly envisioned his hero as such a Sherlock Holmes. In the original novels, Bond had little interest in the mechanical workings of modern gadgets, much less the ancient flowers of foreign lands. If anything, Bond is an anti-intellectual. When it comes to stimulation, he definitely prefers the "sensory" variety over the cerebral. The feel of sunshine on his skin on a Jamaican beach, the combination of tastes in a perfectly prepared meal, the sensation of driving too fast down a dangerous road, all thrill him in ways a trip to the library never could.

Of course there were some things Bond enjoyed learning — like how to cheat at cards in the novel "Moonraker," or some of the finer points of Japanese life in "You Only Live Twice." But most of these lessons either involved subjects he had a personal interest in, or were taught by friends and mentors with whom he enjoyed spending time.

Why bother with all that studying anyway? In the grand scheme of things, Bond was after all not a detective, but a hired killer in the employ of his government. The only things he really had to understand were how to kill and how to get away. He had no illusions about this fact, thinking of himself as a "blunt instrument" for Britain, a weapon used to crush the life out of the nation's enemies.

In the areas that mattered, Bond was an expert, going so far as to teach some of his skills to new agents. In From Russia With Love, the Smersh dossier on 007 calls him an "all-round athlete; expert pistol shot, boxer, knife-thrower" who speaks French and German fluently, "knows the basics of judo" and "in general, fights with tenacity and has a high tolerance of pain." Thus Bond has two main sets of skills: Those he uses to kill (shooting, knifing, fighting) and those that get him in a position to kill (skill with a couple of languages and the ability to survive torture. A lot of it!).

This is not to say Bond was an uncultured dimwit, mind you. He has other skills and knowledge which add to his appeal as a character, namely a gourmand's appreciation of fine food and spirits, great skill at cards and games of chance, expert driving ability and a natural talent for golf. Some of these skills figure into Bond's successes in various missions, but they're really just extensions of his interests and hobbies, not subjects taught in spy school. A chubby, poorly dressed slob who preferred fish and chips to Filet of Sole might have been just as good a spy (but not nearly as much fun to read about!).

Bond also enjoys physical sports, and as a result is an accomplished swimmer, a formidable mountain climber and an expert skier. In "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," he muses that "as a teenager, he learned his skiing in the old Hannes Schneider School at St Anton in the Arlberg. He had got pretty good and had won his golden K." Whatever the heck a golden K is, he surely earned another one during his hair-raising escape from Piz Gloria later in the book.

And so Fleming's Bond is a man trained in the arts of combat and stealth, but also at home in the posh surroundings of the finest restaurants and hotels, and the equal of any amateur athlete around. But a rocket scientist he definitely ain't. Nor does he wish to be.

You Look So Much Smarter on Screen

The films changed all that, and in the end it was probably a necessary change. Where athleticism and sophistication may have been enough to keep Bond on top in the novels of the 1950s, they weren't enough to cement his status as a cultural icon in the increasingly technical world of the 60's and beyond. In time, the very name "James Bond" would become synonymous with "cutting-edge technology," the way "Buck Rogers" did for earlier generations.

"When Bond corrects Q on the orchid issue in Moonraker, he comes off as simply an arrogant jerk. He has become exactly the kind of pontificating know-it-all he used to despise."

Questionable brandy? (MGM)

Lepidopterology expert 007. (MGM)

When 007 is pulled from the literary world and onto the big screen in Dr. No (1962), he's almost immediately quizzed about the concept of "toppling" missiles, a subject far more technical and topical than anything found in Fleming's novel. Though Bond seems a bit unsure of his answer, M indicates that it's close enough. After that initial briefing, there's not a lot of call for scientific knowledge, and ultimately victory goes not to Dr. No's great mind but to Bond's muscle, stamina and willpower. In fact, Bond irritates the villain tremendously by refusing to appreciate his "brilliance." At one point, he even goads his host with the sarcastic jab, "We can't all be geniuses."

In From Russia With Love, the only mental skills Bond needs are cunning and guile, and even there he nearly meets his match in the nefarious Red Grant. In fact, the only "genius" this time out is chess-master Kronsteen, who is portrayed as such an insufferable egotist that even Blofeld is glad to be rid of him. Again the message seems to be that quick-thinking adaptability (Bond's forte) is more admirable than cold logic or methodical strategy. Think on your feet and you're a good guy; sit around thinking all day, and you must be some kind of nut.

If anything, the subtext of these earliest Bonds seems to be that there's still a place in this technical, push-button world for an old-fashioned, two-fisted man of action. Dr. No's lair and Bond's groovy briefcase in Russia may make for fun eye candy, but at their core these films are about an all-too human secret agent who survives by his wits and strength. With the arrival of the Aston Martin in Goldfinger, things begin to take a dramatic shift, to the point where the gadgets finally become as big a draw as Bond himself, and he almost has to be a genius just to operate them all.

Whenever Bond does pipe up with some sort of expert knowledge, he gets a chilly reception from M, creating one of the more entertaining running gags of the early films. Briefed on gold smuggling over a fine dinner, Bond launches into a critique on the shortcomings of his brandy, only to have M bark, "Colonel Smithers is giving the lecture, 007!" Amusingly, M later surreptitiously sniffs at the brandy, as if thinking to himself, "An overdose of what? Smells alright to me!"

This sets up a continuing rivalry, as the highly placed, old-school Englishman "M" is constantly out-classed by Bond, a bare-knuckled brawler who is the antithesis of the stereotypical English dandy. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond visits M at his country estate. Finding the Admiral in his study pinning butterflies to a display board, he correctly identifies the species at a mere glance, and even "insults" the old man a bit by pointing out it's a particularly small one! M grumbles, "I wasn't aware your expertise extended to lepidoptery", obviously miffed that even his inner sanctum provides no escape from Bond's constant one-upmanship. Thank goodness at least Bond didn't point out that the correct word would have been "lepidopterology!"

In Diamonds Are Forever, M gets a bit of revenge as Bond admits he knows little about diamonds. "Refreshing to know there's one subject you're not an expert on," he says with some satisfaction. Even so, what was first played for laughs has by now become an integral element of Bond's character: Somehow he has grown into an expert on everything. The trend continues in the Moore years, with Bond and Anya trying to outdo each other with Stromberg trivia during their briefing by M and Gogol in The Spy Who Loved Me. Again, this is played for a chuckle, part of the romantic tension between two equals. But when Bond corrects Q on the orchid issue in Moonraker, he comes off as simply an arrogant jerk. He has become exactly the kind of pontificating know-it-all he used to despise.

Taken in a larger context, this seems part of trend to make Bond the best at everything he does. It's no longer enough to be the best-dressed man around, or even to win every fight and race; now Bond has to be smarter than anyone on Earth. But where audiences might have admired Bond's spontaneous acts of genius like spilling oil behind his boat and setting fire to it in From Russia With Love, or killing Oddjob with a handy electrical cable, it's doubtful many viewers were impressed with Bond's encyclopedic knowledge of obscure subjects.

Somehow we just identified more readily with the old Bond, who fidgeted during Q's briefings, showed an arrogant disinterest in Largo's lectures on sharks, and looked decidedly uncomfortable in meetings. He seemed to be a guy after our own hearts, ready for the next action or love scene and impatient with the yakkety-yak from all the "smart guys." Bond's later tendency to dominate any gathering with his superior knowledge of all things failed to impress. Millions of us may have grown up thinking, "I wish I were James Bond," but most of us don't finish that thought with, "then I'd I know a lot more about orchids."

Don't Get Smart with Me, Mister!

Sensing this, the producers backed off the Sherlock routine in ensuing films. In fact, Timothy Dalton has said one of the first things he did after getting the role was to trim more than half his dialogue out of the script for The Living Daylights. The result was a Bond who ran his mouth a lot less, but when he did talk people listened. Even so, he's able to fly a C-130 with ease, so obviously he's still something of a jack-of-all-trades.

Christmas Jones
Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough (MGM)

For the most part, the Brosnan films have continued the portrayal of Bond as an accomplished professional who knows his job, but still has room to learn a thing or two. In cases where expert knowledge is called for, he's given a skilled helper rather than spontaneously developing new skills himself. Of course, since we're still talking about Bond films, these "helpers" tend to be gorgeous women. It's doubtful you'll find many real-world nuclear weapons experts who dress in hot pants and tank tops, for example, but who's complaining? This new approach solves the age-old problem of "why is this girl here anyway" while leaving Bond free to hog the glory in the action scenes.

And yet, again, there are those odd moments, like the pre-credits sequence of Tomorrow Never Dies, wherein Bond hops into a Soviet fighter jet and out-flies another one flown by a man trained to do the job! It's frankly hard to imagine MI6 footing the bill for Bond to learn to fly foreign-made fighters on the off chance he'll ever need to use one. After all, that's what the RAF is for. Not to be cold-hearted about it, but it seems like a waste of tax funds to send Bond to Top Gun school when his job is to slink around dark alleys and kill people, and his life expectancy is slightly longer than that of the average housefly.

And so at the start of a new millennium, we have a James Bond with skills his literary predecessor never had, or needed, and for the most part that's probably as it should be. The very nature of espionage has changed dramatically since Fleming's day, with most real-world spy work involving either the theft of secrets via computer or the capture of agents via those same computers. It's probably unreasonable to expect 007 to prosper in the 21st century without a healthy knowledge of things technical.

On the other hand, it's almost as hard to get excited about a chair-bound keyboard jockey as it is to cheer on a smarty-pants who knows everything about rare orchids. To heck with the real world, the talents we want most in our spies are the ability to order the right drink, look great in a tuxedo and open up a can of whoop-ass on the bad guys. That's the kind of expertise our boy James has always had in spades, and thankfully it looks like he will for a long time to come.

As intellectual powerhouses go, 007 may not win any Nobel prizes, but so what? You think Einstein could have figured out how to keep from getting killed after falling from a plane with no parachute? Darn right he couldn't. So there.