Spectre and the Trauma Theory of Literature


2015 Directed Sam Mendes

The new Bond opens on the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, with tens of thousands of masked people in the streets, with music, drumming, elaborate floats, men in black suits with white skeletons drawn on their backs, women in flowing Latin dresses. Bond is, of course, in the middle of this, with a beautiful woman, although we only find this out – that the person we are following (who is following someone else) is Bond, and that the woman is beautiful – when they get to their hotel room and de-mask. Perhaps, we think, she thinks, they will now make love. It is not to be. In one of the finest and most understated takes in the whole film Daniel Craig climbs out of the window, walks along the very edge of the parapets of several tall buildings, the revelry continuing, vertiginously, several stories below. He’s carrying an unusual kind of automatic weapon. He moves with ease and grace. He’s not being chased or chasing, just travelling to his destination, oblivious to the danger. You don’t need to know more. Suffice to say there will be explosions, collapsing buildings, helicopters. All before the credits.

Image via Sony Pictures and MGM

In many ways this opening sequence is the best part of the film – which is not to say that there are not some delightful set pieces, that the film is not entertaining – it’s just that, at this stage, there is no plot, the only narrative we have is Bond’s casual ease with heights, his singular poise and purpose, his actions in defence of innocent people, and this gives the scene a freedom which the rest of the film would dearly love to have, weighed down, as it is, by clumsy sub-plots, vendettas, old alliances and new loves.

Let me declare my biases: I like Bond films. I particularly like Daniel Craig as Bond. When, in Skyfall – once again in an opening sequence – he boards the train, protects himself from being shot by climbing into the cabin of a front-end loader on a float car and then, miraculously, delightfully, thwarts his enemy’s ploy of disengaging the railcars by grabbing the carriage in front with the arm of the aforementioned metallic beast, ripping half its roof off in the process, when he has crawled up the arm and dropped down into the passenger car, full of tremulous innocents, he straightens up, stops for a moment. He stops to adjust his jacket and to shoot his cuffs. Only then does he leap forward to continue pursuing his enemy. That moment is, in my mind, worthy of the whole rollicking, enormous, over-priced, over-blown, worn out franchise.

The problem with that film, Skyfall, and, even moreso, with Spectre, and I think I can talk about this without giving spoilers, is that the plots are asinine. Not because Bond survives where several hundred others (including the arch-enemy and a couple of beautiful women) die. That’s never really been the issue; we’re in the business here of the voluntary suspension of disbelief. The problem is that the stories have become centred around Bond himself. The evil genius who is bent on world domination, in these new iterations, is not surprised or even dismayed to find Bond at his heels, interfering with his plans. Bond is, rather, at the centre of his plans. Bond is his raison d’etre, Bond is the kernel of pain at the core of his existence. Elaborate back stories are woven to create this, adoptions, substitutions, mentorships. But this focus on him as the familial member who must be overcome on the path to world domination – as if, in fact, world domination is secondary to humiliating Bond, detracts from the enjoyment in the films in such a profound way that it is all but impossible to put disbelief aside.

I don’t want to discover that Bond knew the arch-villain when they were children and one or other of them offended someone. I couldn’t give a rat’s arse to be honest. I’m not in the cinema for a psychological assessment of childhood hurt and how it has given rise to the present villain or the present Bond, I’m there to be blown away by the sheer grandiose hubris of the villain’s plans, his or her delusions of grandeur which should be, it must be said, fantastic, overblown, and slightly scary. I’m here to see Bond, against all odds, foil these plans and rescue the girl (although, it must be said, in this new film the girl has at least some agency, which is a great relief).

What has happened recently in the series is that the requirement for an ‘origin story’ has overtaken the genre under the rubric of what Hemingway referred to as ‘the trauma theory of literature’. As I said a moment ago, who cares? Bond films are not literature and we don’t want this guff pasted on them in the hope of making them so. Bond is not a character we love because he was badly treated as a child. We love him because he knows how important it is to be well dressed when dropping into a train carriage, or going into a bar, a ballroom, or a battle. Cut the nonsense please, and give us some real nonsense instead.


  1. Steven, your comments on the failings of the dramatic focus pivoting on Bond himself hit the nail right on the head.
    Watching Spectre, it occurred to me: Bond is actually Biggles with a pasted-on dick. This sits well with your argument: we didn’t read Biggles to find out that he was abused by a pedophile priest (a likely backstory, but not quite the point of the genre), we read Biggles to watch him give The Hun/Russian/Foreigner-With-Horrid-Breath-And-Weird-Sounding-Name the old one-two along with a good dose of British derring-do.
    [Actually, Biggles did have a back story. ‘The Boy Biggles’ is set in India and involves snakes and rabid dogs and coolies calling Biggles ‘Sahib’ and him being frightfully decent to them in return. Now that’s more like it.]
    Biggles/Bond is a post-war prototype of what it means to be British. This does indeed mean shooting one’s cuffs after one leaps through the rooves of moving trains to pursue one’s nemeses. It also, in the current movie, involves walking briskly-but-calmly to one’s escape helicopter so as to avoid sweat stains at the armpits of one’s dinner jacket as the headquarters of global surveillance/domination/bad-styling explodes in a fireball behind as a result of one’s very own derring-do.
    The evolution of Bond movies has run counterpoint to the evolution of American action movies: Bond’s ludicrous sangfroid gains its comic affect against the ground of American action tropes—walking calmly to the escape-helicopter gains its (comic) meaning because it is precisely what Bruce Willis would not do.
    It is we, as viewers, who have evolved, as we have come to realise it is no longer kosher to have coolies (however decent we might be to them), nor to punch Germans in the nose. We can only watch Bond with the distance of irony because the reality of what he represents now is unpalatable. This distancing effect has reached such an extent that the best way to watch a Bond movie is as a form of absurdist surrealism. How else are we meant to read the scene where Bond + Girl are dropped by a train in the middle of the desert with a couple of small cases after having watched their several elaborate costume changes in previous scenes and then to watch a Rolls Royce approach from the distance? The juxtaposition is ludicrous, and then we realise it is intended to be hilarious. Surrealism plays with our expectations, and this is precisely what the movie is doing here, and this is precisely what works in a Bond movie. The whole trauma-theory plot that you identify runs completely counter to the surrealist motive, which is to make things strange, not explicable. The attempt to explain the present in terms of the past undermines the random juxtapositions that give Bond his surrealist twist, and which allows the humour room to breath…

  2. I like your analysis of the scene when the Rolls Royce comes to pick them up as surreal (and we note that Bond, of course, knows it is a 1948 Silver Cloud, because he knows his cars just like he knows his women, his wine and how to fly a helicopter). You and I could write a decent script together!

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