Shaken Not Stirred: Five Great Character Moments in the Roger Moore James Bond Era
I VERY happily grew up with Sir Roger Moore in the role of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and thus maintain a deep well of affection and nostalgia for his seven films…even if some Bond fans do not
Moore’s epoch as Agent 007 isn’t usually considered the most creatively fertile time in the franchise’s history, in part because the Bond films of the day pursued “hot” movie trends instead of initiating them, as had been the case in the 1960s.
To wit, the Bond movies of the Moore era attempted to jump on the bandwagon of Blaxploitation cinema (Live and Let Die ), martial arts/Kung-Fu films (The Man with the Golden Gun ), and even the Star Wars craze (Moonraker ).
Despite the fact that Bond films of this time period seem desperate to pinpoint some – any — pop culture relevance, the Roger Moore efforts nonetheless boast some surprising character moments that could have been ripped straight from the novels…and Fleming’s literary descriptions of the character.
For instance, at least two films of the Roger Moore era (The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only) make explicit mention of the character’s tragic history — namely his dead wife, Tracy — a background that the last Connery film, Diamonds are Forever (1971) totally ignored.
Although it is undeniable that some James Bond films of the Roger Moore indeed tread heavily into unfortunate slapstick comedy (see: the pigeon doing a double-take at a gondola-turned-hovercraft in Moonraker), the actor’s finest moments in the famous role arrive not when he is called upon to play scenes broadly or cheekily, but rather when he is tasked with expressing Bond’s humanity.
Some of these “human” moments are small, even throwaway ones, but each one reminds the audience that 007 is not just a superhuman quipster in a white-dinner jacket. He’s still a man who bleeds, sweats, and struggles.
In chronological order then, here are five character moments from the James Bond Era of Roger Moore:
From The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): Bond talks to agent Triple XXX (Barbara Bach) about the fact that he murdered her lover.
The Spy Who Loved Me sees British and Russian intelligence join up to solve the mystery of several missing nuclear submarines. Britain’s finest, Bond, and Russia’s – XXX — join forces, and trace the missing subs back to a man named Stromberg (Curt Jurgen).
In a scene set in Sardinia, where Stromberg is headquartered, XXX confronts Bond about the fact that he may have murdered her lover three weeks earlier, on an unconnected assignment.
Bond turns away from XXX (and the audience), before he answers her accusation. Finally, he tells her that it’s hard to know who you kill when you’re racing on skis at 40 miles an hour…but yes, he did kill her lover. At this point, she informs Bond that after their mission is done, she will murder him.
This scene reminds the audience both of the constant danger in Bond’s profession, and its emotional toll upon him. Moore doesn’t rush the scene, or play it lightly. Instead, he takes his time with Bond’s response, giving us time to wonder how Bond will answer. It’s a balancing act for 007, because if he tells XXX the truth, their mission together will be imperiled. But he also feels he owes her the truth…so he gives it to her.
Bond’s sense of duty and moral code is on display in this scene, and Moore gets that aspect of the character absolutely right.
The longer that Bond is in the business of killing people, the more bodies will pile up, and the more angry spouses or family members he will be forced to confront. From this scene, we understand very clearly how Bond’s profession separates him from other people, even from other people in the spy business.
From Moonraker (1979): A rattled Bond — nearly pulped in a sabotage training centrifuge — pushes away Dr. Holly Goodhead (Loise Chiles) as she tries to help him.
This is an almost throwaway moment, but it occurs early in the 1979 film. Bond is visiting the complex of industrialist Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), and Drax has secretly ordered that “some harm” come to him on a tour of the facility.
Dr. Holly Goodhead – secretly a CIA agent — convinces Bond to try out a training centrifuge, but then steps away, unwittingly leaving the villainous henchman Chang (Toshira Suga) to sabotage the machinery, and nearly kill Bond.
An apologetic Goodhead returns after Bond has disabled the deadly machine, and worriedly asks 007 what happened.
Instead of answering, he staggers out of the centrifuge, pushes her aside roughly, and is clearly pissed.
He doesn’t want to talk.
He doesn’t want to relate.
He’s angry, and this moment reveals that Moore’s Bond isn’t always suave or slick, or on the make. This is one of the few times in the Moore films that we see Bond genuinely ruffled, and knocked off-kilter.
In this moment, audiences see a hurt and angry Bond, one who momentarily rejects civility and who hasn’t yet restored his façade of charm.
It’s a telling — if brief — moment for the character. The ever-present mask of composure falls away.
From Moonraker (1979): Bond saves 100,000 people from nerve gas…without quipping.
At the end of Moonraker, Bond and Goodhead board a space shuttle, Moonraker 5, and attempt to destroy three globes in Earth orbit.
If these globes re-enter the atmosphere, they’ll spew toxic nerve gas across whole continents. Bond destroys two without breaking a sweat, but can’t draw a bead on the third and final canister. He must switch to “manual” control to target it when things get rough.
Meanwhile, both the globe and the shuttle are making bumpy re-entry…
Now, on first blush, this moment might seem like a retread of Star Wars’ finale, with Luke Skywalker switching to manual control to lob two proton torpedoes into the Death Star vent.
But — wholly unexpectedly — this moment proves to the most suspenseful and tense of the entire film, which too often trends towards slapstick humor.
Moore has been accused of playing the 007 character “lightly,” but here he plays the character as hyper-focused and severe. Bond often carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he has never undertaken that task as literally as he does in Moonraker (1979), with whole populations imperiled. He has one shot to save the world, so he better make the most of it…
There are no quips, no smiles, and no trademark charm.
Instead, we get an extreme close-up of a tense man in action. Just lots of sweat and those piercing, laser-sharp blue eyes…
From For Your Eyes Only (1981): James Bond kicks a car off a cliff
For Your Eyes Only is far and away Roger Moore’s best Bond film, a grounded, action-packed follow-up to the outer space extravaganza of Moonraker. The film features many great action scenes, particularly the final mountain climbing set-piece, which endures as another masterpiece of escalating suspense.
But in terms of character moments, Moore gets a great one in this movie.
Near the end of For Your Eyes Only, he fights a merciless assassin, Locque (Michael Gothard). Locque has been killing agents and Bond’s allies throughout the whole film, and now Bond finally has him cornered, his car perched on the edge of a rocky cliff.
In his car, Locque panics at his precarious predicament, but things get worse when Bond approaches, and tosses him a keepsake: the “Dove” pin Locque left behind at several crime scenes.
Bond returns the pin to Locque….and then kicks the fucker’s car off the cliff.
Again, there’s nothing light or jokey about this moment. Bond is judge, jury and executioner, and he dispatches Locque with blunt, brutal finality. There are times for compassion and times for humor…and this isn’t one of them. Instead, Bond wordlessly metes out justice. He does so in one fluid movement.
This is the very moment, perhaps, when many Bond fans realized how ill-served Roger Moore had been by some of the Bond scripts. He was capable of being as tough, but rarely had the opportunity to flex that muscle. He shows here that he can capture Bond’s grace, and killer instinct…with perfect economy.
From Octopussy (1983): Bond explains to Octopussy (Maud Adams) how he treated her father.
In Octopussy, Bond travels to India and meets the mysterious smuggler called Octopussy on her private island. She asks him a question about an old case, and there’s every chance their meeting could go fatally wrong. Specifically, Octopussy asks if Bond remembers Major Dexter Smythe.
Bond does remember.
Turns out he was a British agent turned thief who Bond was tasked with bringing into custody. But instead of merely arresting the criminal, Bond gave the man twelve hours to get his affairs in order. Rather than be publicly disgraced, the major took his own life.
Octopussy is his daughter, and she is grateful that Bond gave Smythe time to consider his fate, and avoid public disgrace for his family.
Once more, we are confronted with Bond’s code of ethics. He may be licensed to kill and serve Her Majesty’s Secret Service but he’s not a monster, and when he goes into the field, he interprets orders, rather than simply obeying them. As I wrote above, there are times for compassion, and this story reveals such a time.
Again, Moore is particularly good in this scene because Bond is in a bind. Lie to avoid consequences? Or tell the truth and face them?
He picks the latter, and earns Octopussy’s respect for his honesty (as well as historical behavior). The message is that this Bond is a man of honor.
These days, the Bond films are serious, emotional affairs about a wounded warrior, and that’s all to the good. It’s easy to look back at the Bond films of the 1970s and decry them as being silly or inconsequential by comparison.
Many aspects of the films do fit that bill, but Sir Roger Moore was the 007 for my generation, and — in moments like the ones I enumerated above — I’m glad he was on the job.