The geography of James Bond

Professor Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway:

As audiences gear up for the new James Bond film, Skyfall, one element gets consistently under-estimated in reviews; geography.

Geography is critical to the James Bond series. When Ian Fleming invented the superspy James Bond he did so writing at his home Goldeneye in Jamaica. Having been a wartime naval spy, Fleming was eager to convey a strong sense of intrigue and excitement. Bond could not have any old mission. He had to be seen to be travelling to interesting and indeed exotic places that most of his western readers could only have dreamt about. If they sounded more familiar like France, as opposed to Japan, then Bond had to stay in top hotels or visit exclusive resorts while chasing or confronting the evil genius or criminal/terrorist network.

In some senses this should not surprise us. Fleming liked to travel. In his book Thrilling Cities (1963), published close to his eventual death in 1964, Fleming recalls travelling to 13 cities including Hong Kong, Las Vegas, New York, Berlin, Venice and Vienna. Many of these cities were to feature in his Bond novels and later in the films. And the Caribbean settings such as Dr No reflected in part his strong affection for life in late colonial Jamaica.

Once the films started to be released in 1962 onwards, geography became an even more important element in the narrative arc of the film. From Dr No (1962) onwards, a patchwork of places provided an essential element in the development of the story. His visits to M’s Office in London were one such element in the geography of James Bond. Reassuring stable, and rather old fashioned, Bond learnt of his impending mission. In From Russia with Love (1963), Bond is quickly dispatched to Istanbul, which serves to highlight well both the exoticism of the Oriental city and the fault-lines of the Cold War. We sometimes forget that airline travel was only for the very privileged in the 1960s so filmmakers had a certain license to stereotype.

So places were useful for generating a sense of exotic and intrigue. But they were also essential in providing sites for the evil genius’ hiding place. Whether to be found in space, underwater, in volcanoes, underground and or atop of mountains, the evil genius’s lair provided a powerful climax to a Bond film. It had to look and appear challenging, it had to test Bond’s inventiveness and resourcefulness and ideally it could be blown up or dismembered. The creative genius of Sir Ken Adam was a vital element in set construction during the 1960s and 1970s, and he provided a benchmark for later movies. 

But the role of places also changes in the Bond films. In the Daniel Craig era, M’s office is a very different place and MI6 by this time has already been subject to a direct assault in The World is not Enough (1999). London is no longer a safe place. Bond is seen travelling ever wider and quicker to a diversity of places. In Quantum of Solace, he visits Austria, Italy, Bolivia, and Haiti in a desperate attempt to discover who has infiltrated MI6. Bond’s hyper-mobility has always been part of the appeal of this footloose spy.

But places can also perform a different kind of marketing role. It probably makes commercial sense to situate Skyfall in Shanghai China. Casino Royale (2006) was the first film to be premiered there and China is a huge market for the Bond producers. So as well as providing important opportunities to generate intrigue and danger, places can be used to market and develop audiences. Earlier Bond films such as Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) used a high profile Chinese origin actor (Michelle Yeoh) and a controversial story involving Anglo-Chinese tension. 

When we look back over fifty years of James Bond films, we need to acknowledge that geography has been critical to the continued success of this super spy. Identifying film locations is one of the most important decisions any Bond producer takes.

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