VHS Revival reveals the story behind the Bond movie that never was
Timothy Dalton’s reign as James Bond was cruelly brief, but it was also extremely important for the series as a whole. When Dalton was finally announced as the fifth James Bond (if you count David Niven’s camp entry in the original Casino Royale), fans were more than a little dubious about the Welshman’s credentials for the role, but this was 007, and historically that has always been the case. Back in the early 1970s, people were dubious about Moore taking over from Connery, and many continued to be critical throughout his tenure, pining for the portrayal of Bond they had grown so hopelessly accustomed to. When those people finally got their wish after seeing an ageing Moore put out to pasture, there was more grumbling afoot from those who had been weaned on a diet of suave innuendo. I suppose it speaks to the preciousness of the character and the loyalty those portrayals seem to inspire in the minds of certain generations.
Ironically, Dalton turned down the role of Bond on three separate occasions, the last of which due to prior commitments to Robert Ellis Miller’s comic book adventure movie Brenda Starr. According to an interview with Dalton in 1989 while promoting his second and last appearance as 007, the lauded thespian and stage veteran had a clear idea of what his portrayal of Bond would entail.“I think Roger was fine as Bond,” he would say, “but the films had become too much techno-pop and had lost track of their sense of story. I mean, every film seemed to have a villain who had to rule or destroy the world. If you want to believe in the fantasy on screen, then you have to believe in the characters and use them as a stepping-stone to lead you into this fantasy world. That’s a demand I made, and Albert Broccoli agreed with me.”
Pierce Brosnan was probably the only Bond who fans fully welcomed as a replacement, perhaps an indication of just how poorly Dalton was received in some quarters. Following the comic overtones of Moore and the series’ descent into ironic self-mockery, moviegoers were left pining for something a little more cold-blooded, but Dalton was too much too soon, and audiences were only too quick to judge a man who was easily the best pure actor to don the tuxedo. Not only was this new Bond ruthless and lacking any kind of sexual spark, he was almost humourless compared with the slick caricature that preceded him. As legendary critic Roger Ebert wrote about Dalton’s 1987 debut The Living Daylights, ‘He’s a strong actor, he holds the screen well, he’s good in the serious scenes, but he never quite seems to understand that it’s all a joke.’
There was more than an element of truth to Ebert’s criticisms, but times were changing, and it was Dalton who was given the daunting task of convincing others of that fact. Sure, Bond had always adapted to commercial and social trends in order to keep the series relevant, but the movie industry was maturing as a whole, as were audiences, and the kitsch gadgets and egomaniacal villains were not in tune with the modern action formula, nor was Moore’s eyebrow-raising innuendo. Mainstream action movies were smarter during the late 1980s, putting character above muscle and deriving their humour from superior screenplays with richer characterisation, and Bond’s box office returns under Moore’s tenure had been steadily dwindling. This was hardly the surest platform for Dalton, but his debut gave the series a serious shot in the arm, The Living Daylights grossing $191,200,000 worldwide compared with A View to a Kill‘s $152,627,960 — the second lowest for a Moore outing. Dalton’s second film, Licence to Kill, was another story entirely, with a worldwide gross of $156,167,015 and a US domestic gross of $34,667,015 — the poorest since From Russia with Love and the lowest of all entries when adjusted for inflation.
What were the reasons for such a sudden drop in popularity? It’s well known that the movie suffered from a poor marketing campaign, and it certainly didn’t help that Licence to Kill went up against a myriad of blockbuster outings, some of them up there with not only the most popular releases of 1989 but of the entire decade. In fact, summer sequel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ($210,600,000) and Tim Burton’s groundbreaking take on Batman ($290,200,000) made the top 10 and top 5 highest-grossing movies of the decade, respectively, and Ghostbusters II wasn’t far behind. Nor was Richard Donner’s hugely popular action sequel Lethal Weapon 2, a modern action vehicle released the previous week. I know we’re talking about some classic movies here, but this was Bond, and those at Eon Productions must have wondered how the fool’s gold had fallen so dramatically through their fingers. In a blockbuster shark tank, Bond was struggling to make the kind of dramatic turnaround the character had become synonymous with while in such a compromising situation, and so was Dalton.
Still, there must have been other factors involved. I mean, it only took an extra trip to the cinema to see Bond’s latest outing, and if audiences were as invested in the series as they had once been it surely would have been a different story. There was the subject of the film’s unprecedented PG-13 rating, which no doubt brought a halt to many a family outing, ostracising a major demographic. Since many fans simply refused to see Licence to Kill, much of the blame can be attributed to its predecessor, which in some ways feels like something of a Moore throwback, and understandably so. Bond debuts are notoriously tricky due to fan loyalties and expectations. In Licence to Kill, Dalton was still finding his footing, and there was bound to be an element of transition following Moore’s 12-year stint as 007. There was also a rather serious social issue to contend with, one that went directly against Bond’s philandering modus. The 80s saw the rise of the AIDS epidemic, and after the free love of the swinging 60s and 70s, people were once again looking at sex as not only a taboo subject, but a dangerous, potentially life-threatening one. Those calling the shots would have been more than aware of this fact. Fans may have been used to a misogynistic ladies man, but how would that have translated in such a shocked sexual climate? My guess is not very well.
To be honest, Bond was no longer sitting pretty at the pinnacle of lavish, stunt-heavy blockbusters, and its waning popularity was more likely due to the evolution of the action genre as a whole. For years, Bond had been every full-blooded male’s escapist paradise, but it was no longer the only action vehicle with a big budget and glamorous locations, and characters such as Lethal Weapon‘s Martin Riggs and Die Hard‘s John McClane were much more relatable, something director John Glen seemed to broach in Licence to Kill by turning Bond rogue and revealing his barely glimpsed human side. After all, there was a reason why Lethal Weapon 2 became the third-highest grossing movie at the US box office in 1989, while Licence to Kill languished in 37th place, one position below sub-par comedy sequel Fletch Lives. The fact that The Living Daylights still carried echoes of the old Moore formula was a turn-off for fans craving something new, but its ultra-violent successor was very much a modern action picture, and was bold enough to convince Ebert that Dalton was a very worthy Bond indeed. In his review for what would prove to be Dalton’s final outing, the critic wrote, ‘He makes an effective Bond — lacking Sean Connery’s grace and humor, and Roger Moore’s suave self-mockery, but with a lean tension and a toughness that is possibly more contemporary.’ Indeed.
Despite such accolades, longtime fans of the franchise were struggling to swallow a formula that arguably laid the foundations for 21st century Bond, perhaps because it seemed like an inferior imitation of what they had become accustomed to elsewhere. It had been a long road for an actor who was initially offered the role all the way back in 1968. At that time in his career, Dalton had refused based on the grounds that he was too young and daunted by the prospect of taking over from Connery, an actor who he described as “far too good and wonderful”, and by the time he finally slipped into the Bond facade, eventual successor Brosnan had been offered the role, but an impeachable contract tying him to the recently revived Remington Steele forced him to back out at the last minute.
Ironically, Dalton would later turn down the lead in Brosnan’s well-received debut Goldeneye. In an interview with The Week, Dalton said of the opportunity, “[Broccoli] asked if I would come back, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve actually changed my mind a little bit. I think that I’d love to do one… And he said, quite rightly, ‘Look, Tim. You can’t do one. There’s no way, after a five-year gap between movies that you can come back and just do one. You’d have to plan on four or five.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, no, that would be the rest of my life. Too much. Too long.’ So I respectfully declined.” Probably a wise choice considering how the Brosnan tenure fared post-Goldeneye, the series once again descending into camp territory despite some pretty nifty action sequences (minus Die Another Day‘s invisible car chase, of course).
A third outing featuring Dalton seems like a wonderful prospect in hindsight. In truth, it very nearly happened, and perhaps would have if it were not for various MGM/UA legal wrangles that halted pre-production, a protracted battle that led Dalton to finally quit one of Hollywood’s most prestigious roles in the spring of 1994. Six years was an awfully long hiatus for a franchise that typically churned out instalments every couple of years — a sign of just how low Bond’s stock had fallen by the turn of the ’90s. The series has its zealots, and I’m sure there were many pining for the return of Pinewood Studios’ marquee attraction, but after Dalton’s lukewarm reception the broader audience were hardly clamouring for more, and Pinewood Studios had other projects to keep them busy, including the aforementioned Batman and it’s much anticipated, all-star sequel Batman Returns. But ‘Bond 17’ was already in pretty advanced stages back in 1989/90, and while continuing the character’s evolution into hard-boiled, realistic territory, it promised to be a much more ambitious, sci-fi laden affair.
By May 1990, Michael G. Wilson and Alfonse Ruggiero had completed an outline treatment that contained a detailed story, descriptions of locations, key characters and major concepts — all of those ingredients that are essential to making a Bond movie special. Set to be released in the same year that James Cameron brought Terminator 2:Judgement Day to our screens, a ‘Bond 17’ treatment preface promised ‘robotic devices’ that were ‘complex and exotic machines designed for specific tasks’, devices that would be created ‘especially for the film for maximum dramatic and visual impact’. There was even a detailed opening sequence involving a malfunctioning robotics device at a chemical weapons factory in Scotland, one that resulted in a deadly explosion and a full investigation by the British Prime Minister. There may even have been a John Major lookalike to rival the ludicrously camp appearance of Margaret Thatcher during the closing sequence of For Your Eyes Only., though this is pure speculation on my part.
From there, the movie would venture from Hong Kong to Japan to mainland China after a typical briefing from MI6’s HQ. According to the treatment, Bond’s nemesis would be ‘a brilliant and handsome thirty-year-old British-Chinese entrepreneur’, a new-age tech geek with a loose screw and a penchant for nuclear ‘accidents’, in this case a robotics device going doolally at a Chinese atomic plant in Nanking. Below is an excerpt from the potential movie’s screen treatment:
Bond removes his parachute harness and turns to find the decidedly unpleasant barrel of a pistol thrust against his temple. Mi Wai tells him to keep his hands in sight as she speaks rapidly into a small handheld radio. In a few moments Bond hears the distinctive beat of a helicopter… Mi Wai prods Bond forward… he sees the insignia of the Chinese Red Army on the side of the helicopter.
With the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War finally at an end, the series would turn to the sovereignty of Hong Kong for ‘Bond 17’, which would finally be passed from Britain to China in 1997, an event many consider to be the end of the British Empire. Hardly the moral crusade it would have been promoted as on Bond’s part, but cinema has always been inherently fascist; that’s the nature of the beast. The movie’s plot would see Sir Henry demanding that Britain withdraw their claim under threat of cyber retaliation, with a dastardly plot to unleash a computer virus that would disable every military and commercial unit in the world. Sticking with Licence to Kill‘s explicit formula, the planned final confrontation would see Bond turn a welding torch on Sir Henry’s face, an idea that would have pushed the boundaries of violence even further.
So, how would such a concept have fared back in 1991? It’s very difficult to say. On the one hand, Dalton had established himself as a Bond of a very different breed following his rogue turn in the ruthless Licence to Kill, and a third movie may have seen him further own the role, with a maturing audience that was finally willing to accept him as the rightful successor. Of course, things are never so black-and-white. In hindsight, it is easy to view Dalton as the man who deserved a fairer crack at the proverbial whip, but less is so often more, and a badly executed movie is enough to turn the lights out on any 007 (just ask Pierce Brosnan). Futhermore, the 90s saw the rapid evolution of computer technology, and a turn-of-the-decade outing with a heavy emphasis on that technology may have dated just as quickly, leading ‘Bond 17’ to turn very kitsch very fast, and what would fans be saying about Dalton’s hard-hitting Bond tenure then? Similarly, the movie’s political stance may have proven unpopular and antiquated in subsequent years. After all, protecting an empire can hardly be considered a humanitarian cause, however reasonable the justifications.
One thing I think we can all agree on is the fascination surrounding the prospect of more Dalton. This was a man who took on the responsibility of evolving the Bond formula in the face of an ardent fan base whose stance was largely unyielding, and he did a mighty fine job of it too, dragging us kicking and screaming towards the 21st century. Without the possible stumbling block of a third entry, Dalton will go down in folklore as the perennial underdog, an unflinching overachiever who was never given a fair rub of the green, one who still managed to do more for the development of the Bond character than perhaps any other actor, and at the end of the day, who can ask for more than that?