Bringing you the fascinating story behind the Bond movie that never was
Timothy Dalton’s reign as James Bond was cruelly brief. It was also extremely important for the franchise 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 fans 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. When news of Daniel Craig’s casting was announced in October 2005, fans and critics were in uproar. Bond was supposed to be dark, not fair haired. He wasn’t suave enough. What were they thinking? I suppose it speaks to the preciousness of the character and the loyalty those portrayals seem to inspire in the minds of generations.
Ironically, Dalton turned down the role of Bond on three separate occasions, his last refusal due to prior commitments in Robert Ellis Miller’s comic book adaption Brenda Starr, a movie that flopped catastrophically when it finally hit theatres . The movie, released in 1989 in Europe, was actually shot in 1986 due to a lengthy litigation over distribution rights. In wasn’t released in the US until 1992. The fact that the movie grossed as little as $67,878 on a budget of $16,000,000 didn’t do the actor’s already tarnished reputation any good in the eyes of US audiences as the possibility of a third Bond appearance continued to drift out to sea.
Dalton has experienced something of a renaissance in the eyes of Bond fans in recent years, but at the time his tenure wasn’t received particularly well, especially in the all-important US market. 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, but after a six-year hiatus, the longest since the series began, audiences were more than ready to re-embrace the romance of 007 after what was considered an era of early-80s complacency. Following the comic overtones of Moore and the series’ descent into ironic self-mockery, moviegoers were expecting something of a revamp in regards to the Bond character, many traditionalists looking for something a little more coldblooded. Dalton certainly fit that criteria, but perhaps he was too much too soon. As much as Fleming die hards resented Moore, he had made the role his own with a record-equalling seven instalments over a period of twelve years. Perhaps they had grown more accustomed to the actor’s portrayal than they were willing to admit.
It had been a long road for Moore’s eventual successor, who was initially offered the role of way back in 1968, even longer before audiences submitted to a broad reappraisal of just how fresh and innovative Dalton was, but there’s no doubting his credentials as a Bond who was very much in the Fleming mode. The fact that he was approached on numerous occasions throughout the years speaks volumes about his suitability for the role. Dalton had initially 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”. When he was finally ready to slip into the Bond façade, 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. In hindsight, it’s amazing that Dalton made it to the screen at all.
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.“
When Dalton finally exploded onto screens in The Living Daylights, buoyed by one of the most exceptional pre-credits sequences in the entire Bond canon, audiences were 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 came across as almost humourless compared with the slick and effortlessly debonair caricature that preceded him. Dalton had pressed the reset button on the 007 character, and audiences just weren’t ready. As legendary critic Roger Ebert wrote about Dalton’s 1987 debut, ‘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 evolving a formula that had flirted with kitsch territory ever since Goldfinger took the series into the realms of Hollywood glamour, establishing many of the grandiose tropes that would characterize Bond for decades. The character had always adapted to commercial and social trends, tapping into everything from Bruce Lee to Star Wars throughout the years, but audiences were maturing along with the entire industry, the kitsch gadgets and egomaniacal villains that had wowed kids during the 60s and 70s a far cry from the modern action movie formula.
While an aging Moore limped through his final appearance, Hollywood fawned over larger-than-life actors with superhuman physiques, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming the industry’s biggest players. By the time Dalton arrived in ’87, the action formula had evolved even further, movie’s such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard putting personality above muscle, relying as much on smart and relatable screenplays as blockbuster action sequences. This no doubt had an impact on Bond’s dwindling US box office. Returns had already been falling towards the end of Moore’s tenure, which was hardly the platform for a newcomer like Dalton. The actor’s debut actually gave the series a shot internationally, The Living Daylights grossing $191,200,000 worldwide compared with A View to a Kill‘s $152,627,960, but the film’s US domestic gross told a different story, a return of $51,200,000 proving somewhat disappointing for Eon Productions and their brand new leading man. Dalton’s second film, Licence to Kill, fared even worse in the US, with a domestic gross of just $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, the latter featuring the kind of high-tech gadgets and grandiose set designs that put the Bond series to shame. Ghostbusters II wasn’t far behind. Nor was Richard Donner’s hugely popular sequel Lethal Weapon 2, a super-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 series, once the benchmark for spectacular escapism, had begun to play catch-up.
There was also the subject of the film’s unprecedented PG-13 rating to consider (15 in the UK), which no doubt brought a halt to many a family outing, ostracizing a major demographic in the process. But if you’re expected to compete with the likes of Lethal Weapon 2, there’s not much you can do within the confines of a U or even PG rating. Dalton was certainly more coldblooded than what fans had been accustomed to, his thawing sexuality no doubt a byproduct of the AIDS epidemic, which following the free love and rampant chauvinism of the 60s and 70s, had once again made sex a taboo subject, but there was still a residue of the old Moore formula in The Living Daylights, the film continuing along the Cold War path. After the actor’s twelve-year stint, a period of transition was only natural.
Dalton’s second entry License to Kill, a movie loathed by some and adored by others, was a very different animal, one that seemed to cater more to the likes of John McClane and the modern action formula, so much that some fans refuse to see it as a genuine Bond movie, a fact not helped by the fact that License to Kill was the first instalment to not take its title from a Fleming story. Co-starring perennial bad guy and Die Hard traitor Robert Davi as a distinctly modern, Manuel Noriega-style drug trafficker, the film would see Bond turn rogue after the ruthless assassination of a colleague and his wife on their wedding day, allowing the character an added depth and relatability by revealing a barely glimpsed human side reminiscent of George Lazenby in franchise anomaly On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Director John Glen, who had slowly been returning the series to more grounded territory since 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, despite the furore surrounding Moore’s camp portrayals, had stepped out of the old Bond formula almost completely, upping the violence and political commentaries and introducing characters who felt relatively real.
License to Kill, which bested The Living Daylights with a solid worldwide box office of $156,167,015, languished in 37th place in the year’s box office charts, one position below sub-par comedy sequel Fletch Lives, but Dalton was beginning to find his feet as Bond as part of Glen’s updated formula, and critics were starting to come around, Ebert’s review of License to Kill was much more favourable than that of The Living Daylights two years earlier, its ultra-violent successor enough to convince him that Dalton was in fact 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.’
Despite such accolades, long-time fans of the franchise were struggling to swallow the first steps of an evolution that in many ways laid the foundation for 21st century Bond. For some, License to Kill was nothing short of sacrilegious, an affront to the time-honoured Bond formula. Since Bond was no longer the absolute pinnacle of glamorous escapism, the film’s efforts to adapt may have felt like an inferior imitation of blockbuster outings like the Lethal Weapon series. In reality, the Bond series was in need of revolutionising by the late 1980s, and Dalton was the perfect candidate to test the waters, even if many wished to see him drown. It would be decades before audiences saw that evolution come to fruition, Brosnan’s rein quickly reverting to something resembling that old formula, but with License to Kill, Dalton gave us a taste of a much more complex character.
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 departure 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. ‘Bond 17’, an adaptation of the Ian Fleming short story “The Property of a Lady”, 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 the higher production taxes that spawned such derisory lampooning was no longer a contentious issue for Eon, so a fictional Prime Minister would probably have sufficed.
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’s 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?