November 22, 2006
Payday would arrive with the sun at Fort Benning — even when it rained. They would arise as one and reflect off the Chattahoochee River and wash over the unwashed and usually broke soldiers of western Georgia. Trash-talkin’ G.I. poker games and pocket-billiard affairs would generally ensue and recently acquired legal tender would change hands in rituals that dated back to Hannibal’s Carthaginian elephant wranglers.
On the day in question, the poker was a push but the pool was a pileup. I can still see the cue ball following the eight ball into the corner pocket as if it occurred yesterday. A glare crept across my partner’s face. The miscue, as it were, had cost us five bucks each. I decided to cut my losses and hedge my bets by packing it in.
I grabbed a magazine from the rack and headed out toward the beer garden. And that was how it all started. Things would never be the same. The mag turned out to be a somewhat recent issue of Esquire featuring a piece on then President Kennedy.
Mention was made of a press conference in which, responding to a reporter’s question as to what type of books he liked to read, our commander-in-chief called attention to the "James Bond Series" by Ian Fleming.
There were a couple of things you could say about our somewhat rag-tag bunch in those days. We were well read and poorly disciplined — not exactly the quality troops our superiors in the military had set their sights upon.
A typical evening, in lieu of spit-shining boots or polishing brass, would feature Saul Bellow and John le Carré paired with Cutty Sark and Coltrane. Bond and Fleming were under our radar. Considering that state of affairs totally unacceptable, we "ponied-up" and dispatched one of the faithful into town to the paperback bookstore.
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He returned with "Casino Royale," the first of the series, and "Thunderball," at that time the most recent. One member of the group — known within our circle as "Heathcliff" — took possession of the former. I absconded with the latter. I’ve never fully recovered from that initial encounter with James Bond. "007," you might say, was having a bad day.
"To begin with, he was ashamed of himself — a rare state of mind. He had a hangover, a bad one, with an aching head and stiff joints. When he coughed — smoking too much goes with drinking too much and doubles the hangover — a cloud of small luminous black spots swam across his vision like amoebae in pond water." I thought, "I know this guy."
Fleming continued fleshing out his hero. "The last whiskey and soda in the luxurious flat in Park Lane had been no different than the 10 preceding ones, but it had gone down reluctantly and had left a bitter taste and an ugly sensation of surfeit. And, although he had taken in the message, he had agreed to play just one more rubber."
Playing "Bridge" while under the influence? This was definitely our kind of guy! He ended up drunkenly misplaying a grand slam bid in spades which he had drunkenly redoubled himself. It cost him 100 — which he didn’t necessarily have. It was only page one and Fleming, the bloody bugger, had me for life. I would end up reading the entire series and, here’s the rub, seeing all the films not high art by any means.
"Moonraker" featured another classic Bridge game with Bond "outing" Sir Hugo Drax as a cheat. With a little help from Champagne and Benzedrine and a totally reconfigured deck of cards, 007 injects a bit of instant karma and leaves the table with 15,000 pounds of Sir Hugo’s cash.
But, it should be mentioned that, by the time "Casino Royale" had made its rounds and showed up unannounced and dog-eared upon my bunk, I knew for a fact that my "back-story" for Bond had voids through which you could send an Aston-Martin careening into a four-wheel drift.
Meeting "M," the head of the British Intelligence section "MI6," and his licensed-to-kill secret agent as Fleming meant for them to be introduced had its own rewards — even after braving the exploit ricochets of the novels read out of order. This time the gamble "hook" takes place at the Baccarat table with the villain Le Chiffre as foil.
All these Bond memories erupted as if from one of "Q’s" ejection seats while awaiting the film to roll on opening night of "Casino Royale" this past weekend. Comparing the events of the novel with those of the film is an unconscious addiction that, seemingly, must be fed. And so, once again, irony-under-glass appeared as entrée.
The lag between publication of the novel and wrapping of the film frequently brings newer technologies or cultural shifts to the cinematic side. The film "Goldfinger" is a perfect example with the "circular saw" of the novel being replaced by a "laser beam" in an interrogation sequence. In "Casino Royale," Baccarat becomes "No-Limit Texas Hold-em."
Vesper Lynd — wherever did Fleming get these names? — is the "Bond girl" this time around and on screen is portrayed a bit more luscious and complex than previous femmes-fatales in the series. Eva Green had already impressed with her screen debut in Bernardo Bertolucci’s "The Dreamers" and, alongside 007, flat-out radiates. Judi Dench, however, returning as the first female "M," remains my all-time favorite Bond girl. Now there’s something for a therapist’s couch!
In many respects this film sticks closer to Fleming’s vision of character and plot than most all the others. To soothe the savage beasts of physical and emotional pain, this Bond slugs down four-fingers of scotch where his predecessors might well have wryly sipped on something of a more sensitive nature.
Rather pleasing, actually, this rough edge including an over-the-top opening sequence foot chase that wreaks its cross-grained and disheveled havoc in a ballet of vengeful outrage and indelicate grace. There may be fewer flaws this time around but that’s OK, although I’d miss them if they weren’t there at all. Nothing like a "fix" of low-art now and then, and anyway, it’s Bond not Bergman.