Live and let live: why does James Bond always survive?

There have been 25 official films in the franchise. In all our Vesper martini-swigging hero escapes. Here’s – possibly – why

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all

After this September’s No Time to Die, there will have been 25 official James Bond films (15 based on Ian Fleming’s novels). In all, one rule prevails: our tux-clad, Vesper-martini-swigging hero escapes an over-complicated death scenario while the bad guy ends up getting drilled (Tomorrow Never Dies’ Elliot Carver), boiled alive (Dr No) or ejected into outer space (Moonraker’s Hugo Drax). So how come Bond always escapes?

For example, Live and Let Die’s Dr Kananga dangles Roger Moore above a pool of man-eating sharks and – oops! – Bond gets away. Goldfinger straps Sean Connery to a testicle-splicing laser and – d’oh! – Bond survives. The Spy Who Loved Me’s Karl Stromberg pointlessly stalls for time by instructing Jaws to “Wait until they get to shore then kill them” and – whaddaya know? – Bond escapes. At no point do any of these evil “geniuses” manage to complete the job. As Scott Evil says in the Spy Who Loved Me spoof Austin Powers: “Why don’t you just shoot him? What are you waiting for?” “I have a better idea,” reasons Dr Evil, “I’m going to put him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.”

So – ignoring the fact that he has to survive in order to continue the franchise – why do Bond villains favour these convoluted deaths? We all know that Bond baddies are homicidal paranoiac egomaniacs with a hidden inferiority complex who must make a masterpiece of Bond’s death. Auric Goldfinger (a plutocrat), Karl Stromberg (an oil baron) and Licence to Kill’s Franz Sanchez (a drug lord) each have CVs full of criminal experience. They’ll score far more kudos in their industry for something elaborate like lowering Bond into a pit of sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads.

Blofeld lives in a hollowed-out volcano, Stromberg an underwater base and Die Another Day’s Gustav Graves in an ice palace. They must be dying to have a houseguest to try out their overpriced death traps. Shark food, winch rope and trapdoor hinge polish: the expenses for maintaining a shark pit are endless. Goldfinger’s lasers can’t have come cheap. “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr Bond, at 24.9% APR, I expect you to die … slowly.”

In the novel, Goldfinger stops chopping Bond in half with a chainsaw because he realises Bond is worth more to him alive and might be able to help with a heist. It’s a convoluted set-up that ends with Goldfinger bizarrely letting Bond do some typing instead. So there’s another reason for not killing Bond: you can get him to do your admin. Plus, The Man With the Golden Gun’s Scaramanga is Spanish, Blofeld is German and Franz Sanchez is Mexican, so the longer Bond is alive, the longer he’ll keep dishing out free oral lessons in the Queen’s English.

It’s not as if the baddies aren’t exasperated, too. “Why can’t you just be a good boy and die?” exhorts 006 turned Russian agent Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye. “You first,” insists Bond. Meanwhile, Hugo Drax laments: “Mr Bond. You defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you.” There, perhaps, lies the answer: not simply shooting Bond is the result of good old-fashioned British politeness.


Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

The 10 best Bond outfits - in pictures
As a new exhibition celebrates 50 years of 007 style, our film critic, Jason Solomons, picks out the looks that give the spy film series its edge

As chosen by Jason Solomons, Observer film writer

23, Jun, 2012 @11:03 PM

Article image
Making a killing: why James Bond is forever
High on adventure and glamour, the films have always been a byword for product placement and brand promotion

Andrew Pulver

05, Dec, 2014 @7:23 PM

Article image
My secret James Bond past

Mark O'Connell has been a James Bond fan since he saw Octopussy as a boy. He and his father bonded over Bond – especially when he realised his grandfather's close ties to 007

Mark O'Connell

17, Nov, 2012 @12:04 AM

Article image
James Bond on film – 007's best and worst movies ranked!
With the news of Danny Boyle’s departure as director of the next 007 instalment, we rank the big-screen outings of Britain’s finest, from 1962’s Dr No to 2015’s Spectre

Peter Bradshaw

24, Aug, 2018 @8:38 AM

Article image
Roger Moore raises an eyebrow at James Bond franchise

Former 007 actor calls Quantum of Solace a 'long, disjointed commercial' … and says he couldn't understand Sean Connery

Henry Barnes

02, Nov, 2011 @1:10 PM

Article image
Rated: the best James Bond films – and the ones that die another day
As cinemas gear up to release the latest 007 film, Spectre, the Guardian’s film critic looks back at how its predecessors measure up

Peter Bradshaw

23, Oct, 2015 @10:56 PM

Article image
The name's Bond. Second-best Bond | David Mitchell
In a world racked by disease, it’s lovely to debate which actor was almost as good as Sean Connery

David Mitchell

16, Aug, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
A novel idea: is the book always better than the film?
It’s a cliche as old as cinema itself. But dismissing film-making as the weak sibling of the arts is often rooted in snobbery

Henry Yates

07, Dec, 2020 @1:00 PM

Article image
Bond director Guy Hamilton: a career in clips
He was known for classic 007 capers and popular adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. Here’s a look through the 30-year career of the late British film-maker – and one-time Orson Welles body double

Benjamin Lee

21, Apr, 2016 @12:13 PM

Article image
Hamlet! James Bond! Lady Gaga! The cultural events we’ve waited too long for
Since March 2020 the pandemic has taken a big red marker pen to the cultural calendar – here are the longest postponements across the arts

Graeme Virtue

15, May, 2021 @9:00 AM