Reflections on the Origins of SPECTRE

Article by Matthew Woodcock

SPECTRE_Logo‘This organisation – do you know what it’s called?’, asks Bond in his latest screen appearance. ‘Its name is SPECTRE’, answers Dr Madeleine Swann. Later in Spectre, the head of this shadowy organisation, Franz Oberhauser, as he is named at this point (played by Christoph Waltz), reveals to Bond that they have already crossed paths many times before and yet our hero never discerned the presence or influence of this figure that lay behind everything that had happened to him. As Waltz’s character so menacingly casts himself, he is the ‘author’ of all Bond’s pain, the spider at the centre of the web.

Cinema audiences and the screen Bond first hear about SPECTRE – the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion – back in 1962 in Dr No, the first film adaptation of Fleming’s novels. Bond encounters SPECTRE and/ or its leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld in six subsequent films prior to the Daniel Craig era of the re-imagined 007. Fleming first introduced SPECTRE in his 1961 novel Thunderball, although the organisation’s origins can be traced back several years earlier to the complex, contested story of attempts made by producer Kevin McClory and others to bring Bond to the screen. The legal wranglings surrounding this process, Thunderball’s publication, and the subsequent copyright trial in 1963, have been discussed extensively elsewhere, most comprehensively in Robert Sellers’s 2007 The Battle for Bond. (Legal rights to a cinematic SPECTRE were finally acquired by MGM in 2013.) Fleming’s friend Ernest Cuneo sketched an outline for the film project in May 1959, a plot involving an atomic bomb being detonated on a US base by enemy agents from an ‘Iron Curtain country’ who would be based for part of the story in Nassau. The forces of villainy here are of a piece with the typical Cold War foes present in the majority of Fleming’s 1950s novels, which see Bond pitched against agents and operators of Soviet intelligence organisation SMERSH.


Ernest Cuneo

Fleming’s response to Cuneo’s (right) outline moved Bond into new territory, however. In a memo dated 15 June 1959 Fleming wrote that it would be unwise to directly identify Russia as the enemy: ‘Since the film will take about two years to produce, and peace might conceivably break out in the meantime, this should be avoided’. He suggested instead that the villainous plot be the work of an international terrorist group known by the acronym SPECTRE: originally the Special Executive for Terrorism, Revolution, and Espionage, though later changed to the form in which it commonly appears in the novels and films. SPECTRE, as Fleming originally conceived it, would be ‘an immensely powerful, privately-owned organisation manned by ex-members of SMERSH, the Gestapo, the Mafia and the Black Tong of Peking’. The villains’ plot morphs from one of overt enemy aggression (comparable to that of the Moonraker novel) to a financially motivated objective of blackmailing the Western powers for $100 million.

Fleming’s memo might thus be considered a vital point of origin for SPECTRE, and the organisation was duly confirmed at the copyright trial as being the author’s own invention, rather than that of McClory or screenwriter Jack Whittingham. Subsequent draft treatments and screenplays by Fleming and Whittingham see SPECTRE replaced simply by a powerful group of Mafia gangsters, and we hear no more of Fleming’s invented organisation until the author reworks many of the embryonic cinematic elements into Thunderball during 1960.

Fleming was evidently fond of the word ‘spectre’ and it appears at several points in the earlier novels. The Spang brothers’ ghost-town hideout in Diamonds are Forever was named Spectreville, and the deciphering machine Bond acquires in From Russia with Love was the Spektor. Was Fleming dropping an onomastic cue back to his books when naming his secret organisation for the projected film, just as he does in his first film treatment when he has the villains meet at a nightclub called The Spangled Room near Epping Forest? Maybe there are even echoes of an earlier, well-known example of a wide-ranging, supra-national movement, one with definite connections back to ‘Redland’, found in the dramatic opening line of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto (of which Fleming owned a first edition): ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism’.


136 bis Boulevard Haussmann, Paris [Photo:]

It is in chapter 5 of Thunderball that Fleming (re)introduces SPECTRE, detailing the organisation’s composition, rigid code of silence and discipline, and official ‘front’ or cover-story (the Fraternité Internationale de la Résistance Contre l’Oppression, or FIRCO). We are even given the address: 136 bis Boulevard Haussmann, Paris. It is at this point too that we also first see and learn about SPECTRE’s founder and chairman, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Thunderball’s SPECTRE has a broadly similar, heterogeneous composition to the group outlined in Fleming’s original memo, and draws upon men – ‘for they were all men’, the author stresses – from six national groups and six international criminal organisations, including former members of the Mafia, SMERSH, the Gestapo, and Tito’s secret police. Vestiges of the Mafia presence from earlier cinematic treatments can be seen in the key part that the Sicilian section of SPECTRE has in retrieving the blackmail payment in Plan Omega, and in the instrumental role of the Italian Emilio (originally Henrico) Largo in Thunderball’s plot.

Many commentators have observed that in practice SPECTRE’s character and methods simply replicate those of SMERSH, including (as Umberto Eco noted) ‘the employment of Slav-Latin-German elements, the use of torture, the elimination of traitors, and the sworn enmity to all the powers of the Free World’. The analogy is valid, if reductive, but there is something different about the motivation and political commitments of SPECTRE.

smersh_logo177290In an interview given to Playboy magazine printed in December 1964, Fleming claims that he closed down SMERSH in his novels and invented SPECTRE to reflect what he saw as a partial thawing of the Cold War. (Bond himself admits in Thunderball that ‘with the Cold War easing off, it was not like the old days’.) The reality was that, as Fleming knew, Britain’s ability to act as an effective force in the international struggle against ‘Redland’ was, by this time, stretching the bounds of credulity. Fleming’s Playboy interview also suggested a literary logic behind the change, proposing that SPECTRE represented a ‘much more elastic fictional device’. Put simply, the new organisation appeared to offer more wide-ranging potential for an engaging thriller narrative, not least because the master-criminal or super-villain now truly represented a universal, international threat to humanity. He is no longer simply an organ or agent of state. Blofeld’s organisation, we are told, is a ‘private enterprise for private profit’ – in the parlance of modern intelligence agencies SPECTRE is a potent, hostile ‘non-state actor’.

Rather than restricting themselves to acts of state-sanctioned economic terrorism or quasi-military action of the kind found in most of the pre-Thunderball novels, SPECTRE distinguishes itself through its manipulation of information networks and international politics. We are told that Blofeld recognised early on that ‘fast and accurate communication lay, in a contracting world, at the very heart of power. Knowledge of the truth before the next man, in peace or war, lay, he thought, behind every correct decision in history and was the source of all great reputations’. The same principles were acknowledged and espoused by Fleming the journalist, but they also have resonance in the post-Edward Snowdon era, a world of global surveillance in which security services prioritise technical and signals-based intelligence over information gathered from human sources. ‘Information is everything’, crows Waltz’s character, and this might also be the motto of the Nine Eyes intelligence network seen in the new Spectre film.

As we learn from Thunderball, before creating SPECTRE, Blofeld successfully constructed the rudimentary intelligence networks TARTAR and RAHIR, dealing first with the Germans and then the Allies during the 1930s-40s. SPECTRE too, prior to Plan Omega, had been paid for their services by the CIA, British Secret Service, and French Deuxième Bureau. The Russians are back in the picture by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as likely funders of SPECTRE’s set-up at Piz Gloria. At one point in Thunderball, M recognises that Blofeld is effectively his ‘opposite number’, and attempts to use analogies between their roles to fathom the workings of SPECTRE’s operation. There are certainly traces here of the pragmatic, ideologically flexible attitudes to intelligence products that anticipate the world of John Le Carré and Len Deighton—or indeed of Spectre. One senses that Fleming was already experimenting with this kind of ideologically adaptable super-villain and their organisation in some of his earlier work. Although partnered with the Russians when Bond infiltrates Crab Key, Doctor No admits he could be receptive to a more profitable bidder in the international espionage market: ‘Perhaps Communist China will pay more. Who knows?’

Guy Boothby's 'Dr Nikola' (1896)The motif as a whole of the super-villain and their organisation – and thus the origins of Blofeld and SPECTRE – can also be found in many of the imaginative sources that informed Fleming’s writing. The idea that there could be a single intelligence and controlling hand behind all of the crimes, atrocities, villainies, and minor adversaries that the hero faces is integral to the numerous novels written featuring Sapper’s Carl Peterson, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, and Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola. (Look no further than the occultist Dr Nikola for a master-criminal with a cat, anticipating the cinematic Blofeld.) Perhaps the origin of all of these is that ‘Napoleon of crime’ Professor James Moriarty who appears late in the original Sherlock Holmes adventures as the perfect foil to the master sleuth and the intended facilitator of Holmes’ demise. One of the most resonant aspects of Moriarty’s presentation in ‘The Final Problem’ (1893) is his simultaneous omnipotence and invisibility: ‘The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him’, explains Holmes, ‘For years past I have been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which forever stands in the way of the law, and throws its shield over the wrong-doer’. A similar, mocking sense of invisible, insidious power informs the presentation of SPECTRE and Waltz’s character in the most recent Bond film.

Thea von Harbou's 1928 novel 'Spione'This can also be seen in what I believe could well have been an important early cinematic source that piqued Fleming’s rich imagination: a German film directed by Fritz Lang called Spione (‘Spies’) released in 1928, not long before the author began university studies at Munich. Fleming could have read Thea von Harbou’s novelised screenplay of Spione in the original the same year, or in its 1929 English translation. The film opens with a series of international crimes conducted at the behest of the seemingly apolitical super-villain and spy-master Haghi, who uses (for 1928) hi-tech microphones, miniature cameras, and communication devices to achieve his dastardly aims, all the while remaining invisible to the authorities. Haghi’s numerous agents are brutally coerced into silence and his organisation’s headquarters – a ‘city within a city’ – is disguised behind the respectable facade of a working bank – a set-up comparable more to Thunderball’s FIRCO offices than to the elaborate villains’ lairs encountered by screen Bond. The hero of Spione pitted against this seemingly faceless foe is known only as agent number 326, and he eventually leads a raid on Haghi’s bank/ base that Lang modelled closely upon the real-life raid made on 12 May 1927 upon the London-based headquarters of the All-Russian Co-operative Society (ARCOS). Discovery of stolen War Office documents during the raid first raised the spectre that Soviet espionage networks could be operating in Western Europe, and increased English wariness towards the nascent USSR – a wariness that informs Fleming’s reporting during the 1930s as well as his later thriller writing.

The Spectre TrilogyWhatever configuration of sources lay behind Fleming’s conception and presentation of SPECTRE, one of the organisation’s real narrative strengths appears to be the fact that fundamentally it is a secret organisation, comparable to the British Secret Service itself, although it is a network that only slowly reveals itself to Bond and his allies. (Contrast this with SMERSH, the dossier on whom we read in chapter 2 of Casino Royale.) The most effective literary or cinematic thrillers engage their audiences by drawing us into an epistemological game in which pleasure and excitement are derived through witnessing or sharing in the working out of a puzzle, a secret, a search, or an attempt to piece together the truth from clues gathered. SPECTRE’s narrative power and imaginative potential – both in the novels and in the eponymous new film – derives from the same place that makes secret agents and spy heroes themselves so compelling. There is the allure of hidden knowledge, of invisibility, of covert observation and control, and of the search for the real story and pattern of relations that lie behind the facade of the normal, the safe, the everyday.

The numinous, elusive presence and power of this secret organisation first seen in Thunderball co-ordinating international crime and most recently found steering the fate of Daniel Craig’s Bond, epitomizes exactly what makes Fleming’s works thrilling – and that ensures readers and moviegoers keep coming back for more.

Sources used:

Oreste Del Buono and Umberto Eco, The Bond Affair (London, 1966).
Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming (London, 1995).
Matthew Parker, Goldeneye (London, 2014).
Robert Sellers, The Battle for Bond (Sheffield, 2008).

Incidental Intelligence

Matthew Woodcock is Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of East Anglia. His current research focuses on Tudor war poetry and soldier-authors. He is also working on a study of Ian Fleming’s writings, and focuses in particular on the journalism and travel writing.

More articles by Matthew: James Bond, author (The Spectator)7 Things you need to know about SPECTRE

The SPECTRE Trilogy Re-issue


One thought on “Reflections on the Origins of SPECTRE

  1. Excellent article! Another aspect of the character Bond that keeps us coming back for more, is his dual personality. This is evidenced in almost all the stories as Bond only seems to revel in life when his own or that of another is in danger. When not deep in the heart of spy darkness, he suffers from acideé and boredom, and hides inside his bottle. But…he appeals to us in a deep and resonant way because of the Walter Mitty character in all of us – the readers and viewers – who need some slim vindication or justification for our own behavior – be it good, bad or indifferent, and especially if it is anti-social. And Bond’s actions and behaviors are decidedly anti-social to the extreme. There is the secret desire within us all to be able to “be” like James Bond…after all, who wouldn’t? A psychologist would have a field day with us – and Bond!

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