Article Benjamin Welton
In Jules Dassin’s classic crime film Rififi, Louise (played by Janine Darcey) chides her husband, the gangster Jo le Suedois (played by Austrian actor Carl Möhner), for moral cowardice. Specifically, Louise, in a fit of frustration, tells her husband that it’s not the criminals or those who have chosen to flee the responsibilities of regular life who are brave. Rather, the people who get up every morning and go to work, even when they do not want to, are the truly brave ones. This idea, which flies directly in the face of Romantic individualism or the long-cherished ideal of living outside of workaday concerns, emphatically asserts that the things that supposedly tie us down – morals, obligations, schedules – actually make us stronger, not weaker or more unhappy.
In Louise’s matrix, all criminals are cowards. Although they may view their actions as heroic, self-serving, or both, the truth is that those who willingly break the law are admitting that they lack the fortitude to go through life without giving in to the limitless temptations of civilization. Therefore, all of the villains in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are cowards, and to stretch the application further, they are all moral cowards because every one of them, from the hunted rat Le Chiffre in Casino Royale to the former Trujillo toady-turned-Cuban assassin Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, made the logical decision to live a life of crime.
But given that this is supposed to be an article and not an entire book, we will only look at a select few examples of moral cowardice in the Bond canon. And as with Fleming’s oeuvre, it’s best to start at Casino Royale.
The first Bond novel has not one, but two examples of moral cowardice. First, there’s Le Chiffre. In the public’s mind, all Bond villains are treacherous, maniacal, yet cool in their own way. Not so for Le Chiffre. He’s an animal on the run. And although Casino Royale gives him a perverse moment of glory where he gloatingly tortures Bond for a night, ultimately, Le Chiffre dies as an embarrassment to SMERSH – a dirty, little pornographer who pays his debts with his life. Compounding the moral cowardice of Le Chiffre (sounds an awful lot like “shifty,” no?) is the widely accepted notion that he was based on Aleister Crowley, a British occultist who went from being “The Most Wicked Man in the World” to an old codger who died of “chronic bronchitis aggravated by pleurisy and myocardial degeneration” at the age of 72. This, my friends, is not how powerful wizards are supposed to die.
Besides the worm-like Le Chiffre, who couples his feral qualities with a sadistic streak that points towards some sort of sexual inadequacy, the other moral coward in Casino Royale is Vesper Lynd. Although Nader Elhefnawy, the author of The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond: From Casino Royale to Skyfall, is correct in stating that Lynd is “not an assistant playing a junior role in the operation,” but is rather an equal partner in the case, Lynd still ends the novel as a neo-Victorian heroine who cannot help herself from compounding bad choices on top of each other. Rather than blame Lynd’s failings on Fleming’s supposed chauvinism, the truth is that Lynd, like Le Chiffre, suffers from a unique, but no less acute infection of moral cowardice.
Primarily, Lynd, who is revealed to be a double agent for the Soviet MVD at the end of the novel, decides to leave behind a suicide letter detailing her reasons for sticking with Bond for so long. Of course, Lynd deserves some empathy given that her position as a double agent was the result of her lover’s confession under torture. As a result, Lynd was more or less blackmailed into becoming a Soviet operative with orders to make sure Bond did not escape Le Chiffre. Still, Lynd cannot help herself from falling in love with Bond, which, in a sense betrays her love for the poor Polish RAF pilot who put her in such a fine mess in the first place. Then, after betraying two men, Lynd choses suicide – an act that lost its supposed honour in the West sometime before the fall of Rome.
According to Praseeda Gopinath, author of Scarecrows of Chivalry: English Masculinities After Empire, Lynd’s only lasting contribution to Bond is that her suicide letter confession “prompts Bond’s return to cold-hearted misogyny and commitment to queen and country.” While there’s trouble with this assertion (especially since Bond really doesn’t learn his lesson and keeps falling for all the wrong women), it does hint out that Lynd’s moral failings help to reinforce Bond’s moral bravery, especially since Casino Royale is our first glimpse at a morally conflicted Bond.
While Le Chiffre is pathetic and Vesper Lynd is tragic, Major Dexter Smythe, the central figure of “Octopussy” is the best exemplar of moral cowardice in the entire Bond canon. Smythe, an O.B.E. and former member of the Royal Marines, begins the story as a man with a “death-wish.” A fat, drunken shell of his former self, Symthe is depicted by Fleming as a portrait of a corrupted Englishman trying to live the life of self-destructive solitude in the tropics:
He was irretrievably tied to Jamaica, and tropical sloth had gradually riddled him so that while outwardly he appeared a piece of fairly solid hardwood, under the varnished surface the termites of sloth, self-indulgence, guilt over an ancient sin and general disgust with himself had eroded his once hard core into dust.
Unlike Bond, whose moral courage is displayed outwardly via his taut, well-conditioned muscles, and inwardly through his dedication to national service, Smythe is an outwardly appealing foundation that is so rotten that it is doomed to fall and fall soon. As it happens, Smythe’s downfall occurs when Bond arrives in Jamaica in order to finally capture Smythe for a crime he committed during the waning stages of World War II. While serving British Intelligence as a leader in the Miscellaneous Objects Bureau Force, Smythe undertook a highly personal mission in Austria.
While officially tasked with helping mop up the remaining Gestapo and Abwehr hideouts in southern Germany and Austria, Smythe used his billet in Kitzbühel in order to locate and steal a horde of Nazi gold. After finding Hannes Oberhauser, the best ski guide in the area, Smythe formulated a plan of attack that involved not only capturing the gold, but also liquidating Oberhauser, thus leaving him open to fleeing to the remaining British colonies as a wealthy man.
Decades later, after the gold’s luster has worn off, Smythe does not even put up a fight when Bond lays out the British government’s case against him. Smythe’s deadly indifference to his past sin (which is sort of an atonement, especially given Smythe’s gruesome suicide that includes a scorpion fish and his pet octopus) is magnified by the highly personal response from Bond. After all, the case of Dexter Smythe is more than just another gig, for Oberhauser had been Bond’s friend and ski instructor before the war. In this way, Smythe and Bond are played off against one another, with the latter becoming an avenging knight who manages to represent both the interests of the nation and the deep emotions of himself. In “Octopussy,” the nation and the individual unite with two different outcomes.
Without question, Fleming saw moral courage as one of the ultimate necessities in a gentleman-adventurer. Because of this, Bond, as the epitome of patriotic moral courage, is consistently pitted against moral cowards – criminals, egotistical maniacs, double agents, etc. And although Bond is allowed to grumble every once in a while, his personal commitment to his job and to is country is rarely in jeopardy. Maybe, just maybe, this is one of the reasons why certain commentators continue to bash Bond and Fleming as sexist and nationalist throwbacks. Yes, Fleming wrote of the masculine virtues as being exclusively masculine, and yes the independently-minded Bond’s moral courage at times was rash and even dangerous to others, but in today’s overly codified, managerial state, the type of moral courage exemplified by Bond seems antediluvian rather than mainstream.
That’s why a new Bond may be needed to reinforce what the old Bond fought for.
Read more of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins