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Bond Girl: Re-Watching and Re-Evaluating From Russia With Love

SPECTRE status.

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Original illustration by Emilie Majarian for The Mary Sue.

Welcome to Bond Girl, a new series where we’ll be re-watching and re-evaluating every James Bond film until Spectre’s release. Please note the following content warnings: mentions of sexual assault in canon, racism, yellowface, and whitewashing.

Content warnings for: racism against Romani, whitewashing, stereotypes, domestic violence/abuse.

It only took five minutes in my very first rewatch to make me uncomfortable and that’s important, because from those five minutes on, I wasn’t able to enjoy the film the way I wanted to. I watched Dr. No about eight times before I got sick of it. From Russia with Love took half as many rewatches.

From Russia With Love is the second James Bond film, and it’s based on the fifth novel in Fleming’s Bond series. The film focuses on two main plots: first, we have the far reaching arms of SPECTRE plotting to both steal a specific cryptographic device from (and then sell it back to0 the Soviet government; then, we have one of SPECTRE’s top agents developing a way to get revenge on Bond and MI6 for the events shown in Dr. No via a complicated mix of scandal and murder. It’s more focused on political intrigue than the previous film (which I feel focused more on terrorism than on espionage); here, we have Bond and his allies in a country that isn’t exactly friendly to them, and in the middle of an issue that could end with MI6’s reputation being dragged through the mud.

I’m going to be honest: From Russia With Love alternately bored and annoyed me. The high points of the film were the political parts and the fight scenes, but there was so much more that I either felt uncomfortable with or that straight up made me angry.

So let’s talk about race/racism and how poorly the Romani people were portrayed in the film.

With a change in scenery from Jamaica to Istanbul, Turkey, you’d think that the film wouldn’t have similar issues in terms of racism. I mean, that’s what I thought ,and I was sorely wrong. While From Russia With Love doesn’t have the same issues as Dr. No, there’s a similar set up when it comes to the casting crew’s refusal to cast actors of color as characters of color. On top of that, we see a fair number of stereotypes and hypersexualization/objectification of Romani women. Now, the objectification of women and their bodies isn’t limited to Romani women at all – this movie has a huge problem with “women as objects/entertainment” throughout – but it is the way that Romani women are treated as sexual objects across the board that had me seething.

The objectification starts with the opening credits.

FRWL Op Credits

The tone is different from the previous fil,m where the opening credits were lighter and more fun to watch. Immediately, we get images of barely-dressed belly dancers and lingering looks at their bare backs and naked thighs. The credits are imposed over their bodies and the camera clings to their skin like the clothes that they aren’t really wearing thanks to the designer Robert Brownjohn. There’s a huge focus on the women’s bare skin and sexualizing their bodies. That really sets the tone for a film that is uncomfortable to watch (especially when you get to the scene set in the Romani camp about a third of the way into the film and see the way that the focus on the women is incredibly sexualized).

Honestly, the last time I heard the g-slur so much I was watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I didn’t enjoy that very much either. It was used all over the scene set in the camp, to the point where I had to take the subtitles off when I was taking screencaps for this piece, because the g-slur was in every single set of frames.

Coupled with the fact that Pedro Armendáriz’s Kerim Bey talks about the Romani people as if they’re little more than simple savages that do his bidding? Yeah, I was pretty angry about that. I didn’t like it when Felix Leiter talked down to Quarrel in Dr. No, and I really don’t like it here.

Kerim Bey: You’ll like my g***y friends. I use them like the Russians use the Bulgars.

The way he says it is just… infuriating. He comments that he’s essentially started a blood feud between them as if that’s not a huge deal. But that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Once at the camp you see examples of Romani women serving drinks and being in turn subservient and coy when around Bond. Two women in the camp are in love with the same man and set to fight over it. That’s a red flag right there, but before it can start, we get a scene with a belly dancer that distracts the crowd at the same time that we get rival Bulgar agents preparing to storm the camp.

Bellydancer

Okay, now I like a good bellydance scene as much as the next person, but it stood out to me how sexualized the women were in the camp scene. They went to Bond, fawned over him, and made it very clear that they were moved by his machismo first.

But then we get the aforementioned fight between the two Romani women.

Now, From Russia With Love is rated PG. But it’s a 1960s PG, which means that it’s a lot closer to a modern day PG-13 rating. This is one of the scenes that settles that rating question in your head. Aliza Gur and Martina Beswick were cast as the two fighting girls, Zora and Vida, and they come into the scene in relatively skimpy clothing.

There’s no question about who the fight is for; no question that the men in the crowd and the men in the film’s audience are the target for this scene. The two women fight each other in a way more closely linked with adult films: they grab each other’s hair and fling each other around as the camera zooms in on their bare legs and cleavage, all while flicking back to Bond and the people at his table, who are staring on with interest and what I read as arousal.

The interruption of the rival agents descending en masse to take down the camp couldn’t come soon enough.

bond zora vidaUnfortunately, we still get a few more ridiculous scenes before the film leaves the camp all together. After the shootout scene in the camp when Bond is preparing for bed, Kerim Bey shows up with Zora and Vida and gives them to Bond with a heavy implication that he’s going to have a threesome with them. This is very quickly followed by a final scene at the camp where Zora and Vida fawn over Bond and literally serve him tea while mending his clothes.

I’ve never been happier for a scene to end in a film.

Fun fact: out of the women in the camp scene and the credits, none are Romani (Aliza Gur was born in Israel to Jewish parents while Martine Beswick was an English actress). You know who else wasn’t Romani? The head of the camp, Vavra. He was played by Francis de Wolff, an actor famous for his frequent portrayals of villainous characters. So this movie had more than its fair share of whitewashing on top of the racism explicit in using the g-slur in every other sentence at the camp scene.

In addition to our new Bond girl in Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova, we have two recurring ladies (and my faves): Eunice Grayson’s Sylvia Trench, and Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny. Together both women have about ten minutes of dialogue total.

That’s not very good, considering this film is an hour and fifty-five minutes long.

sylvia moneypenny tatianaSylvia is supposed to be Bond’s semi-regular girlfriend at this point, but there’s no depth to her character, and we only see her for a few minutes at the beginning of the film. I adored her take-charge manner in Dr. No, but in this movie she comes off as a bit… bendy when it comes to what Bond wants. She does a fair bit of simpering; and, okay, being coquettish and sly aren’t bad things, but it’s definitely framed as though Bond is humoring her, and that I didn’t like. This is Sylvia’s last appearance in the franchise, though, so there’s no hope that we’ll see her as a more fleshed-out character (unless she gets a reboot in a later film).

Miss Moneypenny continues to slay me. I was thinking about it as I watched the film, and Moneypenny is absolutely Bond’s “work-wife.” The way that they treat each other and flirt is really lighthearted, and I stand by what I said in my first recap about how she’s “safe” for Bond to flirt with. During the scene with Sylvia at the beginning of the film, we get this really great bit of dialogue after Sylvia takes the phone and tells Moneypenny how Bond will coming back later. The camera switches to Moneypenny and she says:

Moneypenny: Hey, your “old case” sounds interesting, James.

I swear, in that moment I started thinking about writing something about Moneypenny being interested in women. She delivers that in such a teasing tone that I have to believe that there’s supposed to be innuendo there.

Now, Tatiana Romanova grew on me. I like that she definitely starts out playing a role to fit Bond’s type. He’s so flattered by the idea that a beautiful young woman is so moved by his photograph that she’s fallen in love with him without seeing him in person that he barely puts a serious thought in his head to question it. It’s weird, but it absolutely cracks me up how Bond is willing to fling himself into certain danger at the first sign of a pretty face.

I like that she does evolve as a character (she kills the final villain in the film, after all!!) but there are some faults to her character. Where Honey is framed as innocent from the get-go, Tatiana is more sexual and worldly. Not a problem of course, except for how her mission is to seduce the man. There’s a scene played for laughs halfway through, where the MI6 home office is listening to Bond interrogate Tatiana on the cryptography device that’s driving the film’s main plot and it’s just… it’s a piece of work.

Tatiana Romanova: The mechanism is… Oh, James, James… Will you make love to me all the time in England?

James Bond: Day and night. Go on about the mechanism.

Tatiana is over the top to Bond’s dry delivery. It’s supposed to be funny, and in another movie it probably would be, but I can’t get over how Tatiana received orders to seduce Bond from SPECTRE’s Rosa Klebb/Number 3. Sure, we do get some scenes that show that at least some of what Tatiana is doing is of her own free will and that she really is attracted to Bond, but… eh.

From Russia With Love also has something that I was hoping wouldn’t become a thing: James Bond hitting women. Near the film’s climax when he suspects that she’s lying to him, Bond shakes Tatiana and then backhands her hard enough to send her reeling. All the while he’s menacing her and moving into her space as she tells him that he’s hurting her. It’s a very cruel scene and entirely unnecessary.

Add to that Sean Connery’s views on how he believed that he’d slap a woman for behaving in a certain way (evident in a 1965 interview in Playboy Magazine where he says “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman […] If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it.”) and well… the scene becomes even more stressful to watch.

Tatiana’s character is subdued after the film’s climax, and I think that’s definitely because of how Bond treats her.  It definitely changes the tone of the film, and so, where we’re supposed to get a “happy for now” feel from the ending, I’m just concerned because Bond is officially a jerk in my mind, and I don’t know how that relationship could end well.

All that being said, there were definitely things that I enjoyed about the film! The theme song From Russia With Love grew on me. It kept coming on in the weirdest moments as background music, and by the end of my rewatch period I was actually singing along with it.

Red Grant

The climatic fight scene between Bond and SPECTRE’s man, Red Gran,t was to die for. The fight was brutal, and you didn’t get the feeling that Bond would definitely come out on top. Most of the time, Bond is the only person in the crowd that’s cool and collected under pressure – but not here. Grant isn’t easily dispatched, and there were moments where I thought our man was on his way out – or at least about to receive a serious injury. My only issue is how Red Grant lost some of his characterization from the novel, where his urge to kill coincided with the full moon, because I was amused at the idea of James Bond fighting a werewolf.

The politics and history in the film were also interesting. What really got me was learning about how the politics were sanitized to an extent. This was 1963, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the film changed so much of the plot from the book so that it wasn’t an overt call out to the Cold War. The Soviet secret intelligence is replaced by SPECTRE, and the Russians aren’t villains at all, except in the abstract.

Though I didn’t immediately love From Russia With Love, I did find it interesting that this is apparently everyone’s favorite James Bond film; it’s the film that everyone associated with the franchise kept trying to recreate, because of how it “perfected” Bond’s style and substance.

Things I’m Looking Forward to In The Next Bond Films:

  • The change in director. Terence Young was replaced by Ian Fleming’s acquaintance Guy Hamilton, and I’m excited to see how/if his vision changes the character or the film’s style.
  • I don’t remember this, but there’s supposedly a fight sequence upcoming that’s one of the best in the franchise, and I can wait to see how much it lives up to the hype.
  • The Aston Martin!!

Zina Hutton writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories. Find her on her blog or on Twitter.

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