Cold War Nostalgia

The Spy Vs. Spy Characters from Mad magazine

The Spy Vs. Spy Characters from Mad Magazine

Looking back, the Communists were a worthy enemy. There were no suicide vests or improvised explosive devices aimed at innocent civilians. (Religious wars are always the most brutal.) Mind you, the Russians weren’t Boy Scouts, either. But after the ugliness and indiscriminate savagery of the current Sunni Muslim jihad against the West, I grow downright nostalgic about the 1960s.

Lately, I have been reading the three great spy novelists of that time—with great pleasure. I just finished Funeral in Berlin by one of them, the great Len Deighton. The other two were Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, and John Le Carré, author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Funeral in Berlin is typical of the period. The hero, who is called Harry Palmer in the movies but is unnamed in the books, arranges to transfer a Russian scientist to West Berlin by means of a coffin. No one seems to be trustworthy. In fact, the character one would think would be the most villainous, Colonel Stok of the KGB, is actually the most sympathetic character that “Harry” encounters. The people who are supposedly his allies are an untrustworthy lot: two of them try to kill him, others just want to sell him down river.

In comparison, James Bond is almost never surprised by villains who are supposed to be on the same side as him. There are all those lovely girls, and Felix Leiter of the CIA appears as a supporting hero in several of the novels.

Only Le Carré comes close to Deighton in creating a murky world of spies and supposed friends. My favorite of his books is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been made into an excellent film and a great British TV series starring Sir Alez Guinness as George Smiley.


The Franchise

Sean Connery as James Bond

Sean Connery as James Bond

It’s been going strong for over half a century and shows no signs of letting up. I saw my first James Bond film, Doctor No (1962), at the Nugget Theater in Hanover, New Hampshire, when I was a freshman at Dartmouth College. I saw my most recent 007 epic, Spectre (2015), at the Village Cinema in Recoleta, Buenos Aires, last month.

When I was a grad student at UCLA, I wrote a feature article for the Daily Bruin entitled “James Bond in Vietnam,” about how the technologically superior U.S. military were losing to the Viet Cong—that we were, in effect, hypnotized by the gadgets of war furnished by our military’s equivalent of Q.

What amazes me is that, during its long run, the James Bond franchise has maintained a high level of quality despite the fact that not all of the subsequent Bonds were up to the level of Sean Connery. When you go to see a Bond film, you know what you’re going to get: a high level of action and entertainment. The sophisticated British secret agent with his taste for martinis that are “shaken, not stirred” makes all of us peasants wish that we were as suave as he is.

Over the last six months, I have been reading the Ian Fleming Bond books in succession, having just finished Doctor No, the sixth in the series. The books are good, but not quite up to the level of the films.