The Semiotics of Bond: Ian Fleming’s Use of Propaganda

The iconic Connery in Dr. No.

I’m posting the introduction to my master’s thesis, for anyone interested.  Comments and criticisms welcomed.



By: Jay

Ian Fleming’s James Bond is one of the most recognizable and successful characters in modern popular culture.  The novels have sold over 100 million copies, and the film franchise is the second most successful in history, having been recently displaced by the Harry Potter series.  For most readers and viewers, 007 is merely a Western pop icon. However, there is much more at work in the novels and films than appears on the surface.  In fact, there are deeper undercurrents, themes, symbols, and messages that operate as psychological warfare propaganda and an in-depth semiotic analysis of the novels and films yields an interpretation that confirms this thesis.  Much has been written on the subject of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. From Umberto Eco’s older essay “Narrative Structures in Fleming” to Christoph Linders’ modern collections The James Bond Phenomenon and Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale, there is a wealth of critical work on capitalist/consumerist, imperialist, gender, and racial analyses in the books and films.  In this wealth of criticism, key elements have been ignored that will here be explored.

     The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader features Tony Bennett and Janet Woolacott’s article “The Moments of Bond,” which chronicles the rise of the franchise in terms of marketing and sales as well as the zeitgeist of Western Imperial capitalism and the sixties sexual revolution that propelled Bond to international fame.  Michael Denning’s “Licensed to Look” analyzes the consumerism that fueled Fleming and Bond and the mythical qualities Bond embodies that form a potent combination with the espionage genre.  Denning focuses on “eye” imagery and its utilization by film media as a particularly potent manipulative semiotic device.[1]  Linder offers an overview of criminology and the “global conspiracy” evolution the franchise exemplifies concurrent with the socio-political threats of the respective decades of Bond releases.  Particular attention is given to the Cold War and Bond “saving Britain’s image.”[2]

Cultural impact studies have been done with James Chapman’s License to Thrill and Edward Comentale’s Ian Fleming and James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007.  Chapman gives an analysis of different elements and themes in choice Bond installments, including the literary setting (detective novels) for Fleming’s early stories, the fact that Bond was first published in Playboy, comparisons of the early films with Alfred Hitchcock’s works, and the oft-repeated attempt to resurrect British Imperialism.  Chapman moves on to consider the reason for the franchise’s success, making no definitive statement about whether “Bondmania” is the result of the zeitgeist or the development and advancement of the film industry, or both.  “Bondmania” was well in place by 1964, and from there, Bond would dominate the sixties and make his way to American theaters, ultimately to become an international icon.  Chapman continues with analysis of the propaganda for imperialism and of Bond as the preeminent Cold Warrior.  Attention is largely given to Bond in comparison with other action films and heroes, but little attention is given to the deeper, mythical elements.    Continue reading