Battle of the Bonds // Part 004 // Timothy Dalton
The earnest, the purist, the ahead-of-his-time Bond
The world wasn’t ready for Timothy Dalton’s Bond.
With only two films to his name, Dalton’s truncated time in the role, much like George Lazenby’s, is often unfairly and incorrectly categorized as a failure. He’s something like the Rodney Dangerfield of Bonds, never getting the respect he deserves, at least not from the everyday Bond fan.
Real ones, however, know that Dalton was the closest thing we ever got to the 007 found within Ian Fleming’s original texts: a broodingly cynical blunt instrument at odds with the dirty deeds comprising his profession.
And with his wolf-like blue-grey eyes and jawline chiseled from Arthurian stone, Dalton matched more so than any other Bond the “dark, rather cruel good looks” 007 is described as having in the books.
An accomplished stage actor who cut his teeth on the stages of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), trained at the National Youth Theatre, and gained recognition for his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Dalton’s theatrical talents brought more gravitas and emotional authenticity to the Bond role than any actor before him. His dedication to an honest portrayal of the man even extended to Dalton’s insistence on performing as many of his own stunts as the producers would allow.
“First and foremost,” Dalton later reflected, “I wanted to make him human. He’s not a superman; you can’t identify with a superman.”
Following the steady transformation from secret agent to superspy James Bond had undergone over the course of Roger Moore’s seven films, Dalton earnestly sought to return 007 to his novelistic roots, using the original source material to ground his film presence. Dalton blocked out the noise of previous Bond performances and tuned, instead, into Fleming’s foundational frequency.
“I felt it would be wrong to pluck the character out of thin air, or to base him on any of my predecessors’ interpretations. Instead, I went to the man who created him and I was astonished…On those pages I discovered a Bond I’d never seen on the screen, a quite extraordinary man, a man I really wanted to play, a man of contradictions and opposites.”
The Welsh-born thespian steeped himself in each of the author’s Bond novels in preparation for the role, pondering each page as instructive guides on how to personify 007’s deep, dark psyche, thoughtfully considering the responsibility inherent to embodying a character with such rich history and cultural importance.
“What makes these movies work? What is it that got them going?,” the dramaturgical Dalton would delve during an iconic appearance in the documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007. “You’ve got to go back to the beginning. Here was a hero who murdered in cold blood…The dirtiest, toughest, meanest, nastiest, brutalist hero we’ve ever seen. This is what started those movies. I wanted to bring people back to believing in this character, to bring my reality to it…I guess I’ve always liked a challenge.”
Dalton has this sort of wily charisma about him. A bright-eyed willingness to jump right into whatever it is that excites him. He’s deathly serious, yet intoxicatingly joyous, almost fiendish, when discussing his process. He clearly possesses profound respect and a passionate appreciation for acting, storytelling, and proper representation of the characters he takes on.
“Bond’s essential quality is that he’s a man who lives on the edge. He could get killed at any moment, and that stress and danger factor is reflected in the way he lives, chain-smoking, drinking, fast cars, and fast women,” said Dalton in a 1987 interview with Playgirl.
An understanding of Bond’s essential qualities manifested itself into a palpable portrayal from Dalton that is stoic, yet cultured, brooding, yet emotionally present. The job requires Bond to kill in cold blood and view his life as a utilitarian means to a government's end. He’s a cold man with no home life to speak of, he has nothing to lose, and everything to secure for queen and country. Still, he yearns for a chance to throw it all away and rediscover his humanity. Only Dalton (and one other actor arriving decades later) could adequately explore those depths.
When asked in a 1989 interview with Starlog what first motivated him to pursue acting, Dalton unraveled an intelligent, illuminating response that helps us better understand his brilliant, considerate mind:
“That’s something I think about constantly, because it has to be for a purpose, it’s not just self-indulgence. People often say, “Well, it’s just the way I express myself.” That’s no good, that’s narcissistic, juvenile. You work to express the piece, because you believe the piece has value and that it can be communicated to other people who will see something new of life because of it. You must believe that it will in some small or big way make a difference to their lives.”
The mix of classically handsome good looks, dramatic chops, and intimate understanding of the spirit of Ian Fleming’s James Bond made Timothy Dalton a dead ringer for a silver screen 007. So much so that he had been considered and pursued to take up the role ever since Sean Connery departed the franchise following You Only Live Twice in 1967.
But the young actor, ever the admirable pragmatist, turned down the initial opportunity, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to accurately portray the character Fleming had always written to be in his mid-to-late thirties.
“When I was about twenty-five,” Dalton regaled after ultimately being cast as Bond in 1987, “Mr. Broccoli kindly asked me if I would be interested in taking over from Sean Connery who was about to relinquish Bond. It was not a firm offer, but an expression of interest. Frankly, I thought it would have been a stupid move for me. I was too young; Bond should be between thirty-five and forty years old.”
Dalton always did his homework.
Fast forward to pre-production on 1981’s For Your Eyes Only and Dalton’s name came up again, this time while Roger Moore mulled his Double-O-retirement. The talks soon dissolved again, though, as Dalton believed the half-hearted search for a new Bond was merely song and dance set up to encourage Moore’s return, with the actor later admitting he wasn’t a fan of the franchise’s tone or creative direction: “…the films had become too much techno-pop and had lost track of their sense of story.”
It was around this same time that Pierce Brosnan met Cubby Broccoli on the set of For Your Eyes Only, his first wife, Cassandra Harris, playing opposite Roger Moore as the Countess Lisl von Schlaff. Broccoli was enamored with the then twenty-six-year-old Irish actor, famously stating, “if he can act…he’s my guy” to inherit the role following Moore.
Once Roger’s time in the tux officially ended, Cubby, with the help of his daughter Barbara Broccoli and stepson Michael G. Wilson, flipped The Bond-Signal once more and set out yet again on an extensive search for the new Bond, keeping both Brosnan’s and Dalton’s names in his back pocket.
The usual cast of relative unknowns was brought in for their screen tests (including Mark Greenstreet, James Healey, Michael Praed, and Lambert Wilson), as were a pair of contenders who would go on to become household names in Sam Neill and Mel Gibson.
Michael G. Wilson, now as Bond co-producer/writer, director John Glen, and would-be heir to the Bond throne Barbara Broccoli were all particularly enthralled with Neill’s screentest, but Cubby was still the man writing the checks, and he shot the idea down. As he did with the other big name in the race: “I had no wish to cast Mel Gibson,” Broccoli definitively declared. And that was that.
With the pack narrowed down to Cubby’s back-pocketed two, it was Pierce Brosnan, not Timothy Dalton, selected as the world’s next James Bond.
What happened next will be explored more judiciously in the next installment of Battle of the Bonds, but for now, let’s just say that Brosnan, our fifth Bond, would have been Brosnan, our fourth Bond, if not for a notorious fucking over supplied by NBC when they refused to release Brosnan from his Remington Steele contract.
The great scales of fortune tipped away from Pierce Brosnan and back toward Timothy Dalton, finally allowing him to acquire the role that had hounded him since his salad days.
To the dismay of Fleming purists around the globe, Dalton’s time would be tragically short-lived. But let’s not go there just yet; I’m not ready.
First, let us explore the two Dalton contributions we were lucky to receive…
The Living Daylights (1987)
James Bond is on assignment to assist the defection of a KGB general, Georgi Koskov, within Bratislava. As Koskov sneaks his way out of a crowded concert hall, Bond spots, through the scope of his sniper rifle, the orchestra’s beautiful blonde cellist…aiming a sniper rifle of her own at the retreating KGB General. Bond fires the weapon from the cellist’s hand, disobeying direct orders to kill the sniper, and helps smuggle Koskov into the West after saving his life. Bond later learns the KGB’s “Smiert Spionam” (Death to Spies) initiative has been reinstated by its new General Leonid Pushkin, the body of 004 found shot dead during a routine training mission all but confirming the troubling truth.
Shortly after being brought back to an MI6 safe house, Koskov is abducted by an infiltrative assassin, leading Bond on a chase to retrieve Koskov and kill Pushkin before he lays waste to any more of 007’s coworkers. Returning to Czechoslovakia in search of his only lead, Bond tracks down the cellist sniper, Kara Milovy, and discovers Koskov’s defection had been staged all along. With the KGB now in hot pursuit of Kara, she and Bond set out on a globe-trotting mission to find Koskov and stop Pushkin, only to find that Pushkin has been set up by Koskov and a power-hungry arms dealer by the name of Brad Whitaker.
In a twisting tale rife with deception, double-crosses, and diplomatic intrigue, a secret agent and a cellist become embroiled in a massive plot involving opium, diamonds, and enough high-tech weaponry to spark a new world war…and it’s up to the unlikely duo to stop it all from catching fire.
There’s this interesting confluence of creative decision-making happening in The Living Daylights. Timothy Dalton arrives at the series with a head full of steam (and loads of Fleming), ready to unleash his grittier, darker, less sardonic take on Bond. Meanwhile, the entire infrastructure around him — John Glen directing a Maibaum/Wilson script supported by Peter Lamont production design and a John Barry score (his last for Bond)— remained mostly unchanged from Roger Moore’s late period, the very era it seemed the franchise was seeking to pivot away from. This might all sound muddling or contradictory, but the end results turn out to be a perfect marriage of style rather than an incongruous union. The film ticks all the right Bond boxes, while Dalton’s fresh presence disrupts the formula just enough to propel the material into thrillingly uncharted territory.
Classic convolutions inherent to most Bond plots go mostly unnoticed in this film, our standard suspensions of disbelief outweighed by a masterly-paced story with big espionage energy. The Cold War was near “over” in 1987, and The Living Daylights feels like a celebratory acknowledgment of that fact. Its central conspiracy recalls the earliest of Connery endeavors through a gradually-unraveling plot that, at times, wades into more sophisticated spy waters typically occupied by the likes of a John le Carré or Graham Greene. There’s a palpable sense of romanticism directed toward a soon-to-be-bygone era helping to drive the plot forward, a feeling requited by the wistful warmth at the heart of Bond and Kara’s courtship.
Our two central characters take a carriage ride together, giggle like teenagers at an amusement park, and bear big, goofy grins at one another in the Musikverein Golden Hall. It’s a side of Bond we’d never seen before, one of respectful, full-hearted monogamy, a true romance rather than the usual incessant skirt-chasing. Bond and Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale are 007’s most memorable and affecting romances throughout the franchise, but Bond and Kara belong in the same conversation. And while Maryan d’Abo plays Kara Milvoy with considerable class and charm, it’s Dalton’s dramatic depth that helps to elevate every single scene. Whether in sharing a tender moment with Kara on a Ferris wheel or falling into a fit of bitter rage after an ally is killed, Dalton understood the assignment, turning in a performance that fuses the best qualities of the Bond we knew with interpretations we didn’t even know existed yet.
The Living Daylights has many great things going for it, but compelling villains are not among them. Save for Necros, the lean, mean, milk-bomb-tossing machine, Bond’s foes in this film are feckless, ranging from faceless Soviet redshirts to one of the weakest main baddies in all the series: Brad Whitaker. Played by Joe Don Baker, Whitaker is completely devoid of menace, a war dork wannabe better suited to hosting a mid-2000s military show on the History Channel than taking on 007. As a result, the film’s climactic face-off between Bond and Whitaker feels more like a tacked-on epilogue than a fulfilling finale, especially after all the thrilling setpieces in Afghanistan leading up to Whitaker meeting his Waterloo.
The Living Daylights is one of the least sexually offensive Bond films, especially considering the lengths they go to in establishing Bond’s monogamous nature in the wake of late-80s AIDS awareness, but a few moments still occur where the cheeky sexism of eras past crop back up to weaken Dalton’s attempt at progressing Bond forward. Most notably a scene where 007 slaps Moneypenny’s ass, another where a security guard is distracted by a co-worker’s voluptuous bosom, and yet one more in which a single condescending word — “Women!” — undermines what should be Kara’s most heroic scene. This film marked the franchise’s silver anniversary, and Bond had surely come quite a long way from where he started, but he still had quite a ways to go.
Dalton represented a new unpredictable variable entered into the Bond film equation. Even with this fresh facet, the operations largely stayed the same, as did the results. The Living Daylights would go on to become a respectable hit, outgrossing A View To A Kill and Octopussy before it. Some critics had a tentative response to Dalton’s new approach, perhaps growing too accustomed to the Moore era left behind, but the overall consensus was one of promising excitement for the future of the franchise.
Rita Kempley of The Washington Post famously praised Dalton’s performance, dubbing him “the best Bond ever,” and Steven Jay Rubin in The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopaedia would go on to eloquently commend Dalton’s intensity, writing, “Dalton’s Bond sometimes looks like a candidate for the psychiatrist’s couch — a burned-out killer who may have just enough energy left for one final mission. That was Fleming’s Bond…” Dalton synthesized Fleming’s works with the well-oiled 007 production machine, bringing brilliant theatrical presence to an indelible role and making quite the introductory splash in the process.
However, despite the stunning stuntwork, streamlined plot, and return of Bond’s harder edges, there was a mounting voice of dissent lamenting Dalton’s perceived humorlessness after twelve light-hearted Moore years. And that voice would soon grow stronger as the franchise doubled down on Dalton’s approach in his second film which would become the franchise’s darkest, most violent entry to this day: Licence To Kill.
Dalton Ranking: 1st of 2
Licence To Kill (1989)
Felix Leiter is maimed, and his newlywed wife raped and killed, in Key West after meddling in the affairs of Franz Sanchez, the most feared drug baron in all of Latin America. Now, James Bond craves vengeance for the violence inflicted on two of his only friends in the world. Ignoring orders to report back to MI6 and set out on an assignment in Istanbul, Bond is paid a visit by M himself, where he is then suspended and revoked of his licence to kill. 007 resists restraint from M’s men, puts Her Majesty’s bureaucracy behind him, and escapes as a rogue agent.
While on the lam, Bond teams up with Pam Bouvier, a DEA informant, and later Q, with help from a worried-sick Moneypenny, in his personal vendetta. Infiltrating Sanchez’s operations undercover as an assassin for hire, Bond slowly sows the seeds of distrust within the drug lord’s inner circle, drawing him ever closer to the revenge he so voraciously seeks…
As you’ve no doubt gathered by this point, I am a fan of the outliers in this franchise. The majority of Bond films feel, by design, just like all the others, so I tend to value highly the entries that intentionally set themselves apart from the pack. To that end, there are few outliers in this series I’ve come to appreciate more over the passage of time than Licence To Kill. With a stripped-down revenge plot, deplorable villains, and an emotionally-resonant lead performance, Licence To Kill has as much in common with a 70s revenge flick like Death Wish or I Spit On Your Grave as it does Goldfinger or The Spy Who Loved Me.
Seeing as how I began my Double-O obsession at a young age, this film always seemed a bit too intense for me, too much a departure from the formula I was beginning to understand and grow accustomed to with each return trip to the Blockbuster. Bond looks like hell throughout the majority of this film, Felix gets half-eaten by a tiger shark, and a super young Benicio Del Toro is brutally ground up in a cocaine processing machine. This was not the Bond experience I was expecting when I first popped in my rented VHS copy, but like a fine wine as red as the buckets of blood spilled throughout this rampageous romp, Licence To Kill would mature alongside me, becoming ever more intriguing and rewarding as my days tallied up.
When you recall that Bond lost his wife, Tracy, under tragic circumstances at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, you’re able to better understand the singular obsession motivating him to hunt down Sanchez and avenge Felix and his slain wife Della. This is a new kind of Bond tale, one purposefully dialing up the franchise’s emotional high point, then flipping the script so that 007 gets the last laugh. Is it a complete departure from the sixteen franchise films that preceded it? No, but it’s certainly the one that strays furthest from the foundational path, and I think the film is better for it.
I hope you like late-80s action flicks because this is Bond’s full-throated foray into the subgenre. Robert Davi’s lavish depiction of the film’s loyalty-obsessed drug kingpin main villain would fit right in on Miami Vice, Bond and Bouvier’s tussle in a Bimini dive bar is straight out of Roadhouse, and Michael Kamen, known best for his work on Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, filled in for John Barry as the film’s score composer and conductor. Why do ninjas inexplicably show up in the second act? Because it’s 1989. Hell, most of the film was shot in Florida and Mexico. Even as a franchise busting at the seams with unintentional period pieces, Licence To Kill really sticks out to me as the most “of its time” film across all entries due to the sheer volume of popular 80s culture it infuses into the Bond formula.
Despite the cooled reception received when first released, Licence To Kill would go on to experience a rapidly-developing underground appreciation over time. The cult-favorite Bond film has almost gone mainstream after Daniel Craig brought back into vogue the “brooding agent goes rogue” sensibility Dalton runs wild with in Licence To Kill. I routinely see this film ranked in the top tens, fives, and even threes on the franchise rankings lists of true Bond heads out there. And while I can’t quite get there, it surely means something. I guess I appreciate this film as an academic case study more than I do as a pure piece of entertainment. It’s just hard for me to turn off the analytical part of my brain that categorizes the formula eccentricities and 80s cultural reference points whenever I revisit Licence To Kill. That said, it’s one of those films I can’t help but want to revisit again and again to see how my perception and estimation has grown.
Unlike The Living Daylights, featuring a script conceived without knowledge of who would ultimately play Bond, Licence To Kill was written with Dalton in mind, providing him with a story featuring edgier subject matter and a grittier tone to play off the actor’s grounded dramatic strengths. The Bond we see in this film is angsty, seething, dour even, and audiences just weren’t quite ready for it. Even when accounting for inflation, Licence To Kill would end up being the least financially successful film the franchise ever had in the US. Budgetary and tax reasons kept production out of the UK, and the Americanization of a fundamentally foreign export didn’t seem to sit right with filmgoers in the States. An unfortunate fact made no more digestible by the poor release timing in the same summer that hosted massive hits like Batman, Ghostbusters II, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and Lethal Weapon 2.
Dalton was welcomed more warmly overseas, but it would seem the US had not been sold on the new Bond era he helped usher in. Licence To Kill earned about 20% less than The Living Daylights and became the only Bond film to sell fewer than 10M tickets in America. The film performed so poorly that no future title would ever again premiere during summer. Not one of the better anecdotes for your film to be remembered by. And changing the title from Licence Revoked at the last minute because producers thought Americans wouldn’t know what the word “revoked” meant didn’t help things either. It wasn’t all Dalton’s fault, of course, — you could actually argue that he was far ahead of his time and the producers did him no favors — but the damage had been done. Another bout of courtroom proceedings would soon bubble up and keep Bond out of production for six years following Licence To Kill. By the time legalities were settled, Dalton had grown tired of waiting…leaving the series for good.
Dalton Ranking: 2nd of 2
There has been no Bond villain greater, more devious, or maniacal than the evil to be found within courtroom hell. Legal squabbles would again get the best of Bond following Licence To Kill, tying the franchise up into a period of stasis as new proceedings transpired. Believe it or not, it wasn’t Kevin McClory driving the legal battle this time but rather MGM/UA, the very production and distribution company helping to supply the world’s Bond fix.
New management took over in 1990 and, following Bond’s downward financial trends, sold off rights to the franchise. Cubby Broccoli, rightfully outraged, sued the company for what Michael G. Wilson described as the “authenticity of Bond, past, present, and future.” This franchise was the baby of the Broccolis, not MGM/UA, and Cubby fought like hell to retain the pillar of pop culture he helped nurture since 1962. As the proceedings proceeded, a litany of writers went to work on a script for Dalton’s third film.
The lawsuits would eventually settle in 1992, and a script would formalize by 1994, but too much time had already passed. Dalton was out.
“This has been one of the hardest decisions of my life,” Dalton said announcing his departure from the franchise, “But it has been six years since the last Bond film and if I committed to the new one, it would be another two years of my life, what with filming and promotion. I think the time is right for me to say goodbye to it all.”
And just like that, Timothy Dalton’s James Bond was gone from our lives.
It still stings of a nostalgic longing for another chance, another timeline where outside forces failed to interfere, another crack at the character for an actor with so much more to give. But it wasn’t meant to be.
I suppose you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. At least that’s what I’m led to believe by the many critics and consumers that once bristled at Dalton’s hard-nosed Bond interpretation now lapping up Daniel Craig’s 21st century Bond owing much to Dalton.
Oh, how quickly we forget where we came from.
After just two cracks at the character, the fortuitous scales that tipped from Brosnan toward Dalton at the last second would tip yet again as soon as the actor found his footing. It’s a sad twist of fate, but I take solace knowing his Bond estimations have considerably, rightfully risen in a post-Craig era.
I know many who look back on the short-lived Dalton era as a high point in the franchise, and a passionate few that stan Timothy Dalton as their favorite Bond of the bunch (shout out 007BondPosting). Can you only imagine how the actor would be remembered had he starred in even just one more film? I believe it to be the greatest “What if?” in all the series.
While in the midst of a series rewatch, I tend to become a bit melancholy once the Dalton Duology rolls along. There’s a certain sadness that comes along with the actor’s too-short time as Bond, a numbness in knowing that a performer with such dramatic depth and understanding of the fundamental character received far too little time to flesh out his performance and explore the limits of the role.
When it’s Dalton’s time to shine, I ensure my viewing experience is grounded by presence, just as the actor was. I take in the momentary bliss with the same focus as one does while cherishing a fleeting holiday or a bout of nice weather in the dead of winter.
The two films we have are beautifully brief exercises in the power of a strong impression and the devastation of impermanence, but we’re still lucky we got what we have.
It’s time we all put some respect on Timmy D’s name.