Rest in Peace, Roger Moore

Actor Roger Moore died yesterday, aged 89. There’s also a lovely tribute by Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian.

I heard the news on the radio, while driving home after a grocery haul. “And now we have some tragic news from Britain”, the DJ said, whereupon I assumed it would be about the Manchester bombing. And then he announced that Roger Moore had died. And I thought, “Oh no, but he wasn’t even that old.”

Of course, the truth is that Roger Moore was old – 89 is a highly respectable age, after all. And it’s pretty much a miracle that until two days ago, all six actors who played James Bond in the official Bond films were still alive, given how decimated the cast of other franchises which debuted around the same time or even later (e.g. Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Avengers, Raumpatrouille Orion, the Winnetou movies, the Edgar Wallace movies, Mission Impossible, etc…) is today. But Roger Moore was one of those actors who always appeared ageless to the point that I was stunned when I did the math and realised that he’d been in his thirties when he played Simon Templar, in his early forties, when he played Lord Brett Sinclair, and that he was 45, when he took over the role of James Bond and 58, when he retired from it. Of course, you can see that Roger Moore was aging, especially over the course of his seven Bond movies. But though he was aging, he never seemed old.

Now I have to make a confession: James Bond is not the first role that I associate with Roger Moore. He never was my favourite or even second favourite Bond (I rank both Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton above him) and in fact, his Bond movies usually end up in the bottom half, whenever I try to rank them. A.O. Scott may claim at the New York Times that Roger Moore was the best Bond, because he was Generation X’s Bond, but though I’m Generation X, Roger Moore was never my Bond. For due to the old, three-channel, wholesome programming and nothing foreign public TV system, the Bond movies only started airing on German TV from the mid 1980s on and they started at the beginning with the Connery Bonds, so it took until the late 1980s, until they finally got to Roger Moore. Watching the movies in the cinema was out of the question due to a combination of being too young to watch them and overprotective parents and watching them on video was even more out of the question, since my parents believed that VCRs were a waste of money. So by the time I finally saw him as Bond, I already associated Roger Moore with other parts, namely Simon Templar and particularly Lord Brett Sinclair from The Persuaders, though I’d also seen him in his very early TV role as Ivanhoe.

For some reason, The Persuaders, starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis, is hardly remembered in the US at all, though British obituaries usually at least mention it. But the show was hugely popular in Germany, largely due to Rainer Brandt‘s brilliant pun and innuendo laden dubbing work (some of it so rude that adult me was lying on the floor gasping, “I can’t believe they dared to say that on TV. In 1971”), which turned a fairly straight adventure show into a brilliant fourth-wall breaking meta-commentary on the action adventure genre and television in general. By comparison, watching The Persuaders undubbed is a huge let-down, because where are the jokes? Quite a few episodes of The Persuaders dubbed into German are available online. There’s also a side by side comparison between the original and German dubbed version, which shows how much better the latter is.

When I first saw Roger Moore as James Bond, sometime in the late 1980s during the German TV premiere of Live and Let Die, it was like seeing Brett Sinclair or Simon Templar pretending to be James Bond. And why was he behaving like such an arsehole towards Solitaire? Coincidentally, seeing Pierce Brosnan as James Bond has a similar effect on me, only that it felt like watching Remington Steele impersonating Bond. And anyway, why is he fighting Richard Sharpe (cause that’s the role I associated Sean Bean with pre-Game of Thrones)? For that matter, why is he trying to kill Vic from La Boum* and the skinny guy fro The Full Monty?

These days, I still find Roger Moore’s seven Bond films more rewatchable than Brosnan’s. I will probably stick around and watch for a while, if I run across a Moore Bond on late-night TV (ditto for a Connery or Dalton Bond), though I rarely bother with Brosnan. For though the first two Brosnan Bonds were pretty good and hold up well even twenty-plus years later, but casting Sophie Marceau as a villainess in The World Is Not Enough was a huge mistake, because Sophie Marceau was an icon to a generation of European teenagers who saw their own lives and problems reflected in hers. When Brosnan’s Bond turned on her, he turned on all of us. It’s probably no coincidence that The World Is Not Enough was the last Bond movie I’ve bothered to watch in the theatre. I have seen bits and piece of Die Another Day and Casino Royale, all of Skyfall (which is a damn good Bond film, even though I don’t normally care for Daniel Craig’s Bond), though I’ve never gotten around to watching Quantum of Solace and Spectre. But the magic is gone and it has been gone since The World Is Not Enough.

Compared to the Dalton Bonds and beyond, Roger Moore’s James Bond movies are often downright silly and time hasn’t been kind to them. A lot of the old Bonds are racist, but Live and Let Die goes quite a bit beyond casual vintage racism into “I can’t believe they didn’t realise how offensive this was” territory, though the New Orleans funeral scene is great, Baron Samedi is still brilliant and Jane Seymour remains one of the most beautiful and memorable Bond girls of all times. The Man with the Golden Gun is just a bad movie, in spite of Christopher Lee’s presence (plus, Bond is mean to Herve Villechaise, which will horrify anybody who grew up watching Fantasy Island). The Spy Who Loved Me has the advantage of stunning Ken Adam sets, the submersible Lotus (who didn’t want one?), Richard Kiel’s Jaws as one of the most memorable henchmen, Barbara Bach as another great Bond girl (Come to think of it, Roger Moore’s Bond did have the best Bond girls) and of course that ski jump into the abyss (courtesy of Willy Bogner, master of the ski stunt, and stuntman Rick Sylvester), but the plot is a notable rehash of You Only Live Twice and Curd Jürgens is probably the worst Bond villain of all time. Moonraker is just plain bonkers, basically James Bond does Star Wars with Michael Lonsdale playing Hugo Drax as the Master from Doctor Who. On the plus side, it had Lois Chiles and Corinne Clery. For Your Eyes Only isn’t bad at all, but for some reason it’s the Bond film I remember the least and the one I usually recall next to nothing about it except, some undersea sequences, a climax on an Alpine mountain top (which could describe any number of Bond movies) and Julian Glover being the villain. Octopussy is pretty crazy as well, but it has circusses, Maude Adams and Kabir Bedi a.k.a. Sandokan himself. Finally, A View to a Kill is probably my favourite Moore Bond, since it has an Ah-Ha theme song (the Moore Bonds also had excellent theme songs, come to think of it), Grace Jones being awesome, Christopher Walken being villainous, a chase on the Eiffel Tower, which left me so disappointed, once I saw the real thing (But it’s so packed. You can barely move, let alone have a chase scene here) and a climax involving a zeppelin and the Golden Gate Bridge. So really, what’s not to love?

Roger Moore’s Bond movies are also the furthest from Ian Fleming’s original version of the character, though I didn’t realise that, until I started tracking down the original Bond novels in the 1990s. Nonetheless, I find them a lot more rewatchable than the Brosnan and Craig Bonds, probably because even at their worst and most bizarre, the Moore Bonds are always incredibly entertaining. And due to Roger Moore’s suave and ever so slightly tongue in cheek portrayal, his James Bond is a lot closer to Brett Sinclair and Simon Templar than Brosnan’s ever was to Remington Steele. Though my favourite Bond movie is and will always be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Yes, I know I’m weird.

Talking of which, Roger Moore’s suave, tongue-in-cheek Bond may always seem as if nothing could faze him, but he has unexpected moments of vulnerability that were rarely seen in the character (as opposed to book Bond) all the way up to Daniel Craig era. There is a scene in one of the early Moore Bonds, where Bond is seen visiting the grave of his wife Tracy, who got murdered by Blofeld on their honeymoon. And when Barbara Bach’s Agent Triple X mentions Bond’s late wife in The Spy Who Loved Me, he cuts her off. Because talking about Tracy is just too painful. I have always hated how the later Bond films dismissed Tracy, even though she was the one woman Bond was willing to marry (and played by Diana Rigg a.k.a. Emma Peel herself) and presumably died while carrying his child, so seeing her acknowledged, however slightly, is good. And the only Bond movies that did acknowldge her were Roger Moore’s

Of course, Roger Moore, was much more than just Ivanhoe, Simon Templar, Brett Sinclair and James Bond. By all accounts, he was lovely and modest in person and also worked tirelessly as an ambassador for Unicef in his later years.

Finally, here is one of my all-time favourite Roger Moore moments from The Muppets Show, where Moore sings “Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Doolittle, which was of course Ian Fleming’s most famous non-Bond work (and how amazing is it that the producers of The Muppets not only knew this, but assumed their audience did, too), while fighting rival spies:

And of course Miss Piggy (who had a really great taste in men – Mikhail Baryshnikov, Christophr Reeves, Nathan Fillion, Roger Moore – though I wonder what she saw in Kermit) tried to seduce him:

So rest in peace, Sir Roger Moore, who played James Bond in more movies than any other actor. Though he’ll always be Brett Sinclair to me.

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