Send my regards to Dalton

1987’s The Living Daylights, one of the most underrated entries into the Bond Film series, deserves a spirited defence.

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Ask anyone to name their favourite Bond film, and you’re liable to hear some familiar titles – GoldfingerThe Spy Who Loved Me, or Casino Royale – all depending on considerations such as when people first started watching the series, what they want from their Bond, and general movie-going tastes.

One title that’s unlikely to register as being overtly familiar is 1987’s The Living Daylightsand for good reason – few critics name it in their top five Bond films.

Over half a century, the Bond series has yielded plenty of pop-culture touchstones which has allowed individual films to achieve an immortal status for critics – from Bond Girl Jill Masterton covered in gold paint in Goldfinger, or the Union Jack parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me. Where The Living Daylights suffers is that, within its 131-minute run-time, there are no such iconic moments or funny names that we associate the Bond films with. Coupled with Dalton’s two-film run and his admittedly unpopular take on the character, there’s often seldom reason for many people to revisit this film.

To say this film is a critical and financial failure however would be inaccurate – when the The Living Daylights landed on audiences in 1987, it did not resonate as a disappointment in quite the same way as some other titles as Die Another Day or Quantum of Solace. Perhaps its biggest impression was in its 180-degree reversal on the Bond character from Roger Moore’s take in his seven films.

With most casual fans coming to the Bond films for a bit of escapist fun, The Living Daylights goes unnoticed during many a Bond-marathon at Christmas time, having comfortably achieved ‘middle of the road’ status in the pantheon.

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Sometimes, the middle of the road requires you to veer off a cliff.

29 years on from the film’s release, its strengths deserve to be celebrated. Speaking personally, it’s the Bond film I most enjoy re-watching.

So, why does The Living Daylights deserve your attention?

It’s not a great Bond movie – but it is a great spy film

One of the chief criticisms levelled at The Living Daylights is for its over-complicated plot. The story doesn’t become clear until the last 20 minutes, and even then, you have to put a lot of it together yourself.

In a nutshell, the plotline driving the film is as follows:

1. Head of the KGB, General Leonid Pushkin (played by John Rhys Davies), authorises fellow KGB General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) to buy $50 million* of Western weapons.
2. Koskov goes to Tangiers-based Arms Dealer, Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), and the pair instead conspire to spend the $50 million on diamonds. They’ll use these diamonds to buy opium from an Afghan drug cartel.
3. With the opium, Koskov and Whitaker will make $500 million worth of heroin, which they’ll sell on the blackmarket. They’ll still buy the $50 million of weapons for the KGB, and pocket the $450 million difference.
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You’re still following me?

4. General Pushkin catches wind of  Koskov’s plan, and orders his arrest for misuse of state funds.
5. To protect himself, Koskov uses his spymaster talents to convince MI6 that Pushkin is a psychotic madman, hellbent on assassinating Western spies around the globe.
*No one says $50 milllion in this film, but it’s assumed.

Did you notice something about that plot? It bears absolutely no resemblance to a regular Bond film. There’s none of the old familiars like a stolen nuclear weapon or plan to control the world’s supply of gold/microchips/oil. The simplest description of this plot is that James Bond is playing detective in the middle of a spat between two KGB Generals.

The Living Daylights’ complicated plot (and lack of any real MacGuffin) is a good reason for why this isn’t a more popular Bond film. It still carries some of the Bond essentials – the stunts, the gadgets, the Aston Martin and the martinis – but stripped of these elements, you aren’t left with Bond going after an outrageous villain with a hairbrained scheme. Instead, you’re left with a pretty good Cold War spy thriller.

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User experience of the Cold War may vary

When The Living Daylights was released in 1987, the Cold War was four decades old. The  Soviet Union was embroiled in a war in Afghanistan, and tensions between East and West hit a peak four years earlier. But 1986 was also the year that Gorbachev brought Glasnost to the West, leading some to the optimistic view that the Cold War could be resolved peacefully. The Living Daylights takes a familiar character in James Bond, and does an excellent job of building on those insecurities about who could be trusted behind the Iron Curtain – in the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bond’s not here to stop an all-out war between the East and West, as he so often is (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy) – he’s trying to ascertain the Russians he can trust from the ones trying to kill him. Doing so requires him to visit some key locations of the Cold War, lying about his identity all the while so that he can find the truth.

It’s easily the most ’80s’ of the Bond films

To illustrate this point, look at the following photo of The Living Daylights’ villains:

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Not featured in this scene, but heavily implied: a veritable mountain of cocaine.

There were five Bond films released between 1980 and 1989 (six, if you count Never Say Never Again – which you’re not supposed to). The Living Daylights is arguably the definitive Bond movie of that decade.

Starting with its music, The Living Daylights’ title song is by Norwegian pop band a-Ha, which elsewhere gave us ‘Take On Me’. The Pretenders perform another two songs in the soundtrack. There’s also the small business of the Satriani-esque guitar riff heard in Q’s Laboratory. Other Bond films of the decade don’t quite achieve the same level of ’80s-ness’ in their soundtrack.

Then there’s the film’s main villains, who have more in common with Gordon Gekko than Ernst Stavro Blofeld. They’re not motivated out of any desire to rule the world or lust for its destruction, but solely out of making a profit​. Koskov and Whhitaker eschew volcano bases and space stations of their forebears. Instead, they plot from the comfort of a poolside bikini party with a seafood buffet.

Lastly, the plot is driven heavily by Cold War tensions, with the third act taking place almost entirely within the Soviet War against Afghanistan. Admittedly, all of the Bond films of the 80s have some anchor point in the decade, but none of them capitalised on it to the same extent as The Living Daylights. The closest contender is 1985’s A View To A Kill, whose highlights include the invention of  snowboarding; Duran Duran singing the title song; and Christopher Walken as the yuppy douchebag villain wanting to control the world’s supply of microchips.

Where  A View To A Kill loses its 80s credibility is with a 57-year-old Roger Moore as James Bond. Whilst he was a good fit for the role in the 1970s, Moore is so out of shape in A View To A Kill that he’s pitched in fight scenes against thugs and minor henchmen who look more like Columbo. The film might have premiered in 1985, but Moore’s wheezing presence brings its weighted average back to 1976.

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The file name for this image was ‘Bond_velour_tracksuit’.

The combination of plot, cast, and style earn The Living Daylights a status as being the Bond film that’s most representative of the 1980s aesthetic. For better or worse, all of the Bond films have aged – some have become great style pieces of their decade, whilst others illustrate just how far our values have evolved (for example, Connery spends his films essentially committing a string of sexual assaults). The Living Daylights’ attitudes towards sex, power, and style are all deeply rooted in 1987. Whether you consider that a strength of weakness is likely contingent on how much you enjoy the Top Gun soundtrack, or quoting along to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 

It’s the most Thatcher-esque of the Bond films (including the one Bond film  with Thatcher in it)
The Bond films revel in the ‘Britishness’ of their time, and for the most part that works in its favour. Goldfinger was released amidst Beatlemania, and Goldeneye rode the back of a ‘Cool Britannia‘ retro-revival of the 1990s. When the Daniel Craig films peaked with Skyfall in 2012, a tie-in video was commissioned for the London Olympics whereby James Bond escorted Queen Elizabeth II to the Opening Ceremony.
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Even his robes are from Savile Row.

There’s no shortage of Britishness in The Living Daylights. We get an action sequence set in an Oxfordshire Estate being used as a Safe House. Later, Bond runs into an Afghan Resistance leader who also just so happens to be an Oxford Graduate with the accent to match. They even pay out on the Americans – a milkman mutters “Bloody Yanks!”, and Q quips to Bond that the rocket launcher he’s building the Americans is called a ‘Ghetto Blaster’).
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Get it?

Throughout the film, there’s a tremendous reliance on British military hardware of the time. The pre-title sequence is set on a military base in Gibraltar, with Bond parachuting from a Royal Air Force Hercules and having to beat the SAS Regiment to chase a stolen Landrover. Later, a Harrier jump-jet is used to help General Koskov defect to the West. The only way this film could feature more Falklands War iconography is if the title sequence was set on HMS Invincible.
The Living Daylights carries a sense of confidence in its Britishness, treating the United Kingdom as an equal player within wider Cold War conflict. The only thing that exuded this confidence about Britain’s place in the world during the 1980s was the Iron Lady herself, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
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Also, Danger Mouse.

Should Thatcherism be an endearing quality about a Bond film? Admittedly, the villains are free-market economists and arms dealers, two subjects that would be familiar at the Thatcher household. What I will say is that The Living Daylights represents what it meant to be British during the 1980s, and part of that includes Britain’s sense of duty to the wider world – a narrative that Thatcher pursued. That quality makes The Living Daylights arguably the most Thatcher-esque of the Bond films, and that includes the one Margaret Thatcher appeared in.
Well, she’s sort of in one. Comedian Janet Brown plays Thatcher in an end sequence of 1980’s For Your Eyes Only. It’s a joke scene that, thematically, contrasts poorly with the heavy tone in the rest of the film.
It has great action scenes
The Opening Titles has James Bond versus the SAS and KGB! Bond fights a guy whilst hanging from the ramp of a transport plane! He battles it out in an Aston Martin against the police on ice lake in Czechoslovakia! The bad guy disguises himself as a milkman and kidnaps a KGB General! There’s a rooftop chase in Tangiers!
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Hang on, James!

It’s a long film, but the action is nicely paced throughout. Because this film pre-dates CGI, it’s reliant on miniatures and practical effects that make it look like the real thing. In many other places, the stunt work was done for real – meaning it still holds up on the screen today.
The movie pre-empted the Iran-Contra Affair
Remember when I said the plot was complicated? It also bears a remarkable similarly to Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and the Iran-Contra Affair of 1987. North was implicated in an illegal plot to sell weapons to the Iranian Government, and use the profits to fund anti-communist guerillas in Nicaragua.
Like Koskov’s plot, it was complicated, underhanded, and totally illegal.
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This byline is not a photoshop.

It wouldn’t be such a stretch to suggest the Bond screenwriters had seen Iran-Contra play out, and substituted Ollie North with a KGB General. The Bond Producers are known to borrow from the headlines to guide their stories. Except for the fact that The Living Daylights started principle photography in September 1986, and the Iran-Contra Affair didn’t break into the public until November 1986.
Unless The Living Daylights screenwriter Richard Maibaum had an inside role in shipping missiles to the Iranian Government for Lieutenant Colonel North, then it’s an awfully big coincidence.
The Soundtrack is outstanding.
John Barry is a name synonymous with the James Bond scores, because he composed 11 of them – more than any other. He didn’t compose the original Bond theme (that honour goes to Monty Norman). But what John Barry is credited for is being the guy who invented the Bond ‘sound’ we associate the movies with today – the guitar ‘twang’, and many of the series themes. So he’s a pretty big deal in this space.
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Nobody can write an accompanying piece for paratroops like John Barry

The Living Daylights was the last Bond score that he composed, and he even got a brief cameo in the end as a composer. Some of it’s a dated synthetic mess, but other parts are stirringly orchestral. In this film, the Bond Girl is even a cellist (which has little real bearing on the plot), and we go to the Opera House in Austria, treating us to numerous clips of actual classical and operatic pieces.
Outside of the Bond films, John Barry also picked up five Oscars (one for the Dances With Wolves score). Sadly, he passed away from a heart attack in January 2011, aged 77.
Dalton gets too little credit.

One of this film’s harsher critics, Jay Scott of The Globe and Mail, said of Dalton in The Living Daylights that “you get the feeling that on his off nights, he might curl up with the Reader’s Digest and catch an episode of Moonlighting“. I can only assume Mr Scott skipped out on actually watching this movie, because Dalton’s Bond is the vision of 007 that the character’s creator, Ian Fleming, described – a cold-blooded,  flawed, and violent public servant.

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Only one of these men would rather be watching ‘Moonlighting’ in this scene.

Dalton is a classically-trained actor, and as such, approached the character in a literal sense, making him the first to bring James Bond back to Fleming’s creation. The net result is a character who is not the suave clothes horse that Sean Connery’s Bond was, nor the walking punchline that was Roger Moore. Dalton’s Bond is both a detective and a paid government assassin, and is reminded of the latter fact by his employers constantly. One of the chief conflicts of the film is within Bond himself – whether he’ll pursue his instincts to investigate the case further, or go ahead and pull the trigger on his orders.

The Living Daylights isn’t even the worst of it – in Dalton’s follow-on film, 1989’s Licence to Kill, the violence gets turned up to 11 as Bond acts out a revenge fantasy on a Latino Drug Cartel as he only knows how. It’s a long way from Roger Moore wearing a clown suit.

The trouble with Dalton’s approach is that, in the late 1980s, audiences were still used to James Bond films being escapist fantasy. Easygoing Roger Moore had a marathon seven-film run as James Bond during the 1970s and early 1980s, the tone of which took the audiences mind off of what was going on in their lives (especially in Britain). After having dealt with Vietnam, the Oil Crisis, Watergate, Revolutions in the Middle East, and fresh peaks of the Cold War, the public of the time had grown used to James Bond taking their mind off of global troubles. Worse yet for the Bond producers, other action films were redefining the genre in the late 1980s – namely with Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Predator.

Dalton’s characterisation of Bond was therefore a blessing and a curse. 20 years later, Daniel Craig would be celebrated for taking a similar track on the role – Bond as a detective and an assassin. Arguably, the audience’s reception to Craig’s performance had a lot of groundwork laid by Matt Damon’s Bourne films, but for Dalton, there was no such luck.

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This guy getting around in a cello case was just too far ahead of his time.

There’s some bad bits though…
 

As much as I enjoyed Dalton’s fresh take on the character, his 007 is an arsehole.  Take the scene where Bond commits sexual assault. About to be confronted by a KGB heavy, he grabs the girlfriend of General Pushkin and strips her top off so that she can be a distration.

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That’s low, Bond

He’s also a complete dick to the Bond Girl of The Living Daylights – Kara Milovy (played by Maryam d’Abo). She has none of the skills we see in Bond Girls from the series – she’s not an ace computer programmer, can’t fly the Space Shuttle, and is not an international jewel thief. Her talents run to being a professional cellist and knowing how to catch a tram in Bratislava, and you can’t help but feel that Dalton’s Bond treats her less kindly because of it, evidenced by the shock to Kara (and the audience) when Bond tries to dump her in an Afghan village once she’s of no further use to his mission.

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That’s low, Bond

 

If it’s any consolation, he’s also a bastard to his enemies – more than he needs to be. Towards the end of the film, Bond faces off against the henchman Necros (played by Andreas Wisniewski, the terrorist in Die Hard whose feet are smaller than John McLane’s sister’s). The fight takes place on netting hung from the cargo ramp of a Hercules transport plane, and concludes with Necros hanging from Bond’s boot, begging for his life. No, really. As Bond cuts his shoelaces with a knife, Necros becomes the first Bond villain who pleased not to be killed. Necros’ final words are  “No, please….” before being dropped 15,000 feet to his death.
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That’s low, Bond

That’s low, Bond.
….but it deserves your attention
Any Bond film will require you to make your peace with their shortfalls in order to enjoy it. Indeed, there’s a tendency for some Bond films to be celebrated when they have almost no redeeming qualities (Live and Let Die, and The Man With The Golden Gun, being two prime examples). There are no outrageous names or bad innuendo in The Living Daylights. The movie is rooted heavily in its time, and the stunts are all largely the real deal. If The Living Daylights is guilty of anything, it’s that it isn’t over-the-top in the way Bond movies are.
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Bond, pictured here taking public transport.

If you can get past this fact, then you’ll see The Living Daylights is worthy of more attention than it typically receives. It’s 29 years too late for this film to become a classic in the series, but if you haven’t taken time to view it with fresh (or even new) eyes, then it’s definitely worth your time.
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About eamonh

Air Mobility enthusiast and Star Wars fancier. All writings my own opinions and not those of my employers or associates.
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2 Responses to Send my regards to Dalton

  1. Martin Johnson says:

    Interesting to note that strictly speaking Necros wasn’t actually the first villain to beg before termination. Not if you count the bald wheelchair bound man in the pre-title sequence of For Your Eyes Only who pleaded to make a deal and buy Bond a delicatessen in stainless steel. I have no idea what the phrase means by the way. This is implied to be Blofeld’s last stand though they couldn’t identify him as such for legal reasons.

    Furthermore at the end of the very first movie technically Doctor No begs for his life. True it is so very faint but if you take the time to listen as he starts to sink clawing vainly at the metal poles his last words are “Help me.” Of course even if he had survived it’s implied by the sequels that Blofeld would have had him executed anyway for failure.

    But putting these digressions behind I would like to say this is an excellent analysis of one of my favourite Bond films. It has both its good and bad points, but I enjoy it.

    • eamonh says:

      Re: Delicatessan in Stainless Steel – listen to the For Your Eyes Only episode of James Bonding Podcast (https://itun.es/au/SOKEP.c) because I *think* they recap it. The short version is that it’s a very, very 1981-specific reference, and obviously hasn’t aged terribly well.

      Thanks for your comment too – I’ll go back and revisit the climax of Doctor No tonight!

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