At twice the cost of its predecessor Dr. No, the nearly $2 million budgeted From Russia with Love was the fuse that existed between Dr. No’s match and Goldfinger’s stick of dynamite, the explosion setting waves through cultural history for decads to come. The 1963 sophomore effort from producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman has an interesting place in Bond history: it’s one of the very few Bond films that is at once not married to the formula that Goldfinger solidified and but features several of those prototypical elements without diluting it as a kind of standalone film.
From Russia with Love was also the first film to actively and explicitly tap into the fears of audience members concerning Cold War tensions between the UK and the USSR. Bond hadn’t yet become an icon, a beacon of light antithetical to the assumed oppressive darkness of Communism, but Russia was the step that got him there.
What From Russia with Love perfects, as Broccoli would later say when deeming it his favorite Bnond film, is the formula it was developing almost as it went. The Bond girl, the “ludicrous” plot, the “gadget”, the villain, the henchmen. In comparison to the rest of the franchise. In comparison to the twenty-one plus films that would follow it, nothing feels too calculated nor too slapdash. There’s a self-awareness that isn’t winking (the poison tipped shoes) and a seriousness that acknowledges the ideological warfare at the center of the film’s text and subtext. The film opens with a chess game, almost nodding to Bobby Fischer’s battle on the “field” fighting similar ideological battles.
Maybe it’s unfair to call the plot of the film “ludicrous”; true, it’s Russia that seems the most tangibly real. Not merely the decoder machine part, but the political ramification and implications of what will happen. More than any Bond films, until Skyfall, the threat transcends the comic book nature of most of other villains’ goals as well as the solely ideological aspects. If the point of James Bond as a character, and even more, as a stand in for all that is Right and Just, is to save the world from dustrction when it hangs precariously, then it is in this that it feels the most effective and affecting.
Its most memorable fight scene is the culmination of this warfare, the political context of the film manifesting as two bodies fumbling around on the Orient Express. Bond (Sean Connery) and Red Grant (Robert Shaw) fight hand to hand, both illustrated as, shall we say, the poster boys for their political perspectives. Both unseemly in their attractiveness, Connery is comparably slighter, the film positioning him, and Britain’s political values, as underdog against the statue-like iron fist of the USSR’s Communist ideals. He’s an Adonis, tough like a cinderblock wall. He’s sly where Bond is unsubtle. The film’s pre-title sequence has Red Grant killing a Bond lookalike for training, a testament to the USSR’s dedication to bringing down Britain’s more liberal ideals.
And, again, on a train, where political motivation, origin, and execution are moving at speed that neither Bond nor Red Grant can actually keep up with. It would be 32 years later when the new head of MI6 (Judi Dench) would call 007 a “relic of the Cold War”. From Russia with Love doesn’t necessarily confront that idea of the ever changing and evolving world of politics and ideology, but it acknowledges those things tacitly. The purple light illuminating the otherwise dark cabin is like a mix of the blue in the Union Jack and the red of the Flag of the Soviet Union. They blend together perilously, as the world’s (political) fate hangs in the balance.
James Bond would spend the majority of the rest of his career rarely approaching political tensions as explicitly as in From Russia with Love. Sociopolitical subtext certainly exists throughout the series’ entries, such as the evolving treatment of race in the US in Live and Let Die and the role of the media in spinning stories in Tomorrow Never Dies, but the geopolitical weight of the UK and the USSR is broached with reticence up until 1995’s GoldenEye, where Pierce Brosnan’s Bond encounters the ghosts of those remaining fraught relationships. Despite this, the Cold War in the back of everyone’s mind is what sustained the relevance of James Bond for decades, even in passing and even in the faintest way. It isn’t totally the formula that’s responsible for Bond’s longevity as a cinematic action hero; it’s the idea of Bond as antithesis to ideological or political danger that does. What we now broadly label as terrorism has seeped into social consciousness through our media, Craig’s Bond is returning to a point where formula matters less than existing as an icon. And with each passing film – Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and now SPECTRE—Bond will have to continue to justify his relevance where a hand to hand battle with the (political/ideological) enemy is no longer an option.