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Friday, 20 April 2018

The OTHER films of 1977: Star Wars vs The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977

The Spy Who Loved Me, released in the summer of 1977

To fully appreciate the impact of Star Wars, you have to understand the other entertainment that was around when it was released. 

This is the first in an occasional series of posts about the other films of 1977. I'll look at what, if anything, they had in common with Star Wars, how they were different, and what they tell us about the 1970s.

Today, it's the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me.

The release of The Spy Who Loved Me 

The amphibious Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me

At the start of 1977, if you'd had to predict the year's biggest film, you might well have chosen The Spy Who Loved Me.

The tenth James Bond film, and the third to star Roger Moore, was a surefire box office success. It had action and spectacle a-plenty. With a reported budget of $14 million, it was almost 50 per cent more expensive to make than Star Wars. But while the film made its money back many times over, this was one occasion when Bond didn't come out on top.

In Britain, The Spy Who Loved Me was the film everyone was talking about in the summer of 1977. It came out in its home country on July 8, when most parts of the UK were at least six months away from seeing Star Wars.

In America, things were different. The Bond film came out on August 3, which was also the week when the release of Star Wars reached its peak, spreading to 1,044 screens by August 5. For many people, the Bond film would have been an alternative to Star Wars.

Among the people who saw 007 instead of Luke Skywalker was Elvis Presley. Unable to obtain a print of Star Wars, he took his daughter Lisa Marie to see The Spy Who Loved Me in Whitehaven, Tennessee, on August 12. It was the last movie he saw, three days before his death.

The Spy Who Loved Me has been fondly remembered, with many citing it as the best of Moore's Bond outings. Its amphibious Lotus Esprit was much talked about at the time.
I didn't see it back then, but I remember relatives talking excitedly about it, particularly its amphibious car and its comedy villain Jaws.

Beyond that, it's theme song, 'Nobody Does It Better', is one of the best in the series. And the stunt early in the film, when Bond skis off a mountainside and freefalls before opening a Union Flag parachute, is surely one of the most spectacular feats ever put on film. But despite all that, I think it looks like a film that was unsure about how to keep pace with the times.

The Spy Who Loved Me and Star Wars: similarities and differences

The comedy villain Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me

What do The Spy Who Loved Me and Star Wars in common? Well, a PG certificate in the US. High production values, with superb sets (Ken Adam created the villain's extravagant lair, among other highlights), impressive model work and fine on-set special effects. They both used the skills of British technicians and were made in UK studios (Pinewood for Bond, Elstree for Star Wars). But the similarities don't go much further than that.

Although it takes its title from an Ian Fleming novel, producer Albert R. 'Cubby' Broccoli owned only the name, not the story. So the screenwriters had to come up with their own plot   and the one they devised was pretty much a collection of Bond tropes. 

Curd Jurgens plays the villain Stromberg, who loves marine life but is not so keen on people. He plans to seize control of some nuclear missiles, destroy all that lives above sea level and create a new civilisation under the ocean.

As well as the mad villain with a secret lair and a ridiculous plan for world-domination, the film checks off such Bond staples as the murderous but comical henchman, the sports car fitted with lethal gadgets, the plotting in the Kremlin, the fight on a train (straight out of From Russia With Love) and the gorgeous Russian agent (Barbara Bach).

But despite recycling all these elements of previous Bond stories, the film tries to keep pace with the times. The huge steel-teethed thug in Stromberg's employment is called Jaws, in reference to the film that had turned the cinema business upside-down in 1975. There is at least some acknowledgement that sexual roles are changing. (The pre-credits sequence has a couple in bed and reveals that one of them is a spy  but the surprise is that it's the woman.) And Marvin Hamlisch's score incorporates elements of disco.

But because it attempts to adapt Bond to the 1970s, the film looks more dated today than Star Wars. Lucas's film may have used the latest technical advances, but harks back to an earlier era in film-making. By not making any explicit acknowledgement of its own era, it remains timeless.

Star Wars has dated better than The Spy Who Loved Me 

Roger Moore and Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Me is a lot of fun, despite some ridiculous plot contrivances and illogicalities. But the tone of it fluctuates so wildly that, forty years on, I don't know how to take the film at times.

It's often a camp, comic film, yet it has moments of brutal violence. Bond is generally a lightweight hero, yet he kills ruthlessly. He generally doesn't show real emotions, yet he becomes bitter when the death of his wife (back in On Her Majesty's Secret Service) is mentioned. There are some nods to feminism, but 007 remains as chauvinistic as ever.

All these years later, I don't know whether these contradictions are deliberate. The film lurches from comedy to violence, from equality to sexism, from pathos to camp. But is this evidence of a failure to find a consistent tone, or is this intended to be welcome variety, with something for everyone to enjoy?

It's very different from Star Wars, where there are different dramatic moods, of course, but the tone is remarkably well-judged throughout.

Star Wars had a huge influence on the film industry, of course, and that included influencing the Bond franchise.

We're reminded of that influence in the final moments of The Spy Who Loved Me. A caption tell us that James Bond will be back – in For Your Eyes Only. But the success of Star Wars would force a rethink, and James Bond would instead go into space in Moonraker

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