How a Fish Bankrupted the Roman Aristocracy: a tale of a culinary craze in classical society

Dr Garrett Ryan, “How a Fish Bankrupted the Roman Aristocracy” (Told In Stone, 27 November 2021)

In this instalment in his Told In Stones series which explores culture and society in Classical Greece and Rome, historian Dr Garrett Ryan investigates fine dining amongst the aristocratic elites in Rome and the craze for red mullet that seized them during early imperial times. Ryan first describes the diet of ordinary Romans which was heavy on carbohydrates (in the form of bread or porridge), legumes and fruit, and cheese, and light on animal protein. Wealthy Romans on the other hand could afford a vast range of foods and especially meats: shellfish, snails, all kinds of poultry and game birds, and red meats … including the notorious predilection for stuffed dormice. Such foods were usually served at evening banquets consisting of several courses ending in desserts of fruit, nuts and honey. The Roman elites were especially fond of delicacies that modern Western palates would find odd or downright unpalatable, such as parts of the internal plumbing of sows or the working parts of songbirds. Many of these foods were doused in a sauce called garum, made from the fermented intestines of fish and used in ways similar to how fish sauce is currently used in Southeast Asian cuisines.

Pride of place in his talk is given to red mullet (actually two species of small fish) which was eaten both for its supposed aphrodisiac and (paradoxically) contraceptive properties. The high demand for red mullet among Roman elites coupled with the difficulty of domesticating the creature and farming it drove prices for the fish to such levels that a banquet featuring a dozen large mullets could rival a small villa in cost. Overfishing would have driven up prices for red mullet even further, fuelling the craze. The obsession with red mullet and the status attached to it, with all the signals of power and hierarchy attached to being able to host banquets featuring the fish in a number of dishes, apparently lasted some 200 years before fading away.

While the talk is very entertaining and funny, and as usual is illustrated with stunning visuals, it actually says nothing about how the demand for the fish “bankrupted” the Roman elites – if anything, the Roman elites were already bankrupt, thanks to the fixed power structures of Roman society in which the elites lived in a world parallel with, and dependent on, the rest of Roman society while having very little to do with it – or how this craze and similar crazes were symptoms reflecting the nature of a layer of society far removed and insulated from the concerns and stresses that belaboured ordinary Romans. If there is a silver lining in this particular cloud, it may be that the Roman elites were such a small class of people that their greed, traumatic though it may have been for the populations of the two red mullet species in the seas around the Italian peninsula, did not have a huge impact on a society in which the rudiments of the modern financial economy that would make speculative bubbles based on the demand for and supply of red mullet or tulips possible did not yet exist.

A Murder Mystery in Roman Egypt: an entertaining exploration of legal trials during Roman imperial rule

Dr Garrett Ryan, “A Murder Mystery in Roman Egypt” (Told In Stone, 24 November 2021)

This entertaining little documentary is actually less a whodunnit tale and more an exploration of an aspect of Roman rule over Egypt during the Classical Era. As narrator Dr Ryan drily notes, Egypt was Roman for 600 years yet in many ways this region was distinct from the rest of the Roman Empire due to (as Ryan adds) its isolation from other Roman-ruled areas, its huge wealth and its unique history and cultural legacy at the time. For us moderns, another distinct aspect of Roman Egypt is that, compared to other parts of the Roman Empire, the province bequeathed an enormous wealth of papyrus documents ranging from literary works to taxation receipts thanks in no small part to its physical geography which favours the preservation of papyrus and thus the preservation of archived documents. Not to mention of course, Roman Egyptian citizens’ propensity to safeguard items and documents they considered valuable from the eyes and hands of thieves and robbers!

Many of the preserved documents from Roman Egypt feature court cases dealing with the resolution of crimes. The documents show that theft was the most common crime, and that much theft was opportunistic or the result of ongoing personal or family conflicts between the thief and the victim. In one case, a man attended a funeral and when he later went home, he found his house had been stripped bare of all its belongings. Occasionally organised crimes are mentioned and in some cases of organised crime, the local authorities who would have responsible for investigating crime have been paid off by the defendants. Skirmishes between rival villages – perhaps the ancient equivalent of Mafia-style vendettas – are reported. Interestingly, murders seem to be seldom mentioned – but when they are mentioned, they are quite dramatic, even sensational. Among the murder cases Dr Ryan mentions, a powerful Alexandrian city councillor is brought to trial for the murder of a prostitute despite his efforts to intimidate city authorities with his cronies: he comes face to face with the prostitute’s mother in a confrontation and (presumably in an outburst) gives himself away. The man is later executed for his crime. In another case, in the 2nd century CE a man called Artemidorus was mummified and buried: recent CT scanning shows the back of his head was crushed in a way consistent with being hit repeatedly by a blunt instrument.

The eponymous murder mystery is sourced from the transcript of a trial that took place in 6th-century Byzantine Egypt: the transcript itself was pieced together from fragments of papyri found in a pit in 1905 beneath an Egyptian villager’s house when the man was renovating it. Archaeologists investigating the trove of papyrus documents in the pit discovered it had belonged to a lawyer / landowner called Dioskuros. The documents include part of the transcript of the trial. As the rest of the transcript is lost, we cannot know the details of what exactly transpired but the trial revolved around a conspiracy that included bribery and two savage murders of a priest and a villager in the village of Aphrodito. A soldier and an aristocrat were brought to trial over the murders. The soldier apparently denied any involvement in the death of the priest. What transpired later in the trial remains unknown and Ryan speculates that the priest and villager may have been killed because they knew too much about a scheme, possibly of embezzlement, being hatched by people who may have been the defendants in the trial.

Illustrated with vivid stills and photographs of Roman and Byzantine-era mosaics, statues and portraits – one portrait being that of a Greek diviner called Artemidorus, though likely not the Artemidorus subjected to being bashed – the mini-documentary runs at a brisk pace, gossipy in some ways with quite droll commentary from Ryan. Though the murder mystery is never solved, it is told in a very captivating if perhaps rather speedy (and actually dry) way by the historian. The documentary gives an insight into an aspect of Roman rule and administration in Egypt, and how perhaps Roman institutions and the individual representatives of those institutions came up against and treated (or mistreated) local Egyptian people, and dealt with their conflicts and spats.

The 1964 Coup in Brazil: how Brazil and South America were set back for 21 years by US regime change action

Carlton Meyer, “The 1964 Coup in Brazil” (Tales of the American Empire, 12 November 2021)

This instalment in Meyer’s ongoing series investigating the long history of US imperialism across the globe focuses on the overthrow of Brazilian President João Goulart by his nation’s military in 1964 and the role the US government under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson played in that coup. Goulart came to power in Brazil in September 1961 on a platform of educational, taxation, electoral and land reforms aimed at benefiting the poor and stimulating the national economy. He was friendly towards the Castro government in Cuba during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and his belief in Cuban independence and self-determination led the Kennedy government to consider overthrowing Goulart’s government. The plan to get rid of Goulart became Operation Brother Sam. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, US President Lyndon B Johnson then authorised a US naval task force and aircraft to travel to Brazil, ostensibly to conduct a military exercise, to support the March 1964 coup. The coup was organised by the CIA together with the Brazilian military.

The mini-documentary shows how supposedly progressive US governments like those of Kennedy and Johnson actually supported right-wing forces in Latin American nations and thwarted those nations’ drive for self-determination so as to safeguard US corporate interests. Archived film interviews and Brazilian television news reports help demonstrate how the Brazilian Chief of Army General Staff Castelo Branco was persuaded to support the coup by US military attaché Vernon A Walters who told him that the US naval force and aircraft would assist in regime change (to the extent of openly invading the country) if the coup were to falter. The film does not note that Castelo Branco later benefited from supporting the coup – he became President in April 1964 – which would have been rich irony.

As a result of the coup Brazil suffered repressive military rule for 21 years during which time the country served as the model and template for US-assisted overthrow of other South American leaders and governments deemed undesirable by Washington DC: this 21-year period includes the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende by the Chilean military. Many consequences of the 1964 coup against Goulart were to follow and are still working their effects through Brazilian society and the rest of South America. Unfortunately Meyer’s video, concentrating on the details of Goulart’s overthrow and the US role in it, does not have the time or the scope to cover the full significance of the coup for Brazil and the entire Latin American region.

Vampires in Greek Myth: an introduction to a universal cultural phenomenon through the Ancient Greek worldview

Dr Garrett Ryan, “Vampires in Greek Myth” (Told In Stone, 30 October 2021)

Casting our fears regarding death and women who might be less than ideal mothers or loving wives and partners by personifying them as bloodthirsty monsters – in other words, vampires or vampire equivalents – seems to be a universal practice across all human cultures. Post-Classical Greek culture certainly believed in vampire-like beings but may have borrowed the concept from Slavs who migrated into the Balkans during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. Did the Greeks of Classical times also believe in vampires? Dr Ryan’s short film tutorial shows the ancient Greeks certainly did believe in bloodthirsty female demons or ghosts that preyed upon susceptible young men with the intent to drain them of their blood and vitality. Structured around two entertaining tales – one taken from Philostratus’s biography “Life of Apollonius of Tyana” in which Apollonius warns his student Menippus that the younger man’s new girlfriend is something of a manhunter, the other being The Bride of Corinth – the film discusses the lamia, the stryx and the empousa. All three are described in their lurid monstrosity: the lamia appears to humans as a beautiful woman in its upper body but its lower body having the form of a snake; the strix is a foul-smelling nocturnal bat monster with a human head and a penchant for attacking sleeping children through open windows; and the empousa is a shapeshifting ghost who goes after young men.

While the film is certainly entertaining and the artwork featured is rich and gorgeous, there isn’t much information about the place of these monsters in Greek mythology: how they came to be, what their relation might have been to the Olympians, the Titans or other beings that populated the ancient Greek imagination, and what importance they held for the people who feared them. What remedies did ordinary people believe in to ward off these creatures and what important cultural values or morals were emphasised in the stories people told and passed on to others about these creatures? The lessons one could take from the tale of Apollonius and Menippus, and the story of the Bride of Corinth might include warnings that romantic love or lust is not a good basis for a long-lasting relationship and that marriage is much more than a union of two people.

The film is best viewed as an introduction to the ways in which ancient Greeks coped with and expressed the universal human fear and fascination with death, blood, menstruation and women’s ability to give birth, the connections among all of these – and how in both imagination and reality these connections can be explored by being turned into their polar opposites in the form of vampiric monsters.

The World Is Not Enough: this film is just not enough

Michael Apted, “The World Is Not Enough” (1999)

Sent to protect a wealthy oil heiress after her father is killed by explosives in money delivered to him at MI6 headquarters in London, super-spy James Bond finds himself embroiled in yet another humdrum series of incidents that take him back and forth between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Istanbul, and which among other things keep drenching him in water or throw him into huge underground mazes that end up being destroyed by bomb explosions. Oh, and of course there are the obligatory chases, whether in speedboats, on skis or by a helicopter carrying an aerial saw for trimming trees. The original twist (long overdue in the film series, actually) is that one of the villains turns out to be a classic Bond girl supposedly in harm’s way from the other villain. Such is the film “The World Is Not Enough”, for the most part a highly derivative flick plundering some of the earlier JB films like “From Russia With Love” and the original Ian Fleming novels like “Casino Royale” for inspiration. Not only is the action predictable and the plot lacking in freshness and originality but even small details in the plot reveal either laziness or an appalling lack of general knowledge on the part of the scriptwriters and the rest of the film production crew. Do people not realise that since the early 1990s Azerbaijan has been primarily a Muslim country?

Anyway, once Bond (Pierce Brosnan) has been tasked with protecting Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), the unfortunate daughter of the slain oil billionaire Robert King, he flies out to Azerbaijan where she is overseeing the construction of an oil pipeline that will go from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan and Turkey to Europe, bypassing Russia and the Black Sea. Bond and Elektra King narrowly escape being killed by a hit squad so Bond contacts Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane), a former Russian Mafia boss / current casino owner, to get information about the hit squad; at Zukovsky’s casino, he unexpectedly meets King again. King loses $1 million at the casino and this makes Bond suspicious of her behaviour – but he eventually ends up seducing her anyway.

Under the guise of a Russian nuclear scientist, Bond later travels to a Russian ICBM base in Kazakhstan where he meets US nuclear scientist Dr Christmas Jones (a badly miscast Denise Richards) and comes across the former KGB agent now turned terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle) who had earlier sent the money laced with explosives to Robert King. Renard steals a bomb from the ICBM base and escapes, leaving everyone else there to die in the inevitable explosions but Bond and Jones get out in the nick of time.

After more shenanigans, in which Bond and Jones again narrowly escape with their lives from an explosion and King kidnaps Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) as part of a revenge scheme (because M had advised her father against paying ransom money to Renard after Renard had kidnapped King), Bond learns that King and Renard are working together to set off a nuclear meltdown that would destroy Istanbul and irradiate Russian oil pipelines in the Bosporus; Europe would then become dependent on King’s oil pipeline and King would reap enormous profits in manipulating oil supplies. Jones is captured by Renard who takes her on board a submarine captained by Zukovsky’s nephew and Bond is subjected to garrotting by King. Bond’s dilemma is how to escape in a limited amount of time to rescue Jones and also rescue M who is being held prisoner in a watch-tower.

The poor script and Apted’s lack of experience in directing action thriller films result in a badly made film with overly long and implausible chase sequences, and equally unconvincing escapes from impossible situations. The actors just manage to get by in their respective roles: Richards especially has the unenviable job of making her nuclear scientist role look credible, the character itself lacking a backstory that might justify the actor’s casting. It may be though that with Brosnan having settled on a Bond persona that is an odd mix of pretty-boy seducer / New Age sensitive / cold-hearted killer and not quite getting it right, the film has to settle for a cast of characters that make his Bond look good and so the characters are either comic or utterly bizarre. The usually good Carlyle is wasted as the villain Renard who can feel no pain and Marceau’s character becomes sillier and more unbelievable as the spoilt rich kid who throws in her lot with the crooks because her John-Paul-Getty styled Daddy wouldn’t cough up the ransom money.

This film about shifting energy politics and the ructions it can cause in geopolitics and even personal loyalties – not to mention how past decisions and actions can have devastating blowback effects as M, not for the first or last time, discovers for herself and for the King family – could have been a thoughtful if perhaps not exciting work under Apted’s direction. It ends up being buried under a puerile script crammed with character stereotypes and plot elements that have been overused in other films within and outside the James Bond film series. In such films, audiences cannot fail but notice other details that reveal a woeful lack of research and general knowledge.

Tomorrow Never Dies: satire on the power and influence of media trapped in a formula that never dies

Roger Spottiswoode, “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997)

The second of four films that Irish actor Pierce Brosnan starred in as British wonder spy James Bond for EON Productions, “Tomorrow Never Dies” is competent enough but after accounting for the JB film formula’s requirements of megalomaniac villain, a super-violent henchman, two overlong chase sequences, two or even three flings with attractive women, product positioning galore and a convoluted plot set in various exotic locales that culminates in a mushroom-cloud explosion in the villain’s underground labyrinthine hide-out, the film has very little to commend it. Viewers can almost see the film going through a check-list of required plot detours and comedy mini-sketches to flog some life into a narrative about the power and influence of global media corporations and how they (and by implication, other private mega-companies) can deploy that power to change world politics and set international relations on new and dangerous courses.

In this film, the second made after the end of the Cold War, China has become a significant protagonist for Western intelligence agencies and MI6 especially to deal with. Global media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) plans to exploit the tensions between China and the West by using an encoder obtained online at a black market bazaar in Russia by his employee Henry Gupta to send a British frigate off-course into Vietnamese maritime territory in the South China Sea where it is ambushed and sunk by his own stealth (ie off-radar) ship which also steals a missile from the frigate. At the same time, the stealth ship brings down a Chinese fighter jet and uses Chinese ammunition to kill off the frigate’s crew. Carver’s media organisations broadcast the news about the crisis the sinking of the frigate has caused and M (Judi Dench) becomes suspicious. She sends Bond to investigate the Carver media empire because she knows that Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) is an old flame of Bond’s.

Bond travels to Hamburg to seduce Paris and get information out of her to retrieve the stolen encoder. After the requisite violent encounters with various of Carver’s thugs and the seduction, Bond obtains the information and successfully infiltrates Carver’s newspaper printing press and recovers the encoder. While he is gone however, Paris is killed by one of Carver’s henchmen. The thug also tries to kill Bond but Bond escapes in a prolonged car chase through a car park with the encoder intact.

Examining the encoder at a US airforce base in Okinawa, Bond learns it has been tampered with and goes to investigate the sunken frigate where he meets Colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese spy who is investigating the shootdown of the fighter jet and the theft of its ammunition. The two are captured by Carver’s No 1 henchman Stamper (Gotz Otto) and held prisoner in Carver’s tower in Saigon – erm, has no-one told the film-makers the city is no longer called Saigon? – but they escape by rappelling down the side of the tower and breaking into a lower floor and then evade Carver’s thugs through the streets of Saigon on a motorcycle. Deciding to work together, Bond and Wai notify their respective governments of Carver’s plans to push their countries into war, from which Carver’s media conglomerate will profit by obtaining exclusive broadcasting rights in China.

From then on the film grinds its way to the showdown between Bond and Carver amid the requisite capture and rescue of the Bond girlfriend, confronting No 1 henchman, blowing up the hide-out and romancing the girlfriend among the wreckage – which is presumably leaking radiation and toxic chemicals but don’t let those facts spoil the ending. Along the way the cast of actors have done the best they could with their scripts – Brosnan works at balancing his New-Age sensitive pretty boy persona with the tough gritty spy character and Yeoh basically updates the Bond girl stereotype with her HK martial arts action film persona. Pryce hams up his scenes as Carver where possible and Hatcher does well with her minimal approach to playing the embittered trophy wife. The “Saigon” scenes (actually filmed in Bangkok) probably do no justice to Ho Chi Minh City in the late 1990s and might actually be seen as racist in future years, otherwise the Asian locations in the film’s second half are among the better features along with the carpark car chase and the motorcycle chase of a pedestrian film in thrall to an overused and tired script formula.

Ancient Greek Buddhists: a vivid snapshot of ancient Greek and Indian cultural contacts

Garrett Ryan, “Ancient Greek Buddhists” (Toldinstone, 16 October 2021)

A very fascinating snapshot of a short period in ancient Central Asian and Indian subcontinent history, this video explores the cultural interactions between Hellenistic Greeks and parts of present-day Pakistan and northern India about two thousands years ago. The Hellenistic presence in the Middle East and Central Asia was a consequence of Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century BCE: the Seleucid Empire, succeeding Alexander the Great, held large territories in western Asia and the kingdom of Bactria occupied territory in what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Indians themselves were not untouched by the Macedonian invasions: Alexander and his forces ranged over areas around the Indus River valley, leaving behind captured cities, defeated local kings and garrisons. For a long time afterwards, the Seleucids and the Bactrians bordered the Mauryan Empire in northwest India but after the Mauryan Empire fell in the early 2nd century BCE, the Bactrians invaded and conquered parts of northern India as far south as Gujarat and as far east as the Ganges River delta. Bactria ended up over-extended and split into two kingdoms, Bactria proper and the Indo-Greek kingdom

In India, the Greek Bactrian elites were impressed by Buddhism and converted to the religion; many of these people such as Menander I (reigned 165 or 155 – 130 BCE) of the Indo-Greek kingdom became Buddhist missionaries. As the video demonstrates in vivid stills of archaeological finds and sculptures, Greek Bactrian leaders and politicians established stupas and shrines, and their remains sometimes ended up in temples to be revered alongside images of the Buddha. After Bactria faded into the Parthian Empire and the Indo-Greek kingdom disintegrated after Menander I’s death, the Roman Empire became the major source of European contact with the Indian subcontinent through maritime trade. Indians or their products are known to have reached the Roman Empire: the film shows a picture of an Indian statuette found in the ruins of Pompeii.

Greeks and Romans in Europe seem to have been rather confused about the nature of Buddhism and its philosophies – even to the extent of mixing the religion up with Hinduism and Jainism – and Buddhism made no appreciable impact on Greek and Roman culture generally in spite of its attraction for the Indo-Greek elites. Hellenistic influence on Indian culture is demonstrated by the adoption of Greek sculptural techniques by Indian sculptors in creating free-standing, realistic human figures in draped Greek-styled clothes. It may be that the depiction of the Buddha as a human figure may have begun with the Indo-Greeks and that this form of portrayal spread wherever Buddhism went.

The short documentary is one of the most stunning and beautiful of the videos I have seen so far from the Toldinstone channel on Youtube. Dr Ryan’s narration is fast and viewers may have to run the film a few times to take in all the historical details. Unfortunately he has little to say about why the Indo-Greeks adopted Buddhism enthusiastically but seem to have stayed away from Hinduism, Jainism and other religions in the region. Aside from the material archaeological evidence of coins and our knowledge of Roman contacts with India, there is very little about the Indo-Greek economy. We can only know from what the material evidence tells us.

Live and Let Die: as it says, live and let this film die

Guy Hamilton, “Live and Let Die” (1973)

Cashing in on the blaxploitation film genre that was popular in the early 1970s, this instalment in the James Bond film series has not aged well and abounds in racist and sexist stereotypes. “Live and Let Die” is the first of seven films to feature Roger Moore as the British super-spy and his portrayal is light-hearted and mild compared to predecessor Sean Connery. Unfortunately the shallow use of themes associated with blaxploitation films, crammed into the usual James Bond film formula emphasising gimmicky technology, prolonged chases and bizarre criminals, makes Moore’s debut film one of the more forgettable episodes in the JB movie series, notable mainly as a snapshot of pop culture trends in a particular decade of the 20th century.

Bond is sent to the US to investigate the mysterious deaths of three MI6 spies in New Orleans, New York and the tiny Caribbean nation San Monique in the space of 24 hours, all of whom were monitoring the activities of San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). Bond’s snooping leads him to Harlem mob boss Mr Big, who runs the Fillet of Soul chain of restaurants, and the boss’s assistant Solitaire (Jane Seymour), a tarot reader with the power of second sight. Mr Big tries to get Bond killed but Bond escapes and travels to San Monique where he meets with local CIA agent Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) there. After a few hair-raiding incidents, Bond suspects Carver of working for Kananga; Carver tries to escape but is killed by Kananga remotely. Bond later meets and seduces Solitaire but this means her clairvoyant abilities are lost along with her virginity. Her life now in danger from Kananga, Solitaire tags along after Bond. They escape to New Orleans but are captured by Mr Big who reveals himself as Kananga to Bond. The link between Mr Big and Kananga now becomes clear: Kananga is growing opium in poppy fields across San Monique, using voodoo to terrify his people and keep them poor and oppressed, and manufactures the opium into heroin which he then exports to the Fillet of Soul restaurants where it is given away for free to increase the number of addicts and at the same time run other heroin dealers and networks out of business. Once Kananga becomes the sole supplier of heroin, he will jack up prices to reap enormous profit at the expense of those he has enslaved to heroin.

From then on, the film dives into familiar JB territory of Bond narrowly escaping death from crocodiles by literally using the animals as stepping stones to freedom, a tedious speedboat chase through Louisiana’s bayous, Bond rescuing Solitaire from becoming a voodoo sacrifice and Bond’s final confrontation with Kananga in the dictator’s underground lair which results in Kananga’s outlandish demise. Along the way we meet a cast of odd characters, notably Kananga’s collection of henchmen like iron-fisted Tee Hee (Julius W Harris), Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and Whisper (James Ellroy Brown) and Louisiana sheriff J W Pepper (Clifton James) who embodies the worst stereotypes about Deep South racist redneck white people. (Odd that the lower classes, whether white or black, are being exploited for giggles.)

The use of blaxploitation motifs in an uncritical way, mostly for laughs, makes the film appear racist even if such motifs were not intended to be racist but satirical: instead of being a megalomaniac intent on taking over the world, Kananga is more content with ensnaring people into the clutches of heroin and exploiting them that way. Granted, Kananga’s ambitions are more convincing and possibly grounded in reality – in those days, Haitian presidents François Duvalier (1957 – 1971) and his son Jean-Claude (1971 – 1986) governed their nation as absolute or near-absolute rulers and used voodoo to foster a personality cult – but the nature of Kananga’s villainy tends rather to reinforce 1970s stereotypes about African-American involvement in drug crime and to demonise voodoo as a primitive cult obsessed with death and sacrifice. Furthermore, why should Kananga be happy being just another exploitive global drug lord while his white counterparts in other James Bond films are hellbent on holding governments and central banks to ransom?

Action sequences are overlong and boring, Bond’s seduction of Solitaire is frankly creepy and manipulative, and the cast of characters is flat. The actors do what they can to inject life into their characters but they all deserved a much better script. Probably the only decent highlights of the film are Jane Seymour’s ethereal beauty and sweet nature as Solitaire, and Yaphet Kotto’s sinister and tense Kananga.

You Only Live Twice: tired and formulaic film shouldn’t have lived even once

Lewis Gilbert, “You Only Live Twice” (1967)

By the time this, the fifth film in the James Bond spy movie franchise, came along for the blockbuster treatment, the original Ian Fleming novels were looking tired and outdated and so “You Only Live Twice” becomes the first in the JB series to depart significantly from its source material with a completely new story that hews closely to the movie franchise’s formula. With each new film, and the hundreds of millions being made in global box office profits, the formula became more and more set in stone. Character development and a proper plot that made sense were secondary to a fast-moving string of linked set pieces. With Fleming having died in 1964, screenplay writer Roald Dahl – who had had previous experience working in British intelligence during World War II in Washington DC – nutted out a script that included various characters, plot and scene elements and devices from the novel and which stuck closely to the formula. The result is a spy fantasy that plays loose even with details and aspects of the plot and which presents flat, even stereotyped characters. The freshness of earlier James Bond films has gone and lead actor Sean Connery as Bond appears fed up, even exasperated at times.

The film is set firmly in the period of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, and also references the split between the Soviets and the Communists in China under Mao Zedong. After the now customary opening scene that sets up and readies Bond for his next assignment, the film sends him to Japan straight away where he is to discover how a remote volcanic island in the country is linked to mystery disappearances of US and Soviet spacecraft while in orbit around Earth. Through a series of sketches that involve a lot of fighting, killing and furniture being thrown about at Osato Chemicals corporate headquarters, and Bond being rescued twice by Japanese intel agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) in ways that suggest she has the power of clairvoyance, the MI6 super-spy obtains secret documents that, when examined by the Japanese secret service, lead Bond and Aki to investigate the cargo ship Ning-po in Kobe. The two are ambushed by thugs and Bond is captured by none other than the Osao Chemicals CEO (Teru Shimada) and his secretary Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), both secretly working for global criminal organisation SPECTRE. The two try to kill him but Bond escapes.

Discovering from the Japanese secret service that the Ning-po had unloaded rocket fuel in the area of the remote volcanic island, Bond surveys the area in an armed autogyro; he is attacked by four helicopters and manages to defeat them all. He meets with Aki and Japanese secret service head Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) to arrange for him to infiltrate the volcanic island disguised as a Japanese fisherman married to a local girl pearl-diver. While Bond prepares for his mission to discover the island’s secrets before the US launches another spacecraft, SPECTRE sends out people to assassinate him: Bond thwarts all their attempts but Aki ends up as the film’s sacrificial lamb.

When the US revises its schedule to launch the spacecraft earlier than anticipated, Bond has to marry the pearl-diver Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), also a protegee of Tiger Tanaka, and the two go off to the volcanic island. Their discovery of a secret rocket base hidden inside the volcano leads Bond to come face-to-face with SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) and Blofeld’s bodyguard Hans (Ronald Rich).

To reach the point where Bond meets Blofeld, the film has to navigate (and sometimes just crash) through a web of often unnecessary plot detours that often look like last-minute additions such as the autogyro scene, his encounter with Brandt and the fight scene with Hans that sends the bodyguard into the piranha pool. The scenes with Blofeld come very late in the film and look rushed. Pleasance is wasted in the film yet his understated portrayal of Blofeld is vivid enough that it has become the template for evil villains in Western pop culture. The actors do what they can with the plot; at least their reputations and future careers weren’t too badly affected by being in the film. The action scenes and special effects pall after too many repetitions and make the film too long. Given his career writing children’s books, Dahl’s attempts to insert often infantile humour into the film fall flat.

At least the film’s later scenes set in southern Japan (Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu island, Nachikatsuura in Wakayama Prefecture on Honshu island) are lovely; pity they are wasted in a silly and forgettable film.

The film’s title derives from a haiku by 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho: “You only live twice / Once when you’re born /And once when you look death in the face”. Take his advice and fill the time between birth and death watching better films.

Goldfinger: enjoyable escapist spy-thriller fantasy of its time

Guy Hamilton, “Goldfinger” (1964)

Third in the series of James Bond spy film series, “Goldfinger” remains the standard to which all other films in the series are compared and usually found wanting. “Goldfinger” more or less established the template for successor JB films to follow: an opening scene before the credits that is not always related to the film’s plot; a megalomaniacal villain with a bizarre scheme to hold the world to ransom; the villain’s main enforcer employee having a bizarre modus operandi along with a taste for brutal violence; James Bond failing to save one or two sacrificial lambs; the super-spy himself dropping sarcastic one-liners about the villains he’s disposed of; the action taking place in several foreign locations; and an emphasis on fast cars and the latest technological gizmos, even if nearly 60 years later those gizmos look quaint and cartoonish. Of course the film always ends with Bond and his love interest with the double-entendre name sinking into each other’s arms with the theme music starting up and the end credits starting to roll.

Even if viewers have seen other JB films and know what they can expect, at least “Goldfinger” does not take itself seriously – indeed, the film does overdo its self-mockery – and the actors acquit themselves well. The plot holds together well with the right balance of the plausible, the logical and the fantastic, as it strides briskly through various sketches in which Bond (Sean Connery) and the villain Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) battle each other through deception and persistence on Bond’s part. Initially holidaying in Miami, Bond is directed by CIA agent Felix Leiter (Cec Linder) to observe Goldfinger cheating in a game of gin rummy: Bond discovers Goldfinger’s ruse and blackmails him into losing the game, but this results in the death of Jill Masterton (Shirley Eaton) who had been helping Goldfinger cheat. After returning to London, Bond volunteers to continue following Goldfinger to compensate for his having failed to protect Jill and to ascertain how Goldfinger is smuggling gold bullion across national boundaries in order to manipulate and game international gold prices. Bond and Goldfinger meet again to play a round of golf, during which the villain again tries to cheat but is foiled; Goldfinger then warns Bond to stay away from him in future. The spy tracks Goldfinger to Switzerland where he meets Jill Masterton’s sister Tilly (Tania Mallet) who intends to kill Goldfinger for having killed Jill. Later Bond sneaks into Goldfinger’s refinery where he discovers how the villain is smuggling gold (it is incorporated into the body of his Rolls Royce) and hears mention of Goldfinger’s plan to steal the gold held in Fort Knox in the US state of Kentucky. Bond ends up being captured and Tilly, who turns up on her own, is killed by Goldfinger’s enforcer Oddjob (Harold Sakata).

Bond is flown to Kentucky as Goldfinger’s prisoner by pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) where, through his own devices, he discovers that Goldfinger plans to kill all military personnel guarding Fort Knox by gassing them with nerve gas and then plant an atomic bomb in the gold vaults there that will detonate and irradiate the gold, rendering it useless and causing the value of Goldfinger’s own gold reserves to skyrocket and create global market chaos.

The plot is straightforward and fast, with just enough dialogue papering over any holes and other implausible aspects. Most of the violence occurs in the later half of the film and it can be brutal. For a large part of the film Bond is Goldfinger’s prisoner and must use his wits and charm to convince Pussy Galore to switch sides and betray her employer (and risk being killed later) but this significant part of the plot is treated in a crude manner. Bond’s guilt in failing to protect Jill and Tilly Masterton plays a large part in his decision to pursue Goldfinger and Oddjob to the extent that he risks his life several times but this aspect of the plot is dealt with superficially when it could have been a major part of Bond’s character development. Unfortunately though, scriptwriters back in the early 1960s were dealing with source material for the film that was homophobic and misogynist, and they did what they could to scale back the characterisations of Pussy Galore and Tilly Masterton, both portrayed as lesbians in the original novel, not to mention Bond’s aversion to homosexuality and attitude to women who refused his advances, to something more credible even in the James Bond fantasy film universe. On the plus side, the film does portray a range of women characters from capable and intelligent individuals to others, admittedly minor characters, who were little more than wallpaper.

As it is, “Goldfinger” is enjoyable for its plot, its look and its characters, but beyond those, it is no more than what it set out to be: escapist spy-thriller fantasy.