Saturday, 11 February 2012

The evolution of the gunbarrel sequence in Bond films

The gunbarrel sequence that introduces each James Bond film is as much a part of the James Bond culture as the Aston Martin, the exotic titles sequence and the dinner suit. Like a hypnotist inducing a response from a subject with a word or click of the fingers, the sequence instantly transports us into Bond's world with the use of its (almost) fanfare-type music and mesmerising white dot that skates across the screen.

The gunbarrel has appeared in every one of the 22 Bond films, and hopes are high that it will feature prominently in the next film, Skyfall. The gunbarrel is not, however, an unchanging entity, and over the years it has subtly evolved to the extent that recent sequences are noticeably different from the earlier versions. Let's examine some of those changes.

The stance that Bond takes as he turns to face his opponent and squeezes the trigger is one of the variables. There are essentially four variants. In Sean Connery's films up to and including Goldfinger (1964), Bond (played by Bob Simmons in the early gunbarrel sequences) finishes his movement in a half-crouch, bending his knees a little to drop his height. In Connery's remaining films, the half-crouch has become a full-crouch; the knees are bent to the extent that Bond only just avoids kneeling. George Lazenby in On Her Majesty's Secret Service takes the full-crouch to its conclusion and adopts the kneeling position. Roger Moore returns to the half-crouch, but his body is more upright than that of Connery and Simmons and does not drop so much in height. Roger Moore also introduces a two-handed grip on his gun. Timothy Dalton continues the half-crouch position, but prefers the one-handed grip favoured by Connery and Lazenby. Pierce Brosnan stands upright, his body and legs are ramrod straight as he turns and shoots (also one-handed). Daniel Craig's two gunbarrel scenes are different in many ways from the others, but he nevertheless turns and shoots in a reasonably conventional manner, and to do it he stands as Brosnan does, but with his legs slightly apart.

Another aspect or meme that changes over time is the clothes. When we think of the gunbarrel sequence today, we probably think of Bond dressed in a dinner suit. And indeed, when the gunbarrel has formed the basis of branding or a trade mark, Bond is depicted in his dinner suit 'uniform'. But Bond in fact wears a lounge or business suit in all films from Dr No (1962) to The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). The three-year gap between Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) permitted a change, though, and perhaps in celebration of the Bond brand (a celebration that resulted in the theme song title, 'Nobody does it better' and the Union Flag parachute), the gunbarrel sequence sees Bond in a dinner suit. Subsequent films have replicated this, and only in Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008) does Bond return to the business suit. Remarkably, the hat which Bond wears in the Dr No gunbarrel sequence survives up to Diamonds Are Forever (1971), despite the fact that Bond wears a hat very infrequently in the films (although the hat would continue to appear as late as Octopussy (1983) in scenes in Moneypenny's office.)

Not all developments appear to have been the result of conscious decisions on the part of the producers, directors or actors. In terms of the duration of the sequence, the longest sequence, lasting 28 seconds, is Dr No's. The shortest is that for Quantum of Solace, which lasts just 10 seconds. Excluding both as outliers, the gunbarrel sequences of the earlier films remain longer than those of the later films. Sean Connery films average 21.2 seconds; Roger Moore's average 20.7 seconds, while Pierce Brosnan's average 17 seconds. The trend is for a gradual reduction of length over time. But the difference between the length of From Russia With Love (22 seconds) and Die Another Day (17 seconds) is just five seconds, which represents a very gradual, and probably unnoticeable and unplanned, average reduction of 0.25 seconds with each successive film.

In evolutionary terms, the length of the gunbarrel sequence is responding to a selection pressure for shorter sequences, perhaps in keeping with increasingly faster-paced films and an eagerness to move rapidly to the exciting pre-titles sequence. We can see from the level of continuity from one gunbarrel sequence to the next, evident in the survival of the stance and clothing, that the design of the gunbarrel sequence generally replicates the one that immediately preceded it, not those of older films (so a Roger Moore sequence expresses the elements or memes of the previous Roger Moore sequence, not those from Connery-era sequences). At the same time, every sequence has inherited traits shown in the first gunbarrel sequence, that of Dr No.

To return to the length of the sequence, the sequences are generally becoming shorter not only because of any selection pressure acting on them, but because the sequences that are replicated are themselves shorter than the ones that preceded them. The sequences are unlikely to return to a length around 22 seconds, because sequences this long have ceased to be imitated. And on this basis, Skyfall's gunbarrel sequence will be around 15 to 16 seconds long. Remember, you read it here first.

Click here to read a post-Skyfall update.

3 comments:

  1. What was quite different with the Daniel Craig films was the positioning of the gunbarrel sequence coming as part of the film in Casino Royale and at the end in Quantum of Solace. Do you see the gunbarrel moving back to the traditional pre-credit sequence place in Skyfall?

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    1. Yes, I think Skyfall will start with the gunbarrel. I think the message at the end of QoS is that Bond's journey from an inexperienced 00 agent to the Bond of Dr No is now complete. Consequently, the gunbarrel, as a symbol of the Bond of Dr No and later films, can now legitimately be restored to the beginning in its conventional format.

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  2. Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond is a book that, among other things, discusses the evolution and significance of the gun barrel sequence. Visit http://www.bondgirlbook.com, like it on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/bondgirlbook, and order a copy at Amazon (available in the US and the UK).

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