Friday, 27 June 2014

Jules Verne introduces the Bond villain

If you thought the Bond villain was born in 1953 with the appearance of Le Chiffre in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, then think again. Reading Jules Verne's 1904 novel, Master of the World, I was surprised to encounter an antagonist who had many of the attributes we closely associate with the villains of the Bond novels and films.

'Master of the World', an illustration from the French edition by George Roux

Jules Verne, the French novelist best known for his novels of 'voyages extraordinaires', among them Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, sets his 54th novel in the United States. Police detective John Strock is sent by his chief to investigate mysterious sights and sounds emanating from the Great Eyrie, a seemingly inaccessible peak within a mountain range. Strock's attempt to scale the peak fails, and he learns nothing. Returning to Washington, he hears about a road vehicle that's quicker than the fastest automobile (reaching speeds of up to 130mph), a boat that zooms across the water, and a third machine that travels under water. With instructions to find the owners of the vehicles, Strock gradually discovers that all three machines are in fact one, and that there is a connection between them and the mysterious Great Eyrie.

Naturally on reading about a car that turns into a submarine, my mind went to Bond's Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me. But the vehicle had one more surprise – it could also fly. Like Scaramanga's AMC Matador coupe in The Man With The Golden Gun, and perhaps more befittingly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the car is converted into an aircraft by means of wings which fold out from the base of the vehicle. Just as the Potts find out that Chitty can fly when the car goes over a cliff, Strock, having been captured and held prisoner in the vehicle, then in boat mode, learns of its ability to fly when it plunges over the Niagara Falls.

The brilliant inventor responsible for this four-in-one machine is Robur the Conquerer, a character Verne had introduced earlier in an 1886 novel of the same name. As with all mad geniuses, Robur is eager to reveal his plans to Strock, claim past injustices, and seek his revenge against the world, traits that we would recognise in Dr No or Hugo Drax. Verne's description of Robur recalls Fleming's descriptions of Blofeld, Goldfinger or Mr Big:

“...the robust neck; the enormous spheroidal head. The eyes at the least emotion burned with fire, while above them were the heavy, permanently contracted brows, which signified such energy. The hair was short and crisp, with a glitter as of metal in its lights. The narrow beard was the same also, with the smooth shaven cheeks which showed the powerful muscle of the jaw."

It's while he's inside the airborne Terror that Strock learns the secret of the Great Eyrie. As the aircraft flies over the top of the peak, it descends into a crater and comes to rest inside it. The Great Eyrie is Robur the Conquerer's hidden base, pre-dating Blofeld's volcano hideout in the film of You Only Live Twice by 63 years. Robur even has henchmen to help him prepare the vehicle and travel with him.

I don't know whether Jules Verne's villain served as a model for any character in the Bond novels or films, but Master of the World nevertheless reminds us that the defining qualities of a Bond villain existed before Bond and represent some universal fears, for example the use and misuse of emerging, and potentially harmful, technology, and the thin line between genius and insanity. It is in the world of James Bond, however, that those qualities have perhaps had their most successful, and sustained, expression, to the extent that they and Bond villains have become synonymous.

3 comments:

  1. Yes, another brilliant piece there, Edward. I think there are actually a lot of forerunners to what came later in the Bond novels and films in the works of Jules Verne and other science fiction/adventure writers of the era. One thinks of Karl Stromberg and his Atlantis base in particular. Keep up the good work; I'd not heard of this p[articular novel or it's content before your post.

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    1. Thanks, much appreciated! And good point about Stromberg, whose literary ancestry might be traced back to another of Jules Verne's characters - Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues.

      Incidentally, Master of the World is free to download on Kindle, along with a number of other Verne novels. I'm reading Robur the Conquerer at the moment.

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    2. Good! I'd happily read more articles in this vein! I may have to check Verne out!

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