Group E – Popular Culture

  The Nuclear Menace in James Bond Movies  

  from 1962 to post-1999  
A Geiger counter for global politics

by Lukas Hechenblaickner, Alexander Walter, Verena Kastenhuber and Michael Hoffman.


    Prelude: James Bond, a product of the Cold War  

Created by the author and former member of the British secret service Ian Fleming in 1953, James Bond is a product of the Cold War as well as a projection mirror for fears and threats of this particular period in the the societies of the West. So it is not an accident that the phenomenon started in the 1950s with horrors of the Second World War such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima still present in the collective mind. With the atomic bomb as the last invention of the war, the world faced a new existential threat which could potentially destroy the planet. The menace of total destruction was mirrored in the books of Fleming and later on in the movie adaptions by EON Productions, on which the following article will focus.

James Bond with the first Bond girl portrayed by Ursula Andress wearing a Bikini in Dr. No (1962). The suit became famous afterwards and the name “Bikini”, referring to the atoll on which most of the US American atomic bomb tests in the Pacific happened, was chosen intentionally to underline the atomic nature of the new garment. Source: The Telegraph. All rights reserved to © MGM and EON

With the Manhattan Project and the subsequent nuclear armament of the Soviets the stakes were raised and no less than the whole world seemed at gamble. The threat was a global one now and while the films rarely featured the Soviet state as the main enemy, replacing it by mad generals or organized crime syndicates, they very often involved the object of the ultimate last fear itself: The atomic bomb. Although James Bond always manages it to dismantle the Bomb in the last second, never allowing the picture of a Nuclear mushroom to enter the screen, hereby offering an optimistic view of the future, the incidents leading to this final moments are very often rooted in real fears and actual politic events.

Also it is telling that in certain time periods the nuclear question seems not as imminent, while in others the atomic bomb played a major part in building up the story. In the films of the 1960s there is even a positive notion of atomic power by showing nuclear gadgets as helpful devices. While one could argue that the underlying fear of total annihilation is an ancient trope reaching back as far as to the Christian notion of the Apocalypse, the tonal changes within the movies seem to suggest a reflection of the actual zeitgeist. Therefore studying them can tell us something about the particular fears of the Western societies in the Cold War period related to certain political changes. Our aim is to trace these changes back by looking at the stories of James Bond movies from the eras of Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton / Pierce Brosnan and putting them in a historical context.

  ☢ First Act: 007 and the nuclear question in the Sean Connery era
1962 – 1971

Arguably the most famous – certainly the most referenced and thoroughly parodied – Bond movies were those of the first generation from the 1960s and early 1970s, starring Ex-“Mister Universe” Sean Connery, who owes his worldwide fame first and foremost to his interpretation of the titular character. Connery played Bond in the first five movies, starting with Dr. No in 1962, stepping back from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969, only to reprise his role in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971, and then again one last time in the unofficial 1983 film Never Say Never Again, which was essentially only another version of Thunderball, but made by a different production team.

The 1960s saw heavy political confrontation as well as cultural competition between the East and the West. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the NASA mission to the moon, the Chinese atom bomb, the nuclear standoff, all of this left an obvious impression on the producers of the Bond movies. While the Soviet Union or China at times serve as sort of background-antagonists, e.g. in From Russia with Love, the real villains are mostly imaginary non-state-actors, “supervillains” and terrorist organisations. The plots often evolve around nuclear weapons or devices and sometimes the threat of imminent nuclear warfare.

The first film Dr. No, released in 1962, features a nuclear physicist and member of the evil organisation “SPECTRE” (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), who aims to disrupt the Cape Canaveral space launches using an atomic-powered radio beam. Bond is equipped with a Geiger counter in search for the villain’s secret base on the Bahamas. When Dr. No is finally defeated by Bond, he plunges to his death into the boiling water of his own nuclear reactor.

While the second movie From Russia with Love does have a distinct Cold War background – a vicious game of espionage and counterespionage between KGB, MI6 and SPECTRE in Istanbul – it contains no direct references to nuclear threats or technology. But the next movie, Goldfinger, starring famous German actor Gert Fröbe as the titular antagonist, does provide the audience with some interesting allusions to the nuclear threat and Cold War politics. The villain in this movie, a typical “Evil Genius” who set standards for the following Bond films and other spin-offs in popular culture, plans to detonate a small nuclear bomb inside the storage vault of US Gold reserves in Fort Knox in order to affect them with radiation, therefore manipulating the gold price. The bomb is provided by agents of the “Red Chinese” government who aim to create financial chaos in the West. Hardly a coincidental plot element, since 1964 was the year of the Chinese atomic weapons test.


James Bond dismantling the atomic bomb in Goldfinger (1964). Just before he has to make the decision which cable to cut all by himself a scientist enters the scene and helps Bond. Source: All rights reserved to © MGM and EON.

More nuclear entanglements, this time involving NATO, follow in the next movie Thunderball, which premiered in 1965. Here SPECTRE abducts a British Vulcan strategic bomber armed with two NATO nuclear bombs, threatening to destroy a major US and British city if NATO doesn’t pay them £100 million in diamonds. Bond swallows a radioactive tracking device himself and is equipped with a Geiger counter disguised as camera on his quest to retrieve the warheads. SPECTRE’s second-in-command Emilio Largo, the mastermind of the plan, is aided by an obviously Eastern Bloc-related nuclear physicist named Ladislav Kutze, who eventually defects to the “good side” at the end of the movie.

1967’s You Only Live Twice pitted Bond for the first time face to face against his nemesis, super-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the leader of SPECTRE, and also features a nuclear standoff between East and West. From his secret base below a volcano in Japan, Blofeld, in alliance with an unnamed Asian state – presumably communist China – aims to provoke a nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union. He abducts manned American and Russian space-missions using his own orbital spacecraft, prompting the two superpowers to blame each other. At one point, the USA put their nuclear forces on alert, preparing to strike the Soviets, which is prevented in the last minute by Bond, who destroys SPECTRE’s spacecraft.

As mentioned before, the next movie of the series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, released in 1969, features a different actor and story. But both Connery as Bond and the nuclear topic as major plot element make their return in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. This is Connery’s last appearance in the official EON-produced Bond series. It features again a confrontation with Blofeld, who plans to use a satellite-based laser weapon to destroy nuclear arsenals of both Western and Eastern powers in order to make himself the global power broker. He is assisted in this by an obviously East German scientist named Professor Doctor Metz, who is unaware of Blofeld’s actual scheme and is instead motivated by a pacifist ideology.

So in addition to being the arguably most iconic of all the Bond movies, almost all the films of the 1960s and early 1970s starring Sean Connery feature the contemporary nuclear threat and references to nuclear technology and the Cold War as a major or minor plot element. Nuclear science and gadgets do have a positive standing at times – the aforementioned scientists are essentially “good guys” and the hero is often equipped with nuclear-powered gadgets. But nuclear weapons themselves mainly appear as means of extortion or instruments of crime, a threat only to be contained – and often so in the last minute – by James Bond.

  ☢ Second Act: From nuclear stalemate to the 2nd Cold War with Roger Moore  
1973 – 1983

„My acting range? Left eyebrow raised, right eyebrow raised.“ – This personal quote sums up Roger Moore´s attitude towards his role as James Bond. Despite his self-deprecating approach, the films starring him offered more serious content, especially at the end of the 70s. After Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), which featured general topics like drug trafficking and super-criminals, following the general trend in popular culture of retreating from Cold War themes as the US and the Soviets found themselves in a situation of stalemate.


A Soviet satellite carrying an atomic weapon as depicted in GoldenEye (1995). A fictional relic of the 1980s. Source: All rights reserved to © MGM and EON.

This was largely due to the the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) starting at the end oft the 60s. In these two rounds of bilateral talks and corresponding international treaties both Cold War superpowers agreed on limiting the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers. A second series of talks between the USA and Soviet Union took place from 1972 to 1979, limiting development of new missile technologies. In the wake of those two SALT-treaties a rapprochement of the two Cold War superpowers can be observed.

This rapprochement is visible in the the movie The Spy who Loved Me from 1977. The plot involves the sudden disappearance of British and Soviet ballistic-missile submarines. Bond and a female KGB agent work together to identify and find the villain responsible for this disappearance, turing out to be the Nemo-like character of Karl Stromberg. His plan is to launch nuclear missiles from the submarines in order to destroy Moscow and New York City, triggering a nuclear war, which Stromberg and his followers would survive in his underwater base named Atlantis to start a whole new civilization of humankind. Interestingly the two superpowers, represented by the KGB officer and James Bond, have to work together to avoid the nightmare scenario of a nuclear devastation.

In the beginning of the 80s, the Cold War intensified once again due to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. The new confrontation (also called the second Cold War) between the NATO and the Soviet Union is depticed in For Your Eyes Only (1981). A British vessel carrying the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator (ATAC) of the Royal Navy was sunk in the Ionian Sea. Bond gets the order to retrieve the ATAC before the Soviets can do so. In the end, Bond can recover it but is confronted by KGB chief Gogol. He then destroys the ATAC, so neither the British nor the Soviets can have it, humorously labelling this action „detente“.

In Moore´s next film Octopussy (1983) the nuclear topic is featured most prominently. A megalomaniac Soviet general wants to start World War III by using a circus to smuggle an atomic bomb from East Germany to a US military base in West Germany to detonate it there. The plan is to portray the incident as an accident, prompting popular outrage and disarmament in the West, allowing a conventional Soviet invasion and conquest of Europe.


Movie still depicting the war room from Octopussy in which the Soviets are arguing over a potential invasion of Western Europe. All rights reserved to © MGM and EON.

In conclusion the second part of Moore´s Bond generation depicts the possibility of cooperation between Soviets and the West, featuring for example the positive character of KGB chief General Gogol. This serves as a contrast to the Connery films, where the fronts of the Cold War were less permeable and the nuclear standoff a more prominent plot element.

  ☢ Final Act: The end of the story? 007 in a changed political landscape  
1987 – post-1999

In 1987, Roger Moore was followed by the Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, who in comparison to his predecessors was an entirely new kind of Bond. During the Moore-era action and shallow jokes had strongly increased. In contrast to this, Dalton portrayed a more serious and rugged Bond character and also the plots became more realistic than they were with Moore: In The Living Daylights (1987) Bond has to stop an American arms dealer which is also involved in the opium trade in Afghanistan, while in Licence to Kill (1989) Bond violently quits his job and goes on a bloody vendetta after the death of a close friend. In both movies the atomic threat is no longer a plot element and nuclear devices do not appear. Although The Living Daylights makes a political statement concerning the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan which took place in the 1980s, elements can be seen indicating that both sides are approaching each other.

Similar to Russia the MI6 spy undergoes major changes after the end of the Cold War. The old enemy is gone and James Bond, inherently an invention of the Cold War, seems to be like a relict of a different time. No wonder it took six years until the next movie was released, helping the authors and creators to position the character in a new multipolar world. In terms of style and storytelling the more serious tone of the Dalton-films continued and although the character acted not in between the shady front lines of the Cold War anymore, the past was not put aside entirely. Atom bombs remained a threat, but now the threat was put in a new context: The first three Brosnan movies all deal with the politic turmoil within Russia and the dangers of the bomb getting in the hands of non-state actors or terrorists.

Intro of Golden Eye (1995), depicting the fall of the Soviet Union in a symbolic way. A crucial turning point not only in world politics, but also within the the film series. All rights reserved to © MGM and EON.

GoldenEye (1995) features a nuclear armed satellite in earth’s orbit which can destroy any target on the planet with an electromagnetic impulse. This project was developed by the Soviets but never put to use, and the new Russian government in the movie doesn’t even know the number of satellites built. Bond has to stop a vengeful traitor of the MI6 who is in alliance with a disloyal Russian general – the two men plan to destroy London with the satellite they brought under their control.

The plot of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) isn‘t primarily about nuclear weapons, but the opening sequence does show an interesting scene: Bond sneaks into a secret bazaar where Russian equipment stolen from military depots is illegally sold to all who are willing to offer enough money. Besides small arms and other military stuff there are also two Russian nuclear torpedoes for sale. While in the Cold War nuclear weapons were solely in possession of states, they are now to be found on the black market so that also terrorists can easily get their hands on them. Terrorists seem to be more dangerous than ever before.

The World Is Not Enough (1999) deals with the same topic.The plot involves the female boss of a big oil company planning to destroy Istanbul with a nuclear bomb to eliminate the Russian oil delivery into Western Europe in order to gain a monopoly on the resource. Her henchman is a notorious French terrorist who once kidnapped and then fell in love with her. The plutonium for this operation comes from a Russian base in Kazakhstan; a stolen Russian nuclear submarine is to function as vehicle for the bomb.

With the reboot of the Bond series featuring Daniel Craig as titular character, terrorism becomes even more prominent, while the Cold War looses its importance alltogether. Russia no longer has a prominent role in the stories. Instead of an atomic threat, the latest Bond movies introduce new topics like money laundering and global terrorism, control over water supplies and undercover infiltration of terrorist organisations. This change in topics seems to reflect the fading interest of the audience in the nuclear question, the atomic bomb not being the main object of fear anymore.

  ☢ Epilogue: Conclusions and Afterthoughts   

As anticipated, the analysis showed that the depiction of nuclear threats in James Bond movies largely correlated with the political situation at the time in which the movies were created. In a sense making them a Geiger counter for the impact and significance of the atomic bomb within popular culture in Western societies. 


A Geiger counter watch as depicted in Thunderball (1965). Source: All rights reserved to © MGM and EON.

At the first height of the arms race in the 1960s the nuclear question plays a major role in the Sean Connery movies, mirroring both the hope in technical advances through nuclear power and the threat of the Atomic Bomb looming over the world. The menace of all out nuclear war declines again in the 1970s as the confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union comes to a temporal stalemate, giving room for more internal threats, which seem to grapple the awareness of the audiences in this decade. The bomb appears again in the storylines of the late Roger Moore movies of the 1980s at the wake of the so called second Cold War. But this time there is a new spin: Though the Soviets remain enemies, they appear to have a more human face now. West and East have to work together and not against each other to solve the nuclear problem and achieve world peace.

Looking at the movies featuring Pierce Brosnan in the 1990s it becomes obvious that the fear of the bomb does not disappear with the end of the East-West conflict, but evolves with the new situation in world politics. The first three Brosnan movies deal with nuclear relics from the time of the Cold War, which are stolen and used for terrorist activities. The nuclear bomb is not the king piece in a Cold War game of chess anymore, but a powerful weapon in the hands of individual perpetrators. The fear being that within the chaotic situation of post-communist Russia, terrorists might gain access to the deadly weapon and use it for personal plans of revenge and madness. What didn’t change is the fact that there is just one man who is able to stop them. His name is Bond, James Bond. With a glass of Martini, of course.

  ☢ Closing Titles  

  • Lois H. Gresh/ Robert Weinberg: The Science of James Bond: From Bullets to Bowler Hats to Boat Jumps, the Real Technology Behind 007’s Fabulous Films, Wiley, Virginia 2006.
  • Jerome F. Shapiro: Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film, Psychology Press, London/ New York 2002.
  • Nigel Cawthorne: A Brief Guide to James Bond,Constable & Robinson, London 2012.
  • Jeremy Black: The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen, U of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2005.
  • Robert G. Weiner/ B. Lynn Whitfield/ Jack Becker: James Bond in world and popular culture: the films are not enough, Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars, 2011
  • James Chapman: Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films, Tauris I B, London 2007.

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