When James Bond author Ian Fleming first introduced the criminal network SPECTRE to his many readers in the novel Thunderball in 1961, he inadvertently created an organisation which has arguably become one of the most famous fictional crime syndicates in popular literature.
It also became, of course, a major part of the James Bond legend on the big screen, with the EON franchise even ‘re-imagining’ the concept for the most recent and 24th James Bond movie Spectre, directed by Sam Mendes and released in 2015.
Much of the drive to re-introduce SPECTRE to the series was down to both John Logan and Sam Mendes. With the confirmation from Mendes at the recent Hay Festival that he will not now be helming Bond movie no. 25, the JBIFC takes the opportunity to offer a brief retrospective on the SPECTRE organisation – its creation, its role, its dramatic return (or rebirth), and a few points on the way about how its boss, the archetypal Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, has been interpreted over the years.
And, one suspects, like all the memorable Bond baddies we love to hate, we have probably not seen the last of one of our favourite villains or his insidious organisation.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld was first introduced to the world in Ian Fleming’s 007 novel Thunderball in 1961, where he was head of SP.E.C.T.R.E. (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), a global criminal network with its secret headquarters in Paris. It operated under the guise of the ‘International Brotherhood of Resistance Against Oppression’, a kind of cross between a charity and a human rights organisation.
As Fleming described it, SPECTRE had been in operation since 1956. As a former Naval Intelligence officer, and then working as Foreign Manager for the Sunday Times (where he was responsible for the newspaper’s overseas coverage and for appointing its correspondents in the field), the Bond author had built up extensive knowledge about war criminals, ex-Gestapo members, spies, terrorists, smugglers and other rogue operators in the murky world of the post-war ‘Cold War’, and some of this detail helped him give SPECTRE some plausible background.
The SPECTRE network was thus utterly ruthless and primarily concerned to generate profit for Blofeld and its executive board, no matter how this was done! To this end, among other things, SPECTRE had been responsible for recovering the late Nazi Heinrich Himmler’s jewels from the Modsee, selling Russian secrets from East Berlin to the CIA, selling heroin supplies to a gang in Los Angeles, selling Czech germ-warfare phials to the UK’s MI6, the blackmail of a top former Nazi official, the assassination of a defector to the Russians, and the kidnapping of the daughter of a ‘Detroit Purple Gang’ contact.
As originally described by Fleming, Blofeld was a physically large man, very tall and weighing over twenty stone. Born in Imperial Germany in 1908, his father was Polish and his mother Greek (‘Stavro’ is a Greek name). His eyes were dark, rather like Benito Mussolini’s, and his face was topped with black crew-cut hair; he did not smoke or drink, and he regularly chewed violet-scented mints.
By On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), however, Blofeld had changed locations to Switzerland and radically altered his appearance: he had lost weight, now had long, silver-coloured hair, no ear-lobes, and wore dark green-tinted contact lenses. He also desperately sought recognition of the aristocratic title of the Count de Bleuville. In You Only Live Twice (1964), Blofeld had again altered his appearance and was now living in Japan, operating under the alias of Dr. Guntram Shatterhand. In many ways, SPECTRE had now become a much smaller organisation, very much under the direct personal control of Blofeld and his evil assistant Irma Bunt.
There has been some interest on the part of Fleming experts in the Bond author’s evident fascination with certain words, or variations of the same word, in his 007 novels, including with the word ‘spectre’. In Fleming’s fourth 007 novel, Diamonds Are Forever (1956), at one stage Bond’s cover as a diamond smuggler is blown and he is kidnapped by Serraffimo Spang, of the ‘Spangled Mob’, and is locked up in ‘Spectreville’, a ghost town outside Las Vegas. And, in a variation on the word, in Fleming’s 007 adventure From Russia With Love (1957), Tatiana Romanova offers to defect with the coveted ‘Spektor’ coding machine.
SPECTRE on screen
In the EON movies, SPECTRE was first name-checked in Dr. No (1962), and Blofeld himself was first glimpsed (in profile only) in From Russia With Love (1963), where cinema audiences were also introduced to the now famous ‘Octopus’ symbol, used in secret communications or on rings worn by members. Blofeld went on to become a much-loved feature of the James Bond film series, appearing in five further films prior to the Mendes-directed Spectre.
Some commentators in the past have compared Ernst Stavro Blofeld to the infamous arch-villain Moriarty, the devious and super-intelligent adversary to the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. There is certainly something beguiling about the head of SPECTRE, and one of the pleasures of the early James Bond films for cinemagoers was discovering what Blofeld’s latest mad scheme entailed. Prior to Spectre in 2015, the SPECTRE chief had last been glimpsed in the official series in the pre-credits to For Your Eyes Only in 1981, and then appeared in Kevin McClory’s ‘unofficial’ Bond movie Never Say Never Again in 1983 (played by Max von Sydow).
Interestingly, the official EON series had come very close to re-introducing Blofeld and SPECTRE back into the franchise in 1976-77 for Roger Moore’s 007 adventure The Spy Who Loved Me (an early draft had featured Blofeld and the SPECTRE organisation), but ongoing legal action by Kevin McClory, claiming ownership of ‘Blofeld’ and ‘SPECTRE’ as creative concepts, encouraged producer Cubby Broccoli to drop Blofeld from the screenplay (he was replaced with ‘Karl Stromberg’). One suggestion as to why the (un-named) Blofeld was seen in FYEO in 1981 is that Cubby Broccoli was still keen to show his rejection of McClory’s claims.
Blofeld on the screen, of course, has seen a number of actors give him life, most notably Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas, Charles Gray, and (unofficially) by Max von Sydow. He has also been portrayed (in an uncredited way) by Anthony Dawson, and we have also heard his voice via Eric Pohlmann and Robert Rietty. And now we have the Christoph Waltz interpretation to add to the list. Waltz, determined to protect the character during the production of Spectre, had a lot of fun with the ‘Is he Blofeld or not?’ question, and successfully teased journalists for many months over the issue. And rightly so!
Moreover, perhaps in a nod to both his own fondness for the Donald Pleasence interpretation of Blofeld and the wider cultural impact of the Bond villains on cinema history, director Sam Mendes was keen for the Waltz version to have a damaged eye. Indeed, as the recent February, 2016, issue of Cinefex noted, the final visual ‘look’ of Blofeld in the climax to the Spectre storyline was especially important: Mendes wanted Blofeld’s appearance to reference the version seen in the film You Only Live Twice, and a number of versions of Blofeld’s damaged eye were apparently tried out before the final one was settled on.
Live Another Day
Unsurprisingly, there was tremendous interest generated when major rumours emerged in 2014 that Blofeld and SPECTRE were about to return to the EON series. Although the news had at that point not been officially confirmed by EON, the UK’s Mail On Sunday newspaper (November 23, 2014) more-or-less threw out a huge spoiler when it carried a showbiz news story entitled ‘You weren’t expecting this, Mr. Bond. But… BLOFELD’S BACK!’
Written by Chris Hastings in London and Caroline Graham in Los Angeles, the Mail story claimed that Christoph Waltz was tipped to play the evil genius, and that Waltz’s involvement in the new 007 movie (Daniel Craig’s fourth adventure as Britain’s most famous fictional spy), would be confirmed at the official press conference held to launch the new film, which was due to take place in the first week of December.
Moreover, the Mail article claimed that the press conference would announce that Waltz was playing an unknown character named Franz Oberhauser, son of the late Hans Oberhauser, a ski instructor who acted as a father figure to Bond. In the Ian Fleming books, the Bond author made James Bond an orphan, as his parents – Monique Delacroix, from Switzerland, and Andrew Bond, from Scotland – were killed in a tragic climbing accident in the Alps. According to the sketchy timeline set out by Fleming in his books, the young Bond was taught to ski by Hannes Oberhauser, of Kitzbuhel, shortly after he attended the University of Geneva.
In a spoiler act worthy of SPECTRE itself, the Mail revealed that ‘senior sources’ (un-named, of course) believed that the casting of Waltz as Franz Oberhauser was a double bluff, and that Waltz was actually playing Blofeld.
The Mail report cited one Hollywood source as saying: ‘Christoph Waltz is playing Blofeld in the next Bond film. The tone of the 007 films has changed significantly in recent years and the producers have changed the character to fit in with the new-look 007’.
The article also pointed out that Blofeld’s return was now possible because of the settlement of the long-running legal dispute that took place between EON and the estate of the late Kevin McClory who, for many years (as noted earlier), had claimed he held the rights to both Blofeld and SPECTRE, and also various other elements of the James Bond creative concept.
As many Bond fans know, Kevin McClory died in 2006 and, in 2013, McClory’s estate sold their remaining claims to Bond and Blofeld to Danjaq, the official maker of the 007 franchise via its subsidiary EON, and distributor MGM. The settlement meant that the character Blofeld and his organisation SPECTRE were once more ripe for inclusion in any future 007 movies. This immediately led to intense speculation about whether EON would one day make use again of the iconic villain.
SPECTRE and Logan
It is perhaps worth remembering that occasional speculation about the possible return of Blofeld and SPECTRE had been a fairly regular pattern for some years prior to all this, but had been given a big fillip in the run-up to Bond 23 (Skyfall), when scriptwriter John Logan had made a teasing remark that he thought Blofeld was a worthy adversary to Bond. Speaking at a special BAFTA Screenwriter’s Q & As event, when asked whether he still held to a comment on this topic that he had made some years previously, Logan repeated (with a wry smile) the same comment: ‘Bond should always fight Blofeld’.
Such comments led to a flurry of further speculation and views. A good example came in November, 2013, when writer Scott Meslow penned an article making the case for the return of Blofeld (see the JBIFC’s news report of 15/12/2013).
Meslow argued that Blofeld remains 007’s most memorable adversary in both the books and the movies. But, argued Meslow, Blofeld’s return should not necessarily be as the bald, scarred, cat-stroking version seen in the early EON films, and so warmly lampooned in the Austin Powers movies. A brand new interpretation could be offered that would fit in with the ‘more grounded’ style of the Daniel Craig 007 movies.
As Meslow pointed out, the Blofeld of the books in particular ‘is a more evasive figure, and one that would translate far more neatly to the modern 007 movies. In each of Blofeld’s literary appearances, James Bond isn’t entirely sure that he’s targeted the right man; every time Blofeld evades justice, he undergoes extensive plastic surgery on his face, or loses or gains a significant amount of weight, and flees to a well-stocked hideout, which makes him all but impossible to track with any kind of certainty’. Meslow continued: ‘In many ways, Blofeld has become a more poignant villain than ever. In a modern political context that has shifted from enemy states to scattered, elusive enemies, the idea of a villain with the intelligence and resources to reinvent himself is a frightening one’. In Meslow’s view, therefore, Blofeld’s ‘chameleonic qualities make him a uniquely strong candidate for reinterpretation’.
Meslow’s comments certainly gave many Bond fans food for thought, especially when they contemplated possible plot scenarios for Bond 24. It would appear that John Logan may have been coincidentally thinking the same way, and so it came to pass: Logan arguably realised his big ambition with Craig’s fourth 007 adventure Spectre.
An interesting question now arises. If Logan returns to the series for Bond no.25, will he pick up and pursue the Blofeld storyline further? (Blofeld’s fate was left rather open-ended at the end of Spectre). At the time of the production of Spectre, there were reports that Logan had been contracted to pen the stories for both Bond 24 and 25, something that appreared to be confirmed by EON. Whether this remains the case is difficult to ascertain. In an interview with the film magazine Total Film recently, Logan hinted that he had no plans for the next Bond movie. On the other hand, he did not completely rule himself out. Time will tell.
Did You Know?
Some of Ian Fleming’s biographers have argued that the James Bond author ‘borrowed’ the name ‘Blofeld’ from Tom Blofeld, a Norfolk farmer who was chairman of the Country Gentleman’s Association and also a fellow club member of Boodle’s, the London club where Fleming often went to eat regularly. He had also been a contemporary of Fleming’s at Eton school.
Incidentally, Tom Blofeld’s son is the famous cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, something which the cricket-loving Sam Mendes is no doubt well aware of!