By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 5, 2012 at 12:00PM
50 years ago today on October 5th, 1963, "Dr. No," a fairly low-budget, modest spy thriller starring a Scottish actor known for the Disney film "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," was released in the U.K. The film was an immediate success, taking £840,000 in its first two weeks, and ending up the fifth most successful film of the year in Britain. It continued to be a hit across the world, not least in the U.S., where it received the approval of John F. Kennedy and had seen the source novels by Ian Fleming become bestsellers. Ultimately, the film made nearly $60 million worldwide.
That was, as you're probably aware by now, only the beginning. Over the past half-century, the James Bond franchise has stretched to 23 official films (plus 1967's "Casino Royale" and "Never Say Never Again," two unofficial ones made possible by rights complexities), and taken $5 billion worldwide, making it second only to "Harry Potter" as the most successful film series of all time.
But it wasn't a simple task bringing Bond to the screen in the first place. With today being designated as Bond Day thanks to the 50th anniversary, and hotly-anticipated latest installment "Skyfall" only a few weeks away, we thought we'd mark the occasion by taking you through 007's journey from the germ of an idea in the mind of author (and former spy) Ian Fleming, through aborted early attempts to make a Bond movie, to the arrival of "Dr. No" fifty years ago today.
Bond's creator might be slightly less famous than 007, but his life before turning to spy novels was colorful enough that Duncan Jones, director of "Moon" and "Source Code," is currently prepping a biopic of Fleming, and there's more than enough material for a rollicking adventure to sit alongside any Bond movies. Fleming was born the scion of a wealthy banking family on May 28,1908. Within two years, his father, Valentine, would be elected Member of Parliament for Henley, but joined the Army at the start of World War I and was killed on the Western Front on May 20, 1917 (his obituary in The Times was written by none other than Winston Churchill).
At this point, Fleming had already been sent to a boarding prep school on an island off the Dorset coast and in 1921 he (like Bond) went on to the prestigious Eton College school. Bond, according to the novels, was expelled after "girl trouble" at the age of 13, while Fleming just about managed to see the school out, although he clashed with his headmaster due to his girl-chasing and owning a car. Fleming left Eton a term early to head to Sandhurst's Royal Military College (which trains officers for the British army), but left after a year when he contracted gonorrhea (a bullet that 007 has somehow dodged so far).
He studied at universities in Munich and Geneva in the late 1920s and early 1930s, briefly becoming engaged to a Swiss woman named Monique Panchaud de Bottomes in 1931 (breaking it off when his mother, who by now was the mistress of artist Augustus John, disapproved). Returning to the U.K., Fleming failed the entrance exam to the foreign office, but eventually got a job as a journalist for news agency Reuters, being sent to Moscow on assignment in 1933. Later that year, however, he moved into the family trade, starting up an unsuccessful career in banking.
When the Second World War got underway in 1939, Fleming (who'd recently begun an affair with Ann Charteris, the wife of Baron O'Neill) was recruited by Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence (the forerunner of MI6), and given the codename 17F. Fleming impressed quickly (he was promoted to Commander -- later 007's rank -- after only a few months), and as the war got underway, he became increasingly important in planning operations, thanks to the so-called Trout Memo, in which Fleming suggested a number of schemes where German ships could be lured to minefields. One of his most prized plans was Operation Ruthless, in which a captured German bomber crewed by a British crew in German uniform would be deliberately crashed into the English Channel, in order to steal an Enigma machine. The operation was planned, but called off when a suitable German ship couldn't be found.
Far more successful, and more famous, was Operation Mincemeat. Deriving from one of Fleming's suggestions in the Trout Memo and inspired by a detective novel by former intelligence officer Basil Thompson, the plan (conceived by Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley) was to divert attention from the Allied invasion of Sicily by planting false documents on a dead body suggesting that Corsica, Sardinia and Greece were the actual targets. The plan worked (a Welsh man, Glyndwr Michael, who had died from rat poison, was used as the bait), and later became the subject of the book and film "The Man Who Never Was."
By this point, Fleming wasn't directly involved in the operation -- he'd been put in charge of Operation Golden Eye, a scheme to shore up intelligence in Spain in case of German invasion (and which Fleming would later borrow the title of for his home in Jamaica, which would itself inspire the 17th Bond film, "GoldenEye"). Perhaps more crucially, he'd also founded in 1942 a commando group called 30 Assault Unit, whose job was to join the front line of an attack and secure key intelligence documents from enemy hands. The group was a huge success, inspiring another similar one called T-Force, although Fleming was unpopular with his men, who he referred to as "Red Indians," and was replaced as the head of the group in June 1944 as the D-Day landings got underway. His time with the group has already inspired one film, the rather dismal "Age of Heroes" last year starring Sean Bean, Danny Dyer and James D'Arcy as Fleming.