For my generation, the Cold War was lost on us; we came of age right as the New World Order was setting itself in place. Even for those of us born in the early 80’s, the Cold War mostly passed us by. However, for several generations, they lived with the knowledge that the next day might not come, even if such problems seemed far, far away.
It was in the midst of the early days of the Cold War that Ian Fleming invented the character of James Bond, originally deployed in Casino Royale, and Bond originally battled the Soviet Union, and SMERSH in particular, an organization that was the equal of MI6, and devoted to killing all foreign spies, and making it easier for the Soviets to eventually conquer the world. In later novels, after the growing detente between East and West, he replaced SMERSH with SPECTRE, an international terrorist organization bent on money and, because they’re Bond heavies, eventual world domination.
The first Bond film, Dr. No, was produced two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and released one year before it, thus initially setting Bond in a world at crisis, with thick international tension. However, the producers decided to ignore SMERSH, and use SPECTRE from the beginning, reckoning that the Cold War could warm up, in which case, you wouldn’t want the bad guys to be Russian.
So, they took the villains from Fleming’s later Bond novels, SPECTRE (Special Executive on Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), a worldwide terrorist syndicate, and replaced SMERSH, a suborganization of the KGB that were the main villains in the early Bond novels, with them. This allowed them to do things not previously thought, such as having East and West work together to defeat the bad guys. It also opened the door for down the road, long after SPECTRE had suffered its last defeat, for them to come together without lingering problems.
As a result, a surprisingly few of the Bond films actually qualify as Cold War thrillers, although to be fair, few Bond films would be characterized as thrillers anyway. Even though some Bond films, such as You Only Live Twice, use the Cold War as a backdrop, more of them involve Bond going against a supervillain, SPECTRE or some other terrorist ring, with few of them really using the Cold War.
The first true Cold War thriller in the Bond films was For Your Eyes Only, in which a valuable piece of technology, which can give orders for British nuclear weapons to be fired, is sunk, and Bond, with allies in tow, goes up against the Soviet Union’s allies to retrieve it first. Despite its relatively small scale, in terms of sets and scope compared to the previous two entries, For Your Eyes Only is a gripping thriller, and the first Bond to truly embrace the origins of the character and the novels. The follow up, Octupussy, also plays off of Cold War fears, although in a surprise twist, it is actually a Soviet intelligence agent who provides Bond and the West with assistance in bringing down the plot’s grand architect.
Timothy Dalton’s first entry, The Living Daylights, is again a taut, close to the vest, Cold War thriller, in which the real heavies try to play East against West using the Cold War as a backdrop. The ultimate sign of detente, though, is that the KGB and MI6 join forces to bring them down, and the heroine is provided the means of traveling around the world, including in and out of the Soviet Union, reflecting the growing openness of the East.
However, the Cold War ended. Goldeneye was brilliantly set in a post-Cold War environment, in which former Soviet weapons were still out there, ex-KGB agents were now black market privateers and gangsters, and even some older agents seem to think the old ways are a bit too rigid. The New World Order had not fully set in, and the rest of the world is dealing with the shift, as well as the organizations and syndicates taking advantage of the situation. The Janus Syndicate, whose size and scale echo the SPECTRE organization, was a one-time antagonist, but still worked, even if the heavy’s motivation does seem a bit petty.
After that, though, there is a massive shift from the Cold War to terrorism, as seen in The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day, where the villains are all actively engaging in, if not terror plots, plots that involve terrorizing the populace for another purpose. In The World is Not Enough, MI6 is implied, along with the rest of the Western intelligence world, be actively hunting down terrorists worldwide, which draws the ire of the bad guy Renard. In Die Another Day, the story begins with Bond and a band of British agents trying to disrupt a North Korean terrorist plot.
The rebooted series introduces us to the super-organization Quantum, whose goals are money and power, which includes infiltrating high levels of government. They appear to be similar to SPECTRE in that they are ruthless in their pursuit of their goals, but are much more adaptable, as they handle their business in broad daylight and public places. MI6 and Quantum are primed to do battle in a few films time, since like SPECTRE, once they meet, that is inevitable.
The shift from the Cold War to the War on Terror not only kept the franchise in line with the political landscape, it also gave a more refreshing turn of events. The goal of making Bond films topical is something they seemed more keen on in recent years; Licence to Kill dealt with a Noriega in Panama type situation; Tomorrow Never Dies was originally intended to depict a madman trying to prevent the turnover of Hong Kong in 1997; more recently, Casino Royale (as did the novel to be fair) looked at how terrorist groups are financed.
Putting Bond into the anti-terror mode also allowed the films to show a darker, more edgier side of Bond, first with Pierce Brosnon and later Daniel Craig. Bond writers could usually count on the possible plot thread of a bad guy becoming a good guy, which in a Cold War climate was quite feasible; terrorists not so much. Bond would know that, and we see it much more so in the Brosnon films, especially in scenes where he goes out of his way to ensure the villain gets a rough and painful death.
However, the main point of all this is that Bond survived the end of the Cold War, and has shown the franchise can survive the changing times. I think that is what makes the franchise so iconic; Goldeneye was the first Bond film I ever saw, and it imbued Bond to a new generation, whilst transitioning it to a new era.