The Worlds of Bond’s Body
In Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), James Bond (Daniel Craig) tracks a terrorist, Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) to downtown Miami. The villain enters a Body Worlds exhibition, which he is using as the drop location for a satchel containing a bomb. Why would Dimitrios choose the controversial display of preserved cadavers as a place for this exchange? More importantly, why would the filmmakers choose such a thematically fertile location, one that threatens to distract from telling the story of the early career of James Bond? I can’t figure out Dimitrios, but I know what director Martin Campbell is up to: the bodies surrounding Bond *are* the story. Of the two-dozen Bond films, Casino Royale is the one most obsessed with Bond’s body, and how it inflicts death on those around him.
Body Worlds is the creation of German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, a showman who, in the late 1970s, developed a process called plastination, which preserves dead bodies, allowing them to be skinned and displayed as museum objects. A Body Worlds exhibit features many of these cadavers, engaged in common human activities, from firing an arrow to having sex. The bodies on display allow for the close study of human anatomy without needing to enroll in a gross anatomy course.
Von Hagens has made a career out of turning death into a public show. Even after generating great controversy over the dubious means through which he secured the cadavers, Von Hagens continued to push the boundaries between showmanship and the violation of the dead, performing a public autopsy for the first time in over a century. In behaving in this way, Von Hagens claims to be popularizing science, educating the public about the inner workings of the body.
The Body Worlds scene in Casino Royale is a fascinating piece of filmmaking, using the basic design of a Classical Hollywood suspense movie in order to interrogate the meaning of the male body in the cinema. The scene replicates the second act of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). In the earlier film, Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) has to steal a key from the chain of her Nazi husband, Alex (Claude Rains) so that an American CIA agent, Devlin (Cary Grant) can expose him as a plutonium dealer. Then, at a crowded party, Alicia has to transfer the key to Devlin under the watchful eye of Alex, who spies on them from across the ballroom.
From across the Body Worlds exhibit hall in Casino Royale, Bond watches Dimitrios hide a claim check atop a pile of chips on a table in the display entitled, “Poker Playing Trio.” However, while Bond is distracted killing Dimitrios, he misses a fellow terrorist taking both the claim check and the bag with the bomb in it, much as Alex misses Alicia both stealing the key and transferring it to Devlin. Casino Royale features a two-shot perpendicular to the camera axis of Bond and Dimitrios holding hands as they struggle for control of the knife, the camera positions and cutting patterns matching Alex grabbing Alicia’s hand with the hidden key in it in Notorious.
For over forty years, academic film scholars obsessed over the display of the female body. Notorious catches Alicia’s body in the crossfire between the gazes of Alex and Devlin, both deeply in love with her. An even lengthier tradition of over fifty years of Bond movies similarly foregrounds the bodies of the so-called “Bond girls,” a sexist tradition Casino Royale in general, and the Body Worlds scene in particular, attempts to circumvent. Elsewhere in the film, Bond climbs out of the ocean, his muscular body dripping in a traditional beefcake shot. The moment quotes two previous Bond films in which sexy women emerge out of the ocean wearing bikinis, Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder in Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962) and Halle Berre’s Jinx Johnson in Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002).
The Body Worlds scene allegorizes the connection between masculinity and death, revealing the close affinity between Bond and Von Hagens, both men reveling in the creation of corpses, causing us to wonder which of the two is more sociopathic. The fifty shot sequence in Casino Royale begins with Bond following Dimitrios through downtown Miami in a cab, which drops him off in front of two giant banners which cover a building, announcing “Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.” Inside, Dimitrios gives the coat check attendant the bag containing the bomb, in front of a poster containing a signature and photograph of Von Hagens, personally welcoming the patrons to the show.
As Dmitrios walks into the main hall, a female announcer on the PA system relates, “Dr. Von Hagens invites attendees to observe the body’s various locomotive and digestive systems.” After a couple of medium shots establishing Bond following Dimitrios, a high angle establishing shot of the exhibit frames two corpses riding a horse as well as one balletic cadaver holding another up in the air, with back arched. As the camera tracks forward toward the patrons, there is a cut to a reverse camera movement, a track backwards from the actual Gunther Von Hagens looking at a group of skeletons playing poker. As Von Hagens leaves the frame to the left, Dimitrios stands in the center of the image, framed by the poker players in the foreground. A ninety-degree cut places Bond in the foreground of the image, with Dimitrios and the poker players in the background of the new shot. Hiding behind a standing cadaver, Bond witnesses Dimitrios place the claim check onto one of the stacks of chips on the poker table.
As Bond contemplates what the bag associated with the claim check contains, Dimitrios sneaks up behind him and presses a knife into his back. Wordlessly, Dimitrios attempts to push Bond out of the exhibit hall. However, Bond turns and wrestles Dimitrios for the knife. In a speechless battle of strength and will, the two adversaries push the knife at each other’s abdomens. By nodding up and to the right, Bond tricks Dimitrios; while the villain is distracted, Bond thrusts the knife into his adversary, killing him, performing with his scalpel a seemingly different kind of surgery than Von Hagens. At this precise moment, we hear on the soundtrack the voice of Von Hagens himself, giving a VIP tour to a number of journalists with cameras.
Casino Royale thus mirrors its own presence in the exhibit documenting the actions of James Bond with the journalists recording images of Von Hagens. A cut to an even higher angle long shot, of Von Hagens with the press further cements the connection. He tells his listeners, “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe this is something really special to see…” But while Von Hagens highlights his handiwork, Bond hides his; he deposits Dimitrios’ seated corpse amidst the plastinated cadavers, creating his own exhibit, a portrait of a failed terrorist. Von Hagens disappears from the film altogether, while Bond runs outside of the exhibit hall, and begins following Dimitrios’ associate to the airport where he will thwart the man’s plot.
Reflecting upon his appearance in Casino Royale, the capitalist opportunist Von Hagens in 2006 stated the importance James Bond had on him as a child: “[Bond] stood for the power of the individual against communism and was anti-authoritarian and unconventional… He was always on duty, lived only for his mission, and used all his abilities to realize his mission.” Much the same can be said for Von Hagens in his mad quest to turn the medical cadavers of gross anatomy classes into popular museum exhibitions. And Von Hagens is just as successful as Bond. To date, Body Worlds has registered over 40 million visitors, self-reported on their website as, “the most successful traveling exhibition of all time.” For his part, Bond is the ringleader of the most successful film series of all time: His most successful film, Skyfall earned $304M. With an average ticket price of around $8, that means 38 million people saw the film in a movie theater. That is to say, only slightly fewer people as have attended Body Worlds go to each of the James Bond movies upon their release. The show business success of Body Worlds is well protected by the entertainment industry: A bill passed by the California legislature in 2008 would have required direct proof of consent from the individuals or their heirs for the displays in Body Worlds. However, another Hollywood hard body, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.
There is a connection between Body Worlds and the sort of traditional masculinity trumpeted by James Bond movies. George Annas, a professor of bioethics at the Boston University School of Medicine sees Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964) as a direct precursor to Body Worlds: ‘[A] woman… is killed by being spray painted with gold over her entire body—objectivized in a way suggestive of plastination.”
Von Hagens dreams of building a “Museum of Man,” an archaic concept linked to nineteenth century European colonialism: The Musee de l’Homme in Paris displayed the remains Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus for the better part of the twentieth century. Casino Royale could be its featured exhibit, in the wing devoted to triumphal masculinity. The film climaxes many times, but the most memorable is when Le Chiffre strips Bond naked and ties him to a chair with the bottom removed. Using some demonic combination of a medieval mace and an S & M whip, the villain repeatedly whacks Bond’s genitals. In turn, the villain from the next Bond film, Quantum of Solace’s Mr. White kills Le Chiffre, just as the madman is about to castrate Bond.
However, Mr. White is no Good Samaritan; he has merely saved Bond so that he can humiliate him once again. In the film’s endgame, Bond learns that his beloved, Vesper Lynd, an agent for the British Treasury has stolen his casino winnings to fund the terrorists. In a collapsing building in Venice, Bond watches the now repentant Lynd, who it turns out was trying to save Bond’s life by buying off the terrorists, drown herself in the submerged, sinking elevator. In a debriefing, Bond’s boss M tells him she’s glad he’s learned his lesson with Lynd, encouraging the hero to not care about others so that he can do his job, be a machine which doles out death. As the film’s hyper-violent opening sequence, in which Bond earns his 007 license to kill by smashing a thug’s head into a bathroom sink, and shooting a traitorous British agent in the head, attests, Bond’s body is only good for one thing, the production of corpses. Having upped the stakes even of Von Hagens, Body’s body is the only world, one of inhuman cynicism and death.
Annas, George J. “Lifelike Humans: Playing Poker with James Bond and Ted Williams.” in John D. Lantos (Ed.) Controversial Bodies. 25-35.
Lantos, John D. Controversial Bodies: Thoughts on the Public Display of Plastinated Corpses. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2011.