In 1952, writer Ian Fleming started concocting the tale of a sleuth surveying the Jamaican plains. Spotting a book entitled Birds of the West Indies, Fleming opted to name his character after the ornithologist in question. James Bond, an American, was blissfully unaware of the connection until the 1960s when Dr.No launched a cinematic franchise. Fleming’s decision to call his spy after the ornithologist was because of its ordinary nature. Well, that’s ironic, because for Bond, and the other men in this documentary – also called James Bond – their birthname has become something of an albatross (yes, that was a bird joke.)
Director Matthew Bauer peers at some of the men who share a name with the spy, discovering the challenges each of them has to overcome. We meet James Bond Jr, a prisoner awaiting trial for murder; James Alexander Bond, a New York-based theatre director; and Gunnar James Bond Schäfer, a legitimate fan of the series. In a side venture, character actor Gregory Itzin stars as the ornithologist, whose name was irrevocably changed because of one man’s writings. Every one of these James Bond’s had to grapple with a fictional counterpart. It’s a strange predicament – I mean, have you ever met a Sherlock Holmes, or a Hercule Poirot?
The basis for the documentary is brilliant – so brilliant, you wonder why it took 70 years to realise it! But coming on the heels of the overlong and overstuffed No Time To Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2021), The Other Fellow is a breezily-produced feature that’s rippling with knowing winks and directorial interpolations, making it the most engaging “James Bond” movie since SkyFall (Sam Mendes, 2012). From the very first scene, it’s clear that the film is a labour of love for the producers: they make ample effort to hop from country to country. and allegedly spent ten years – from the premiere of SkyFall to the release of No Time To Die – piercing the work together. It’s not hard to fill in a likely backstory for the men who gave interviews: schoolyard jeering, senseless mocking at banks, and acceptance/reclamation of the name after a viewing of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter R. Hunt, 1969). The documentary takes its title from a scene in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, considered by many, including this writer, as the apogee of the EON franchise.
Out of all the interviewees, I was probably most moved by the Swedish man who adopted the name James Bond for himself. It was, he says, an effort to pay tribute to his father, a man rumoured to be a secret agent, lost in the orbit. In the name Bond, James Bond, he found a person to fashion a new identity on. Life imitating art, or art imitating life? Either way, it’s a touching story.
The Other Fellow is on most VoD platforms on Wednesday, May 24th.