From Russia With Love’s 50th Part I: the difficult sequel

From Russia With Love's poster

From Russia With Love’s poster

Nothing about From Russia With Love was easy. From scripting all the way through filming, the second James Bond film was difficult and at times an ordeal.

At last three writers (Richard Maibaum, Johnna Harwood and an uncredited Len Deighton) took turns trying to adapt the Ian Fleming novel, with major rewrites during shooting. One cast member (Pedro Armendariz) committed suicide shortly after completing his work on the movie because he was dying of cancer. Director Terence Young was nearly killed in a helicopter accident (CLICK HERE for an MI6 007 fan page account of that and other incidents).

For many 007 fans, the movie, which premiered Oct. 10, 1963, is the best film in the Eon Productions series. It’s one of the closest adaptations of a Fleming novel, despite the major change of adding Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE into the proceedings. It also proved the success of Dr. No the previous year was no accident.

Fleming’s novel was one of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 10 favorite books, a list published in 1961 in Life magazine. From Russia, With Love (with the comma and published in 1957) was one of the author’s most important books.

Fleming’s friend, author Raymond Chandler, had chided 007’s creator for letting the quality of his Bond novels slip after 1953’s Casino Royale. “I think you will have to make up your mind what kind of writer you are going to be,” Chandler wrote to Fleming in an April 1956 letter. Fleming decided to step up his game with his fifth 007 novel.

Years later, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, with an endorsement of the source material from Kennedy, proceeded with adapting the book. Dr. No veterans Young, editor Peter Hunt, director of photography Ted Moore and scribes Maibaum and Harwood all reported for duty on the new 007 project.

The major Dr. No contributor absent was production designer Ken Adam, designing the war room set and other interiors for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. John Stears, meanwhile, took over on special effects.

Armendariz, as Kerim Bey, the head of MI6’s station in Turkey and Bond’s primary ally, had a big impact. He lit up every scene he was in and had great on-screen chemistry with star Sean Connery. When Kerim Bey is killed, as part of the complicated SPECTRE plot, it resonates with the audience. The “sacrificial lamb” is part of the Bond formula, but Armendariz was one of the best, if not the best, sacrificial lamb in the 007 film series.

The gravely ill actor needed assistance to complete his scenes. In long shots in the gypsy camp sequence, you needn’t look closely to tell somebody else is playing Kerim Bey walking with Connery’s 007. (It was director Young, according to Armendariz’s WIKIPEDIA ENTRY.)

Young & Co. retained the novel’s memorable set pieces (the fight between two gypsy women, the subsequent battle between Bulgarians and gypsies and the Orient Express train fight between Bond and Red Grant). The production also added a few twists, including two outdoor sequences after getting Bond off the train earlier than in the novel. The question was how would audiences respond.

The answer was approvingly. “I see that ‘From Russia With Love’ is now a movie and although I rarely see them I plan to take this one in,” former CIA Director Allen Dulles wrote to Fleming in 1964.

He wasn’t alone. The film, with a budget of $2 million, generated $78.9 million in worldwide box office, almost one-third more than its predecessor.

NEXT: John Barry establishes the 007 music template

1997 HMSS article: A VISIT WITH IAN FLEMING

November 2012 post: LEN DEIGHTON ON FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

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3 Responses

  1. It’s interesting to note that E.A game adaptation of the movie in 2005 – despite having Sean Connery back in the 007 part – failed miserably in terms of story .
    The reason : the E.A screenwriters tried to include new characters to the plot ( two new Bond Girls , one good and one evil ) , and new twists as well ( adding a car chase with the DB5 or a Boss-like fight with Red Grant in the SPECTRE / Octopus HQ at the end ) …

  2. Difficult second movies happen with pretty much every Bond:
    * TMTWGG had to shift location and did badly at the box office
    * LTK was hit by a writer’s strike and filmed in very hot conditions
    * TND entered production without a final script
    * QoS was also hit by a writer’s strike.

  3. If you want to suggest an FRWL jinx, I believe that it was the last film seen by JFK at the White House, in November, 1963.

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