Michael France, an appreciation

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The James Bond film franchise wasn’t in a good place in 1994.

There had been no 007 film in five years. Eon Productions co-founder Albert R. Broccoli had been in a legal fight with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Broccoli had put Eon up for sale before taking it off the market. The producer wasn’t in great health. He had decided that 007 veterans John Glen and Richard Maibaum would not continue laboring on Bond.

In short, everything was up for grabs.

Broccoli yielded primarily responsibility for overseeing Bond 17 to his stepson, Michael G. Wilson, and his daughter, Barbara Broccoli. But if the cinematic Bond was going to make a comeback, somebody had to step up.

That somebody was screenwriter Michael France, who died last week at the age of 51.

“I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was watching Goldfinger,” France was quoted by Steven Jay Rubin in his The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia’s updated 1995 edition. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be Richard Maibaum, not Bond.” According to Rubin’s account, he was given the chance to come up with a script in March 1993.

“We had meetings twice a week for several months with Michael, Barbara, Cubby and Dana,” France told Rubin, referring to Wilson, Barbara Broccoli as well as Albert R. Broccoli and his wife Dana. “We also wanted a villain on the level of Goldfinger — with an elaborate, unsinkable plot. At the same time, we also want him to be credible as a threat — that all of the story elements were based in reality, that these things could happen.”

In 1994, France delivered a first-draft script. It took a real-life event, a 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, and went from there. There was no way to know it at the time but France’s script was prescient because on Sept. 11, 2001, the towers were brought down by a terrorist attack.

France’s script wasn’t the last word. Other writers revised his draft. France only got a “story by” credit while Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein got the “screenplay by” credit. Only Feirstein was invited by Wilson and Barbara Broccoli back for the next Bond film. Feirstein’s FIRST DRAFT also got revised, much the way France’s GoldenEye initial draft was. Still, Feirstein got the sole screenwriting credit for Tomorrow Never Dies. That’s show business.

The fact remains that the cinematic Bond was dead in the water until Michael France delivered his script. By that time, Richard Maibuam, the dean of 007 scriptwriters, was dead. Cubby Broccoli was in failing health. And the future of the cinematic Bond was far from assured. The work was far from complete. But Michael France gave everybody a starting point. For that alone, his contributions to the film franchise are huge.

1994: a 007’s screenwriter’s prescient plot

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Screenwriter Michael France was hired to script the 17th James Bond film, GoldenEye. His January 1994 FIRST DRAFT, would be worked over by other writers. But that original draft’s climatic sequence contained an idea that would, unfortunately, occur on Sept. 11, 2001: targeting the World Trade Center for an attack.

In France’s draft, the villain is Augustus Trevelyan, former head of MI6 who defected to the Soviet Union years ago. Bond has a personal reason for hating Trevelyan. In a flashback scene well into the script, Bond and two other 00-agents, believing Trevelyan to be captured, are on a mission to silence their chief. Bond passes up a chance to shoot Trevelyan and kills his guards instead. This turns out to be a trap and the other 00-agents are killed.

Trevelyan, described as being in his 60s, is retired from the KGB but has ambitious ideas hot to spend his golden years. As in the finished film, the McGuffin is a set of satellites that can be set off to create an electro-magnet pulse over a target. The project is called Tempest, rather than GoldenEye. On page 138 of the 157-page script, Trevelyan’s plot is revealed.

“Credit is due, James — I’ve broken into the finance computer for the wire theft,” Trevelyan says. “The clearing house computer for overseas wire trasactions in the World Trade Center.” He then “modestly” adds: “I had one of my men in place as new security protocols were created after the unfortunate bombing there.”

That last line apparently refers to the February 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center that was intended to destroy the office complex. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 did bring down the towers, costing thousands of lives.

In the France script, Trevelyan intends to steal $600 billion or so, then use the Tempest to destroy all evidence of the crime and the computer itself.

“A matter of accounting,” Trevelyan tells Bond. “Six hundred billion dollars balanced against one million lives? Merely dust on the globe.”

That basic plot device was retained in the final film, but with many changes. The target ends up being London. Trevelyan’s first name was changed to Alec, he became much younger and his background was altered to be the former 006. In that version, credited by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein, Trevelyan’s motivation is his parents were Russians who had helped the British in World War II but who were given up to the Soviets after the war.

Besides the eerie World Trade Center reference, there are other things of note in the France first draft. The writer actually uses two Ian Fleming characters that haven’t been seen in the 007 films: Loelia Ponsonby, Bond’s secretary, and Sir James Molony, here described as “consulting neurologist to the secret service.” France also brought back the character of KGB chief Pushkin from 1987’s The Living Daylights, a character created by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson.

France ultimately only got a “story by” credit for GoldenEye but many of his ideas, while altered, were incorporated in the movie. His female assassin was named Xenia Labyakova, rather than Onatopp. It’s also clear the writer has seen a lot of James Bond movies. France also wrote a scene where Trevelyan conducts a meeting of his associates, much like Blofeld’s meeting with SPECTRE operatives in Thunderball. Bruce Feirstein, one of the last writers to work on GoldenEye, did the same thing in his first draft for the next 007 film, Tomorrow Never Dies.