October 19, 2012

Canadian influence on the Bond movies


---- — Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Sherbrooke, Quebec, might not be the most exotic or exciting locales on the planet, but without the contributions of a pair of native sons, the globe-trotting, thrill-a-minute James Bond movie franchise might not exist.

With this month’s 50th anniversary of the release of “Dr. No” and the impending release of the 23rd Bond film, “Skyfall,” there’s a lot of attention focused on the inspiration of the enduring and evolving spy series. A body of evidence, including some newly uncovered documents, suggests two Canadians had an important influence on Ian Fleming, the man who wrote the Bond books.

Sir William Stephenson, known variously as “the quiet Canadian” or by the code name Intrepid, was arguably the single most important espionage figure in the Second World War, the man who helped create the CIA, and almost certainly Ian Fleming’s role model — minus the dashing womanizer aspect — for super spy Bond.

The young Stephenson rose from a delivery boy in working class Winnipeg to a flying ace in the First World War, to a rich inventor and businessman in England, where, through connections he made in British society, especially with Winston Churchill, became involved in the war effort.

As head of a bogus British passport office, the agent called “little Bill” for his short stature began setting up espionage operations that often involved the nifty gadgetry that is an essential part of every Bond movie. He established an ultra-secret spy training facility near Toronto, known as Camp X, and Ian Fleming was one of the trainees there.

Fleming and Stephenson would cross paths occasionally, once famously in New York City, as described by Winnipeg publisher Peter St. John, an expert on Bill Stephenson: “There Stephenson was, in a Manhattan skyscraper surrounded by wild electronic surveillance gadgetry, secret files and scores of beautiful women agents, a man equally at home with heads of state and paid assassins. The more Fleming learned about him, the more impressed he became.”

The other Canadian connection to Fleming/Bond is more mysterious. According to family lore, Harry Saltzman, born and raised in Sherbrooke, ran away from home at 15, literally joined a circus and eventually found his way into theater and films in Paris and London. In 1961, as a hit-and-miss producer in London, he somehow managed to convince Ian Fleming to grant him the rights to Bond for a tight window of six months.

Recently a gap in Saltzman’s biography came to light when his daughter Hilary, needing to update her Canadian citizenship, applied for documents from the U.S. State Department regarding her father’s war service.

According to David Camp’s article for the October Vanity Fair, “Hilary’s seemingly benign request to pull her father’s citizenship documents set off alarms at the State Department. The reason? Harry Saltzman, shortly after taking the Oath of Allegiance in 1939, became a high-ranking U.S. intelligence officer, his wartime activities classified. Even when Hilary finally managed to procure the papers she needed — after a protracted bureaucratic process that entailed getting a sign-off from the department’s then top man, Colin Powell — the documents she received remained heavily redacted.”

From this startling discovery, Hilary Saltzman and others speculate that Ian Fleming and Harry Saltzman may well have met during the war — possibly in North Africa — and remembered each other when Saltzman came seeking the movie rights for Fleming’s Bond novels.

At the very least, it is reasonable to assume Saltzman would have played his spy card in winning Fleming’s trust to give him the rights. In the Vanity Fair article, Hilary, who now lives near Quebec City says: “I really strongly believe that he and my father shared some similar experiences. Even though they couldn’t publicize it, I really think Ian felt that this series was safe in my father’s hands.”

Safe indeed. Although Harry Saltzman sold his half of the Bond franchise in 1975 (after the ninth film) to his producing partner Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, his heirs remain part of the extended Bond family as it prepares to release the latest in a potentially unlimited movie franchise.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at