Made for television as an hour-long segment of the History Channel’s Modern Marvels series, James Bond Gadgets was recently released by A&E on Region 1 DVD to cash in on the home video debut of Casino Royale. But whatever the motivations for the release, this documentary should not be dismissed by spy fans as just another knock-off. It’s actually very well done: an informative program with lots of visual treats for Bond fans and technology enthusiasts alike.
The first segment covers flying machines, and focuses on two of my very favorite 007 gadgets, the Thunderball rocket belt and "Little Nellie" from You Only Live Twice. The producers have dug up some really good footage of early tests of the actual, working Bell rocket belt, and interview several aerospace engineers and test pilots who worked on its development. One of those pilots also doubled for Sean Connery and flew the device in the movie. All the b-roll here is really amazing, including shots of a test pilot soaring over trees and shots from the pilot’s point of view.
We then move on to Ken Wallis, an energetic octogenarian familiar to Bond fans as the inventor and pilot (also doubling for Connery) of Little Nellie, 007's heavily-armed autogyro. Wallis shows off a hanger full of nineteen of autogyros he’s built over the years, including the one from the movie (whose prop machine guns still "fire") and more practical models made for the military and police (including a sleek looking machine with a covered cockpit). Wallis is erudite and interesting, and gives a concise explanation of how autogyros work, comparing them to sycamore seeds. He estimates that his autogyro is one of the safest aircraft there is to fly, which came as a surprise to me. It doesn’t look safe, but it sure looks fun, and there’s plenty of film of Wallis flying his various models. This footage rekindled my childhood desire for a Little Nellie of my own! (For now, though, I’ll have to make do with my Corgis...)
The focus then shifts from aircraft to boats, and we visit renowned Bond collector Doug Redenius in Illinois. Redenius owns the Q-boat from The World Is Not Enough, which he proves actually works by taking it for a spin on the river! (He says it’s only the second time the tiny craft has been in the water since filming on the Thames.)
At his home, we briefly see a few other Bond boats, like the speedboat from Moonraker and mini-sub from For Your Eyes Only, and get a tantalizing glimpse at his vast collection of 007 memorabilia. Doug has my dream basement, filled floor-to-ceiling with pristine props and toys, many in their original packaging. I paused the DVD and zoomed in several times, identifying the many items and sighing more than once with jealousy. He shows off a few prop replicas, which segues nicely into interviews with the special effects men who created the originals. (We get the oft-told but always amusing story of how a government engineer called up a prop designer and inquired as to how Connery’s Thunderball rebreather actually worked, only to be humiliated when told it was movie magic!)
The program next turns to cars, and footage taken at a 2001 exhibition in England offers a look at many of Bond’s best, including Goldfinger’s Rolls, a submarine version of the Lotus from The Spy Who Loved Me, the Aston Martins from Goldfinger and The Living Daylights (a personal favorite), and some relics of 007's ill-advised flirtation with BMW. We’re treated to shots of the then-new Vanquish out for a road test, and a gorgeous red DB5 owned by a West Coast collector who sought the car out because of its indelible Bond connection. The ubiquitous Dave Worrall pops up briefly, and it’s a pity there isn’t more of him since he’s probably the expert on all of James Bond’s wheels.
James Bond Gadgets stumbles a little when it segues into "real life" gadgets near its conclusion, as such devices tend to pale in comparison with the ones dreamed up for the movies. The owner of the Counterspy Store in Beverly Hills shows off a briefcase he says is like the one in From Russia With Love, but it fails to live up to 007's version. All it really seems to offer is the ability to remotely shock anyone who’s stolen it! Neat, I guess, but where are the knives, the hidden gold coins, the stun gas? We also get a peek at a thermal imaging scope on a rifle at the Special Tactical Services training facility in Virginia (a school for body guards and private security), but this too fails to generate much excitement. I know from experience in television documentaries that cable networks often want a "real life" component to movie-based shows, and it can be difficult to work in. Maybe I wouldn’t have even noticed the drop in quality in this section if I didn’t empathize with the writers and segment producers desperately trying to shoehorn it in as best they could to please faraway bosses. Luckily, James Bond Gadgets is more successful than most programs of this nature at integrating this aspect, and the show rallies with a good recap.
Overall, James Bond Gadgets should prove highly satisfying viewing for Bond fans and particularly fans of Q’s inventions. The rare footage of the rocket belt in action and brief archival video of Redenius’s impressive collection alone make it a necessary purchase for completists, and the additional footage of Little Nellie and her sisters in action will certainly please viewers like me who play that chase in You Only Live Twice again and again, and can’t get enough of the tiny autogyro. The SRP of $24.99 seems a bit steep for a 42 minute (not 50, as the box indicates) documentary, but it’s well worth the lower prices at online retailers like DeepDiscount. For more casual spy fans, I definitely recommend at least a rental.
Modern Marvels: James Bond Gadgets is a well-crafted program that makes a solid companion piece to the excellent documentaries included in MGM’s 007 DVD sets. I hope it portends the release of other cable shows about Bond that always air around the time a new movie comes out; every channel from MTV to TLC has done one, and it would be nice to have a whole collection.