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 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.