Timothy Dalton was never supposed to make just two Bond films, so what did we lose when he left the 007 role with one film still on his contract? We take a look.
Since EON Productions started making James Bond films in 1962, the longest ever gap between movies in the series was from 1989’s Licence To Kill to 1995’s GoldenEye. While this tumultuous six-year period of development ultimately saw Pierce Brosnan take over the mantle of 007, producers were initially committed to bringing back Timothy Dalton to fulfil his three-film contract.
Beyond the various legal problems and delays that dogged this lost 17th instalment, it was a tipping point for the franchise. Having enjoyed Bond’s globetrotting adventures since the 60s, audiences had seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union happen in real life. Without the Cold War context that had underpinned the espionage stories, the relevance of the Bond series was less certain than it had ever been.
Meanwhile, Dalton’s second outing had raised further questions about the franchise’s place in the cinematic landscape. Still the only Bond film ever to receive a 15 certificate in the UK, Licence To Kill is a violent, Yojimbo-inspired revenge flick that received a cooler-than-usual reception at the worldwide box office in the packed summer blockbuster season of 1989. Having taken the role on the understanding that the films were moving closer to Ian Fleming’s novels than the more entertainingly daft Roger Moore escapades had, Dalton’s philosophy for playing Bond was that you had to believe in the character in order to believe the ridiculous situations he gets into.
Examining various unproduced scripts and treatments, we can see how producers felt that his Bond was ready for some slightly more unbelievable situations. From “the one with the robot” to the script that heralded the Brosnan era, there were a number of plans for Dalton’s third mission that never came to fruition. Bond 17 Producer Albert R. Broccoli was said to be disconcerted by the response to Licence To Kill. While Dalton remained his first choice to play Bond, there was a parting of the ways with director John Glen and screenwriter Richard Maibaum, both of whom had worked on the franchise throughout the 80s.
On the lookout for new writers and directors to take 007 into a new decade, EON pressed on with the next instalment in early 1990. At that year’s Cannes Film Festival, it announced “the 17th James Bond movie” with a large teaser poster outside the Carlton Hotel.
Producer Michael G. Wilson and US TV writer Alfonse Ruggiero Jr were tasked with devising the story and they turned in an untitled treatment in May 1990. Their story approached the issue of the UK’s forthcoming handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong, while also taking in some ambitious techno-thriller elements, such as robotics. It would have played out thus. Following a devastating accident at a Scottish nuclear plant, Bond investigates Sir Henry Lee Ching, “a brilliant and handsome 30-year-old British-Chinese entrepreneur” who threatens to render every military computer on Earth useless as part of an elaborate revenge plot. While the robotics angle is largely restrained to malfunctioning machines at key industrial sites (think Tony Stark’s lab robot in Iron Man), the treatment is infamous for featuring Ching’s cyborg mistress Nan (think fembots from Austin Powers) in an incongruously batshit fight scene. It’s the one scene that tips the story from a modern techno-thriller, which might have felt of a set with Dalton’s previous two outings, to a daft sci-fi trifle.
All the same, this got quite far along in development. Twins screenwriters William Davies and William Osborne wrote a script based on Wilson and Ruggiero’s treatment, and Broccoli had a number of filmmakers, including John Landis and First Blood’s Ted Kotcheff, in mind to direct the film. What’s more, Disney’s Imagineering department was commissioned by EON to design concept art for the robots. Given the bar that James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day set in summer 1991, perhaps it’s for the best that this foray into special effects spectacle wouldn’t actually come to pass.
Filming was set to start in Hong Kong and China in 1990, but Broccoli’s attention was diverted from the development of Bond 17 by a legal dispute over the franchise’s international broadcast rights. Amid a flurry of lawsuits and countersuits between distributors MGM/United Artists and French company Pathé Communications, Broccoli officially handed the reins over to Wilson and his daughter Barbara, freeing him up to concentrate on legal matters.
Summer 1991 came and went while the issue wore on. In the midst of this, Broccoli even put Danjaq and the Bond rights up for sale, with legendary action producer Joel Silver said to be interested in buying the company and rebooting Bond with Mel Gibson in the lead role. In the end, the company wasn’t sold after all, but a new film was no closer to getting made. When it became clear that the next picture would be significantly delayed, Broccoli asked Dalton what he intended to do after the situation was resolved. At that point, Dalton said he couldn’t see himself continuing in the role, but as it turned out that wasn’t quite the end of it.
Dalton’s contract with Danjaq had more or less expired by the time the legal kerfuffle was all sorted at the end of 1992, and the new Bond film was officially re-announced in May 1993. Discarding Davies and Osborne’s script, EON hired Cliffhanger writer Michael France to create a new story. Dated January 1994, France’s completed draft brings the franchise up to date with a plot set in and around post-Soviet Russia, under the working title of GoldenEye. Before you get ahead of us, this original draft wasn’t the same as the film we got. Against the backdrop of Russian disarmament, the story sees our hero on the trail of Augustus Trevelyan, a former 00 agent who defected to Russia during the Cold War, betraying two of his fellow agents to their deaths in the process. Beyond settling this score with his former mentor, Bond has to prevent Trevelyan from controlling an experimental EMP satellite weapon created by the Soviets. France’s version stacks action sequences on top of action sequences on top of action sequences.
It’s an explosion every few pages. There’s so much action here that many of the unused bits written for this resurfaced in later Bond films, most notably the helicopter carrying a pendant full of buzzsaws in The World Is Not Enough.
The bones of the plot should be instantly recognisable to GoldenEye fans, but this script was definitely written with Dalton in mind. In response to press rumours that the studio was pressuring producers to replace their star, EON released a statement reaffirming that he was “the Bond of record”.
Who’s in the tuxedo?
Having had a change of heart while development was parked, Dalton was tentatively back on board to start shooting in early 1994. As he tells it, he was enthused by France’s script, which combined the best aspects of his first two films into what he thought would be his third and final outing. However, EON was already thinking ahead, aiming to get their biennial cycle of production back on track.
Having already missed its 1991 slot, it hired screenwriters John Cork and Richard Smith to write treatments for the 18th and 19th instalments, both featuring the incumbent Bond. Broccoli had the future of the franchise in mind and told his star that he would be expected to sign for the next three or four films, rather than just one more. Dalton agreed with his reasoning completely, but conceded that he wasn’t up for a further four-picture commitment. He duly announced his retirement from the role on 11th April 1994.
After Brosnan was cast later that year, France’s script was extensively rewritten by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein. Chief among the changes that followed was the omission of a major supporting role for John Rhys Davies’ character from The Living Daylights, Russian intelligence head General Pushkin, who would have led the Russian authorities’ bid to catch a rogue Bond.
Elsewhere, the appointment of Stella Rimington as head of MI5 in 1992 would eventually inspire the creation of Judi Dench’s M; the earlier script would have had Robert Brown reprise his role once again. Before Xenia’s surname was changed to Onatopp, her kink was manipulating pressure points (as we’d later see with Kill Bill’s Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique), rather than crushing men in between her thighs. Most importantly, the producers had originally considered Dalton’s friend and recent Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins to play Augustus Trevelyan, but later drafts renamed him as Alex and reconfigured him as more of a contemporary to Bond than a mentor.
Naturally, the film that kicked off the Brosnan era in 1995 is a different beast to the Dalton version as written. Blending franchise nostalgia with some modern touches, GoldenEye rode the wave of anticipation from fans and filmgoers who had waited a whole six years for the next adventure.
Into the future
Around the time of Licence To Kill’s release, Dalton said: “My feeling is this will be the last one. I don’t mean my last one, I mean the end of the whole lot. I don’t speak with any real authority, but it’s sort of a feeling I have.” Given the declining box office, the changing geopolitical context, and the brewing behind-the-scenes battles, you could forgive him for suggesting that an end was near for the long-running franchise.
And yet this unprecedented fallow period definitely informed what followed. Occupying a middle-ground between the Connery and Moore eras, Brosnan’s Bond films have various technothriller elements and other repurposed bits from both France’s draft and Wilson and Ruggiero’s treatment, while the Craig era picked up closer to where Dalton left off.
Although many of those involved wanted another Dalton-led Bond film, this extended break only turned out to be the end of his sadly abbreviated era. Even when the star bows out, James Bond will return.
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