The action film has been part of the cinematic landscape from the medium’s inception, yet action was not a genre unto itself right away, with fights and set pieces folded into other genres like the Western, the war film, the historical epic, and so on. The most unadulterated dose of action in the ‘30s and ‘40s could be found in the serialized features that were broken up into short episodes, meaning that certain installments were pure action. Those serials from Republic Pictures and the like were the primary influence on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ 1981 action adventure milestone Raiders of the Lost Ark, as evident by the film itself and it’s “cliffhanger”-style action sequences. Yet they were not the only influence—Spielberg and Lucas were just as inspired by the James Bond films produced by Eon Productions, with that franchise revamping the action film and giving it a bigger, broader canvas along with a new heroic archetype. Coincidentally, the Bond franchise was still going when Raiders was made, and its then-latest entry, For Your Eyes Only, was even released the same month as Spielberg’s film. The Bond films had been around long enough to have not only influenced a new action franchise, but seek to evolve its tonal and political approach, making 1981 a watershed year for the Bond movies and their legacy.
The Bond films had varied in approach before, most obviously as the actor playing the character changed: when George Lazenby took over the role from Sean Connery in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Bond became more introspective and somber as well as playful, while Connery’s brief return to the role in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) saw him playing a more relaxed Bond than in his prior films. It was when a new actor, Roger Moore, took over the Bond tenure with 1973’s Live and Let Die that the character fully changed, as Moore’s cheeky humor and laid-back persona moved the series away from prior Bonds. While that film and its follow-up, The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) awkwardly tried to fit Moore’s Bond into a hard-boiled Connery mold, the series fully embraced its new star’s personality with The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), a big, brash, cartoonish adventure movie that featured outrageous gadgets and parodic humor. 1979’s Moonraker went even further, literally, taking Bond into outer space while raising the humor quotient considerably. After the poor feedback from that film, Eon decided that another change of pace was needed.
Part of what makes For Your Eyes Only so different from the prior Moore Bonds is that it was originally developed as a vehicle for a new actor to take over the role. After negotiations broke down with potential actors (including soon-to-be-future Bond Timothy Dalton), Moore signed on to play the role once again, and the film’s relatively more serious approach showed the range of the character as well as Moore himself. Granted, some traits of the preceding Moore entries remained: a handful of cheesy double entendres, a relentlessly upbeat score by Bill Conti, and an infamously eye-rolling coda scene that features a parrot flirting with Margaret Thatcher (Janet Brown), among others. Yet this Bond was markedly different from Moore’s usual devil-may-care superspy: he’s more tender, reminiscing about Bond’s long-deceased wife and attempting to dissuade the furious Melina (Carole Bouquet) from seeking revenge on her family’s killers. He’s more cognizant of his age, as he makes a point of turning down the amorous advances of the much younger Bibi (Lynn-Holly Johnson). Most of all, he’s much colder, which brings the character more in line with Bond author Ian Fleming’s original conception of the man. This is best witnessed in a scene where Bond intentionally kicks a car with an assassin in it to help it fall completely off a cliff, the act remarkably brutal for a character (and actor) who just one film before was trading friendly barbs with the mercenary killer Jaws (Richard Kiel).
The biggest legacy For Your Eyes Only leaves for the Bond films is its pivot from a Cold War-era good vs. evil narrative to one advocating for detente. The series’ Soviet characters had already been softened from their portrayal during the Connery era, with The Spy Who Loved Me turning them into reluctant allies rather than brutal villains. For Your Eyes Only goes one further, as its plot sees Bond and the Russians pursuing a device that controls the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet and its ballistic missiles—for all intents and purposes, they’re after England’s nuclear codes. While director John Glen stages some spectacularly vibrant action sequences throughout the movie, the film’s third act ends not with an act of aggression or dominance but acquiescence, as Bond recaptures the device and chucks it off a cliff rather than keeping it or handing it over to the Russians. As Bond films tend to do when their longevity is threatened, For Your Eyes Only proves that the series and the character could change for the better.
Despite tonal and thematic changes, the Bond films have more or less stuck to their structural formula ever since their inception, and this formula worked so well that it was successfully adapted by other films, notably Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Spielberg, Lucas, and writer Lawrence Kasdan were developing Raiders in January of 1978, Lucas explicitly stated their film would be “James Bond and it takes place in the thirties,” and that “instead of being a martini drinking cultured kind of sophisticate, [Indiana Jones would be] the sort of intellectual college professor James Bond.” With Indy (Harrison Ford) as a debonair adventurer (albeit much rougher around the edges than Bond had been to that point), Raiders uses much of the Bond formula: setting the film in a variety of exotic locales, bringing a feisty “Bond Girl”-type woman along for the ride (Karen Allen’s Marion), and pitting Indy against villains both intellectual (Paul Freeman’s Belloq) and eccentric (Ronald Lacey’s coat-hanger-assembling Toht).
The most noticeable tradition of the Bond films present in Raiders is the series’ penchant for suspense in its action sequences. The Bond series had become somewhat infamous for eking out moments of peril past logical parameters, with seconds lasting minutes and the like. Raiders uses that new watershed for action sequences to its advantage, combining it with Spielberg and Lucas’ homaging the classic cliffhanger moments from ‘30s adventure serials, making setpieces like Indy’s pursuit of Marion through the streets of Cairo and their later escape from the snake-filled Well of Souls excellent examples of heightened action. Yet Spielberg and Lucas were just as influenced in deviating from the Bond formula, as much as the actual Bond filmmakers were at the time—Lucas was adamant in that early story conference that the film not “wind up the way every Bond movie has ended…He’s on the island, he has to get out of there with the girl…and the whole place blows up.” Through wishing to zig where Bond typically zagged, Raiders has Indy perform as small a feat of heroism as Bond chucking the missile controller off a cliff: simply refusing to look at the opened Ark and informing Marion not to either while a literal Deus Ex Machina takes care of the Nazis.
That relatively small act keeps Indiana Jones separate from Bond by making him much more grounded and relatable. Ironically, the Bond filmmakers were simultaneously attempting the very same thing with For Your Eyes Only, realizing that the comic book Bond could only go so far in its outrageousness. As the Indiana Jones series continued, it kept the DNA of Bond going, using a different love interest for Indy for each movie and eventually hiring the original Bond, Sean Connery, to play Indy’s father (a symbolic choice, since Connery was only a few years older than Ford). As the Bond films carried on, they were subsequently influenced by the Indiana Jones films and other action movie trends of each era, keeping the series relevant by blending in with films they’d originally helped influence. By being so malleable and adaptable, the formula for action movies the Bond series established ensured that, as the end credits often stated, James Bond would return, in one form or another.