Suddenly, a gunshot followed by a red veil descending across the screen launches a new adventure for the world's most famous secret agent: Bond, James Bond. Intrigues, spectacular scenery, villains and gadgets have been the hallmarks of cinema's longest-running franchise. James Bond travels the world on his missions in the service of Her Majesty, and film-makers understood the public's interest in the spy's travels as early as 1962.
Is James Bond really where he claims to be? Where does he find all those gadgets? And are geologists reliable allies or horrible villains? To answer these questions and more, let's follow in the footsteps of the world's most famous spy for a series of geological investigations. The complete articles can be found on the site of The Conversation.
About the author
A doctor of geology, Nicolas Charles is a geologist at BRGM, the French Geological Survey. He is involved in numerous geological mapping and mineral resource projects in France and abroad. Since 2016 he has been coordinating a European geoscience training project in Africa (PanAfGeo) aimed at strengthening partnerships between European and African geological surveys. He is the author of numerous scientific outreach publications on the French geological heritage and also participates in conferences on geology and mineral resources.
Is James Bond really where he is purported to be? Geological investigation in Her Majesty's secret service
The Man with the Golden Gun takes place in Thailand, not China!
In The Man with the Golden Gun, released in 1974, the lair of hitman Francisco Scaramanga is a sumptuous island. It is supposedly located in the South China Sea. But Scaramanga Island is in fact Khao-Phing-Kan Island, located in Thailand, to the north of Phang Nga Bay, over 2,000 kilometres to the south-west!
While the coast of southern China where the story of The Man with the Golden Gun is supposed to take place is mainly made up of granite and volcanic rocks dating from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous eras, with few sedimentary rocks, the island of Scaramanga is iconic for its limestone peak – a sedimentary formation, in other words – that emerges from the water.
The island is one of the many limestone peaks in the region, eroded around their base and covered with vegetation: the whole region, absolutely remarkable, evokes a forest of stone trees floating on the sea.
Moonraker, Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain
In Moonraker (1979), James Bond takes on Jaws, the steel-toothed henchman of megalomaniac industrialist Hugo Drax, in a memorable scene. The duel takes place in and on the Sugarloaf cable car in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. An iconic landscape in one of the world's most beautiful bays. Since 2022, Sugarloaf has been classified by the International Union of Geological Sciences as a world geological site for its remarkable geodiversity, in addition to being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012.
The greater resistance to weathering and erosion of this gneiss compared with the surrounding rocks explains the isolated rocky peaks emerging in the bay. They are inselbergs, a word derived from the German insel and berg meaning "island mountain", an isolated, steep-sided mountain found mainly in granite and gneiss formations.
Spectre does take place in Morocco – however ...
In Spectre (2015), although the action takes place in Morocco, as does the actual filming, the geological interpretation of the lair of the cynical Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the terrorist organisation's No. 1, is bound to offend any geologists' sensibilities!
In the story, the secret base that will be totally destroyed by 007 has been built within an ancient meteorite crater. The film was shot on the Gara Medouar (or Jebel Mudawwar) massif, an isolated horseshoe-shaped mountain south-west of Erfoud in the eastern Anti-Atlas. But it has nothing to do with an astrobleme (evidence of an ancient meteorite impact) or even a volcanic crater! This is simply a form of erosion within a pile of ancient marine sediments deformed by a fold, where the flanks slope on either side to form a concave depression (geologists refer to this as a syncline fold).
Nothing to do with a cataclysmic event, then. However, during the filming of Spectre (2015), the scene of the destruction of the secret base required almost 70 tonnes of explosives, which for a time made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest explosion in the history of cinema, a record still held by the saga in No Time to Die (2021) with 136 tonnes of explosives!
But where does James Bond find all those gadgets?
Laser watches, fingerprint guns, explosives and, of course, over-equipped cars – gadgets are one of the symbols of James Bond. Their genius inventor is called "Q". While some of these gadgets actually exist (lasers, fingerprint recognition, back-pack reactor), others are, as we shall see, more fanciful.
But they all have a common foundation: the raw materials needed to make them, and in particular the mineral resources that geologists are helping to find in the Earth's crust. Humans have always used mineral resources to create and use technologies, from prehistoric flint to the lithium in today's batteries. Her Majesty's most famous secret agent is no exception.
The fast, flashy cars of the world's most famous secret agent
In 1964's Goldfinger, James Bond has to give up his Bentley for an Aston Martin DB5 modified by the ingenious Q (then played by the unforgettable Desmond Llewelyn). This is the first of eight appearances by the car that is now forever associated with 007.
The automobile is a good example of the increasing complexity of products and the growing diversity of raw materials used over time. The DB5 contains a variety of metals and minerals, starting with aluminium, a metal that makes the car lighter. It is extracted from bauxite, a mineral mined in Jamaica around Ocho Rios, which was used as the setting for Crab Key Island, Dr No's lair, in 1962.
The automotive industry has come a long way since 1964, and one innovation follows another, increasing the range of mineral resources used. Several dozen are needed today for a standard vehicle – and what can we say about the latest cars driven by 007 since the 2000s, such as the BMW Z3 or the Aston Martin Valhalla?
This continues with electric vehicles, whose batteries require lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel and rare earths. Furthermore, in 1971, in Diamonds Are Forever, James Bond flies and drives an electric lunar module! More recently, in No Time to Die (2021), the Aston Martin Valhalla is a plug-in hybrid, but James Bond has not yet gone all-electric.
James Bond and his enemies equipped with cutting-edge technology
The saga has also provided the opportunity to showcase cutting-edge technologies that are little known to the general public at the time of a film's release. Technologies that are based on raw materials. What better example than the laser, which stands for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation". Guns, watches, cars, satellites – in a film, they all look "better" when equipped with a laser!
The red light beam in Goldfinger was emitted by a laser (probably a ruby laser) whose brightness was amplified by special effects. On the other hand, the destructive nature of lasers is pure fiction. During the filming, an operator used an acetylene torch under the pre-cut table while Sean Connery was lying on it!
Golden weapons ... too soft?
Another cult item is the Walther PPK, the German pistol used by 007 in many of the saga's films. This weapon is made from a stainless steel alloy. Although steel is mainly made from iron, it also contains other elements depending on the use and properties required: chromium, molybdenum, nickel, manganese, carbon, silicon, copper, sulphur, nitrogen, phosphorus, boron, titanium, niobium, tungsten, vanadium and cerium.
Much more precious, Francisco Scaramanga's pistol is made of solid gold and comes in the form of an assembly of everyday objects so as not to be spotted during security checks: lighter, cufflinks, fountain pen and cigar case. Limited to one shot, this pistol fires 4.2 mm calibre bullets, weighs 30 g and is made mainly of 23-carat gold with traces of nickel. So much for fiction: it's hard to imagine a gun made entirely of gold, a very dense and above all very soft metal, which would not withstand the repeated power of a shot for very long. In jewellery, gold is often combined with silver, copper or zinc to make it wearable.
Diamonds, water, volcanoes: James Bond between resources and natural hazards
From the very first of the series (Dr. No, 1962), 007's adventures have been based on a storyline that integrates science and technology with global geopolitical issues throughout the different eras of the saga. And geosciences are often not far behind.
Among the story elements, the setting for the action may have a link with geology. In You Only Live Twice (1967), Spectre's secret base is located in the crater of a volcano in Japan.
The actual volcano is Shinmoe, on the island of Kyūshū, which is around 18,600 years old and last erupted in 2018. Toxic gases, earthquakes and landslides, intense heat and the flooding of the crater with the possible formation of a lake with acidic water – all this is hardly compatible with the establishment of a secret underground base, even temporarily.
In Die Another Day (2002), the geopolitical scenario (evoking the reunification of the two Koreas) is based on the use of a space weapon financed by the proceeds from the sale of blood diamonds by Gustav Graves. Officially, Graves owns a diamond mine that funds a laudable campaign to eradicate world famine. So far so good, except that the mine is set in Iceland! However, there are no diamond deposits in Iceland, simply because the geological context is not favourable.
Diamonds are formed at great depth (in the earth's mantle) and are brought up into the Earth's crust by violent volcanic eruptions. Diamonds are trapped in rocks called kimberlites, which are currently mined in South Africa, Australia, Canada, Russia and Botswana. When these rocks are subjected to weathering and eroded, the highly resistant diamonds can become trapped in river sediments.
In Iceland, the only visible "diamonds" are the blocks of ice that have washed up on the "Diamond Beach" at Fjellsfjara, at the mouth of the glacial valley of Breiðamerkursandur!
Solar, oil? Where does the energy come from in the Bond movies?
Another recurring story theme is access to raw materials and energy. The Man with the Golden Gun was released in 1974, just after the oil crisis of 1973 and the emerging difficulties of European energy independence, a subject that is still very topical today. The script is based on the plot to find a technology called the "Solex agitator". It would capture solar energy with an efficiency of 90% (quantity of light energy transformed into electricity), enough to make current solar panels, with efficiencies of around 10 to 25%, pale in comparison.
Still on the subject of access to resources, The World is Not Enough (1999) plunges us into the world of oil. Elektra King, heiress to an oil company, is building a pipeline to compete with the petroleum with which Russia is supplying Europe. The scenario is based on the explosion of a nuclear submarine in the Bosphorus Strait, with the aim of creating instability in oil supplies to the Old Continent.
Reliable allies or horrible villains? Geologists and James Bond
"Was Strangways interested in geology?" James Bond asks himself in Dr. No (1962) as he investigates the murder of his colleague, the aforementioned Strangways, in Jamaica. Everything suggests that a geologist is involved: it's a bad start for the image of these subsurface scientists in the adventures of Her Majesty's most famous secret agent!
And indeed, Professor R.J. Dent, a geologist and mineralogist, is a henchman of Dr No, who had the spy, John Strangways, murdered. The latter had sent him rocks taken from the island of Crab Key, Dent’s boss's hideout. Geologist Dent then tried to hide the origin of the samples from 007: "Poor Strangways, it was one of his hobbies, amateur geology. He brought me bits of rock to analyse, convinced they were worth something. They weren’t, just ore with a low iron sulphide content". Bond insists, determined to find where his enemy is hiding: "in Crab Key perhaps?", and the geologist replies: "certainly not, from a geological point of view it's impossible".
Here, the geologist is presented in a negative light, using his expertise to serve the villain, and hiding the truth from 007.
Geologists feature quite prominently in the James Bond saga, but they don't always play such a bad role. So who are these subsurface experts frequented by 007?
A geologist as an ally
In A View to a Kill (1985), the character of the geologist is much more positive. Stacey Sutton, who inherited the family oil business, studied geology before joining the State of California's Department of Hydrocarbons and Mines.
Stacey Sutton provides James Bond with geological expertise by describing the San Andreas and Hayward fault systems: she explains the likely consequences of a major earthquake in the area. In the story, Maximilian Zorin intends to destroy Silicon Valley by triggering an "induced earthquake" with a bomb and injecting seawater along the fault corridors: the operation is named "Main Strike" – itself a nod to geology and mining.
Hydrogeologist: groundwater scientist
Another Bond opus in which a geologist appears is Quantum of Solace (2008), where the introductory chase takes place in the famous Carrara marble quarries in Italy.
In the film, James Bond even unknowingly passes for a geologist for a few minutes in Haiti: as he gets into the car of Bolivian spy Camille Montes Rivero, she mistakes him for the geologist from whom she was supposed to recover secret information, but whom the villain Dominic Greene has had killed (although, he admits, "it's bad timing, he was one of my best geologists"), and has replaced with a fake geologist, a killer hired by the villain to eliminate the spy. The name of this fake geologist should perhaps have been a hint to our heroes: to be called Edmund "Slate" seems too much of a coincidence.
In Quantum of Solace, Dominic Greene acquires huge tracts of land in Bolivia which, according to Camille Montes Rivero's research, "contain no riches, although the geologists had evidence to the contrary". In fact, there is a subsurface resource but neither oil nor metals: it's groundwater. In reality, to suggest the Bolivian desert, the film was shot in the Atacama desert in Chile, near Antofagasta.
In movies, the role of the geologist is often positive, that of expert appraisal and helping to improve a given situation or understand the issues at stake (e.g. the volcanic hazard in Roger Donaldson's Dante's Peak, 1997). Geologists can also use their knowledge for less positive purposes, often as a corrupt assistant to the main villain, as seen here.
This observation about scientists' roles in movies is not limited to geologists; other scientific disciplines are represented in the 27 films in which the British secret agent appears: a nuclear physicist (Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough), a marine biologist (Dexter Smythe in Octopussy), a geneticist (Dr Alvarez in Die Another Day), a computer scientist (Boris Grishenko in Goldeneye), a mathematician (Le Chiffre in Casino Royale), and a chemist (Lyutsifer Safin in No Time to Die), to name but a few!