In a scene in the 2012 film Skyfall, James Bond sits in the National Gallery, silently contemplating a painting when he is joined by Q. Q briefly remarks on the painting before identifying himself to a visibly irritated 007. While the moment serves as the introduction of the new Quartermaster, it also underscores the tension between the new and old as well as the question of Bond’s place in the modern world, major thematic components of Skyfall. This is done in part by making a connection between Bond and the ship in the painting, a familiar icon to many British.
“It always makes me feel a little melancholy. A grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?
“A bloody big ship.”
Q and Bond, Skyfall
The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838 is a painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, arguably one of the greatest of all British artists. The artwork itself was voted Britain’s favorite painting in a BBC radio poll in 2005. The 98 gun HMS Temeraire was built as a second rate ship of the line in 1798, one of three Neptune class vessels. She was named for a French ship captured by the British in 1759, which then served out a career in the Royal Navy under the same name. (For the curious, téméraire means “reckless” in French.) The designation “second rate” was by no means a commentary on the ships worthiness in battle but rather an indication the vessel was smaller and less expensive than the costly and valuable first rates. As such, second rate ships often sent on missions and formed the core of fleets, while the relatively rare first rate vessels were often considered too valuable to risk on anything other than the greatest of engagements.
Fun fact: The naval term “first rate” used to describe the most powerful Royal Navy ships is the origin of the modern term “first rate” to describe anything optimal or excellent.
The Temeraire served a generally quiet career, seeing a major fleet action only once at the Battle of Trafalgar. There the Temeraire was credited with saving the HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Nelson, taking on two French ships at once and emerging victorious after a bloody fight. The ships actions earned accolades and a place in the hearts and minds of the British people, as well as the nickname, “The Fighting Temeraire.”
Yet time, as Q notes, erases worldly glory. After becoming obsolete as a warship, the Temeraire passed through a number of roles, including time as a prison ship and a guard vessel. Eventually, the ship was ordered to be scrapped and was taken under tow by to the shipbreakers. While no longer viable as a warship, the fame of the Temeraire remained and thousands came to view the last days of the ship.
Turner painted the artwork in 1838. It is worth noting that Turner took artistic license with his painting, as the Temeraire was stripped of its masts and rigging and was towed by two tugs, not just one. Rather than serving as an accurate impression of the last voyage of the Temeraire, Turner imbues the painting with symbolism representing the end of an era.
The themes of the painting underscores Skyfall‘s depiction of Bond as a agent past his prime, struggling to remain relevant in a world that discards old warriors. It also mirrors the relationship between Bond and Q, evoking the idea of the new surpassing the old, reflected in Q and Bond’s testy exchange. The Temeraire being hauled away by a steamship is akin to the gap in technology in Skyfall, where Bond’s martial skills are of questionable use in a world of hackers and cybercrimes, where an errant hard drive is more dangerous than a gun. Like the Bond franchise, the Temeraire is depicted as a glorious old warship of a bygone era, while the dark, dirty steam tug of the modern world mostly obscures it on its final voyage. Unlike the Temeraire, Bond survives and redefines himself, even if it may only be to die another day.
References and further readings
- Skyfall, 2012 – Directed by Sam Mendes
- “Towing the Temeraire: A drawing rediscovered” – http://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/behind-the-scenes/blog/towing-temeraire-drawing-rediscovered
- Skyfall and the Importance of Thematic Clarity – https://storypunchpodcast.com/2014/01/16/skyfall-and-the-importance-of-thematic-clarity/
- “Reboot, Rebirth, Repeat: Skyfall” – http://cinema-scope.com/currency/reboot-rebirth-repeat-skyfall/