Spy experts rate the best Bond villains

The James Bond films are famous for their gadgetry and eye candy, but they have also produced some of the most memorable villains in pop culture.

Their attempts at world domination have included cornering the heroin market (Live and Let Die), ransoming world governments with the threat of nuclear annihilation (Thunderball) and obliterating most of humanity and creating a master race in space (Moonraker).

In the latest film, Skyfall, which opens Nov. 9, Bond does battle with Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem), a preening, flaxen-haired villain intent on destroying the British secret service.

The Bond baddies are admittedly outlandish characters, but real-life espionage experts say some of their schemes were actually plausible.

Mark Stout, a former CIA intelligence analyst, recommends the plot of the 1969 film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in which recurring Bond antagonist Ernst Blofeld (played by Telly Savalas) threatens to unleash a bioweapon that will destroy the world's crops.

"This is actually something that during the Cold War the United States worried about quite a bit — that the Soviets might do this to American crops," says Stout, now a historian for the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

As a second example, Stout offers the 2006 film version of Casino Royale, in which a shady operator named Le Chiffre attempts to make a financial killing by short-selling his stock in a major airline before launching a terrorist attack on one of its planes. (Surprise: Bond thwarts his plan.)

Stout says that right after the 9/11 attacks, analysts noticed seemingly unusual trading activity with the stock of some of the airlines involved in that disaster.

Investigations by the Securities Exchange Commission, the FBI and the CIA found no evidence of wrongdoing, "but for a while it appeared that al-Qaeda had done what Le Chiffre was doing, and there's no reason why they couldn't have," says Stout.

For Edward Geist, a Cold War historian at the University of North Carolina, Goldfinger (1964) seems the most believable. In the film, Auric Goldfinger plans to set off a small atomic bomb at Fort Knox in order to make the gold reserves radioactive and useless for 60 years, thus inducing economic panic and driving up the value of his own gold stock.

Geist contends the scheme would work "if you had a large amount of gold and no one knew that you had nuked Fort Knox," but he's dubious about the outcome if such a plot were carried out today.

"Back then, there was still formally a gold standard, and the U.S. housed other countries' gold reserves. Now that the gold standard is long gone, it's not clear to me just how disruptive it would be," he says.

Geist also singles out Octopussy (1983), in which Orlov, a rogue general in the Soviet military, schemes to detonate a nuclear bomb in West Germany, blame it on the Americans and use it as a pretext for the Soviets to invade Western Europe.

While Geist concedes "the Soviets were never really inclined to do something like that," he says that carrying out General Orlov's plot "would have seriously complicated NATO policy in that era."

As for the most ludicrous plot, Geist and Stout both point to You Only Live Twice (1967), in which the tireless Blofeld hijacks a U.S. space capsule — in space — in order to foment war between the West and Soviet Russia.

"The notion of a private individual secretly having his own space program, which is conducting anti-satellite warfare at a time when nobody in the world knew how to do that, and is getting away with it — it's just silly," says Stout.

Wesley Wark, a one-time security adviser to the Canadian government, contends that the Bond plots "are all implausible, and they are deliberately implausible."

Wark, who also edited a book on spy fiction, believes that Bond creator Ian Fleming was an "imperialist nostalgic."

Fleming published the first Bond adventure, Casino Royale, in 1952, and Wark says he wanted to create a fictional world where "the British secret service could be the saviour of civilization."

"His stories from beginning to end feature villains who are so outlandish and so implausible that they can, in effect, be easily defeated, easily overcome by the operatives of British intelligence," says Wark.

Fleming was interested in building a large and lasting readership, Wark says, which is why most of his storylines focus less on the perceived Soviet threat and more on menacing individuals.

By aiming for timeless appeal, Stout says the Bond films actually prophesied the sort of global threats we face today from "non-state actors" like al-Qaeda.

During most of the period when the Bond films were being made, "we worried about the Soviets, we worried about their Eastern European allies, we worried about the Chinese," says Stout.

"But Bond was having us worry about non-governmental organizations back in 1962, and ever since."

Yet for all their money, ambition and derring-do, Bond's criminal masterminds are notoriously unsuccessful at effecting anything other than their own ignominious deaths.

007 always has some hand in this, but the villains are typically undone by their urgent need to share their diabolical plans.

When it comes to the baddies, "there's not very much discipline with respect to what you call classified information. There's no need-to-know kind of principle," says Fred Hitz, a former inspector general with the CIA and author of the book The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage.

"These guys are showoffs and the more you tip your hat to them, the more they like it."

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