Arthur, Ulysses and Bond

Bond standing on a coast with a sailing shipWhenever a movie ascends to the Olympus of the most successful of all time, it raises the question of what universal human themes it has addressed in the collective subconsciousness. For SKYFALL, the look at mythological and classical narrative elements is especially worthwhile, since the film offers new interpretations and hidden cross-references with every watching. Some things remind of classical epics - especially Homer's Odyssey and the Arthurian legend - others of the Western or the Film Noir.

The four-time Bond director Guy Hamilton gave screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz once the advice: "Never forget, Tom, in a Bond movie, if you want to start a fire, first you call the fire department Everything works backward."* SKYFALL is actually something of a backward shot Bond film. It begins with the action-packed confrontation with the sub-villains that is in many films the showdown. This is followed by a near-death, which is the crisis before the finale in many films. A visit to the ancestral home, that in the First Draft of THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS was the first location of the plot, is here the last one. Finally, the film ends where most Bond films begin - in Moneypennys and Ms office. At the very end the famous gunbarrel sequence. 

Ulysses und Arthur

A clear reference to Homer's Odyssey, one of the greatest epics of mankind, is the poem Ulysses of Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Like Ulysses, Bond is denied an honorable homecoming after a "war mission", he must reconquer his status on a perilous journey that leads him even through the realm of Hades. Sailing ships play an important role, both in the figurative sense as painting, as well as literally - when Bond is taken to Silvas island on a ship named after the Greek Chimera. (More about the Chimera here)

It also has a certain irony that the villain Raoul Silva opens the gates of MI6-HQ with the help of a digital Trojan horse to bring death and destruction to the center of London - while M quotes Ulysses(According to a British legend, London was founded by exiled Trojans as Troia Nova.) 

Lord Tennyson was also one of the most important authors of another legendary figure - that of King Arthur, with his Idylls of the King from 1859. Both Ulysses and Arthur are crucial for the fate of their countries. Both are presumed dead or missing, and during their absence the land sinks into chaos. 

Ulysses finally returns in the shape of a beggar and is recognized only by his wife Penelope. Bond also looks a little like a hobo when he shows up unwashed and with a beer bottle in Ms home. And by losing his apartment he is actually a homeless person. 

Arthur is seriously injured by a wound in the lumbar region. His Knights of the Round Table then search for the Holy Grail to heal him and the country. Also at the end of the Arthurian legend Arthur is badly injured and raptured by Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, to Avalon - once to return when Britain needs him most.

Bond is also critically injured in SKYFALLand in the title sequence taken to an underworld by a kind of a 'Lady of the Lake'. And he shows up again when Britain needs him most. 

Excalibur, an ancient signature weaponAn important role in ancient myths play mentors who equip the hero with legendary weapons. In many cases, it is a weapon that has been used by the father of the hero. Ulysses receives, for example, the bow of his father Eurytos, which he uses against the suitors of his wife Penelope. In SKYFALL it is the rifle of Bond's father Andrew with his initials, given by Kincade, which Bond uses in the fight against Silva and his men. 

Moreover, Q is a modern equivalent of the wizard Merlin in the Arthurian legend. Merlin gives Arthur a kind of an antique signature weapon - the sword Excalibur, which can draw only the rightful king from a stone. Bond gets in the shape of his PPK/S a "magic" weapon on which his enemies fail.

Gareth Mallory

In addition to Tennyson, a second important poet of the Arthurian legend is mentioned in SKYFALL: Sir Thomas Malory. Malory was as illustrious as controversial. He was knight himself and accused of various crimes such as murder and robbery. His work Le Morte d'Arthur, published in 1485, he wrote during his long imprisonment in the Tower. Gareth Mallory, too, was a prisoner for years - here by the IRA 

Mallory is probably also a reference to Captain Keith Mallory in 1961's THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, which contains many scenes and elements that later appeared in Bond films. (More about the Bond parallels of the film here)

But also the first name refers to the Arthurian stories. In Le Morte d'Arthur, Sir Gareth comes to Camelot in disguise and becomes later a Knight of the Round Table. Gareth Mallory is in SKYFALL also a quite mysterious character at first. 


As in most classical epics, the antagonist is a shadow of the hero. They are very similar, often by blood or at least spiritually related. Bond and Silva have a very similar background. They were virtually "adopted" by the secret service and are/were top agent with extraordinary abilities. Their survivability appears supernatural. Bond survives a shot with uranium ammunition and a fall from a high bridge, Silva poisoning with cyanide. "Life stuck like a disease to me", says Silva.

M in Skyfall
Halo with dents - M in SKYFALL 
(scene from the trailer)
And both are looking for the reason of their supernaturally surviving, the deeper meaning of their existence, their place in the world. One could call it a search for spiritual healing, so to speak, for the Holy Grail, which eventually leads them to a chapel, like the Grail Knights in ancient times. 

The loyality of the two is put to the acid test, but only Bond passes it. This topic, like the title, the pictures in the title animation and the "Think of your sins", strongly reminds of Christian symbolism.

Gustav Doré, Fall from Heaven
Illustration by Gustav Doré
The title is reminiscent of a passage in the Book of Isaiah. Originally it refers the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, it was later applied to Lucifer:  "How did you come to fall from the heavens, morning star, son of the dawn? How did you come to be cut to the ground, conqueror of nations?"

He was originally one of God's agents, so to speak, but questioned His authority and power and began to conduct his own operations. This has parallels to Silva in the film. In the classical artwork, angels are like Silva platinum blonde. If one would like to show an descending angel in theater, one would probably let him come down with a lift from the invisible upper stage area. That's the way Mendes introduces Silva. And Silva exercises his power in an informally-spiritual way, the physical stuff bores him. 

In the Arthurian legend, only the immaculate knights where able to find the Grail. Accordingly, Silva fails in his quest for mental healing, while Bond gets the blessing of M and can honorably return to his position. At the end both Bond and Britain are recovered. **

Bond in Skyfall, watching over Britain
Still more majestic shalt thou rise, - More dreadful from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies, - Serves but to root thy native oak.


* Interestingly, this is exactly the approach of Max Zorin in AVIEW TO A KILL. He first calls the police and then puts the fire in the City Hall of San Francisco.

**  Like Ulysses, Bond has finally arrived back in his native harbor, where a woman is waiting for him - there Penelope, here Moneypenny. "Penny" was in the movies always standing for the "impending" port of matrimony, the gold on the ring finger.

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