You may have noticed that a new James Bond film has opened. You may also have noticed that part of it was filmed in the Tirol, in Austria, in an Alpine village called Sölden. Of course 007 and snow have a long history, going back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (poor Bond, decent film, great soundtrack), so Spectre is continuing an 007 tradition which goes back to Ian Fleming’s love of the sport.
Fleming skied at a time when it was elitist, glamorous and dangerous. The glamour remains to some degree and as for the danger – you might have more forgiving skis and boots that don’t snap your ankle, but there’s still whiteouts, avalanches, treacherous driving conditions and rogue cable cars. But that is all grist to the Bond mill – isn’t putting the spy in peril in a spectacular setting the essence of a 007 movie? It certainly is of the globetrotting Spectre.
But there are plenty of countries that have snow, so why did Mendes and crew choose Sölden? Well, the cynics might suggest that it was a village willing to close its main ski slope in peak season in return for the sort of publicity money can’t buy. Or possibly the Spectre scouts thought that the glistening glass cube of its mountain-top Ice-Q restaurant might rival Piz Gloria on the Schilthorn in Switzerland as an iconic Bond location.
It is also possible that the scriptwriting team, always in search of a backstory these days, knew that, although Bond was not born or conceived in the Tirol, his DNA is all over it. thanks to his creator.
Ian Fleming was forced to resign from Sandhurst after contracting gonorrhoea from a prostitute and in 1927 he was despatched by his formidable mother to the town of Kitzbühel (having spent some time there the previous year) in the Tirol. He arrived in a place that eschewed stuffy Anglo-Saxon sexual mores. Which, once he had shaken off his initial torpor, suited the testosterone-fuelled Fleming just fine.
Fleming’s mother had sent the 19-year old to be tutored, alongside other English boys, by a very influential pair – the Forbes Dennises. Ernan Forbes Dennis had been the British ‘Passport Control Officer’ in Vienna, which if you speak spy, you will know is code for resident MI6 officer, although he was indeed also a keen educationalist and proponent of the theories of Adler. His wife Phyllis was a successful author who encouraged the young Fleming to write. Together they represented two cornerstones of Ian’s future life – espionage and writing.
In the thirties he would also meet the splendidly named Conrad O’Brien-ffrench in the Tirol. He was an adventurer, explorer, an excellent skier and.. a spy. He worked for the Z Organisation, a kind of shadow MI6 that was sympathetic to Churchill’s insistence that Hitler wanted war. He set up a network of agents across Austria and Southern Germany. Ian and his older brother Peter (at that point a very successful author) often bumped into O’Brien-ffrench, as the man’s cover was that of a travel agent looking to open up the region to British tourism. When war broke out O’Brien-ffrench escaped from the Nazis by hiking over the Alps into Switzerland. Some claim he was later very influential in securing Fleming a post in Naval Intelligence during WW2.
Fleming had learned to ski in the Tirol (and even today there is a downhill event in Kitzbühl named after him), although he always said it was a toss up between summer and winter as his favourite time – he loved the skiing but also appreciated that the girls weren’t so bundled up in their thick clothes in the warmer months.
The war put paid to Fleming’s sojourns to the Tirol. He would return to Kitzbühel when he was 50, with wife and son in tow, to try and recapture something of his youth, but according to his biographer Andrew Lycett the trip was something of a failure, even though the writer professed to have enjoyed himself. He was no longer an athletic young man who could have his pick of the locals, but an aging dyspeptic author in a failing marriage, with his bored wife and tragic son Caspar (who later committed suicide) in tow.
But Kitzbühel was never far from his thoughts and what he called his ‘golden years’ there made many appearances in his fiction. He decided that, as he had, James Bond would learn to ski in Austria. In Octopussy, the story of the Nazi gold and the mountain refuge was surely based on the wooden huts you can see dotting the Alpine meadows of the Tirol. And when James Bond marries Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, they are on their way to an idyllic honeymoon in Kitzbühel when she is murdered. He also left £500 each to three people in the town in his will when he died in 1964, exhorting them to “do something exciting” with it. Among them was Lisl Jodl, one of his many Bond-like romantic entanglements from the ’20s and ’30s.
So perhaps it was just serendipity and/or finance that brought the makers of Spectre to choose the Austrian Tirol for the snow scenes (spoiler: Bond does not actually ski in this one), but conscious or not, they chose well.