Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true stories that inspired Casino Royale.
Ian Fleming made history in 1953 when he published Casino Royale, the first of the novels to feature James Bond. Fleming’s novel has twice been adapted for the big screen. First, in 1967, when a group of five directors, including John Huston, created a parody film. David Niven plays Bond, Ursula Andress plays Vesper Lynd, and Orson Welles played Le Chiffre, the story’s chief antagonist.
Not for another thirty-nine years did the franchise’s inaugural story see a more “serious” adaptation as part of the series of films made by Eon Productions. The 2006 version of the film stars Daniel Craig in his debut as Bond. Eva Green plays Vesper and Mads Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre. Some consider the film to be one of the franchise’s best.
Le Chiffre makes his living as a banker for terrorists. He takes their money and uses his insider knowledge to shorts stock and profit from terror events. After Bond foils one of the terror plots, Le Chiffre, who is a math genius, arranges a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro to win back his clients’ money. Players may buy in for $10 million. Bond, fancying himself an excellent reader of people, buys-in too. The British government stakes him, thinking that if Bond beats Le Chiffre, he will have no choice but to accept asylum in the United Kingdom in exchange for information. Of course, things don’t quite go as planned.
The plot of Casino Royale is wonderfully absurd. Yet the film and Fleming’s novel were, in fact, inspired by real people and events. This includes Fleming’s own experience in the service. Here’s a look at the real figures and stories that inspired Casino Royale.
The Gambler-Agent Who Inspired Bond
Let’s get one thing out of the way: no one man inspired Bond. The inspirations for Bond are many. However, one influence that especially relates to Casino Royale comes in the form of Duško Popov, a Serbian double agent who served both the British and German governments during World War II. He passed along disinformation to the Germans as a member of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service. Bond himself, of course, is a member of MI6 in Fleming’s work.
During World War II, Fleming served as a personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence of the Royal Navy. In this role, Fleming liaised with many other military branches, including MI6. In 1941, Fleming shadowed Popov as he played a game of baccarat. Popov played often played against Germans at Casino Estoril in the Portuguese Riviera. Fleming witnessed Popov win an “outrageous” bet, and thus the inspiration for Bond was born.
Near the end of his life, Fleming said a game he himself played against Germans at the casino served as the inspiration for Casino Royale. However, Fleming biographers have disputed the story. During an interview promoting his book on Popov, author Larry Loftis explains that Popov indeed served as the influence for Bond, at least in this scenario.
Those familiar with the film will remember René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), Bond’s contact in Montenegro. In the film, baccarat becomes Texas hold’em, and Mathis shadows Bond as he plays against Le Chiffre. Loftis notes that it is more likely that Mathis then, who watches from the sidelines, is based on Fleming.
Soviet Spies Become a Terrorist Organization
Among the most significant changes between Fleming’s novel and the 2006 film adaption comes in the form of the bad guys. The villains in Fleming’s novel are SMERSH, a real-life group of Soviet counter-intelligence organizations.
In Fleming’s novel, SMERSH first attempts to murder Bond outside the Hotel Splendide, where the poker game takes place. SMERSH gives two Bulgarian assassins box camera cases, one made of red leather and the other blue. The red one contained a bomb and the blue a smokescreen that would allow them to escape. The assassins, not trusting the plan, decide to blow the blue case first to hide before throwing the bomb. Their instincts were right: the blue case contained a small bomb that killed the assassins, thus removing any evidence of SMERSH’s involvement.
The incident, Fleming wrote in a 1963 essay “How to Write a Thriller” (via LitHub), was inspired by real events. “Farfetched, you might say,” Fleming writes. But during the Second World War, the Soviets attempted to kill a Nazi leader via a similar method and failed. Fleming writes that the assassins “were blown to nothing while [Vice Chancellor Franz] Von Papen and his wife, walking from their house to the embassy; were only bruised by the blast.”
Of course, in the 2006 film, Le Chiffre and the international terrorist syndicate known as Quantum replace SMERSH as the main antagonists. And instead of a bomb, Bond survives an attempted poisoning. Somehow, the dramatic poisoning in the film becomes more believable after hearing the real story behind the original attempted killing of 007.
The Torturing of James Bond
Fair warning, what follows is a bit graphic. In Casino Royale, Le Chiffre brutally tortures Bond after 007 wins the poker game. Le Chiffre bounds him to a chair and beats him with a rope. At one particularly difficult moment to watch, Le Chiffre snaps the whip underneath Bond, presumably hitting his genitals.
Bond endures a similar beating in the novel. Fleming writes in the aforementioned essay that the torture he describes, “was a greatly watered-down version of a French-Moroccan torture known as passer á la mandoline, which was practiced on several of our agents during the war.”
A quick Google search of passer á la mandoline yields some pretty nasty results. According to author John Griswold, it refers to a torture technique in which the string of a mandolin (typically steel) was placed under a man’s genitals. The two ends of the string are then lifted up and, well, you can imagine the rest. Pretty gross and, in the film, watered-down indeed.
Fleming certainly witnessed and overheard a lot during his life. No wonder he had to get some of it out via the Bond novels. So the next time you watch a Bond film, remember: some scenes may not be as outlandish as they seem. As Fleming wrote to the aspiring thriller writer:
Imagination alone isn’t enough, but stories you hear from friends or read in the papers can be built up by a fertile imagination and a certain amount of research and documentation into incidents that will also ring true in fiction.
Casino Royale (2006) is currently available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
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