While writing Casino Royale, author Ian Fleming faced the classic author’s dilemma: What should he name his protagonist, a hard-bitten secret agent for Her Majesty’s Secret Service? He needed a blunt name. Something simple, memorable and reasonably common. A forgettable name, for a man whose job is to be forgotten. Fleming was living in Jamaica, where he spent the days relaxing, writing and watching birds. His bible, so to speak, was Birds of the West Indies by famed ornithologist James Bond. Thinking nothing of it, he borrowed the name for his character. In the decades ahead, he would proudly recall the moment in interviews and on television shows.
Had Casino Royale failed to sell — and thus never spawned the expansive series of books and films that defined mainstream action cinema for half a century — the name James Bond might have remained best known to bird aficionados. Instead, it’s one of the most recognizable names in Western culture and still a common one. The Other Fellow is about the power of the name and what it means to the men who share it with a fictional icon, whether they like it or not.
To the larger world, the name is associated with a debonair secret agent who uses cool gadgets and always gets the girl. But James Bond could also be a director of New York theatre, a Texas rancher, a Gambian politician, a computer programmer, a museum curator or a prisoner falsely accused of murder. In The Other Fellow, director Matthew Bauer and co-writer Rene van Pannevis diligently chronicle as many Bonds as they possibly can, unpacking their stories with interviews and re-enactments to create a documentary that feels as cinematic as its subject deserves.
Naturally, there are men who view the name as a curse. Some go on to change their names. Others wear it with annoyance. “Imagine being told the same joke by every other person every day for decades,” one of the men says. This Bond is the theatre director in New York City. He’s one of several and always feels the attention come his way when a new movie is released. Local publications usually seek out the James Bonds of New York City for lifestyle pieces, and he takes pleasure in the memory of one that was obviously hoping he’d live up to the ladies’ man archetype. It took the journalist an hourlong in-home interview to realize this Bond was, in fact, gay. Bond (the theatre director) has one of the more interesting journeys in the film, hating his name but also finding himself open to capitalizing on it.
On the flip side, there’s also the story of Gunnar James Bond Schäfer, a Swedish man who chose to adopt his middle names in tribute to the fictional character whose exploits defined his life. Schäfer was born to a Nazi deserter and a Swedish woman. At 2 years old, he and his siblings were abandoned by their father. Without a male role model, he turned to the movies, and it’s not hard to guess where he landed. Today, Schäfer runs a 007 Museum in Nybro, Sweden, filled with memorabilia he collected from throughout the franchise’s history. He wears the same suits Bond wears; he styles his hair like Pierce Brosnan’s version of the character; he even wears the Omega watches made famous by their product placement. Schäfer chose his name because of what the fictional character meant to him and his life. He views the burden as a gift.
These are just two of the stories explored by Bauer. The rest fill the gap between “hating the name” and “choosing to live by it.” Some are even saved by it: One story is about a young woman who found the name helpful in escaping a problematic situation.
The Other Fellow could have easily tackled its subject matter as a fan film, celebrating the film franchise without ever really asking its subjects deeper questions. In fact, that’s what I was afraid it would be. We’ve seen enough of those. Instead, it’s an enlightening and captivating documentary that really digs deep into the lives of these men whose given name comes with cultural connotations, whether they like it or not.