What does the creator of James Bond have in common with a classic children’s novelist, and Count Dracula? It sounds like the start to a joke, but surprisingly enough, Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl, and Sir Christopher Lee were all World War II spies. Like many celebrities of the era, they served in the British military during WWII, and the experience left an indelible mark on each of them.
It was during Fleming’s time liaising with the Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) that the indefatigable character of James Bond was born. And Dahl got his start as a writer when he used the craft as therapy after a life-threatening plane crash during his time in the Royal Air Force.
Christopher Lee’s extensive service for the RAF included work in Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) and the secretive Special Operations Executive (SOE), which went on to inform his impeccable skill as an actor — just consider the famed behind-the-scenes clip of Lee telling Return of the King director Peter Jackson what it sounds like when a man is stabbed in the back:
While Fleming, Dahl, and Lee didn’t all work together during their time in the war (that we know of), their many separate exploits ran in near proximity to one another, and their ties together in their lives are surprising. It’s thought by many that one of Fleming’s inspirations for Bond came from Canadian industrialist William Stephenson, who also founded the program in which Dahl spied on American government officials.
But Fleming and Dahl were also known to be friends – Dahl even wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice. And Fleming had known Lee even longer; the two became step-cousins after Lee’s mother married Fleming’s uncle. Even if these men didn’t go on any real-life spy adventures together, their tangential relationships and combined experiences during WWII could make for quite an interesting fictional tale. And who knows — maybe it isn’t so fictional.
Did Ian Fleming Base James Bond on Sir Christopher Lee?
There’s a lot of speculation out there as to who Ian Fleming based James Bond on, including the aforementioned Stephenson, Dominican diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa, and fellow SOE agent Forest Yeo-Thomas. Given Christopher Lee’s known involvement with the SOE and his relation to Fleming, many also wonder if the martini-drinking spy isn’t also at least partially based on Lee.
While we’ll never know the full extent of Lee’s effect on Bond’s creation, we do know that Fleming had apparently wanted his cousin to play the titular villain in the first Bond film, Dr. No. But Fleming never got to see Lee play that or any part in the Bond franchise.
It was only ten years after Fleming’s death that Lee would play Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun. In an interview with Total Film in 2005, Lee admitted to changing the character from his portrayal in the book, playing him instead like “the dark side of Bond.”
Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
Or perhaps James Bond was based on the children’s author with a surprisingly thrilling past, Roald Dahl. Back in 1940, fighting in WWII required more than boots on the battlefield. With the spy game becoming rampant, British Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton officially formed the Special Operations Executive. The SOE, otherwise known as “The Baker Street Irregulars,” “Churchill’s Secret Army,” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” was established to fight against the Axis powers behind the scenes.
At the same time, Winston Churchill established the British Security Coordination or BSC. This wing of British intelligence was concerned with an adjacent goal: pump up British support in the US, and tamp down the growing isolationist movement therein.
Ian Fleming and Christopher Lee weren’t members of the SOE; rather, the two men served as liaisons between their respective branches (the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve for Fleming and the Royal Air Force for Lee) and the Irregulars. Former RAF pilot Roald Dahl was a BSC operative in the States.
As an ambassador concerned with weakening American isolationism, Dahl wined and dined several Washington, D.C. politicians. Among these were Vice President Henry Wallace, then-Senator Harry Truman, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and President FDR himself. But the notorious ladies man Dahl would have his most saucy task when he was tasked with taking down the anti-British print magnate Henry Luce (founder of Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated).
The mission? To use his skills as a flirt to seduce Luce’s wife, Clare Boothe Luce, and use this privileged position to find information that could either blackmail or discredit the publisher and turn popular opinion. Little did Dahl know, though, that Clare had a voracious sexual appetite: in an apparent call to his superiors, the author begged for reassignment because he was “all f***ed out.”
A Spy Movie About Fleming, Dahl, and Lee Wouldn’t be Historically Accurate
Much of what we know about the SOE, the BSC, and other spy organizations from WWII is still shrouded in secrecy and misinformation. Many of the salacious details written about Dahl’s time in the US as a BSC agent come from Jennet Conant’s 2006 biography The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington. This tale of Dahl’s American exploits, though, is disputed by the CIA, which claims that the book is factually inaccurate and insufficiently evidenced.
Likewise, the illustrious military career of Christopher Lee may be exaggerated. During his lifetime, Lee would claim to have been part of the Long Range Desert Group, the Special Air Services, Popski’s Private Army, the Central Registry of War Crimes and Security Suspects, and the aforementioned SOE.
But further investigation from WWII and military historians shows that, while Lee did serve in the RAF, there’s no evidence of the actor in these groups — though much of his activities during the war remain classified as Top Secret.
The Movie Could Examine Dahl’s and Fleming’s Problematic Views
Fleming, Dahl, and Lee were never spies together, that we know of. Taken together, though, the facts and fictions of their histories could make for a fantastic espionage thriller, maybe even one that deconstructs at least two of these men’s complicated legacies. A man of his time, Fleming’s racism and sexism are clear in his writing. Though sensitivity readers in 2023 removed racist language about non-white characters in the Bond books, such choice phrases as “the sweet tang of r**e” remain.
And Dahl was worse. A self-admitted antisemite, the author peppered racist and sexist tropes throughout much of his writing. He was also known for being a bit of a womanizer and liked parties, which is why, in part, he was given his mission in the US.
A fictional film about this trio of creatives in WWII needn’t attempt to launder their reputations or pass them off as “of the time.” Instead, it would be far more interesting to turn a critical eye on three men whose work continues to reverberate through entertainment and culture long beyond their deaths. There’s no denying that it’s cool that these three titanic cultural figures had such interconnected personal histories, which could serve as the basis of a spy thriller film that could be both exciting and reflective.