Quarrel in Ian Fleming’s Dr. No

Quarrel is the central-peripheral black male figure in Ian Fleming’s Dr. No (book 1958, film 1962). Dr. No was the first James Bond book turned into a film, though it was the sixth novel in the Bond series. In preparing for a conference, I read the novel and watched the film, and I am struck by the ideological work embodied in the figure of Quarrel, and what it suggests about the circulation of James Bond films in colonial and, later, former colonial spaces.

A few thoughts.

In the novel, Quarrel is a long-time acquaintance of James Bond. They met five years prior to their encounter (and Quarrel’s death) in Dr. No. A “tall brown-skinned man,” Quarrel’s “dark grey eyes” show “descent from a Cromwellian soldier or a pirate of Morgan’s time.” This evidence of racial mixture articulates a central point in the novel: the distinction between “good” and “bad” forms of miscegenation, a distinction that only makes sense in a British territory, Jamaica, not in England itself, and whose relegation to a far past makes it palatable, for it emphasizes power relations (a soldier or pirate when the only women available had some relationship to slavery).

The anglo-black racial mixture is important because Dr. No’s foot soldiers are the wrong kind of mix: Chigroes, a mix between Chinese and Negroes. Following the racial dictum that blood will tell, there are no good, honest, or decent Chigroes in the novel. In the movie, this racial mixture is obscured, and only those who have read the book can tell what it signifies when the evil black assassins don Chinese-looking garments. Appearance is everything.

Back to Quarrel.

In the novel, Quarrel is an accomplished driver and fisherman, Bond’s black buddy, anticipating the interracial buddy movies of the 1980s. Although he is libidinal—a scene in the novel depicts him rhapsodizing on the significance of a fleshy Mount of Venus, the “soft lozenge of flesh in the palm below [the] thumb”—he is also deft and shrewd, less a servant and caricature, and more a trusted guide.

While Jamaicans as a whole might be “kindly” and “lazy,” “with the virtues and vices of a child,” and Bond tends to protect Quarrel from news that might be too much for him, Quarrel is clearly not meant to be a stereotype. The extent to which his courage and aptitude should be attributed to his visible descent from English ancestors is up for debate.

The Quarrel of the novel, the dependable, shrewd, libidinal, and honorable character, is strikingly absent from the movie.

Instead, the movie traffics in the worst stereotypes: Quarrel sips alcohol continuously, rolls his eyes comically, is shifty and awkward, a “movie nigger.”

He is not Bond’s buddy, but a new acquaintance, whose relationship to Bond is mediated by the white U.S. agent. In the movie, the white U.S. agent introduces Bond to Quarrel. And the information that Quarrel provides to Bond in the novel is given, instead, by the white agent. Quarrel is a hired hand, body, not mind, and is, in fact, so irritating, that when he dies, we feel little for him. After all, he’s a lousy drunk, a “movie nigger,” and his actions foreshadow his inevitable end.

How does the figure of Quarrel secure an argument about blacks at the moment of empire’s long demise? Why does the likable buddy of the novel become impossible within the film? Why must Quarrel be a “movie nigger?” And what fantasies about empire and imperialism does this depiction secure?

In a previous installment, I have suggested that Bond secures a fantasy of empire’s omnipotence, one that is phoenix-like, embodied in the Bond who never dies, though his features might change. In the transition from Dr. No, novel, to Dr. No, film, we see empire reconstituting itself, both masking its founding violence (one that creates Jamaica and Quarrel) and erasing its present obsolescence (there are no racial tensions in 1958 Jamaica—all the conflicts related to independence in the book have been erased).

Through the juxtaposition between the killed Quarrel—the heading-toward-independence colonial who cannot survive the transition, especially the global vulnerabilities of independence embodied by the Chino-German Dr. No—and the surviving Bond and Honey Rider, the two main white characters, empire is secured as heterofuturity. The white man and woman survive to reproduce empire’s logic, whereas the heading-to-independence colonial cannot survive the ravages of the presumably post-imperial world.

Crucially, heterofuturity is not marked through biological reproduction—as far as we know, Bond and Honey never reproduce, and Bond is never biologically reproductive. However, whiteness is reproduced as a form of modern currency that is invulnerable to the ruptures of history, whether the enemy be German (the old), Chinese (the old and new), or a blend of the old and new, Chino-German.

One brief note on Honey.

In the book, Honey is Creole, a declassed white Jamaican who is raised by her “negress” mammy after her parents die. Her full name is, in fact, Honeychile, a name that embeds her within Jamaica’s racialized histories. However, the movie cannot reproduce this history of white decline within its narrative of white omnipotence, and so Honey is her full name, “chile” is dropped, and her deceased father was a roving marine biologist, unanchored, undiminished, killed not by his own colonial excesses, as in the book, but by the evil Dr. No.

Quarrel in the book is likable. Quarrel in the movie is unsympathetic.

The distinction between the book and the movie and how both circulate within post-independent empire is crucial in marking the ideological work of late imperial books and films. It is crucial that film predominates in forming and mediating relationships between former colonizers and colonized.

Kara Keeling writes,

A film starts. A viewer creates various circuits between the present perception of the set of images that the film comprises and past memory-images available to make sense of the film. Although these circuits are open, attentive recognition seeks to conform present perceptions to past memory-images by pummeling the fullness of each into the molds of the other. Clichés will come to predominate perceptions under conditions wherein one’s set of memory-images is already a set of clichés or, speaking most broadly, when that set consists of collective images, experiences, traditions, knowledges, and so on, and when the bodily habituation that determines perception has been made common through “affectivity.” (The Witch’s Flight, 12)

How does Dr. No the movie interpellate its white, ex-colonial, late imperial viewers? How does it construct and reassure them? What does it hide and what does it expose? Simultaneously, how does it interpellate its colored, ex-colonized viewers? What hierarchies does it defend and support, even given historical evidence to the contrary? And, given my ongoing interest in the intra-racial dynamics of diaspora, how does it mediate the relationships between blacks across the diaspora?

As I watch Quarrel, I am struck by how many Africans, especially Kenyans, might have laughed at his antics, found the “movie nigger” funny, instead of painful, not yet reached the Fanonian point of understanding the ideological work of race-making within movies. And I think, from my own experience, of the ideological work of the “movie nigger” in Kenya, the kinds of identifications it makes possible and forecloses.

By no means do I mean to suggest that all identifications are wrong. After all, as many people laugh at Quarrel because he reminds them of someone they know as those who laugh at him because he is buffoonish. Also, given the scarcity of black characters in 1960s movies, the fact of his appearance might be more ideologically significant than the tenor and timbre of that appearance.

Still, what difference might it have made if the Quarrel from the book was the Quarrel in the movie?

3 thoughts on “Quarrel in Ian Fleming’s Dr. No

  1. I’m watching Dr. No for the first time now, and I can’t believe how this Quarrel character is portrayed.

    I’m a fan of Bond movies, but never saw this film until now.
    I didn’t know the Bond series also had this in their past, shameful.

    You’re totally right, when Quarrel died it didn’t trigger any emotion. It was just a dumb character, not even human.

  2. A very important line was used by Bond ordering Quarrel to fetch his shoes.That gives an idea of the racial mindset of the early 60’s and how differant the character of Quarrel in novel and movie are

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