A brutal torture method, a double agent and a failed assassination. These are some of the true stories that inspired the events of “Casino Royale”, the story that started the James Bond franchise.
By Will DiGravioPublished November 12, 2021
Real Stories is an ongoing column of the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It is that simple. This episode 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 been adapted twice for the big screen. First, in 1967, when a group of five directors, including John huston, created a parody film. David Niven play Bond, Ursula Andréss plays Vesper Lynd, and Orson Welles played Le Chiffre, the main antagonist of the story.
Not for thirty-nine years, the franchise’s inaugural story saw a more “serious” adaptation as part of the series of films directed by Eon Productions. The 2006 version of the movie stars Daniel craig in his early days as Bond. Eva Green plays Vesper and Mads Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre. Some consider the film to be one of the best in the franchise.
Le Chiffre earns his living as a banker to terrorists. He takes their money and uses his insider knowledge to sell stocks short and profit from terrorist events. After Bond foils one of the terrorist plots, Le Chiffre, who is a genius in mathematics, organizes a game of high stakes poker in Montenegro to recover his clients’ money. Players can sign up for $ 10 million. Bond, seeing himself as an excellent reader of people, also agrees. The British government is staking him out, believing that if Bond defeats Le Chiffre, he will have no choice but to accept asylum in the UK in exchange for information. Of course, things don’t quite go as planned.
The plot of Casino Royale is wonderfully absurd. Yet Fleming’s film and 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 numbers and stories that inspired Casino Royale.
The player-agent who inspired Bond
Let’s put one thing aside: no man inspired Bond. There are many inspirations for Bond. However, an influence that particularly concerns Casino Royale comes in the form of Duško Popov, a Serbian double agent who served both the British and German governments during WWII. He transmitted 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 personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, director of naval intelligence for the Royal Navy. In this role, Fleming liaised with many other military branches, including MI6. In 1941, Fleming followed Popov while he was playing baccarat. Popov often played against Germans at Casino Estoril on the Portuguese Riviera. Fleming saw Popov win a “scandalous” bet, and thus the inspiration for Bond was born.
Towards the end of his life, Fleming said that a match he himself played against Germans at the casino served as the inspiration for Casino Royale. However, Fleming biographers disputed the story. In an interview promoting his book on Popov, author Larry Loftis explains that Popov indeed served as an influence for Bond, at least in this scenario.
Those who know the film will remember René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), Bond contact in Montenegro. In the film, baccarat becomes Texas hold’em, and Mathis follows Bond as he plays Le Chiffre. Loftis notes that it’s more likely that Mathis, who looks sideways, is based on Fleming.
Soviet spies become terrorist organization
Among the most significant changes between Fleming’s novel and the 2006 film adaptation are the villains. The villains of Fleming’s novel are SMERSH, an actual group of Soviet counterintelligence organizations.
In Fleming’s novel, SMERSH first attempts to assassinate Bond in front of the Splendide Hotel, where the poker game takes place. SMERSH donates two Bulgarian assassin box camera cases, one in red leather and the other in blue. The red contained a bomb and the blue contained a smoke screen that would allow them to escape. The assassins, not trusting the plan, decide to blow up the blue holster first to hide before throwing the bomb. Their instincts were right: the blue suitcase contained a small bomb that killed the assassins, 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 actual events. “Far-fetched, you might say,” Fleming writes. But during World War II, the Soviets attempted to kill a Nazi leader by a similar method and failed. Fleming writes that the assassins “were reduced to nothing while [Vice Chancellor Franz] Von Papen and his wife, walking from their house to the embassy; were only bruised by the explosion.
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 a poisoning attempt. Somehow, the dramatic poisoning of the film becomes more believable after hearing the real story behind 007’s original attempted murder.
The torture of James Bond
Just warning, what follows is a bit graphic. In Casino Royale, Le Chiffre brutally tortures Bond after 007 wins the poker game. The Figure ties him to a chair and beats him with a rope. At a particularly difficult moment to watch, Le Chiffre snaps the whip under Bond, presumably hitting his genitals.
Bond suffers a similar beating in the novel. Fleming writes in the aforementioned essay that the torture he describes, “was a very watered-down version of a Franco-Moroccan torture known as switch to mandolin, which was practiced on several of our agents during the war.
A quick Google search switch to mandolin gives rather unpleasant results. According to author John Griswold, it was a torture technique in which the string of a mandolin (usually made of steel) was placed under a man’s genitals. Both ends of the string are then lifted and, well, you can imagine the rest. Pretty rude and, in the movie, watered down indeed.
Fleming has certainly witnessed and heard a lot in his life. No wonder he had to release some of it via the Bond novels. So, the next time you watch a Bond movie, remember: some scenes may not be as far-fetched as they seem. As Fleming wrote to the writer of budding thrillers:
Imagination alone is not enough, but the stories you hear from friends or read in the newspapers can be built by a fertile imagination and a certain amount of incident research and documentation that will ring true in fiction as well.
Casino Royale (2006) is currently available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
Related subjects: True stories
Will DiGravio started writing for Film School Rejects in 2018. He also hosts The Video Essay Podcast and owns a television.