The dark of night. James Bond (Sean Connery), wearing a blue shirt and white trousers, comes out of the jungle. He reaches the highway. He has just had a traffic accident. A car approaches and Bond signals for it to stop. The attractive woman driving the Ford Mustang helps him. Bond gets in.
“You’d best put on the safety belt,” says the driver.
Bond ignores her advice with a smile. The scene is out of Thunderball (1965). How strange the driver’s request must have sounded to an audience back then.
The safety belt had been on the market for scarcely a decade, after Ford offered it as an extra in 1956. (It resembled the seatbelts on planes.) The spectators watching Thunderball, like Bond, aren’t yet accustomed to safety belts. The driver’s request makes more sense when she drives the Mustang at 177 kilometres per hour along bad roads. Bond looks perturbed. Yes, he should have put the seatbelt on. The driver is an agent from Spectre. The villain in the film.
Daytime. San Francisco. The hero, Bullitt (Steve McQueen), gets into his Ford Mustang and then sees the bad guys’ car on the other side of the street. There is no shot of McQueen’s hands, but his movements are obvious: he puts his seatbelt on. Click-clack. This sound prepares the audience: McQueen isn’t out for just a slow ride. At the time, in 1968, nobody put on a seat belt to drive in the city. McQueen is preparing to drive at speeds that will make the cars fly over the hills as if from rocket launch pads. (It actually comes from the film editing: the cars hardly leave the ground.)
Thunderball and Bullitt link the safety belt –the one that went around the waist, it should be recalled– with extreme speed, like so many other action films of the period. Putting it on for daily activities, like going shopping or driving to the movies, wasn’t common either in movies or, apparently, in daily life.
THE CANNONBALL RUN
“Let’s grab an ambulance. The police won’t stop us,” says Burt Reynolds to his partner.
Reynolds wants to win a coast-to-coast race across the United States at any cost in the forgotten –and forgettable– saga titled The Cannonball Run (1976). A race that neither respects speed limits nor uses safety belts. No belts is not a rule for the competition, but is standard practice among the participants. The film is based on a real event.
Volvo had invented the safety belt with three anchoring points (1959), the one we use today, and even released the patent, but the invention was slow to catch on. In the 1970s the US Government began to establish speed limits and made seatbelt use obligatory. This caused controversy. Its detractors felt their individual liberties were being restricted. As a protest, the Cannonball race was created.
Hollywood found a gold mine in the story. First with a dramatic version starring David Carradine. Later with a comic treatment led by Burt Reynolds and a gallery of stars then in decline (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.) and some newcomers, like Jackie Chan. They were more interested in defying the police –always portrayed as imbeciles– than in their own physical safety.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is fleeing from some terrorists with machine guns. They’ve just killed Doc. In such a dangerous situation Marty obviously isn’t thinking about seatbelts. But once the danger has passed, Marty drives the DeLorean without buckling up. It’s not that the DeLorean doesn’t have a belt. Marty McFly is a young man of his time. In his daily life, without a seatbelt, he drives a Toyota 4×4. His girlfriend, who is sitting beside him also ignores safety.
Although Back to the Future is a family saga, neither the director nor the actors nor the producers (headed by Spielberg) have no desire to promote safe driving.
In the 1980s only two kinds of people used seatbelts: mothers taking their kids to school and fathers who were portrayed as strict and boring. The audience doesn’t want to be associated with boring characters. The tough guys of the 80s like Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis or Kurt Russell didn’t use a seatbelt.
TOMORROW NEVER DIES
For the first time, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) opens the BMW 750 offered to him by Q.
“Welcome,” says a female voice that’s more carnal than metallic. “Adjust the seatbelt and follow all the instructions.”
Bond’s smile reveals his disagreement.
“I thought he would pay more attention to a feminine voice,” says Q.
Bond likes to do things his way. Not putting on his safety belt is one of his whims. As if not wearing it would allow him to get out of the car in a hurry (in the case of not being stunned after a crash).
The scene is part of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). The previous Bond (Timothy Dalton) used a seatbelt… at times. Thirty years had gone by since Thunderball, but BMW wanted to remind Agent 007 of the importance of safety.
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS
Dawn. The city of Los Angeles yawns. A green Mitsubishi Eclipse hums in the empty parking lot of Dodger Stadium. Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is at the wheel of this 162-horsepower beast. He looks at the highway, steps on the clutch, throws it into low gear –the gear changes are loud, the way it should be– and steps on the gas. The tyres smoke.
O’Conner quickly changes gears, moves his feet with agility in the clutch-accelerator play. He gets the Mitsubishi up to 6,000 revolutions per minute and 225 kilometres per hour. Yet he’s not satisfied: he wants more. But the machine rebels, skids and O’Conner must brake hard.
“Shit!”, says O’Conner as he bangs the steering wheel. He’s furious with himself, without realising he’s been extremely lucky. He’s driven at diabolical speed without suffering a scratch. Without a seatbelt.
At the start of the century, The Fast and The Furious (2001) brought back the spirit of Cannonball. An illegal race. Fearless characters. The drug of speed. There’s no consideration of death or permanent incapacity. To date, this spirit has produced eight films in the series. The safety belt is mere decoration for the stars. Their thinking is anchored in a period when wearing the safety belt was a personal choice. Just as in Cannonball, the supposed challenge to the law that meant not wearing it is more important than one’s physical safety.
For the first time, movies lag behind society, according to the School of Public Health of St. Louis University. This institution points out that, unlike in films, in the real world few people fail to wear a safety belt.
Night. Montenegro. Bond (Daniel Craig) runs out of the casino after the villain kidnaps Vesper (Eva Green). He jumps into the Aston Martin DBS. Wearing the seat belt, he drives at great speed to try and catch up with the kidnaper. But he’s lost him.
Eva Green is lying on the road. Bond avoids hitting her but the Aston Martin flips over several times. Craig’s Bond isn’t hurt. Craig’s Bond uses the safety belt every time he gets into a car. Even if he’s in a hurry he takes this precaution. The safety belt doesn’t make Bond-Craig any less effective than Bond-Connery. In fact, it makes him more effective. The new Bond doesn’t take unnecessary risks. He knows that if he doesn’t wear a belt, a crash could leave him dazed and this would abort his mission.
The James Bond saga helps us see how the safety belt has been accepted late by both society and cinema, which reflects the trends of the moment.