One of the most memorable scenes in Skyfall is when Bond meets Q at the National Gallery in London, where we first see Bond staring at The Fighting Temeraire. Q breaks the ice when he speaks about the painting:
Q: It always makes me feel a little melancholy. Grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away to scrap… The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?
Bond: A bloody big ship.
(What follows is a brilliant moment of wit and banter. The whole scene is gold. Watch the clip embedded above.)
As I watched Skyfall, I picked up on the old versus new theme and the different, various references. I wondered if I was reading too much into it – it was, after all, a James Bond movie. I don’t think it was supposed to be deep, or intended as such. If one is to take away one reference that capsulizes Skyfall and James Bond as a whole, though, I think it would be The Fighting Temeraire.
It’s on this note that I borrowed from the library The Fighting Tememraire: The Battle of Trafalgar and the Ship That Inspired J.M.W. Turner’s Most Beloved Painting by Sam Willis. It’s a biography of the ship, strange as it sounds, and though I don’t usually read about naval history, it is an interesting and insightful read. I happened to chance upon it at the library and recognized the painting on the cover immediately, even though – I’m sorry to say – I didn’t immediately remember the painting’s name. (But I was able to find it again easily, by just Googling “a bloody big ship” and looking past the Skyfall fan fiction search results.)
Learning the history of the ship gives greater poignancy to the overarching theme in Skyfall: not just the old versus new, but – repurposed as well through reinvention. The Temeraire was originally a French ship (La Téméraire) and the English captured it, under the command of Edward Boscawen, in the Battle of Lagos. It was considered bad luck to rename a captured ship, although the accent marks were dropped, and she was re-fitted with British warship designs. (Warships could be identified by their design and, by those skilled, even by their silhouette, so their design included function.)
This can fittingly be seen as a metaphor for James Bond in Skyfall, as he comes up against an enemy whose means of attack is through cyber security and warfare rather than old-fashioned means – in order to remain relevant, Bond must reinvent himself or, like The Temeraire, will find himself hauled away to get “broken up” and replaced.
Should I ever find myself at the National Gallery in London and find myself gazing before The Fighting Temeraire, I will look upon it with a deeper understanding and appreciation of not only its history, but its place in history as well.