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James Bond returns to Latin America in `Quantum of Solace`

20-Oct-2008 • Quantum Of Solace

Cinema-goers should find the backdrops in the new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace – in Mexico, Panama and Chile – every bit as spectacular as the stunts. Nigel Richardson of The Telegraph reports.

In the late autumn of 1986 I was strolling on Beachy Head when I saw an extraordinary thing. Watched by a crowd of people, an army Land Rover appeared to accelerate over the cliff and fall, in a slow-motion parabola, hundreds of feet to the Channel below.

Given Beachy Head's reputation it crossed my mind that this was some sort of macabre suicide send-off. Then I saw a very large catapult and a man holding up a clapperboard on which was written The Living Daylights. I had stumbled on the filming of a stunt for the 1987 James Bond film starring Timothy Dalton as 007.

Alhough the end result – the pre-credit sequence of the film, in which Bond parachutes from the Land Rover as it heads for the ocean – looked effective enough in the cinema, witnessing the process had been disillusioning. Gibraltar, I knew, was actually East Sussex, the several Land Rovers they used were fibreglass shells and the man himself was played by a series of crash dummies (and I don't mean George Lazenby and Roger Moore).

Since then I have been stubbornly unimpressed by Bond's big-screen stunts. In his latest outing, however – scheduled to open here on October 31 – we can be sure of one thing. The backdrops provided by various locations in Latin America are real, and quite as spectacular as they will appear on screen. I know because I have seen them for myself. And one in particular deserves celluloid celebrity – it is, quite simply, the strangest, most exhilarating region I have been to.

Quantum of Solace – which takes its name, but nothing else, from an Ian Fleming short story published in 1960 – again stars Daniel Craig and "continues the high-octane adventures of James Bond in Casino Royale", according to a statement from the producers. Information about the film is being so closely guarded that one must rely on tantalising scraps from the film company. But certain things are clear.

Bond, said one of the producers, Barbara Broccoli, will reveal something of his "inner turmoil" and there is definitely an exotically beautiful spy, and yet another baddie who wishes to take over the world, in this case by engineeering a coup in a country that is supposed to be Bolivia but is actually bits of Panama and Chile.

The new film thus marks a welcome and overdue return to Latin America for the Bond brand. For all its dramatic landscapes – from icebergs and mountains to deserts and rainforests – the continent has been under-represented in the 007 canon of films, of which Dr No was the first, in 1962, and Quantum of Solace will be the 22nd. Thailand, the Alps, Venice, Las Vegas and even Iceland have figured prominently in previous films.

To date the most memorable scene set in South America was the fight in Moonraker (1979) between Roger Moore's Bond and Jaws, the man with the baddest brace in the world, on top of a Sugar Loaf mountain cable car in Rio de Janeiro. This time round, Craig and his co-star, the Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko, compete for star billing with pulchritudinous landscapes and locations in Mexico, Panama and Chile.

Flying sequences were filmed in the southern United States and Baja California in Mexico, over the Sea of Cortes and the cactus-studded desert. This is "hard-bitten real action, no CG [computer graphics]", according to one crew member – and no catapults or crash dummies. Skip Evans, a stunt pilot who was required to skim the New Mexico desert in an old DC3, said that "the only thing between the bottom of the airplane and the ground is the top of the cactus".

All this promises to be visually exciting, but the atmosphere and intrigue are set to really crank up when Bond reaches "Bolivia" in pursuit of Dominic Greene, the obligatory meglomaniacal villain. In February of this year the compact old quarter of Panama City, the capital of the Central American Republic of Panama, was taken over by cast and crew, and a mob of extras wearing bowler hats (for that touch of Bolivian authenticity).

Known as the Casco Viejo, the old quarter is a grid of narrow cobbled streets, plazas, old churches and peeling colonial buildings jutting into the Bay of Panama rather as the boot of Italy juts into the Med. Much of Panama City is like a mini Shanghai these days. Entire blocks have been razed and primed for the erection of luxury condos, malls and "entertainment plazas". Looking back across the bay from the toe of Casco Viejo's boot – the curving promenade of the Paseo General Estaban Huertas – you see a cluster of half-built, see-through high-rises with cranes on top, clinging to the end of Punta Patilla.

But Casco Viejo itself retains a picturesque dilapidation and a bustling and intimate Latin feel. Indeed, so unreconstructed was it that until recently it was a dangerous place in which to wander, especially at night. Real people live here, some very poor, some resentful of the gentrification that is taking place and pricing them out. But thanks to a concerted clean-up campaign by the tourist police, most of it is now safe for tourists to visit.

As you spend a day exploring – taking in the juggling unicyclists in Plaza de la Independencia, the Latin beat thudding from doorways and the views of the Pacific where vast container ships lie becalmed, waiting to enter the Panama Canal – certain corners may start to seem familiar.

The ruined shell of General Noriega's former oceanside palace, the Club de Clases y Tropas, which was detroyed during the US invasion of 1989, is the setting for a cocktail party in the film. It also featured in the 2001 film of John Le Carre's novel The Tailor of Panama, starring Pierce Brosnan (who also, of course, has played James Bond).

In Plaza de Francia, right on the tip of the boot, the white stucco palace housing the Instituto Nacional de Cultura doubled as the Grand Andean Hotel, while those street extras in bowlers were drawn from members of the Embera tribe. They now live in the Canal Zone, eking a living from tourism, but their ancestral land is in the primeval rainforests of Panama's Darien Province, a veritable Heart of Darkness near the border with Colombia, where cocaine traffickers operate with impunity.

After filming in Casco Viejo and on the Panama Canal the crew moved on to Colon, at the Caribbean end of the Canal, which (appropriately enough) stands in for Haiti. I am quite willing to be believe that the match is good without going to either place - the Foreign Office advises "against all but essential travel to Haiti", owing to the threat of muggings and kidnappings, while Colon is one of Latin America's most poverty-stricken, crime-ridden and dangerous cities. Instead, let's follow the film trail south-east for nearly 2,500 miles to one of the most dazzlingly strange and interesting places in the world, where the Bond bandwagon unwittingly rolled into a political dust storm – the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

It is known as El Grande Norte – a tract of rock and sand stretching 200 miles west to east from the Pacific to the Andes, and some 700 miles north to the border with Peru. Its apparent barrenness hides not just minerals but myriad stories.

When I first came here, in 1995, the desert roads were unmade and I was shown two things in one day that still haunt me – a pre-Columbian burial site in which, through a crack in a rock, I saw a crouching mummy with her hair in plaits; and the uncovered grave of a 10-year-old girl called Rebequita who had died of cholera in 1912. She wore a blue dress and bulbous-toed boots, and the dryness of the desert had preserved the skin on her face and hands.

Rebequita's father had been a miner in one of the many old nitrate mining towns that still dot the desert pampa. They were abandoned many decades ago but the preservative qualities of the climate have maintained them in eerily good condition. Wandering the streets, the opera house and main plaza of a "ghost town" called Chacabuco, it felt to me as if it was still populated, and that the inhabitants were simply indoors watching an important game on TV.

The Quantum of Solace team filmed some 20 miles south of Chacabuco, at the railway junction of Baquedano where the bright desert light is suffused with melancholy. Trucks laden with bags of nitrate from Chacabuco once rumbled through here. Now it's a locomotive "cemetery", an outdoor museum of dusty and rusty old locos, a water tower and empty tin sheds that rattle in the wind.

The adjacent village is a tiny, sleepy place – but it erupted in fury when filming started. The mayor of Baquedano, one Carlos Lopez, drove his car on to the set to stop the cameras rolling, angered that locals were being used to represent Bolivians. As far as he was concerned this was the equivalent of asking Manchester United fans to stand on the Kop waving Liverpool scarves, for there is no love lost here between affluent Chile and its dirt-poor neighbour, Bolivia.

In the late 19th century they fought the War of the Pacific for control of this mineral-rich region and Chile's annexation of Bolivia's Pacific coastal zone is still a source of rancour. After the mayor's intervention one local newspaper is reported to have run the headline: "Chile is Chile. We're not Bolivian Indians. Imperialist British out."

At a press conference in the Atacama, Barbara Broccoli dismissed criticism that the filmmakers had been insensitive. "This is not a political film," she said. "This is a fantasy film and an adventure film... The international audiences will see the beauty of this country and I think this is good for Chilean tourism."

She was speaking at a location that promises to be one of the most memorable in the entire Bond oeuvre and which Daniel Craig himself described as "a stunning place". Built on a mountain 75 miles south of the port city of Antofagasta, the Cerro Paranal Observatory calls itself "the world's most advanced optical observatory" and claims that its four telescopes are powerful enough to distinguish between the headlights of a car parked on the moon – if, for example, the gadgetry on Bond's Aston Martin DB5 went haywire and sent him there in error.

The surroundings of barren red rocks are appropriately otherworldly while the conditions that make Paranal ideal for astronomy – an altitude of more than 8,500ft and extremely low humidity – are less than ideal for humans. "There is no electricity here. There is no water. There is basically nothing, " said Tim De Zeeuw, the director-general of the ESO organisation, which runs the observatory.

So a hotel, La Residencia, has been built for visiting astronomers (tourists can stay at certain times). "Many of the guests, when they walk into the hotel, exclaim, 'Hey, this looks just like a James Bond set'," said De Zeeuw. "So we were very pleased when a letter arrived from the Bond company asking if they could film here."

La Residencia – where the first house rule is: "Avoid light pollution. Please close the blinds in the rooms and offices after sunset" – is much like one's idea of a space station on Mars. The L-shaped underground living quarters have 108 bedrooms, built on four levels, with a restaurant, swimming pool and sauna and a tropical garden. The whole complex is enclosed by a white dome. It is, said a Quantum of Solace producer, Michael G Wilson, "the perfect hideout for Dominic Greene, our villain".

For many film-goers in Britain Quantum of Solace will be a glorious big-screen introduction to Mexico, Panama and Chile, while for audiences in Latin America it will be a chance to get better acquainted with Bond himself. On a continent where little English is spoken outside the tourist centres, 007 has never been as popular as in much of the rest of the world – on its opening weekend in Chile, for example, Casino Royale grossed just $364,000 (the figure for the UK was £13 million).

When a casting director for Quantum of Solace in Panama approached members of the Embera tribe to play those bowler-hatted extras they did not seem to have heard of James Bond at all. "King Kong! King Kong!" was their first reaction. Then one of them piped up, "Oh, that's the guy who has lots of cars, lots of weapons and lots of women."

"That's him," confirmed the casting director.

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