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Regular-Sized Bugs on the Big Screen, Part 1: Dr. No

Hello, and welcome to the first installment of “Regular-Sized Bugs on the Big Screen.” This series of posts is BugWeek’s way of saluting real arthropods that make cameo appearances in films – they get less attention than their unnaturally large counterparts, so we wanted to balance things out.

Today, we’ll take a look at the 1962 James Bond film, Dr. No, which features an unforgettable sequence with a “deadly” tarantula.

Dr. No was the first installment in the Bond film franchise that’s still going strong 53 years later. Dr. No was an international hit, and established many of the elements of Bond films that even casual viewers would recognize today – the theme music, the flashy title sequence, the immense supervillain lair and so forth.

Like most Bond films, Dr. No deviates in numerous ways from the Ian Fleming novel that inspired it, but here’s the basic plot – superspy James Bond, aka Agent 007, is sent to Jamaica to investigate the death of a fellow British intelligence agent. There, he discovers that a mysterious recluse, Dr. No, is secretly mining uranium on his private island, as part of a plot to disrupt an upcoming U.S. rocket launch. Bond foils the plot, with his trademark panache.

One of the better-known sequences in the film involves an attempt to kill Bond with a tarantula. Unfortunately, we can’t provide a video clip, due to copyright concerns. So, we’ll summarize it for you:

The tarantula makes its first appearance about 30 minutes into the film, when Dr. No directs one of his underlings to take a fancy little cage containing the spider and use it to dispose of the meddlesome Mr. Bond… permanently. There’s no descriptive dialogue about the spider, but it’s strongly implied that this critter is exceptionally lethal.

The tarantula is placed in Bond’s bed and there’s a long, tense scene in which Bond tries to remain still as it crawls across his chest and eventually strolls onto a pillow, at which point 007 jumps up and pulverizes it with a shoe. The world’s greatest superspy then staggers off to the bathroom, apparently sick to his stomach after coming within a (uricating) hair’s breadth of meeting his demise.

It might make for memorable cinema, but from an entomological standpoint, this scene just doesn’t have legs. While it’s true that every tarantula species possesses toxic venom (as does every other spider species), very few tarantulas produce venom potent enough to warrant a trip to the doctor, let alone kill a grown man. Also, anyone familiar with tarantula behavior knows that they bite only when agitated, and tarantulas express their agitation with sudden movements and threat displays — neither of which are in evidence as the spider takes its leisurely final stroll around Bond’s upper torso.

From a filmmaking standpoint, the casting decision makes perfect sense – tarantulas are big, impressive-looking spiders, and many species are quite docile and amenable to handling. (It’s worth noting that in the book, the critter used in the assassination attempt is a centipede, and if the BugWeek Web Team’s experience is any indicator, large centipedes are too fast-moving and unsociable to stay out in the open and pose threateningly for the camera.)

The BugWeek Web Team can’t discern the species of tarantula used in Dr. No, but it’s medium-sized and uniformly dark-colored, which rules out the species with colored bands on their legs (popular in films and TV, as well as the real-world pet trade), the exotically colored species like the spectacular cobalt blue Haplopelma lividum, and the really big species like the goliath bird spider, Theraphosa blondi, another show-biz favorite. We do believe this specimen is a male because the abdomen is a bit elongated and small in relation to the rest of the body, whereas a female would typically have a larger, rounder abdomen.

Also, in case you’re wondering, it appears that no tarantulas were harmed in the making of this film. Thanks to a camera cut, we don’t see the tarantula being crushed in the climactic scene. As a matter of fact, after careful review, the BugWeek Web Team has concluded that the tarantula isn’t visible at all during the big bedside beat-down, nor is there any hint as to how the tarantula moved from the pillow to the floor beside the bed in about two seconds’ time — Bond doesn’t flip or throw the pillow, and when we last saw the spider it was moving at about the same speed as molasses rolling uphill in January. We’ll assume that producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli didn’t want to shell out the money for a stunt tarantula (this film had a $1.1 million budget) and decided to just pretend the spider appeared in that scene.

So, our BugWeek Board of Critics gives Dr. No a B+ for entertainment value and a D+ for entomological integrity. If Mr. Bond was as worldly as he’s portrayed, he should have casually brushed the tarantula off his chest, shooed it out the door and gone back to sleep – stirred, not shaken. Buuuuuut that scene would have about the same dramatic impact as Bond ordering a vodka martini. So instead, the producers took the easy way out and gave us yet another example of Hollywood demonizing these harmless creatures in the name of entertainment.

“Regular-Sized Bugs on the Big Screen” will return – join us next time for a look at The Naked Jungle, a 1954 adventure/romance that stars Charlton Heston, Eleanor Parker, and about eleventeen billion army ants!

Photo by John Fowler, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by russavia.

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