The Science of Cyanide in Skyfall and Other Spy Flicks

By Wesley Fenlon

Cyanide really did give spies a suicidal "out" when they were undercover, but could it melt someone's face like it did in Skyfall? Not likely.

The James Bond films, much as we love them, don't always tell the most believable villainous plots. It's still painful for us to think about Die Another Day's North Korean-turned-British-playboy who wants to carve up the Earth's surface with a sunlight-laser satellite. But an interesting post from Wired Science blogger Deborah Blum calls into question a different rogue plot element in the latest Bond film, Skyfall, that actually applies to decades of spy flicks: Cyanide.

Image credit: Columbia Pictures

Cyanide serves as a convenient plot device to kill off a lackey before he can spill the villain's secrets--most spy movies would only be 30 minutes long if the hero could interrogate the first bad guy he comes across. But as the trope goes, spies often keep a cyanide pill hidden in a false tooth, and when captured, they can bite down on it, releasing the toxin into their mouth and killing themselves in seconds. Blum writes for Wired that cyanide absolutely works--it may take a 2-5 minutes to kill, so it's a bit exaggerated in the movies--but the plot device is sound.

Mostly. Exception: Skyfall. Blum distinguishes between the gaseous hydrogen cyanide, used in Nazi concentration camps, and the salt forms of potassium and sodium cyanide, both of which are lethal when swallowed. Spies did carry suicide pills. But in Skyfall, villain Javier Bardem reveals that he bit down on a hydrogen cyanide capsule. It didn't kill him, but it did corrode his face and melt away most of his jaw.

Plot holes in James Bond movies? Nothing surprising. Cyanide pills, though? Surprisingly real.

Blum says: That doesn't make sense! "In the movie scenario, it’s identified as hydrogen cyanide," she writes. Remember, that's the cyanide usually delivered as a gas, not in a solid form. "And according to the script, it’s not lethal but corrosive...Although hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is best known as a lethal gas (it actually has a chemical warfare classification), it can also be found in liquid form, where it is usually referred to as Prussic Acid or hydrocyanic acid. This is what I suspect the Skyfall scriptwriter grabbed onto when he chose it for his destructive suicide pill."

The problem with that acid bit, Blum writes, is that hydrocyanic acid sits below citric acid on the scale of acidity. Since lemons typically don't melt our jaws, hydrocyanic acid probably wouldn't, either.

But now we've learned something. Plot holes in James Bond movies? Nothing surprising. Cyanide pills, though? Surprisingly real. Check out the rest of Blum's post for a more technical breakdown of how cyanide pills work, and for some more real world examples of spies using cyanide, like these glasses with a hidden pill compartment.