It’s no secret that Ian Fleming had long harboured hopes of getting his secret agent onto the big screen. In fact, even the small screen would do. He had sold the rights to Casino Royale, in the early-1950s, to CBS for $1,000. This ended up produced as a live, one-hour TV show. More on that story down the line…
In 1958, Fleming was introduced to Kevin McClory, an Irish screenwriter. For context, this was the year that book six (of 14), Dr No would be released. Along with fellow writer Jack Whittingham, Fleming and McClory would collaborate on several drafts of a script for an original story, intended to be produced as the first James Bond film (studio to be determined). The working title for this project was ‘Longitude 78 West’.
When the project fell through, Fleming took the story elements, and re-fashioned them into book eight, 1961’s Thunderball, Neither McClory or Whittingham were credited in that work (or remunerated), and they responded by suing Fleming for plagiarism. This case opened around the time John F. Kennedy would have been sitting down to watch From Russia With Love in late-1963. In other words, the EON Productions film series was already underway, and in rude health.
The cost to Ian Fleming was catastrophic: he suffered heart problems during the case, exacerbated by extreme stress, and he died the following year, at the age of only 56. The long-term effects, as they eventually played out, couldn’t possibly be known to EON at this stage, but a deal was done that would see McClory listed as the sole producer on the fourth film, with an agreement that he would make no further adaptations of the source material for ten years thereafter. Once Thunderball was made, EON would be safe for a decade: surely the Bond series would be done by then?
As for the film itself, Thunderball sees the return of Terence Young as director, after Guy Hamilton declared himself in need of recharging his batteries. Young was handed a budget of $9 million, a three-fold increase over the previous year’s Goldfinger, and nine times that afforded to Dr No only three years before. John Barry was back to provide his third score, and Ken Adam would have generous funds to design some wonderful sets (the SPECTRE briefing room becoming iconic, and the MI6 equivalent, where the 00-section are briefed being a thing of beauty). Much of this budget would go towards realising the ambitious underwater photography; with around 25% of the film taking place under the sea around Nassau, in the Bahamas.
The film begins with what, for a moment, could be Bond’s funeral. In the event, it proves to be that of SPECTRE operative, Jacques Bouvar. This pre-title caper sees Bond uncover the-still-alive Bouvar, posing as his own widow. After a scuffle that ends in Bond killing Bouvar, Bond uses a jet-pack to cross the street, escaping in the DB5.
After a visit to the health retreat at Shrublands, Bond returns to MI6 to receive the briefing that SPECTRE has stolen two nuclear missiles, and are looking to extort $100 billion from the governments of the UK and US, or they will destroy a city in one of the two nations. In the briefing pack is a picture of François Derval, the pilot of the plane that went missing with the missiles, along with his sister Domino (Claudine Auger). Bond requests to go to Nassau, where the photo was taken, and Domino is based, as he saw the corpse of François, at Shrublands, before the flight took place. The audience have seen that a double was employed by SPECTRE.
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Once in Nassau, Bond finds Domino in the company of Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi – looking good, but relatively forgettable), the eye-patch wearing SPECTRE Number Two, and influence on Number Two from the Austin Powers series; and effectively the henchwoman for this film, Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi, as possibly the best femme fatale the series ever produced). Along with the CIA’s Felix Leiter (Rik van Nutter as the third incarnation of the character), Bond will work to stop Largo and SPECTRE before either Government pays up, or tragedy ensues.
Thunderball is the point where we can say, confidently, the Bond formula is complete. The film’s running time is around 130 minutes – a relatively typical length for a Bond film, give or take five minutes or so. The film is the first to be shot in the CinemaScope ratio of 2.35:1 – hence the debut of Connery’s own gunbarrel performance: a shaky-legged affair – but only the first two Roger Moore films, of all the entries to come, would ever be shot in any other ratio. The title sequence, accompanied by Tom Jones’s song (performed with such gusto that he fainted on the final note), looks like an example typical to the series between then and the late-1980s, complete with silhouetted women. There is a noticeable step-up in gadgetry. In fact, everything about this film is just… bigger.
Producer Michael G. Wilson has often said words to the effect that every time they start production on a Bond film, they hope to make From Russia With Love but they end up making Thunderball. Could this be a reference to bigger not always equalling better? It is difficult to judge the contemporary impact of the film, from the perspective of today, as we can’t possibly take ourselves to a time where this beautiful underwater photography was truly innovative. With the ‘wow factor’ removed, the film becomes 25% constituted of people underwater and fighting very slowly. Consequently, Thunderball has always felt by far the slowest of the 1960s entries, and arguably the weakest of the opening four films.
The grouping together of those four is deliberate, as really this is the golden era of the series: four consecutive increases in box office returns, and all four pictures received very well critically. By next time out, the reception will be more mixed, Connery a shade out of shape (comparatively), and the franchise sees its first drop in financial returns. Thunderball, whilst not quite the apex of the series’ first arc of bloat (the following entry represents that), is the high water mark for its growth. It remains the biggest at the US box office in terms of paid admissions, and is the second biggest worldwide, in adjusted terms, of the entire run – its position at the top not usurped for 47 years. At $141.2 million it bested Goldfinger, itself a phenomenon, by $17 million.
This is the last film that starred a Connery genuinely at his peak – an even worse wig than last week notwithstanding. His efficiency of movement is something we don’t see again until the early Daniel Craig entries, with the backstage sections at the opera in Quantum of Solace having several Connery-esque moments. In particular, the casual breaking-off of a door handle in that film is very reminiscent of Connery elbowing a fire alarm at Shrublands. It’s swaggering and confident, without being off-putting to audiences. Connery still looks like he’s having fun (though there were warning signs behind the scenes that all wasn’t well – he attended none of the premieres for this film).
In other areas, there are a few fun ‘what ifs’. Both Faye Dunaway and Julie Christie auditioned for Domino. Both might have brought more screen presence than the beautiful-but-bland Auger. Alternative songs were mooted, with Johnny Cash recording a track; and both Dionne Warwick and Shirley Bassey recording versions of a song named ‘Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’. All of these can be found on YouTube. The Cash song doesn’t fit with what we’re now think of as a Bond film. The other efforts are closer, with that song being seeded throughout the score – indicating Barry’s preference. Of the two performances, Warwick’s probably shades it. What we ended up with was fine; just a little dwarfed by some of the other 60’s and 70’s efforts.
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Thunderball is the first, but not the last, example of EON or others involved thinking that ever greater spectacle was the way to go. Even today we hear Daniel Craig saying they start a film wondering how to top the last one. None of them seem to have realised that many of the best entries in this series have been noticeably smaller films than their predecessors. The explosion of the Disco Volante – Largo’s boat – at the end of the film, caused windows to smash 30 miles away; John Stears garnering the series’ second Academy Award, for his special effects work. By now, spectacle was everything.
Thunderball is a film that it’s very easy to damn with faint praise. Much of this is due to the passage of time and the film’s reliance more on that ‘wow factor’ than some of the films around it. If a film’s appeal is based on a new, shiny way of doing something, then it stands to reason that its effect will be lessened when that way of doing things becomes more routine. Once upon a time, the underwater photography here would have seemed jaw-dropping. Despite the worst excesses of the tendency to speed up action footage that we see in the series, the film remains influential. Batman’s escape from Hong Kong in The Dark Knight uses a sky hook plot device taken from the end of this very film, for example.
At this point, the Bond series was at the height of its powers. As is often the case, however, the moment of greatest triumph masked some small, developing concerns. Connery would not return for two years after this film, as he was beginning to tire of the yearly cycle, and certainly he was starting to resent what he saw as his insufficient remuneration, given the series’ extraordinary level of success. Thunderball represented, with its huge increase in budget, a philosophy from EON Productions of committing to producing ever increasing spectacle: an approach that surely could not endure indefinitely. Next time out, the series would move to the Far East, as, finally, Bond would meet his nemesis: Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
The Road to Bond 25 will return with You Only Live Twice (1967).