Until his death in late-2006, Kevin McClory had spent the best part of half-a-century obsessed with the rights he perceived he had to the cinematic character of James Bond. Given he worked for a while on one abandoned screenplay, re-utilised as the ninth book (and eighth full-length novel) in an established series, he did gain a surprising amount of traction in his battles with EON. Blofeld and SPECTRE weren’t used again in the film series, in McClory’s lifetime, after 1971. As we’ve seen, he served as sole producer on 1965’s Thunderball. After the ten year moratorium agreed in the deal around that film had expired, he was back, working to establish his alternative to the official series.
For an outstanding, exhaustive discussion of the legal battles initiated by McClory, and the decades-long litigation that followed, the excellent Robert Sellers book The Battle for Bond is recommended. We’ll discuss a little more of the story with Casino Royale. In short, EON’s caution in declining to use Blofeld for 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me left McClory as the default owner of the character, and of SPECTRE. The usefulness of this was somewhat questionable, as his attempts to mount a feature film would progress on the basis that he could adapt only the Thunderball novel – not even the original film.
Sean Connery had vowed, after Diamonds Are Forever, that he would never return to the role of James Bond. In fact, the title of this film hails directly from his wife teasing him about his cast-iron vow “never again”. Micheline Connery is credited officially for this. To begin with, however, Connery had been brought on as a creative consultant to the project. With everything we know of Kevin McClory, there is every likelihood that he intended always for Connery to star, but the earliest engagement didn’t specify this.
The path from 1976, when McClory began working on his version, to 1983, when the film was released, was a long one. In part, this was due to McClory having to convince studios that he genuinely held the rights to make this. This would be a recurring issue, as he would try to launch a rival Bond series in the late-90s. Any studio committing would do so in the knowledge that they could be held complicit in any legal action launched by EON, in protection of the official series. The second reason for such a long timeframe was an attempt in the courts to block the film, not from EON, but from trustees of the Fleming estate. Goodwill towards McClory was in short supply.
Going through abortive titles such as Warhead and James Bond of the Secret Service – the latter abandoned for fear its similarity to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would invite legal action – the project began with Connery working alongside the author Len Deighton. Over time scores of writers would become involved, as it wound up being led by producer Jack Schwartzman (father of Jason, wife of Talia Shire and brother-in-law of Francis Ford Coppola – who is reputed to have performed some uncredited work on the script). Although credited to Lorenzo Semple Jr. – best known for his work on the 1960s Batman television series – writing on the project even extended to TV sitcom scribes Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais. In fact, eagle-eyed viewers may notice a word-for-word replay of a joke from Ronnie Barker’s Porridge, as Bond is asked to provide a urine sample.
Rounding out the key crew were director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) and composer Michel Legrand. The choice of the latter spoke both to the difficulty the production had in attracting Bond alumni – with John Barry declining out of loyalty to EON (as had writer Tom Mankiewicz) – and the influence of Connery on the production. First choice for scoring duties had been James Horner, fresh off Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and later to grace such works as Aliens and Avatar. Despite being the choice of Kershner and Schwartzman, Horner was passed over for Legrand, at the insistence of Connery. Although a fine composer, probably best known for his work on the 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair – winning an academy award for ‘Windmills of your Mind’ – his score for the end product was a jazz heavy, cheap sounding mess that did not evoke Bond – even a Bond looking to distinguish itself from the official series. The title song would be performed by Lani Hall, wife of Herp Albert of The Tijuana Brass, after Bonnie Tyler declined. A far superior unsolicited effort, performed by the late Phyllis Hyman, can be found online.
Never Say Never Again is the plot of Thunderball, with small changes. Some names are altered: Domino and Francois Derval become Domino and Jack Petachi (Domino played in this film by Kim Basinger); Fiona Volpe becomes Fatima Blush (a delightfully overboard Barbara Carrera performance); Emilio Largo now Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer); and his ship, The Disco Volante, becomes the more prosaic The Flying Saucer. Plot changes mean Jack doesn’t have a double, augmented by plastic surgery, and Domino is less naive than in the 1965 film. Blofeld – played by Max von Sydow – appears with face showing, rather than slightly hidden, as in the original. As in Thunderball, Bond spends much of act one at a health clinic. Where that’s not really explained in that film, here it makes more sense, as a new M (a truly awful Edward Fox turn), with little time for the double-0 section, has assumed command and has brought with him new ideas about health and fitness. From there, until a deeply messy and unfocused act three, it’s Thunderball, but with variations in set-piece and characterisation.
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If Never Say Never Again appears to be a mess, then its chaotic production is likely to be to blame. From a massive script-writing contingent, to all decisions having to go through Schwartzman, Connery, Kershner and the legal department (who would have to excise anything that could invite legal recourse from either EON or Fleming’s trustees), the film was also hamstrung by what it didn’t have. Warner Brothers had Connery, but they didn’t have the rights to the gunbarrel sequence; the dancing, silhouetted girls from the title music; the James Bond theme; the 007 theme; access to established sets, such as M’s office. This left them with something that felt like (though was better than) a direct-to-video knock-off of a Bond film. Go to YouTube and watch the official trailer for the film, and you’ll see how lacking in class the whole affair looks and sounds.
The film is not without merit, however. Chief amongst the film’s strengths is Sean Connery. Whilst at 40, Connery looked tired and prematurely old, at 52 (at time of filming) he looks refreshed, playful, and brings an amused calm to his tone, that wasn’t there in the 1960s. Whilst he’ll never look like 1964 Bond again, this may be one of his best, most rounded performances in the role, and at this stage he’s a more plausible action lead than Roger Moore, whose ageing was now really catching up with him. Connery has good chemistry with Basinger. Brandauer is terrific as Largo, making far more of an impression than his equivalent (Adolfo Celi) from the 1965 film – this version is genuinely unsettling: the Celi version… had an eye patch. Finally, it’s fair to say that whilst her role in the film is untidy – due, probably, to endless script rewrites – Barbara Carrera steals every scene she’s in, proving herself a match for Luciana Paluzzi – herself one of the finest female characters the official series ever produced.
Never Say Never Again is a visually ugly film, with a horrible score. It’s also unloved by Bond fans, as it represented a clear and present danger to the future of the official series. For all that, an engaged Connery alone makes it a personal preference over Octopussy. It was proof, however, that if for Bond the world is not enough, then Sean Connery isn’t either. The Bond series was not just its lead: it was a collection of traditions – that included visual cues and a recognisable music style. At a still-impressive $160 million in box office receipts, Never Say Never Again had lost the Battle of the Bonds, and lost decisively. EON could relax and look forward; but, first, they’d give their current Bond one last victory lap.
The Road to Bond 25 will return with View to a Kill (1985).