James Bond Retrospective: Thunderball (1965)
The story of the fourth James Bond film is a complicated one that pre-dates the formation of EON Productions and Dr. No…
As James Bond prepares for his 23rd official outing in Skyfall and to mark the 50th Anniversary of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time I have been tasked to take a retrospective look at the films that turned author Ian Fleming’s creation into one of the most recognised and iconic characters in film history.
Ian Fleming died just one month before the release of the third James Bond film, Goldfinger in August 1964. Even though both Dr. No and From Russia With Love had been successful and well received it was not until Goldfinger that James Bond truly became a worldwide phenomenon and it is a tragedy that Fleming never lived to see the full impact his creation had on popular culture.
The story of the fourth James Bond film, Thunderball, is a complicated one that pre-dates the formation of Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman’s EON Productions and James Bond’s official film debut in Dr. No. In 1958, Ian Fleming set to work on an idea for a Bond movie. Working in collaboration with his friends Ivar Bryce, Ernest Cuneo and Kevin McClory, he began writing an original screenplay working from a number of scripts, treatments and outlines written by the partnership.
After almost 18 months work on the project, Fleming began to lose interest in the project particularly when McClory introduced experienced screenwriter Jack Whittingham to the writing process. Several months later, Whittingham and McClory delivered a script entitled Longitude 78 West, which met with Fleming’s approval. However, after attempts to sell the screenplay to MCA fell through, Fleming decided to rewrite the story as his latest Bond novel changing the title to Thunderball.
In 1961 when McClory read an advance copy of the book he was furious over the similarities between the novel and his own screenplay, he immediately filed an injunction to the High Court to stop publication. The action was unsuccessful and the book was published soon after. Two years later in November 1963 McClory pursued the case again, this time settling out of court gaining the literary and film rights to the screenplay while Fleming retained the rights to the novel but had to acknowledge that it was based on a screen treatment by McClory, Whittingham and Fleming.
By the time the rights issue had been finally settled, EON Productions had already made the first three James Bond films adapting Fleming’s novels for the screen. The producers made a deal with McClory to make Thunderball the fourth film in the series. By agreeing a deal to include McClory as part of the production team, Broccoli and Saltzman would be able to make their own version of the screenplay with the full approval of all involved from the original project.
Sean Connery’s fourth outing in the lead role is probably his most confident yet. Most likely boosted by the massive success of Goldfinger and the fact he had become a leading man in his own right starring in films such as Marnie and The Hill, Connery owns the role and is completely effortless in his portrayal of the suave spy. His dialogue is sharper than ever and the wisecracks come thick and fast with even more tongue in cheek than in any of the previous films. His playful antagonising of the main villain is a joy and his seduction technique has become more a case of quantity over quality. With Connery so at ease in the role it is a shame that the film does not quite match his previous adventure.
Pre-Credits & Theme Song
Thunderball starts in style with Bond attending the funeral of SPECTRE operative, Jacques Bouvar. Shortly after leaving the service Bond is attacked by Bouvar’s widow who he is quick to punch in the face sending her across the room, however as she falls her wig comes off revealing a rather butch, Jacques Bouvar who has faked his own death to get close to Bond and attempt to kill him.
The scene concludes with Bond using a cumbersome jet pack to make his return to his Aston Martin DB5 previously seen in Goldfinger, only this time more features have been added to the range of the car’s gadgets. Bond uses high-powered water cannons from the rear lights to floor his opponents before making his escape.
The transition from grieving widow to transvestite hit-man is amusingly portrayed by a jump-cut from actress Rose Alba to stuntman Bob Simmons, who had for the last three films famously performed the opening gun barrel sequence. The fight scene is slightly marred by over use of fast motion photography, sadly something that is used frequently during the film’s action sequences. The pre-credits scene is one of the series’ shortest and seems to be predominantly to showcase the jet pack, even if it does strip Bond of some of his cool by requiring him to wear a helmet before taking flight.
The theme song presented a whole new set of problems for Bond music maestro John Barry. Initially it was thought that it would be near impossible to incorporate the title of the film into the lyrics of a song. Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse, taking inspiration from an Italian journalist’s nickname for Bond, wrote the song Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Shirley Bassey who had previously provided the theme song for Goldfinger was the first to record the song only for it to be re-recorded by Dionne Warwick and then it was removed from the title credits altogether. An instrumental version of the song does however appear in the film’s score.
John Barry went on to team with lyricist Don Black to write a theme song that could include at the producers’ request, the film’s title in the lyrics. Sung by up and coming Welsh singer Tom Jones, the song follows the Goldfinger mould by producing a big, brass sound that is pure Bond. The song was so demanding to sing that Jones reportedly fainted after hitting the song’s final notes.
Dr. No and From Russia With Love director Terence Young returned to Bond one final time for Thunderball. With a huge budget of $9million, three times that of Goldfinger and many of the usual suspects from the crew of previous productions returning, the sky was literally the limit for Bond’s biggest adventure to date.
After a NATO aircraft on a training mission is high-jacked and crashed into the sea off the Bahamas, Emilio Largo, SPECTRE’s No.2, leads a mission to steal the two live atomic bombs from the hold of the downed plane. SPECTRE contact NATO to demand £100million in diamonds in exchange for the bombs otherwise they will use the devices to destroy a major city in the United States or the United Kingdom. British secret agent James Bond 007 is assigned to the Bahamas to once again join his opposite number in the CIA, Felix Leiter to retrieve the bombs and bring Largo to justice.
Thunderball was the first Bond film to be shot in Panavision in a full widescreen letterbox format and from the beginning of the film it is apparent that the film is on a larger scale than previous films in the series. There are more scenes filmed on location rather than rear projected in the studio, the main plot involves real military jets only replaced by models for the hijack and crash sequence, the numerous underwater scenes are beautifully shot and production designer Ken Adam’s sets are bigger than ever.
The underwater sequences were choreographed by Ricou Browning, the creator of popular TV dolphin show Flipper. Browning, who had also doubled the Gil Man in the underwater scenes for Creature From The Black Lagoon was an experienced diver and filmmaker who brought his expertise to create some truly memorable deep sea footage for the film. While the scenes are undoubtedly well put together, there are far too many underwater moments that by the end of the film tend to drag slightly. In fact the best part of the underwater scenes is that they give John Barry’s magnificent score the opportunity to be brought to the forefront of the action.
Rather unusually for a Bond film there are few real standout action sequences and the over-reliance on fast motion film during the few action scenes is poor and really detracts from their overall impact. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s climax set aboard Largo’s boat, the Disco Volante. As the boat speeds out of control with Bond and Largo fighting in the control room the rear projected background is moving so fast it defies the laws of physics and instead of making an exciting climax it reduces it to a laughable farce.
Goldfinger was always going to be a hard act to follow and while Thunderball makes a valiant effort by upping the scale of all that have come before it does not quite match the standard set by the third film. However there is still plenty to enjoy particularly as Connery reaches the peak of his tenure in the lead role.
The Bond Villain
Ernst Stavro Blofeld makes his second appearance after From Russia With Love in a brief scene near the beginning of the film. Played once again by Dr. No’s Anthony Dawson and voiced by Dr. No himself Joseph Wiseman, Blofeld is only ever shown from the neck down but is still a powerful character instilling fear in all around him. The execution of one of his agents during a board meeting is still shocking despite the fact that the scene was parodied to great effect in the first Austin Powers film.
The main villain in Thunderball is Blofeld’s Number 2, Emilio Largo played by Italian actor Adolfo Celi. He is a slightly understated villain when compared to Auric Goldfinger’s rather theatrical take on the Bond villain persona. He is menacing and ruthless with his overall look enhanced by an eye-patch but Largo is played more as a typical thug rather than the traditional lead villain and as a result he is overshadowed by another villainous henchman in the shapely form of another Italian, Luciana Paluzzi’s Fiona Volpe.
(Bond standing in the doorway between their apartments as Fiona takes a bath)
Fiona Volpe: Aren’t you in the wrong room, Mr. Bond?
James Bond: Not from where I’m standing.
Volpe is the classic femme fatale, the flame haired SPECTRE operative uses her body to seduce then kill her victims with no man immune to her charms. Leather clad astride her gold BSA motorcycle with built-in rocket launchers she dispatches a victim with the same cold enthusiasm that she displays when seducing Bond, making her the real standout villain of the film.
Largo’s other henchman, Vargas, is played by Philip Locke. The character is built-up throughout the film with Largo declaring; “Vargas does not drink, does not smoke, does not make love.” However with his slight frame he does not seem to hold anything like the threat or presence of either Largo or Volpe resulting in his relatively simple and quick death at the hands of Bond.
(After shooting Vargas with a spear gun)
James Bond: I think he got the point.
The Bond Girl
The film begins with Bond recuperating at a health clinic with physiotherapist Patricia Fearing played by Molly Peters assigned as his personal nurse. Resisting Bond’s charms at first she inevitably finds herself in bed with him before he leaves the hospital for his next mission. Peters had a short acting career that began with Thunderball and ended with an appearance in the Jerry Lewis comedy Don’t Raise The Bridge, Lower The River in 1968. She has fun with her character and her relationship with Bond is reminiscent of the chemistry between Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench in the first two films.
The main Bond girl in Thunderball is Dominique (Domino) Derval, Largo’s niece and mistress. The role, originally offered to established stars Julie Christie, Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway was eventually filled by former Miss France Claudine Auger. Auger’s dialogue was actually provided by voice artist Nikki van der Zyl who had previously voiced Ursula Andress in Dr. No and Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger. Despite this Auger has an endearing naivety, looks fantastic and has the rare honour of delivering the killer blow to the villain.
(After killing Largo with a harpoon gun)
Domino: I’m glad I killed him
James Bond: You’re glad?
As with all Bond’s previous gadgets he seems to be given exactly the right equipment for the mission on which he is about to embark and Thunderball is no exception. Firstly there is the jet pack from the opening scene; perfect for his escape over the high walls of the chateau he finds himself in, it is classic Bond despite the time it takes to strap on.
After a briefing with Q, Bond is equipped with an infra-red camera that also features a Geiger counter, useful for searching for atomic bombs, an miniature underwater breathing device, ideal should he find himself underwater without breathing apparatus, a radioactive homing device in the form of a pill to be swallowed and a tiny flare gun, both of which will come in handy if Bond finds himself trapped and needing assistance. During the climactic battle, Bond uses a bulky underwater propulsion unit loaded with harpoons, underwater grenades and searchlights.
Of all the gadgets the most interesting is the mini breathing device. Used on several occasions during the film, the device seems to be a highly innovative creation and was the cause of much debate as to whether such a gadget could actually work. However during an interview on the DVD release of the film, the unit’s designer Peter Lamont recalls when he was asked by the Royal Corps of Engineers if such a device could really exist and how long it could be used underwater he replied; “As long as you can hold your breath.”
James Bond Will Return…..
The legal battles that surrounded the initial inception of the project faded into the background as Thunderball went on to break all box-office records set by Goldfinger the previous year. McClory would return to the world of James Bond in 1983 to remake Thunderball as Never Say Never Again going head to head with EON Productions Octopussy the same year. (More on this in 2012 as my retrospective continues)
With a final box office take of over $140million, Thunderball was the number one money maker of 1966 in the US and proved to be Connery’s most successful Bond film. After four films in as many years Bond ruled at the worldwide box office and had become a global phenomenon, from here he could only go on to bigger and better things….
To catch up on previous installments of the James Bond Retrospective click below: