Directed by Terence Young
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins
Based on an original screenplay by Jack Whittingham
Story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ian Fleming
Release Date: 21st December 1965 (U.S), 29th December (U.K)
‘Look out! Here comes the biggest Bond of all’ screamed the posters for Thunderball when it was released into cinemas for Christmas of 1965. One year after the blockbuster success of Goldfinger, all efforts were made to make Thunderball the most epic Bond production yet.
The success of the previous year’s Bond film had a profound impact on the pop culture landscape, with many studios and producers eager to cash in on the espionage craze. With that in mind, Broccoli and Saltzman needed to prove that Bond was still the biggest and best.
Thunderball had been one of two Bond books that Eon had failed to procure the rights to; Casino Royale’s rights were owned by producer Charles K. Feldman who was set to cash in on them by making his own version of the novel in 1967 and with it the first battle of the Bonds. The rights to Thunderball belonged to producer Kevin McClory who had taken Ian Fleming to court over charges of plagiarism and as a result of the settlement of that trial retained the screen rights to the novel as well as a disclaimer in the book itself, still there to this day, that it was based on an original story by McClory, Fleming and Jack Whittingham.
McClory’s rights to the novel would become a major bone of contention in the years to come, hence Octopussy going up against Never Say Never Again at the 1983 box office, but in 1965 things were a bit more peaceful and both McClory and Eon came to terms that allowed Thunderball to come to the screen; Broccoli and Saltzman would be executive producers while McClory would be the named producer on the film.
With a budget listed in various sources as coming in from a scale of $5.5 million to $9 million, it was a much more expensive film than Dr. No, clearly indicating that not only had James Bond entered the big leagues in terms of commercial success, it had also joined the ranks of big budget film production.
The first film in the series filmed in Panavision, and with it a new gunbarrel that featured Sean Connery, coming after stunt coordinator Bob Simmons fired the gun wearing the trilby in the first three instalments (it’s also the first gunbarrel to ‘open’ up the film rather than cut to the first scene), Thunderball is a film that spares no expense. It’s got an epic sheen to it that the series had never had before, with considerable scale and scope to many of the action and special effects sequences, while being the first of the series to have a running time of over two hours.
It’s a fantastically well made film, but it’s also something of a mixed bag. Terence Young returns to the director’s chair, and whilst his first two times made for wonderful films, especially From Russia with Love, coming off the back of Guy Hamilton’s jaunty, fun touch in Goldfinger, it’s clear that Thunderball needed something similar.
For a film centred around the hunt for nuclear weapons, Thunderball never feels like it has the suspenseful air that it needs given the high octane worldwide threat that the story is centred around. Future Bond films will throw such massively mounted threats from its protagonists into their narratives a lot from this point on (the next film will centre around the threat of war between the US and Russia), and even if one has the knowledge that Bond will be alright, you buy the threat, but Thunderball throws a lot into the first third of its running time that sets in stone many plot elements that the film then just uses as an excuse to lounge around in. It essentially proceeds to take a jaunty holiday to the Bahamas and with it a laid-back atmosphere that somewhat feels misplaced given that there are nuclear weapons that have been stolen and potentially going to be used to threaten the world.
The Panavision format gives the film a real sense of scale and given that every other television series and new potential movie franchise that was being given the greenlight was one centred around a Bond-esque spy, the series really needed to up the game with its action sequences resulting in Thunderball throwing in a plethora of underwater battle sequences, culminating with the massive battle that takes up the third act which is thrillingly staged but which lurches from irritatingly slow because of the water, to being undercranked to the point of silliness. The final punch-up on Largo’s boat is thrilling, but is so undercranked one kind of expects the Benny Hill music to start playing.
The filmmaking craft on display is incredible for a film made in 1965; the film deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects, but it’s the screenplay that is arguably the weak link. One can maybe criticise Young’s direction, but there are some wonderfully stylish touches here and it’s clear he’s relishing making a film like this on a larger budget given that his previous entries were made on lower budgets.
Given that Thunderball originally began life as a potential movie project before becoming a novel, it’s strange that it’s the screenplay that lets things down here. The film begins promisingly enough with a brilliant pre-title sequence involving a fake-out on the audience that they might be watching James Bond’s funeral (and the whole fake death thing would taken to brilliant extremes come the next Eon Bond production) that subsequently leads to 007 fighting a SPECTRE agent disguised as his own grieving widow.
Edited to precision by Peter Hunt and backed by blistering music from John Barry (whose score is the one thing that cannot be disputed as being brilliant about the film), the scene ends with Bond using a jetpack to escape. It’s silly, fun and delightful and then segues into a colourful Maurice Binder title sequence with a song written by Don Black and sang by Tom Jones, which legend has it collapsed while hitting the final note in the recording booth.
The Bond series was clearly not going to become a documentary-like portrayal on the nature of spying and espionage. The 60s were now swinging and while there was geo-political upheaval in the world and no shortage of horrific news stories that were affecting the running of the world, the series had seemingly thrown down the gauntlet into the realm of more larger scale escapist fare, although the threat of nuclear armageddon was still something that hung over the world and thus SPECTRE using that most modern of destruction was one that was incredibly relevant to what the world was frightened off, but there was nothing to fear as long as Bond was around, a comforting fantasy.
Sure, he worked for MI6 and had the help of the CIA, once again represented by a re-cast Felix Leiter (this time Rik Van Nutter, in a return to the more suave style of agent Jack Lord played in Dr. No as opposed to Cec Linder’s middle aged rendition in Goldfinger), but the film was, strangely for a series produced by an American and Canadian, playing into a fantasy that Britain still had a massive part to play in the world political stage. He’s the lone British character fighting in that battle at the end, but he’s the most pivotal part of it, and when it comes to defeating Largo, nobody else can do it, although the film does subvert expectations in a wonderful way when it’s in fact central Bond Woman Domino (Claudine Auger) who has the final say on Largo’s fate.
What was also becoming apparent was that while Fleming’s novels very much embraced the Cold War and those earlier books featured Bond against the real-life organisation SMERSH, right away the films were stripping away some of those real-world elements. From the moment we meet Dr. No and he wines and dines with Bond in the third act, the series made SPECTRE the big bad of the movies as opposed to SMERSH.
SMERSH would eventually get name-checked in 1987’s The Living Daylights, a decade that would see the Cold War make a more profound presence in the films, but for the swinging sixties, megalomania on a more comic book like scale was the order of the day. Why worry about the real world when you can revel in hundreds of extras battling to the death underwater in the presence of man-eating sharks?
Nuclear weapons were still a threat, but they were being used by a cat stroking maniac who wasn’t above killing his own people if they were stealing money from him, all the while the plan was being represented by a Mafioso style villain with an eyepatch with the world’s coolest yacht and who had the good sense to have Ken Adam as their interior designer.
Up to this point the villains in a Bond film were always charismatic, not to mention dubbed, and while Adolfo Celi had his voice replaced by that of Robert Rietty, Largo had none of the charm of Goldfinger, or the genuine menace of Red Grant and Dr. No. In fact, much of the cast of Thunderball away from MI6 and Bond are strangely muted and nowhere near as memorable this time. Largo isn’t very interesting, his henchman aren’t memorable and the best moment with the villains is when we spend a bit of time with SPECTRE and that amazing Ken Adam set.
The one villain who is memorable is Fiona Volpe. The prototype for all villainous henchwomen from this point on, you can see the influence she will come to have on Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye and Miranda Frost in Die Another Day. Luciana Paluzzi is a darkly humourous slice of sexual energy throughout, and more than holds her own against many of the male cast, so naturally she must be killed before the end of the film.
Remarkably, the character even delivers a piece of near fourth wall breaking dialogue indicating an early example of the Bond series being very aware of their own tropes and clichés. Bond’s sexual prowess has brought many of the female characters over to his side (as seen problematically in Goldfinger) and here is seen to be sleeping with Fiona in an attempt to do the same to which she replies with a speech explaining that while every girl hears heavenly choirs after sleeping with him, she won’t, to which Bond replies that you can’t win them all.
Some of the dialogue is admittedly sparkly and fun, and there are individual moments dotted throughout that make the film worthwhile. One could say that the film represents the first dip in quality for the Bond series, but that’s not particularly fair or accurate. It was a huge box office success, grossing $141.2 million which was a considerable amount for 1965/66 and adjusted for inflation remained the highest grossing film of the series until the release of 2012’s Skyfall.
On a purely physical level it represents a major peak for the series, and the things that are good about it are really good. For all the complaints about the underwater sequences, the battle sequence when SPECTRE and the CIA frogmen go at it is an incredible feat of stunt work and action choreography, but like everything else, it goes on for just a touch too long.
We equally spend too long at Shrublands in the first act with too much time running around the health farm, which the film then replaces by spending too long lounging around the Bahamas, then spending too much time swimming around underwater.
The next Eon Bond adventure would go to even greater epic heights, but it would come with a considerably tighter screenplay than Thunderball’s, with a lighter touch reminiscent of Goldfinger returning to the series. Come 1967, however, You Only Live Twice would not be the only Bond film making its way to cinemas.
Bond, James Bond will return in the 1967 version of Casino Royale.