The 007 Collective is a bi-monthly column in which I revisit every official feature in the James Bond franchise and review how they hold up today. Along with a review of each film, each article in this 10-month-long series will dive into the historical place and production of each film in question. It will also feature a dossier i.e. a fact sheet with superlatives, ratings, rankings, best, worsts and other fun stuff in line with the format you’ve seen in my annual Year in Superlatives articles. This project isn’t meant to be the final word on the Bond franchise. It’s merely my take on the series. For previous entries, click here.
This week on The 007 Collective, it’s back to the 1960’s with Sean Connery’s fourth and most financially successful turn as Bond in THUNDERBALL.
Mission Title: Thunderball
James Bond: Sean Connery
Release Date: December 22, 1965
Source Material: Based on an original screenplay by Jack Whittingham and story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and Ian Fleming
Tagline: Look Up! Look Down! Look Out! Here Comes The Biggest Bond Of All!
Following SPECTRE’S theft of two nuclear weapons by hijacking a NATO jet, the international crime syndicate threatens to detonate the bombs in a US or British city unless their ransom is met. With only four days on the clock, MI6 sends James Bond to the Bahamas to investigate SPECTRE’s Number Two – Emilio Largo – and stop him before the weapons are set off.
When SPECTRE, the 24th entry in the James Bond franchise opens globally this November, it’ll undoubtedly draw comparisons to Skyfall, thanks to the latter’s enormous critical and financial success in the fall of 2012. It wouldn’t be the first time the series has faced such expectations, and going by its history, it definitely won’t be the last. Exactly fifty years ago, Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were faced with a similar dilemma: How do we follow-up Goldfinger, a movie that took Bond into the stratosphere of popularity and turned him into a global icon? As you’d suspect, the answer was to go BIG!
No review of Thunderball would be complete without first addressing the complicated, controversial and troubled history of its journey to the big screen. Going over the entire story merits an entire Wikipedia entry, and sure enough, this one does a supremely good job of detailing the specifics. But the crux of it is this: In 1958, before the EON film series was even conceived, Ian Fleming decided to write a screenplay for a potential Bond film, along with his friends Ivar Bryce, Ernest Cuneo and a young writer-director named Kevin McClory. After the group worked on a series of drafts, Fleming grew disenchanted with the project, especially when McClory brought in experienced screenwriter Jack Whittingham to take over writing duties. When the latter completed the screenplay, with Fleming and McClory’s blessing, the group tried to sell the script, titled Longitude 78 West, to studios without any luck.
With the script’s failure to sell, Fleming decided to take many elements from it and turned it into his ninth novel Thunderball. This obviously didn’t sit well with McClory who, along with Whittingham, sued Fleming for plagiarism, citing ownership of the story. Although McClory failed to stop the book from being published, a second attempt at legal action won him the film rights to the novel, as well as having Fleming admit that the book was based on the screenplay.
When it came to adapting the book into a film, EON founders Broccoli and Saltzman decided to bring McClory into the fold rather than having to face the nightmare scenario of seeing a rival Bond film undermine their cash cow. The deal was to credit McClory as Thunderball’s sole producer, with the caveat that he could not make his own Bond movie for at least 10 years. Little did they know that their nightmare scenario would eventually become a reality in 1983 when McClory would release Never Say Never Again. But that’s a story I’ve already spoken about in my review of Octopussy last month.
With a huge budget of $9 million, three times that of Goldfinger, Thunderball definitely lived up to its billing as “The Biggest Bond of All!” Released at the height of the popularity of the spy genre in December 1965, Thunderball saw the return of many of the franchise’s best crew members, including Sean Connery, director Terence Young, who had previously directed Dr. No and From Russia with Love, screenwriter Richard Maibaum, composer John Barry, production designer Ken Adam, editor Peter Hunt, cinematographer Ted Moore and title designer Maurice Binder.
Couple that dream team with a fantastical larger-than-life plot featuring exotic locations like the Bahamas, gorgeous underwater photography, an assortment of seductive women, a plethora of gadgets, an eye patch-wearing villain, man-eating sharks, a world-domination plot featuring stolen nuclear weapons and naturally, SPECTRE, it was easy to see why the movie proved so popular with audiences. With a worldwide gross of over $141 million ($1 billion adjusted for inflation), it stood as the highest grossing film of the series for nearly fifty years until Skyfall overtook it in 2012. Domestically, it still holds the record as the highest grossing entry of the franchise (after inflation) with over $607 million in sales and nearly 75,000 tickets sold.
In one of the shortest yet slickest cold opens in the series’ history, director Terence Young quickly sets up the tone of the picture: it’s going to be a brutal yet over-the-top comic-style adventure (that jetpack!). Post title-sequence, we’re then introduced to a faceless Blofeld (making his second appearance after a similar one in From Russia with Love) holding a meeting with his associates in a scene that was spoofed to great effect in the Austin Powers movies. The action then moves to a health clinic in England where Bond is recuperating from injuries suffered during the opening sequence. Revisiting the film, I was surprised at how leisurely paced it is, especially compared to its iconic predecessor. For example, it takes more than 37 minutes before Bond is even briefed about the main mission: Operation Thunderball. Granted, a good chunk of these 37 minutes cross-cut between Bond’s sickening sexual escapades at the clinic and SPECTRE’s hijacking of a NATO jet, but the slow-moving pace greatly contributes to its running time of 130 minutes, making it the longest entry in Connery’s tenure by a wide margin.
Things do get a lot better once Bond heads to the Bahamas and comes face-to-face with Largo, Domino and Largo’s henchwoman, the incomparable Fiona Volpe – played by Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi in a scene-stealing performance. The Bahamian location is also where Young, cinematographer Ted Moore and production designer Ken Adam take the opportunity to show off how they spent the massive $9 million budget. Even 50 years later, the underwater photography remains breathtaking, something that’s enhanced on Blu-Ray. Similarly, Adam’s sets are grandiose – from SPECTRE’s sterile metal-covered control room to MI6’s marble headquarters to Largo’s ‘60s waterfront estate Palmyra as well as his luxury yacht (the Disco Volante) to the buffet of underwater locations –all befitting the scope of this epic adventure.
The biggest problems of Thunderball are its lack of top-notch action sequences and abundance of underwater footage. There isn’t a single action set-piece in the picture that really stands out, despite the massive budget and exciting locations. The underwater photography, while breathtaking, eventually gets tiresome. It’s a novel idea during the first few times we see people on the ocean bed but do we really need over 40 minutes of underwater footage? Moreover, the big finale – an underwater harpoon fight between SPECTRE thugs and the CIA – is a chaotic and poorly-choreographed misuse of resources that’s devoid of suspense and thrills, this in spite of John Barry’s best efforts to heighten the tension with his pulsing score.
Nevertheless, the main reason why Thunderball still stands as one of the best films in the franchise is Connery. Undoubtedly buoyed by the success of Goldfinger and his blossoming Hollywood career, Connery is at the very top of his game as Bond, exuding confidence and epitomizing cool. His timings with one-liners and jokes are sharper than ever. As is his proficiency with physically demanding sequences. The actor spends a good chunk of the picture underwater in a body suit – not an easy task. His take on Bond is also crueler and more brutal than in previous films – something that’s enjoyable when he’s dispatching villains but disconcerting when watching him abuse female characters, a staple in all his outings as Bond.
Despite my reservations about the film’s lack of stand-out sequences, Thunderball remains fun and consistently entertaining throughout. My soft spot for the film is probably owed to the fact that this was the first Sean Connery Bond I saw. More novelistic in structure than the straight-forward Goldfinger, it’s more of an adventure spy thriller than action movie. Indeed, this fourth Bond film marked a pivotal point in the artistic direction of the Bond franchise. It was the moment where the slow-moving Cold War espionage of Dr. No and From Russia with Love meshed perfectly with the outlandish fantasy of Goldfinger. After its subsequent success, the series would continue to venture into the realm of fantasy with the epic You Only Live Twice, the cartoonish Diamonds Are Forever before fully embracing camp in the Roger Moore era.
Opening on a close-up of a casket bearing the initials JB, we’re soon relieved to see Bond alive and well overseeing the funeral of SPECTRE agent Jacques Bouvar with a French female agent. Watching Bouvar’s grieving widow – dressed in black and with a veil over her face – at the funeral like a hawk, Bond heads her off by waiting for her at her home. As he’s about to pay his condolences, he punches her smack dab in the face, revealing that woman is in fact Bouvar dressed in drag. A vicious (and gloriously entertaining) fight ensues in which both men attempt to subdue the other using furniture at each other. The fight is only marred by Young’s usage of undercranking – something that he does throughout the picture. After gaining the upper-hand, Bond kills Bouvar before escaping his lackeys using a jet pack to scale the mansion walls and land on the street outside where his French accomplice awaits him in his Aston Martin DB5. The sequence ends with the DB5 spraying water cannons at the enemies and at the screen. A quick, slick and incredible effective opening which sets the tone of the picture without overstaying its welcome.
Title Designer: Maurice Binder
Title Song: “Thunderball” performed by Tom Jones
Famous Quote: “His needs are more, so he gives less/They call him the winner who takes all/So he strikes, like Thunderball.”
It’s hard to imagine now that “Thunderball,” Tom Jones’ seductive title song – the second in the triptych of superb Bond theme songs following Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and preceding Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” – was a last minute replacement tune. After hearing the original song – “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” – belted by Dionne Warwick, Bond producers Broccoli and Saltzman rejected it on the grounds that the song didn’t have the title Thunderball in its lyrics. Idiotic! Although it doesn’t receive as much acclaim as the aforementioned two, this is one of my favorite songs of the series, especially in the way Barry’s arrangements make use of the Bond theme. It also makes for a killer introduction song at any party. Picture it… Do it!
On the design side, Maurice Bender returned to the series after a two-film absence, crafting one of his most striking sequences – a colorful mix of blue, red, purple and green hues featuring bubbles, naked swimming women and harpoons – echoing the film’s plot.
The Big Bad:
The brutish eye patch-wearing industrialist Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), SPECTRE’s second-in-command. Largo’s penchant for a lavish lifestyle, his massive build and deep voice make him an imposing villain in the vein of Goldfinger. Deeply possessive of his assets, including the striking Domino, Largo is a brilliant strategist and shrewd businessman whose major flaw is his arrogance and temper.
The irresistible femme fatale Fiona Volpe whose penchant for fast vehicles (be it guns or cars), proficiency with weapons and prowess at seducing any man, makes her one of the series most memorable henchmen/henchwomen. As played by Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi, she’s as quick-witted and charming as Bond, making her one of the few villains who almost gets the better of the British spy.
World Domination Plan: The NATO Project
Hijacking a routine NATO training flight, stealing the two nuclear weapons on-board, and then threatening to blow up a city in the United States or England if their ransom demand of $100 million isn’t met.
The beautiful and athletic Domino (Claudine Auger), Largo’s sometime mistress and arm candy. Domino is also the sister of Colonel Dorval who is assassinated by SPECTRE members Fiona Volpe and Angelo on Largo’s orders. Bond uses Domino to get closer to Largo (surprise!) but is only able to convince her to join his cause when he informs her of Largo’s hand in her brother’s death. She’s the first and only Bond girl to kill the main villain.
Others: Masseuse Patricia Fearing (Molly Peters), MI6 Bahamas contact Paula Caplan (Martine Beswick) and assassin Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi)
CIA agent Felix Leiter who is played by Rik Van Nutter, the third actor to don the role in four films. A lot younger and athletic than Cec Linder who played the character in Goldfinger, Nutter’s version of the character is a chum of Bond who is also an extremely useful resource in the Bahamas, offering a hideout for Q’s gadget lab as well as taking Bond around the islands on their search for the missing NATO aircraft. He also randomly shoots a shark!
Paula Caplin (Martine Beswick): Bond’s local contact in the Bahamas who aids Bond when he first makes contact with Domino on a coral reef. Although useful, she is eventually captured by Fiona Volpe and tortured by Largo but commits suicide using a pill before they are able to get any answers out of her.
M (Bernard Lee): M gets a larger role in Thunderball when MI6 is informed of SPECTRE’s ransom. He calls a meeting of all 00 agents, the first and to my memory, only time this is seen in a Bond picture. Although he assigns Bond to a mission in Canada, Bond insists on following a lead in the much cozier Bahamas. M is initially peeved but trusts Bond enough to allow him to follow the lead.
Q (Desmond Llewelyn): Q shows up at his lab in the Bahamas and gives Bond a series of gadgets that prove extremely useful during his underwater mission including the famous mini-breather, a Geiger counter watch and camera, an infra-red water-proof camera, a propulsion tank and most comical of all, a homing pill which Bond asks if he should swallow, much to the chagrin of Q.
Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell). Minimal screen time – only on a phone call.
Jet Pack: Which Bond famously uses to escape Jacques Bouvar’s mansion during the film’s opening sequence.
Aston Martin DB5: Gadgets highlighted include a bullet-proof metal wall and water cannons.
Mini-Breather: Bond’s most useful gadget in the movie. He uses it when he’s trapped inside Largo’s shark-infested pool.
Infra-Red waterproof Camera: Bond uses it to photograph the underside of the Disco Volante, correctly deciphering it to be a hub for submarine vehicles.
Propulsion Air Tank: Used during the film’s climax to over-power nearly every one of Largo’s goons.
ODDS & ENDS
Most Memorable Quote:
[Bond retorting to Fiona after she calls him out his vanity and penchant for seducing women]
James Bond: My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for King and country. You don’t think it gave me any pleasure do you?
Fiona Volpe: But of course, I forgot your ego, Mister Bond. James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, then immediately returns to the side of right and virtue. But not this one. What a blow it must have been – you having a failure.
James Bond: Well, you can’t win them all…
Most Embarrassing Quote:
[After Domino rejects Bond’s proposal to have dinner with her]
James Bond: My dear, uncooperative Domino.
Domino: How do you know my friends call me Domino?
James Bond: It’s on the bracelet on your ankle.
Domino: So… what sharp little eyes you’ve got.
James Bond: Wait ’til you get to my teeth.
Most Memorable Moment:
The Junkanoo Carnival chase sequence. After Bond is apprehended by Fiona Volpe and her men, he escapes from their car and runs into the adjacent carnival parade. Although he gets shot in the leg, he manages to escape to the Kiss Kiss Club where Fiona catches up with him and dances with him, while hoping her assassin can kill him. But Bond, correctly deducing the location of the assassin, switches positions with Fiona just in time, leading the bullet to kill her instead. Coolly putting her body on a nearby chair, Bond looks at onlookers and states:
“Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead.”
Most Cringe-Worthy Moment:
After Count Lippe turns the stretching machine Bond is sleeping on into overdrive, a trapped Bond screams for help to no avail. Passing out from the pain, Bond is saved by the timely intervention of masseuse Patricia Fearing who turns off the machine just in time, thereby saving Bond’s life. As the two of them walk to the adjacent sauna room, Bond tells her, “Somebody’s going to wish that today never happened.” Incorrectly assuming that Bond is blaming her for the machine’s failure, Patricia pleads for his silence. Realizing her error, Bond takes advantage of the situation and blackmails her into having sex with him.
[After Bond inspects a gun that was previously used by Fiona Volpe at Largo’s home]
James Bond: That gun, it looks more fitting for a woman.
Emilio Largo: You know much about guns, Mr. Bond?
James Bond: No, but I know a little about women.
Most Shocking/Outrageous Moment:
Has to be the sequence at the health clinic in which Bond tries to rape Patricia Fearing – yea, rape! During her health inspection, Patricia asks him to lift his arms so she can see his wound. Bond lifts his hands up and as she bends down to look at the bruise on his side, he lowers his hands, grabs her and forcibly kisses her, prompting her to shove and push angrily until she is able to push him away. Calming herself, she looks at him and tells him to behave himself. Bond’s response – a shit-eating look that screams, “Just you wait!”
Bond meets up with Domino underwater on the coral reef, and then the two proceed to have sex – underwater! The action is depicted via millions of bubbles rising up to the surface.
Best Pun/Double Entendre:
[After shooting a harpoon into the chest of Vargas, Largo’s second-best henchmen]
James Bond: I think he got the point.
Worst Pun/Double Entendre:
[A now-smitten Patricia asks Bond as he leaves the clinic, telling her that he needs to leave for work]
Patricia Fearing: What kind of work do you do?
James Bond: I’m kind of a licensed troubleshooter.
I see what you did there, Bond. Yea, it’s clever but it reeks of trying way too hard.
Best Stunt/Action Scene:
Weirdly enough… the opening sequence. It was a close call between this scene and the carnival sequence but that chase isn’t really a big action scene in the traditional sense. I also disregarded the climactic underwater fight between Largo’s men and the CIA. It may have its share of fans but I don’t find it anywhere close to thrilling. The opening fight on the other hand, is a brutal brawl that manages to strike an impact, in spite of director Young’s bizarre insistence on undercranking the footage. Bond’s escape using the jet pack and then dousing his enemies using the DB5’s water cannons are merely the cherries on top!
Most Dated Reference:
The hidden tape recorder in the Bible.
Number of Times Bond Has Sex: 4 (twice with Patricia Fearing, and one each with Fiona Volpe and Domino)
Number of people Bond kills: 20
Bond’s Best Kill:
Casually disposing Vargas by blasting him in the chest using a harpoon gun, and then coolly saying, “I think he got the point.”
Locations visited: (In order of appearance) Paris, England, London, Bahamas, Miami
Misogyny Meter: 8/10
The attempted rape and subsequent blackmailing of Patricia Fearing into having sex with him. Constant sexual predatory comments made at Domino and Fiona.
Homophobia Meter: 0/10
Racism Rating: 8/10
For a movie primarily set in the Bahamas, Thunderball is surprisingly devoid of non-white characters. Paula may be the only non-white actor with a speaking part in the picture and she commits suicide. Technically, this doesn’t qualify as racism but it’s symbolic of an industry where minorities were (and still are) marginalized.
Box Office: $63.5 million ($607 million, adjusted for inflation. Number 1 overall).
Oscars: 1 (Best Visual Effects)
007 Chronological Listing: 4/24
Director: Terence Young
Screenwriters: Richard Maibaum, John Hopkins, Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ian Fleming
Cast: Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celi, Luciana Paluzzi, Rik Van Nutter
Producer: Kevin McClory
Running time: 130 minutes
Companies: EON Productions, MGM
The 007 Collective will return in:
Previous entries in The 007 Collective:
- Goldfinger (1964)
- A View to a Kill (1985)
- Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
- The World is Not Enough (1999)
- Die Another Day (2002)
- Quantum of Solace (2008)
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
- Octopussy (1983)