Ken [Adam] breezed into the office one day and said,
"We're going to do Thunderball.
You'd better learn to swim."
- Peter Lamont, set draftsman
Film: 1965 (#4)
Book: 1961 (#9)
Bond is at a health farm and gets suspicious of another patient, Count Lippe, who will be killed off shortly after we use him as a bridge to meet his buddy Angelo, who has had plastic surgery to look like a man named Derval. Angelo impersonates Derval to steal a NATO jet with nukes, which he lands in the water off the Bahamas. Angelo is then killed, having served his purpose. The gent who wants the nukes is Emilio Largo, who hides them in his yacht, the Disco Volante. Largo works for SPECTRE, which uses the nukes to blackmail the world governments. Even though they are prepared to pay, they send Bond to investigate and get rid of the nukes anyway. Got that? There is the biggest underwater battle ever, with frogmen dying all over the place, and fifty hours later the Disco Volante blows up real good. Oh, and there's a woman in this plot somewhere too.
Book vs. Film
[If you look at Wikipedia's page on this novel, they say this is book #8. They don't count For Your Eyes Only, a collection of short stories which appeared in 1960, and I do.]
This book is an anomaly: It could be argued (and was - keep reading) that it was a novelization of a screenplay; but that screenplay isn't exactly the same one used to make the film, which evolved from this book. The film, then, is a screenplay of a novel based on a screenplay. If that seems confusing, then the tone for the rest of this page is well-set.
That said, the film and book are very, very close. Fiona Volpe is an invention of the film, and a good one. Count Lippe is even more tenuous a link to the main plot in the book than he is in the film. The body-double business doesn't exist in the book; the pilot, who in the book is named Giuseppe Petacchi, is just convinced to turn traitor (which really seems a lot simpler, after all). Bond and Leiter briefly chase the Disco Volante in an American nuclear submarine, but the end battle of underwater forces more or less works out the same way.
I've moved this section out of sequence for this film because this is where all the action is. Follow along, now. This gets nasty.
In 1958, Ian Fleming's friend Ivar Bryce introduced him to a young film producer/director - well, he'd directed one film, which Bryce had funded - named Kevin McClory. McClory's idea was to develop a Bond film - previous stabs at it had gone nowhere - based on an original screenplay, not an adaptation of one of six novels then to date. Bryce, McClory, Fleming, Jack Whittingham (writer hired by McClory) and Ernest Cuneo (writer friend of Fleming's) formed a loose group to try to come up with some treatments, with the understanding that McClory would direct.
Despite internal strains (Fleming and McClory had class-related frictions - basically McClory thought Fleming was an Etonian toff and Fleming thought McClory was poor Irish trash), they did produce some drafts, including two from Fleming that were pretty bad (he was no screenwriter). Eventually Whittingham produced a script, deemed filmable, called James Bond of the Secret Service. However, when McClory tried fishing around for the financial backing he would need to film technically complex underwater sequences in the Bahamas, he had no luck, and the film missed its projected production dates.
Meanwhile, Fleming was growing disillusioned with Bond and felt, post-Goldfinger, that he had run out of ideas. He seriously considered killing off Bond. He staved off his publishers by offering a collection of five stories (the aforementioned For Your Eyes Only), some cannibalized from a Bond television project that had never happened. But now they wanted a new novel. Fleming used the Whittingham script as source material for Thunderball. When the novel appeared, McClory and Whittingham sued for plagiarism.
The actual plagiarism was never in much doubt. The question hinged upon whether the script - written by Whittingham and owned, as work-for-hire, by McClory - could have been freely adapted by Fleming under the terms of any agreement he had with McClory (via Bryce), whatever those might be.
Whittingham, worried about the effects the trial was having on his health and scared by the money every other participant but him could bring to the case, decided to withdraw as co-plaintiff and merely be McClory's witness. McClory, for his part, demanded a settlement no one on the other side was remotely prepared to grant - motivated partly by a desire to rub it in the faces of the toffs, and partly by his burning need to appear (and profit) as producer of a Bond film. By the time the case came to court in 1963, EON was making Bond films and was prepared to back Bryce to prevent any kind of judgement for McClory. Meanwhile, Bryce was becoming concerned about Fleming's health. His heart was worse than any but his close friends knew, and there was a real danger he wouldn't survive the stress of the trial.
Eventually, possibly out of that fear for Fleming's health, Bryce settled - ironically, severely damaging his friendship with the Flemings, who felt he had sold them out. McClory got the copyright to all Thunderball film scripts and the exclusive right to make any film based on those scripts. He and Whittingham got a co-author credit with Fleming for the book, which has been in all printings since. He also got a modest damage award and his court costs paid. He was reportedly unsatisfied with the settlement. Whittingham got nothing, despite arguably being the person most directly wronged.
[This is by necessity a poor summation of a complex case. If you would like to read more about it, I highly recommend The Battle For Bond by Robert Sellers.]
Before we finish connecting the dots to the 1965 film, an important point. McClory felt, with justification, that he owned the concept of SPECTRE. He also claimed to own Blofeld, because the Whittingham script contained a Blofeld character whom Fleming merely renamed (just as he did every major character), but the claim to SPECTRE holds water better. The thing is, the three Bond films made before Thunderball were Smersh stories when Fleming wrote them ... but they were filmed as SPECTRE stories, more or less. And both Fleming's books and the films continued using Blofeld for quite a while after Thunderball, if not SPECTRE. McClory could therefore claim, with at least some validity, to have a stake in all of these films ... and in later years this is exactly what he tried to do. The humorous write-off of Blofeld in the opening of For Your Eyes Only and the deliberate reversion to Smersh as a villain in The Living Daylights are both direct responses from EON to the McClory nuisance over the years.
So given how much EON hated McClory, why did they agree to make this film with him, to the extent of giving him that producer credit they'd fought hard to prevent two years earlier? The best guess is that they simply didn't want anyone else making Bond films but them, and that McClory, for his part, had by then realized that no one was going to touch a Bond film which didn't have EON's blessing. McClory reportedly got twenty percent of the profits, and signed an exclusion clause preventing him from trying to make any other films from this script for ten years. (In fact it was closer to twenty. See Never Say Never Again.)
Kevin McClory, 1960s.
I've spent years trying to make out the character of McClory, a man who strikes me as having wasted a large chunk of his life trying to lay hands on a thing that didn't belong to him. On the other hand, it's clear that Fleming did plagiarize Thunderball, and should have known better. I suppose the best we can say here is that none of the participants covered themselves in glory.
Meanwhile, a film has to be made, and this section has gone on long enough, so I'll make it fast.
Guy Hamilton said he was too exhausted to do another Bond film so soon (but we shall see him again). Terence Young was brought back into the fold. Young reportedly felt this film was not up to the standard of his previous two, and never did another Bond film. Some people wish he had. I personally prefer Hamilton's style to Young's and consider Hamilton more formative to the early ideas of what Bond is and what Bond films should look like, but this should not be taken as diminishing Young's contributions.
Maurice Binder had also made peace; some people consider his titles for this one among his best. (I disagree.) He would have no other feuds with EON, and would go on to design the titles on all the films until his death in 1991. Peter Hunt, John Barry, and Ken Adam continue their ongoing roles here. The script was by Richard Maibaum, with polish from John Hopkins. Maibaum had a head start - he'd done a script of the book in 1961 for EON, before it became apparent the lawsuit would prevent it from being the first film.
Claudine Auger, a former Miss France, got the part of Domino after a number of false starts (Broccoli wanted Julie Christie but was not impressed with her when he interviewed her; Raquel Welch was actually in the contract stages when she was lured away to do Fantastic Voyage; Faye Dunaway was similarly convinced to by her agent to do The Happening instead). Auger's casting led the character to be changed from Domino Palazzi to Dominique Derval to explain her accent (though she is called "Domino" everywhere but on Bond's photo) - then her voice was deemed too deep and Nikki van der Zyl dubbed her anyway. Meanwhile, Luciana Paluzzi, an Italian, was cast as Irish SPECTRE agent Fiona Kelly - so her character was changed to Fiona Volpe. Adolfo Celi, playing Emilio Largo, escaped all this tomfoolery relatively intact - only some of his lines were dubbed by Robert Rietty. (He spoke good English, but with a thick Sicilian accent.)
Paul Stassino, frequently seen in British television of the period as one vaguely shifty foreign prince/diplomat or another, plays both the impostor Angelo and (by implication) Domino's brother François. (The character is credited only as "Palazzi" - probably from a confusion about the surname change above.)
No great prize. This is the same rude-to-everyone-around-him Bond as in Goldfinger. The only reason he shows any more finesse here is that the script doesn't give him nearly as many opportunities to actually make a mess of anything. At least one of my sources feels this is the result of Bond-as-superman syndrome, where he fears nothing, and therefore has no check on his natural tendency to be an asshole.
As far as I'm concerned, Bond's conduct with the nurse at Shrublands encapsulates everything I dislike about the Blunt Instrument method of relating to women; she is immune to his dubious charms, for once ... so he blackmails her, works her into a frenzy, and then leaves. How nice. Later, he surprises Fiona in the tub and she asks him for "something to put on" and he hands her ... a pair of shoes. And then sits back to watch. What a prince.
While he doesn't show much style, he is permitted to have sardonic wit a few times in this film, and it's most welcome. When he is called into the all-00s briefing with great urgency and hoopla, his muttered "Somebody's probably lost a dog" may well be his best line in the film. (In fact, the whole M/Moneypenny/Bond sequence in this film is quite good, where M demonstrates that even though Bond annoys him, he trusts the man enough to change his assignment on Bond's hunch.)
Fiona Volpe is an interesting character, in terms of the films' conduct toward women, in that she is the first major Bad Girl character to sleep with Bond and yet not experience a miraculous conversion. She even makes a speech about it, one aimed squarely between the eyes of Pussy Galore. Of course, these films being what they are, she has to die. Nurse Patricia Fearing gets treated very shabbily, but at least doesn't die.
Domino barely counts. As played by Auger, she is only marginally a character at all (admittedly, much blame must be laid on the script for this). Bond handles her carefully throughout, which is one of the few things he gets right. If it were late-period Moore I'd say it was out of sensitivity to the age gap, but, first off, the gap here was only twelve years (Auger 23, Connery 35), and second, I credit neither Connery nor his rendition of Bond with that level of grace.
You'll notice I give more space to the backstory and the trivia than the film itself. I realize Thunderball was the blockbuster, the one that broke all the records (and may have broken Connery as well), and I know some people have an inexplicable fondness for it, but to me it commits the only unforgivable sin in a Bond film: It's boring. A Bond film is permitted to be sexist, mean, crude, unnecessarily violent, and any number of other things (depending on your tolerances), but it should never leave the viewer wondering if they can get some knitting in or have time to go make a sandwich or take a nap before the next not-dull bit. Some fine surprises in the early part (Bond punching the "widow," the sudden destruction of Lippe's car, the appearance of Derval's double) do not make up for the pacing of the latter two-thirds of the film.
(Never Say Never Again manages to be a little snappier despite being constrained to the same plot. We'll discuss why when we get there.)
The biggest culprit is all those much-hyped underwater sequences. They are deathly slow, even when they are fast. In the first underwater scene, after the jet lands in the water, it's impossible to tell who is doing what to whom, and the fact that we take nearly five minutes to show the frogmen spreading camo net over the plane - five seconds would have sufficed - is illustrative of the film's problems. The massive underwater battle is as well-photographed as it can possibly be (Ricou Browning, underwater photography specialist and Creature From the Black Lagoon, was involved), but still looks like it is being shown in slow motion - which makes its brutality (spears through facemasks! Bomb traps in enclosed spaces!) either more difficult to watch, or less, depending on whom you ask. It's possible that the underwater sequences suffer from the small screen, or a too-well-lit room - I know when I watch the battle at home I have trouble figuring out what's going on, never mind the pacing. But I've also seen Thunderball in a theatre, on a big screen, and I don't recall it being significantly better there.
The film is so desperate for pacing that it has to cut repeatedly to shots of worried men in London to try to create a sense of suspense. It doesn't work.
As discussed above, Bond is unpleasant and Domino is a pleasant nothingness; all the villains save Fiona are wholly uninteresting, and even Felix Leiter - the worst of the many Felixes, played by Rik van Nutter as a vaguely Scandinavian refugee from a surfing film - can't hold my attention for the few minutes he's around.
Sometimes one watches Thunderball and is inclined to think, "All that fuss over this?" I've been known to remark that it's a shame the only Bond script anyone besides EON will ever get a chance to make is almost the worst one of the entire lot.
The Disco Volante is not a special effect. It was a real ship, a converted hydrofoil originally named the Flying Fish which Ken Adam bought for $500,000. It really did separate into two parts (Adam says the catamaran "shell" was attached to the hydrofoil only with two one-inch-thick slipboards). And it really was blown up. Liaison Charles Russhon, among his other assistance for this film, managed to lay hands on some experimental rocket fuel. It was delivered the night before the scene was to be shot - no time to test. Stunt supervisor John Stears crossed his fingers and set it off. He said:
"The thing just disappeared in front of our eyes .... I thought we'd just vaporized it. I looked up and there was a little black pinpoint in the sky. I said, 'I don't want to worry you guys, but the boat is coming back down on top of us and there's nowhere to go.' .... When we got back to Nassau all the windows were [blown] out in Bay Street - that was 30 miles away!"
By the by, Russhon appears in one of the London sequences. Look for a big man something like a cross between Bob Hoskins and Ray Goulding. Russhon also obtained the "Skyhook" rescue hardware used at the very end of the film.
The jetpack is also not a special effect. It was built by Bell Aerosystems (mostly known for helicopters), and not especially for the film - it was one of several production models. It uses hydrogen peroxide as fuel, its exhaust is extremely hot (the "suit" of the pilot is actually protective clothing), it emits a 130 decibel noise, and its flight time is about twenty seconds. At the time only two men in the world were deemed capable of operating it regularly without crashing (the human body is not very aerodynamic), so please excuse pilot Bill Suitor if he doesn't resemble Connery very well. Suitor refused to fly without a helmet, hence the insert of Connery hurriedly strapping one on.
Consensus is that Anthony Dawson plays Blofeld's body again, but no one is entirely clear whether Eric Pohlmann reprised as his voice or Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No) did it.
Tom Jones singing the theme was a last-minute change. Originally the theme song was going to be "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," in honor of a phrase coined for Bond by an Italian journalist that had become Bond's unofficial name in Japan. Two versions of this were recorded (first with Shirley Bassey and then with Dionne Warwick), and all of the film's music is scored around it. But the producers decided at the last minute that they had to have the film's title in the song. If you'd like to hear what was planned, here's a clip of Warwick's version (the long musical lead-in is so the lyrics won't begin until after the film's title card). I agree with the producers that Warwick's is better, but you can find Bassey's lurking around too. By the by, Jones passed out in the studio after holding the note at the end.
This film won an Academy Award for visual effects. This and Goldfinger's award for sound effects would be the only two times Bond films won Oscars until Skyfall broke the drought.
The chairs in the briefing imply there are nine 00s, presumably 001 through 009. Pity we don't get to see any of their other faces ....
The invisible plexiglass partition separating humans from sharks in Largo's pool had a gap in it down at the far end. A smart (or inquisitive) shark promptly found it; Connery's terror onscreen is real, as he more or less teleported out of the pool. "I think I was dry when I touched the side." Then the shark pursuing Bond, which was supposed to be dead and was being towed on a line, woke up - very much alive - while John Stears was standing in the pool next to it and began fighting the other sharks. Stears got out in a hurry and Young, not wasting the opportunity, filmed the bloody frenzy.
Character names seem to have been especially lax in this script - possibly due to all the different versions of it flying around? The villain in the pre-credits sequence is referred to as something that sounds "Bouvin" or "Bouvar" (with Connery it's hard to tell), but Rose Alba, playing the "widow," is billed as "Madame Boitier." Incidentally, once she's unveiled, it's Bob Simmons, stuntman for Connery. You might as well get a look at him here, because as of this film it's no longer him in the gunbarrel opener - they reshot it for widescreen with the actual Connery.
Kevin McClory cameos as a man seated in the Nassau casino smoking a cigar as Bond enters.
Bond's "I thought I had a hat when I came in" may well be the sign of the official death of the man's hat as a fashion statement/regular item of attire. Time for the swingin' half of the sixties!
There are any number of minor continuity gaffes and plot weirdnesses in this film, but this is the one that really throws me: Why is a NATO test run flying with live nukes? And why is no one worried about the fallout (literally) from blowing up those nukes aboard the Disco Volante later?
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