The Big Blue! - A Look Back At Thunderball

Sean Connery IS James Bond. Few film taglines have such an iconic and enduring aura of authenticity and verisimilitude. Thunderball (released in 1965) was the fourth entry in the James Bond series and the first to be shot in the widescreen format of Panavision. It was directed by Terence Young and written by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins from a story by Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. Thunderball was the first truly epic James Bond film and remains one of the more debated entries in the apparently indestructible franchise. Some feel the film becomes bogged down in too many laborious underwater sequences while others argue that this is the most gloriously Bondian picture in the series and the one that most reflects the predilections, tastes and world view of Ian Fleming. I think the real truth probably lies somewhere in between. This is an elegant and stylish film rife with panache, wit, escapism and beautiful sun drenched locations but a somewhat more brusque edit might have been in order. Thunderball was allocated a then astronomical budget of 2.5 million (over five times that spent on 1962's Dr No) in order to do justice to the extensive and innovative underwater set-pieces in the screenplay and comfortably remains - adjusted for inflation - the highest grossing James Bond film of all time. It's no exaggeration to say that Thunderball was the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings of the sixties. Some cinemas in the United States even resorted to screening the film 24 hours a day to cope with public demand. While it might not be the very best Bond film (I prefer From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty's Secret Service from this decade alone), Thunderball marked the apex of sixties Bondmania and featured perhaps the best of Sean Connery's seven performances as the suave super spy. Graceful, ruthless, sardonic, witty, cruel, snobbish and charming, Connery - to borrow an appropriately aquatic metaphor - prowls through Thunderball like a shark, safe in the knowledge that the villains don't stand a chance!
Thunderball revolves around an audacious scheme by global terrorist organisation SPECTRE ((Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion!) to hold world governments to ransom by hijacking two nuclear warheads from a Vulcan bomber. The Vulcan carrying the bombs is craftily hijacked by a SPECTRE operative who has undergone plastic surgery to pose as a NATO pilot (both roles are played by Paul Stassino). Once in control of the plane, the operative lands it in the middle of the ocean near the Bahamas where our eye-patch wearing villain Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) - known as "Number Two" in SPECTRE - and his henchmen take the warheads from the seabed and hide the plane. The operative is of course done away with for his troubles. A ransom demand is sent to the British and American governments by Blofeld (still hidden in the shadows at this point in the series but played by Anthony Dawson and voiced by Joseph Wiseman) warning that if one hundred million dollars is not paid within a week then a "major" piece of property will be destroyed - followed by a famous city. "My dear Prime Minister, two atomic bombs, numbers, 456 and 457. Which were aboard NATO Flight 759, are now in the possession of SPECTRE... " Meanwhile, British Secret Agent James Bond stumbles into unexpected intrigue while staying at a plush health farm named Shrublands when he notices a criminal gang tattoo on the arm of a patient named Count Lippe (Guy Doleman) and survives an attempt on his life. When he discovers a dead man wrapped in bandages he later identifies him as the NATO pilot used by SPECTRE to hijack the Vulcan. The pilot's sister is Dominique "Domino" Derval (Claudine Auger) and just happens to be Largo's mistress. Bond is duly sent to the Bahamas to make contact with Domino and investigate Largo. The plan to track down the warheads and foil Blofeld's fiendish ransom plot is given the codename Operation Thunderball.
Sean Connery's encroaching boredom with the role that made him famous manifested itself much more in 1967's You Only Live Twice than here and Thunderball is consequently special for this reason. It feels like the last entry where his heart was in it. Connery hated making the films. He felt he wasn't paid enough, yearned to do more serious roles, loathed the long hours and constant media attention and would roll his eyes when he was frequently asked to sign autographs James Bond rather than his real name. Legend has it that he decided he'd finally had enough of being James Bond when a Japanese fan followed him into the toilet to ask for an autograph during the shooting of You Only Live Twice. James Bond was as famous as The Beatles but there were four of them to share the strains and burdens of pop culture hysteria. Connery was all alone. Thunderball promised - in the grand larger than life Cubby Broccoli tradition - to be bigger (Look Up! Look Down! Look Out! Here Comes The Biggest Bond Of All!) than anything the glittering series had thrown at the screen yet and is true to its word. There are however one or two caveats - most notably the lengthy underwater sequences which take up nearly a quarter of the running time of the film. The most popular and common criticism of Thunderball is that it should have been more streamlined and even its director Terence Young later expressed this view when reflecting on the picture. For all its frequent wonder and escapist magic, Thunderball does become rather waterlogged and dull in places. I think one of the problems is that underwater sequences lack the freshness to modern eyes that they did in 1965. While some of the aqua photography could safely have been culled these sequences are superbly done and were very radical for the time. The photography by Lamar Boren is stunning.

One other quibble that is apparent in Thunderball (and this is a common fault of older Bond films) is that it features some jarringly poor back projection work, especially during climatic scenes at sea. Again, this was probably less of a problem to audiences in the sixties but it's an element that dates the film badly at times. There is much to enjoy away from the water here though - right from the pre-title sequence. This is essentially a rehash of the PTS fisticuffs of Goldfinger, only in Panavision, on a bigger budget and with a gadget laden coda featuring a Jet Pack ("No well dressed man should be without one...") and Bond's trusty Aston Martin DB5. This glossy opening to the picture was shot at Chateau d'Anet, 40 miles outside of Paris. Bond is there to observe the funeral cortege of SPECTRE assassin Jacques Boivard but isn't convinced he is really dead. It all leads to an enjoyably stylised fight sequence in one of the Chateau's beautifully furnished and cavernous rooms. Equally enjoyable are Maurice Binder's excellent watery aquatic Panavision titles and Tom Jones belting out the theme song ("He looks at this world and wants it all... and he strikes... like Thunderball!"). The song probably would have been even better sung by a woman (Bond songs sung by men never quite seem right for some reason) with a good pair of lungs but you can't fault Tom for effort. It goes without saying that John Barry's score is one of incomparable elegance, both majestic and spine-tingling. If it was Ken Adam that made us understand what a Bond film should look like then it was John Barry that taught us what it should sound like. His Bond scores, like James Bond himself, really will be forever.
Thunderball has been accurately called the first epic Bond film and one can see why. By now, the Bond blueprint/formula (exotic locations, casinos, violent action, beautiful women, gigantic set pieces, deadpan humour, outlandish gadgetry) was firmly in place and the approach of producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman was simple. The budget goes up on the screen for the audience to see and each Bond seeks to be more spectacular than the last one - like a series of escalating explosions. Amidst the mayhem though there is a rich sense of panache and style that permeates every pore of Thunderball. This is all in no small way down to Terence Young, who supplies chic direction and stunning 'wipes' from one scene to the next. It was Young (who was a very refined, dapper and pefectly dressed chap himself) who had to take Sean Connery in hand and make sure he looked the part. "That f***ing truck driver," Ian Fleming is said to have remarked about Sean Connery after he was cast as James Bond. Well, he soon changed his tune. Young took Connery to famed shirt-maker Turnbull & Asser for custom-designed shirts with turnback cuffs and had his tailor Anthony Sinclair cut the actor's suits. Connery scrubbed up quite nicely, his elegant panther like Bond making Daniel Craig look like he's just spent three days living rough on the streets. Style was key to quickly communicating the character of Bond. Young infused some of his own personal sense of style into Bond and this resonated well with audiences.
With jet-packs, mini cruise-ships that separate, DB5 water canons, radio-active pills, an underwater jet-harness, exploding chairs etc, Thunderball is heavy on the gadgets but the leading man is never (pardon the pun) lost at sea and remains the spiffy focal point of the film. If one can get past the more sedate and overlong aquatic sequences there are some wonderful moments and set-pieces. A rocket firing motorcycle chase, the gargantuan production design by Ken Adam, the climactic battle between SPECTRE frogmen and the US Aquapar forces. The big battle sequence was a staple of many Connery films (and a couple of Roger Moore ones too) and something I miss. Modern Bond films seem rather pathetic in scope compared to the preposterous carnage that Broccoli and his team would conjure up with reckless abandon. Local colour is provided by Bond being pursued through a Bahamian parade known as the Junkamo. Young had the entire parade restaged just for the film (!) and one has a pleasant image of him urbanely orchestrating this complicated sequence as he sips champagne from a Styrofoam cup. The sheer largesse of Thunderball is highlighted by Largo's yacht - the Disco Volante. It was constructed at a cost of over $100,000 by Ken Adam when the producers couldn't find a hydrofoil suitable for their use. Bond's Jet Pack is the the Bell Pack, a prototype from the US Army and the only model in existence at the time, and a full scale mock-up of a NATO plane was built. In terms of box-office, spectacle, and Bondian essence, Thunderball positively dwarfs the films Barbara Broccoli and her luvvie friends still periodically inflict on the general public when the mood takes them.
The story and origin of Thunderball is a remarkably knotty, complicated, controversial and fascinating one. In the fifties, Ian Fleming collaborated with writer Jack Whittingham and maverick Irish film producer Kevin McClory on a screenplay that was supposed to be the first ever James Bond film. McClory was obsessed with becoming the first man to put James Bond on the silver screen and envisioned a widescreen epic set in the West Indies that would make extensive use of his love of the sea and scuba diving. McClory and Whittingham didn't think much of Fleming's screenwriting skills at all and also thought a cinematic Bond should be less starchy and have more humour. They felt the fantasy world of Fleming should have more logic and the sadism and torture had to go. McClory commissioned spectacular art to show what a Bond film should look like - the art evoking the imagery of the films that Broccoli and Saltzman would make with Sean Connery in the next decade. The proposed film never went into production but all hell broke loose when Fleming (in an act of incredible stupidity and arrogance) later used the screenplay as the basis for his 1961 Thunderball novel without telling Whittingham or McClory or giving them any credit. The stress of the court case that followed is widely believed to have hastened Fleming to his grave from another heart attack and the victorious McClory was left with legal rights to make his own unofficial Bond film based on Thunderball (which of course he eventually did with 1983's Never Say Never Again). When Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman adapted Thunderball in 1965 they shrewdly brought McClory in as a co-producer. Not because they liked him or valued any contribution he might make but essentially to keep him quiet and stop him making his own rival Bond film or series to go up against their money strewn phenomenon. (As part of his contract for co-producing Thunderball, McClory was obliged to agree not to produce his own renegade James Bond until ten years had passed. Of course, Broccoli wrongly assumed Bond would long have fizzled out by then. McClory would be a legal thorn in his side for decades to come).

Thunderball has trademark moments of Ian Fleming sadism scattered through the book with electrocutions, burns, barracudas (a ray-finned fish known for its large size and fearsome appearance), and assorted deaths. It's the languid tropical atmosphere though that is often the star of the film with Nassau in particular looking like a suitably exotic and glamorous playground for the action to unfold. "Now he swam very slowly, watching the white explosion of the moon on the surface contract and define itself," wrote Fleming. "Once he looked down. There was no sign of the barracuda. The long hull of the ship grew out of the upper mists and took shape, a great Zeppelin in the water." Thunderball sticks closely to the novel and successfully captures the spirit of the source material. One difference I suppose is that Largo is more of a central character here (and, somewhat confusingly, his SPECTRE designation is also different). Largo is not up to Auric Goldfinger and Red Grant in the pantheon of sixties Bond villains but he is suitably stylish and menacing at times. "You've given me much pleasure Domino. But in return, unless you tell me how much Bond knows, I'll be forced to cause you great pain!" Adolfo Celi (dubbed by Robert Rietty) certainly looks like a Bond villain with his urbane manner and eye-patch.
The ravishing Luciana Paluzzi as SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe, more than willing to use her sexuality to send her enemies to their doom, makes an excellent second villain although Claudine Auger (a former Miss France) is slightly less effective in the pivotal role of Dominique "Domino" Derval. She's dubbed (very well) but perhaps lacks presence sometimes. Looks great in a swimming costume though and is appropriately moody. A mention must go to Rik Van Nutter as Bond's CIA friend Felix Leiter. The Bond series has constantly recast the part of Leiter since its inception, mainly without much success. Van Nutter (great name!) is at least though energetic and boyish (in contrast to the pudgy Cec Linder in Goldfinger) and displays a believable sense of camaraderie with Connery's Bond. Look out too for Martine Beswick as Paula Caplan and Molly Peters as Patricia Fearing, a physiotherapist Bond meets at Shrublands. Bond's dalliances with Molly are rather cheeky for a 1965 mainstream blockbuster. Connery of course though is the best thing about the cast of Thunderball. He looks the part of James Bond (tall, dark, handsome, as Fleming described) and has the right mixture of humour and the ability to punch his way out of trouble if required. He remains the benchmark against which all Bond actors are judged.
It isn't perfect by any means but Thunderball is still superb entertainment, packed with sumptuous locales, beautiful women and exceptional photography, music and special effects. It comfortably resides somewhere around the middle of my own list of the ten best James Bond films ever made. Connery's expertly delivered deadpan humour alone ("Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She's just dead!") makes it worth watching.
- Jake

c 2011 Alternative 007