James Bond 007: Thunderball (1965)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
by Jay Maronde
Thunderball, the fourth film in the James Bond film franchise, takes the series to some new places and some old places, but the journey could be the longest and most fraught of all the Bond films. In the course of making an omelette you gotta break a few eggs right? Well Thunderball is one hell of an ugly omelette, and there are definitely a few egg shells in there, but is quite delicious nonetheless. So in my usual spirit of optimism I’m going to explain first the ugly, then the bad, and then the good; so the reader leaves with a pleasant taste in their mouth.
Thunderball was supposed to be the first Bond film. Ian Fleming and a team of collaborators wrote the original screenplay many years before Dr. No in what would be a failed attempt to start the Bond movie franchise. Terrence Young, who returns to direct this Bond (making it his 3rd) would later comment that it was a lucky twist of fate that Dr. No was made first, as its meager one million dollar budget would have been insufficient for such a large effects-heavy film. One could easily understand if this were the reason for Thunderball’s "delayed" production, but the truth is much much uglier, as most all lawsuits are. That’s right, I said lawsuit.
You see dear reader, shortly after an early studio team denied production of the original Thunderball script, Ian Fleming cannibalized the story for a James Bond book, with the same title (As he was apt to do, considering that at the time he was producing not only Bond books, but also short stories, and comic books.). This obviously upset the other collaborators, and they sued.
The lawsuits went on for many years, and some of the rights were eventually re-assigned to the other collaborators. Head amongst this cadre of former writing buddies turned litigants was the ultimate Bond villain in history: Kevin McClory. Mr. McClory was very upset that he felt his ideas were stolen (wow an intellectual property battle in the 1960’s--James Bond is ahead of his time even in the world of litigation) and as a result of the lawsuit was not only given a producer credit, but was awarded the rights to the story. He was unhappy with this arrangement: he had always wanted to direct the film, and besides continuing his lawsuits well into the next millennium, he also would go on to direct a Warner Brothers produced version of the film later in the 1980’s that was called Never Say Never Again. Personally I feel that this highlights the ugliness surrounding the film: the disgrace to the series is still incomprehensible to this day.
Clearly Thunderball was a film that has its issues, but with legal hurdles cleared, production continued, and with the “spy film fever” at its height, no expense was spared, and while spending a lot of money can very often produce great action movies, certain aspects of this film go too far over the top. Certainly for this writer, and many other of critics throughout history, the verdict is clear: this film DRAGS. The opportunity was there, and Young apparently couldn’t stop himself from literally putting everything but the kitchen sink onto the screen. Peter Hunt, the film's editor, stated that he “simply needed more editing time, the original cut was over four and half hours,” to explain the two month delay in releasing the film. Even at the final cut of over two hours the movie still seems to drag.
Bond simply exhausts every locale, woman, toy, hotel, and situation. And while the underwater scenes are fantastic, they go on too long, and I’ve also heard rumors that numerous divers died while filming the extensive underwater battles. I’m sorry to say this, but even though the filming and the idea of an underwater movie/ battle was new and interesting at the time, the film leaves you with the feeling that you’ve just watched the newest Jacques Cousteau documentary.
Another part of the film that Young goes too far with is the women. Perhaps because of Bond’s extreme success with the misogyny and “pimpin-ness ” during Goldfinger, Bond seems to go even farther during this movie. He has company-funded lady sidekicks both in Paris and Nassau, and he quickly blackmails a nurse at the health farm into a steam room tryst. After he fornicates with Fiona Volpe (played masterfully by the gorgeous Luciana Paluzzi (who auditioned for the role of Domino, but while not cast, so entranced the producers that they changed the script to include her character)) she reveals herself to be a SPECTRE agent, and Bond tells her: “My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself, what I did the evening was for King and Country, you don’t think it gave me any pleasure do you?” Overall I don’t feel the misogyny plays as well or is as endearing for the character, and most of Bond’s liaisons don’t contribute to anything besides the already too long run time.
One tryst that doesn’t just add to the run time is Bond’s seduction of the evil villain Largo’s girlfriend Domino. Claudine Auger was a former Miss France and a Miss World runner up, and considering all her snorkeling scenes, gorgeous is too weak of a word and more fitting would be “wet dream.” Here again Bond seduces the villain’s girlfriend, and this time it directly helps him save the world, as she is eventually the one to kill the villain in the final scene aboard the Disco Volante.
The boat is also a huge part of the movie, the final scene in the film is a massive boat chase climaxing with an Oscar-caliber explosion. In fact the movie would win the academy award for effects most notably for the final explosion and destruction of the boat. In real life the explosion was produced using an experimental rocket fuel supplied by the US armed services and when the charges were lit on the day of the filming, many windows along the beachfront in Nassau (30 miles away) were shattered. Nassau also plays a prominent role in the film as Bond once again returns to the Caribbean, which served as the perfect location for filming the numerous undersea battles including the famous "battle royale" between a US Navy SEALs team and the villain’s henchmen.
Finally, before I close I would like to comment on one of my other favorite parts of this film: The theme song: “Thunderball,” which is performed to iconic perfection by none other than Tom Jones. This song was actually the third version recorded for the film as the other two (recorded by Shirley Bassey, later re-recorded by Dionne Warwick and hidden until the later 1990’s) were deemed unacceptable by the producers. Johnny Cash also recorded a version of the song, which told the story of the film in its lyrics, but was never used*. The song is EPIC, and during its recording Tom Jones actually passed out from the exertion of belting out the final note. Much like the rest of this film, while utterly fantastic, apparently it’s so fantastic that sometimes it sucks all the oxygen out of the room.
Thunderball is not without its moments, but after the high watermarks set by the first three Bond films, all of which may fairly be considered true cinema classics, the viewer cannot help but feel a vague sense of disappointment. As Sean Connery prepared to pass the role onto the next actor, and as other actors would similarly "pass the torch" a few more times, the franchise always had (and still has) the potential to have new life breathed into it.
NOTES (by JK)
*While Tom Jones turns in a stunning performance of this song that is clearly most appropriate for the opening titles, the Johnny Cash song demands to be heard. Not only does it feature the excellent songwriting and original singing style that made Cash the legend he became, but it also sounds like "Ring of Fire" and could be considered a sort of "companion piece" to that classic.