Growing up, I used to laugh a bit at the opening theme song for this one. How exactly does one strike like thunderball? I didn’t know, and I thought it sounded a bit silly. Reportedly, singer Tom Jones didn’t know either. When asked about it, he said as much, but according to rumor he fainted after holding the high note at the end of the song.
With the age of the internet, I learned exactly what the term “thunderball” meant. It’s a military term used by US soldiers to describe the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb detonation. If that’s not a great metaphor for what went on both on screen and behind the scenes of this film, I don’t know what is.
In the mission briefing for Dr. No, I mentioned that the shadow of Kevin McClory would emerge at this point, casting darkness over the entire James Bond franchise for decades to come, putting Ian Fleming in his grave in the process. I said I’d go into it further when it came time to discuss Thunderball. Well, here we are. It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room.
As mentioned previously, Thunderball was marked to be the first of the 007 films, but it was at the center of legal disputes starting in 1961. Former Ian Fleming collaborators Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham sued Fleming for the release of the 1961 novel shortly after publication, claiming it was based on the screenplay the three of them wrote that had failed to see realization. The lawsuit was settled out of court, with McClory retaining rights to the story, plot, and central characters. By that time, Bond was already a cinematic success. Fearing a rival Bond film from McClory, series producers Broccoli and Saltzman gave McClory production credits with themselves as executive producers, hoping the problem would simply go away.
It was promoted as “Ian Fleming’s Thunderball“. Yet, along with the official credits to screenwriters Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins, the screenplay is also identified as based on an original screenplay by Jack Whittingham and as based on the original story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming. To date, the novel has twice been adapted cinematically; the 1983, McClory-produced Never Say Never Again, features Sean Connery as James Bond, but is not an official EON production. As you can see, we’ll be talking about McClory again from time to time. The trick behind this is that nobody really knows who created which part of the story as it was truly a collaboration. Interviews with Whittingham testify to this point. McClory to his dying day claimed the lion’s share of the credit, often calling Fleming a two-bit hack and other such choice phrases, and Fleming was no longer around to speak for himself. His Bondian lifestyle of drink, women, and cigarettes had put several nails in his coffin already. The lawsuit drove in the final nails in the form of stress-induced cardiac arrest.
What did McClory actually get beyond the plot of the film? Something rather central to the Bond franchise, as it turns out. In the novels, Fleming created the organization SMERSH for Bond to fight. SPECTRE evolved from that, to which McClory had the rights. He also had the rights to SPECTRE’s characters, including Bond’s archnemsis, the organization’s Number One. Number One would later appear by the name given in the novel as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the next three EON films after Thunderball: You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Diamonds Are Forever. The incredible success of Thunderball, combined with the firestorm from poking that bear meant that McClory wasn’t going away anytime soon. This is also why you don’t see Blofeld again by name until the current film SPECTRE. You see, this entire legal mess lasted well into the Daniel Craig era, ending only when McClory died in 2006, his estate settling up in extremely short order afterwards. Blofeld’s only other “cameo” appearance will be discussed when we get to the film that went against McClory’s Never Say Never Again at the box office: Octopussy.
As I say, Thunderball was a critical and commercial success as well as a pop culture phenomenon. By this, I mean that in adjusted dollars, its like was not to be seen or succeeded again until 2012 release of Skyfall. Depending on which adjusted numbers you look at, Thunderball may still be the reigning champion. When the movie poster proudly declares this to be “The Biggest Bond of All,” it didn’t exaggerate. This also meant that the pop culture spy craze was in full swing, with knock-offs and parodies to be found lurking pretty much everywhere you looked, including Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Secret Agent Man, Mission: Impossible, The Wild Wild West, I Spy, and the upcoming spoof film Casino Royale (which is next on the list in this series to be discussed). With Thunderball, the Bond “formula” that had been evolving in the first three films took final shape, resulting in big villains, bigger action, even bigger stunts, and crazy levels of comic book storytelling. How crazy? It’s the only Bond film to win an Oscar for visual effects. Moonraker got nominated, but didn’t win. It is, in short, the template for nearly every Bond film that comes later in the hopes of capturing box office success of that caliber one more time. Periodically you’ll hear the phrase “taking it back to Fleming.” This is the other end of the pendulum swing, calling for a back-to-basics approach that was most prominently defined by the release of 2006’s Casino Royale.
The plot of Thunderball is convoluted to say the least, but that’s part of what adds an element of realism to this otherwise straightforward comic book level adventure.
The story begins with the now-obligatory pre-titles action sequence. Bond is attending the funeral of an enemy agent, revealing in the process (thanks to a lack of etiquette) that the agent in question isn’t dead. Bond makes his escape via jetpack, and in one of the most un-Bond-like moments in the entire franchise, he puts on a crash helmet. The reason for this is that the stuntman refused to fire up the jetpack without one, so Connery had to be seen putting it on, and wearing it for closeups for continuity purposes. The jetpack was real and actually flew. The man who flew it was Bill Suiter, one of only two men in the world qualified to do so. Connery, of course, didn’t fly.
From there, we get a great little gadget-heavy sequence featuring the car made famous for all time in Goldfinger, the beloved 1963 Aston Martin DB 5. The titles sequence by Maurice Binder features naked women swimming around in silhouette, thus cementing another long-standing element in the Bond formula.
Post-title, the story begins with Bond taking some rest at a spa under orders from M to improve his physical condition. There he meets Count Lippe, a shifty individual who gains an immediate distrust of Bond when he sees that Bond recognizes his gangland tattoo. Lippe tries to murder Bond on the spinal stretch machine, and Bond retaliates, locking him in the steam bath and cranking it to the highest setting. Lippe survives, however. Bond finds a strangled man in face bandages and survives yet another attempt on his life.
At MI6, a conference of the 00 agents is called due to the SPECTRE crisis. No faces are seen aside from Bond himself, but this is the first time we see other 00s on screen, one of which is a woman. Bond is assigned to Canada, but having recognized the NATO observer in the dossier as the dead man in bandages from the spa, he talks M into reassignment to Nassau, where the man’s sister, Domino, resides as Emile Largo’s mistress. He connects with Domino and uses her to get to Largo, who is SPECTRE’s Number Two.
An additional character not in the novel, Fiona Volpe, is introduced in the film as a SPECTRE agent who is responsible for much of the masterminding of this entire plot. She’s the one who switches out the NATO observer with an imposter, she targets the assassins that Largo puts on Bond (thus diverting suspicion if Bond is killed too early), and ultimately proves herself to be more than Largo’s match at every turn. In a sequence of controversy among Bond fans, she is shot in the back while dancing with Bond. The controversy is whether or not Bond purposefully spun her around so that she could take the bullet clearly meant for him, or if it was just convenient timing. The reason this is controversial is because Fleming’s Bond in the novels has a distaste for killing in cold blood, whereas screen Bond clearly has no such compunction as established since Connery’s first appearance in Dr. No. A statement often associated with Connery is the idea that his Bond moved like he could kiss a woman or kill her in equal measure, and you didn’t know which it would be until he did it.
Largo’s plot involves the maritime capture of a plane carrying two nuclear warheads and the recovery of those warheads for SPECTRE to use to blackmail world governments.
Bond teams up with his CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter, finding both the hijacked plane and the corpse of the phone NATO observer. Offering proof, Bond informs Domino that her brother is dead and pleads for her aid in locating the warheads. Her information allows Bond to take the place of a SPECTRE agent on Largo’s mission to retrieve the warheads from their underwater hiding place. Largo intends to plant one close to the coast of Florida.
After a narrow escape and rescue, Bond informs Leiter of the warhead’s location, and a big underwater fight ensues involving U.S. and SPECTRE frogmen. Largo escapes to the Disco Volante, where he still has the remaining warhead. Bond follows, and the two fight, but Largo is shot in the back with a speargun by Domino. Bond and Domino escape the explosion from the runaway hydrofoil, rescued by a raft sent down to them by an overhead B-17 that snags the raft and airlifts them away as the credits roll.
Some behind-the-scenes fun for those interested…
Due to the new Panavision process, the gunbarrel sequence had to be reshot, so this is the first time Connery is actually seen doing this. In the three previous films, it was Connery’s stuntman Bob Simmons walking the now-iconic sequence. This is the first Bond film shot in widescreen.
When Bond hangs his hat in Moneypenny’s office, with the exception of Lazenby’s opening sequence in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, this is the last time Bond wears a hat as a fashion statement. He comments as he leaves when he notices the hat is missing that he “thought I wore a hat when I came in.”
In the shark tank sequences, there were clear plastic shields designed to protect Connery from the predators. However, they were only about three feet in length, and the sharks could easily swim over them. The look of terror on Connery’s face in closeup is authentic as a shark approaches him, unobstructed. The shark that chases Bond as he exits the pool is dead, pulled along by wire.
There really is an area known as the “Golden Grotto” where the sharks are found. It’s now been rechristened as “Thunderball Reef.”
Following the release of the movie, a Royal Navy engineer approached the producers, asking for details on how Bond’s rebreather apparatus worked. Point of fact, it didn’t, which disappointed the engineer.
Following the filming of Thunderball, the Aston Martin DB 5 was sold “fully loaded” to a collector.
The character of Count Lippe is a reference to Ian Fleming’s old friend from his days as an intelligence officer, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Bernhard was born as Bernhard von Lippe Biesterfeld, who was pleased by the reference.
Many of the actors in Thunderball were Italian (dubbed over to reduce their accents for audiences) because in the original script, it was the Italian mafia — not SPECTRE — that Bond was up against.
I could go on and on about the trivia on this film, as I’ve just barely scratched the surface, but I don’t want to bore anyone. I hope you enjoyed that much. James Bond will return, but as I mentioned before, his next feature film would be the result of his pop culture success: the 1967 spoof Casino Royale.