It’s that time. I said I was going to do it, and here it is: the mission report for the 1967 spoof film that frightens most James Bond fans.
Given the question of character rights and the gigantic mess of a lawsuit between Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory, and EON Productions, how did something like this slip through the cracks and get made without changing the names and getting everyone involved sued?
You might remember recall my mission briefing for the first version “Casino Royale,” which was a televised episode of the short-lived TV anthology series, Climax! in 1954. In that entry, I explained how Fleming’s rush to see any version of Bond realized resulted in the rights being sold to this film’s producer Charles K. Feldman. This meant the fair use of Bond, Le Chiffre, M, Vesper Lynd, SMERSH… everything that comes lock, stock, and barrel with the original Casino Royale storyline. But nobody said that storyline had to be followed. After EON producers Broccoli and Saltzman failed to come to terms, Feldman believed he couldn’t compete with the success of the now-established Bond franchise, especially in the wake of the huge mega-success of Thunderball. The only solution: satire. As big as the spy craze had become, it was rife for spoof. Mel Brooks had already proven it to be a viable and successful idea on television with Get Smart, and Feldman had little trouble wooing a veritable who’s who for his ensemble cast.
The plot revolves around (who else?) Sir James Bond, a legendary British spy who has long since retired from the secret service. He is visited by M and the representative heads of the CIA, KGB, and Deuxieme Bureau, all of whom implore Bond to come out of retirement to deal with SMERSH. SMERSH has been eliminating agents right and left since Bond’s retirement, but Bond wants no part of it… until his mansion is destroyed by a mortar attack. M is actually the one who ordered the attack, and he’s killed in the explosion.
Bond travels to Scotland to bring M’s remains home to his grieving widow, Lady Fiona McTarry. The real Lady Fiona has been replaced by SMERSH’s Agent Mimi. Likewise, the rest of the household has been replaced with young and aggressive beauties with an aim to discredit Bond’s “celibate image.” Agent Mimi becomes so enamored of Bond that she changes loyalties and helps to foil the plot against him. Bond survives an additional attempt on his life on the way back to London.
Promoted to the head of MI6, Bond learns that many British agents around the world have been killed by enemy spies because of their inability to resist sex. To counter and confuse SMERSH, Bond orders that all remaining MI6 agents will be named “James Bond 007” and creates a training regime designed to empower male agents to resist the charms of women. Further agents are recruited and hired with an aim towards beating SMERSH agent Le Chiffre at baccarat. Le Chiffre has embezzled SMERSH’s money, and he’s desperate to cover his theft before he’s executed.
Bond persuades his estranged daughter Mata Bond to infiltrate SMERSH’s school for spies, where she uncovers a plot to sell compromising photos of military leaders at an “art auction” in another of Le Chiffre’s schemes to raise money. The photos destroyed, Le Chiffre is forced into baccarat as his only remaining option.
Evelyn Tremble, master baccarat player recruited to face Le Chiffre, arrives with Vesper Lynd, who in turn foils an attempt to disable Tremble by the seductive SMERSH agent Miss Goodthighs. Observing Le Chiffre, Tremble discovers that Le Chiffre is using infrared glasses to cheat. Vesper steals the glasses, enabling Tremble to win the game. Vesper is abducted outside, and Tremble is kidnapped while attempting to pursue. Tremble is tortured hallucinogenically. Vesper rescues him, but then kills him. SMERSH agents raid Le Chiffre’s base, killing him for his failure.
In London, Mata Bond is kidnapped by SMERSH in a flying saucer (yes, you read that correctly). Bond and Moneypenny head to Casino Royale to rescue her, discovering the casino is built atop a giant underground headquarters, run by the evil Dr. Noah. Dr. Noah, as it turns out, is Sir Bond’s nephew Jimmy Bond (nice callback to the original TV episode there). Jimmy reveals that he plans a plot of devastating biological warfare that will make all women beautiful and kill all men over 4-foot-6-inches tall, leaving him as the “big man” who gets all the girls. He tries to convince The Detainer (another of Bond’s recruited agents) to be his queen, and she presumably agrees, but foils his plan by poisoning him with his own atomic pills, causing him to hiccup until he explodes.
All those captured make their escape, and Vesper is established as a double agent in the casino director’s office. The casino is then overrun by secret agents, battle ensues, and Jimmy’s atomic pill explodes. Casino Royale is destroyed, along with everyone inside. Sir Bond and his agents appear in heaven, and Jimmy descends into hell.
The cast for this movie is every bit as insane as the plot, and many of the actors involved either appeared or went on to appear in official EON productions. For example… Ursula Andress was in Dr. No, Vladek Sheybal played Kronsteen in From Russia With Love, Burt Kwouk played Mr. Ling in Goldfinger and an unnamed SPECTRE operative in You Only Live Twice, Jeanne Roland portrayed a masseuse in You Only Live Twice, Angela Scoular played Ruby Bartlett in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Jack Gwillim played a Royal Navy Officer in Thunderball, Caroline Munro (an extra in this movie) played Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me, Milton Reid (in a bit part as a guard), played Dr. No’s Guard and Stromberg’s underling in The Spy Who Loved Me, and John Wells played Denis Thatcher in For Your Eyes Only.
And that doesn’t even touch the leads. You’ve got David Niven, who was very nearly selected as Bond officially, the comic genius that is Peter Sellers, and the indomitable presence of Orson Welles (which admittedly was the main selling point for me the first time I watched this movie). Woody Allen, Barbara Bouchet, Deborah Kerr, William Holden, John Huston… the list goes on. Seriously, check out the movie poster at the bottom of this entry, or run it up on IMDb. Peter O’Toole and Sterling Moss were prepared to take uncredited roles just to work wih the other members of the cast.
Fan note: this film also marks the debut of David Prowse, who would go on to find fame as the man behind the mask of Darth Vader. At a sci-fi convention in 1978, Prowse commented that he was originally asked to play “Super Pooh,” a giant Winnie the Pooh in a superhero costume who attacks Tremble during the Torture of the Mind sequence. Prowse was recast as a Frankenstein’s monster type for the closing scenes.
The final budget for this film was $12 million due to cost overruns, comparing that with Thunderball, which had a budget of $11 million, and You Only Live Twice (released the same year as Casino Royale), which had a budget of $9.5 million. It was referred to as a “mini-Cleopatra,” referring to the runaway costs of the 1963 film Cleopatra.
The film has a legendary feud associated with it behind the scenes. Peter Sellers was presumably intimidated by Orson Welles to the point where neither was in the studio simultaneously with the exception of a couple of shots. There are other versions of the story, which involve Welles insisting on performing magic tricks, which the director obliged, and Princess Margaret (whom Sellers knew) favoring Welles during a visit to the set. By account, Welles didn’t have a high opinion of Sellers and refused to work with “that amateur.”
Other reports suggest that Sellers wanted to play Bond straight and was annoyed at the decision to make the film a comedy, resulting in Sellers’ involvement with the film to be abruptly cut short. Whether he was fired or simply walked off is unclear, but he parted before all of his scenes were shot, resulting in some creative editing and reshoots. The entire ending of the film with David Niven is a direct result of that. If you know where to look, there are signs of missing footage that point to alternate storylines.
The film has been called “the most indulgent movie ever made” and early reviews point to its “chaotic” nature that makes it “nearly impossible to follow.” It was reviled in its own time. Today, it’s a celebrated masterpiece by some, and still reviled by others. Myself… I have a healthy love-hate of this one, and that opinion bounces all over the map depending on my mood. However you feel about it, it made money. Orson Welles attributed the entire success of the movie to the marketing campaign that featured a naked, tattooed lady on the poster and print ads.
The legal rights ownership of this film affected the entire Bond franchise. Columbia Pictures distributed this one. In 1997, following the Columbia / MGM / Kevin McClory lawsuit on the ownership of the Bond film series, the rights reverted to MGM as a condition of the settlement. MGM’s sister company United Artists co-owns the Bond film franchise. As a result of the Sony / Comcast acquisition of MGM years later, Columbia would once again co-distribute this film as well as the entire EON Bond series, including the 2006 Casino Royale with Daniel Craig. Sony still controls the rights to this version of Casino Royale.