I’ve mentioned this in the previous three 007 posts, but Thunderball was originally intended to be the first James Bond movie. Yet it’s the fourth official Bond movie, and the first that began production after Ian Fleming’s death in 1964. Why? Because a lawsuit held it back for years. This lawsuit is worth exploring in detail because it’s kind of weird.
Back in 1958, Fleming and his friend, Ivar Bryce, began talking about making a Bond film. Bryce introduced Fleming to a young Irish writer and director, Kevin McClory. McClory initially declined all of the existing Bond novels, and instead started writing his own story, which would become Thunderball. Fleming felt attracted to McClory as a director for his film, The Boy and the Bridge, Britian’s official entry into the 1959 Venice Film Festival. Unfortunately the movie didn’t do so well, and Fleming became disenchanted with McClory as a result.
Nevertheless, McClory and Jack Whittingham began working on the Thunderball script. In 1960, McCloy visited Fleming’s Jamaican home Goldeneye, where Fleming announced his intentions to deliver the screenplay to MCA, and that he and Bryce act as producers. He also said that if MCA rejected the film because of McClory’s involvement, that they should either back out of the deal or file a suit in court.
Fleming then wrote the Thunderball novel, based on the Thunderball screenplay. McClory read an advance copy of the book and along with Whittingham, immediately petitioned the London High Court to stop production. A plagiarism suit began. Although the book was allowed to be published, the door was left open for McClory to pursue further action at a later date. He did so in November of 1963. The court case lasted three weeks, during which Fleming suffered a heart attack. They eventually settled out of court, where McClory gained the literary and film rights for the screenplay, while Fleming kept the rights for the novel, provided it mentions that it was based off of his script.
For more information on this plagiarism case, you can check out the 2008 book, The Battle for Bond.
After Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton turned down the job, considering himself creatively drained, Dr. No and From Russia With Love director Terence Young returned one last time. Young later said that Thunderball was filmed at the right time, pointing out that Dr. No’s low budget of $1 million simply couldn’t handle Thunderball’s story. Thunderball ended up with a $9 million budget, triple that of Goldfinger’s $3 million budget, which was enough to be considered a blockbuster at the time.
Bond series producer Albert R. Broccoli went through an extensive search for the lead Bond girl, Domino Derval, as well. He considered Julie Christie, but changed his mind after meeting her. He turned his attention to Raquel Welch, but she was set to appear in Fantastic Voyage that same year. Faye Dunaway also came close to signing. Eventually, former Miss France Claudine Auger was cast, and they rewrote the script to make her French instead of Italian. Another actress considered for Domino, Luciana Paluzzi, later accepted a role as a Specter assassin.
One major aspect of this movie is the underwater sequences. Early on, the villains cause a plane crash in the ocean, and then steal bombs underwater. There are several underwater fight scenes, which proved to be difficult to film. Especially those with sharks. After reading the script, Sean Connery insisted they build Plexiglas partitions inside one particular pool set. The Plexiglas barriers were not fixed structures, so when one shark managed to pass through, Connery fled the pool, seconds away from attack.
There’s also a sequence where a yacht was destroyed with an explosion. Special-effects supervisor John Stears acquired experimental rocket fuel for the explosion. Ignoring its volatile potential, he doused the entire yacht in the stuff. The resulting explosion shattered windows along Bay South in Nassau 30 miles away. He went on to win an Academy Award for his work on Thunderball. Also, the underwater vehicles that the villains used were actually developed for the United States Army. The ejection seat in Bond’s Austin Martin was real this time round as well.
Even the theme song went through several iterations in this movie. The original title song, “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”, was taken from an Italian journalist who referred to Bond with that name. Shirley Bassey recorded the song, and Dionne Warwick later re-recorded it. But they decided that it wouldn’t work as well without “Thunderball” in the title. So they made a “Thunderball” song by Tom Jones. Apparently Jones fainted in the recording booth while singing the song’s final notes. Jones said of the incident, “I closed my eyes and held the note for so long, when I opened my eyes the room was spinning.” Jonny Cash also submitted a song titled “Thunderball”, but it wasn’t used.
The higher budget, real working gadgets and heavy use of practical effects really shows. This movie feels much bigger than any previous Bond movie. It’s a lot more action heavy, marking a turning point in the franchise where the movies became more action movies and less straight thrillers. There’s an underwater battle near the end of the movie that looks like it was a nightmare to film. But the end result is really impressive.
The movie as a whole is enjoyable, although perhaps some of the underwater action sequences should have been cut down. Connery shows more confidence in the role than the earlier movies. The plot is enjoyable, as is the rising tension with Specter’s actions and Bond barely outwitting the criminal organization’s assassins. The cat and mouse game between Bond and main villain Largo is a lot of fun, especially when they act civil with each other whenever they meet. And Bond really uses his strategic mind well, whether it be using a parade as cover while fleeing assassins, or using deceptive tactics during the underwater sequences.
I couldn’t find the worldwide total earnings in its initial release, but Thunderball would become the number 1 grossing movie in the North America for 1966 with $26 million, more than $10 million more than the second highest earner, Doctor Zhivago. It eventually earned $141 million worldwide, surpassing the earnings of its three preceding films, and would remain the highest earning Bond movie until Live and Let Die in 1973. Adjusted for inflation, it earned around $1 billion, making it the second most financially successful movie in the franchise’s history, only behind Skyfall.
And now for the all-important Bond kill counter.
Bond kills – 20
Other’s kills – 90
Total kill count – 110
Sean Connery’s kill count so far – 44
Thunderball is by far the deadliest Bond movie so far, although like Goldfinger, that title won’t last too long.
If you’re a Bond fan who hasn’t seen this movie, you should. It’s not perfect, but it hits a lot more than it misses. The story is well told, the cat and mouse game is exciting, and the performances are usually great. The most notable problem is that some of the underwater action sequences are a bit too long, but it helps that they’re creative. This movie would be unofficially remade with Connery in 1983, with Never Say Never Again. I’ll likely be covering that when I get to a 007-odds and ends month. And even though On Her Majesty’s Secret Service released between the two, I’m only looking at the official Sean Connery entries in the series this month. I’ll be looking at George Lazenby’s sole performance as James Bond during the odds and ends month as well.
But I won’t be covering it this month, and next month I’ll begin my Dreamworks blogathon. Next up is You Only Live Twice, followed by the seventh Bond movie and Sean Connery’s sixth appearance in the role, Diamonds Are Forever.