The legendary Sean Connery passed away on October 31 last year, just over two months ago. I’ll get into his backstory in one of my later posts, but that needs to be mentioned off the bat for my Sean Connery theme month. As much as I’d like to get that information out of the way now, the first movie I’m looking has a fairly complex backstory that’s also worth exploring.
Although Never Say Never Again released in 1983, its production goes all the way back to 1961 – the year Ian Fleming’s Thunderball novel released. Fleming, and his friend, Ivar Bryce, started talking about a Bond movie back in 1958. Bryce later introduced Fleming to Kevin McClory, a young Irish film director. The three of them formed Xanadu Productions, named after Bryce’s home in the Bahamas. Xanadu Productions never actually grew into a company, but the group met up for a couple years after that, along with lawyer Ernest Cuneo, working on a story outline. McClory was fascinated by the underwater world and wanted to make a film that included it. They came out with 10 different outlines, treatments and scripts, and a number of potential movie titles.
In the meantime, Fleming started shopping around for movie studios to start a Bond film series. He also wrote the Thunderball novel, based on the screenplay he wrote with McClory. McClory read an advance copy of the book, and immediately petitioned the High Court in London for an injunction to stop publication, accusing Fleming of plagiarism. The book was allowed to be published, but the courts kept the door open for McClory to pursue further legal action. In 1963, he filed another suit. With Fleming also suffering a heart attack during the case, Bryce suggested he offer a settlement. The case concluded that the novel borrowed a number of elements from the script McClory helped write. 9 months after that settlement was reached, Fleming suffered another heart attack and died.
Eon Productions was forced to make a deal with McClory so he would act as a producer for the Thunderball movie, and to not make any further version of the novel for at least 10 years after the movie’s release. McClory would also retain some sort of rights to the story of Thunderball, and would later even acquire all rights to the SPECTRE organization. Because of this, they weren’t allowed to even reference SPECTRE in the official Bond movies for decades.
Meanwhile, after his sixth and final official Bond movie (Diamonds Are Forever), Sean Connery remarked that he would never play Bond again.
In the 70’s, McClory started working on his own Bond movie, then under the name James Bond of the Secret Service. There were still legal issues involved with the movie, and United Artists (then owners of the Bond film rights) accused the project of going beyond their copyright restrictions. The resulting lawsuit confined McClory to a film based solely on Thunderball. They started planning a 1978 release, to coincide with Moonraker, but further legal issues emerged. Eon Productions filed multiple suits over the years to try to stop the movie from happening.
At that point, Connery agreed to help write the script, although he thought it was unlikely that he’d play the role. “When I first worked on the script with Len I had no thought of actually being in the film.” When producer Jack Schwartzman became involved, he asked Connery to play Bond. Connery agreed to a payment of $3 million, casting and script approval, and a percentage of all profits. After they cast him as Bond, the script underwent several changes, referencing Connery’s age of 52 at the time of filming. They also added a subplot of the new M not being fond of the 00 program, seeing it as outdated, and as a result, the Q department faced reduced budgets.
Irvin Kershner was hired to direct, after his major directorial debut with The Empire Strikes Back. For casting, Connery suggested Max von Sydow to play Ernst Starvo Blofeld, and Klaus Maria Brandauer as main villain Maximillian Largo. Both were hired. Blofeld isn’t in this movie too much, but he makes a big impressions. Largo is charismatic in a subtle way, and he plays the part well. Kershner selected Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush, an assassin. She actually earned a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her entertaining performance.
A lot of people like to give the Daniel Craig movies praise for hiring a black actor to play Felix Leiter, Bond’s American friend. This movie did it first, hiring Bernie Casey for the role. They did it mostly to try to make Leiter more memorable, as he often felt like an afterthought in the existing Bond movies. Connery’s wife, Micheline, had met up-and-coming actress Kim Basinger at a hotel in London, and suggested her to Connery for the main Bond girl, Domino. Sean agreed, after Dalila Di Lazzaro refused the role.
To round out the cast, you’ve got Edward Fox as M, Pamela Salem as Moneypenny, Alec McCowen as Q, and none other than comedian Rowen Atkinson as a foreign office rep in the Bahamas. Atkinson plays the role relatively straight, but still gives us some great laughs.
Also fun fact – Steven Seagal acted as the fight choreographer for the movie. It was revealed on the Jay Leno show that Seagal accidentally broke Sean’s wrist while training. Sean remarked that he didn’t even know his wrist was broken until over a decade later. Not sure how that works, but it sounds like an amusing story.
After all the casting concluded, the film has one more major change. Micheline Connery suggested the title Never Say Never Again, referring to Sean’s comments that he’d never play Bond again. Everyone thought that was a brilliant choice, and even credited her for the title. Last but not least, one last legal challenge by the Fleming estate tried to block the movie from being made. The case made it to the High Court in London in spring of 1983, further delaying the movie’s filming, but was ultimately thrown out. This allowed Never Say Never Again to proceed with no further legal challenges.
Most of the filming took place in the Bahamas, with some early footage from the French Riviera. The production was troubled. Sean assisted with a lot of the production duties, since the producer was inexperienced. The movie even ran out of money at one point, as Schwartzman underestimated how much the film would cost. All of these problems created tension between him and Sean, who barely spoke with each other at times. Sean called the production a “bloody Mickey Mouse operation.”
While this movie had the rights to use SPECTER and the main Bond franchise didn’t, Never Say Never Again wasn’t allowed to use the Bond theme at all. Octopussy released that same year, and they made special note to use the Bond theme as much as possible. They invited frequent Bond composer John Barry to create the soundtrack, but he declined out of loyalty to Eon Productions. James Horner was both Kershner’s and Chwartzman’s first choice to compose the film, after they were impressed with his work on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. On that note, I should really do a Star Trek movie blogathon at some point. Anyway, Kershner commented that Horner was unavailable at the time, but Schwartzman later claimed that Sean vetoed the composer. Considering Sean and Schwartzman didn’t get along, it’s hard to say who to believe on that front.
Eventually, they hired Michael Legrand to compose the score similar to his work as a jazz pianist. He also wrote the theme song. The score is generally the most criticized aspect of the movie, with critics calling it misjudged and the most disappointing aspect of the movie. After Bonnie Tyler declined to sing the theme song due to disliking it, Lani Hall performed it. The theme song isn’t bad, but like the soundtrack, it’s largely forgettable.
Despite the soundtrack being kind of weak, and the movie lacking a number of the traditional Bond motifs, this is still a good movie overall. It’s definitely a better Bond movie than Octopussy. It ended up earning $160 million worldwide, on a $32 million budget. Although Octopussy did end up earning more, with $187 million, Never Say Never Again enjoyed the best opening of any Bond movie up to that point, with $10.9 million on its opening weekend.
The movie was generally praised by critics. The Daily Express called it “one of the better Bonds”, and saying “Connery has lost none of his charm, and if anything, is more appealing than ever as the stylish resolute hero.” The Times also praised Sean’s performance – “Connery … is back, looking hardly a day older or thicker, and still outclassing every other exponent of the role.” The New York Times broadly praised the movie, noting that it featured more comedy and character than most Bond movies do, and also praised Maximillian as the villain. Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, saying that it felt different than other Bond films, despite a similar plot. “For one thing, there’s more of a human element in the movie, and it comes from Klaus Maria Brandeuer as Largo.” He also added, “There was never a Beatles reunion … but here, by God, is Sean Connery as Sir James Bond. Good work, 007.”
Most retrospective reviews are also generally positive.
Personally, I also very much enjoyed this movie. In a lot of ways, this feels like a 60’s production. The action generally focuses more on characters using their intelligence than it does intensity, but with better overall production quality than any of Sean’s previous Bond movies. This is a movie where Bond often uses his wits to get out of situations, although he occasionally needs help. His enemies also show intelligence, turning even the motorcycle chase scene into a battle of tricks more than a battle of vehicles. My biggest criticism of Thunderball is it has too many underwater sequences. The worst example of this is the final battle, where you’ve got dozens of people fighting underwater, shooting harpoons and knifing each other. It’s almost impossible to tell who is who. This movie greatly reduces that kind of chaos, focusing on one-on-one battles underwater, where Bond and Maximillian have different coloured wet suits. It makes for a tense battle, where once again, it’s more a battle of wits than brawn.
Despite being in his 50’s, Sean is impressive in the role. He’s still able to keep up physically with his younger co-stars. You believe it when he tosses people off of buildings, or wrestles a knife out of his enemy’s hands. But he’s also not invincible.
One major plot point is that MI6 isn’t sure whether they want to bring Bond back or not, and the first part of the movie is focused on Bond retraining and trying to argue his case. It makes for a compelling plot point and ads humanity to Bond’s role in the film. Also despite the age difference between Sean and Basinger, their romance is believable, especially since Bond starts thinking of retiring for her. Basinger’s performance here is also fairly good. It’s not unsettling at all, unlike the romance in A View To A Kill where the main Bond girl is younger than Roger Moore’s own daughter (from his third marriage nonetheless).
Never Say Never Again is often forgotten, as it’s not an official Bond movie. That said, it’s a great movie in its own right. The only truly weak aspect is the soundtrack, and that’s not just because it lacks the Bond theme. It’s forgettable. And while Thunderball is among the better Bond movies, Never Say Never again stand up well on its own as a partial remake, and even makes several improvements over the original in terms of performances, how the action is handled, and a stronger human element to the characters and story. This is definitely worth a watch if you’ve somehow missed out on it.
Next up is Finding Forrester, one of Sean Connery’s later movies, and often considered among his best dramatic performances.