Welcome to James Bond Revisited, a series where I watch and review every James Bond film leading up to the 25th film in the franchise No Time To Die, set to release this April. Today, we examine Thunderball.
For three consecutive years, James Bond had dominated the silver screen. Indeed, Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger were each among the highest-grossing films of their year. The producers were keen on continuing the franchise, but there was a snag.
Bond-creator, Ian Fleming found himself in legal trouble when previous writing partners, Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham, accused him of stealing a plot they had collaborated on years prior for a screenplay called Longitude 78 West. Flemming, believing that their partnership had ended, used the plot for a novel of his own creation, Thunderball.
As the legal battle raged, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli became concerned that the courts would side with McClory, resulting in two separate Bond franchises (a nightmare that would come true years later) or worse, they would lose the rights to Bond entirely!
After settling the lawsuit out of court, Saltzman and Broccoli conceded by giving McClory an exclusive producer credit, while they stayed on as executive producers.
The legal battle resolved, EON Productions poured nine million dollars into the film, and the result was the gargantuan box-office smash, earning around $141 million, roughly $1.14 billion dollars by today’s standards, a record that wouldn’t be broken until Skyfall, nearly 50 years later.
Thunderball has a decent reputation among the fanbase, often ranking towards the upper middle. While nobody’s favorite, it is generally regarded as an enjoyable romp. But is that reputation justified? Let’s dive in.
James Bond Revisited: Thunderball
The film opens at a funeral for J.B., not James Bond, but Jacques Bouvar, a SPRECTRE agent who killed two of Bond’s colleagues. Bond regrets not being able to kill the man himself. However, Bond discovers that Bouvar faked his own death and is attending his own funeral dressed as a woman. Bond tracks down Bouvar and kills him, before making his escape in an inexplicably and conveniently placed jetpack, flying to his car and disposing of a few baddies with his gadget-laden Aston Martin.
In Paris, a villain named Emilio Largo meets with SPECTRE and conveys his plan to steal a nuclear warhead in exchange for one hundred million pounds.
James Bond is relaxing at a health spa where he spies a man with a Red Dagon tattoo, identifying him as a SPECTRE agent. Meanwhile, a NATO Pilot and a woman named Fiona Volpe are relaxing in bed when there is a knock at the door. The Pilot goes to answer it to find… himself! The imposter (a SPECTRE agent who underwent plastic surgery to look like the Pilot) kills the Pilot and takes his position on a plane carrying atomic bombs.
Bond finds the dead pilot, while the fake pilot lands the stolen jet in the Bahamas. The plane sinks and is hidden underwater by Largo’s men. The fake pilot is then killed for asking for too much money. His corpse is left underwater. Bond is briefed and recognizes the missing pilot as the man he saw at the health spa. Bond heads to the Bahamas to find and interrogate the pilot’s sister, Domino.
Bond meets Largo at a casino and discovers that Domino is his mistress. Largo figures out that Bond is an agent immediately. Bond then meets with Q (out in the field for the first time), where he is given a series of water-based gadgets, including an underwater breathing device and a Geiger counter.
Bond meets Fiona at a club. They dance together and Largo’s henchmen attempt to shoot him in the back, but Bond spins Fiona around and uses her as a human shield. Bond and CIA Operative, Felix, find the sunken jet and Bond tells Domino that her brother is dead. Domino turns on Largo and attempts to find the bombs but she is captured and tortured by Largo.
Bond goes undercover as one of Largo’s henchmen and uncovers Largo’s villainous plot to set off a bomb in Miami if he isn’t paid his one hundred million pounds. The United States Coast Guard arrives and a fight breaks out underwater. Though the US Coast Guard is victorious, Largo attempts to flee with the bombs in his boat, the Disco Volante. Bond and Largo fight before Domino shoots Largo in the back with a harpoon. Our heroes abandon ship before the Disco Volante explodes.
Bond Song/Opening Titles
“He looks at this world and wants it all. So, he strikes… like Thunderball.”
‘Thunderball’ opens with a strong, brassy melody reminiscent of ‘Goldfinger’ but with less success. Make no mistake, the score is not the problem here, but the singer. Tom Jones provides the vocals and his voice is rich and vibrant, but something about it doesn’t scream “Bond,” in my opinion. Perhaps it is because the Welsh singer is more strongly affiliated with Las Vegas decadence than the elegance of the Bond series.
While Tom Jones may be out of place, the melody by returning composer John Barry is anything but. It’s classic “Bond.” The score is dynamic, piercing, and strong with Monty Norman’s ‘Bond Theme’ peaking in from time to time, anchoring the song and reminding the audience that this is still a Bond film.
Lyrically, ‘Thunderball’ shares another similarity with ‘Goldfinger’ in that both songs are about the villain (or in this case, the villain’s plan). However, the lyrics could just as easily describe Bond himself.
Maurice Binder takes over as Title Designer this time around. Binder keeps Robert Brownjohn’s scantily clad ladies but skips the projection. Instead, he rotoscopes naked women swimming and shooting harpoons and plays that footage over various clips of bubbles in water. The effect is severely underwhelming.
Fun Fact: The original song composed was called “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” referencing an Italian journalist who referred to 007 that way. You can listen to that song here!
A Cast of Forgettable Characters
Our Bond villain this time around is a man named Largo, played by Adolfo Celi. Largo has striking white hair and an eyepatch, and a plan to steal nuclear warheads in exchange for one hundred million pounds. He is all style and no substance. He has no interesting perspective or motive, and even his plan is a dud (more on that later).
Easily the most attractive thing about Largo is that he keeps sharks as pets. Domesticating the most lethal creature in the sea is a wonderful character trait that conveys his ego as well as his affluence, but not enough is done with it by my mind. If you’re going to give me a pool full of sharks, I need those sharks to eat at least three people!
Domino is the main Bond Girl this time around, played by Claudine Auger, who passed away just last month. She is related to the pilot Bond found in the health spa. While she is stunning, the movie does her no favors. She is tender and caring, but ultimately a character who follows rather than leads. Even the end of the movie with her and Bond air-lifted out of the ocean presents her as just another Pussy (Galore, that is).
Domino does get to slay Largo with a harpoon but the whole sequence is guest-edited by a blender and any dramatic build is lost.
In the Bahamas, Bond meets numerous characters with tenuous connections to the plot. A CIA operative named Paula shows Bond around and introduces him to a man named Pinder. But Felix Leiter also returns (though recast) and the result is a half dozen characters we don’t care about who do next to nothing.
Paula kills herself when she is kidnapped. Bond doesn’t care and the movie cares less.
The biggest missed opportunity by a mile is Largo’s “henchman” named Vargas. Blond and lean, with a combover and black shades, Vargas has a look. Largo introduces Vargas as a man of reserve. “Vargas does not drink, does not smoke, does not make love.” In that regard, the filmmakers have found another way to make the henchman an anti-Bond, but Bond has personality. What does Vargas do? Not a damn thing! He has no lethal hat. He has no muscles. He has no purpose. He wastes screentime, and in doing so has taken up a percentage of my life that I will never get back.
There are minor exceptions, the most notable being Fiona Volpe played by Luciana Paluzzi. She is another femme fatale, functioning as a sinister combination of Rosa Klebb and Tatiana Romanova. Paluzzi is a magnetic presence. The camera simply adores her, and her death, dancing with Bond while Vargas attempts to assassinate him in the Kiss Kiss Club is one of the better scenes in the film.
A Product of Parody
If the villain’s plot seems familiar to you, that’s because it is the first plot Dr. Evil schemes in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. The difference? In that film, the plan is flatly rejected by his crew as one million dollars, a lot back then is pennies now.
Bond villains are supposed to be the grandest of the grand. They have volcano lairs and unlimited resources. The last film wanted to detonate a dirty bomb in Fort Knox for goodness sake, and what does Largo want? To hold a nuclear bomb ransom in exchange for one hundred million pounds! That’s it?! Heck, even this movie grossed that sum easily. Come on, Largo, you can do better than that! Get in the film business!
Indeed, Thunderball is one of the primary influences on the Austin Powers trilogy. Blofeld (still unseen) flipping a switch and frying one of his underlings during a SPECTRE meeting is skewered to comedic effect.
Dr. Evil’s henchmen, Number Two, also takes inspiration from Thunderball; the eye-patch sporting villain being a clear homage to Largo.
Furthermore, Dr. Evil clearly shares Largo’s affinity for sharks but goes one comedic step further by having frickin’ laser beams attached to their frickin’ heads! Now that’s what I’m talking about!
While lampooned, Thunderball is more than happy to engage in its tongue-in-cheek world of spies and supervillains. While Dr. Evil’s bald head and facial scar may have over-shadowed Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld (more on that in the next film), these early Bond films have a glorious combination of scale and camp that is often imitated but never truly duplicated.
As silly as the scene may be, Ken Adam’s set is undeniably impressive, while Austin Powers can only hope to emulate.
The fourth film in a cultural phenomenon, Thunderball was given a large budget and the results are often impressive.
Thunderball is the first film in the series to be shot in the 2.34:1 Panavision aspect ratio. This gives the film a letterboxed look that gives the visuals a sense of splendor.
This new format meant that the opening gunbarrel needed to be reshot, which means it is the first gunbarrel in the series starring the star, Sean Connery. Connery’s gait is appropriate, as opposed to the previous film’s gunbarrels which were much too slow. And while stuntman Bob Simmons’ shot to the camera had him leaping too far camera left, Connery hits his mark, even if he does have a strange half-kneel.
The technicolor 35 mm grain provides a texture to the film that is unmatched. Beach scenes have never looked so good.
Showing Its Age
In the age of faceless CG armies smashing into CG monsters on an unconvincing CG landscape, it can be easy to look wistfully to the past, when effects were seamless and practical and not terabytes of data colliding into one another.
When people talk about the ‘Golden Age’ of special effects, I assume they’re talking about the 80s and 90s (which almost always coincides with when they grew up, coincidentally).
But go back to a time before Star Wars changed the game, and I think you’ll find that special effects have always been a crapshoot. The fact of the matter is that cameras were massive and heavy. Movement was challenging, and matching effects to a moving camera was damn near impossible. That’s why the motion-controlled camera pioneered by Star Wars changed blockbusters forever.
In that regard, watching the Bond films in chronological order functions wonderfully as a time-capsule of special effects wizardry. As a child, I remember being bored stiff by the motionless, distant camera, the lack of music over the fight scenes, and the unconvincing way that actors “drove” in front of rear-screen projections. Now that I am older and wiser, I can see the beauty in the clunkiness. There is a charm to Jason and the Argonauts.
That is not the case in Thunderball.
The Bond franchise was the name in action filmmaking at the time, but what was modern then is antiquated now. Connery’s stunt doubles are obvious and distracting but I can forgive that to some extent. Even though its Connery riding the jetpack on the poster (without the dorky helmet), it was actually operated by engineer, Bill Suiter, one of only two people in the world qualified to fly it.
What is less forgivable is the way that the film is assembled. Editor Ernest Hosler strains to make the action exciting and uses every trick in the book to tighten flabby and unengaging footage. The movie groans under the weight of all the editing hacks. Jump cuts abound, actors are needlessly inserted into scenes with rear-screen projection, and footage is often clumsily sped up.
The scene where Bond is tortured (?) at the spa is an example of an already poorly written scene executed worse. John Barry’s score blares over the ridiculous “action” in an attempt to make the audience think it is exciting, but instead feels like when I put John Williams music over my shitty home movies.
The climax, featuring Bond on a speeding boat, becomes a cacophony of absolutely ruined footage. Every shot employs another trick and none of them are effective. So many shots are sped up in a Hail Mary attempt to pick up the tempo that it might as well have Yakkety Sax slapped on top of it. This was the final Bond film for director Terence Young, who seems to have been completely overwhelmed by the task assigned to him. Absolutely none of it cuts together.
And while the action above water is hastily sped-up, the action underwater is painfully slow and unimpressive. Armies of CIA agents fighting goons underwater sound good on paper but in execution, its a slog. All the men wear the same scuba suits, rendering them unrecognizable and the exertion of performing underwater makes every punch ineffective and arduous.
Thunderball: Well, it had to happen sometime
The Bond franchise had been racing along at a relentless pace. The series began in 1962 and had steadily produced one film a year for four years. The cast and crew were writing, producing, filming, editing, and releasing the biggest movie of the year every year without fail. And what’s more, the films were only growing larger in scale and scope. It is no surprise that the filmmakers were beginning to burn out.
Thunderball was a massive success at the box office, but in my opinion, it was also the first step down in the franchise. Connery feels less engaged than ever and the seams in the hastily-assembled production are painfully obvious.
The movie has its moments. The sets are magnificent and the score is as “Bondy” as ever. But four films in, three of them have ended with Bond adrift in water, and two have ended with him being air-lifted out of a conflict while holding a woman.
Thunderball has its defenders but I find it difficult to justify this as anything other than a retread of familiar tropes.