After the massive success that was Goldfinger, and the Bond character being so firmly established in the public consciousness, it was time to take it to another level; a more lavish one.
Thunderball would become the first movie in the series to become a true artistic and financial Juggernaut. But the road to its production was a rocky one, to say the least.
Thunderball had originally been conceived as a screenplay for the big screen, for which Ian Fleming enlisted the help of producer Kevin McClory, and screenwriter Jack Whittingham. The proyect went nowhere, and after languishing for some time in a drawer, Fleming took the material up again, and turned it into a successful novel.
When both McClory and Whittingham learned of this, they took Fleming to court, which failed in favour of them in that they were entitled to a writing credit for the book, since they had suggested, or outright come up with most of the ideas that would later be used by Fleming in the novel.
When Harry Saltzman took up an option to adapt Fleming’s books to the big screen, and would later do so after forming a partnership with producer Albert R. Broccoli, he had every intention of adapting Thunderball as the first ever Bond adventure to get the big screen treatment. Given the rights issues in which said property was embroiled, he and Broccoli had to desist, which would prove to be a blessing in disguise in the long run, as the scale of the production was too big and ambitious to be given justice with a small budget, as the first Bond movie, Dr No had been.
After coming to a agreement with both McClory and Whittingham, to give the first a producer’s credit, and the second a writing credit, the production was green lit, and ready to move ahead. Terrence Young came back into the fold for what would be his last Bond movie as director. It was only fitting that the man who pretty much breathed life into Bond to become a fully fledged cinematographic character would return, once again, to helm the most ambitious and lavish movie of the series to date, and the first one that would usher Bond into the realm of the Cinemascope format.
This would not be the end of the story, though, as years later McClory, still holding the rights for the Thunderball story, and with the help of producer John Schwarzman and Warner Bros., produced in 1983 a remake of Thunderball with the title Never Say Never Again, directed by Irvin Kershner, fresh off directing The Empire Empire Strikes Back, and Sean Connery reprising his role as 007. This unofficial entry in the series would clash directly with the official installment in the by then, exclusively produced Broccoli Bond movies, and the sixth with Roger Moore in the role of 007; Octopussy. Octopussy would ultimately prevail in the box office showdown, despite the McClory produced movie making a profit.
The Old Guard is back
With Terrence came back the old troop of both actors and crew, who had practically become a mainstay in the series since its inception. Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewellyn and of course, the man himself Sean Connery, all returned. So did most of the technical and creative team behind the previous entries like Editor Peter Hunt, Cinematographer Ted Moore, Production Designer Ken Adam and Composer John Barry.
Writer Richard Maibaum came back, once again, to pen the script, this time with the help of fellow screenwriter John Hopkins, who’d been hired by Saltzman to work on the script for Funeral in Berlin, the next installment in the Harry Palmer series made famous by actor Michael Caine. Unfortunately for him, and against the advise of many of his fellow crewmen, he decided to stay behind in London, working on both scripts, instead of going to the Bahamas, where most of the crew was, thus missing out on the fun.
And some new faces
Some new blood, as always, was required to play Bond’s new romantic interest and some of the most iconic villains and villainess the series has had. First off, Italian actor Adolfo Celi would play the role of Emilio Largo, number 2 in the criminal organization Spectre, and the mastermind behind the plan of stealing two nuclear weapons and ransom NATO for them, Luciana Paluzzi, who had auditioned for the role of Domino, Largo’s mistress and Bond’s new romantic interest, played the role of ruthless SPECTRE henchwoman Fiona Volpe. The role of Domino fell on French actress and former Miss France, Claudine Auger, whilst Young’s old acquaintance from previous casting sessions for the two first movies, Martine Beswick, landed the role of Paula, Bond’s MI6 assistant in Nassau, British actor Guy Doleman played Count Dippe, another one of SPECTRE’S operatives with whom Bond has a near-fatal encounter in the recovery clinic Shrublands concerning a certain spine stretching contraption, Rick Van Nutter took over the role of Felix Leiter from actor Cec Linder from Goldfinger. His was supposed to be a recurring appereance for the next movies, and was actually contracted to do so, but being as it was that the character would not show up for the next two movies, when the time came for Van Nutter to reprise his role, he was engaged in other projects, and would never reprise the role again. Another interesting piece of casting was that of Molly Peters, who plays the role of Pat, the nurse who takes care of Bond in Shrublands, and who is the first object of Bond’s sexual attentions in the movie. With all the elements in place, it was time to bring about, in record time, what would be one of the most costly and difficult shoots in the series to date. A challenge compounded by the fact that a good chunk of the movie would take place underwater.
The shoot would prove to be one of the most challenging of the entire series. There were 4 Units shooting at the same time in the Bahamas, Florida, France and Pinewood Studios, UK. Most of Ken Adam’s lavish sets were painstakingly recreated at Pinewood Studios and Ricou Browning, an expert, along with his partner Jordan Klein Sr in underwater filming, who had devised a retrofitted camera for shooting underwater, were in charge of filming all the underwater scenes, of which there were many.
Most of the Scuba diving equipment that Largo’s SPECTRE crew uses during the Vulkan plane hijack and to move from the Disco Volante to the underwater hideout were the bombs are placed, was designed in London and then assembled in location in the Bahamas. There was such a wealth of material shot for the underwater sequences that the first rough cut of the movie ended up with a running time of over 4 hours, which proved to be so something of a challenge for editor Peter Hunt to trim down to a running time of a little over two hours. Young wasn’t very fond of this aspect of the film, and thought that the excessive amount of scenes that took place underwater slowed the movie down considerably. Nevertheless, the underwater sequences, especially the final underwater battle scene, proved to be one of the most outstanding features of the movie, and one of the reasons why this movie in particular is so fondly remembered by most fans.
A scene that takes place in a Shark-filled salt water pool, and the use of live Sharks for practically the whole of the production, was a major cause of concern for most over the stunt men, actors and crew, due to their unpredictable nature. A plexiglass wall was erected inside the pool to separate the actor from the Sharks for the scene in which Bond falls into the pool after fighting one of Largo’s minions when he goes to Largo’s estate to try and rescue Paula. Unfortunately, due to a shortage of plexiglass, the wall was shortened, thus allowing one of the sharks to slip through, causing a near-fatal incident between Connery and the predator. For some of the underwater sequences, like the final Battle, the sharks had to be tethered by the crew to be made to move around whenever needed. However, most of them would slip out of their restraints and escape, forcing the underwater crew to go after them, to try and capture them again. Aside from these problems, the weather and shooting conditions were mostly benign for most of the shoot.
Another logistical nightmare was the Junkanoo parade sequence, a sort of local Mardi Grass, in which Bond uses the mayhem and crowds to evade capture by Largo’s men. It’s a very colourful sequence that the producers thought would be the perfect chance to showcase Nassau, and their traditions. The sequence was completed with the help of hundreds of local extras that, for two nights of shooting in a row gave it their all, even causing some consternation to the crew when some of the extras showed up wearing the logo 007 emblazoned on their costumes.
Other standout set pieces are the Disco Volante, Largo’s retrofitted yacht/moving base of operations that splits in half during the movie’s climax with the front part speeding away. It’s also equipped with an underwater hatch under the keel to conceal the Nuclear weapons and transport them to a cleverly concealed underwater hideout. SPECTRE’s Parisian secret conference room with its array of moving electric chairs, Q’s base of operations in Nassau and MI6 conference/war room were all meticulously recreated in Pinewood Studios. Having such a large budget at his disposal, allowed Ken Adam to let fly his imagination without any restrictions.
Box office performance
The movie was a worldwide runaway success, breaking box office records all around the globe, and it became, and stood for a long time, along with Goldfinger, as one of the most profitable movies in the series, and one that would cause the spy craze and everything related to the Bond property to become a hot market commodity. The marketing campaign for the movie was extensive, and the sells of merchandise like toys, articles of clothing and books went to the roof.
Not as grounded in reality as his two previous Bond-helmed movies had been, Thunderball is nonetheless a very enjoyable and entertaining entry in the series. It ticks all the right boxes; a charismatic and somewhat sadistic villain, his duplicitous and resourceful henchwoman, a stunning-looking, but at the same time strong female lead, a very well put together plot, beautifully striking sets and locales, exciting action sequences, and a wonderful music score to top it all off. John Barry delivers here one of his strongest scores for the series, even though the main title song by Shirley Bassey; “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”was never used at the insistence of the producers of having a main title song with the movie title in it. The song was re-arranged and worked around the movie’s title, but time would prove with subsequent Bond title songs whose lyrics couldn’t be worked around the title, and working nonetheless, that it was the wrong call; especially considering how uninspired the resulting song sang by Tom Jones would end up being. The script is well written, despite the on-screen execution being somewhat meandering, and Editor Peter Hunt was, once again on point with his very dynamic and innovative editing style, that came to the fore in the action set pieces. A combination of quick cuts and sped-up footage made for some very fast moving, but comprehensive fight scenes. Ken Adam was his usual brilliant self, delivering some of the most inventive and innovative sets in the series, now without the hurdle of a restrained budget.
Connery was fully settled in the role at this point, and plays the part effortlessly. The same thing can be said about all the other recurring actors. As for the main villain Emilio Largo, Adolfo Celi does a wonderful job perfectly conveying with his voice and body language a sense of threat that always seems to be simmering below the surface, ( even if the Italian actor, like his fellow actress Luciana Paluzzi, and the French speaking Claudine Auger had their lines dubbed over in Post-production). Even though Claudine Auger does a decent turn as Domino, it was really Luciana Paluzzi who delivered the best performance as the “bad” Bond girl of the piece, and seems to genuinely be having fun with the part. This may be in part due to the level of complicity that Young would develop with his leading ladies on set, to the point that he would remain friends with all of them years after they had worked together.
Some of the action set pieces, like Bond’s face-off against SPECTRE’s number 6, colonel Jaques Bouvar are superbly choreographed and executed, whilst others, like most of the underwater action set pieces, especially the final underwater Battle sequence, would go on for a tad too long. And that’s my main gripe with the movie. It moves at a brisk enough pace for the first half of the movie, but once Bond arrives to Nassau to try and find where the bombs are hidden, everything slows down considerably. A complaint voiced by director Terrence Young, once the final cut of the movie had been finalized. Unlike Goldfinger, whose running time breezes past without you noticing it, this movie is not only one of the longest entries in the series, but one with seriously glaring issues when it comes to its pacing, something that I think is due to the use and abuse of its underwater sequences. In my opinion, a good 10 min could have been trimmed out of it. That being said, and in true Terrence Young’s fashion, the final product is a well thought out, and executed spy adventure that lives long in the memories of its fans despite its flaws. Incidentally, this was the first ever time that Connery had the chance to shoot the gun barrel sequence for the pre-credit opening sequence, something that up until that point, stuntman Bob Simmons had done. And in Cinemascope, no less.
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