Had Ian Fleming known the turmoil the writing of his ninth James Bond novel Thunderball was going to cause, he might’ve thought better about giving credit where credit was due to both co-writers Jack Whittingham, and Kevin McClory. As it turned out, the whole affair resulted in a lengthy court battle that would go well into the late 90s, with one somewhat successful stop-over along the way; Never Say Never Again, that wouldn’t be without its own behind the scenes controversy. The story behind the making of the second “unofficial” Bond movie is more interesting than the end product. Let’s dive in. Shall we?
Back to the beginning
Between 1959 and 1960, under the advisement of his old friend Ivar Bryce, Ian Fleming started writing the screenplay that would later become Thunderball with two fellow writers; Jack Whittingham and Kevin McClory. At the time, Fleming was still struggling to get his Bond novels adapted for the big screen, on account of them not being sufficiently “cinematic”. Their mutual friend, lawyer Ernie Cuneo gave the group of writers the initial idea of a group of gangsters stealing a nuclear bomb and holding the world to ransom. Kevin McClory had already being contracted by Bryce, as he’d had ample experience in the movie industry having worked in The African Queen (John Huston, 1951), and Around the World in 80 days (Michael Anderson, 1956). All together, they tossed some ideas back and forth, and tried to get the movie made. When this proved to be unsuccessful, they all went their separate ways. Problem was when Fleming took up the material left by all of them, and used it to write his novel Thunderball, failing to acknowledge the contributions of the other two writers in the process. When McClory learned of this, he took Fleming to court, with the verdict eventually falling on McClory’s favour, granting him the rights to the material therein, and all the characters created for the book; Bloefeld, Emilio Largo, Domino, but most importantly, those of the character Ernst Stavro Bloefeld, and his criminal organization SPECTRE. This meant that when the Fleming novels were finally optioned by Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli to be adapted for the big screen, Thunderball was the one novel that the producing duo couldn’t touch. It was actually their initial idea to use Thunderball as the first ever Bond novel to be adapted for the silver screen, with an initial first draft by writer Richard Maibaum. It turned out for the best that this wasn’t the case, as the budget the production team had to work with was so minuscule, they wouldn’t have done the book any justice, opting to adapt the sixth book, Dr No, instead.
As the James Bond movies became increasingly successful at the box office, and the so-called “spy craze” reached fever pitch levels, Broccoli and Saltzman were still adamant about adapting Thunderball, which meant that a deal would have to be struck with McClory to get the rights. McClory ended up with a producer’s credit, but he also wouldn’t be able to adapt the Thunderball story on his own for another 10 years. Thunderball was a smashing box office hit, and propelled the series to soaring popular and financial heights. Both Broccoli and Saltzman never thought at the time that McClory would ever go back to the issue, and the rights would eventually revert back to them. How wrong they were.
As it turned out, McClory was just waiting for the legal ten-year period to elapse to be able to adapt the story again. McClory’s first attempt to get something together was in 1976. He’d hired writer Len Deighton to write the script, with the title Warhead. Having convinced Sean Connery, who still resented the way things had gone with Broccoli and Saltzman during his tenure as the suave 00 agent to return to the role he’d so adamantly declared in public would never go back to, they started working out the story details together. Connery was apparently so happy with the collaboration, and the amount of creative and financial freedom he was given, that he was all but ready to sign the contract when financial backing went out the window, the main reasons for this being the constant back and forth between McClory and Eon Productions in court. McClory could make his movie, yes, but keeping within the novel’s narrative at all times, and foregoing any attempts to remake Thunderball copying elements from the Eon produced film. The proyect fell into development hell during several years, and became sort of a poisoned chalice that no movie studio was willing to go anywhere near. Alas, as luck would have it, the proyect fell into the lap of Jack Schwartzman, a lawyer who worked for Lorimar, mostly known at the time for producing TV content. Given his successful record as a lawyer, Schwartzman felt confident to take on the proyect, and produce it himself.
Keeping to the book
As it turned out, it wasn’t as easy as Schwartzman had envisioned. Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr, famous for his contributions to the 1960s Batman TV show (1966-68), and Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980), was hired as a writer, and having to restrict himself to not deviating from the source material, he found it increasingly difficult to write a script with sufficient action and plot to make it refreshing enough. Funnily enough, Connery quite liked Semple’s first draft. So much so that it was one of the main reasons to commiting to make the movie. That, and the amount of creative and financial freedom the actor would have in the production. In addition to having a say in picking the director, the crew, and contributing to the casting process, the actor worked out quite a nice financial deal for himself, and if everything went right, he would walk away with a nice chunk of the box office profits. His were the elections of Irvin Kershner as director, Douglas Slocombe as Director of Photography, and Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer as the main villain, Emilio Largo. The actor would however end up contributing far more, and getting more invested in the production process that he ever imagined he would.
One of the first things that Kershner changed when he became involved in the picture was the script, a fact that Semple deeply resented him for. The writer was trying to do the best he could with the material he had at had, and was having a difficult enough time of it without Kersner’s constant script changes. Kershner, fresh off his success on The Empire Strikes Back (1980), had a reputation of being a prickly director at the best of times, but very efficient. He didn’t have a particular high regard for some of the James Bond movies that had come before, but was confident enough that he could give the material an interesting spin, if given the right script to work with. Sadly, in his opinion, he was saddle with a poor script, in dear need of re-structuring. There were also budgetary reasons that mandated Semple to cut down, or altogether eliminate most of the action set pieces already present on the script. Needless to say, when Connery read the new script, he wasn’t happy at all with the changes, and threaten to walk out of the picture if the script wasn’t fixed to his satisfaction. As a consequence, Semple was fired. Connery was also of the opinion that the present script was lacking that particular brand of British humour the James Bond movies were so famous for. Enter British writers Dick Clement and Ian Lefranais. The writers started re-writing the script when the movie was already in production. They would end up staying on during the remainder of the production, ironing out and streamlining many aspects of the script. They sadly never got a credit for their work, as they later found out that they didn’t have an official contract with the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America), the basis of which Semple used for getting sole script credit for the movie. The writers weren’t at all happy with the final outcome, as their contributions to the script had been fairly substantial. They ended up re-writing most of the dialogue, introduced the character of Nigel Small-Fawcett, played by British comedian Rowan Atkinson, wrote a new opening sequence for the movie, with the war scenario scene substituting the jousting scene originally planned, which had Bond participating in a jousting match which ends up with Bond chasing an assassin through the streets of London on horseback, and contributing all of the humour. The final title for the film was actually suggested by Sean Connery’s wife, who’d repeatedly heard him over the years say that never again would he play the role of James Bond.
As mentioned above, Connery was heavily involved in the casting process. It was actually a suggestion of his wife’s that the producers hire newcomer Kim Basinger to play the role of Domino Petacchi. The actress was quite inexperienced at the time, and somewhat reluctant to take on the role, but as her character demanded that she had a strong background in dancing, which the actress being a former dancer had, she decided to take the plunge. The actress would however admit publicly later on that she’d had a very difficult time during the shoot, and that she was intimidated by both her co-stars Connery and Brandauer. Nicaraguan Actress and former model Barbara Carrera turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Her portrayal of SPECTRE assassin Fatima Blush is easily one of the best bits of casting in the movie, and more than makes up for Basinger’s lackluster turn as Domino. She had big shoes to fill, having to be the counterpart to Luciana Paluzzi’s Fiona Volpe from the first movie, but she passes the test with flying colours. She was hesitant to take on the role as she thought that, as written on the page, it was too small and meaningless a part. Her doubts were put to rest when Kershner reassured her that her part would eventually get bigger as the script was being constantly worked on. Irish actor Gavan O’Herlihy played the role of ill-fated Jack Petacchi, the American RAF officer whom SPECTRE uses to steal the nuclear bombs. Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer was Connery’s own personal choice to play the part of Emiliano Largo. He considered him one of the most brilliant actors out there at the time, but Kershner admitted of having a difficult time controlling Bandauer on set as the actor was prone to improvisation. Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, most famous for the roles he’d played on his fellow Swedish Ingmar Bergman movies, played the role of the head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Bloefeld, yet another take on Bond’s archenemy. British actor Edward Fox played the bureocratically minded, and extremely posh M, while Pamela Salem stepped into the shoes of Miss Moneypenny, with the press at the time trying to play her off against Lois Maxwell, who had been playing the part of Moneypenny on the official movies since the beginning. Something that came to nought as both actresses had a friendly relationship off the screen. Alec McCowen played the part of Argeron, this movie’s version of Q, who has one of the funniest scenes in the movie, playing around with the fact that his department is underfunded, and the new bureocratically minded MI6 has him confined to a damp basement that wreaks havoc with his sinuses. Afromerican actor Bernie Casey was afforded the rare opportunity to be the first African American Felix Leiter in the series. Jeffrey Wright would succesfully take on the mantle years later on Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006).
Missing props and behind the scenes chaos
The production was a disaster from the very beginning. With a script still being worked on, and a newcomer producer mostly absent from the set, mostly due to his court commitments, trying to fend off Eon’s constant attempts to shut down the production, the whole thing was a recipe for disaster. Constant budgets constraints didn’t help smooth things over, with on-set props being constantly changed without the director’s knowledge, like the fact that the motorcycle that Bond uses to chase Fatima Blush around the winding streets of the French Riviera was to spring wings at one point to jump over a vehicle. Not only did the motorbike not have any wings, but it was also painted the wrong colour as well, and while Kershner went on to shoot something else that day, the crew hastily re-painted the motorbike. On another occasion, and after reviewing the rushes that the second unit had shot of the scene in which Bond and Fatima dive to a sunken ship, and Bond is pursued by radio-controlled Tiger sharks spurred on by a sensor that Fatima has placed on Bond’s oxygen tank, Kersner realised that the stunt man the second unit crew had chosen to replace Connery with didn’t bear any resemblance whatsoever with the actor, which rendered the shot footage unusable. Kershner had to hastily replace the stunt man, with one of Ricou Browning’s underwater crew members (Browning was in charge of the underwater second unit), and the sequence had to be re-shot in its entirety. Kershner found out later that the pictures the crew were using to look for a suitable stunt man for Connery were from Thunderball, in which the actor not only was much younger, but also had a completely different body build. It didn’t help matters that at one point, Jack Schwartzman decided to skirt off on his producer’s duties, remaining absent for most of the production, and with no means for the crew to get in touch with him, prompting the ire of Sean Connery, who at one point declared that the whole production was a “Mickey Mouse outfit”. It was actually the actor’s determination that allowed the production to go forward, with the actor going back to his hotel at night to work on the script, and being one of the main driving forces to get the movie finished, a fact acknowledged by many of his fellow cast and crew members.
The film was shot in five different countries, which made it even harder for Kershner to keep track of everything. Fortunately he had the help of Asistant Director David Tomblin, who the director had previously worked with on The Empire Strikes Back. While the underwater unit was shooting material in the Bahamas, Kershner and the first unit were shooting in Montecarlo, with additional scenes being shot in England (Elstree Studios), Spain and USA. The Domination game that features during Bond and Largo’s confrontation at the casino, and which was also a contribution by the writing duo Dick Clement and Ian Lefranais, featured complicated 3D graphics that would later on be added by Visual Effects Supervisor David Dryer. Kershner wanted to give the whole casino confrontation scene between Bond and the villain a new and refreshing twist. The film doesn’t boast that many action set pieces, and those there are, are fairly low key when compared to what the stunt and special effects crew on the Eon productions were achieving at the time. The most hair-raising stunt in the whole movie was that of the Tiger sharks attacking Bond at the sunken ship, where the crew trapped real Tiger sharks, and had them strapped by their tails to avoid them getting too close to the cast and crew. The scene in which Bond on horseback rescues Domino and gallops away to the top of a cliffside fortress, and jumps into the sea below, was mostly done for real, with a real horse that had been trained for weeks, and famous stuntman Vic Armstrong doubling Sean Connery. Dodgy optical effects were added later to sell the illusion of Connery being on the actual horse. If there’s something that ages this movie significantly, and it’s a clear contrast to the official Bond movies, is the optical work. It’s just serviceable in the best of cases, and downright bad in the worst ones. Optical shots of Bernie Casey and Connery flying to Largo’s underwater hideout in those Navy issue rocket-propelled things are one of the most noticeable, with Kershner having to settle in the end for the best they could achieve, when the scene they had planned out didn’t turn out the way they wanted. Kershner also complained about the scenes taking place inside Largo’s hideout being overly lit, which gives it away as being nothing but a set that was shot inside one of Elstree Studio sound stages. He attributed this as being an oversight of the lighting crew, as Slocombe was absent, due to having some eye surgery done at the time. Many scenes, like Bond and Count Dippe’s confrontation at Shrublands (hands down the best action sequence in the movie, and one of the funniest), were done on the fly, with Kershner admittedly having to come up with an end to the fight on the spot. Another funny piece of trivia is that Connery’s hair piece ended up being one of the most expensive props used in the film, at a cost of $1 million. Connery was also extremely fit at the time as his personal trainer was no other than Steven Seagal. Seagal came highly recommended by Michael Ovitz, who was the head of CAA (Creative Artists Agency), a managing agency that had Connery as one of their high profile clients. Apparently Seagal broke Connery’s wrist during one of their training sessions.
Billionaire Adan Khashoggi’s floating palace, Nabila, doubled up for Largo’s Flying Saucer. Funnily enough Khashoggi had been runner up to acquiring Harry Saltzman’s stakes when he’d been forced to sell his part of Eon all those years ago. The movie also suffered tremendously in editorial, as Kershner struggled to ssuccesfully edit together the material he had shot with what the second unit had shot. The crew found themselves having to re-shoot some scenes, or even shoot new ones that would be written on the set by Dick Clement and Ian Lefranais, that would act as narrative bridges to the scenes that had already been shot. The opening action sequence, which acts as kind of the usual pre-credits sequence present in every James Bond movie, was actually cobbled together by the writers and Kershner while shooting at the Bahamas. It was supposed to be a tense scene set to a metronome until someone from the production company had the wonderful idea of playing the horrendous title song with the main credits over it, which has to be among one of the worst editing decisions ever done on a film. Which brings us to one of the worst things about the movie; the title song, and the score. The original song, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, was to have been sung by Welsh rock singer Bonnie Tyler, who after listening to the lyrics, decided to pass on it. The job ultimately went to Lani Hall, wife to musician Herb Alpert, who was producing the track along with musician Sergio Mendes. Kershner had come to the editing stage of the movie without a composer locked down yet. Jack Schwartzman had tried to hire the services of film composer James Horner, but when that fell through, Kershner took on French composer Michel Legrand, who came highly recommended to him by Barbra Streisand, who had used him in her movie Yentl ( Barbra Streisand, 1983). Ultimately the jarring jazzy style of Legrand’s score coupled with the poor lyrics of the main title song really let the movie down.
Critical and financial success.
Considering the convoluted behind the scenes story the production had, the movie turned out fairly well. It was released a few months apart from the official Eon produced James Bond movie (Octopussy, John Glen), which was kind of a relief for both parties concerned as that meant that they wouldn’t end up hurting each other’s chances at the box office. Octopussy would still come out on top that year in the box office battle, but Never Say Never Again did fairly good numbers, making around $160 million worlwide. Reviews were mainly positive, with audiences and critics generally happy to see Sean Connery back in the role. So, how does this un-official Bond movie fare against the original Thunderball (Terrence Young, 1965), and the original source material?
Remake vs Original version vs book.
Not that bad, actually. I found the Thunderball novel to be one of Ian Fleming’s weakest efforts. It’s not a bad book, don’t get me wrong. It’s got good elements to it, very good characters, but a somewhat weak story. Richard Maibaum’s screenplay for the original movie vastly improves, and adds more richness to the story, especially during the first act of the movie. It then becomes kind of a drag during the last two acts because of the derivativeness of the plot, and its over-use of underwater sequences, as discussed on my previous Thunderball review. This movie, even though it looks significantly more dated, in spite of having been shot 18 years later, does a better job with the pacing. It clicks along nicely, it doesn’t get bogged down with unnecessary detail, and side plots, and makes good use of Connery’s age, which becomes an intrinsic part of the story from the get-go. As its previous cinematic incarnation, this film stays fairly faithful to the source material, adding some nice twists and turns to the story to keep it fresh and entertaining. The ending is still disappointing, and kind of a slog though. The novel actually does a better job of ending the story than either of the two movie adaptations, and the characters arcs and motivations are wonderfully fleshed-out by Fleming (the vivid descriptions of characters and places always being one his strongest literary assets), in spite of the rather dry and uninspired way in which the story is narrated. When comparing the actors’ performances of the main villains from both versions, I have to give the nod to Thunderball. Even though Klaus Maria Brandauer does a very good job with Largo, and Barbara Carrera’s portrayal of Fatima Blush is definitely one of the best things in the movie, both Adolfo Celi and Luciana Paluzzi as Emilio Largo and Fiona Volpe respectively, are still unsurpassed in my book. So is Claudine Auger as Domino. Neither of the cinematic incarnations of the character do the sensual and enigmatic character of the original novel justice, but the ravishing Auger comes the closest. Kim Basinger was quite inexperienced when she took on the role at the time, and it shows. Beautiful though she may be, and in spite of the wonderful job of DP Douglas Slocombe in bringing this across, she fails to give the character the necessary dramatic depth.
From a purely stylistic point of view, Thunderball is the superior movie. It’s more lavish from a Production Design viewpoint (the great Ken Adam designed the sets), which makes the one done for Never Say Never Again pale in comparison to Terrence Young’s movie. A clear example would be the poor design of sets like the SPECTRE headquarters in which we have this futuristic design by Ken Adam compared to this art deco design done for the one in Never Say Never Again, which very much looks like a home for retired people. The War Room at MI6 on Thunderball is another brilliant example of this, compared to the poorly furnished version on Irvin Kershner’s movie. The action set pieces are nothing to ride home about either ( with a few exceptions), when compared to the more energetically shot ones for Thunderball. It is also true that, even though there are very few action set pieces in the movie, the movie is better paced than Thunderball, and doesn’t get bogged down with unnecessarily long underwater sequences, and the Dominion game sequence between Bond and Largo at the casino is a very interesting and original way of going about the required first confrontation scene between hero and villain in a Bond movie.
So what do I think about the movie? Well, there are some elements that I do like about it. I like the way in which the fact that Sean Connery is much older on this movie is used to great effect, even if it’s done sparingly. His is a Bond who’s tired of his job, who’s been sidelined by the Service, which has become a more bureaucratic organization under the supervision of the new M played by Edward Fox, and whose working methods have become old-fashioned by modern day standards. Love his banter with Argeron, A.K.A, Q, all the scenes Bond shares with Fatima Blush (once again, one of the best characters in the movie), the soft looking photography by Douglas Slocombe, and the brilliant use of locations ( Kershner strived to use as many practical locations as he could), and some of the action set pieces (Bond being pursued by Tiger sharks inside the sunken ship, Bond and Dippe’s amazing fight scene in Shrublands, where the two of them practically demolish the clinic….), the incredibly over-the-top death scene of Fatima Blush by way of an explosive ball pen, and the easiness with which Connery slips back into the role, as if he never left. On the other hand, I’m not so fond of the aesthetic look of the film (too 80s and tacky on occasion), the poor optical work on most of the visual effects scenes, a very disappointing Kim Basinger as Domino, and then again, the low key way in which the movie ends. But one of the worst things about the movie, and what truly renders most of what Kershner is trying to achieve on-screen naught, is the dreadful score, hands down the worst ever composed for a James Bond movie; even worse than that composed by Eric Serra for Goldeneye ( Martin Campbell, 1995). All in all, it is a more interesting film than what people give it credit for, but light years away from what was done by Terrence Young on Thunderball, even if the pacing on Kershner’s movie is better when it comes to the underwater scenes, which thankfully don’t become a predominant element on this movie as they did on Thunderball, to the detriment of the latter’s pacing. In spite of admittedly having had a horrible time when shooting the movie (mostly due to the way the production was handled by Schwartzman), Connery seems to genuinely be having a good time, and the movie is all the better for it. If you haven’t seen it, don’t let yourself be put down by the negative critics, or me pointing out some of the movie’s pitfalls. It’s still a movie I go back to from time to time, and just for the fact of it being the last time Connery played the iconic role, it’s well worth a watch.
Thanks for reading.