BlogalongBond #4: Thunderball
Even super-spies need a day off from being shit-hot…
(Terence Young, GB, 1965)
Bigger isn’t necessarily better, as 007 realises the more underwater cameras (and producers) you have, the less chance there is of a jackpot
In 1999, the National Lottery decided that its main draw was no longer sexy or substantial enough to attract the masses, so introduced a new game – apparently bigger, bolder, better. They even gave the new game the name of a James Bond film. However, their choice was disturbingly apt. Just as Thunderball the game offered less return on investment than the actual lottery, so Thunderball the film is the point where 007 disappeared up a blind alley from which it’s arguably never truly escaped.
After Goldfinger, the series was riding high, so Thunderball understandably decides to up the ante. For the first time, Bond is shot in the ’Scope ratio associated with epics, a format that (barring a few exceptions) is still used for 007. After the Beatles-dissing last time, the youth market is actively courted with Tom Jones blaring out the theme song – and, incidentally, coinciding with the arrival of series mainstay Maurice Binder on credits duty. Extensive use of lush underwater photography takes the series into (ahem) uncharted waters. And the return of Blofeld and SPECTRE – now stealing nuclear weapons with which to ransom the world, bwah ha ha – represents a significant raising of the stakes. Most pertinently, this is the first 007 film (but far from the last) to break the two-hour barrier.
And yet the film is hidebound by this need to be grand, structurally and aesthetically, because the plot they’re stuck with isn’t nearly grand enough. And, for once, that’s not the fault of the producers or writers, but of Kevin McClory, an associate of Ian Fleming’s who collaborated on the film’s storyline. Unusually for a 1960s Bond vehicle, Thunderball was developed as a film before Fleming wrote the book, which caused no end of aggro in the courts, hastened Fleming’s journey to the grave via heart attack, and saddled the usual Bond team with McClory to the point where he gets sole producer’s credit.
This represents a problem, not because of anything McClory forced them to do but because of what he couldn’t. Because McClory’s deal involves only what was previously published as Thunderball. So where previous Bond adaptations jettisoned what they didn’t like, this one gets stuck with a linear narrative whose entire first act sees Bond convalescing at a health spa, and only getting involved on the SPECTRE plot by the flimsiest of coincidences. The irony is that this strand of the plot was devised entirely by Fleming – almost as if he knew what was going to happen behind-the-scenes and so wrote a deliberately duff first act.
Eventually, things start moving…but, only as far as the Bahamas, where the film settles into a dullish reprise of Dr No, with the exception that instead of a cool base and metal hands, the baddie now has an eyepatch and a holiday home. Somewhere in that mixture of familiarity and plain lack of imagination, the decision was taken to hire Terence Young, who did sterling work in the first two Bond films but whose relatively lethargic pace and realistic eye had been overtaken by Guy Hamilton’s sprightly, pop-art handling of Goldfinger. The difference is most obvious in the pre-credits sequence, where Young’s tasteful filming jars with the actual content: a punch-up with a man in drag, and an escape by jetpack.
With the material overstretched and the aesthetic looking backwards, the film lumbers on under the weight of its perceived bigness, forgetting in the main to dispense quotable dialogue, memorable henchmen, or (with one exception: see below) amazing set-pieces. Its most enduring contribution to Bondage is the notion that the lady villain needn’t be an old crone a la Rosa Klebb, but can be as foxy as the good girl, giving 007 the chance to bed yin and yang variants. But Connery, who by now had worked with Hitchcock and Lumet and was desperately worried about typecasting, looks so bored he can’t be bothered to make the sexism look anything other than tawdry.
And Connery might well be bored, because his stuntman is getting all the best moves. Having hired an ace underwater crew (incidentally, this was McClory’s idea – his long-term associate Michael Todd invented the cameras), the film overuses it to the point of boredom. However, it then pulls off a stunning coup in the final battle, a truly bizarre spectacle that is (whether through design or ineptitude) is one of Bond’s most avant-garde moments. The widescreen gets filled with swimming/wrestling bodies, all firing harpoon guns at each other while marine life looks on with the same insouciant disdain Connery himself used to portray. With its mix of frenzied violence (Thunderball becomes the bloodiest Bond movie to date in this scene alone) and beautifully filmed life aquatic, it’s as if Jacques Cousteau has suddenly turned into Terence Malick.
The underwater footage is pretty much all that distinguishes Thunderball…unless you count the fact that it’s the only Bond movie to get a remake. (No, Casino Royale doesn’t count.) McClory retained the rights to “his” story and duly dusted it down 18 years after the original to top up his pension fund, even convincing Connery to do the same. Never Say Never Again? McClory’s mission statement was to do anything but. Which is why we now have not one but two films based on the ludicrous premise that NATO would a) stick live warheads onto a training mission and b) plan the staffing so far in advance that the baddies have time to send a henchman into plastic surgery and still be home for pilot training. The odds of that happening make the National Lottery’s Thunderball look like a sure thing.