Published on October 23rd, 2015 | by Michael0
The Legal History of James Bond
Next week sees the release of Spectre, the 24th James Bond film of the series. At least, that is the line you will hear repeatedly as the premier rumbles closer. Of course, the truth is a little more complicated than that. Legal wranglings have plagued the otherwise wildly successful series from the very beginning, largely as a result of Bond’s creator.
Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond novels and helped develop the character for the films had an unfortunate habit of confusing the issue around the rights. In the first instance, he sold the rights to the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, to producer, actor and director Gregory Ratoff, a Russian born American best known for his role in All About Eve. Ratoff attempted to put together and adaptation of the novel for the big screen. Sadly Ratoff, who had made enemies of both Ayn Rand and HUAC (for which he must be heartily commended) died in 1960 before he could secure the financial backing for the film and the project was shelved.
Meanwhile, a Hollywood producer named Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli had moved to England, enticed by the tax subsidies afforded by the British Government. Broccoli had long harboured ambitions of turning James Bond into a film franchise, and now he was based in the character’s homeland. Broccoli discovered that Fleming had already sold the rights to a Canadian, Harry Saltzman. Saltzman was already a producer of some renown; director Anthony Mann said of his career ‘Harry used to make great pictures; now he makes very successful ones. After all, you can’t be an artist all your life.” Perhaps Saltzman, who had read and enjoyed Goldfinger, saw in James Bond the opportunity to make both. Together, Broccoli and Saltzman came to an agreement and created Danjaq, a holding company for the rights to the James Bond character . The name, incidentally, is a portmanteau of Dana and Jacqueline, Broccoli’s and Saltzman’s wives. Unconcerned that they didn’t have the rights to the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, Saltzman and Broccoli ploughed ahead with their version of the character, starting with Dr. No in 1962, made be Eon Productions out of Pinewood studios. As history records, the series went on to be a huge success and Bond films continue to be made under the supervision of the Broccoli family.
Across the pond however, the mooted Casino Royale adaptation was not as dead as it appeared. Another Hollywood producer, Charles K Feldman, was keen to finally make the film, perhaps with transatlantic star Cary Grant as Bond. The runaway success of Dr. No convinced Feldman not to take the Eon franchise head on, but as he’d already sunk a lot of money into the project, he was determined to find a way to make it work. Feldman hit upon the idea of making his film a spoof, but a spoof that used the real name of the character it was parodying.
The resulting film is now largely ignored and considered a bit of a failure (especially when compared to the rapturously received Daniel Craig led version) but was big financial success upon its release in 1967. Feldman hired Oscar winner Ben Hecht to write the script, later rewritten by the great Billy Wilder, though only Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers were eventually credited. It’s also claimed that stars Woody Allen and Peter Sellers, as well as Joseph Heller, also helped with the screenplay. The film also boasts a cast the equal of any Eon Bond film. David Niven played the ‘real’ James Bond and was joined by Sellers, Allen, Orson Welles, Ursula Andress (who of course also appeared in Dr. No), John Huston, William Holden and even Bernard Cribbins! The film was a disjointed mess, with no fewer than five credited directors but made $41M, equating to nearly $300M in today’s money. Even more remarkably, Sellers managed to negotiate 3% of the gross profits, which todays adds up to an estimate £120M and is still being paid to his estate.
Eventually (see below) MGM, which now owns Eon, gained the rights to the original Casino Royale and the film can now be seen, legally and for free, on Youtube. This also allowed the studio to finally adapt the first Bond novel and used the opportunity to reboot the character in 2006, a much needed shot in the arm for the character after the increasingly ridiculous Brosnan years.
Never Watch Thunderball Again
Having somehow fumbled the handoff when selling the rights in the first place, Fleming returned to his signature creation to cause more havoc for the fourth film in the Eon series, 1965’s Thunderball. Though Fleming had published the novel four years earlier, it had been the result of a screenplay, another aborted attempt to bring Bond to the big screen. Fleming had written the script in conjunction with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham, but the novel was credited solely to Fleming. Fleming had decided to collaborate with McClory based on McClory’s work on the film The Boy And The Bridge but when the film underperformed on release, Fleming lost confidence in McClory and attempted to cut him out of the process. Upon the attempted publication of Thunderball, McClory petitioned the High Court in England to prevent the book coming out. This was denied, but McClory was allowed to pursue further legal action. With Fleming suffering ill health, he settled out of court, ceding the film rights to McClory but retaining those of the novel. However, the novel must be published with the declaration that it is ‘based on a script treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and the Author’.
As he held the film rights, McClory is credited as the Producer for Thunderball, with series regulars Broccoli and Saltzman relegated to the role of Executive Producers. As part of the deal, McClory was prevented from making his own version of the film for ten years. The film when released was divisive and generally not considered one of the better Connery films, but still has its fans. Kevin McClory believed he could do better and once the ten year period was up he started trying to put his own film together. At first he ran into more legal troubles, with Eon contending that he was overstepping the agreement – they felt that the film should be an adaptation of the novel only, rather than using elements unique to the film. (This is always a contentious issue. For the 2010 remake of True Grit, the Coen Brothers claimed that they were making a adaptation of the book, not a remake of the film. However they lifted several elements directly from the film, including Rooster Cogburn’s eyepatch and the fact that he is in his 60s, not his 40s as in the novel).
Undeterred, McClory came around for another pass, hiring Lorenzo Semple Jr, the genius behind ABC’s Batman, to write a script for the film and pulled off a huge coup by getting Sean Connery to return as Bond. Indeed, the title of the film is a reference to a comment of Connery’s about ‘never again’ playing the spy. There can’t be many films named after an actor’s comment on the character he plays! It was Connery’s wife, Michelle, who suggested the title and this is acknowledged in the credits. Connery was nevertheless unhappy with aspects of the script and tried to persuade Tom Mankewiecz to do some rewrites, as he had for Diamonds Are Forever. Mankewiecz turned him down, out of loyalty to Broccoli, so Connery turned to Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, the British writing duo responsible for The Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. In yet another legal twist, the pair were denied credit for their work on the scrip in accordance with the rules of The Writers Guild of America.
With a script in place, the producers set about casting the film. When attempting to get the first script made, Orson Welles was suggested as Blofeld; in the end they had to downgrade only slightly, with Max Von Sydow taking the role. Michelle Connery’s contributions weren’t limited to the title of the film as she suggested to her husband that they cast a young up and comer she had met by chance, a lady named Kim Basinger. Klaus Maria Brandauer, star of the Oscar winning film Mephisto, was Sean Connery’s own choice to play the main villain, Largo. Of particular note in the cast is a young Rowan Atkinson as a Foreign Office representative, as Atkinson would go on to spoof Bond in the Johnny English series. Alec McCown also steals every scene he is in as a Q who couldn’t be further removed from Desmond Llewelyn’s version. The film was released in 1983, up against Octopussy, surely the nadir of Roger Moore’s stint as Bond. Never Say Never Again opened to decent reviews and made $160M on its $36M budget. Octopussy, it must be said, made nearly $190M on a smaller budget, making it a good year all around for Bond. Away from the financial side, I’m one of those that thinks Never Say Never Again is a better film than its predecessor, and certainly better than Octopussy (and indeed most of the Moore Bonds).
This still wasn’t quite the end of the story for Thunderball, however. McClory planned yet another version of the story, tentatively entitled Warhead 2000AD with another returning Bond, the underrated Timothy Dalton, in the role. The idea was eventually disbanded by Sony revived the idea of another film when they acquired the rights from McClory in an undisclosed deal in the 1990s. The company already had the rights to Casino Royale and thus planned to make a series to rival Eon’s, a case of life imitating ‘art’ as the idea of several competing Bond franchises mirrors the plot in Casino Royale to confuse the enemy with multiple Bonds. These plans were halted by MGM, who took legal action, eventually forcing Sony to give up all rights to Bond in an out of court settlement. In 1997, they acquired the distribution rights to Never Say Never Again. McClory still wasn’t quite done, and sued unsuccessfully to gets the rights back – the suit was thrown out in 2001 and McClory died five years later. Kevin McClory is not a figure generally associated with Bond but he was involved with the character for other forty years and won as many battles as he lost, achieving his dream of making his own Bond film, with a genuine Bond star no less, even if he only managed it once.
James Bond – Licensing Revoked
It’s not just in films that James Bond has been plagued by legal issues. The character has become a cultural icon, a name famous the world over. Naturally, many have tried to cash in on the name, not always successfully. Before I Kill You, Mr Bond was a card game designed by James Ernest and released by Cheapass games. The title character was a spy, no prizes for guessing on whom he was based. In 2000, MGM took legal action, as is their wont, and the game was temporarily withdrawn before re-emerging as James Ernest’s Totally Renamed Spy Game. So that showed them.
One of the weirder instances of legal wrangling surrounding Bond concerns a game by Delphine Software. Operation Stealth, their 1990 effort, was largely the work of just two men, Paul Cuisset and Jean Baudlot and is largely forgotten today outside the realm of Youtube playthroughs. The plot concerns a secret agent, John Glames (!) as he foils a plot to destroy the world. However, if you played the game in the US, you’d instead be playing James Bond: The Stealth Affair as Delphine somehow acquired the US rights to the character but failed to do for the European release. It’s unclear if it was designed with Bond in mind in the first place, because even in the US version, he appears to be taking orders from the CIA. Perhaps it was designed as a Bond-alike but then the company discovered they could get partial rights to the character and decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
MGM know just how vital their cash cow is. In 2009, the studio was in big financial trouble, with debts to the tune of $3.7Billion. Their future relied on the performance of upcoming films, in particular what would eventually become Skyfall, a film that was delayed by two years due to MGM’s troubles. Of course Skyfall was a huge critical and commercial success, one that helped the beleaguered studio as it emerged from bankruptcy. The last thing MGM can afford is someone else trying to take James Bond away from them.