Published on October 19th, 2015 | by Michael


Thunderball: Bond’s First Billion

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The Story

The plot of Thunderball is the standard early Bond fare, with 007 sent to investigate some threat to world security in a tropical locale. This time, SPECTRE has come to MI6, rather than the other way around, sending a ransom note after obtaining nuclear bombs. Poor Bond must go to Nassau, in the Bahamas, to track down SPECTRE agent Emilio Largo and neutralise the threat SPECTRE once again pose. Bond’s operating procedure is the same as ever; dodge assassination attempts, try and flip any women working for the villain, infiltrate, sabotage and destroy. First Bond tries to turn Fiona Volpe to the side of good – she mocks him for this, a nod to the criticisms of the treatment of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. Bond is forced to flee Volpe and her goons, leading to a chase through a Junkanoo parade – the film series has always delighted in showing off its locations as if it were a travelogue. Bond has more luck with Domino (Claudine Auger, dubbed by series regular Nikki Van Der Zyl), whose brother was killed in an earlier part of the scheme. Bond is able to convince her to help find the nuclear bombs thwart the nefarious villain’s schemes.

Thunderball is perhaps most famous for the underwater battle sequence towards the end of the film, as Bond and some Navy SEALs (lent to him of course by his old chum Felix Leiter) taken on Largo’s men. I remembered this sequence being boring and slow moving from when I watched Thunderball as a kid but it holds up better than I remember, and underwater jetpack things the henchmen use are genuinely quite cool. A word too about Felix Leiter. The man who stepped into the breach this time around was the wonderfully named Rik Van Nutter, who may have experienced more film success if he didn’t both look and sound like a prematurely greyed Clint Eastwood. That’s no bad thing in itself, of course, but history hasn’t always been kind to actors who look a lot like bigger stars. One only need look at the fate of Maverick’s Robert Colbert to know that.

Thunderball Rik Van Nutter

Not, alas, an historic James Bond/Dirty Harry team-up

Title Sequence & Bond Theme

In the pre-credit sequence, Bond is in attendance at the supposed funeral of a SPECTRE agent, Colonel Bouvard but recognises that the grieving widow is actually Bouvard himself, having faked his death. Following him home, Bond finishes the Colonel off once and for all after a bout of fisticuffs. It is what happens next that really sticks in the memory – Bond makes his escape using a jetpack, flying to his nearby Aston Martin (now equipped with a water cannon) to make his escape.

The Jetpack used was known as a Bell Rocket Belt and actually did work over short distances (it was famously used during the entertainment for Super Bowl I, for example). It was flown for filming by Bill Suiter, apparently one of only two men qualified to do so. The reason that Bond uncharacteristically dons a helmet for his escape is that Suiter refused to fly without one.

The famous gun barrel sequence was re-shot for this film as Thunderball was filmed in Panavision and so wouldn’t match the original version used in the first three films. Connery filmed the new version, which had previously featured stuntman Bob Simmons standing in. Ironically, Colonel Bouvard whom Bond had just killed was played by Simmons in a cameo appearance. Connery murdered him and then took his job, the swine.

John Barry again returned to score the film, after his work on From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. His first stab at a theme tune was written with lyricist Leslie Bricusse and was called ‘Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’, after a nickname Bond acquires from an Italian associate. Barry had found it hard to describe the film’s plot vaguely, or use the term ‘Thunderball’ in the lyrics, so chose to describe Bond instead.The song was recorded by Shirley Bassey and later covered by Dionne Warwick. However the suits at Eon were unhappy that the title song did not contain the title of the film. The film’s script didn’t contain the title of the film either, but that’s by the by. Johnny Cash, of all people, submitted a song to be used but this too was turned down, partly because it described the plot of the film. Instead Barry composed another effort with Don Black, this time named ‘Thunderball’. It was recorded by Tom Jones, who recalls that he held the final note for so long during recording that the room began spinning.

Maurice Binder once again returned to design the title sequence. As is so often the case, the titles foreshadowed the climatic showdown in the film, depicting woman swimming underwater, complete with harpoon guns and water tanks. The main thing to note about the titles is that a new name, Kevin McClory, appears as Producer with series regulars Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman changing to Executive Producers. This was due to the legal issues surrounding the script and the novel. McClory had helped Ian Fleming write the story and as part of his settlement he acted as producer. He would of course go on to make the far superior remake Never Say Never Again with Connery again playing Bond.

The Villains & Their Plan

Towards the start of the film, Emilio Largo, known as Number 2 with the SPECTRE organisation, attends a meeting of all the SPECTRE top brass, headed by Blofeld himself (face unseen, but with his white cat in tow). Blofeld goes through the various SPECTRE operations, including a consultancy fee from the Great Train Robbery. This continues the trend of the Bond series involving SPECTRE in real life crimes, after the portrait of the Duke of Wellington Dr No had in his lair. Blofeld murders one of his subordinates for stealing for the organisation, before telling the assembled persons that Number Two is taking the lead on their latest operation. It seems peculiarly against protocol to have all the SPECTRE bigwigs in one room, but there you go.

Blofeld fades into the background of Thunderball after this, with Largo assuming the role of chief villain. He wears a roguish eyepatch and displays a penchant for gambling. Like Auric Goldfinger he is present throughout much of the film but Adolfo Celi in doesn’t make the impression that Gert Frobe did. Like Frobe, Celi was dubbed, Robert Rietty re-recording the lines to hide Celi’s distinct Sicilian accent. I’ve never understood Eon’s obsession with dubbing all their foreign actors as long as the dialogue is easily understood. Eerily, nearly all the women in the early films, excluding Miss Moneypenny, sound the same, as they were all dubbed by Nikki Van Der Zyl.

Thunderball Largo

SPECTRE turn one of their agents into the exact double of Airforce pilot Major Francoise Derval in order to steal two nuclear weapons from a plane. They then ransom the governments of the US and the UK, threatening to destroy a major city in either country unless paid £100M in uncut diamonds. Unfortunately SPECTRE typically made a number of miscalculations. Firstly, the agent impersonating Derval demands more money, knowing that he cannot be replaced (he had extensive plastic surgery), and so must be killed. Secondly, Derval’s sister is Domino, Largo’s moll, which presents Bond with an easy in into Largo’s operations. And thirdly, the nuclear physicist hired by Largo, Ladislav Kurtze (George Pravda) had more humanity than SPECTRE were perhaps hoping and takes pity on Domino after Largo tortures her aboard his boat. This means she is able to kill Largo with a harpoon just as he is about to shoot Bond. SPECTRE really planted the seeds of their own downfall with this one.

Thunderball Domino

The Locations

The Bahaman island of Nassau provides the setting for the bulk of the action in this one. Like Dr No before it and You Only Live Twice that followed, the pattern is that Bond is sent to an exotic location and stays in that general vicinity for the rest of the film. Huntington Hartford also let the production film on the nearby Paradise Island, which he owned, and additional footage was shot in Miami (after Miami Beach had been a setting but not filming location for Goldfinger) Inevitably, much of the action takes place at sea (Bond is a Naval Commander after all) but the unique selling point of this film is that a huge chunk of the action takes place underwater, filmed at the beautiful Clifton Pier in the Bahamas.

Despite filming underwater in the sea, the most dangerous piece of filming was probably the scene at Largo’s swimming pool. Sean Connery was apparently seconds away from an actual shark attack, because the sharks managed to bypass a plexiglass screen installed by Ken Adams.

The Gadgets

The most famous is of course the Jetpack, which is used in conjunction with the returning DB5 to help Bond’s escape at the beginning of the film. The gadgets provided to him by Q during the main mission are more practical and perfunctory than usual – a Geiger counter watch, a camera that can detect radiation and a rebreather. Most gadgets that Bond uses are at least based on reality (and in some cases are genuine products loaned to the film in order to attract attention). The rebreather however is a complete work of fiction – it clearly has nowhere to store oxygen. The Royal Corps of Engineers asked Production Designer Peter Lamont how long one could be used underwater. His answer was simply ‘as long as you can hold your breath’.

The underwater battle showcased a couple more neat gadgets. First was Bond’s jet propelled scuba diving equipment, complete with green dye to help him disappear, the second is the jet packs Largo’s men have. At the film’s conclusion, Bond and Domino are rescued from the sea by a skyhook attached to an aircraft, a genuine device used by the US at the time. This appeared in the film with the help of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Russhon who once again used his influence for the benefit of the Bond series, having provided invaluable assistance on the two previous outings.

Thunderball Jetpack

Most Inappropriate/Politically Incorrect Moment

Early in the film, Bond spend some time relaxing in a Spa, when a nurse, cold towards his advances, places him on a spinal traction machine. While the nurse is out of the room a SPECTRE agent attempts to kill Bond by cranking up the machine, but is foiled when the nurse returns. Bond is then able to use the nurse’s fear of losing her job into extorting the blameless young woman into having sex with him. Not only has this woman shown she isn’t interested in Bond, she’s just saved his life, and this is how he repays her! Disgusting.

Weirdest Moment

Probably Blofeld executing a SPECTRE agent for embezzlement at the big meeting towards the start of the film. Blofeld grills the head of the operation (for which all the money is not accounted), while the man next to the beleaguered agent smiles smugly. But when Blofeld hits the switch, it is the smug man who is revealed as the thief and he is fried in his chair to the shock of everyone else present. The weirdest bit is Blofeld’s demeanour immediately afterwards, as he returns to business in the manner of a middle manager running a meeting saying ‘and so onto item three…’

Best One Liner

A henchman thinks he has the drop on Domino and Bond as he creeps up to them on a beach, but Bond instead harpoons the poor bloke, impaling him against a tree. ‘I think he got the point’.

How Good Is It Really

Eh. It’s never been one of my favourite Bond films, although admittedly it was bit better than I remembered. At 130 minutes, it marks the move of the Bond films into long, drawn out action films rather than the fairly taut thrillers that the early films were. I think it suffers in comparison with the films either side – Goldfinger was more condensed, with a better villain and a tighter plot. You Only Live Twice took some of the more overblown aspects of Thunderball and ran with them, giving us an explosive finale and ninjas in a volcano. Thunderball fell between two stools, stylistically. That said, it was the biggest Bond film to date and adjusted for inflation it’s still one of the most successful film in the series, so what do I know?

As I mentioned before, it was remade in the 1980s as Never Say Never Again, the second Bond film made outside of the original series and the only one to star a ‘proper’ Bond, Sean Connery. Not everyone agrees, but I think this version is far better, and I urge you to check it out.

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