Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. It continues with an examination of undersea adventure Thunderball.
Thunderball was originally intended to be Eon’s first James Bond film. However, due to legal wranglings over the authorship of the story, Dr. No was adapted instead. Despite its troubled path to the big screen, Thunderball became a huge success and, even today, remains one of the most ambitious films in the entire Bond franchise.
Most of the core team remained in place for Thunderball, but Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton said he had been left “drained” by the experience and stepped down. Thankfully for the studio, Terence Young – who helmed the first two Bond movies – was available once again to step into the director’s chair. Hamilton would later return to the series for Diamonds are Forever.
After Goldfinger, Thunderball is something of a comedown for Bond, but it deserves credit for its decision to push filmmaking boundaries.
Bond finds new depths
After tangling with an entirely different foe in Goldfinger, Bond (Sean Connery) finds himself crossing paths with SPECTRE once again in Thunderball. This time around, the organisation has stolen a pair of atomic bombs and is threatening to destroy a major city unless the British government pays a £100m ransom.
Bond’s investigation leads him to the Bahamas, the enigmatic Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) and his attractive niece Domino (Claudine Auger). As he gets closer to the location of the bomb, he must also deal with repeated assassination attempts from SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi).
"I think he got the point."
After the perfection of Goldfinger, it’s perhaps inevitable that Thunderball feels like a lesser film. Whilst it’s commendable that the film is willing to take risks with its conceit – spending a quarter of the runtime underwater – there’s comparatively little to chew on in its over-inflated running time.
That’s not to say, though, that Thunderball doesn’t make some interesting creative decisions.
Thunderball replaces the fallible, vulnerable Bond of Goldfinger with a considerably more arrogant protagonist. His first confrontation with the villainous Largo at a casino table is textbook over-confident Bond, oozing charisma and deliberately baiting his dangerous opponent.
He also gets several women who are able to match him intellectually. Domino swerves Bond’s advances for almost the entire movie and Fiona Volpe’s plan to seduce Bond into a weakened position almost works. It’s only a well-timed glimpse down the barrel of a gun that prevents Volpe from claiming Bond’s life.
Largo himself is an interesting villain, but he’s considerably better than the film in which he appears. In fact, his greatest contribution to this film is his genuinely terrifying swimming pool full of sharks. Unfortunately, there aren’t any “frickin’ laser beams” on their heads.
Under the sea
The centrepieces of Thunderball are its enormous underwater skirmishes between Bond’s allies and the forces of SPECTRE. Initially intriguing, these scenes soon run out of steam and begin to feel exceptionally long. It doesn’t help that there’s little chance to grasp who’s who and almost no logic to the bloodshed. As far as Bond action goes, Thunderball’s calculated risk has it lagging behind its predecessors.
"My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for Queen and country."
That’s not to say that Thunderball is a bad film, though. In fact, it’s more impressive than many might remember. When it’s on dry land, the film is every bit as assured as Terence Young’s other forays into the world of Fleming’s spy. Unfortunately, it suffers from the expanded length and an ill-disciplined script from seasoned Bond hand Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins.
Despite the bloated running time, Thunderball still feels as if it nudges out several of its peripheral characters. Largo’s henchman Vargas never gets the display of power he deserves, rendering him something of a damp squib, in comparison to Oddjob or Red Grant.
Similarly, Connery’s brilliant chemistry with the MI6 team is squandered. The usual one-on-one meeting with M never materialises and Bond barely gets a few seconds to verbally spar with Moneypenny. Even Desmond Llewelyn’s Q is given short shrift, although he does get a deeply refreshing scene of levity around the halfway mark.
Making a splash
Thunderball is deeply flawed, but its box office impact cannot be doubted. The film was the biggest American moneymaker of 1966 and took its place as the biggest Bond film of the 1960s. It would remain the franchise’s highest earner until the release of Live and Let Die in 1973.
Adjusted for inflation, the figures are even more impressive. According to the Guinness Book of Records 2013, the adjusted gross for Thunderball is in excess of $1bn, making the film the second most profitable behind Skyfall.
There was some travel in paradise, however. Sean Connery became agitated with press intrusion and publicity obligations during the filming process for Thunderball. He refused to speak to journalists in order to promote the film, giving only one interview, in Playboy magazine, in which he claimed he was becoming “human merchandise” as a result of Bond. It was this that marked the start of Connery’s disenchantment with the role.
"Like your friend, you’ve been a little too clever."
For all of its invention and attempts to push boundaries, Thunderball sticks out as one of the poorer Bond outings in the Sean Connery era. It swaggers and struts above ground, but stumbles chaotically once it slips beneath the ocean.
Next week, Bond finally comes face to face with his greatest nemesis in You Only Live Twice.
What do you think of Thunderball? Where does it stand in the pantheon of Bond films? Is Sean Connery the best lead in the franchise’s history? Let me know in the comments section and keep your eyes peeled for more Bond Reloaded next Monday.