Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations

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Thunderball’s disputed authorship dangled over James Bond for more than 50 years – here’s the story of the 1965 film and the remake attempts that followed.

This feature contains minor spoilers for Thunderball.

“You can tell of the one that got away.”


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Early film prints of Goldfinger ended with “James Bond Will Return In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Eventually, he did, but it wasn’t for another two films. The importance of shooting in the Alps at a certain time of year deferred the adaptation a few times, but for the fourth James Bond, the contentious Thunderball finally got rolling.

Originally mooted as the first James Bond film adaptation, Thunderball sees SPECTRE step up their operations, stealing two atomic bombs from NATO and holding the United Kingdom and the United States to ransom for £100 million. Spearheading the titular joint UK-US operation in Nassau, Sean Connery’s 007 runs up against the baddies’ second-in-command, Emilio Largo, (Adolfo Celi) their assassin Fiona Volpe, (Luciana Palluzzi) and Largo’s mistress, Domino Derval (Claudine Auger).

As has been detailed exhaustively elsewhere, Thunderball the movie was delayed by a legal dispute over Thunderball the novel, written by Ian Fleming in 1961 after a tentative collaboration on an original Bond feature film screenplay with scriptwriters Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham fell by the wayside. McClory and Whittingham weren’t happy about this.

Although we know that Fleming came up with the title (much to the dismay of theme song writers John Barry and Leslie Bricusse, who initially had no idea how to work “Thunderball” into lyrics) but McClory and Whittingham contended that they developed the story, as well as the characters of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and the SPECTRE organisation. The subsequent lawsuit was settled out of court, with the plaintiffs holding onto film rights relating to this novel and its characters. You can find more details about that situation here.

Read more: The James Bond movie franchise, and its 60 years of legal and rights battles

For the 1965 film, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli hashed out an agreement with McClory where they could adapt Thunderball and option his rights for a period of 10 years – the duo wanted to adapt the novel anyway, but they also wanted to avoid a situation where there was a rival Bond film based on the same story. As it turned out, this was only a temporary solution to that problem, at least as far as McClory was concerned…


“The Biggest Bond Of All!”

Apart from all of this, the James Bond films were getting more and more expensive. The $9-million budget of this fourth outing was more than the previous three films had cost altogether – it was three times more expensive than the blockbusting Goldfinger alone.

Goldfinger’s Guy Hamilton decided to take a break, so returning director Terence Young was selected to make “The Biggest Bond Of All”, as the film’s tagline boasted. Meanwhile, regular Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum drafted a version of Thunderball in before Dr No was chosen as the first film instead, but he now found himself rewriting it to the established formula, or adjusting it for inflation, if you like.

At the time of the film’s release, Maibaum reflected “in rewriting it four years later, I had to remember the proven public delight in jokes, gadgetry, and so forth […] now we know exactly what it is the public love about Bond and how they best like to see the stories treated in the cinema.”

The result is a film that’s faithful to the story that had given the producers so much bother in optioning, but with various fabulous set-pieces tacked on. So, for instance, Thunderball’s bananas pre-title sequence follows Goldfinger’s lead in opening with the end of a previous mission.

Bond has a knockdown brawl with an assassin who’s posing as his own widow at a phoney funeral (notably, 007 nicks the fake death idea one film later) and escapes some more goons by jetpack – yes, an actual jetpack!. But after another fabulous title sequence with dizzying Tom Jones vocals, our hero lands right in the contrived inciting incident from Fleming’s novel – a trip to a health clinic where he conveniently rumbles an undercover SPECTRE agent who’s also visiting. This includes the episode where he almost gets shagged to death by a table.

The mixed-up adaptation of Fleming’s novels is one of the reasons why some more liberties were probably needed here. On the page, Bond is just learning about SPECTRE as he has a suspenseful confrontation with Largo over a cards table. A big part of the story revolves around uncovering the organisation and hyping up a showdown with Blofeld in a later adventure.

In the films, Bond’s already tangled with them twice before, so his crowbarring the word “spectre” into their banter is all the subtlety you expect from a secret agent who introduces himself by his full name wherever he goes. Plus, a faithful adaptation of this story, without the intrigue and newness of SPECTRE, loses something in translation. Every change in the film version tends to make a slight plot more convoluted and less engaging.

One of the film’s celebrated innovations is its underwater action sequences. Fleming was a keen underwater swimmer and had worked this interest into his novel. While these scenes are beautifully realised, they notoriously slow the pace of the film down and jars with the hyperactive speed-ramping of the action sequences above sea level. Editor Peter R. Hunt had to persuade United Artists and Eon to delay the film from September to December 1965 to give them enough time to edit the film to a releasable standard.

Combined with the spiking of the spy intrigue plot, this all makes Thunderball a little dull and predictable, despite its high production value and Oscar-worthy spectacle (the film won John Stears an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects).

But after covering Goldfinger’s shortcomings last week, it’s only fair to say that Thunderball serves its female characters far better. The seduction of physiotherapist Patricia Fearing (Molly Peters) is typically blunt, but in the main, Domino gets everything she had on the page as a damsel-turned-avenger and even gains a level in savviness from both the adaptation and Auger’s performance.

Elsewhere, fabulous femme fatale Fiona Volpe basically doing what Bond normally does and then mocking him for arrogantly believing his own trope, that he can win enemy agents over to his side with his magic dick, (we’re paraphrasing here) feels revolutionary at this early stage in the series. Meanwhile, doomed CIA agent Paula Caplan (returning Bond girl Martine Beswick) doesn’t feature prominently enough for her demise to fit any of the usual tropes. It’s damning with faint praise to say the movie acquits itself on this score better than any of the other Connery outings, but it’s a start.

All reservations aside, Thunderball’s big expensive fling would pay off at the box office when it opened in December 1965. Grossing £141.2m worldwide, it was the highest-grossing Bond film of the 1960s. Adjusted for inflation, its box-office haul makes it the second most financially successful Bond film ever, surpassed only by 2012’s Skyfall.

The franchise arguably wouldn’t put on this kind of visual-effects extravaganza again until Moonraker, more than a decade later, and instead, Saltzman and Broccoli continued to exercise their option on Blofeld and SPECTRE in the next few films. But once that option was up, the prospect of a rival Bond movie reared its head again.

Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond 
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen

What’s the story, Kevin McClory?

One person who was less than thrilled with the global success of James Bond was its star. Four films into a six-picture deal, Connery bristled at spending long periods of time filming and then promoting Bond films every 12 months or so when he’d made films with directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Lumet in between. The character wasn’t challenging him as an actor, the scripts were progressively and unabashedly more ridiculous, and he felt continually undervalued in pay negotiations with Saltzman and Broccoli.

The five-month Thunderball shoot had been particularly disenchanting for Connery. With his newly minted global movie star profile, he was vexed by the intrusive press attention that surrounded the elaborate production, particularly at a time of difficulty in his relationship with his wife Diane Cilento.

We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and go into the details of Connery’s departure from the series (nor his brief return) just yet. However, it’s long been speculated that his discontent with Eon that made him responsive to Kevin McClory’s efforts to make another version of Thunderball in the 1970s, away from Saltzman and Broccoli.

Connery hoped to have more creative impact on his first screenplay, but it’s long been speculated that McClory merely wanted to have the original Bond star’s name attached to his rival project. Either way, the November 1976 draft of the proposed project is credited to McClory, Connery, and The Ipcress File writer Len Deighton, (once tapped to draft From Russia With Love for Eon).

Moving away from the nuclear terrorism aspect, the script sees Bond investigating aircraft that have gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle and discovering an audacious SPECTRE plot to invade New York City from their aquatic base and seize Wall Street. Oh, and there were robotic hammerhead sharks too. Hyping up the film in the industry press, McClory dubbed the project “Star Wars underwater”.

There were more legal cases going back and forth throughout this time. Eon wanted to reintroduce Blofeld and SPECTRE in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, but their option expired in 1975. When he got wind of their plans, McClory filed a copyright infringement lawsuit, the outcome of which expressly handed him the rights to those characters, on top of his Thunderball rights.

Deighton departed the project, but a further draft of the film, which variously had the working titles James Bond Of The Secret Service and Warhead, reintroduced the nuclear aspect and changed the villain from Largo to Blofeld. By this point, Connery was so enjoying having some creative input, alongside the prospect of a fair salary, he felt enthused about playing Bond again too. The star’s return as Bond gave the film a big additional hook for potential investors.

And so, it was announced in a July 1978 issue of Variety that Paramount Pictures would back James Bond Of The Secret Service – starring Connery, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard, no less –  and Eon and Bond distributor United Artists promptly filed an injunction.

Separate from certain uncanny similarities with The Spy Who Loved Me’s script, (the aquatic base, not the shark bit) Eon’s lawyers argued that Connery and McClory’s script was more like a new, unofficial James Bond film, rather than a remake of Thunderball. Paramount got cold feet and stepped back from the project.


Going back to the drawing board and making another more faithful adaptation of Thunderball eventually yielded 1983’s Never Say Never Again, starring Connery as Bond, Kim Basinger as Domino, Klaus Maria Brandauer as Largo, and – in a brief cameo – Max von Sydow as Blofeld. The film was a commercial success, but Connery, for one, had a much worse time making it than he hoped, calling the production “a bloody Mickey Mouse operation”.

McClory and producer Jack Schwarzman planned a sequel titled SPECTRE, which they announced in 1984, but Connery had got on so badly that he made a point of publicly stating that he wouldn’t reprise the role in any film produced by Schwarzman, and the follow-up went away. As mentioned the other week, Connery did eventually reprise the role one last time for the videogame version of From Russia With Love in 2005.

Read more: From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake

Going into the 1990s, McClory was hoping to launch another version of Warhead, tentatively titled Warhead 2000, and reached out to a post-Bond Timothy Dalton and a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan to play the lead at different times. When this came to nothing, McClory sold his rights to Sony Pictures, which also held the rights to Casino Royale because of the original Climax! TV adaptation of the story, in 1997.

Sony’s plans to bring these two stories to the screen were flummoxed by a further injunction from MGM, then the owners of United Artists, and Danjaq, Eon’s holding company for the Bond rights, respectively. This time, the two studios got something out of the bargain, returning the rights for Casino Royale to Eon in exchange for MGM relinquishing their stake in Marvel’s Spider-Man. As well as webbing up the box office, Sony later struck a deal to distribute 2006’s straight adaptation of Casino Royale anyway.

McClory passed away in 2006, the year that film hit cinemas, and his estate sold all rights to Thunderball back to Eon in 2013, facilitating the use of its characters in 2015’s Spectre. That brings us a full half-century on from Eon’s take on Thunderball, and in that time, it’s notable that there were far more Bond films without Blofeld or SPECTRE than with them.

As for that 1965 film, we’d suggest it’s a film where a big screen is kinder to the stunning visuals and listless pacing than a home viewing, which is handy as it’s back in cinemas this weekend. But in franchise terms, it’s an expensive and repetitive offering. It’s no wonder that its star was starting to grow restless amid the ever-increasing bombast… and did we mention that table that almost shagged him to death?

Thunderball is now streaming on Prime Video and will also screen in select VUE and Odeon cinemas nationwide from Friday 6th May.

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