By 1965 the James Bond film franchise was well-established, before the idea of a “film franchise” was articulated. Three films, with progressively larger budgets, were released to progressively larger box-office returns. But producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had a growing worry, thanks to a snarl over copyright.
In 1959 Ian Fleming, filmmaker Kevin McClory, and a couple of other collaborators had started work on an original James Bond screenplay called Thunderball, which involved Bond in underwater action and introduced the terrorist organization SPECTRE. Fleming, apparently without discussing his plans with McClory, then wrote a novelization of the screenplay and published it in 1961 as his ninth Bond book. A lawsuit from McClory occurred, with the result that McClory got the film rights to the story and Fleming was given rights to his novel treatment.
Fleming had also sold film rights to the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1955. So by 1964, as Broccoli and Saltzman began planning a follow-up to Goldfinger, the Bond films had become popular, and there were two other guys with the rights to make Bond movies. Broccoli and Saltzman decided to try to bring them into the fold. Charles K. Feldman, who owned the rights to Casino Royale, turned out to be too argumentative to work with. But they got along better with McClory; and Thunderball was the story they’d originally planned for the first Bond film anyway. In 1965, it finally made it to theaters.
The fourth Bond movie in four years, with the highest budget of any of the films to date, it was directed by Terence Young, who’d helmed the first two. The final script was written by Bond veteran Richard Maibaum and newcomer John Hopkins, with story credit given to McClory, Fleming, and Jack Whittingham. Ken Adam handled production design, bringing his usual sense of heightened 1960s elegance and technology, while editor Peter R. Hunt again made sure it kept moving—although this time he had the challenge of keeping the pace up during extended underwater scenes, which often played out as though in slow-motion.
The novel’s poorly-constructed plot, which opens with Bond stumbling by sheer coincidence into a SPECTRE agent at a spa, is made a little smoother in the film. We see SPECTRE steal two atomic bombs; MI6’s double-0 agents sets out to find them, and 007 James Bond tracks a lead to Nassau where he ends up tangling with wealthy playboy and SPECTRE agent Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi, voice dubbed by Robert Rietty) as well as assassin Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). Against a backdrop of tropical beauty, shark attacks, and the Junkanoo street festival, Bond allies with his buddy Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) and Largo’s lover Domino (Claudine Auger, dubbed by the ever-reliable Nikki van der Zyl) to thwart Largo’s plans.
It’s a sleeker story than the book, with more emphasis on the high-tech details of the bomb-carrying plane and the improbable plot to steal it. An introductory sequence shows off a jet-pack (an actual functioning device) as well as Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin from the last movie, establishing an ultramodern-for-the-60s tone for the movie. Largo’s yacht plays into that as well, with its detachable back section and smokescreen generator.
The big technical cinematic advancement in Thunderball is the use of a new type of camera for underwater photography. The footage is gorgeous, with an ethereal light and evocative colors. But the physical movement of the actors underwater is too slow. The sub-sea scenes go on too long, and that isn’t helped by a final fight lacking any sense of geography or internal dramatic structure beyond “eventually some sharks show up.”
The scenes of Bond investigating and adventuring in Nassau are effective, with some good moments of suspense, inventive predicaments, and the festival background. But the plot’s incoherent, and lacks the berserk inventiveness of Goldfinger. Visually, the movie’s solid enough but never especially interesting beyond the production design. This is the first Bond film in widescreen, but it doesn’t take advantage of the new aspect ratio.
The acting’s effective, Connery solid as always, while Adolfo Celi as Largo brings an intensity that points up how underwritten his part is. Claudine Auger is unmemorable, but Luciana Paluzzi is engagingly vicious. Desmond Llewelyn as Q gets a larger role than in Goldfinger, in a more comedic mode that doesn’t much help the film.
The film’s sense of tone is a little off. Notably, while Bond’s attitude to women has always been a dealbreaker for some, this film’s tougher to watch than the previous ones—Bond sexually harassing a nurse was probably meant to play in the 1960s as the act of a mischievous scamp, but it’s hard to see that now. And then there’s SPECTRE, which had been a recurring element in the Bond films up to this point. It’s disappointing as a villain, because it’s not after that much. Just some money. Although it’s trying to get a ransom from NATO, it’s not an ideological operation.
There’s something deflating in the realization that SPECTRE’s only a bunch of thieves. We see it early on as an intricate operation with front organizations, as a secret society with resources enough to steal a couple of nukes, as a group with key agents like Largo who are already independently wealthy. That establishes an atmosphere of cold-war paranoia as we wonder what they’re up to—and it turns out they’re only after incrementally more cash than they already have, and are determined to get it even if they bring all of NATO down on their heads.
The movie succeeds as a Bond film, and made more money than any of the previous films. But it’s the least inventive so far; the strain’s beginning to show of making so many movies so close together. Thunderball’s watchable, but with some notably slow bits, and ends up the least good of the Bond films made to that point.