In which SPECTRE plan to extort £100 million in diamonds (that’s £1.35 billion in today’s money, so it’s a lot of cash) or else two atomic bombs will be dropped on either a major US or English city – later revealed to be Miami. M and his team can’t allow that to happen, so Bond is sent to the Bahamas, where he eventually finds the hidden bombs, kills a lot of SPECTRE’s henchmen underwater and the world is saved. Good man, Bond!
As the films got grander and longer, so did the budgets continue to increase. The budget for Thunderball was $9 million – three times that of Goldfinger – but with an overall box office take of an estimated $141 million, this was a wise investment. In the original plan, Thunderball was meant to be the first film in the series, but an extended legal wrangle made this impossible; a compromise was eventually reached that credited Kevin McClory (who had always claimed he had co-written the story of Thunderball with Jack Whittingham) as Producer of the movie, with Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman named as Executive Producers. Along with the return of Richard Maibaum as screenwriter, alongside John Hopkins, this makes for quite convoluted opening credits!
Guy Hamilton, who had directed Goldfinger, was asked back, but he was too “Bonded Out” to feel the necessary creativity, so he next went on to direct Oliver Reed in The Party’s Over. As a result, Terence Young returned to the job, having already directed Dr No and From Russia With Love. This would be his final Bond film. Once again, the cinematography was by Ted Moore, with Peter Hunt as supervising film editor (film editing credited to Ernest Hosler), and production design by Ken Adam. John Barry was, of course, again responsible for the music, all apart from Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme. Bob Simmons was the stunt choreographer and puts in an amazing performance as Mme Bouvar (not) getting thwacked to a pulp by Bond in the pre-titles scene.
Thunderball was published in 1961 and was the ninth in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. As outlined earlier, it was written as a collaboration between Fleming, Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ivar Bryce and Ernest Cuneo, as a novelisation of an earlier, unused film screenplay. As a result, it’s unsurprising that the film and the book tell very much the same story, with only a few minor changes. As an aside, this wasn’t the only film to be made from the Thunderball novel – 1983’s Never Say Never Again, which was Sean Connery’s Bond swansong, also follows the plot of this book. But that’s a matter for another time!
In the novel, it is explained that M has sent Bond off to the health farm, Shrublands, because he was getting unfit through drinking and smoking too much; but the film just places Bond in the health farm without explanation. The character of Fiona doesn’t appear in the novel, and Emilio Largo is described as SPECTRE’s No 1, because the identity of No 1 kept changing for security reasons. In the film he is No 2, only Blofeld could hold that honour. Fleming liked to borrow his real-life experiences and use the names of people he knew, or knew of, throughout his stories; Blofeld is named after Tom Blofeld who was a contemporary of Fleming’s at Eton and whose son is Henry Blofeld of cricketing fame.
Thinking back, and remembering how I saw From Russia with Love, Diamonds are Forever, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice in double-bills at the Odeon Aylesbury with my schoolfriend John, I am pretty sure that I hadn’t seen Thunderball before. It’s amazing how such a well-known film can completely escape one’s attention. Still, better late than never.
Both book and novel received generally favourable reviews. Of the novel, the Guardian wrote: “it is a good, tough, straightforward thriller on perfectly conventional lines”; and the Financial Times called it: “an exciting story skilfully told”, with “a romantic sub-plot […] and the denouement involves great events.” Of the film, the Financial Times regretted the fact that there was much less attempt made at establishing Bond as a “connoisseur playboy”. I find myself agreeing with American film critic Danny Peary, when he said “it takes forever to get started and has too many long underwater sequences during which it’s impossible to tell what’s going on”. My own reaction to the film is that it’s as though they went and bought some underwater cameras and were going to absolutely get their money’s worth.
The opening credits appear unchanged, with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen whilst being captured by the barrel of a gun, only for him to turn around, see us, and shoot; and then for the blood to start filling up the screen. However, because this movie was filmed in widescreen Panavision, it had to be re-shot; so this is the first time that the actor playing Bond appears in the opening credits – stunt man Bob Simmons had featured in these credits in the first three films. As usual, we are taken straight into the opening scene. We witness Bond at the funeral of one Colonel Jacques Bouvar, SPECTRE’s No 6, where his widow is mourning in the grand tradition of black veils and garments. Bond, however, isn’t satisfied, and when she gets back to her grand house, she locks herself into a sumptuous room only to discover Bond is there waiting for her. She turns out to be a he; Bouvar himself has faked his death, and there follows a thoroughly extravagant fight scene between the two – Bond, cool calm and collected, Bouvar in high heels and stockings.
Eventually Bouvar is overpowered and slung into the fireplace to die, a contemptuous bunch of tulips being chucked over his head by Bond as an afterthought. Bond flees to the rooftops to make his escape, but he is followed by SPECTRE henchmen, and just when you think he’s going to get caught – up he flies into the air wearing a jetpack, safely landing beside his Aston Martin DB5 and colleague from the French service, Madame La Porte. The bullet shield emerges from the back of the Aston, and emits a water cannon to keep the henchmen at bay.
Once again our first sight of Bond shows him doing all those things he does best. Looking cool, fighting and killing ruthlessly, being up to date with all the best gadgets. We instantly move into the rest of the title sequence. Getting a little more daring year by year, these credits feature naked bodies for the first time, which Maurice Binder filmed, originally, in black and white. As they swim, silhouetted, Binder created a vibrant colour backdrop of reds, blues, greens and purples, and it’s a very attractive and arresting sequence. This is also our opportunity to hear the title song, Thunderball, sung by Tom Jones. In comparison to its two predecessors, this is, imho, quite an underpowered and forgettable song, which certainly made no impact on me as I was watching it. I note the single only made No 35 in the UK chart. Allegedly, Tom Jones fainted in an attempt to maintain the last big note of the song. Not sure it was worth it.
And the locations? The film takes us from Paris, back to the UK, and eventually on the Bahamas. Bond’s opening-scene fight with Bouvar was filmed at the Château d’Anet, near Dreux, in North-West France; I recognised a pub in Beaconsfield as the site of the hotel where Derval was killed by Angelo. Shrublands Health Spa scenes were shot at Chalfont Park House, near Chalfont St Peter. The car chase between Bond, Lippe and Fiona was filmed at Silverstone Racing Circuit in Northamptonshire; Largo’s grand estate, Palmyra, was filmed at the exclusive Rock Point home of a Philadelphia millionaire family, the Sullivans, who liked to watch the filming and used to have friends over for drinks who mixed with the cast and crew when not working. Other elegant locations included the Café Martinique and the Coral Harbour Hotel in Nassau. The climactic underwater battle was shot at Clifton Pier, Nassau, and was choreographed by Ricou Browning, famous for his underwater stunt work – he also created the cheeky dolphin, Flipper. He also staged the cave sequence and the battle scenes beneath the Disco Volante and called in his specialist team of divers who were essentially underwater stunt extras during the underwater fights.
Bond, James Bond. Sadly we don’t get to hear Sean Connery utter those magnificent words this time round. Connery earned a tidy $800,000 for making this film, but he became very impatient with the heavy media attention in Nassau, which may have been partly due to his marital troubles with his wife at the time, Diane Cilento. He was also very nearly eaten by a shark, when filming in the pool at Largo’s property; the Plexiglas divider that was meant to hold the sharks back from where Connery was in the pool wasn’t – to coin a phrase – watertight, and a shark snuck in to where Connery was swimming. Apparently no one has ever jumped out of a pool faster.
Boo-boos. There are some continuity errors and mistakes as always, but the only one I noticed at the time of actually watching the movie was right at the beginning, where you hear Bond say “As I said, later” to Madame la Porte, his mouth is clearly saying something different! When Bond arrives at M’s office, there’s a modern white light switch by the door. When he leaves, it’s a bronze double switch; curious. Roland Culver’s character is referred to as the Home Secretary, but in the final credits he’s listed as the Foreign Secretary – now, which is it? And Leiter is sometimes in long trousers and sometimes in shorts whilst he’s piloting the helicopter – that’s an impressive quick change. Bond constantly checks his Breitling Geiger Counter watch to see if he’s near the atom bombs; on one occasion, however, it’s a Rolex – smart, but no cigar. This is not an exhaustive list – there’s plenty more for you to read about on the Internet!
The Bond Girl. As in Goldfinger, it takes the audience a while to work out who exactly is The Bond Girl in this film. It’s no surprise that there are a number of women who take his fancy as the film progresses. In one of his first conversations with Madame La Porte, she asks if there is anything else the French station can do for him. His reply, “later, perhaps”, accompanied by a slightly naughty grin implies he is attracted to her – but this goes no further, maybe because she’s a married Madame. Bond’s first interest is with the attractive physiotherapist at the spa, Patricia Fearing. Their banter is direct and their shower scene even more so – it almost won the film an X certificate, which would have been a box office disaster. Patricia is a nice dalliance for Bond until he leaves the spa, then she’s history. Such a cad. She was played by Molly Peters – although her voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford – who appeared in a few films in the 60s but whose career was short-lived mainly due to legal wrangles.
Then we meet Paula Caplan, working for the CIA in Nassau, she shows a lot of early potential as a Bond girl but when she is captured by SPECTRE henchmen Vargas and Janni, she chooses suicide by cyanide capsule rather than be tortured to reveal any secrets of Operation Thunderball. Now that’s what I call a spy. She was played by Martine Beswick, who had previously appeared in From Russia with Love, as the fiery fighting gypsy girl, Zora. She had a long and varied career in TV and films, and is now semi-retired.
However, the real Bond Girl in this film is Domino, played by Claudine Auger. She’s Largo’s mistress, and Bond convinces her to help him when he reveals that Largo killed her brother. From then on, she’s a mole in his camp. When he realises that she is working against him, he captures her with intent to torture her; luckily Largo’s nuclear physicist Kutze also decided to jump ship and frees her, just in time for her shoot her harpoon gun through Largo’s heart and save Bond. Hurrah! Claudine Auger was on holiday in Nassau when Kevin McClory spotted her and asked her to audition. Originally, the role of Domino was written as an Italian girl, but Ms Auger impressed them so much they recruited her and changed the role to a French one. Previously, she had been Miss France and was runner-up to Miss World in 1958; and she had a long and varied film career.
What Bond Girls Are Like. From the first three films, we came to the conclusion that Bond Girls are: sexy, exotic, unpredictable, as equally likely to attack Bond as to support him, strong and self-reliant up to a point, sometimes tragic, professional and scary. Domino doesn’t throw many more attributes into the mix, apart from one: a desire for revenge.
The Villain. Of course the ultimate Villain is SPECTRE No 1, Blofeld, seen occasionally stroking his pussycat. But the “active” villain in Thunderball is No 2, Emilio Largo, played by Adolfo Celi. Largo is a rich, powerful, ruthless psychopath with a penchant for sharks and a black eye patch for no apparent reason. For me, personally, I didn’t find him as scary or intimidating as any of the previous villains we’d encountered; not that he wasn’t villainous, and he certainly looks the part, but I think by now I’m made of sterner stuff when it comes to Bond villains. Adolfo Celi was a Sicilian actor and singer, with notable performances in Von Ryan’s Express and the TV series The Borgias. His voice was dubbed by Robert Rietty who had a prolific career in the US, UK and Italy.
Other memorable characters? Surprisingly few. At one stage you might even have thought that Luciana Paluzzi’s Fiona might have ended up Bond Girl – and she very nearly did. Ms Paluzzi was originally considered for the role of Domino, but missed out – and was cast as Fiona instead, which she ended up enjoying more because there was more pizzazz in the role. Strictly one of the Baddies, she’s a SPECTRE agent who becomes François Derval’s mistress and assists Largo in Nassau. Bond can be persuasive with the ladies, but not that persuasive. She too gets her come-uppance when she’s shot in the back at a dance. Luciana Paluzzi appeared in a number of films in the 60s and 70s, and in 1980 married American media mogul Michael Jay Solomon, a former president of Warner Brothers International Television. They now live in New York and Rome.
Rik Van Nutter brings a livelier, more proactive characterisation to the role of Felix Leiter than we have seen in the previous films by Jack Lord (Dr No) or Cec Linder (Goldfinger), although he’s still a relatively minor figure in the story. Rik Van Nutter was married to Anita Ekberg at the time and was invited to play the role without an audition.
As usual, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn reprise their familiar roles as M, Moneypenny and Q. Once again M catches Moneypenny talking unguardedly in her reception area – I’m surprised she hasn’t learned by now. Q is even more contemptuous of Bond’s disregard for his amazing gadgets as they meet in Pinder’s shop, “out in the field”.
And what about the music? As usual, we start with the main James Bond Theme, written by Monty Norman, as part of the title sequence, and that’s the last you hear of that. The rest of the film soundtrack is pure John Barry; apart from the title song, Thunderball, whose lyrics are by Don Black. Originally the title song was to have been Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, sung by Dionne Warwick, but timing issues, legal issues and the fact that it wasn’t called Thunderball meant it was withdrawn fairly late in the day, so John Barry had to write a new theme double quick. In style, it’s very similar to Goldfinger, although it’s not as impressive or memorable as either the Goldfinger theme or Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
The soundtrack is generally pleasant, but not much more; there’s one recurring theme that hits the dramatic spot nicely. It’s the track entitled simply 007, and you hear it when Bond escapes into the Junkanoo, when he leaves the helicopter to join the underwater battle to the death, and when he clambers aboard the Disco Volante to sort Largo out once and for all. It had been written for From Russia with Love, but this time with a much more arresting arrangement. The theme entitled Switching the Body also has a very ethereal vibe and adds to the suspense. King Errisson, and his combo, who play the Kiss Kiss Club, has had a long and successful career, supporting various luminaries such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, the Jackson Five, and many others; he has also toured with Neil Diamond’s band since 1978.
Car chases. There’s one car chase; it’s short, brisk and full of surprises! It’s when Bond leaves the Spa in his Lincoln Continental and is pursued by Count Lippe in his Ford Fairlane Skyliner. As the Count gets closer, Bond is more than surprised to see him blown up to smithereens by the wicked Fiona, using a rocket launcher on her motorbike. And although it’s not a chase as such, there’s also Fiona’s suspenseful 100 mph plus drive to Nassau that has Bond looking more nervous than I’ve ever seen him.
Cocktails and Casinos. Whilst staying at Palmyra, Bond and Largo indulge in some Rum Collins – that’s a Tom Collins made with rum rather than gin. No need for him to ask for it to be shaken and not stirred. At the casino Bond rather extravagantly orders some Dom Perignon 55 to go with the Beluga caviar – nice. Bond’s first meeting with Largo is at a casino table, playing Baccarat I believe. His henchman Vargas is playing opposite him, so presumably Largo wins either way. Bond replaces Vargas at the table and wipes the floor with him; Domino confides that Largo “is going to be impossible tonight if his luck doesn’t change”, which I understand to be a subtle hint of some domestic abuse there.
Gadgets. It’s gadget overload right from the start! The jetpack that thrusts Bond away to safety, and the bullet shield and water cannon on the Aston Martin already take your breath away, and that’s before the opening credits! Q’s magic bundle for Bond includes a Breitling watch that acts as a Geiger counter, an underwater camera (two a penny nowadays, of course), a pill that acts as a Sat Nav device (same observation applies) and an underwater flare that is jolly useful as both a distress signal and for when you get lost and need a little light trying to find submerged atomic bombs. The cassette recorder hidden inside an old book looks rather tame by comparison – useful though it may be. The breathing mouthpiece comes into its own as Bond tries to outsmart the sharks; and there’s also the skyhook that rescues Bond and Domino at the end of the film.
In Memoriam. Dr No had a death count of approximately 11 as well as all those who go up in smoke in his lair at the end; From Russia with Love notched up at least 40; Goldfinger came in at a more modest 23-ish, plus everyone who died at Fort Knox. Where does Thunderball stand on this count? Let’s briefly remember those who gave their lives so that Bond and Domino can go up, up and away in their beautiful skyhook:
1) Whoever is in the coffin that appears to be that of Jacques Bouvar.
2) No 6 – Colonel Jacques Bouvar.
3) No 9 (electrocuted by Blofeld and his body submerged underground.
4) Derval, killed by Angelo, looking like Derval.
5) Would-be assassin by the window at the spa.
6) 5 pilots gassed on board the Vulcan Bomber.
7) Angelo, his air supply cut underwater by Largo.
8) Lippe, chasing Bond, ambushed by Fiona.
9) Quist, eaten by a shark at Palmyra.
10) Underwater henchman (under the Disco Volante) with air supply cut.
12) Henchman stabbed by Bond in the shark pool.
13) Fiona, shot accidentally at the Kiss Kiss Club by a henchman.
14) A shark. (They have feelings too, you know.)
16) At least 26 people harpooned underwater during the battle between the henchmen and the NATO forces.
17) Whoever dies when the back half of the Disco Volante blows up.
19) And whoever was left in the front of the Disco Volante when it bursts into flames on the rocks.
That’s probably somewhere in the ballpark of 50 people (and a shark.)
Humour to off-set the death count. Following his jokey remarks whenever someone died in the previous movies, here are some more throwaway lines to send some poor souls on to heaven:
After the fire during the car chase, Bond is late for the important meeting of all the “00s”. Apologising, Bond explains “Some people on the roads really burn you up these days.”
When Bond dumps the freshly shot body of Fiona at a drinks table, he apologises to the others there with: “Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead.”
After he harpoons Vargas, Bond says “I think he got the point.”
Plus there’s Bond’s rather dismissive chucking of the flowers all over the dead Bouvar.
Any less frothy elements? So once again it’s time to consider if there are any outstanding themes or elements that don’t sit well with today’s audience. As usual, I couldn’t perceive any obvious homophobic or racist elements, but when it comes to sexism, where do you start? Let’s remember that definition of sexism, so that we know where we’re at. Sexism is: “(Behaviour, language, etc, reflecting) the assumption that one sex, esp. the female, is inferior to the other; prejudice or discrimination, esp. against women, on the grounds of sex; insistence on (esp. a woman’s) conformity to a sexually stereotyped social role.”
By now we’re used to the fact that there’ll be female bodies on display during the opening credits. This time they’re actually naked, although impossible to see due to the stylistic editing. As the images are more artistic and abstract, I don’t feel this is as sexist as in previous films. The scene that really concerns me is early on when Bond literally forces himself upon Patricia the physiotherapist. She says no, but still he persists. As this is Bond-world, naturally she was only teasing to make him even more randy. But, after he has nearly been killed by Lippe on the spine-stretching machine, and Patricia takes the responsibility for the machine having gone wrong when he knows full well it wasn’t her fault at all, when he says that his silence on the matter “could have its price” – i.e. so that they can have sex in the shower room – this really feels uncomfortable nowadays. Bond’s response to Fiona’s request when she’s in the bath for him to get her something to put on – and he brings her a pair of shoes – is probably more witty than sexist. The camera’s lingering on the performing dancer at the Kiss Kiss Club is, however, definitely suspect.
Bizarre other stuff that occurred to me and a few observations.
Basically this is the plot that’s satirised in Austin Powers!
I know that clambering over a roof is difficult at the best of times, but surely it’s unlike Bond to drop a gun?
Whilst it starts off really pacey, the film suffers, retrospectively speaking, from all those underwater scenes. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and your mind wanders.
The scene where the pilots in the Vulcan Bomber are gassed and Lippe takes over; this was before any commercial airline had ever been hijacked.
Lovely to see Leonard Sachs as the Group Captain, we all remember him as the host to TV’s The Good Old Days. How wonderful it would have been if he had stood up and proclaimed “Once again, good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” and thumped his gavel on M’s head.
How did Bond know how that he would meet up with Domino when he goes snorkelling? Convenient! We never find out.
Bond’s double, swimming underwater in the shark pool, doesn’t look anything like Connery.
The script between Fiona and Bond once the heavies have arrived addresses all the criticisms (almost verbatim) that had been made of the previous films. A very rewarding way of getting your own back!
Am I the only person never to have heard of a Junkanoo? Largo describes it as “our local Mardi Gras”; apparently, it’s a street parade held in the Bahamas on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Odd that no one has any Christmas decorations up in that case.
The fifteen-minute underwater fight scene at the end was only one page of script. A lot of it wasn’t scripted – they just went with the flow of what all these paramedics and diver experts got up to.
Kutze’s change of heart, when he goes against Largo’s order and helps Domino to escape, seemed highly improbable to me.
“Codename Thunderball”, says M, introducing all the secret agents to the task of preventing the potential atomic disaster of SPECTRE’s grisly plans. But what is a thunderball anyway? What relevance does it bear to the story? I looked it up and this is what I discovered: Thunderball was a military term used by U.S. soldiers to describe the mushroom cloud seen during the testing of atomic bombs. It’s relevant because if SPECTRE’s threat to detonate the two atomic bombs, there’d be two of them. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to call it Thunderballs.
When Patricia asks Bond when she’ll see him again, he replies, Another Time Another Place, which just happened to be the name of the first film in which Sean Connery had a major role.
Whether or not he received expert health advice at his time at Shrublands, this is the first 007 where Bond doesn’t smoke.
How does Lippe escape from that steam bath?
Awards: John Stears won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects; and Ken Adam was nominated for the BAFTA for Best Production Design, but I don’t suppose he minded losing as he won it for his work on The Ipcress File instead.
To sum up. From a box office perspective, Thunderball continued Broccoli and Saltzman’s winning streak and was more successful a Bond film than any before. Whilst there are some memorable scenes and, there’s no doubt, the underwater photography was enormously advanced for its time, and probably held a huge wow factor for its contemporary audience, I don’t think it has aged well. Where I criticised Goldfinger for its remarkable silliness, at least it wasn’t boring – and I’m afraid I was bored by Thunderball at times. I realise that I would sooner have silliness by the bucketload rather than yet another scene of men being harpooned underwater. I ended up downgrading my score by 1 sparkle, simply because I think the sin of boredom is the worst thing you can impose on an audience. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions of Thunderball – and whether you agree with me! Please leave a comment below. Next up, the film the world had to wait two years for – the first time that Bond skipped a year – and You Only Live Twice!
My rating: 2 Sparkles
All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.