2012 marks the 50th anniversary of James Bond on the big screen. To celebrate, SFX’s Nick Setchfield revisits each and every 007 adventure in a week by week countdown to Skyfall…
MISSION 4: THUNDERBALL (1965)
HERE COMES THE BIGGEST BOND OF ALL! As ambitious as the SPECTRE scheme that propels it, Thunderball is the moment the Bond franchise finally embraces its own oversized phenomenon. By 1965 pop-culture was inescapably spy-crazed; while a $5.6 million budget may seem small beer in comparison to the globe-throttling greed of Blofeld’s $100 million ransom demand, it armed 007 against the legion of low-grade imitators coveting his box office licence to kill. From its first moments it’s a tale that trades in flamboyance and widescreen wow: the jet-pack in the pre-titles rebrands Bond as an SF rocketman and leaves his waiting Aston Martin looking conspicuously mundane. Elsewhere the heist of the Vulcan bombers is accomplished with a genuine sense of scale, their stolen nuclear payloads perverting Harold Wilson’s fabled white heat of technology into something monstrous and deadly. There’s a case to be made for Thunderball as the first true techno-thriller – its fetishised military firepower has all the gunmetal gleam of a Tom Clancy novel. But it’s also spiced with the transgressive weirdness of classic Bond. Where else could you see Sean Connery flatten a drag act widow with a whipcrack punch?
SPECTRAL ACTIVITY Blofeld remains faceless in Thunderball, a dapper, cat-stroking presence whose voice purrs with a stateless, unlocatable sense of evil. But amid a strikingly modernist Ken Adam set we finally glimpse the heart of his organisation. Amusingly, for all its world-threatening stratagems and casual disdain for human life, SPECTRE is clearly mired in file-shuffling bureaucracy – there are financial briefings, departmental reports about consultation fees and casual mention of an execution branch. It is, frankly, local council hell. The electrified chairs only add to the satirical bite. Of course there’s a camp joy in an ultra-secret cabal whose members are easily identified by a distinctive octopus ring, but perhaps there’s something darker, more interesting here. The octopus avatar has a Lovecraftian shiver, after all. Watch as Largo kisses the ring after throwing a luckless underling into a shark-filled pool. It’s a moment that carries the subliminal echo of blood sacrifice, as if an offering to an ancient, soul-hungering god…
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN Another, altogether different spectre looms in Thunderball, one that would shadow the Bond saga for decades. Ian Fleming always itched to see his hero enshrined on celluloid and, in 1958, he teamed with Irish writer/director Kevin McClory and veteran screenwriter Jack Whittingham on a film provisionally titled James Bond Of The Secret Service (also known variously as SPECTRE and, more evocatively, Longitude 78 West). Fleming cheekily recycled the core elements of this nuclear kidnap caper as his 1961 novel Thunderball, a move that outraged his collaborators and prompted a high profile legal case that left the court-pummelled author with the rights to the book but granted McClory cinematic ownership of the story. When Bond producers Broccoli and Saltzman came to film Thunderball they enlisted McClory as producer, a pragmatic pact that brought a potential rival on side. But McClory was a timebomb. A decade later he began preparations to mount his own Bond movie, Warhead – a loose remake of Thunderball equipped with the star power of Sean Connery, no less – and his claims to the creation of Blofeld and SPECTRE would see these key elements purged from the official Bond franchise. McClory finally remade Thunderball as 1983’s Never Say Never Again, complete with a fiftysomething Connery. In the late ‘90s he was still threatening to launch his own, competing Bond franchise, doubtlessly slicing and recombining the narrative genes of Thunderball in infinite combinations…
HE KNOWS THE MEANING OF SUCCESS The Aston Martin’s goon-soaking aqua-jets flood the screen. Sea nymphs emerge, graceful, naked, their hair trailing in ocean currents, inky silhouettes against blood red water, pursued by the unmistakably phallic threat of harpoons. It’s the first archetypal Bond title sequence, loaded with the weaponised sexuality that would come to define the work of Maurice Binder, the designer of each flashy, fleshy intro until 1989’s Licence To Kill. The title song itself sees Goldfinger’s swagger edge perilously close to bombast. “Every woman he wants he will get,” belts Tom Jones, possibly singing from the heart of his own little black book. “His days of asking are all gone.” After Shirley Bassey’s lauding of Auric Goldfinger as the man with the Midas touch it’s natural to see this as an equally ominous celebration of Emilio Largo, SPECTRE’s one-eyed Number Two and the film’s main villain. But what if Bond is “the winner who takes it all”? It’s tempting to see this song as a hymn to 007 himself, now revelling in his status as king of pop-culture. John Barry’s incidental music, meanwhile, is mesmeric and serpentine, the perfect soundtrack to the shifting realities and hidden machinations of Bond’s world.
SEA FEVER Knowing that an entire quarter of Thunderball’s screentime demanded to take place underwater, Broccoli summoned Ivan Tors Films, specialists in such sub-aquatic screen fare as Flipper. The film is enhanced no end by their expertise – a throwaway scene where Domino rides a turtle through forests of coral and fleet, darting fish is captured with impeccable clarity, conjuring a rare moment of genuine beauty for a Bond flick. The climactic saltwater skirmish between SPECTRE and the forces of the West provided the biggest challenge, requiring weeks of rehearsal and the precise choreography of some sixty divers who could only communicate via hand signals. Many argue that Thunderball’s final reel combat sequence is a slog, an interminable tussle between faceless, voiceless opponents, but there’s an eerie grandeur to this underwaterloo, punctuated with truly arresting imagery: storms of blood fill the water as the sharks move in, a random crab scuttles monstrously in the middle of the fight and Largo’s one, glaring eye fills his visor with Cyclopean hate…
SHARK! SHARK! “Magnificent creatures,” declares Largo, with the pride of a true supervillain in his man-eating pets. “The notorious Golden Grotto sharks. The most savage, the most dangerous. They know when it’s time to be fed…” Sharks instinctively feel like part of the core iconography of the Bond movies – they also lend a dark-gliding menace to Live And Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me and Licence To Kill – but our hero’s closest encounter with them comes in Thunderball. For the scene where Bond infiltrates the shark pool production designer Ken Adam procured 15 of the beasts from a Miami aquarium. Connery was naturally reluctant to share the water with these carnivorous co-stars, but director Terence Young assured him that there would be a plexiglass corridor separating him from the creatures: “Only way they can get in is if they jump like a dolphin.” “How do I know sharks can’t do that?” retorted Connery. What Young neglected to tell his star was that there would be a crucial four foot gap in the defence as Adam hadn’t been able to locate enough plexiglass. Watch Bond’s reaction to the entrance of the shark – that’s not acting. A startled, furious Connery fled the pool seconds later.
TRIV AND LET DIE
Broccoli and Saltzman originally eyed Thunderball as their first Bond film, but the legal situation over the screen rights deterred them.
The movie’s original theme song was Mr Kiss Bang Bang, recorded by both Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick. The producers exchanged it for a number that foregrounded the film’s title, but ghost traces of it remain in Barry’s score. Check it out here.
More bizarrely, here’s a rejected title song by Johnny Cash…
The sharks in the underwater battle were controlled by a system of wires through their fins.
Director Terence Young’s wife refused to sleep with him for two weeks because she insisted he stank of shark.
The Operation Thunderball file has the words On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stamped on it.
Julie Christie, Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway were all in consideration for the role of Domino.
The Bell jet-pack was developed by the army. Only two men were qualified to use it.
Tom Jones fainted in the recording booth while attempting to hold the final note of Thunderball (listen closely and you might just hear a big Welsh thump…)