My James Bond retrospective: Thunderball.

Before Harry Saltzman bought the rights to James Bond from Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, Fleming had unsuccessfully attempted to sell James Bond to a number of film producers to get the novels turned into movies.

In 1958, Fleming met a man named Kevin McClory, and in 1959 they began working on a James Bond script that would launch the character’s movie career. The script was called Thunderball. This script was where SPECTRE was created and the Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld was introduced. As McClory and Jack Whittingham were finishing up the script, Fleming sent a draft of the script to his agent, and in 1961, the same year that Saltzman bought the rights to James Bond, Thunderball was published as a novel.

Kevin McClory

McClory and Whittingham filed a lawsuit against Fleming, and in December of 1963, the court ruled that Fleming sell the film copyright of Thunderball to Kevin McClory. Fleming was also ordered to acknowledge McClory in all future editions of Thunderball.

Saltzman and Albert Broccoli had intended to use Thunderball as their first Bond film, but because of the legal dispute, they were unable to. Then, in 1965, Paradise Film Productions, McClory’s company, granted EON Productions permission to use the Thunderball script for one film only. After ten years, the rights would return to Paradise Film Productions so that McClory could make future Bond films if he so desired.

With the rights to Thunderball now in hand, Saltzman and Broccoli set out to create the Bond adventure they had originally wanted to when they first began making Bond films.

The film begins at the funeral of Colonel Jacques Bouvar who also happens to be a member of SPECTRE, the organization out of which Dr. No (Dr. No) and Colonel Rosa Klebb (From Russia with Love) were working. Bond notices something unusual about Bouvar’s widow, so he investigates only to discover that Bouvar is indeed alive, just disguised as his wife. Bond subdues and kills Bouvar, escaping with a jetpack and his trademark Aston Martin DB5.

Knowing that Terence Young had returned to direct this Bond outing made me groan a little. While Dr. No wasn’t a terrible film, it wasn’t great either, and it suffered from poor pacing, loose editing, and an overly complex recounting of a fairly simple plot. The same could be said of From Russia with Love. Goldfinger was a breath of fresh air in a way, providing a tightly knit adventure that was well shot and polished like a Bond film should be.

Unfortunately all my fears about Terence Young being in charge again came to fruition, only this time his poor filming is inexcusable. He was gifted with a much larger budget than he had with the first two Bond adventures, so this should have been a much better film.

Once again, there are pacing issues. The film is exceedingly talky and the first hour is unmanageably slow. Something I’ve noticed about all three of Young’s Bond films is that there are often extraneous shots that too much time is spent on. Scenes tend to drag on because Young cuts away from the action to show something completely unrelated to what’s taking place. Worse yet, he dwells on it for several seconds. Seconds that feel like minutes. He also has a tendency to speed up the film when things are moving a bit too slowly. Frankly, this effect looks unprofessional and desperate.

One scene that I actually really enjoyed was the conference meeting involving a number (pun not intended) of SPECTRE agents and Ernst Stavro Blofeld (though he’s still simply known as “Number 1” in this film). Unfortunately, this one scene alone wasn’t enough to make this a good film for me.

Felix Leiter also makes a return, this time played by Rik Van Nutter. While it was nice seeing a depiction of Leiter that appeared to match Bond’s age and athleticism, Van Nutter portrays him as a bit of a tool, and it seems like the screenwriters threw him in there for some small comic relief. Cheap and unfortunate because I really like the character.

The rest of the acting isn’t too shabby, however, and Connery is really looking comfortable in his role as 007. The addition of a couple Bond girls who don’t fall in love with Bond is also a nice touch, but Fiona’s willingness to have sex with Bond still stretches the limits of plausibility.

Then again, this is a Bond movie. Since when should plausibility play into things?

I liked both of the main Bond girls in Thunderball, but I’d have to give the performance cake to Luciana Paluzzi for her role as the villainess Fiona Volpe. Unfortunately, she comes of as a bit explanatory and is clearly alluding to Pussy Galore from Goldfinger when she tells Bond that she won’t turn over to the good side just because he’s had sex with her.

The primary Bond girl, Dominique “Domino” Derval (played by Claudine Auger), is executed very well. While Auger is a bit stiff as an actress, her character is written so well that I find her extremely believable. I’m not sold on Auger’s performance, but she is certainly beautiful, and she’s not a terrible actress. I think she did a fine job with the scene where she discovers that her brother has been killed, but I’m not too keen on the screenwriters giving her the final kill of the villain Largo.

Before long we’re treated to a huge underwater battle scene that very quickly turns into the most bizarre and painfully dull fight scene yet in a Bond film. I wanted to like this scene, but I couldn’t get past how poorly edited it was. The action was so bad that they had to speed things up multiple times in this scene. And I kept asking myself, Why didn’t they just cut this scene shorter and faster? There was certainly no need to dwell on each shot for so long, and to make things worse, they would cut away to a random drifting sea creature or rock that contributed nothing to the scene.

Like Dr. No and From Russia with Love, Thunderball ends too abruptly and doesn’t give the audience the satisfaction of understanding the movement of the plot. I realize that I’m being harsher on this film than I was on the first two, despite those two exhibiting the same flaws. The reason is that I’m convinced that these types of mistakes (sloppy action, loose editing, unintelligible plot devices, talky screenwriting) should be gone by now. Thankfully, Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball are the only films in the Bond series directed by Terence Young. Yes, I know he created the franchise, and much of who Bond has become is attributed to him, but I’d much rather see Goldfinger again than have to deal with his poorly paced films.

While Young might not be back, Bond certainly will be. For that I might be thankful, depending on how the next film turns out…

Next up, You Only Live Twice.

(Click here to go back to the list.)

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