The Weekly Bond Countdown: #11 – Thunderball (1965)

It’s hard not to talk about Thunderball without talking about the court case which involved Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory.  So here it goes…

Fleming was frustrated at the slow progress of seeing Bond adapted for the big screen – remember this was before Bond became an eventual success in the movies.  Kevin McClory, a screenwriter and producer encouraged Fleming to write his own screenplay, trying to turn Fleming’s frustrations into something positive.  They got together, flew out to the Caribbean (along with Jack Whittingham, another screenwriter), and after one too many drinks, they drunkenly wrote Longitude 78 West aka Thunderball.

Now I’m not going to explain who was in the right or in the wrong.  Personally, both Fleming and McClory probably didn’t even know who came up with what regarding the plots point of the story.  But Fleming (probably stupid of him) used the screenplay and novelised Thunderball as his ninth Bond novel – without crediting McClory and Whittingham.

McClory naturally sued for accreditation and took Fleming to court.  In the end, McClory won the case, giving him credit and screenplay rights.  The screenplay rights, more importantly, would allow him after a certain period of time the opportunity to remake Thunderball, hence the film Never Say Never Again in 1983.

This presented a problem for producers Saltzman and Broccoli as Thunderball was lined up as the next Bond film and had to come to an arrangement with McClory to make the film (since Fleming legally didn’t own this particular Bond adventure).  They made McClory producer of the film whilst they served as executive producer – did you really think they were going to relinquish their overall producing roles for an outsider to come in and take their spot?

Sadly for Fleming, he didn’t recover from losing the court case.  Fleming notoriously was a heavy drinker and smoker, but the court case drained him.  Physically he was unwell.  He finally tasted success with Bond from his novels to the big screen, only to settle his case in court after three weeks of constant deliberation.  Maybe paying out the damages to McClory wasn’t the main problem.  Perhaps it was the principle that his latest Bond adventure legally belonged to someone else.  That someone else can shape and create Bond in whatever form, and he had no legal powers to stop it.  Frankly, it feels like a plot from one of his Bond novels.  Roughly nine months later, Fleming passed away, dying of a heart attack on a golf course in 1964 – a month before Goldfinger was released in the cinemas.  He was 56 years old.

So why am I mentioning all this?  It’s because of this court case it had a massive knock on effect and impact on how future Bond films were made.  Post Thunderball (with the exception of You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds are Forever), the words SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) and Blofeld were never used in a Bond film again.  The creative control of these characters belonged to Kevin McClory.  Now I know what you’re thinking – in For Your Eyes Only, Bond clearly battles Blofeld in the pre-opening credits.  Very true.  I can’t argue against that.  But did you hear his name being uttered?  Nope.  I’m guessing the Bond writers found a legal loophole!  But ever since then – not a mention.  However McClory spent the remainder of his life suing EON and the Bond makers for persistent plagiarism. Maybe he felt Bond was his creation…

To sum this all up, it’s a blessing and a curse.  A curse because the Bond series lost a fundamental character, someone who was the antithesis of Bond, who controlled an organization hell bent on world domination.  In the right hands today, I can easily see Blofeld adapted for the modern era without coming across as a gimmick, exactly how Daniel Craig has done with his interpretation with Bond.  But in reality it really is a blessing because the Bond franchise is now not dependant on one arch nemesis.  The franchise (in my opinion) became stronger.  It had the creative freedom to create any type of villain they wanted, providing dynamic and complex individuals.  Le Chiffe, Sanchez, Zorin, Silva and Auric Goldfinger are arguably some of the best Bond villains you will ever see on screen.

Going back to Thunderball, despite the legal troubles, the film is still a good watch.  It’s exaggerated fun and yet I do find my attention dropping off now and then because of how uneven the plot is.

Tom Jones belts out the title theme, a song in which he actually passed out whilst recording the final note.  Connery is at his best as Bond.  Full of swagger and confidence, he embodies the whole ‘larger than life’ concept and yet still demonstrates his physical toughness when it comes to the fight scenes.  We also for the first time see a gathering of all the 00 agents.  It’s a grand sense of the organisation as they are all briefed on SPECTRE’s ransom.  The villain, Emilio Largo is also brilliant, played by Adolfo Celli.

Some may accuse the scenes of going on for too long but the underwater scenes are genuinely thrilling.  In terms of Bond history, it makes the stunts unique.  I can’t help but think what must have been a logistical nightmare to get everything prepared and staged correctly.  They are certainly a key highlight of the film and despite what you think of him, you have to give McClory credit as the underwater scenes are his idea (due to his own personal fascination with diving).

So in the end, which was the better film – Thunderball or Never Say Never Again?  I’ll leave that up to you.  In many ways, Thunderball rather Goldfinger became the film that inspired the Austin Powers movies and Spy Hard due to (at times) the eccentric nature of the film.  Despite its flaws, Thunderball has its moments and at its time of release, it was the biggest grossing Bond film.

UPDATE: So there might be an opportunity that we haven’t seen the last of SPECTRE and Blofeld.  It will be interesting to see what direction the Bond producers take with the character.

The Countdown So Far:

It may be Christmas next week but a new post will go out!  Check back next week Wednesday to find out which Bond film comes in at #10….and things start to get interesting from now on 🙂

And before I forget – Merry Christmas everyone!

Author: Kelechi Ehenulo

Creator and writer of Confessions From A Geek Mind. Loves sci-fi and LEGO - couldn't ask for a better combo!

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