We watched Thunderball a few weeks ago. It really is a mess of a film, oddly paced and the first real mis-step of the series. It’s only a dash over two hours long, but it feels like a three-hour epic. I have trouble enjoying it, and usually start wishing I’d put You Only Live Twice on instead.
There’s an unintentionally funny scene in Thunderball where Bond dances with Domino in a hotel resort. The band next to the dancefloor look frozen in time, while couples glide around. The audible music is John Barry’s score – an instrumental version of Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – but nothing matches! The band are supposed to be miming to it, but they’re just standing there, not moving; and Bond, Domino and the surrounding couples are all dancing at the wrong speed to the music. This scene itself is a microcosm of how messy the rest of the film is.
The story behind Ian Fleming’s 1961 novel of the same name is just as muddled as the resulting film turned out to be. Decamping from England to the Bahamas to take advantage of tax breaks, he started working on a screenplay with Kevin McLory, Jack Wittingham, Ivar Bryce and Ernie Cuneo. In the prior novels, the enemy was SMERSH (a shortened version of Smert Shpionam – Russian for ‘Death to Spies’ – and eventually referred to in the film of The Living Daylights), but suspecting that the Cold War would end before the screenplay was filmed, Fleming changed the enemy to SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion).
The screenplay went unfilmed, but Fleming recycled much of the story for the novel – the ninth in the series. Kevin McLory saw an advance copy and claimed it was based on their collaborative work for the original screenplay idea. Sued for breach of copyright, Fleming suffered a heart attack at the age of fifty three.
By the time the film appeared in 1965, Thunderball was the best selling of the Bond novels and McLory had been awarded the film rights as a result of his lawsuit against Fleming. To be able to shoot the film (and subsequently use the characters of SPECTRE and Blofeld in later films), EON Productions made McLory a co-producer on the proviso that he wouldn’t make his own version of the film for at least ten years. Never Say Never Again – a remake of Thunderball, starring an aging Sean Connery – hit cinemas in 1983, just four months after Roger Moore’s penultimate Bond film, Octopussy.
It’s hard to say which is the better film – Thunderball or Never Say Never Again. Thunderball has the effortless cool of the mid-‘60s in its favour, while Never Say Never Again feels a little more modern. While the films in the official run of films at that time – especially Octopussy – felt a little stuffy, Never Say Never Again has a bit of a harder edge. The later film still feels a little weighty, being of a similar running time and essentially telling the same story, but the action scenes pick up the pace better than in Thunderball. In particular, the motorcycle chase through Nice is as good as any of the stunts in the Moore films of the early ‘80s.
Claudine Auger plays Domino in Thunderball, and Kim Basinger plays the same role in Never Say Never Again, so at the end of the day it all boils down to what you prefer: blondes or brunettes.
Hit: Thunderball (Main Title)
Hidden Gem: Switching The Body