James Bond 007: Thunderball (1965)

There is a widespread consensus that Thunderball marks the first dip in quality in the James Bond series after three fantastic films. Preferences for From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, or even Dr. No vary (even among the three brothers), but I’ve never met anyone who outright prefers Thunderball to the first three entries, and I’ve even met some who actively dislike it. While I can’t understand disliking the film—it is eminently entertaining—it is worth considering the ways that the film varies from the earlier entries. It’s also worth examining what Thunderball adds to the Bond series and how it’s possibly more representative of where the series would go than the first three masterpieces, even as it is the least critically lauded of the first four films.

Thunderball left its mark on the Bond series both in terms of series conventions and in terms of economics. When adjusted for inflation, it remains the highest grossing Bond film to this day domestically, and second only to Skyfall worldwide. Regardless of its critical reception, reports of people lining up around the block to see the film when it premiered in 1965 testify to it being a hit, a true “blockbuster” in the original meaning of the phrase. Perhaps because of its elaborate stunts, return to exotic locales (after the mostly American set Goldfinger), and plot centred around a SPECTRE threat, combined with its popular success, many of Thunderball’s elements remain standard pieces of the Bond formula.

Thunderball begins with a notable pre-credits sequence which begins with Bond attending the funeral of SPECTRE operative Number 6. Spying from above in the church, Bond notices something suspicious about the dead man’s widow. He follows her to a chateau which leads to the shocking moment when he strikes the woman only to reveal “her” to be Number 6 himself, disguised as his widow. Bond and Number 6 face-off in a frenetically edited, sped-up fight sequence, destroying the ornate room in the process, and ending with Bond dispatching his enemy and pausing only to casually toss a vase of flowers on the dead man’s corpse before he escapes. The sequence highlights Bond’s callous misogyny: the image of him striking a “woman” is bracing to the viewer even if it isn’t what it seems, but more disturbing is that it’s not entirely out the range of possibility to imagine Bond hitting a woman. His flippant treatment of his enemy’s death shows that this is just another mission for him, nothing out of the ordinary.

Bond escapes from the roof of the chateau on a rocket pack—and, yes, it was an actual working rocket pack, a real piece of period technology called the Bell Rocket Belt, and it lends the sequence a sense of spectacle beyond most other spy films of the period: no expense was spared on Thunderball. Bond then escapes in his iconic Aston Martin DB5, as it sprays the camera with its rear-mounted water cannon, and the sequence dissolves to the opening titles, scored to the Tom Jones-sung title song. Since Thunderball was the first of the Bond films to be filmed in Panavision, the iconic gun barrel sequence needed to be reshot, meaning that this is the first film that Sean Connery actually appears in that sequence, as stuntman Bob Simmons had doubled in the first three films.

Thunderball’s opening promises much in terms of thrills and spectacle, and the film mostly delivers. Its plot centres around SPECTRE’s hijacking of two nuclear weapons with which it holds the NATO nations hostage for $100 million in diamonds. Thunderball takes Bond from an English health spa, Shrublands, to Nassau, Bahamas, where the film would take full advantage of such an exotic locale, with plenty of water based action sequences and even a chase during a local Caribbean street celebration. Acting as Bond’s primary nemesis in the film is SPECTRE operative Number 2, Emilio Largo (played by Adolfo Celi). It also has plenty of memorable supporting characters: the seductive SPECTRE operative, Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), and a memorable, and lovely, Bond girl in Largo’s mistress, Dominique “Domino” Dorval, played by former Miss France, Claudine Auger; we also get the third appearance of Bond’s American CIA ally, Felix Leiter, with a third actor, Rik Van Nutter, portraying him this time around. Thus, Thunderball has all the standard character types that would be repeated in other Bond films—the femme fatale, the Bond girl, the ally—but rarely are they such an effective and natural addition to the plot. Largo is the visual epitome of a Bond villain, even if he lacks the personality and characterization of Auric Goldfinger, for instance. His large yacht, the Disco Volante, and Bahamas retreat, Palmyra, complete with shark infested pools for dispatching enemies, both become fondly remembered Bond villain tropes. Largo is so iconic that his eye-patched appearance would be the basis for Robert Wagner’s Number Two in the parody Austin Powers films

Thematically, Thunderball ratchets up the stakes beyond even Dr. No or Goldfinger. The nuclear threat with which SPECTRE threatens the world gives Bond’s mission catastrophic consequences if he fails. It also has specific resonance at the height of the Cold War, with nuclear annihilation serving as a real world anxiety. This aspect of the film motivates some of the film’s most memorable sequences, particularly the details of the the hijacking of the weapons aboard a NATO training flight. Under the supervision of Count Lippe, SPECTRE agent Angelo Palazzi is surgically altered to become the double of Domino’s NATO pilot brother, François, while staying at Shrublands. Subsequently, Angelo makes an uncanny appearance at François’ door, where François is betrayed by his lover Fiona Volpe. Angelo then replaces François aboard the NATO flight, and orchestrates its disappearance in a watery landing and heist. This leads to the first of many of the film’s lengthy though impressive underwater scenes, as the SPECTRE henchmen move the nuclear weapons off the downed plane. The sequence is notable for the complexity of the scheme in showing SPECTRE’s abilities, and the shots of the real-life Avro Vulcan and NATO control centre, once again showing that the 007 series would not be outdone in terms of spectacle. The missing nuclear weapons necessitates the calling of, as Moneypenny informs James, “all the 00 agents in Europe, and the Home Secretary.” High stakes indeed.

Bond is called from the aforementioned spa, where it is only coincidence that he uncovers aspects of Lippe and Angelo’s plot. The spa sequence contains several of the film’s more disjunctive and thematically disturbing moments, first the back and forth jousting between Bond and Count Lippe, as each uses the spa facilities to dispose of the other. Lippe has Angelo crank Bond’s back-stretching machine to overdrive, nearly breaking his spine. Bond replies in kind by trapping Lippe in a sauna machine and cranking up the heat. The methods employed by each man are strangely sadistic, and emphasizes the ways in which Bond isn’t much different from the SPECTRE agents he fights. Furthermore, after being rescued by his nurse from nearly having his back broken, Bond essentially forces himself on her, her protests against his advances ignored until she gives in to his charm. However the sequence might have played in 1965, today it plays as particularly disturbing, yet it fits with the callous, misogynistic character of Bond as displayed in the pre-credits sequence.

So, while Thunderball raises the stakes and has Bond display unsavoury character traits, lending the film a darker tone at moments, it also veers erratically between such darker material and more prosaic, lighthearted moments. The move from the domestically relaxing Shrublands spa to the exotic Nassau locale reflects such a dichotomy. Bond hardly seems to register the seriousness of SPECTRE’s plot at times. One can hardly fault Group Captain Pritchard for thinking Bond’s interests lie more in going after the lovely Domino than saving the world from nuclear disaster. Perhaps it’s this uneven tone that rubs some viewers the wrong way, but it shouldn’t. While From Russia With Love is an effective spy thriller, and Goldfinger, as Aren pointed out, upped the humour, Thunderball does the most to establish the typical Bond tone, mixing high-stakes, save the world action with humourous innuendo and skirt-chasing escapades.

This isn’t to say that Thunderball is without its flaws. If anything, the film tries to do too much, and director Terence Young, coming back for a third and final outing as 007-director, can’t seem to bring himself to cut any of the elaborate underwater sequences. Thus, the film drags in the final quarter of the film as Bond discovers Largo’s plot, and the action moves from Palmyra, to the Disco Volante and Largo’s detachable hydrofoil, to an elaborate underwater battle between the SPECTRE agents and US Navy Seals. It’s still one of the series biggest moments, but I can’t help but feel my interest lag during the sequence. Loads of money was clearly spent, but such underwater battles inevitably suffer from confusing spatial geography and combatants who are difficult to distinguish from each other. Additionally, the underwater filming resulted in comparatively slow action (one can only move so quickly underwater), so the editors even sped up the film, rendering the sequences uneven at moments. However, the ending reestablishes the film’s emphasis on real-world technology more thrilling than any of Q’s gadgets in this outing (sorry, Geiger-counter watch), as Bond and Domino are rescued by a US Air Force Skyhook after their escape from Largo’s hydrofoil. The film ends with our hero and the girl hanging from a plane, the world saved and the villain vanquished—for now.

So, Thunderball, its flaws and all, sets the tone and influences subsequent Bond films more than the first three films. However, this is entirely understandable as Thunderball was consciously laying the groundwork for what would constitute a “Bond film,” apart from a Bond story or novel, in its conception. In fact, some of Thunderball’s slightly messy plotting is due to the strange facts of its original conception. The story was originally a collaboration between Ian Fleming and two co-writers, Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham, that was meant to get a Bond series off the ground in 1959-60. When that failed Fleming turned the story into the novel Thunderball in 1961, without his co-writer’s knowledge. McClory would launch a lawsuit over the story, resulting in him gaining copyright of the novel and the screenplay, including the character of Blofeld and the organization SPECTRE, both of which originated in the original screenplay (remember, that in From Russia With Love the novel, the enemies work for the real Soviet agency SMERSH). The result was that McClory also had the right to remake the film, which he eventually did. But most interestingly, since the screenplay treatment Thunderball predated the cinematic Bond series, McClory claimed that he had essentially helped create the cinematic Bond, and that all the films in the series were based on the kind of action and situations pioneered in Thunderball more so than in Fleming's novels. While McClory’s claims may seem overstated, subsequent Bond films would suggest that he wasn’t entirely off-base.

Thunderball, for all its oddball aspects and over-emphasis on action spectacle over the deeper characterization and themes of the preceding entries in the series, remains very watchable. It’s not surprising that McClory would go ahead and remake the film in the 1980s as Never Say Never Again, as the captured nuclear weapon plot remains solid, even if the film works best in its 1960s Cold War incarnation. While Thunderball may not be my favourite Bond film, its detractors minimize its excellent production quality and entertainment value in relation to many of the other entries in the series. In fact, I’d rather watch it than almost any of Roger Moore’s entries. As the original British quad poster for Thunderball said, “Here comes the biggest Bond of all!”, for good and bad.

8 out of 10

Thunderball (1965, UK)

Directed by Terence Young; screenplay by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins based on an original screenplay by Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory, and Jack Whittingham; starring Sean Connery, Adolfo Celi, Claudine Auger, Luciana Paluzzi.