Reel Talk

Thunderball and Gimmicks

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I would say that it’s quite clear by now that I really love James Bond. It’s a franchise that I’ve been obsessed with for quite some time, and one that I love, warts and all. However, that doesn’t mean that I like all the films equally. There’s certainly a scale of quality in these films. No matter what I tend to enjoy a Bond movie, there’s always something about them that work even if the movie as a whole doesn’t. And one of those films that don’t quite work for me is the one we’ll be talking about today, good old Thunderball. I feel like this may be a little blasphemous, because I’m pretty sure this entry in the series is usually held in very high regards, but for me it’s the weakest Connery film of them all. Which also is a pretty ridiculous statement, but just trust me, I’ll try to make a solid defense for the quality of Diamonds are Forever. But as it stands, Thunderball is a series of interesting ideas mixed with some really poor pacing. Thunderball was the first movie of this series that upon rewatch I found myself getting bored. It’s probably one of the films from the franchise that I’ve seen the least. This was a massively successful film for it’s time, becoming the most profitable Bond film until Skyfall, and is typically quite beloved. But hey, not every movie is going to work for every person.

Honestly the thing that I find most interesting about this movie may be the stories behind it. I kind of considered spending most of this article talking about what went on behind the scenes of this movie, and the legal case that would come to define the franchise for the next fifty years, but I think there’s a much better chance to do that later on in the filmography. But in case you don’t know the story of Thunderball, I’ll give a brief rundown. Basically, before Dr. No was  made Ian Fleming was desperate to get his creation on the silver screen. So he worked with a screenwriter named Kevin McClory to adapt the character into an original screenplay. And what resulted was Thunderball. Fleming and McClory devised the basic premise of Thunderball along with the concepts of SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Before this James Bond exclusively fought SMERSH a real-life organization that was in the Soviet government. But this screenplay created a less politically-charged villain for Bond. The screenplay didn’t work out, so Ian Fleming decided to take the plot and write it as a novel, giving no credit to McClory. From there Fleming created a trilogy of novels surrounding SPECTRE and Blofeld, and when it came time for the series that we know and love to be created, they decided to replace SMERSH with SPECTRE in almost all of the old stories. And then they decided to adapt Thunderball itself into a movie, largely without influence from McClory. And this was a bad call. It resulted in a lawsuit against EON, the production company that makes the Bond films, ended up stripping the rights to use SPECTRE, resulted in an out-of-canon remake, and eventually ended with them getting the rights back recently. It’s a whole saga that has more weird twists and turns than a typical Bond movie, and it’s something that can really color this film. Because you kind of have to ask the questions of, “Was it worth it?”

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Thunderball begins with a cold-open featuring Bond attending the funeral for a SPECTRE operative. However, it turns out it was all a con, because the man’s widow is actual the SPECTRE agent, and he gets in a brutal fight with Bond that ends with Bond grabbing a jet-pack and flying away. Which is when we’re brought into the title sequence, which gives us a great idea of what we’re going to get from this film. A lot of underwater sequences. Once the title sequence is over we start hopping between several plots, setting everything up. We see our villain of the piece, Emilio Largo, who is the second highest ranking member of SPECTRE meet with Blofeld and SPECTRE’s high council to confirm their newest plan. Which involves an agent getting plastic surgery to look exactly like a NATO pilot named Francois Derval. They will then have their agent take Derval’s place aboard a NATO plane loaded with two atomic bombs, and hijack the plane, giving SPECTRE the two bombs and the ability to hold the world hostage. Unfortunately for SPECTRE though, the place they’re keeping their agent is a health spa near the NATO airfield, and guess who also is a patient of that spa? Yep. James Bond. He starts noticing some odd characters in the spa, and begins investigating, coming across the corpse of Derval. Which becomes important when he comes home to England amid the crisis of SPECTRE’s threat. He’s briefed, along with the rest of MI6, and given orders to try and find the bombs before SPECTRE’s time limit and the UK has to pay them $100 million. And while pouring over the known details of the hijacking, Bond realizes that something is amuck, since the evidence shows Derval stealing the plane, and yet he saw Derval dead. So Bond deduces that investigating Derval’s family, namely his sister Domino, will be the way to find the bombs.

So Bond heads to Nassau, Bahamas where Domino is staying, along with her lover, Emilio Largo. Bond gets to Nassau, meets up with Felix Leiter, and immediately gets to work trying to find some evidence of the bomb. And when that becomes fruitless, Bond decides to change things up and ingratiate himself with Domino. He begins essentially stalking her, showing up everywhere she happens to be. Which for some reason charms her, even enough into gaining Bond an invitation to visit Largo’s mansion on the island. Bond and Largo almost immediately realize that they’re adversaries, and Bond becomes convinced that Largo’s yacht holds the secret of the bombs. He swims under the yacht that night, finding that it has a secret underwater hatch on it, leading Bond to realize that the plane containing the bombs is most likely underwater. He continues snooping around Largo’s estate, leading to a tense encounter with some sharks, before he flees and gets picked up by one of SPECTRE’s other agents, the villainous Fiona Volpe. Volpe and some of Largo’s goons try to kill Bond, but he manages to escape into the buys streets of Nassau, eventually getting Volpe killed. And once she’s out of the way Bond and Felix continue to scour the island, eventually finding the plane. Unfortunately the bombs are missing. But Bond gets enough proof to inform MI6 and the CIA that the bombs are in Nassau, and even convinces Domino that Largo is behind her brother’s death. So Domino becomes a double agent, trying to help Bond find the bombs, which have been loaded onto Largo’s yacht so that they can be brought to Miami and detonated. Bond then leads an army of underwater soldiers on a siege of Largo’s yacht, which goes on for approximately ten hours. But by the end Largo escapes on a smaller ship, with one of the bombs, and Bond has to give chase. Domino has managed to convince one of Largo’s scientists to disarm the bomb, cuasing it to hold no real threat, and giving Bond the advantage he needed to fight Largo. But, in the end, it’s Domino who saves the day, shooting Largo in the back with a harpoon before he can kill Bond. And with the villain taken care of, the bombs located and disarmed, Bond has succeeded and gets to float on a raft with Domino.

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When you spell it all out, this is a rather tense and interesting plot. It’s full of intrigue, has the biggest threat at this point in the series, and features some good old-fashioned detective work on Bond’s part. But in execution this movie fails to keep my interest. And I think pacing is the biggest issue. This is a long, drawn out movie, which isn’t helped by the fact that underwater fight scenes drag on to an almost interminable length. This movie spends a lot of time underwater, and whenever it does the tension and pacing drops away immediately. There’s a lot about this movie that I like though. I think Largo is a great villain, and I love the cat-and-mouse game that he plays with Bond. Domino is a shockingly competent character and is much more integral to the plot than most Bond girls. Fiona Volpe, though she doesn’t appear much in the film, is a great villainess and is smoldering with menace. And Sean Connery is really in peak form in this film. He’s popping off quips left and right, but he’s really selling them. Telling Largo that he “knows a thing or two about women,” or showing him up while skeet shooting are still incredibly great moments, and work brilliantly.

But, in the end, the biggest Achilles Heel of this movie is the thing that it thinks is it’s biggest asset. The gimmicks. I’m sure that in 1965 this amount of underwater action was unheard of, and was probably a little mind-blowing. But that wasn’t something that really aged well. And I don’t blame the movie for spending so much time on underwater sequences, I blame it for thinking that a flash in the pan gimmick would hold up. And it’s not just the underwater scenes. This movie is full of things that were popular at the time, which became something of a trademark for these movies. James Bond movies after this really become obsessed with showing what’s hot and new at the time, not focusing on telling a timeless adventure. The jetpack in the beginning was a real thing that was hot around 1965, even making an appearance at the first Super Bowl. The jetpack, the scuba equipment, the underwater cinematography, all of it was so incredibly of it’s time that it dates it dreadfully to 1965. Which I suppose isn’t something to really blame on Thunderball, because I’m sure they had no idea that they would still be making these movies 50 years later, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t be so concerned with being timeless. However this decision really stuck around  with the franchise, becoming a recurring aspect of the movies that frequently have lead to their weakest moments. Any time you’re watching a Bond movie and laugh at the weird gadget or film-making quirk that the movie is using that instantly dates it, remember Thunderball, and know that this is where it all came from.

Thunderball was written by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins, directed by Terence Young, and released by United Artists, 1965.

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