James Bond Retrospective: Thunderball

By 1965, Bond was unstoppable. Goldfinger had made EON a lot of money and solidified the Bond formula; at this point, the series was well established as a franchise, and audiences wanted more. What they got was Thunderball. On paper, Thunderball could have been perfect. Ian Fleming wrote the book with the movie in mind, Terrence Young (Dr No, From Russia with Love) was to return as director, and Connery was at the peak of his Bond prowess. Despite all this, Thunderball stands as the first disappointing Bond movie. It’s not a bad film as such, and you could do worse with the franchise (Diamonds are Forever, Die Another Day) but it suffers from routine. Goldfinger finalised the formula, Thunderball basically copied it; it’s not an original movie and feels stale compared to the previous three.5The problems appear in the pre-credits sequence. Why would a spy fake his own death, and then turn up at his own funeral dressed as a woman? It doesn’t make any sense, and is the first time the series falls into out and out silliness. The fight scene isn’t bad if you can get past the oddness of the situation, but Bond’s escape via jet pack is all kinds of cringe-worthy. By modern standards, the jet-pack just looks cheap – tinfoil springs to mind. Tom Jones’ opening song is more masculine than most in the series, if a bit forgettable. The actual credit design however is fantastic. Maurice Binder returns from Dr No and finalises the style which will define the series for the next fifty years; this is the first time we see the rotoscoped women and the swimming silhouettes and watery and bright backgrounds are really memorable. This would be the template for the rest of 007’s run.2The bulk of the plot concerns SPECTRE’s attempts to hold NATO to ransom with two stolen nuclear missiles. As this is the first of these unimaginative nuclear plots (as Austin Powers parodied years later, Oh hell, let’s just do what we always do. Hijack some nuclear weapons and hold the world hostage.‘) it’s easier to forgive, but then, coming on the heels of the air-tight Cold War thriller From Russia with Love, and the silly but smart storyline of Goldfinger, it’s hard not to feel a little short-changed by his threat. It’s not that engaging and SPECTRE come across considerably more well, Bond villain-esque than they ever have before. There’s none of the ingenuity of their previous plans.4That aside, the film introduces the plan in a clumsy way too; Bond is shoehorned in because he coincidently happens to be staying at a spa with a fellow SPECTRE henchman, who happens to have a telltale tattoo (you’d think a top secret crime organisation would down play the branding but whatever) – and there’s some silly face-swapping, long before it cropped up in Die Another Day. The pacing isn’t helped by the fact that we know everything that’s going on with SPECTRE’s plan before Bond does, which means we’re always waiting for him to catch up, and the fact that we know where the nukes are the entire time, but have to wait an hour and a half for Bond to get there. The sloppy script is the film’s biggest problem. It’s not smart, and it feels like there were too many cooks behind it. There’s a lot of plot-holes and the structure is awkward.3Terrence Young returns as director but seems to have lost his passion, and there’s none of the genius of his first two Bond movies here. The action scenes are poor compared to the previous films, and sometimes completely inexplicable – the early stretching machine for example, is just daft. The movie looks good – its the first widescreen Bond film – and Nassau is beautiful and suitably exotic for 007, if a stolen from Dr No. Being as Thunderball is the water level of the series, we’re treated to a lot of underwater scenes. Now, these are beautiful and dreamy, but the problem with filming underwater is that everything moves so slowly; these scenes really really drag and make the film feel far longer than it is. The climatic fight between NATO and SPECTRE is well choreographed but seems to last for hours and is an anti-climatic note to end the movie on. The big army battles, which become a climax staple after this, never really work because Bond and occasionally Felix aside, most the army remain faceless, anonymous characters and the audience don’t care about them. The concluding battle on the boat suffers from some really cringe-worthy, old action editing techniques – including silly sped-up film, nasty rear projection and some jump cuts. It’s very jarring to watch now, and hard to buy into. On the plus side, we do however get our first shark tank, which is fun, and some sequences in the film are tense – the dance between Bond and Fiona Volpe is great and ends on a killer punchline. 7There’s a sense that Thunderball is always trying to be bigger, always trying to cram in more, but there’s no heart or passion behind anything. Take the women – there’s too many of them, and they compete for screentime and cancel each other out. Paula (Martine Beswick) is a warm ally until her death, but ultimately adds very little to the plot, and feels there simply to put another woman on the poster. Our main girl, Domino (Claudine Auger) is stunning to look at, but she’s a weak character; she’s scenery. Our Big Bad Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) is defined by his eye-patch and sharks, and coming on the tails of Auric Goldfinger, he’s a thuggish and bland villain, one of the more boring in the series. The supporting cast are all good, especially main players Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell, but for the most part, the writing is bad, and noone’s given much to work with. Luciana Paluzzi though, is electrifying as Fiona Volpe – one of the best female Bond villains, there’s a sexuality and energy to the character, a sense that she gets things done and doesn’t take anyone’s shit. The woman lights up the movie and it’s a shame she’s not in it more. Even Connery seems to have lost interest. He’s comfortable in the role, and gives as usual, an engaging and confident performance, but there’s a sense of him going through the motions by this point. Thunderball was his fourth Bond and it’s starting to feel like he wants out – this will only become more apart in You Only Live Twice.6Thunderball is also infamous amongst fans for the Kevin McCloy legal dispute. McCloy helped Fleming write the screenplay for Thunderball, which was originally written as a movie. Fleming then used the story for his own book, and McCloy sued. Somehow, this lead to McCloy getting the rights for everything Thunderball related, including inexplicably, SPECTRE and Blofeld, which is why those elements disappear from the EON franchise after Diamonds are Forever in 1971. McCloy made numerous attempts to remake Thunderball over the years, one of which – Never Say Never Again – was successful, if completely forgotten by the world. Really, the man basically stole SPECTRE from the franchise, and it’s only taken fifty years to get back on track – see the upcoming Daniel Craig movie.4Thunderball isn’t a bad movie as such. It’s James Bond, so its watchable. It’s just formulaic and average, and suffers from sloppy writing and tired directing. It’s got one of the laziest plots in the Bond series, and it’s only in recent years that people have began to view the movie in a more critical light. For a long time, the film always cropped up near the tops of ‘Best Bond’ lists, but amongst fans, that view seems to be changing now. There’s a sense that Thunderball gets a free pass because it’s a Sean Connery film, but it’s one of the duller Bond movies, and actually has a lot in common with Tomorrow Never Dies later in the series; not bad as such, just so routine and tired. Thunderball hinted, for the first time, that the Bond series may become victim of its own success. Luckily, things got better after this.


James Bond will return in You Only Live Twice.

2 thoughts on “James Bond Retrospective: Thunderball

  1. Pingback: James Bond Retrospective: You Only Live Twice | Some Films and Stuff

  2. Pingback: James Bond Retrospective: Dr No | Some Films and Stuff

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