AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 130 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Recuperating in the Shrublands clinic, James Bond, while still finding time to seduce physiotherapist Patricia Fearing, clashes with Count Lippe, who is actually in charge of SPECTRE’s next plot. François Derval, the intended pilot of a Vulcan aircraft carrying two bombs in a training exercise, is murdered by Angelo, a SPECTRE henchman surgically altered to match his appearance. Angelo takes Derval’s place on the flight, sabotaging the plane and sinking it near the Bahamas from where SPECTRE’S Emilio Largo kills him for trying to extort more money than was offered to him. SPECTRE now demands £100 million in white flawless uncut diamonds from NATO, otherwise they will destroy a major city in the United States or the United Kingdom. Bond recognises Derval from a photograph and, since Derval’s sister, Domino, is in Nassau, Bond asks M to send him there….
While Goldfinger seems to be generally very highly praised, Thunderball, while still ranked highly by many, is a bit divisive, the main criticisms seeming to be its supposed slow pace and its many underwater sequences. I guess it is a little leisurely coming after the first three Bond films, though the intention, now the Bond formula had been set, was to make a more grandiose, even epic, 007 adventure, while, even if it perhaps has one too many scenes set under the sea, it’s not as if there isn’t lots of good stuff occurring on land. In any case, Thunderball is a simply gorgeous film to look at it, and add to this its more relaxed vibe, watching it for me is always like going on a dangerous but glamorous holiday. I make no apology for saying that, for this male viewer, the array of Bond girls is as lovely as the stunning locations – while Sean Connery gives what is for me his very best performance as Britain’s least secret agent. Even the script is often sharp, witty and in some ways superior to Goldfinger’s even if that film managed to dream up more iconic elements. With some substantial re-editing – it is rather sloppily assembled in places – I honestly think that Thunderball could have quite possibly been the best Bond film ever.
So the ongoing legal battle [see Dr. No review] was sorted and Kevin McClory was allowed to retain certain screen rights to the novel Thunderball‘s story, plot, and characters, and be credited as producer, with series producers Albert O Broccoli and Harry Saltzman as executive producers. Screenwriter Richard Maibaum followed Fleming’s plot fairly well, but, as was now the case, added some action, as well as the character of Fiona Volpe and complicating the SPECTRE plot near the beginning. His first draft had the Italian Mafia as villains, the opening set in Hong Kong and a SPECTRE submarine appear in the very last scene. The actress who played Fiona, Luciano Paluzzi, almost played the heroine Domino Derval, a role that Julie Christie was considered for. With a budget higher than all three previous Bonds put together, Thunderball was shot chiefly in the Bahamas, Château d’Anet, near Dreux, Silverstone race track in Buckinghamshire and Pinewood. Connery wouldn’t act near sharks unless a glass partition was built….which still didn’t stop one particular shark from getting right beside him, while stuntman Bob Simmons nearly died in a car explosion, and the climactic detonation of Largo’s boat shattered windows in Nassau 30 miles away because experimental rocket fuel was used. The release was delayed for three months so Peter Hunt could edit the huge amount of footage, removing some of Bond’s aide Paula’s scenes in the process. Shorn of two shots of Bond stroking Patricia with a mink glove in the UK, Thunderball was a smash and remains the most commercially successful 007 film in terms of admissions.
For the first time it’s actually Connery in the gun barrel opening, though of course you can’t really tell. Thunderball begins with a cracking fight between Bond and a villain dressed in drag, Hunt’s editing working at full power as the two destroy most of what’s in the room, then gives us the series’ first really stupid moment, as 007 suddenly sports a jetpack [which admittedly was real] and we’re supposed to believe he’s been able to conceal it for the proceeding five minutes. Maurice Binder’s titles aren’t as interesting as what he would soon after come up with, while the title song, hurriedly written after the intended theme song Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was rejected as it didn’t have the film’s title in it, isn’t the catchiest tune, but Tom Jones belts it out with tremendous gusto [he actually fainted in the studio when he hit the final note]. Thunderball then takes even longer than From Russia With Love to send 007 on his mission, and, truth be told, most of the Shrublands scenes don’t need to be in the film – there must have been a far more economical way for Bond to find out he had to go to Nassau – while there’s another extremely sexist moment in the series when Bond blackmails his physiotherapist to sleep with him. The slow pace many complain about only really arrives though once Bond is in the Bahamas, the film beginning to stall as it takes its time to its situations up….but not really for long. And, by compensation, we get the first and best of several scenes in the series where Bond first encounters the main villain and taunts him during a game. The subtle tension is terrific and we really get a sense of the carefree elegance of the place and a nice romantic mood when Bond then dances with Domino.
What with a tremendous chase through a carnival [staged for the film….and you can even see some extras wearing costumes with 007 on them!] and Bond being trapped in a shark pool, you certainly can’t say that all the action is the same, though there is a lot of undersea footage and if you don’t enjoy this kind of thing then you’re going to get bored with Thunderball no matter how well it’s shot. The climactic battle though remains one of my favourite action scenes of all time [and it’s astonishingly brutal too]; I don’t care that it’s very long, it’s just so exciting to watch, especially when a shark appears in the middle of the battle, and must have been incredibly difficult to stage [remember, this was decades before CGI]. The final brawl on a boat is furious and gratifyingly vicious even if the speeded up boat shots and back projection don’t look too good nowadays. The highlight of Thunderball though, and one of the highlights of the whole series, is really the brilliant scene where Bond dances with the evil Fiona while SPECTRE gunmen are preventing his escape. In a superb combination of source music, a calypso-style version of the Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang tune organically turns into notes of danger as a villain aims his gun at Bond….who then turns around at just the right moment so Fiona gets the bullet. Bond, smooth as ever, plonks her body next to another woman with the words: “Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead”?
Pretty much all the scenes with the fabulous Fiona, the first and best Bond bad girl, are memorable, another one being when she throws Bond’s prowess and confidence in his face and tells him she’s one woman who won’t go over to the side of the angels. Even those who dislike Thunderball tend to praise her material. Domino is a little undeveloped but her relationship with Bond still has some nice touches and is more believable than 007 ‘turning’ a lesbian. Their best moment is when Bond has to tell her some sad news and puts on his sunglasses to hide his eyes from her; slightly callous but pure Bond through and through. So many moments in Thunderball are staged with clever details [and isn’t it cool to see all the 007s- even if we don’t see their faces – at a meeting?], while, despite having perhaps the best ever ‘Q’/Bond scene with Q’s exasperation and Bond’s boredom never more amusingly shown, plus two more Aston Martin DB5 scenes, it certainly isn’t swamped by its many gadgets. A Royal Navy engineer approached the producers after the film’s release to ask them how they designed the underwater breather, having been unsuccessfully working on something similar. He was devastated when the producers told them their secret – the actors were holding their breaths! Thunderball is certainly a bit messy at times, something not helped by Hunt re-ordering some scenes which result in some continuity errors. For a start, Bond is told he has only four days to save the world and I’m sure that the switches back and forth from day to night suggest he has rather longer than that.
Connery is at his absolute best in the Shrublands scenes – even the way he walks is incredibly cool – but throughout he oozes self assurance and panache, along with a certain darkness. The script allows Bond to have a bit more fun here, like when he kills a bad guy and takes time to throw flowers on the body, and he even drinks Dom Perignon ’55 which he once scorned, but there’s a touch of the raw edge of his Dr.No Bond here and there and it’s great. Adolpho Celi is a slimy, sadistic bad guy though he’s dubbed, much like Claudine Auger. The filmmakers saw fit to populate this one with pretty Bond girls everywhere [even From Russia With Love’s Martine Beswick turns up], though of course it’s the delectable Luciano Paluzzi who stands out. Due to the latter song being written so late, Barry’s very fine score utilises the Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang tune as a theme more than the Thunderball one, and also brings back From Russia With Love’s 007 theme in variants until a wonderfully grand version of it is heard in the underwater battle. Barry’s scoring of many of the undersea material is full of mystery and tension and helps prevent these scenes from getting boring….well, in my view at least! While it would in turn be bettered, and could undoubtedly do with some tidying up, Thunderball is for me the best Bond film to its date, just delightfully witty, lush and exciting entertainment for most of its length, and it manages the precarious balance between silliness and seriousness almost perfectly.