By now, the James Bond franchise was a wild hit. And with each success, it became ever more important to top the last film. Goldfinger was a heady mix of action and camp, and Thunderball sought to up the game by providing fans with more of the same–but bigger, badder, and hotter. Goldfinger had Sean Connery’s Bond seducing a lady in a terry cloth onesie. Here we’ll find him cavorting around a tropical paradise in a half-wetsuit with a hemline that would make Honey Ryder blush. Also, 007 is nearly killed by a piece of spa equipment. So there’s that.
Thunderball is also a hotbed of legal problems in the world of 007. It started life as a screenplay Ian Fleming co-wrote with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. When that failed to sell, Fleming adapted it into a novel–but he failed to get permission from his collaborators, who promptly sued. They settled out of court, but McClory managed to obtain rights to the story’s plot and characters, allowing him to menace the series for decades. He prevented Thunderball from becoming the first Bond movie and eventually managed to force the studio to abandon SPECTRE and Bond’s chief cinematic nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, along with it until things were finally sorted out in time for 2015’s Spectre. The fact that McClory retained story rights also eventually allowed him to create an unofficial Bond movie, Never Say Never Again, so long as the plot was an adaptation of Thunderball.
Let’s dive in, shall we? (pun intended)
M (still Bernard Lee) forces 007 to go to a health spa. As
plot contrivance fate would have it, in the midst of sexually assaulting a nurse Bond finds himself in exactly the right place to witness some suspicious characters murder a fellow patient, François Derval, and replace him with a doppelgänger. As a penalty for witnessing this, the thugs try to kill 007 with a spinal traction machine during one of his spa services. Yes, really. Bond uses his near-death experience as blackmail to get that nurse to finally yield to him in the bedroom so he won’t get her fired for leaving him alone in the spa room. Yes, really.
Two atomic warheads promptly disappear during Operation Thunderball, and when it turns out Derval was the pilot, Bond realizes what the goons were up to. SPECTRE demands 100 million pounds or else they’ll use the warheads to destroy a major city in the US or UK. There’s a photo of Derval’s sister, Domino, in the dossier. Figuring she might be the key, 007 requests to be assigned to Nassau. Or maybe he’s just a sex fiend looking to chase some more tail. In true 007 fashion, it’s a little bit of both.
Naturally, only our intrepid spy is on the right track, hightailing it to the Bahamas and into the lair of Emilio Largo, a SPECTRE agent. It’s up to Bond to find the warheads, defeat Emilio Largo, and prevent a nuclear attack.
Although overly long, this is a Bond adventure that fires on all cylinders. It’s funny, there’s a lot of great action, and the plot is appropriately high stakes. Q’s gadgets begin to trend toward the ridiculous with the (in)famous jetpack sequence, but the film balances its campiness well. The location is gorgeous, the characters are interesting, and the action sequences are genuinely exciting (although some, like the big underwater battle scene, drag on for too long). I don’t usually see this named one of the best Bond movies, but it ranks high on my list. And not only does Sean Connery don skimpy swimwear, he also wears a ridiculously short red wetsuit. Seriously, the hem is so short they had to make an underwear attachment to keep him modest. Or maybe it was just to provide easy access when 007 gets it on with his Bond Girl underwater. Whatever the reason, we the viewers win. Sean Connery has said that this was his favorite performance as 007, and I like to think the skimpy, jungle-red wetsuit had something to do with that.
Unfortunately, it also escalates 007’s problematic relationship with women thanks to his blackmail/sexual harassment of Nurse Pat Fearing. His cavalier seduction of Domino undoubtedly puts her life at risk, which marks this the first time in the series that 007 plays fast and loose with a woman’s life just to add a notch in his headboard. It won’t be the last, either.
Believe it or not, this is the first time the actor portraying Bond appeared in the iconic opening gun-barrel sequence. In the three previous films Sean Connery’s stuntman Bob Simmons filled in for 007. It’s a job that would be done by the 007 actors from here on out.
Felix Leiter is back, this time played by Rik Van Nutter and he’s basically useless except as a helicopter pilot shuttling 007 around. I honestly don’t remember enough about Van Nutter’s performance to offer a critique. The far superior ally is Paula Caplan, but we’ll get to her when we talk about Supporting Bond Girls.
Claudine Auger, Miss France 1958, plays Dominique “Domino” Derval, Emilio Largo’s stunning (and stunningly naive) mistress. She also happens to be the sister of the NATO agent Largo had killed and impersonated in order to steal the warheads (I wonder if that could create a deadly rift between them?). Like so many early Bond Girls, Auger was dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl, who also dubbed Ursula Andress in Dr. No. Still, I give Auger credit: Domino could have easily been bland. She is for the first half of the movie, to be honest, but once she discovers what Largo did to her brother and she teams up with Bond, she gets very interesting. Because make no mistake, when wronged, Domino will not be happy. And she will have her revenge on the edge of a harpoon, thank you very much. To me, Claudine Auger is also one of the most beautiful women to assume the title of Bond Girl, for whatever that’s worth to you.
Supporting Bond Girl
First, there’s Paula Caplan (Martine Beswick), an agent in Nassau who assists Bond’s investigation. She’s tough. She’s loyal. She’s beautiful. She’s ruthlessly efficient. Unfortunately, she’s also doomed because she’s a woman in a subordinate role in a Bond movie and someone has to die to show how dangerous Largo and his henchmen are. Paula got a raw deal. This Bond girl never got distracted by 007’s groin, meaning that unlike the others she never became a contradiction. I like to think that in a modern 007 film she would have had an epic throwdown with Fiona Volpe before getting taken down. Fiona also counts as a Bond Girl but I’m going to save her for the henchman category to more adequately discuss her talents.
That leaves us with Patricia “Pat” Fearing, played by Molly Peters. She’s the no-nonsense physiotherapist James Bond sexually assaults at the health spa. Oh, sorry, they called that “seduction” in the 60s. She’s only there to give Bond someone to sleep with, then save him from the spa treatment of death. Which means she gets a resounding “meh” from this viewer.
Continuing the grand tradition of dubbing, Sicilian actor Adolfo Celi was unable to voice his character, Emilio Largo. Largo isn’t quite the diabolical madman that Goldfinger was, but he proves himself to be quite a sadistic nemesis. The man has attack sharks, after all–not to mention a yacht that can split into a separate attack ship. Oh, and that boat is named the Disco Volante, which is pretty awesome. Anyway, as baddies go, Largo is pretty darned good. Like most of the early Bond baddies, Largo reports to Blofeld, but unlike, say, Rosa Klebb, Largo feels like a fully formed villain in his own right. You could remove Blofeld from the plot completely and it would still work. As for Blofeld, this is the last time he’ll make an appearance without showing his face. He’ll come out of the shadows for his own showdown with 007 in You Only Live Twice.
Good as he is, a portion of Largo’s thunder is stolen by his unhinged henchwomen, Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). Even with Oddjob by his side, Goldfinger would never have let that happen. This lady is cruel. She’s also a skilled driver who keeps a missile launcher in her motorcycle. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and she definitely isn’t afraid of a little seduction, whether to get what she wants from someone or to get close enough to strike like a deadly viper. Seriously, this is not a woman you want to mess with. She’ll force your most effective ally to commit suicide, then treat your hotel room’s bathtub like her own personal spiderweb while she waits for you to return. Then she’ll sleep with you. Then she’ll try to kill you.
And here are some fun facts for you: Fiona Volpe was initially intended to be an Irishwoman named Fiona Kelly, but when Paluzzi didn’t get the part of Domino, they made Fiona Italian. Volpe is a direct response to criticism of the previous Bond Girl, Pussy Galore, and the way she inexplicably became a good guy after getting boned by 007. Volpe even makes a little speech about how sleeping with 007 didn’t change her fiendish intentions.
Turns out Tom Jones is a worthy successor to Shirley Bassey. Like Bassey, he fully commits to “Thunderball,” selling the ludicrous lyrics through sheer force of will and a lot of camp appeal. Anyone else would have made this song sound as ridiculous as it should have. Jones was so into the song that legend has it he fainted after finishing that final note. Like any camp diva worth her/his salt, Jones made sure he got the job done before collapsing. But seriously, what does it mean to strike like thunderball? Anyone?
Maurice Binder returned after a two-film absence to design the opening credits sequence. He would design all the credits through Licence to Kill in 1989. Binder created some gorgeous title sequences, but they get awfully repetitive by the end of his run. Lots of naked women in silhouette doing athletic things. Thunderball‘s title sequence also begins the disturbing practice of using male hands (also in silhouette) to point guns at naked women and fire at them. I know the series has never been a beacon of feminism but a lot of these Binder title sequences take the theme of sex and violence toward women too far.
007 observes the funeral of a SPECTRE operative who had killed two MI6 agents. He follows the widow home and punches her square in the face. Luckily, it turns out to be the supposedly-dead SPECTRE agent dressed up in widow drag. They fight, Bond gets the better of him, and escapes the scene with the help of a jetpack.
Of all the gadgets used by 007, the jetpack used in the pre-title sequence is definitely the most iconic. The only one that comes close is the Lotus submarine car from the Roger Moore era. Both are also frequently cited by those who accuse the series of having a campy obsession with gadgets, but in this instance I’m OK with it. The pre-title sequences are frequently ridiculous anyway, so why not go for broke?
Grades: Movie: 5/5; Bond Girl: 4/5; Villain: 5/5; Henchman: 5/5; Theme Song: 5/5