For the love of entertainment
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 significant for being a hotbed of legal problems in the behind-the-scenes world of 007. Thunderball was actually supposed to be the first Bond movie, but a man named Kevin McClory had the rights held up in court claiming that the Ian Fleming novel it is based on was itself an unauthorized novelization of an original Bond screenplay he had helped Fleming create to sell the 007 concept to Hollywood. Everybody got that? They settled out of court, giving McClory rights to the story’s plot and characters. This allowed Thunderball to become the fourth film in the Bond series, but the problems didn’t end there. The legal wrangling eventually forced Eon to abandon SPECTRE and Bond’s chief cinematic nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, along with it. 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) decides that 007 needs to go to a health spa to improve his health. Spa life suits Bond to a T, it seems, as he romances a no-nonsense physiotherapist (see Supporting Bond Girl). Things start to get complicated when he finds a fellow patient, François Derval, has been murdered and a doppelgänger has assumed his identity to steal two atomic warheads for Emilio Largo, a SPECTRE agent (see Villain section below for more). Now Largo is demanding 100 million pounds in white diamonds
because he’s a huge fan of Elizabeth Taylor or else he’ll destroy a major city in the US or UK. Everyone in MI6 is looking for Largo but, naturally, only our intrepid 007 is on the right track, hightailing it to the Bahamas and into Largo’s lair. It’s up to Bond to find the warheads, defeat Emilio Largo, and prevent a nuclear attack.
Like Goldfinger, this is a Bond adventure that fires on all cylinders. It’s funny, there’s a lot of great action, and the plot is high stakes without being overly complicated. Q’s gadgets begin to trend toward the ridiculous with the (in)famous jetpack sequence (see Iconic Moment below), but on the whole the film is grounded enough to pull this kind of stunt off. At this point the gadgets service the plot and not the other way around (for the most part. That jetpack sequence doesn’t qualify but since it’s in the pre-credits scene, which rarely has anything to do with the rest of the movie, I can give it a pass). The location is gorgeous, the characters are interesting, the acting is good, and the action sequences are genuinely exciting. I don’t usually see this one listed in the top five Bond movies, but it ranks high on my list. Thunderball also became the second Bond movie to win an Oscar (after Goldfinger‘s win for Sound Effects), this time for Visual Effects. And, as I said above, Sean Connery repeatedly wears a ridiculously skimpy red wetsuit. Seriously, the hem is so short that they had to make an underwear attachment to strap across to the front in order 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 reasoning, we the viewers win. Sean Connery has said that this was his favorite performance as 007, and I like to think that the skimpy, Jungle-red wetsuit had a little something to do with that.
Notable First: 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.
Ally: Felix Leiter is back, this time played by Rik Van Nutter. I’ll be honest with you, in a lot of the early films I find both M and Felix dull as dishwater. I barely remember anything M does until Judi Dench assumes the role and they actually give her a character to play. Felix finally gets improved a bit in the Daniel Craig movies but it’s still largely a thankless role, resigned to doing a lot of the unseen legwork and acting as 007’s bland sidekick. I honestly don’t remember anything about Van Nutter’s performance to critique it much. The much more memorable ally (who also qualifies as Supporting Bond Girl) is 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. She’s doomed because she’s a woman in a subordinate role in a Bond movie and someone has to die to show just how dangerous Largo and his henchmen are. Paula got a raw deal on that one. This is a Bond girl who never got distracted by 007’s groin in a teeny tiny bathing suit, meaning that unlike the others she never got reduced to 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.
Bond Girl: 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 in the first place. Hmmm. I wonder if that could create a rift between them? Like so many of the early Bond Girls, Auger had a thick accent and her performance was dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl, who had also dubbed Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder in Dr. No. Still, I give Auger credit: Domino could easily have been as bland as Tatiana Romanova, and she definitely isn’t. She’s an interesting character, somewhat naive about Largo’s nefarious activities. What I kind of like about her is that she’s basically a normal girl caught up in a ridiculous situation. She’s not a beautiful girl with an outrageous occupation, like many later Bond Girls who are nuclear physicists. She’s not a bad guy. Just a gorgeous girl who likes to go swimming in the Bahamas. But make no mistake, when wronged, Miss 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: Two of the women who qualify for this title also qualify for other categories, so take a look at Paula’s description up in Allies first, then look below for the dastardly Fiona Volpe under Henchman. That leaves us with Patricia “Pat” Fearing, played by Molly Peters. She’s a no-nonsense physiotherapist at the health spa James retires to in the beginning of the film. In terms of attitude she’s like Pussy Galore-lite. She’s really just 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.
Villain: Continuing the grand tradition of dubbing, Sicilian actor Adolfo Celi was unable to give voice to his character, Emilio Largo. Like Auger, I do think that Celi makes a good physical presence. Largo isn’t quite the diabolical madman that Goldfinger was, or that Blofeld is in his brief appearance here, but he proves himself to be quite a sadistic nemesis for 007. 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. I know it’s Italian for ‘flying saucer,’ but I still love it. It makes me think of a disco ball with some pretty serious Studio 54 dancing action in the cabin. Is that just me? Anyway, as baddies go, Largo is pretty darned good. It still bothers me that he ultimately answers to Blofeld, just like Rosa Kleb in From Russia With Love. It essentially means he’s more of a henchman than a supervillain. As for Blofeld, this is the last time he’ll make an appearance in a Bond film without actually showing his face. He’ll come out of the shadows and have his own showdown with 007 in You Only Live Twice.
Henchman: In my grading system below I had to dock Emilio Largo a point. This was done for two reasons. First, my aforementioned complaint that he ultimately works for Blofeld. Second, because a lot of his thunder gets 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 a bitch. And she has some mean skills with a car and a motorcycle. Not to mention the missile launcher she keeps in that motorcycle. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and she most definitely isn’t afraid to do a little seduction, whether to get what she wants from someone or to get close enough to them 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 sleep with you. Then try to kill you.
And here are some fun facts for you: the character Fiona Volpe does not exist in the book Thunderball. The character was initially intended to be Irish and named Fiona Kelly, but when actress Lucianna Paluzzi didn’t get the part of Domino, they retooled Fiona to be Italian. Volpe is in some ways a direct response to criticism of the previous Bond Girl Pussy Galore, who inexplicably becomes 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.
Theme Song: Turns out Tom Jones is a worthy successor to Dame Shirley Bassey. Who knew? Like Bassey, he fully commits to “Thunderball,” selling the ludicrous lyrics (“he strikes … like thunderball”) through sheer force of will. And a lot of camp appeal. Anyone else would have made this song sound just as ridiculous as it, quite honestly, should sound. 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. Failure is for mortals, you guys.
Maurice Binder returned after a two-film absence to design the opening credits sequence. He would design every one of the opening credits in Bond movies through the Timothy Dalton era, ending with Licence to Kill in 1989. Binder deserves a lot of credit for creating some gorgeous title sequences, but I would argue that 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. Argue all you want, but women are essentially reduced to pawns in the Bond series, there to be used for sex and violated. Even if you love the series, you have to admit that it’s not a beacon of feminism. It’s just that in a lot of these Binder title sequences the theme of sex and violence toward women is a touch overt.
Iconic Moment: 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: 4/5; Henchman: 5/5; Theme Song: 5/5