Should I Watch..? Thunderball
What's the big deal?
Thunderball is an action thriller film released in 1965 and is the fourth film in the James Bond series. It once again sees Sean Connery play the British secret agent 007, James Bond, who is on the trail of two stolen atom bombs by the criminal organisation SPECTRE. The story has a complicated background - it originally surfaced as a script in 1959 and after it failed to be turned into a movie, Fleming used this as the basis for his novel of the same name. After legal action, the movie's producer was co-writer Kevin McClory and as a result, the film lacks the sense of fun that the previous Bond film - Goldfinger (1) - had in abundance. However, the film does have several ambitious set pieces still make the movie watchable as well as Connery in fine form.
What's it about?
After his latest escapade, Bond is sent to a health clinic to recover although he is attacked by a mysterious assassin. Bond also finds the body of a French pilot, François Derval, who was due to fly a NATO plane loaded with two atomic bombs for a training mission. His assassin has taken his place instead, surgically altered to look like Derval, and he ditches the plane into the Caribbean after killing his co-pilot. It emerges that SPECTRE, the worldwide criminal conglomerate, are responsible as they demand £100 million in uncut diamonds or they will destroy a random city of their choosing in either the UK or the US.
Bond believes that he has a lead - Derval's sister, known as Domino, is believed to be the mistress of SPECTRE's number two Emilio Largo who is based in Nassau in the Bahamas. Dispatched by M to investigate, Bond faces a determined villain and an army of henchmen who will stop at nothing to achieve SPECTRE's aims...
Emilio Largo (a)
Dominique "Domino" Derval (b)
Rik Van Nutter
François Derval / Angelo Palazzi
Richard Maibaum & John Hopkins *
Release Date (UK)
29th December, 1965
Action, Adventure, Thriller
Best Visual Effects
What's to like?
You can't criticise Thunderball for a lack of ambition - jet-packs, epic underwater battles and actual exotic locations rather than a tarted-up corner of Pinewood Studios are all included. Obviously, the phenomenal success of Goldfinger meant that the ante had to be upped somehow which is almost an impossible job. But the movie makes a real go of it, maintaining the level of fun achieved in the previous movie but still maintaining the levels of danger and tension. The reintroduction of SPECTRE after their brief hiatus is also welcome, paving the way for Donald Pleasance's superb portrayal of supervillain Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (2).
Celi's Largo might not be the greatest villain of the series but his performance is a good one, even with the dubbing, and has influenced the appearance of evil baddies ever since - take Robert Wagner's look as Number Two in the Austin Powers series. Connery, as ever, inhabits the role of Bond as though born to do it - in fact, I'd say this is probably his best performance as 007. His one-liners are quick-witted, his charm and sex appeal is undeniable and his physicality in the action scenes is also first class. The movie has a good pace to it as well, meaning that you're never that bored during the film and the story maintains your interest throughout.
- When Bond encounters the sharks underwater, a clear plastic panel was supposed to keep Connery separate from the creatures. However, the panels were only three feet high and the sharks simply swam over them. The takes used in the film show Connery in real fear as a shark approached him.
- Tom Jones, who sings the theme tune, allegedly passed out after singing the long high note at the end of the song.
- During the meeting of SPECTRE held after the opening credits, Agent 5 reports that they were paid £250'000 consultancy fee for the Great Train Robbery in 1963. This was a hasty rewrite by the filmmakers and not in the original script.
What's not to like?
For all it's fun and games, the action and antics of cinema's most famous secret agent, Thunderball doesn't move you in the way the first three films did. It has completely dispensed with the serious dramatic tones that made From Russia With Love (3) an actual spy film and settles on being a comic-book style action movie instead - no doubt related to the fact that Bond creator, Ian Fleming had died by this point. From the moment Bond fights off an assassin in drag as their own widow before escaping with the jet-pack, you know that this is going to be about as serious as a circus clown on helium.
The other thing I didn't like too much was the underwater scenes. Don't get me wrong - they are beautifully shot and considering the mid-60's techniques and technology, are amazing pieces of cinema. But they drastically slow the movie's pace down because everybody and everything underwater (bar the endless harpoons) move slowly. And because Thunderball has a great many scenes underwater (about a quarter of the film is below the surface) then it does impact the film's focus on action. Despite the sharks and weird underwater vehicles used, it starts to get a bit repetitive and rather quickly too.
Should I watch it?
Three stars seems harsh for Thunderball which is well-made and Connery in the form of his career. But the film's reliance of slow and tedious underwater scenes suck any momentum out of the picture, reducing it to a cartoony spy adventure that is as ludicrous as it is fun to watch. Fleming would have hated it but Thunderball is nothing like as bad as the series could go. Indeed, it's actually more fun than it should be.
Great For: divers, fans of Goldfinger, uncredited voice-over artists
Not So Great For: fans of the first two Bond films, landlubbers
What else should I watch?
Up next would be the equally epic You Only Live Twice which finally introduced us to SPECTRE's villainous head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, although it's just as goofy as this. Thunderball marks the point that the Bond films would struggle to regain the sort of respectability that Dr No (4) and From Russia With Love brought it, as Harry Saltzman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli sold the franchise down the river by sticking to the Goldfinger formula of lots of girls, lots of action and lots of silliness. It was no doubt successful but fans of the books would feel somewhat short-changed.
Frankly, the series wouldn't fully regain it's authenticity until Daniel Craig's debut as 007 in Casino Royale (5) in 2006 which is a dark, brooding and believable thriller that doesn't use its action scenes to forward the movie and allows Bond a little characterisation. There were hints of such behaviour before - GoldenEye (6) stopped blowing things up for a quick look at the man behind the number before blowing more stuff up - but nothing as dramatic as those classy first couple of films.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox