The fourth James Bond movie in the franchise, 1965’s Thunderball, was the biggest yet with the best soundtrack, greatest sets, classic style, the loveliest Bond girls, a great performance by Sean Connery, and possibly the slowest, most anti-climactic ending to almost any other Bond film.
(With 9 weeks until the U.S. premiere of Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, Jalopnik’s resident 007 scholar Justin Westbrook is counting down the 10 best entries in the series, with Thunderball at number 9.)
Thunderball, like with last week’s The Living Daylights review, is a film that covers all the typical elements we expect to see when we sit down to enjoy a James Bond movie. Except - the issue with a franchise that includes over 20 installments is that any film which steps out from the formula is naturally going to get more notice. In other words, films that play it by the usual formula, even if they happened to establish that formula like Thunderball, fall lower on these rankings.
This was Sean Connery’s fourth Bond film, and probably the last of his that I would consider essential viewing. It has everything you need to know to understand a Bond film - gadgets (jet pack!!!!), a great group of Bond women, decent Bond villains, fantastic sets and scenery, sharp dialogue, and plenty of energy (for about two-thirds of the film).
This Bond film possibly has the most important back story than any other - this is the film that tied the producers behind the franchise in a legal battle for nearly forty years over a dispute with a screenwriter. Kevin McClory was brought on to work with Bond creator Ian Fleming (before his passing) and other writers to create an early draft for this film, of which Fleming had no novel of.
The producers scrapped the group’s idea, but Fleming kept the main concept and characters a published a novel titled Thunderball. McClory sued Fleming, claiming many aspects of the story belonged to him. He won the rights and thus Eon Productions was forced to credit McClory on their film adaptation. His ownership of the story also meant he could make his own film adaptation, which he eventually did do in 1983 with Never Say Never Again.
No matter what you believe, that is not an official Bond film - but it does feature James Bond, MI6, the regular cast of characters, and shares an identical story with the film that premiered almost 20 years prior. Eon Productions finally bought McClory’s estate and now own all fictional aspects of the Bond franchise - and rightfully so!
Anyways, with this adaptation of the story, the main bad guy Largo is a disappointing character, saved by the bigger organization he is a part of. This movie offers the best look at the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. criminal organization than any of the three films before it, with them attempting to execute their most complex and world-enveloping plot to date, which Bond steps in to stop. For that reason alone, this film is essential viewing.
Thunderball opens on a private funeral, focusing on a draped casket with the initials “J.B.” - yet another attempt by the filmmakers to make you think James Bond is dead, if only for a moment. They pulled the same gag with the opening of From Russia With Love, showing a guy with a Sean Connery mask die at the hands of the henchman, and would go on to pull similar gags of “killing” the spy in You Only Live Twice, Tomorrow Never Dies, Die Another Day, and Skyfall.
Turns out the funeral is for S.P.E.C.T.R.E. member Colonel Jacques Bouvar, with his weeping widow in attendance - except this is no widow. Why? Because Bond sees her open her own car door, which apparently a woman would never do! So he follows “her” back to a house where he attacks, revealing that it is actually Colonel Bouvar! All of this is just entertaining enough to keep me from hating its ridiculousness. Bond escapes from the roof with a freaking jet pack, and then scoots off in the DB5.
The rest of the movie follows a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. plot to crash-land a jet with two nuclear bombs into the ocean, retrieve them, and then hold the Western powers at ransom. Remember - this is before Austin Powers, and nuclear holocaust was a relatively scary threat to audiences back in 1965.
Bond discovers this plot while off duty at a health clinic, where a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. member just happens to be basing his operations out of the while staying there as well. When the British government is threatened with a nuclear explosion, Bond chips in and uses what he discovered at the clinic to square off against Emilio Largo, the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent responsible for retrieving the bombs from the ocean near the Bahamas.
This means there is A LOT of underwater action sequences, which really bog down the second half of the film and damn near ruin the ending for me. Whoever thought of focusing the action in an environment with little sound and slow movement was a good idea shouldn’t be allowed to have ideas anymore. At best the scenes are interesting for their technical achievement alone. There weren’t a lot of underwater movies before Thunderball - perhaps for this very reason.
Thunderball starts strong with a second consecutive appearance for the Aston Martin DB5. Escaping from the rooftop after handling Bouvar, Bond slips his jetpack into the trunk and makes off, activating the car’s bulletproof shield that rises out of the back of the car, and hosing down the bad guys with rear-facing water jets.
He also gets a handy little re-breather that allows him to stay underwater for a few minutes on refurbished air - a system that wasn’t a realistic invention until relatively recently.
Q, now out in the field to equip Bond in this urgent situation, also hands over an infrared-photo taking underwater camera that can also measure for radiation, as well as a miniature flare and a few of the quips and jokes that always seem to put Bond in his place.
Other vehicles in the movie include a sky blue Ford Mustang in which Bond gets “taken for a ride” in from villainess Fiona Volpe. Volpe also pilots a BSA Lightning motorcycle outfitted with rocket launchers earlier in the film.
Ford has a strong presence in the film beyond just the Mustang, with a Fairlane, Thunderbird, Country Sedan, Galaxie, Corsair, Zodiac, Zephyr, and a few others all managing some screen-time, according to IMCDb.org.
Largo’s boat is more than just a wealthy man’s yacht, boasting speeds of up to “20 knots” and the ability to cast off the entire rear half of the ship to make for a speedier getaway towards the end of the film. It also has a large opening bay in the hull to allow for submerged personnel carriers and scuba divers to come and go undetected.. you know.. for when you need to scoop two nukes off the sea floor without anyone knowing.
Overall this movie features a fair bit of very cool kit, more than any of the other films before it - it’s better off for it. Again, Thunderball deserves a lot of credit for establishing the known Bond formula.
The best aspects of Thunderball are the rich cast of characters, the beautiful locations, the enamoring music from the legendary John Barry, and the overall atmosphere of the film.
Connery gives his last great appearance as James Bond, as he seemed to slowly gain weight and seem bored in his last two appearances. His lines and attitude are sharp and charismatic, and he continues his reputation of defining the character of James Bond.
The trio of Bond women of this film have never been matched. Just two alone would still pull out with an unfair advantage over any other Bond film - they’re awesome.
Domino Derval, the sister of the man S.P.E.C.T.R.E. kills to bring down the NATO plane carrying the nuke, is Largo’s mistress. Along with her there is Fiona Volpe, his henchwoman, and Paula, Bond’s aid in the Bahamas. Together they make up the powerful feminine presence in this film.
Each are works of biological art of which the Bond franchise, or any film, will likely never match. It’s not just looks, but an essence of charm, class, and graceful attitude among each of them that not only gives Bond and Connery plenty to play with, but make up the majority of the film’s strong character - something surprising coming from a ‘60s Bond story.
Nearly every scene in the film is beautifully composed, and the relatively complicated story flows well, both through the writing and creative editing of the film, featuring many swiping transitions between scenes - something used by this year’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to pull off that classic film-making vibe of the era.
The quick-cut fisticuffs action scenes, which From Russia With Love almost single-handedly brought to the fray, are improved upon and mastered in this film, particularly the ultimate confrontation between Bond and the bad guys on Largo’s yacht. The punches are felt with force, and where earlier Bond films sometimes got lost in the tricky editing, this film captures the intensity of a fight with effective clarity.
Thunderball is extremely high on many fan listings, but only comes in at number nine for me. It’s a good movie, everything is going well, but the charm wears off just at the third act.
The third act, by no coincidence, happens to be when most of the underwater action takes place. Rather than just one big final underwater confrontation, we sit through a movie where Bond takes a dive four or five times, first to snoop, then a small scuffle, then to snoop some more, an then the big one. Huge chunks of time in the movie are spent watching people silently and slowly swimming, and when the editors try and speed it up it is jarring and obvious - they just increased the speed of the film and it looks unnatural.
While the shots are beautiful and Barry’s soundtrack is one of his best, especially during the underwater climax, there just isn’t enough to satisfy what I expect from a big Bond battle. The fifth film, You Only Live Twice, corrected this with two large forces going at it in a giant fake volcano. If Thunderball had featured a happy medium between these two, it would be a top-spot contender.
Largo is also a pretty weak villain, with seemingly forced lines and a phoney coldness that has no real effect on me. He is saved thanks to his ownership of a swimming pool of blood thirsty sharks.
Forgiving the film techniques of the time, there is little else to complain about with this film. It feels a little long, but that is mostly due to the time spent in the sea, dragging the film down with it.
Thunderball is a fantastic Bond film.
It’s a little more exciting and consistent in pace than Goldfinger before it, and more fantastical than Connery’s first two outings. The cast is great and the setting is classic Bond, whether it’s back in London in the huge halls of MI6 headquarters, or down on the beaches of the Bahamas.
An uninspiring main baddie in Largo is barely saved by the organization surrounding him in this movie, however, and the majority of the action takes a gamble it fails to pay off. Overall it’s far better than many of the other Bond outings we’ve sat through over the last 53 years, but there are at least eight more that manage to stand out just so much more, leaving Thunderball at a solid ninth place.
Stay tuned to see just what I have in mind next week.