The James Bond series was a bit of an anomaly when it came to British film making. The UK movie industry, while not poverty row by any stretch of the imagination, still was like most film industries outside the United States: you got a budget, usually nowhere near that of a Hollywood film, and did what you could with it. Often studios like Hammer did quite a bit, making their movies look much more expensive than they really were. With its exotic Jamaica location and elaborate sets at Pinewood Studio, Dr. No managed to do what it was designed to. It was low budget, had so many elements that hid that fact.
It was such a hit that its sequels, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, received bigger budgets and became even more elaborate. It was only fitting that Thunderball would be the biggest budgeted Bond movie yet, and after taking a break from Goldfinger, original director Terence Young was back.
The problem is when someone hands you a bunch of money for a project like this you want to make sure that money gets spent - and well spent - or else the bean counters will start realizing you really don't need that much. Also, when something becomes successful, there will always be someone who wants to leech off of it in every way possible.
The pattern of the Bond film is firmly established. Like Goldfinger, the opening sequence has little to do with the rest of the movie, but is a great action sequence unto itself. In fact, it's one of the best, with Bond (Sean Connery) taking care of a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent before escaping via jet pack. After completing that mission he is sent to an exclusive spa resort to recuperate and romance one of their doctors (Molly Peters). Unfortunately, another attendee is Count Lippe (Guy Doleman) and his accomplice Angelo. Under the command of flamboyant millionaire Largo (Adolfo Celi) and his female enforcer Fiona (Luciana Paluzzi), Lippe and Angelo are part of a plot to steal a British Vulcan aircraft during a NATO exercise - said aircraft carrying two atomic bombs.
S.P.E.C.T.R.E. uses the bombs to blackmail NATO into paying a ransom, threatening to destroy a major city if they do not comply. The U.S. and UK managed to keep the story from leaking, but are prepared to pay up if none of the "00" agents are able to locate what happened to the bombs. Since Dominique Derval (also known as Domino) (Claudine Auger), the sister of one of the pilots of the missing plane, has been associating with Largo in the Bahamas, Bond decides to investigate with the help of his CIA contact Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) and local assistant Paula (Martine Beswick).
With the help of Leiter and Domino, James Bond eventually is able to work things out. From there it's a race against time to keep Largo from getting the bombs to their ultimate destination.
When I say the whole formula is here, I mean it. We have Tom Jones belting out the theme song this time around, with nude swimmers and clothed scuba divers both silhouetted against different cell-colored watery backgrounds. The Aston-Martin is back, but is somewhat overshadowed by Fiona's rocket-firing motorcycle. And, the final piece in place, is the evil Bond girl. In Goldfinger, Pussy Galore ultimately agreed to cooperate. Many critics didn't get that it wasn't getting some good lovin' from 007 that did it; rather, it was the fact that she was a thief that was looking forward to a cut of the gold, not a terrorist looking to tank the world economy. Realizing that Goldfinger was going to leave her and pilots holding the bag and on trial for terrorism, she made the right decision.
This time around Fiona is pure evil. If Galore had been a member of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (which is barely even alluded to in Goldfinger) then it would have been quite as ridiculous as Fiona makes it out to be when she thinks that she has James Bond at her mercy. In many ways she is a more interesting villain than Largo, who seems to be more like a mafia strongman with better resources. Adolfo Celi still plays him as delightfully evil in his white Italian suits and eyepatch, but it's made rather clear at the beginning that Fiona would have slit his throat without a second thought if commanded by Blofeld.
As usual we get great location filming, both in Paris and the Bahamas. The increase in budget is most apparent in a new wrinkle for the series: a number of underwater scenes, including an extended battle between Largo's henchmen and U.S. Navy Frogmen. As both James Cameron and Kevin Costner have found out to their chagrin, filming both on and under water can have some major benefits while on screen, but often at a huge cost. I guess Thunderball got lucky, as the tanks and locations used for filming the final scenes pretty much worked as expected, even if Sean Connery found himself getting way too chummy with some of the sharks.
As this is where most of the budget was spent, it's no surprise that the rest of the movie, which isn't dissimilar from the previous Bond films, needs to stretch to make sure what wasn't spent on the underwater action gets up on the screen. Goldfinger, complex as the plot was, was also one of the shortest Bond films, and its brevity helped it immensely. Here the bloat begins to show, as Thunderball runs over two hours and would not have suffered greatly by having about 20 minutes of it cut out, largely the spa scenes at the beginning. This does signal a problem that would pop up in many later films in the series.
The other problem is that there are some questionable situations here. I know most people will point toward the scene between James Bond and Patricia in the spa. While that may not really fly in a modern movie, it wasn't out of place for a movie in the 1960s, and falls more in the category of women expected to put up some sort of resistance before giving in to prove that they are not "that type of girl." The problem that I had, and what many may have these days, was the treatment of some of the sharks. I don't know if the ones that appear to be shot and die during the underwater sequence were already dead (the one that almost gets Bond in the pool was, and was pulled along by a wire), but it certainly does not appear to be so. If this is the case then it is even more questionable than the animal killings in Cannibal Holocaust, since at least the cast and crew ate the animals that were killed. It's this attitude toward sharks that has resulted in some real-world consequences.
Thunderball was a success, but suffered from a gadfly named Kevin McClory. He, Ian Fleming and Jack Whittingham and brainstormed on the story in the late 1950s in order to bring Bond to the big screen, but it didn't turn out. Eventually the outline was fleshed out into the eighth full-length novel, and the one that introduces S.P.E.C.T.R.E. McClory, and later his estate, seemed to make a living out of constantly bringing litigation toward anyone and anything that touches the characters in Thunderball, going so far as to remake the movie (with Sean Connery making one last appearance as James Bond) in 1983 as Never Say Never Again.
Despite some of its pacing problems and some concerns that are more those of modern audiences than contemporary, this fourth James Bond entry is still rather exciting and the last film in the series for a while that didn't start to rely on too much camp - even if a couple of Bond's quips can make the audience cringe as much as Connery did delivering them.
Time: 130 minutes
Starring: Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celi, Luciana Paluzzi, Rik Van Nutter
Director: Terence Young