Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘Thunderball’

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

Very seldom does one character define a subgenre. But that is precisely what James Bond 007 has done with spy/espionage fiction. Since making his film debut in 1962, Bond has appeared in over 20 movies. Moreover, the character has only been portrayed by a mere six actors (officially, anyway). Now that the 25th (official) Bond installment, No Time to Die, is finally slated for release on April 10th, I think now is a better time than any to look back at 007’s dossier. I’ll be examining the James Bond franchise to see how these pictures evolved over the decades with each new leading actor. Today’s mission: Thunderball (1965)!

With Goldfinger (1964), the Bond films had hit their stride and perfected its formula. Where would EON Productions take the series from there? Well, into the then relatively untested waters of submerged cinema, of course. But to do this, producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman would resort to a project which was developed before they had acquired the film rights to 007.

Back in 1959, when the producing duo was still courting Ian Fleming for Bond’s film rights, writer Kevin McClory convinced EON Productions to let him co-script an underwater adventure with Fleming. Of course, no one knows how much and what each of these gentlemen contributed to the story. However, Fleming then used this same story as the basis for his ninth James Bond novel, Thunderball (1961). Following the book’s publication, McClory sued the 007 creator for plagiarism. 

In the end, the verdict gave McClory original story and producer credits for the film adaptation of Thunderball. More importantly, though, McClory was also given the rights to essentially remake Thunderball after a certain number of years. Hoping to avoid the latter down the line, EON Productions welcomed McClory’s involvement on the set of Thunderball. Despite this effort by the producers, McClory applied his legal rights years later. The result is the only unofficial Bond picture with no involvement (or attempted involvement) from EON on record, Never Say Never Again (1983). But, more on that in the future.
Following the court case, EON was intent on keeping Thunderball on the fast-track, just as they had with its predecessors. Thus, it was only logical that they invite Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton to return to the helm. However, Hamilton quickly declined, citing that he felt “creatively drained” following the last film. Undeterred, Broccoli and Saltzman then just went back to the guy who helped establish the cinematic palette of James Bond with Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963), director Terrence Young. Having had a respite from the world of 007, Young chose to helm the tangentially titled Thunderball.
A “thunderballis a military term that describes the look of a mushroom cloud created by an atomic explosion. Which, in fairness, is the ultimate goal of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., but not the name of Bond’s antagonist. This time, the evil organization has delegated eye-patch wearing Agent Emilio Largo (Aldolfo Celi) to steal a pair of atomic warheads. Thus allowing them to use the duo of nuclear weapons to commit extortion on an international level. Of course, there is only one MI6 00 agent who can get close enough to Largo and foil this aquatic plot, James Bond 007 (Sean Connery)! But, to infiltrate Largo’s team, Bond will need the help of the terrorist’s sister, Domino (Claudine Auger).

In many ways, this film is two steps forward and one step back. But before I dive into the Thunderball of all, I’ll go ahead and point out the obvious. Like its predecessors, Thunderball is a beautifully-crafted film — with the exception that I noticed a few scenes in which it seemed the film’s audio dubbing and picture are a little off. That slight technical quibble aside, from a design and cinematographic standpoint, this flick will really lull you in. Alas, part of Thunderball‘s slightly hypnotic effect comes from its languid pacing; which is a double-edged sword. Like Dr. No before it, the film is paced like a mystery. It takes its time and allows Bond to be more of a sleuth; a choice I ultimately like despite the plot not truly kicking-in for about 40-minutes. While such pacing worked for me the majority of the time, this movie also has some unnecessary long transitional scenes. As a result, I feel the 130-minute runtime of Thunderball could easily be cut down to under 2 hours. 
However, the scenes that certainly do not lag are the movie’s underwater and action scenes. All of which were revolutionary for their time. The first example of which is James Bond utilizing a jet pack during the cold open. More impressive, though, are all the underwater sequences in this film. All of which were the first of their kind, and still some of the most lushly-photographed submerged cinema ever. For these reasons alone, Thunderball is a technical achievement. 

Alas, the film is a bit lacking narratively. Frankly, it just never felt like there are any stakes in my estimation. Instead, Thunderball turns out to be quite a leisurely mission for Bond as portrayed Connery. While the leading man is still good here, it’s also evident that Connery is beginning to grow weary of the role that shot him to stardom. (Although, it’s worth noting that Thunderball  is the first film in which Connery appears in the gun barrel sequence as the scene had to be reshot due to Thunderball being the first Bond picture to be filmed with (the then new) Panavision cameras.)

Another narrative issue I have with the film’s story is that it does not provide its female characters with much despite Auger’s fine performance as Domino; and that character’s supposed importance in the plot.  (A damn shame as Auger beat out 150 other actresses to play Domino.) Due to the almost apathetic treatment of these female characters, it also feels as if Bond could not care less about them.
Thunderball ultimately goes two steps forward from a technical and cinematic standpoint, but a step back narratively. As such, Thunderball is Franchise Expansion, but just barely. Of course, director Young’s ’s attempt to mix the pace and tone of his previous series entries with those of Goldfinger only contributes to this movie’s unevenness. Even still, Thunderball is a film I appropriately slip into like a warm bath.

Thunderball is available on home video

James Bond Will Return For Another Installment of Franchise Expansion or Implosion with You Only Live Twice (1967)!

007’s Newest Mission, No Time to Die, Will Be in Theaters on April 10th!

Read About Bond’s Past Franchise Endeavors-
Dr. No:
From Russia with Love:

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