Much has been the debate over the past two decades, as film has become increasingly self-referential and self-obsessed, as to whether or not sequels can outdo the originals. As Hollywood product becomes increasingly bereft of originality, thoughts have turned to idiotically named threequels and even obviously named fourquels to understand whether they can maintain the quality of their originals, or even maintain any level of quality at all. For a series currently embarking on its twentythirdquel, such concerns have long since passed for James Bond and his producers, but Thunderball undoubtedly marks a number of significant turning points in the series, and not all of them for the better.
1. There was a spectre cast over the series for over thirty years
While it was actually the fourth in the series, there was a time when Thunderball would have been the original James Bond film. It’s an unfortunate theft, far more obvious than any other in the series, that led to this state of affairs; Fleming had been involved with several others in an attempt to get a film series based on the character off the ground, and so Thunderball was an original screenplay. When it didn’t pan out, Ian Fleming took his work for this, and also some work from drafts of the screenplay by Jack Whittingham, and turned them into a novel called Thunderball for his James Bond series.
Unfortunately this led to court action by the member of the group hired to produce the original series, Kevin McClory. McClory saw an opportunity to still bring the original vision to the screen, and in a court settlement McClory gained rights to nine different screenplay drafts and elements right down to Blofeld’s cat. The only stipulation was that McClory wouldn’t attempt to make another film using the elements for another twelve years. (In that time, you may recall a number of other EON productions which used Blofeld’s cat, and all of those other elements.)
When that twelve years expired, a period of two decades of attempting to milk this potential cash cow ensued. McClory had made little other success of his film producing career, but was financially well set from the Thunderball situation; he then proceeded to spend the rest of his life ploughing every last penny of those proceeds into attempts to retell the story. The first attempt, variously called Warhead 8 or James Bond Of The Secret Service, had the effect of causing EON to take SPECTRE out of The Spy Who Loved Me after early drafts.
Eventually, in 1983, we got another Sean Connery film, whose title we will never say. Never again would McClory manage to get anything on screen, but that didn’t stop him trying almost up until his death in 2006. The last and most significant attempt in 1997 was a collaboration with Sony, which culminated in Sony and MGM to settle rights issues almost like two parents dividing up the children in a messy divorce, with MGM getting all of Bond and Sony taking sole control of Spider-Man. Ironically, Sony then bought MGM in 2005, so that Sony ended up releasing Daniel Craig’s first effort in the tuxedo a year later.
But the actual rights themselves to those story elements still reside with someone, although it’s not actually 100% clear who at this point. SPECTRE may make a return to the series at some point, but the real spectre of the alternative, lower quality Bonds being produced maybe still hasn’t gone away to this day.
2. After this it wouldn’t be enough to just insert random formula elements
Thunderball does mark one particularly significant achievement – it remains, in adjusted dollars, the most successful Bond film both in America and worldwide, sitting at 27 on the all time American list and it would have been worth a few cents shy of one billion dollars in today’s money with the worldwide takings. But when you look at the first three Bond films, each actually brought something different to the table: Dr. No established the concept, From Russia With Love expanded it and Goldfinger took it to the verge of self parody.
Starting with Thunderball, opportunities for true innovation were limited and the cycle descended into a law of diminishing returns. Tellingly, the subsequent box office peaks have always occurred when a new Bond has been introduced to the franchise; dear Broccoli family, if you’re reading this, it doesn’t mean we want a new James Bond every film. Quite happy with Mr Craig for now, thank you very much.
3. It’s like, y’know, for kids – all that misogyny and casual violence
Forget GI Joe, pansy American soldier, if you want to play with toys then you need one of a man who’s not afraid to make a pass at anything in a skirt and to shoot a man in cold blood once he’s already dead. These are the kind of role models that a young boy needs (and given how many of my male friends over the years have attempted to shag anything that moves, it seems to have had an effect), and Thunderball was the first James Bond film to feature an action figure. Although frankly James, you might need to get a hem put on those trousers – a little long in the leg.
4. Forget bow ties and stetsons – jet packs are cool
If you’re telling me that you’ve never wanted a jet pack, then I will quote the “liar, liar, pants on fire” argument in rebuttal. From the Los Angeles Olympics opening ceremony to Kick-Ass, every possible application of jet pack technology screams “I want one” from the rooftops, which is where Bond has conveniently stowed his. And it packs away neatly in the boot of an Aston Martin as well, as long as your pursuers give you enough time to take it off. We still await the first actual jet pack chase in the series (and I’m not counting anything in Moonraker – jet packs in space just aren’t the same). That idea (c) The Movie Evangelist, 2011, by the way.
5. Widescreen was the way of the future
As you can see from the above picture, Bond was keen to get his car, his helmet and anything else he could lay his hands on into the widest spaces possible. This was the first film to appear in the Panavision 2.35:1 ratio, which is the widest widescreen in current common use and is ideal for capturing the full detail of long, thin things such as torpedo tubes and sandy beaches. By The Man With The Golden Gun, the series would become permanently in this ratio, and any action movie worth its salt these days will appear in a similar ratio.
6. Bond is just the first line of attack – you’ll get nothing in this game without henchmen
There was one major element of the series that hadn’t been truly and properly established at the time of Thunderball, and that was the massive henchman battle. Armies of men from both sides engage in a
slightly soggy and disappointing truly epic battle which allows Bond to sneak in, relatively unnoticed, and confront the evil mastermind with whom he’s already spent a large part of the film having casual conversation, playing games, generally socialising, etc. This template of a large army of men on both sides who don’t actually have a conclusive effect on the outcome has become a staple of the series, and the requirement for a base to hold such significant forces became a real bonus for production designer Ken Adam, as we’ll see…
Next month: Pussy stroking galore. It’s You Only Live Twice.