“And he strikes…like thunderball.”
How exactly does thunderball strike, anyway? According to the IMDB FAQ page for the movie, a “thunderball” is “a series of explosions that happen within the mushroom effect of a nuclear explosion.” So, when whoever the song is talking about strikes, it’s like a nuclear bomb going off. Scary.
This is another Bond movie from the height of Bond mania. I had previously owned it on DVD before getting this Blu-ray set, but I hadn’t watched it in a while—and I certainly hadn’t watched it in high-definition quality. I remembered the general plot elements, especially after checking out the documentaries, but the whole escaped me.
As with Goldfinger, Thunderball marks the first real flowering of James Bond into its full-blown Bond formula, with the added extra of being presented in a breathtaking 2.35:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio. (I only wish I could make my monitor bigger to enjoy it more fully!) It also represents the first Bond movie to feature extended underwater sequences, something the franchise would return to again and again in the future. And it is also the culmination of a feud with another scriptwriter that would have repercussions for decades.
Thunderball was the biggest Bond ever. It had triple the budget of the last Bond film, Goldfinger. It was filmed in the wider 2.35:1 Cinemascope format. Adjusting for inflation, it was the most financially successful Bond film of all time, right up until Skyfall. No other Bond film would top its performance at the box office for nearly fifty years.
The movie had its genesis in an earlier scriptwriting collaboration Ian Fleming had with writer Kevin McClory before Broccoli and Saltzman had first gotten interested in doing Bond films. Fleming and McClory came up with with ideas for a movie concerning a stolen nuclear weapon. However, Broccoli and Saltzman decided to adapt some of Fleming’s books to film instead, so the idea was shelved—and Fleming, apparently not wanting to waste the idea, wrote it into a Bond novel instead, without any credit to, consultation with, or payment to McClory. McClory sued, and won the movie rights, as well as the right to remake Thunderball after ten years had gone by. That remake would become Never Say Never Again, and would also prompt short-lived plans by Sony to launch a competing James Bond franchise with Stargate and Independence Day directors Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich at the helm. The stress of the courtroom confrontation so debilitated Fleming that it is thought to have contributed to his early death by heart attack 9 months later.
As with other Bond films, Thunderball was painstakingly digitally restored. This marked the second time it had been restored; prior to the special-edition laserdisc release in the 1990s, its previous releases on home video had been known for odd dialogue changes or insertions, music omissions, or even cutting out entire scenes. EON had to reconstruct the original version of the movie for the laserdisc. On Blu-ray, it has never looked or sounded quite so good.
Or, at least, it would have if my Blu-ray had worked properly. I’m not sure whether it’s a defective pressing or simply some incompatibility with my player, but my Blu-ray glitched about 8 minutes in, and started glitching even earlier on repeat performances. I had to watch the next scene on my DVD copy of the movie before switching back to the Blu-ray for the rest of the film.
Anyway, the plot goes like this: After making sure a seemingly-dead SPECTRE operative really is dead (and being seen to fly a real-life rocket belt invented as an Army test project), Bond is recovering in a health spa when he becomes aware of some SPECTRE hanky-panky going on. He runs across the body of a dead NATO pilot, who it turns out was body doubled to steal a bomber containing two nuclear weapons. This clue takes Bond to Nassau, where he tangles with SPECTRE agent Emilio Largo and becomes involved with Largo’s ward, Domino, and Largo’s murderous femme fatale henchwoman, Fiona Volpe. Eventually, it turns out the bombs are being kept undersea, which leads to a scuba battle royale followed by a climactic fistfight aboard a hydrofoil careening out of control.
It’s easy to see why Thunderball was such a successful movie. It is very much the apex of Connery’s career as Bond—and, some would argue, the last good Bond movie he ever made. Whether the later Connery Bonds were any good or not, none them would be quite this good ever again. It’s all downhill for Connery after this—but Thunderball is basically sheer Bondian perfection. With Terence Young at the helm, Peter Hunt’s amazing editing skill, John Barry’s music, and John Stears’s Oscar-winning special effects, this movie has it all.
It also marks Bond’s first foray into underwater action, with great underwater director Ricou Browning (the rubber-suited stuntman in The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and developer of the TV series Flipper, among many other credits) in charge of those scenes. Although modern audiences tend to think that the climactic underwater sequence went on far too long, we’ve probably been jaded by overexposure to all the subsequent movies that have been filmed underwater. Audiences at the time had never seen anything like this, and it was a major theatrical draw.
Some of the special effects involved obvious rear projection, but others were considerably more spectacular—such as the boat explosion at the end, which shattered windows miles away.
Thunderball is infamous for all the many continuity errors the commentaries and various trivia pages point out, but in a film that big, and watched so many times by so many fans, some little glitches like that are to be expected. Far more noteworthy is the virtuoso editing by Peter Hunt, which draws your eyes away so that you notice very few of those errors on your first one or two viewings of the movie. More than once, the errors are a result of Hunt having to do the best he could to patch over holes in the available footage that couldn’t be filled by reshoots. (Terence Young was known for shooting far less film footage than the average director.)
Thunderball’s villains continue the tradition of comic-book supervillains set by Dr. No and Auric Goldfinger. Adolfo Celi is perfectly villainous as the piratical Largo. He amply chews the scenery in the scenes he shares with Bond, and it’s fun to watch him get his comeuppance. Luciana Paluzzi’s Fiona Volpe is another great character—the first truly evil Bond girl, who serves as a potent rebuttal to complaints about the unrealism of Pussy Galore’s heroic conversion. (She even lampshades those complaints in her dialogue—I entirely missed that the first few times I saw this movie.) Volpe is the original archetype for other sexy femme fatales Bond would encounter in years to come, such as Goldeneye’s Xenia Onatopp.
Both Volpe and Claudine Auger’s Domino have considerably more agency than you would expect from sixties-era Bond girls. Volpe takes charge in effectively every scene she’s in, and Domino, rather than having to be rescued by Bond, ends up rescuing him by killing Largo herself. With From Russia with Love, that makes two out of the first four Bond movies where the Bond girl killed the final baddie—and Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore, despite her unflattering name, was solely responsible for Goldfinger’s plan failing in the end.
One bonus I’ve found from watching the movies in order is getting to see things add up from movie to movie. For example, there’s the thing with James Bond’s hat and the hat rack. I had vague recollections of it being a “thing” that Bond tossed his hat onto the rack like a ringtoss, but it turns out there’s more to it than that.
In Dr. No, Bond tossed his hat onto the hat rack in one go. In From Russia with Love, he did it again, only to discover M was in the office with Moneypenny and was not amused. In Goldfinger, Moneypenny tossed the hat onto the rack herself when she was trying to get Bond to go out with her. In Thunderball, Bond starts to toss it, then thinks better of it and just puts it on the rack—then it’s gone when he comes back for it, and Bond does not wear a hat as a fashion statement again (except for at the start of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I gather, though I haven’t gotten that far along yet) for the rest of the series.
So, having introduced a gag in the first movie, they introduced a variation on it in each movie, until finally they get tired of it and quite literally take it “out of the picture” so they don’t have to deal with it anymore. Pretty clever.
The Thunderball Blu-ray contains one of the richest assortments of extras from a Bond Blu-ray thus far. In addition to featurettes about the making of and impact of the movie, there’s a brief feature showing some of the differences that cropped up in the various home video release versions over the years. There is also a 50-minute TV special, “The World of James Bond,” that aired on television in the weeks leading up to Thunderball’s release, and a humorous 15-minute pseudo-documentary film by Ford showing the filming of the stunt in which Fiona Volpe blows up Count Lippe’s car.
The two commentary tracks are similar to the two for Goldfinger, and both contain many fascinating details about the film’s production. The second track also includes the complete Dionne Warwick recording of “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” synced to Maurice Binder’s opening titles as it would have appeared if that song had been used instead of the Tom Jones version. It also features some excerpts from the French, Italian, Spanish, and German dubs of the movie.
Now I’m quite looking forward to watching You Only Live Twice, which is one of the Bond movies I haven’t seen in forever.