History, Legacy & Showmanship

Bond Goes Wide: Remembering “Thunderball” on its 50th Anniversary

December 29, 2015 - 12:03 pm   |   by
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Coate: When did you first see Thunderball and what did you think?

Burlingame: It wasn’t on first release; I can’t recall exactly when, but it was certainly at a drive-in in upstate New York, where I grew up, paired with another Connery, possibly From Russia with Love or You Only Live Twice. I had seen one or two other Bonds at that point and my reaction was, wow, I’ve got to see all of these!

A scene from Thunderball

Caplen: I remember watching Thunderball as a youth and enjoying the film. The underwater fight scenes and the rocket belt left indelible images upon my impressionable mind. As I’ve revisited the film over the years, I can’t help but laugh each time Bond has his initial exchange with Domino and admires her (swimming) form.

Chapman: I first saw it when it came on British TV in the late 1970s. I’d have been about eight or nine. I particularly liked the pre-title sequence with the jet pack. And I remember liking the underwater scenes too. Some critics feel that these slow down the film, but I don’t see that. Yes, the movement is slower; of course it is, but in fact most of the underwater scenes are quite short, while the big battle at the end is edited at such a furious pace that it doesn’t seem slow.

Cork: The evening of September 22nd, 1974. I had started reading the Bond novels that summer and had completed Thunderball sometime in August. I was 13, and if you asked any of my friends they would have told you I was already a huge James Bond fan. Live and Let Die made me a Bond fan, but Thunderball was the first Bond film I saw once I had become a fan. Even with the ads and the cuts for television, it was an electrifying experience for me. Every time I see the film, I’m transported back to being 13 and completely captivated by the film…. By the way, long before I saw the film, a friend of mine found the soundtrack in his family’s record collection. We used to choreograph slow motion fights in his living room to the music. 

Pfeiffer: I saw Thunderball opening week. I was nine years old. Like Goldfinger, it simply blew me away. I think today’s young audiences are so used to seeing amazing effects that there isn’t much left to thrill them visually. But with Thunderball, the effects were truly impressive for audience members—and they were done by real people in the pre-CGI era. I went virtually every day with my friends to see it during the Christmas break from school. Finally, my dad—who was a big Bond fan, by the way—said, “Enough! I’m not going to give you another 75 cents to see Thunderball for the seventh time.” Instead, I told him I wanted to see Battle of the Bulge, so he relented and gave me the money. On the way to the theater, however, I ran into the gang from my neighborhood and they talked me into going with them to see Thunderball again. A few nights later I had forgotten my deception and asked my dad to take me to see Battle of the Bulge. I remember him calling me out on my lie and saying, “You went to see Thunderball again, didn’t you?” I confessed to my crime. He found it amusing and ended up taking me to see Battle of the Bulge. Another personal memory relates to my bringing the souvenir program to my school. The principal saw it. She was a puritanical old maid and went ballistic over the abundance of scantily clad women. She tore up my precious program in front of the class, dismissing it as “filth”! My mom and dad were outraged. They felt it was none of her business, so they bought me another program, which I still have to this day. In terms of their views on social issues, they were pretty liberal for the day, so I benefited from that. I also went repeatedly to see Thunderball on its re-releases as part of those marvelous old Bond double-features, so the film has a special place in my childhood memories. 

Rubin: I saw Thunderball at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd. when the film opened in December 1965. I loved it, for all the right reasons. It was a unique action film with a lot of things going on in and under the water, and that was very unique for its day. Yes, we had a television series with Lloyd Bridges called Sea Hunt, but it was very low key, nothing like Thunderball. But to see an underwater battle scene, and hear that great John Barry music was pretty cool. 

Rye: My earliest recollection of the film Thunderball is visiting the Odeon Hammersmith, London, in early January 1966, in the days when it was still the best cinema screen just short of London’s West End, and certainly a better venue to watch the first Bond film shot in the widescreen format of Panavision than either the London Pavilion or the Rialto in Piccadilly, where the film had been premiered simultaneously on December 29th, 1965…. I arrived late (not unusual for me!), and Sean Connery was just diving off Martine Beswick’s boat into the Bahamian sea to join Claudine Auger in her speedboat. From then on in I was mesmerized. As soon as the film had finished I sat through the whole thing again without leaving my seat (something you were able to do in UK cinemas in the ‘60s without anyone seeming to mind), and marveled at everything once more. I enjoyed the film so much that I returned to the cinema twice the next week and sat through it twice again on each occasion—such was my fanaticism and enthusiasm as a 14-year-old schoolboy! I have long since lost track of how many times I’ve seen Thunderball, but still retain the wonderment for it of a schoolboy—and as I did when I hosted the 25th anniversary screening of Thunderball in 1990 at the National Film Theatre in London with various Bond alumni in attendance, and with its director, Terence Young, sitting next to me in the auditorium imparting his own personal commentary throughout the film—an unforgettable experience!

Scivally: I first saw Thunderball on television, back in the 1970s when ABC was running the Bond films. At that age (my early teens), I was besotted with James Bond, and I’m sure my reaction was enthusiastic, but I can’t remember much beyond that. When I moved to California, where “revival house” theaters in the early 1980s would show double and triple features of James Bond films, I finally saw Thunderball on the big screen. Seeing the films as they were meant to be seen—on a big screen, uncut, with an audience—was an eye-opening experience. The more episodic films held up better on television, where the frequent commercial interruptions weren’t as disruptive to their storylines. The films that had more cogent plots, like From Russia with Love, seemed rather boring on TV, but when I finally saw it in a theater, it became (and remains) my favorite. Thunderball, on the other hand, I liked on TV, but seeing it uncut, I found it overlong and rather dull.

A 35 mm frame from ThunderballCoate: Where do you think Thunderball ranks among the James Bond movie series?

Burlingame: For me, just behind Goldfinger and From Russia with Love in terms of the Connery series. I am not a big fan of the climax, although I love just about everything else. And in terms of John Barry’s score, it’s really phenomenal, although he wound up working very late in the post-production process, all through September and October 1965—a period that saw the unexpected rejection of his original song, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (with its wonderful Leslie Bricusse lyrics and Dionne Warwick vocal) and the hasty creation of a new title song (with equally great Don Black lyrics and a powerful Tom Jones vocal). But the addition of a new song, and the necessary interpolation of it instrumentally in the score, gives a complex feel to the musical aspects of the film, as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the entire foundation of the score and Thunderball is dropped in—not unlike the instrumental addition of the Adele song in the Skyfall score nearly 50 years later!

Caplen: Thunderball is, in my view, certainly one of the best James Bond films. By the time he suited up for his fourth mission as James Bond, Sean Connery was very accomplished as Agent 007, and it shows. I think the film still ranks within the top 5 in the franchise, even as Skyfall and SPECTRE continue to challenge the older installments for higher places on the list.

Chapman: Thunderball was the first genuinely “big” Bond movie—even more so than Goldfinger—in terms of budget, production values and visual spectacle. When you look at the budgets of the first three films—$950,000 for Dr. No, $1.9 million for From Russia with Love, about $3 million for Goldfinger—they weren’t all that expensive by the standards of the 1960s…. There’s a view that Thunderball was the film where the Bond series started to become a bit formulaic, reliant on set pieces rather than strong narratives. This point was made in a number of the contemporary reviews. And to be fair the middle part of the film from Bond’s arrival in the Bahamas to the departure of the Disco Volante is a bit episodic. But the whole point of the Bond films is that they’re formula films, and Thunderball was still early enough in the series to have new variations on action and pursuit scenes…. For me, it’s probably somewhere at the top of the bottom half of my top ten Bond movies (if that makes sense!), let’s say sixth or seventh overall.

Cork: It is in the top five for me. For years, I proclaimed it my favorite Bond film. I do recognize that parts are slow, that some scenes are a complete mess, that unless you are very forgiving the out-of-control hydrofoil looks absurd, that the back projection does some scenes no favors, that one can plant, grow and harvest crops during the sinking and camouflaging of the Vulcan and the stealing of the bombs, that Bond wears a magic color-changing diver’s mask, and one would get very drunk in a game based on the number of times Bond’s watch changes from his Rolex to the Breitling TopTime and back. But I love the film just the same. It has some of the most fun dialog of the series (”You swim like a man.” “So do you.” “Well, I’ve had quite a bit of practice.”), some of the sexiest Bond women moments (Fiona Volpe asking Bond to give her something to wear), some great moments of villainy (”This for heat; these for cold—applied scientifically and slowly, very, very slowly…”) and brilliant action. 

Pfeiffer: There are a lot of people who think Thunderball is a rather boring film. My wife and daughter each saw it once and never wanted to watch it again. I disagree entirely. There are some rather slow-moving scenes, but they only appear to be a bit boring to me after having seen the film dozens of times. I don’t recall thinking it was slow when I first saw it, but then again, “boring” is in the eye of the beholder. I would say it still holds up as great entertainment. I would rank it in the top five Bond films. 

Rubin: I would place it in 5th position—behind Goldfinger, Casino Royale, From Russia with Love, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Some people have complained over the years that its first third is very slow, but I disagree.

Rye: On my personal list of the Top 10 Bond Films Thunderball is placed at Number 3, after From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The first three James Bond films had been undoubtedly great entertainment, but Thunderball was indeed the biggest Bond of all! Regardless what you might have read anywhere else in the last 50 years, Thunderball is the highest-grossing Bond film of the series—more people saw that film in a cinema than any other Bond film! Simply, nothing could top it! Every successful fad had its time—and 1965 and Thunderball was James Bond’s zenith year. The film was released at the height of Bondmania and everyone couldn’t get enough of Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as the Italians had nicknamed him, which the filmmakers neatly used as an in-joke in one of the film’s cutest set pieces…. Sean Connery’s performance in Thunderball must rank as his best as Bond, as he glides effortlessly through the narrative dispensing lust and death in equal dispassionate measure. Richard Maibaum’s and John Hopkins’ script sparkles with style and panache as Bond plays cat and mouse with Emilio Largo and Fiona Volpe, SPECTRE’s agents of doom in The Bahamas—and the Blofeld and SPECTRE organization in this 1965 film seem a far more tangible, impressive and dangerous threat than in 2015’s woefully cartoonish SPECTRE.

Scivally: Many of the “old guard” Bond fans—which is to say, those of us over 50 who were first introduced to the character through the films of Sean Connery—place Thunderball in the Top 3 films of the series, if not the number one film. My top 3 are From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I’m not sure Thunderball would even be in the Top 5 for me, but it would make the Top 10. For me, it’s a bit of an uneven mix; it has a fantastic pre-credits fight, ending with the jetpack escape, and the scene in SPECTRE headquarters is cool, but then the pace starts to flag as we’re off to Shrublands, and then into the theft of the Vulcan bomber, a sequence that drags on far too long and kills the film’s forward momentum. After that, we finally get to the Bahamas, where the tension gradually increases as Bond taunts Largo and courts Domino and puts the pieces together, all capped off by the climactic large-scale underwater battle. But even that is undercut by the comically under-cranked footage in Bond’s fight with Largo on the Disco Volante, and—for my money—it’s in this film that Sean Connery begins exhibiting the boredom with the role of Bond that also undercut You Only Live Twice.

Coate: In what way was Adolfo Celi’s Largo a memorable villain?

Burlingame: He’s so dark, so serious, so dangerous, so malevolent. I still freeze up a little when I see him on screen. It was great casting. And by 1965, we were four films into the series and Bond had been well-established as a hero for the ages, someone whose skill and good luck was unbeatable. So establishing a villain who was formidable enough to take on the seemingly indestructible 007 became a much bigger challenge. Celi’s Largo met the standard.

Caplen: I find it curious that the omnipotent, omnipresent “guardian” of Domino Derval wears an eye patch. That aside, Largo appears relatively calm throughout the film, which is quite the contrast to the fiery Fiona Volpe he employs. I think she is the much more memorable villain insofar as what she represents and contributes to the Bond Girl archetype. I fully deconstruct Fiona Volpe in Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond and demonstrate how her seeming independence and assertiveness are mere facades.

Chapman: He’s one of the best villains in the series, in my opinion. He’s a plausible megalomaniac—more so than Goldfinger, as marvelous as Gert Frobe is—and provides an excellent antagonist for Connery’s Bond. Adolfo Celi has great physical presence and (thanks to Robert Rietty’s dubbing) a superb vocal delivery. His manner and physical appearance are also close to the character in Fleming’s book: Thunderball was made pretty close to the book and the early films were much closer to Fleming than they became later. Largo is clever but also represents a physical threat, and has a good fight with Bond at the end of the film. I prefer those sorts of villains to the Drax/Stromberg type who have to rely on their henchmen to do the physical stuff. Thunderball also brings out the way in which Largo manipulates/controls Domino who is unable to escape from him. It’s not really until Sanchez and Lupe in Licence to Kill that another Bond film considered the dynamic between villain and mistress.

Thunderball newspaper ad

Cork: Largo is one of the greatest Bond villains, but his performance is equal parts Robert Rietty and Adolfo Celi. Rietty’s voice work with Largo lifts that character up and beyond what any single actor could do. It is a shame that voice-actors in the Bond films do not get more credit. That said, Celi holds every scene he is in. His glance up when his fellow SPECTRE member is electrocuted, his ability to move from genial grin to withering stare is perfect. He is a pirate, so he has an eye patch, but it is never played for laughs. Like the best of the Bond villains, he seems to get smarter as the film continues. He gets frustrated with Bond, but his confidence is never shaken, his certainty never wavering, his evil intent never in doubt. I love that the film has a solid logic for Largo and Bond’s interactions. Largo knows Bond is working for British Intelligence, but it serves his purpose to be polite to 007 so that the authorities do not try to arrest him. For Bond, he knows Largo is involved, but he cannot try to do anything to Largo until the bombs are recovered. So they play this charade that I quite enjoy. He’s an active villain, physically able to dole out punishment and to take it. Even in death, he tries to seal 007’s fate. Largo rules. 

Pfeiffer: Adolfo Celi was an inspired choice as Largo. He’s a fine actor and every bit as dashing and handsome as Bond. He had the requisite self-confidence to stand up to Sean Connery on screen and not be overshadowed, which is quite a feat. He also did justice to the stylish clothing he wore. (I wonder why only Italian men look natural by draping their coats over their shoulders!) Celi was already a well-regarded character actor and 1965 was a good year for him. In addition to appearing in Thunderball, he also had major roles in two other high profile movies: The Agony and the Ecstasy and Von Ryan’s Express. My only regret is that editor Peter Hunt had a mania for dubbing many key actors in the films even if they spoke English perfectly well, as Celi did. I would have preferred that his own voice be heard in the film. Incidentally, he technically made another movie with Sean Connery: the political thriller The Next Man in 1976, but unfortunately they never shared the screen together. As for the character of Largo, he was actually not the top dog at SPECTRE, which might have diminished him a bit in terms of stature. He still had to take orders from and report to Blofeld. Nevertheless, the character was sufficiently intriguing to rank among the more memorable Bond villains. Any screen villain is better if he isn’t presented as a mustache-twirling, one-note depiction of evil. In the case of Largo, he is charming, polite and quite the lady’s man, which reminds us that the great real life villains often have the same qualities.

Rubin: Adolfo Celi was solid, commanding, suave, ruthless and worthy as a Bond opponent. He’s more an international businessman than a megalomaniac, but I liked him, and his demise from Domino’s spear was very effective, given the fact that the last time he was seen, he was torturing her. 

Rye: Although Adolfo Celi’s voice was dubbed in its entirety in Thunderball by the late Robert Rietty, Celi’s performance and physical presence makes Largo an adversary worthy of Connery’s Bond, and he makes a memorable villain in the classic style; the scene at the Cafe Martinique casino between Bond and Largo, where 007 drops pointed remarks about SPECTRE into the conversation, taunting Largo across the gaming table, remains among the very best Bond/villain meetings in the series—and Connery and Celi/Rietty play it for all it’s worth!

Scivally: Honestly, I never thought Adolfo Celi’s Emilio Largo was a particularly memorable villain. Admittedly, any villain who came after Gert Frobe’s charismatic Goldfinger was bound to suffer by comparison, but Celi is so cool and reserved he almost ceases to exist. He’s such a charmless, cruel character that one wonders what Domino, or any woman, could ever have seen in him. For me, Celi’s is a one-note performance.

Coate: In what way was Claudine Auger’s Domino a memorable Bond Girl?

 

Caplen: Many women, including Faye Dunaway and Raquel Welch, competed for the part of Domino, which was described at the time as the most complex and demanding of any female lead in the series. This is, of course, a curious description. In my complete analysis of Domino, I explore the extent to which she is a kept woman who finds herself frequently overpowered by men. Largo, as her supposed “guardian,” carefully monitors Domino’s activities and controls her actions. Then Domino meets Bond, who inundates her with questions, takes complete control of their dynamic from the moment they meet, and manipulates her as he sees fit…. Indeed, Domino is memorable and an important addition to the Bond Girl continuum because she is weak. Domino is a foil to Fiona Volpe, whose hypersexuality, villainy, and unwillingness to succumb to Bond’s sexual prowess offer a striking image of perceived independence and authority. Domino, on the other hand, is purely a submissive instrument through which Bond can obtain sexual gratification and complete his mission. He places her in harm’s way to advance his interests and seems to care little about her ultimate fate. Perhaps it is his insouciance that leads to a few interesting plot twists at the conclusion of the film.

Chapman: To be honest, I prefer Kim Basinger as Domino in Never Say Never Again (McClory’s 1983 remake of Thunderball), if it’s not sacrilege to say so! Claudine Auger has all the necessary physical attributes of a Bond girl, and looks athletic, as Fleming’s character is described, though she has the wrong color hair (come to think of it most of the early Bond girls have different color hair from the books). But I find her performance just a little bland, not as memorable as Ursula Andress, Daniela Bianchi or Honor Blackman in the preceding three films. For me the really memorable Bond girl in Thunderball is Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi)—the first major “bad girl” role in a Bond movie and the archetype of the sexy, confident villainess, a forerunner of Helga Brandt, Xenia Onatopp and the rest…. The difference beyond Domino and Fiona is summed up in their reactions after sleeping with Bond. “So that’s why you make love to me,” Domino whimpers after Bond tells her that her brother is dead and Largo killed him: she meekly acquiesces to Bond and doesn’t seem to get angry that he’s apparently seduced her in order to get her onto his side. Contrast that to Fiona who throws Bond’s “arrogance” back in his face and proudly asserts that she can’t be converted to the side of goodness and right.

Cork: Claudine Auger is certainly one of the most physically beautiful women in the world. She has a sultry, confident sexuality about her, but she gives the role of Domino real vulnerability. She, too, was completely dubbed for the film. Nikki van der Zyl, who provided the voice, did momentous work on the Bond films from Dr. No through to The Man with the Golden Gun. Her voice work is utterly charming, just perfect for the part. Also interesting to me is that our introduction to Domino is while she is swimming underwater, and that lovely woman is not Claudine Auger. It is Evelyne Boren, the wife of the underwater cinematographer, Lamar Boren. Evelyne is a very talented artist…. Domino is a fantastic character. I like that she can be her own person with her own story. There is no need for her to be Bond’s equivalent when it comes to action, but she can be his superior when it comes to humanity. She is world-weary, but never naive, longing, but never needy. In the end, though, through her relationship with Bond, she finds the strength to seal Largo’s fate. I find Domino absolutely compelling as a character. The scene where Bond gives her the watch and dog tags was shot both on Love Beach on New Providence Island and back in the studio at Pinewood, and the scene like so many others is a mess. Bond says he can’t tell her what it’s all about, but moments later he is telling her what it is all about. Yet, the human element of the scene is wonderfully done. Auger and van der Zyl’s performances are consistent and heartfelt. It is one of the few moments in the series where I feel Connery is out-acted in a scene. That combination of strength, confidence, sexuality and vulnerability, makes Domino one of my favorites of the series.

A scene from Thunderball

Pfeiffer: The early Bond girls were often victims of tragic circumstances. Honey Ryder was an orphan who had to fend for herself after suffering sexual abuse. Tania in From Russia with Love is ordered by her superiors to sleep with an enemy agent she has never met. Tilly Masterson in Goldfinger is out to avenge the murder of her sister. Domino is also a somewhat tragic figure. She is a very young woman who has let the lure of a charismatic man and the trappings of luxury lure her into a life she can no longer escape. She clearly is unhappy being Largo’s “kept woman” but there is no easy way out. Her situation grows even more tragic when she learns that her lover, Largo, has murdered her brother. I do wish the script had provided more background on the character of Domino, as she could have been presented in a far more interesting and fleshed-out manner. Still, she remains sufficiently interesting to engage the viewer in her dilemma of having to risk her life to avenge her brother. As for Claudine Auger, she certainly fits the part physically, but like so many actors from the early films, it’s difficult to fully evaluate her performance because she was dubbed.

Rubin: I just can’t say enough about Claudine Auger. She was a stunner, and she had all the accessories necessary for a great Bond girl, times ten. Loved her wardrobe, or lack thereof. Looks great in a bikini, or an evening dress, and her scenes with Bond are very romantic. Other than Diana Rigg’s Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I would say she’s the most compatible Bond girl for 007. He could do much worse. 

Rye: Thunderball boasts the most impressive quartet of female flesh of any of the Bond films; while Claudine Auger’s Domino is a physically impressive looking woman, especially in her black & white bikini (Domino—geddit!), it’s her voice, dubbed by Nikki van der Zyl, that really carries off the performance of a vulnerable young woman who has drifted into shady company and been seduced by Largo’s “good life,” becoming a powerful and dangerous criminal’s plaything; a “kept woman,” as she tells Bond…. But the stand out Bond Girl in Thunderball, expertly played by Luciana Paluzzi, is Fiona Volpe, who remains the strongest written female character in the entire Bond series, with her dialogue bristling in every scene in which she appears. Sadly, Thunderball loses much of its tension, urgency and bite after Fiona exits the narrative, courtesy of a SPECTRE bullet meant for Bond.

Scivally: Domino is one of the “angel with one wing down” Bond girls, a poor victim of circumstances who is a “kept woman” because her brother has been swept up in Largo’s scheme. Like almost every character in this movie except Fiona Volpe, she is aloof and, consequently, hard to sympathize with, or feel sympathy for. Fiona, on the other hand, is almost like a female Bond, a lethal assassin with a healthy sexual appetite, and is played with genuine spark by Lucianna Paluzzi. Paluzzi injects a sense of fun into her scenes that is missing from much of the rest of the film, and consequently, is more memorable than Claudine Auger, who looks stunning but is otherwise pretty vapid.

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