The early James Bond films have proven that a cinematic franchise is possible thanks to a formulaic approach to filmmaking. It’s been done today with several franchises in the spy genre most notably the “Bourne” series and “Mission Impossible” that has taken inspiration from what James Bond started. By the fourth film, Thunderball, adapted from the Ian Fleming novel of the same name, which is the eighth full length Bond novel, Sean Connery looks the most at home in his portrayal of the titular international spy hero. There’s a certain level of comfort Connery brings to the role – just seeing his million-dollar smile brings a sense of familiarity to the film. With Connery as Bond, we know, we are in for a treat.
Connery is Connery, that’s why he’s been Bond the last few years. His screen presence is felt from the moment we see him at the tail end of a mission to when the end credits roll and he’s falling in lust for the hundredth time after saving the world. It must be an aphrodisiac – saving the world. His signature charm, charisma, confidence, and masculinity is ever present in Thunderball. So much so that Connery’s name is synonymous with the iconic line “Bond, James Bond” and the character himself.
As formulaic as these early films are, they can feel predicable – the same storyline and plot structure is built within each films DNA. Someone in SPECTRE, this time, Number 2 Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), the eye patch wielding villain with his own tank of man-eating sharks is hell bent on capturing 2 atomic bombs to hold NATO to ransom. Bond (Sean Connery) will meet with M (Bernard Lee) to devise a plan in which after the meeting, Bond flirts with Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell). Then come the gadgets, characters in their own right that steal the focus of each scene when put to good use gifted to Bond by Q (Desmond Llewelyn). After all that, Bond meets girl, Bond falls for girl and Bond gets girl.
With each film, one of the many highlights that fans keep gushing over all come back to the gadgets, the vehicles, and guns – finally a jetpack on screen, the women dubbed “Bond girls”, this time it’s Domino (Claudine Auger), that are utilized for show rather than depth, and the title screen and song composed by John Barry. Each of these four first Bond films are shot through the male gaze. How men view the world, how they view violence and nationality, pride and most importantly how they view women. The women are largely treated in misogynistic manners – looked at as objects instead of people. For the time of release, that social issue is rarely talked about let alone shown in film as a commentary on how different women are treated. But now, in revisiting these classic films, the way we used to view women characters in film is hard to stomach.
The plot in Thunderball is just enough to feed into the appetite for a return to the next installment of Bond. We’re all here for Connery, in a tuxedo asking a bartender for a martini shaken, not stirred.
One of the better aspects of these Bond films mainly Thunderball is the development of its central characters. With a screenplay by returning writer Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins, Largo is equally if not more crucial to the film’s success as Bond is. Establishing essentially a supervillain that’s humanized and relatable is the key to this franchise. Even further, Bond and Largo are more than physical enemies, they are intellectually at odds over the course of the 130-minute run time, constantly one -upping each other. Anything Bond can do; Largo can do better.
Thunderball plays both sides. Yes, we know everyone involved at SPECTRE is evil and a known villain to the world, but we get to know them, every bit of exposition and personality that makes each installments villain unique is explored. The pairing of the protagonist and antagonist is one of the major elements that Fleming centered his novels around. Largo is given purpose behind his and SPECTRE’s motives, the film has stakes that feel authentic as if this secret organization actually exists in the world we live in.
With all that, Maibaum and Hopkins still manage to keep this Bond story grounded in reality. With the spy genre, the fantasy elements can sometimes overwhelm the story but not here. Thunderball is ambitious in its story, taking the Bond franchise to new heights. Everything the first three films establish is boosted by a bigger budget and in return a bigger box office. The action sequences provide the heart racing tension as Bond goes from a silent observer to a western style action hero – all while outsmarting the opposition and coming face to face with certain death (man eating sharks, and an out of control yacht headed for an impending explosion). Connery is the quintessential James Bond, he’s the standard for future actors that take up the role to be looked at for crafting their version of the international man of mystery.
No franchise in film history is without controversy. Thunderball was slated to be the first Bond film released in the franchise if not for legal disputes. Original screenwriter for Thunderball Jack Whittingham wrote the story based on what he Kevin McClory (Producer) and Ian Fleming wrote. Jack Whittingham and Kevin McClory are former collaborators of Fleming’s and sued over the rights of the original work.
Thunderball is written by Richard Maibaum & John Hopkins, originally written by Jack Whittingham, directed by Terence Young is Rated PG and has an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Thunderball was released on December 29, 1965 in the United Kingdom and on December 22, 1965 in the United States and has a runtime of 2 hours and 10 minutes. Thunderball can be bought from online retailers like iTunes, Amazon, and Google. 4 out of 5.