Days of Thunder: James Bond Takes on Nuclear Terrorists in Thunderball

James Bond returns for his most commercially audacious outing yet

The release of Goldfinger in 1964 established James Bond as a worldwide phenomenon. Film producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had skilfully created a hugely successful franchise. Everything associated with 007 had become larger than life. Box office for the three films made since 1962 totalled more than $2 billion adjusted for inflation. The 12 Bond novels by Ian Fleming, who died just before Goldfinger hit theaters, were all bestsellers with nearly 60 million copies in print. Licensing deals proliferated with merchandisers of games, toys, apparel, even vodka ― anything that could feature a 007 logo. For Broccoli and Saltzman, the big question was how to keep it all going.

During the production of Goldfinger, it was figured that the next Bond adventure to be adapted to the big screen would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but the story couldn’t match the big canvas that audiences had come to expect. This film had to be the biggest Bond of all. Bigger than missile toppling in Dr. No, bigger than outwitting SPECTRE in From Russia With Love, bigger than robbing Fort Knox in Goldfinger. The Bond story with the kind of scope, exotic locales, and dastardly deeds that fit the bill was Thunderball, but Broccoli and Saltzman’s EON Productions did not have the film rights. In fact, neither did Ian Fleming.

Broccoli and Saltzman sealed the deal with Fleming for the film rights to all but two of his James Bond books in 1961. After Casino Royale was adapted as a one-hour American television drama in 1954, film rights for the story landed with producer Charles K. Feldman. Feldman wanted to make the film version with Broccoli and Saltzman, but no deal could satisfy all parties, so Feldman went with a different angle entirely, producing the chaotic Bond spoof Casino Royale in 1967.

The film rights to Thunderball were an altogether different story that has a few versions. This one comes courtesy of The James Bond Movie Encyclopedia by Steven Jay Rubin. Fleming had gotten together with film producer Kevin McClory in 1959 to develop a James Bond adventure directly for the screen. Longitude 78 West was a story developed by Fleming, McClory, and screenwriter Jack Whittingham that introduced SPECTRE and its plot to hold NATO to ransom courtesy of two stolen nuclear bombs. Fleming was frustrated to be sharing his 007 creative canvas and disappointed by the entire screenwriting process. McClory lost financial backing and the project floundered. Fleming returned to Goldeneye, his Jamaica estate, to write his next Bond novel, Thunderball, which coincidentally or not introduced SPECTRE and its plot to hold NATO to ransom.

You wish to put the evil eye on me? We have a way to deal with that where I come from.


McClory and Whittingham cried foul as soon as they got wind of Thunderball’s storyline and promptly took Fleming to court. It is quite possible that Fleming truly infringed on the creative work of others in writing Thunderball. However, he may have personally justified it with the fact that he alone created James Bond, and McClory and Whittingham wouldn’t be coming up with any Bond film ideas at all were it not for Fleming. Broccoli and Saltzman closely watched the lawsuit unfold. Were it not for the legal proceedings, Thunderball would have been their choice as the first Bond film. In 1963, the courts awarded McClory film and television rights to Thunderball and anything to do with the organization SPECTRE. As a result, all future prints of the novel had to attribute story credit jointly to Fleming, McClory, and Whittingham. 

McClory knew he had a hot property with the film rights to Thunderball and immediately set about trying to get it made. Broccoli and Saltzman’s success with the first two Bond films made investors wary of backing McClory’s competing Bond picture. McClory couldn’t get a Bond movie made without Broccoli and Saltzman, and Broccoli and Saltzman didn’t want a second James Bond running around. The producers soon found themselves talking directly and both sides got what they wanted. EON Productions got to tell Goldfinger audiences that James Bond will return in Thunderball, McClory receiving a producing credit and a slice of the profits, promising not to produce any new Bond material for 10 years.

Thunderball was adapted from Fleming’s novel by veteran 007 screenwriter Richard Maibaum and features the deadliest plot Bond has yet faced. No longer content to sabotage American rocket programs or steal Soviet decoding machines, SPECTRE goes for broke this time around. They infiltrate the NATO air command, hijack a bomber, and steal the two nuclear weapons on board. Their plan is to blow up a major city in England or America in seven days unless they’re paid £100 million Sterling. 

Bond races against the clock to track down and recover the bombs before zero hour, and he looks good doing it. With his fourth turn as 007, Sean Connery so clearly assumed the role that it seems silly in retrospect that McClory would have even considered making a competing James Bond movie. As Bond, Connery is self-assured, displaying the cockiness and wry humor that are by this point endemic to the character. He made it look easy to be Bond, but behind the scenes he was beginning to grow weary of the role. Connery was one of the most recognizable people in the world in 1965, the media and fans tracking his every move. Fiercely protective of his privacy, Connery granted only one interview to Playboy magazine when production was completed. 

My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for King and country. You don’t think it gave me any pleasure, do you?

James Bond

The film’s villain, Emilio Largo, aka SPECTRE Number Two, is not as colorful as Auric Goldfinger, but he certainly delivers the menace. The eyepatch is also a nice touch. Played by prolific Italian actor Adolfo Celi, Largo is key to our first real peek behind day-to-day life at SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. Number One, whom we will later come to know as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is first introduced in From Russia with Love. However, other than learning that Number One is an ailurophile with an accent, not much more is revealed until Thunderball.

In this film, we discover that SPECTRE is a ruthless “dedicated fraternity” that is adept at keeping a low profile. It’s also very busy. In a scene that will be repeated and spoofed in spy films up to the present day, SPECTRE agents gather for a meeting to update Number One on their latest projects: blackmailing Japanese double agents, assassinating French communists, distributing Red China narcotics in the United States. There is even mention that SPECTRE was involved in the 1963 Great Train Robbery in England, a nod to actual events that mischievously breaks the film’s fourth wall. Largo’s nuclear blackmail scheme is SPECTRE’s most ambitious yet, and 007 finds himself embroiled in it initially by sheer coincidence.

It seems a stretch that Bond would be relaxing at the very same health spa that SPECTRE agents are using as a launching point to infiltrate the nearby NATO air base. It’s also a stretch that Bond so readily discovers a thread to unraveling SPECTRE’s plot with the sister of the dead NATO pilot whose identity was used to steal the bombs. Needless to say, the sister happens to be a beautiful woman who enjoys snorkelling in the mesmerising, deep blue waters of the Bahamas, but it’s all in the service of getting the caper moving along, so such ham-fisted plot devices can be forgiven. 

The rest of the cast lives up to the scope of the story and the spirit of the adventure. The woman Bond travels halfway around the world to find, Dominique Derval, is played by Claudine Auger. Domino, as her friends call her, is introduced as Largo’s unhappy mistress, but when Bond reveals to her the goings-on, she is willing to help him defeat the creepy old man. Broccoli wanted Julie Christie, then Raquel Welch for the role before settling on Auger, who distinguishes herself in the pantheon of Bond women. Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi auditioned for the role of Domino before being cast as Fiona Volpe, Largo’s deadly SPECTRE assassin who drives fast, smokes cigars, shoots skeet, and deftly uses her feminine wiles to subdue her enemies. She stands out among Largo’s coterie of expendable henchmen and low-brow thugs, and she gets the upper hand on Bond, but only temporarily.

If Bond had died last night as a result of your hastiness, his government would have known for certain the bombs are here. When the time is right, he will be killed. I shall kill him.

Fiona Volpe

Familiar faces returning for action include Bernard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, and Desmond Llewelyn as Q, who from this point forward will serve as the Bond franchise’s comic relief, outfitting 007 with just the gadgets he will need to successfully complete his mission. One returning character that doesn’t measure up is Bond’s loyal CIA buddy Felix Leiter, this time played by Rik Van Nutter. Van Nutter plays Leiter as a bit of a chump to Bond’s smarter, more sophisticated agent. The character of Leiter, which varies throughout the franchise from being a valuable asset to an agreeable second banana, hits a low point in this film, serving mainly as an expository plot device who is of no essential use to 007. 

Aside from some casting and plot missteps, Thunderball flawlessly executes the 007 formula. Talented director Terrence Young returned to helm the picture, having given 007 his signature style in the first two Bond films. Veteran production designer Ken Adam delivers some memorable set pieces, including SPECTRE HQ and the Disco Volante, Largo’s luxury yacht/hydrofoil capable of hiding two nuclear bombs and outsmarting the U.S. Navy. The underwater sequences, which comprise nearly a quarter of the film, are remarkably well done, including the water landing of the nuclear bomber and the climactic battle between SPECTRE and the U.S. Navy that included 60 divers. We are also treated to a few brief moments with Bond’s Aston Martin from Goldfinger, an array of new gadgets from Q, and a personal jet pack that Bond uses in the opening sequence to escape after assassinating a SPECTRE agent. John Barry’s musical score takes the action to new heights, and the title track sung by Tom Jones joined the James Bond hit parade upon the film’s release.  

Like Bond going all in at the Baccarat table in Casino Royale (the good one from 2006), EON took a big gamble with Thunderball. The production budget was double that of the previous three films combined, but the payoff was handsome and well deserved. Thunderball became the highest grossing Bond film to date and would remain so until 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. Special effects supervisor John Stears received an Academy Award for his work, which included an overzealous pyrotechnic stunt to blow up the Disco Volante that shattered windows along the Nassau beach 30 miles away. 

With Thunderball, the change for James Bond was complete. The character had grown far beyond its literary beginnings. Bond now belonged to the world, a true superhero who would save us from the dastardly deeds of SPECTRE and other ne’er do wells bent on world domination or epic chaos. Bond’s enemies never seem to learn their lesson, though. And that is why James Bond will return. 

Director: Terence Young
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum &
John Hopkins
Cinematography: Ted Moore
Music: John Barry
Editing: Peter Hunt &
Ernest Hosler

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