Thunderball (1965)

Terrence Young takes back the director’s seat to make Thunderball. Personally, I would have called it Trainwreck, because that makes way more sense than Thuderball. So far James Bond (Sean Connery) has gone to an exotic island, Istanbul and Glen Beck’s horse ranch. This time, Bond must go to new depths for country and queen. He must venture where few humans have tread: the bottom of the ocean.

James Bond starts off minding his own business, assassinating a SPECTER agent, chilling at the local spa when he stumbles upon a nefarious plot helmed by Largo (Adolfo Celi), who’s distinguished as the villain by his conspicuous eye patch. Turns out some nukes went missing and now Bond has got to dig them up by checking the great deep for any signs of the nukes…and a few women along the way.

Put simply, Thunderball is a mess of a film. If I had to point fingers, I’d blame whoever decided it would be a good idea to make this story into a film. On the written page, Ian Flemming’s book might work by taking Bond into a novel and different location, and the badguy’s plan is quite cunning, but adapted into a film, the prospect of an underwater adventure is awkward for a multitude of reasons.

The biggest problem is that action underwater is hampered by the fact that you are underwater. In case you’ve never swam in your life, being underwater leads to a lot of floating and moving about slowly. This makes the action of the film clumsy and awkward, Captain James T. Kirk fighting the Godzilla alien awkward. Actually, that’s unfair to Star Trek. It’s like taking that fight scene, adding as many people as possible and slowing it down.

Also, you are spending a lot of time with your actors obscured by masks and stuffed in awkward equipment. Sure, those skin tight wetsuits are flattering to Connery’s form, but he’s not all that dashing behind a goofy pair of goggles. It’s the same problem superhero movies have with those crazy masks that cover up the faces of fantastic actors. Sean Connery is superb in the role of James Bond and to simply delegating him behind a mask (or use his stunt double for half the movie) is a tremendous waste of talent.

But beyond all the awkwardness that comes out of setting a film underwater, the scrip in this film is poorly paced. This is the longest Bond movie so far and it’s also the only one where I was bored when people started talking. Someone simply sucked all the wit, fun and charm out of the dialoge and instead inserted bland, serious people talk. Leave that stuff for the Oscars, this is a Bond movie. Where are the corny jokes and the witty double entendres? There is a couple, but they are far and few between.

Also, Bond isn’t as smooth as he was in the other films. Since the wit of this film is sucked out, he’s left delivering painfully obvious come on lines to the ladies. It’s so horribly obvious and tasteless that one of the women even points it out. Way to win over the ladies, Bond. It’s so bad that he actually has to extort one of his ladies to make time. O Bond, where art thou?

Equally uninspired are all the other characters. I couldn’t even remember the Bond girl’s name, let alone her face. The villain is only notable for his nefarious eye patch that may as well have “evil” painted in red on it. At least some of the old favorites pop up. Q (Desmond Llewelyn) has a bit more screen time and gives Bond another scolding, which is a bit of fun and Miss Monneypenny (Lois Maxwell) has a nice scene with, but not near, Bond.

And the film even had a great idea for a fantastic Bond girl: an enemy spy, not unlike Bond himself. She’s got the charm and the gunplay. But the film relegates her to popping up whenever the plot needs something to happen. She should have been the main Bond girl of this film. Heck, she should have been the main villain of this film. That would have been way cooler than a dude wearing a silly eye patch (no offense, Kurt Russell).

Instead, the film we get left with is a poor and lackluster feature where I’m left wondering what they were thinking . These feel like a bunch of elements hobbled together from the cutting room floor. Perhaps because of how fast they were churning, they simply had to come up with something on the fly and this was the result. It’s clear that with Goldfinger they struck lightning, leaving us with the leftover noise: thunder…ball.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

  • Silver Emulsion

    Have to agree that this is a weak Bond film. The underwater stuff just kills the action and it goes on and on. I still like this one overall, but it’s much too long. Nice review!

  • Dan (

    I think I prefer this to the first two Bond movies but it isn’t Goldfinger.

  • TheAnswerMVP2001

    Thunderball is actually my favorite Bond film, probably for all the reasons you thought it was a mess. Frankly I found it to be the most unique out of the first four, and all the characters were some of the best in possibly the entire Bond franchise.

    I’ve done over 50 Bond posts at my site, reviews of all the films, then separate thoughts on characters and some of the other classic aspects of each Bond film. Check them out if you’re interested.

  • Rosie

    Also, Bond isn’t as smooth as he was in the other films. Since the wit of this film is sucked out, he’s left delivering painfully obvious come on lines to the ladies. It’s so horribly obvious and tasteless that one of the women even points it out. Way to win over the ladies, Bond. It’s so bad that he actually has to extort one of his ladies to make time. O Bond, where art thou?

    Wow! Fiona Volpe’s comments really must have shook you up. Frankly, I thought it was time that Bond realized he wasn’t always the answer to a woman’s dreams. And I have to add that he was a lot more bearable in this film than he was in “GOLDFINGER”, in which he acted like an oversexed adolescent. I guess committing a borderline act of date rape in a barn does that to a guy.

  • Thomas Howle

    James Blake – Mate you dont get bond films if you dont get thunderball….rocket packs, nuclear weapons, scuba wars and probably the best John Barry soundtrack of all the films…..How can you complain about there faces being obscured – there scuba divers you moron!

    • James Blake Ewing

      I get the appeal of Bond, I just don’t have to agree that it makes a good film.

  • thomas Howle

    You dont agree that it makes a good film??

    $5,074,402,453 (thats 5 billion +) in world wide gross profits for all the bond films says your wrong by a country mile, actually 5 billion miles to be exact

    And of all the bond films connery did Thunderball made the most money – $132 million world wide.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I don’t think financial success is equivalent to a good film. Surely you must have seen a film that did fantastic at the boxoffice but you didn’t like at all.

      Also, your initial number is off. No film ever made has grossed 5 billion dollars. The highest is $1,610,295,700 (adjusted for inflation) and it’s Gone with the Wind. Your second number is close, but it actual made $141.2 world wide, which would translate to $965.3 million, so it’s up there in all time film grosses.

  • thomas Howle

    Like your summation of thunderball your wrong young james. Youll note that the 5billion reference was for ALL the bond films not just one and thunderball GROSSED $141 million world wide but COST 9 million to make which if my maths is still correct is a profit of 132million.

    And although many films have made money at the box office that i dont like such as Titanic and Shrek 2 it would be remissive to suggest that they are not good films. I dont like Picasso’s Mona Lisa but its currently valued at 750 million. So its indicative cost/ or profit is an indication of its success as a painting – and that can be said for movies like titanic.

    What doesnt balance up is your summation 45 years after the fact – citing modern thoughts such as those associated with the sexist nature of the film. This is kinda like bagging a western movie in 2011 for being rascist because the cowboys were shooting the indians. But what erks me most is the complete lack of appreation for the best underwater scenes ever filmed for any movie up to that date. The special effects in this film were awarded an Oscar. In fact Thunderball was also nominated for a Best Production Design BAFTA award. The film won the Golden Screen award for Best Film in Germany and won the Golden Laurel Action Drama award at the 1966 Laurel Awards. The film was also nominated for an Edgar Best Foreign Film award at the Edgar Allan Poe Awards. All in all this makes your summation of the film incorrect and certainly not in line with the thoughts of experienced screen critics.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I’m still not sure why you insist on tying the quality of its film to monetary gain. There’s no logic that suggests the quality has anything to do with the money a film makes. That has more to do with marketing, release of boxoffices, the mood of filmgoers and name recognition.

      I’m approaching films from a critical perspective. Part of criticism is applying various ideas, ideologies and standards to films. One of the ones I’ve returned to many times with James Bond is gender portrayals. I think it certainly should be hold to that. I’m not going to turn a blind eye to serious issues in an old film, like racism in The Birth of a Nation or misogyny in a Western just because it’s old, or that idea was accepted in its time.

      And the notion that I’m wrong just because I’m not in line with mainstream thought assumes that no individual though or opinion should ever be expressed against the popular view. That is what is known as fascism.

      I appreciate your different perspectives and that you took the time to comment on my blog, but I think you need to realize this is my perspective of films and analyzing them through various intellectual ideas and standards, not me applying some cookiecutter formula for gauging films by the critical/financial success they received.

  • thomas Howle

    I tie success of films to monetry gain (where appropriate ie budget and core aim to sell) because it relates directly to the audience (movies are made for audiences not critics) which is the main way of guaging the likability and effectiveness of a story line. And there are plenty of movies like once were warriors that had small budgets and small advertising allowances which still made money and thus its effectivenss as a medium can be quantified. I wouldnt apply such a reasoning to a film that doesnt have those aims.

    I disagree that you should hold your modern day ethics up against an older film based on older ethics. This as a critic is not digestable and I suggest that if you want to make a critic one day you steer away from that aspect. It does two things – firstly its the easiest way to critique a movie and therefor also the laziest. It also suggest that a film made 40 years ago should have perceived what society would be like in the future and that is next to impossible – furthermore that a film created today should be on par with the disposition of society in the future. Also its part of the character just as Bogarts ‘Sweetheart’ remark may seem today as being slightly sexist – which is a cheap way of critiquing.

    Finally you havent touched upon the fact that the movie won some siginificant awards – some of which such as the special effects awards were directly related to elements of the movie that you bagged such as the underwater scenes. Your remark that the masks obscured the actors faces doesnt appreacite that body language is just as powerful as facial expressions and in this respect helped tell the story – a very difficult thing to do in a major motion picture.

    Additionally if you cant handle having your critique critiqued than your not much of a critic and will be relegated to the limited lessons taught at your uni or college.

    • James Blake Ewing

      But how much of a film’s financial success has nothing to do with the film? How much of it has to do with distribution? The likelyhood of a film that opens at 50 theaters making more money than one that opens at 400+ theaters is slim to none, no matter how good or bad either film might be. And all sorts of movies are made for all sorts of audiences. I’ve been writing about the films of Claire Denis over the past few months, none of which earned great financial success but none of them are aimed at a mass audience, more of a select audience. Are these films simply bad because they don’t fit the mass understanding of what makes a good film?

      The awards argument holds little sway for me at just a cursory glance. Citizen Kane, often hailed as the greats film of all time, was panned at the award ceremonies. Hence, clearly, awards do not equal the quality of the film.

      I’ve got no problem with people critiquing my critiques. I’ve received legitimate criticism from many readers that have caused me to reevaluate the way I addressed or wrote something. While I appreciate your thoughts, I personally do not find that they hold much persuasion or cause me to change my opinion on this film.

  • Lucius

    Well, here’s the irony: what became Ian Fleming’s novel “Thunderball” was originally a cinema scenario with collaborators, which is why the franchise got stuck with the endless legal mess that finally gave us “Never Say Never Again”, the remake from the people who gained the ‘rights’ to the story and to “Blofeld” and “Spectre” as well. TSWLM was originally to be a Blofeld plot; finally they namelessly ‘killed off’ Blofeld at the beginning of FYEO, apparently in part at least as an in-joke sort of “f*** you” to the folks who owned the Thunderball-remake rights.

    I might as well point out you gave the lead girl’s name, Domino Derval, to the lead baddie, Emilio Largo (I think that was just a proofread oversight, we won’t sweat it!). Or maybe you’ve been ‘sweated’ over that already, I didn’t read the above comments in full. But it does amuse me now, to think how ‘androgynous’ a name it is.

    This is another one I haven’t actually viewed in a very long time, but Thunderball does get discussed a fair deal around Chateau de Lucius. For one thing, the feminine charms of Fiona and Domino are pretty iconic. Another: the John Barry score is out of this world. Maybe not the Tom Jones vocals (that might be a ‘leave it’ proposition) but the eerie underwater themes (I’ve literally ‘heard’ them in nightmares before) I think rank as one of the very greatest original scores in film.

    Part of Thunderball’s allure, and its curse, is that it’s a kind of ‘forgotten’ Bond– not as set in the popular memory as the touchstone characters, dialogue, and situations of the first 3 Bond films– yet this film’s structural DNA is deeply buried in the subsequent films, and in pop culture generally. Thus, for instance, so much of the Austin Powers movies’ frame of reference comes specifically from this film– admittedly, a huge blockbuster in its day.

    It certainly is bursting at the seams with plot and circumstance, it’s long and unwieldy, and the underwater scenes (a technological coup at the time) run on very long.

    What I think makes this appealing to some viewers– I’m not sure where I end up on this– is that it is precisely the most Baroque of the 60s Bonds; the sheer too-muchness may be intoxicating for some viewers. It’s almost a bit psychedelic in a way: the established Bond of the Big Three going all swirly before our eyes.

    One thing I think you’ve hinted at elsewhere, and might be worth revisiting: there is *a lot* of sexual sadomasochism in this film. By today’s standards, the lack of total ‘expliciteness’ might make people not dwell on it; but really, it is highly prominent in a way that should remain controversial. From the fur mitten-rubs to the stretching rack; Fiona’s ‘caged animal’ routine, her obsession with sexual rivalry and power; Domino’s torture and revenge spear-in-the-back to Largo; the Largo henchman who apparently is some kind of murderous ascetic (“does not drink, does not smoke, does not make love . . .”). And fornicating underwater, that’s maybe a bit out there too, really. They’re really pushing the envelope on this stuff for 1965, and it leaves this film with a nasty aftertaste that’s much randier and more perverse than pretty much any Bond film since. Here it’s not just decor, it’s hardwired into the film’s ambience and the story’s dynamics.

    • James Blake Ewing

      A lot of great insights and thoughts. Thanks for correcting me on the mistake.

      I’m not sure why, but a lot of people seem to be passionate about Thunderball and maybe it’s because some people see it as an unfairly overlooked Bond film, although, from my experience, it seems to be one of the more well known of the Connery Bonds.

      And yes, the masochism is something I go on to harp about a lot in a ton of the reviews. Some people think I’m being unfair, but, personally, I think I’ve been far too generous to some very degrading and disgusting depictions of women in some of these films. I’m not expecting Oscar worthy female character leads here, but it would be nice if these films treated women as more than just sex objects or the brunt end of innuendos. I think the films progressively start to get better in their depictions of women, although there certainly are some later films that might be even more offensive in their depictions of women.