I continue today with my regular series on re-watching all the James Bond films in advance of the November release of SPECTRE. Today’s entry: the 1965 epic, Thunderball. (Note: this essay contains spoilers.)
Bond’s old nemesis, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. — SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion — is back with its most ambitious scheme yet. N.A.T.O. is conducting a training exercise with British long-range Vulcan bombers. S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has switched one of the officers aboard the Vulcan, Francois Derval, with their own man, whom they have had altered to look like Derval.
The imposter murders everyone aboard the plane, and then takes it down below radar and flies it across the Atlantic to the Bahamas, where he crash-lands it on the water. After it sinks, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agents, led by Emilio Largo, murder the imposter (because he held out for more money) and steal the two atomic bombs off the plane. They then inform the British that if they don’t pay a 100-million-pounds ransom, one of the bombs will be exploded in an American or British city.
Every 00 agent in Europe, including James Bond, is called in to try to find the bombs before it’s too late. Bond is initially assigned to look in Canada, but he’s spied a clue in the briefing packet he gets. While he was drying out in the health clinic, Shrublands, he saw a dead man, whom at the time he did not know was Derval. The man’s sister Dominique, who goes by the nickname Domino, is in Nassau. Seeing it as the only lead they have, Bond requests he be reassigned to the Bahamas, and M agrees.
In Nassau, Bond makes contact with Domino and quickly discovers she is Largo’s girlfriend. Over a game of chemin de fer, Bond deduces Largo works for S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and he divides his time between trying to search Largo’s holdings (his estate, Palmyra, and his yacht, the Disco Volante) and the ocean around the island for the missing plane.
Bond and his regular ally, Felix Leiter, eventually locate the Vulcan, but the bombs are not aboard. With Domino’s help, Bond infiltrates Largo’s team and calls in the Marines, resulting in an epic underwater battle to foil S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’s plot once and for all.
The ad campaign for Thunderball was, “Look up. Look down. Look out! Here comes the biggest Bond of them all!”
It’s absolutely spot-on. Where Goldfinger set the formula for all the films to come after it, Thunderball truly is the “biggest Bond of them all.” Every movie in the franchise after it attempts to capture the grandiose feel of this epic movie.
The sheer scope of the plot sets it apart from its predecessors. Two atomic bombs are stolen. The West is held h0stage for an outrageous sum of money. Though we don’t really see them, other 00’s are involved in the mission.
Furthermore, Largo is the first villain who can really match up with Bond on not only a mental but a physical level. Goldfinger and Dr. No were geniuses, but Largo is not only smart, he can pummel anyone he gets into a fight with. After the two men take the measure of each other several times, they finally struggle underwater, with Largo getting the better of Bond, and then again in the climactic fight aboard the bridge of Disco Volante. Largo appears to have Bond beaten until Domino kills her former lover, saving Bond in the process.
Thunderball also has a lot more sex than its predecessors. Bond has sex with three different women, and each occasion is provocative. After he is nearly killed at Shrublands, he blackmails his nurse into having sex with him to keep quiet about the incident. Despite the steam in the shower, we clearly see her disrobe.
He also beds S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent Fiona Volpe. When he finds her in the bath in his suite and she asks him to give her something to put on, he hands her a pair of shoes. After their tryst, he tells her he got no pleasure from it, doing it only for King and Country.
And finally, he and Domino do it while scuba diving, causing Bond to remark afterward, “I hope we didn’t frighten the fish.”
What’s interesting about these conquests is that there’s no pretense of romance like in earlier films. He has sex with Domino solely and obviously to cement her assistance against Largo. He knows Fiona is working for S.P.E.C.T.R.E., but unlike Pussy Galore in Goldfinger and Tatiana Romanova in From Russia with Love, bedding her does not transform her into an ally. She continues to work for S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and hunts him ruthlessly through the Junkanoo — an island celebration similar to Mardi Gras.
Everything about Thunderball is big — the stakes, the plot, the women, and the cinematography. Thunderball is a gorgeous film, shot largely on location in the Bahamas. Director Terence Young masterfully handles an extraordinary amount of underwater photography — the giant commando raid at the end lasts nearly 12 minutes. Thunderball is a very wet film, and the fact that a movie of this scale was brought to the screen in only a year’s time is extraordinary by today’s standards.
Where It Fits
Like Goldfinger, Thunderball is a critically important film in the development of the franchise. As big as the plot of Goldfinger was, Thunderball raises the stakes and moves the ambitions of the villains to a more epic scale. From this point forward, the best Bond nemeses will be seeking to change the face of the Earth. Their visions are grand, their organizations far-reaching, and their schemes are apocalyptic.
After the success of Goldfinger, Bond pictures became lavish thrill-rides. Thunderball sets the standard for how big they had to be. The formula for the series is now set. Suave, sexually daring, and nearly invulnerable, James Bond is firmly established as an alpha-male good-guy. Every man wants to be him, every woman wants to date him, and the world needs him to keep it safe.
The last two films have permanently changed James Bond from a lethal and mysterious secret agent to a dashing superhero. Until Timothy Dalton takes the role in 1987’s The Living Daylights, this is how the character will be played and perceived.