- Directed by Terence Young
- December 9, 1965 (Tokyo, premiere) / December 22, 1965 (US) / December 29, 1965 (UK)
- Based on the 1961 novel Thunderball by Ian Fleming
Bond must find two NATO atomic bombs stolen by SPECTRE which is holding the world for ransom of £100 million in diamonds under the threat to destroy a major city.
Thunderball is the Bond film that has it all. Action. Adventure. An over-the-top theme. And a villain with an eyepatch. It IS the stereotype of the superspy film from stem to stern. And that there is part of its magic.
When you think of an old super spy movie theme song or even an old James Bond theme song “Thunderball” by Tom Jones is what you think of. Many of the elements of this song are a bit cheesy but it’s what embodies the genre in a weird way. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not but this song at the same time is a good encapsulation of James Bond as well as the movie and a bit of a poke at the tropes therein.
I’ve made a few jokes in my discussions of the James Bond movies about the regularly occurring plot element of James Bond’s penis converting women to the side of good. In this movie SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) assassin Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) makes a comment about just that and in a twist after experiencing his force for good she does not switch to the side of righteousness. The minds behind James Bond even then knew exactly what they had and embraced it and occasionally had fun with it. And that’s largely why this movie works. It doesn’t try to be anything grand or sophisticated but rather just tries to be an entertaining story.
Another cliché (though probably not so at the time) is the eyepatch worn by our villain Emilio Largo (performance by Adolfo Celi/voice dubbed by Robert Rietty). He is a villainous SPECTRE agent who masterminded a plot with a false faced agent to steal a NATO jet carrying some nuclear warheads. Largo is not goofy but rather a genuine threat and intelligent. As much as Bond toys with him, he toys with Bond as both try to figure out where the other stands and how to stop them.
This is possibly the first time in the Bond series where Bond feels genuinely sad over the death of a woman. It’s not that her death inconvenienced him, but he displays some momentary guilt over her demise. This comes with the death of Bond’s CIA ally in Nassau Paula Caplan (Martine Beswick). You can see it in Connery’s performance during the scene. But what this movie gets right is that Bond feels bad but isn’t emotionally crippled by this death. Bond is a man of action and duty whose womanizing and bad habits hide his guilt over those he could not save. This is an element that would be built upon over the years in successive films that gave complexity to Bond.
SPECTRE’s plot is set in motion when NATO pilot François Derval (Paul Stassino) is replaced with his double Angelo Palazzi (also Paul Stassino). Derval’s sister Domino (Claudine Auger performance/voice by Nikki van der Zyl) is Largo’s mistress but quite oblivious to Largo’s schemes. She is a touch disposable to the overall narrative and serves in this film as long-term eye candy.
The story of Thunderball is built on a bit of a ticking clock idea as Bond only has so much time to solve the mystery of the warheads in order to stop the detonation of nuclear weapons. It is very much fate of the world which is what James Bond is often known for. He not only saves the day for Queen and country but saves civilization. Who didn’t want to be that guy?
There are elements of spy-fi mixed in with the great action and witty dialogue that one would come to expect. One element I particularly enjoyed is how spectacularly SPECTRE disposes of their failures with shark tanks and explosions. I like it however a weakness of the whole idea is that it’s just their way of getting rid of the agents and it is not framed as a way of sending a message. As the former the agent becomes a goofy kill. As the latter it would still be a goofy kill but would also make it a dangerous element of the organization.
There is plenty of cool action and beautiful locations and most importantly for the old James Bond beautiful women. James Bond is the man every man wishes to be and the man every woman wishes to be with. Connery’s Bond is a little more humorous though he is still tough here. He’s a confident agent that’s not above a quip or a good one liner when appropriate. He doesn’t make it as goofy as Roger Moore did. It’s just the witty one-liner to highlight a kill or a death.
In the world we get here despite the outlandish nature of much of the story there’s a distinct level of possibility. You can believe that James Bond has these gadgets or that such serious events can occur without ever coming to the attention of the public. We’ve got two nuclear warheads and the world held hostage in exchange for a ransom and only James Bond can save us.
Thunderball is yet another great entry in the James Bond series. It’s fun and exciting and a perfect encapsulation of Sean Connery’s time as James Bond. This movie is a treat for action fans as well as fans of fun spy movies.