James Bond 007: The Lasting Over-the-top Appeal of Thunderball

Sean Connery stars in Thunderball, the fourth James Bond movie. But 007 has had better adventures than this one...

Oh Thunderball, you had everything: menacing villains, beautiful girls, a brilliant femme fatale, SPECTRE, sharks, the Bahamas, Tom Jones, atomic bombs, a bit where Bond harpoons someone and says, “I think he got the point.” And what did you go and do? You went underwater! And once underwater you drown.

The Villain: Not quite a great, but certainly effective. If you were assembling an identikit Bond villain you’d probably end up with Emilio Largo. He wears an eye-patch. He owns sharks. He talks courteously with Bond while plotting how to kill him. Unfortunately after four films such traits aren’t exactly trailblazing. His relationship with Domino is the genuinely original aspect of the character.

The Girl: The first girl to be given a genuine backstory, Domino is an atypically complex creation. She is kept in a gilded cage by Largo, a man she once loved and now fears. Domino flirts with Bond, uses Bond but never obviously falls for Bond. Indeed she only shows strong affection when speaking of her brother. One of the few Bond girls you could accurately describe as ‘enigmatic’ – is she very shallow or very self-possessed? Slightly overshadowed by the terrific Fiona Volpe.

So let’s enjoy a pre-credits sequence set entirely on dry land. Bond, attending the staged funeral of a rival assassin, correctly deduces his enemy lives and is disguised as the grieving window. What gives Colonel Boiter away? The fact that ‘Mrs Boiter’ opens a car door by herself. Because, er, if a woman does anything even remotely self-sufficient she must in fact be a man in disguise. Anyway, a fight to the death ensues and Bond strangles Boiter with a poker. All good, wholesome fun. He then runs into the château courtyard, grabs a jetpack and literally flies to the Aston Martin.

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Questions concerning why the jetpack is inside the château – presumably Bond planted it beforehand but how? – are best left unasked. Amazingly, the jetpack was operational and piloted onscreen by a guy named Bill Suitor. Rather him than me. Anyway, the Goldfingerethos of spectacle over credibility is amplified in the first five minutes. Whether or not this is a good move is entirely subjective. Certainly the sequence would be less memorable if Bond simply escaped on foot. 

The title song – belted out by Tom Jones who fainted on singing the final note – is followed by that most satirised of Bond hallmarks: the SPECTRE meeting. It’s essentially just a bog-standard AGM only with more interesting reports – blackmail, bank robberies – and redundancy coming in the form of electrocution.

I fear this is another of those scenes impossible to take entirely seriously post-Austin Powers. (I keep waiting for Number 9’s agonised wails. “I’m still alive but I’m very badly burnt!”) Blofeld is again faceless, again portrayed by Anthony Dawson (Professor Dent), and again voiced by Eric Pohlmann. Which raises two questions: firstly, why is his voice considerably higher than in From Russia With Love? And what the hell was wrong with Pohlmann’s hands? 

Bond recuperates from the Boiter fight at the Shrublands health clinic, where he divides his time between pranking SPECTRE agent Count Lippe and sexually harassing his doctor. Let’s deal with Lippe first, and the feud between him and Bond that briefly turns the film into a Just William story. Bond breaks into Lippe’s hotel room. Lippe accelerates Bond’s traction table. Bond locks Lippe in a steam bath cabinet. Lippe steals Bond’s new penknife… Ultimately Lippe resorts to that most half-arsed of assassination attempts: taking a few pot shots at the Aston, sadly with a gun not a slingshot. (Although a slingshot could barely be less effective.) He is promptly exploded by Fiona Volpe, and it serves him right.

Actually, whilst on the subject of Lippe: although Thunderball’s plot is very simple (nuke, ransom demand) the method by which SPECTRE get hold of the atomic bomb is really rather complicated. Largo sends Lippe to hang out at a health spa near a NATO base. Lippe has recruited this guy called Angelo to have extensive plastic surgery so he resembles NATO pilot Francis Derval. Fiona keeps tabs on Derval by becoming his mistress, and once the surgery is complete Angelo (now Derval’s doppelgänger) shoots the poor guy.

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Moonlighting as Derval, Angelo crashes a NATO plane into the sea so Lippe and his gang can steal its nuclear bombs. The heist is the film’s first extended underwater sequence. It won’t be the last. Lippe then leaves Angelo to drown because the silly sod demanded more money. Blofeld orders Lippe’s assassination for hiring Angelo in the first place and generally being a bit of a div. Fiona happily obliges. But Bond – whose stay at the same health spa as Lippi is simply a massive coincidence – has smelt a rat and discovered a very dead Major Derval. Thus he requests M to send him to Nassau so he can pursue Derval’s sister, Domino, as a lead. And if you can work all that out on first viewing then I doff my cap to you.

Why is underwater bomb heist over five minutes long? And soundtracked by music that quickly lulls you into slumber? Der ner na, ner ner, ner ner, ner na na. Repeated ad infinitum.

Where were we? Oh yes – Doctor Fearing. The hot physiotherapist assigned to nurse Bond back to health. Within five minutes Bond has blackmailed poor Patricia into some naked sauna fun. Is the good doctor keen? Well she’s resisted his advances thus far; but once he can potentially get her fired from the health clinic, the power dynamic is somewhat changed. But no worries – another ‘problematic’ situation is defused simply by ‘being Bond’. Sexual prowess conquers all. Next scene she’s practically purring as 007 supplies a mink glove massage. Oh James. You utter card.

M is very much on form. After Captain Pritchard doubts Bond saw Derval dead at Shurblands, M tersely retorts that 007’s claim is enough for him to initiate enquires. A lovely line that shows the trust between the pair, no matter how frayed their relations might become. There follows a wonderfully awkward moment when M overhears Moneypenny refer to him as “the old man.” Moneypenny looks mortified; Bond pulls the classic schoolboy trick of pretending to search for his hat. M calmly tells Moneypenny, “I’ll thank you not to refer to me as ‘the old man’” and returns to his office like a total boss, a trail of utter devastation in his wake. Possibly Bernard Lee’s finest hour. 

And so at last we reach the Bahamas – over 40 minutes into the film. Compare the pacing to the preceding three instalments. Dr. No gets Bond to Jamaica within 15 minutes, whereas From Russia reaches Istanbul in under 25. 40 minutes into Goldfinger we’ve already had the golden girl, the golf game and the bowler hat; within the hour we’ll experience the Aston Martin chase and the laser. If someone sits down at this point in Thunderball and asks “what have I missed?” the honest answer is “Not a lot.” Fortunately things start to perk up.

More swimming – or rather snorkelling. Domino gets her foot trapped in a reef. Bond saves her. How fortunate!

Doesn’t the coral look nice? Let’s count some fish.

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As if making up for lost time, Bond meets Domino then Largo in quick succession. The latter is a classic encounter across the card table. They play baccarat – a game with a rich Bond history. He plays baccarat against Le Chiffre in his debut novel, Casino Royale, and is playing baccarat against Sylvia Trench when introduced in Dr. No. The rules are simple: both players turn over their cards and Bond wins. These rules remain consistent throughout numerous films. Fortunately, the film of Casino Royale changed the central game to Texas hold ‘em, thus giving Le Chiffre a fighting chance.

By far the strongest aspect of Thunderball is the three protagonists and the relationships between them. Connery’s Bond, Largo and Domino create possibly the most complex version of the central trinity of Bond, Baddie, Girl.

Certainly it is the most personal. Bond and Largo’s relationship is straightforward antagonism and the least interesting of the three, but that doesn’t make it dull. Outwardly civil, the pair trade subtle barbs to show each has the other pegged. Such sparring, while highly enjoyable, is hardly unique to Thunderball. The rivalry between Bond and Largo is given an extra dimension by Domino, who is both a prize and a weapon. The two men vie over Domino yet each uses her against the other. Bond provokes Largo by blatantly hitting on Domino in front of him. Not rising, Largo flaunts his control over his mistress by essentially letting Bond have free reign.

Ah, swimming. Bond photographs Largo’s yacht underwater. Largo chucks grenades into the sea. None hit Bond. Quelle surprise.

Bond’s wooing of Domino is aggressively forward. From their first meeting he makes clear his intentions; by the second he’s actively propositioning her. ‘Flirting’ is too coy a term – ‘relentless pursuit’ fits better. Bond must move quickly as he needs Domino to locate the missing bombs, which he accurately believes to be in Largo’s possession. He uses Largo’s orchestration of her brother’s death to get Domino totally onside; a cold but necessary move. Anyway, the manipulation is reciprocal. Domino uses Bond: initially as a distraction from Largo, later as an escape from him. She demands Bond avenge her brother and “kill Largo for me.” Theirs is a relationship founded on mutual benefit, helped by a shared attraction. Romance never enters the equation.

One scene does puzzle me. Meeting in the Pacific Ocean, it is clearly implied Bond and Domino have sex – where else – underwater. But what exactly are the logistics? They’re wearing full scuba kit: oxygen tank, goggles, flippers for heaven’s sake!

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Bond and Largo’s animosity is heightened by Domino, while the Domino-Bond alliance is driven by Largo. What of the third side of the triangle? Domino and Largo share the most personal relationship of any antagonist and heroine. While Bond frequently seduces women in league with the villain, generally these women are employees. Domino and Largo were once lovers and might still be sexual partners, albeit unwillingly in Domino’s case. She is certainly Largo’s kept mistress, controlled and displayed by him. Yet how controlled? Domino’s evident boredom and swift reciprocation of Bond’s advances hints at her taking lovers on the sly (and good for her if so).

Ultimately she helps Bond out of hatred for Largo. On discovering her betrayal, Largo tortures Domino with ice cubes and a lit cigar. The sexual nature of this torture is blatant. It’s pretty bold stuff and kudos for going there.

Swim, swim swim. Underwater battle. Who is who? Who knows. We can identify Bond as he’s leaving a weird green trail and is using that breathing device instead of a scuba kit. Didn’t Q say the device only provided four minutes of air? Shut up.

Yet the final payoff is rather brilliant. In the film’s climax Bond and Largo fight aboard the runaway Disco Volante. Largo gains the upperhand and has Bond at gunpoint – only to be harpooned in the back by the escaped Domino. She rises up behind Largo like a vengeful goddess, coldly eyeing her former lover as he staggers round to face her.

Domino is the first girl to directly save Bond and the only girl (ever!) to kill the primary male antagonist. Okay, Tatiana shoots Klebb – but Klebb is more ensemble, and crucially is female herself so therefore fair game (imagine Tatiana dispatching Red Grant). The series has many, many crimes to answer for regarding its women but credit to the writers of Thunderball for getting this one right.

And I’ve barely mentioned Fiona. The smoking hot assassin who steals the film. She is the first Bond femme fatale, displaying all the trademarks: cool, confident, promiscuous. Why are sexually forward Bond women – think Xena Onatopp – usually bad? Or quickly killed off? Because that’s how culture – ancient and modern – tends to portray promiscuous women. Bond is just another tired old symptom of an ageless illness. Anyway, Fiona’s death during the carnival – built up by a tremendously exciting drumbeat – is the best scene of the film. It’s a duller place once she’s gone. 

You may have noticed that I’ve addressed the underwater sequences only tangentially. There is very little interesting to say about them. They aren’t silly, or offensive, or gratuitous – these might be moderately entertaining. Instead they are repeated, overlong and cripple the film. Every time a head of steam is built up the snorkels come on and the mind switches off. Less swimming and Thunderballwould be up there with the best. Instead it is doomed to be ‘the underwater one’.

But Thunderball has a deeper issue. Nowadays Bond is a franchise continually trying to reinvent itself. But the early films saw the franchise inventing itself from scratch. Thunderballis trapped between two landmarks. Goldfinger was the first Bond blockbuster, whereas You Only Live Twice was the first Bond ‘epic’. Both are major works in the canon: hugely influential, highly memorable. One has “No Mr Bond, I expect you to die”, the other has a spaceship that eats other spaceships.

And before Goldfinger came the critical darling From Russia with Love, arguably the best of the series. After You Only Live Twice comes the heavily debated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, arguably the most controversial. And stuck in the middle is Thunderball. A film of relative static. No new ground is broken, no fresh tracks pioneered. Formula has taken root. For the first time since its inception, the franchise seems willing to tread water. Which – considering the film in question – is really quite ironic.

Best Bit: Fiona and Bond dancing at the junkanoo. The rising drumbeat and the gun poking out through the curtain.

Worst Bit: The underwater sequences increase in tedium as the film progresses. But the early one of SPECTRE concealing the sunken plane is probably the outright dullest.

Final Thought: You lying crab.