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Non-Review Review: Thunderball

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

Thunderball perhaps gets a bit of a bad wrap because it’s perhaps not quite as good as From Russia With Love or Goldfinger. I’d argue that very few Bond films are. Thunderball perhaps represents the first moment that the series came to a rest – the first three installments had been built around establishing the character, his world and the tropes and clichés that viewers could expect from movie to movie. Sometimes concepts evolved gradually (for example, the novelty henchmen grew from the three blind assassins to Klebb and her knifey boots to Oddjob), while sometimes they were introduced suddenly (Bond’s Aston Martin), but by the time the fourth film came around, all these elements had been fairly firmly established. As such, the fourth film seemed to be more intent on consolidating the series than in breaking new ground. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that.

Bond isn't washed up... yet...

I’m not suggesting the franchise became stale. Indeed, there would be countless renovations and relaunches and redesigns in the years that would follow. Some (such as the attempt to add science-fiction with Moonraker) would fall flat on their face, while others (the minimalist approach of Casino Royale) would appear to be here to last. However, by this stage of the franchise, film fans had come to recognise the essential ingredients of a Bond film. Thunderball wasn’t about adding anything new to the franchise, but instead about anchoring everything and getting it tied down.

There are signs that the film series was becoming complacent, even at this early stage of the game. There’s the hint that this is the beginning of things getting just a bit ridiculous – the (in)famous opening sequence features Bond riding a jetpack to safety. The stunts are just a little bit over the top – we’re treated to the fairly cliché scene of Bond’s sleeve getting pinned against a cabinet by a throwing knife.

In fact, the entire movie seems to built around the underwater action sequences. Don’t get me wrong, they’re almost as impressive as they were originally (in fact, perhaps moreso – given that today it would be filmed entirely using CGI), but they just go on a little too long. There’s a moment during the climactic battle where a shark shows up and then… promptly leaves. Sure, it’s been set up earlier in the film (Felix even remarks of the region that “all you find there is sharks”) and it fits with the general shark theme to the movie, but it’s just there for the sake of padding. It’s as if the movie feels it has to milk these underwater scenes.

It might have been fun to shoot...

The plot is fairly straight-forward, following a terrorist plan to hold the world to ransom with some stolen nuclear weapons. In many ways, it feels like a conscious retread of Dr. No. We’re back on tropical beaches having seaside adventures. The casino scene from the start of the first film – introducing us to “Bond, James Bond” – is revisited here, made more plot-relevant by featuring a tuxedo-clad villain. Perhaps the movie feels like an attempt to hark back to the original film in a franchise that has moved on so far from that first film that Dr. No doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the films that followed.

The plot returns to the traditional Cold War espionage scene after a somewhat mild diversion in Goldfinger. We are reintroduced to the nebulously evil organisation SPECTRE, and its mysteriously evil (and, until the next film, faceless) director Blofeld. It’s strange that the opening scene at the group makes it seem like it might not actually be a terrible place to work (as long as you don’t swap seats with the guy embezzling the boss’ money). Blofeld opens the meeting with a note about the death of Number Six, remarking that “his services will be greatly missed.” Less magnanimous evil leaders would say something like “let his death be a lesson to the rest of you” or some such. It’s also reassuring to know that the terrorist organisation relies on the “absolute integrity of its members.” You don’t get enough of those traditional values these days. And the hand black shirts and octopus-themed rings help make them easier to spot, too. (I wonder how they avoided British intelligence so thoroughly.)

Much like Goldfinger, Bond’s sexist nature shows itself again. Part of me knows that this is values dissonance – that the world has moved in since these films were made – but some of it is hard to watch. Particularly the scene where Bond blackmails a nurse into sex, with an implicit threat to complain about her to the management. “My silence could have a price,” Bond concedes, leading to the two of them spending the night together. In fairness, the movie doesn’t seem quite as convinced of Bond’s prowess as the earlier installments. While a night with Bond was able to give Pussy Galore a conscience and turn Titiana from a fake defector into a real one, here the nurse seems to be just as uncomfortable with Bond after she’s slept with him as before. “Haven’t you had enough fun for one evening?” she asks him through gritted teeth, just before he gingerly escorts her back to his room.

Bond always needed someone to nurse him...

The movie seems to acknowledge that Bond is a sexual predator. While it inevitably glamourises it, it offers a more in-depth look at his casual flings than any film would until GoldenEye. The script to Thunderball seems to recognise that – to Bond – his sexuality is a weapon he can use to manipulate and trap young woman – to turn them. There’s also the reference to where Bond keeps his gun at night (“not that it matters, but that was under the pillow all the time”), which would be referenced again in Tomorrow Never Dies. The movie rather consciously mocks Bond’s ability to turn Pussy Galore to the side of the angels in the early film after he sleeps with this movie’s femme fatale, Fiona (played effortlessly by Luciana Paluzzi). Apparently Bond isn’t quite that good in bed.

“My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself,” Bond assures her as he’s manhandled by her henchmen. “What I did this evening was for Queen and country. You don’t think it gave me any pleasure, do you?” Hmm. I’m not sure that I buy that, and Fiona is smart enough not to believe it either. “But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond,” she responds, mockingly. “James Bond, the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue… but not this one!”

Even the movie’s lead Bond girl, the diver Domino (perhaps intended to evoke images of Ursula Andress in her bikini) is wise to Bond’s play. When he confesses that he needs her help, she is smart enough to release what he’s done to feel that he has earned it. “That’s why you make love to me,” she observes coldly, wiser to Bond’s game than many of the females who would precede or follow her. The movie even contrasts (or, to be frank, compares) Bond’s use of Domino to Largo’s use of her. “You’ve given me much pleasure, Domino,” Largo concedes on discovering she’s spying on him for Bond – much like to Bond, Domino is an object to be used and abused (indeed, Bond’s predatory sexual nature seems contrasted against Largo outright sexual sadism, with Domino tied down on the bed as he prepares to torture her).

Another feathered boa in Bond's cap?

The movie doesn’t offer much growth – nor does it ever explicitly condemn Bond. He’s a man who does what he have to in order to save the world, we are assured. There’s no indication that Bond must change, even though his attitude towards Domino is no less shallow than Largo’s – he’s just using her for the “greater good”, so perhaps we’re supposed to accept that at face value. I don’t know. At least the movie touches on the implications of the main character’s attitudes, I suppose – acknowledging that they are certainly morally ambiguous (if not downright reprehensible on occasion), rather than the casual and playful objectification of the Moore era.

The movie is just settling into its particular groove. Many of the slight variations on themes are detected as the Bond movie settles into what will become its standard form. The credits sequence goes from being an abstract strangely lit film to a fully animated sequence (with Tom Jones giving it plenty). This is Q’s first trip outside of headquarters, complete with the loud colours he’d come to be associated with when he was under cover. It’s funny, I can’t help watching Desmond Llewelyn without thinking of my grandfather, who liked these sorts of crazy gadgets and was always far more in on the laugh than he’d ever concede.

Thunderball isn’t the perfect Bond film. A lot of the excitement of the first three is gone and it feels almost as though the cast and crew are doing this by rote. It’s still good fun and Sean Connery is still enjoying the role (although he’s showing signs of getting a little tired). There’s a sense that – at least for the moment – the movie series has stopped moving forward and is simply attempting to dig in, to come to grips with the way that things are. It’s not bad, it’s solidly entertaining – it’s just not electric.

We’ve got full reviews of all of Sean Connery’s Bond films, if you want to check ’em out:

The following bloggers also have reviews of the film up as part of James Bond January:

2 Responses

  1. Connery is a bit lazy around the edges here though it’s clear that some effort is still being exerted. I’m holding out for “Moonraker” to drop any real bombs on the franchise. I’ll be interested to find out how you rate Lazenby in “OHMSS.”

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