Serial, Super Serial: Thunderball

Thunderball

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

Of all the films I’ve seen thus far, Terence Young’s 1965 Thunderball is the first I have not enjoyed. Considering the greatness of Goldfinger, this is a big-time disappointment. The problem isn’t necessarily the filmmaking — I actually think this might be Young’s best-directed film, but it’s pretty lackluster all around. Looking through my lens for this series, the film doesn’t have the hook or the crooks to be memorable.

In some ways, this is the most expansive Bond film to date — it builds upon the location shooting of Goldfinger and adds a new element of setting a lot of the film underwater. This has two effects: beautiful photography, but long stretches that are pretty boring. All the underwater work certainly drove up the cost of production, and that expense onscreen isn’t wasted. The problem is that shooting this way for long stretches (literally sometimes 10-15 minutes at a time) makes it difficult to choreograph good, fast-paced action, and the lack of sound in these scenes will test anyone’s patience.

The problem I have with Thunderball is how unremarkable it feels. It’s shed most of the camp elements that were exploited beautifully in Goldfinger, perhaps due to Terence Young’s return to direction after a one-film break. Although the Bond Girls and villains have some things to offer, they aren’t nearly as memorable as those from the previous three films. While I expect this to be a “better” film than many that will come later on in the series, I feel it could be one of the least memorable, for better or worse.

In the film, Bond goes on a number of slightly connected missions that ultimately all point to SPECTRE ransoming the safety of American and European cities after they successfully steal two nuclear bombs.

Bond, James Bond

As I touched upon in my last post, we basically know who Connery’s Bond is at this point, and not much new comes to the screen. His actions in Thunderball, however, are getting to be very creepy. Toward the beginning of the film, while Bond is in some sort of rehabilitation center, he has his inevitable pick-up scenes with his attending nurse. Here, though, he basically forces himself on her, which she rejects but in a way that makes the film show us that she’s obviously still into it. Later on, after she has neglected her duties and Bond is attacked, he tells her that his silence can be “purchased” through sexual acts. Maybe it’s the exponential effect of Bond picking up literally every woman he encounters, but this really rubbed me the wrong way. I get the man being attractive and charismatic and desirable to women, and it’s fair to think I’m over-analyzing due to the circumstances of the film, but there’s a hint of cruelty here that we haven’t really seen yet. To make matters worse, the film shrugs it off as just another one of Bond’s conquests, making a point to show us his female counterpart doesn’t really mind.

The Mission

The plot isn’t the problem with Thunderball, as it’s clear enough while being the most dire of the series so far. Whenever nuclear devices are in the hands of really, really bad people, the stakes are there. At the time of the film’s release, nuclear war was obviously a very real threat, and during a post-9/11 world, we know how our government responds to terrorism, all which contributes to a real fear at the center of this film.

The set-up of the film’s plot is fairly interesting, albeit a little drier than it should be. The elaborateness and dedication to the theft is fairly absurd, but equally frightening, so it’s a difficult one to pull off in tone. Basically, a henchman of SPECTRE undergoes training and numerous facial surgeries to take the place of a NATO pilot who’s on board the aircraft transporting the weapons. Just think of the money and work that would have to go into this venture, but I guess the payoff is pretty great. Of course, everything goes off remarkably without a hitch — except that Bond is now on their trail.

Due to the severity of the situation, we understand that Bond is actually only one of many spies assigned to specific tasks of the mission. Because he has gained some insider knowledge on where the baddies may be, he’s able to talk his way into travelling to the Bahamas. This new exotic location provides ample opportunity for underwater exploration and bikinis. There isn’t much fun and games for Bond, though, as a race-against-the-clock element is introduced that does a decent job in keeping the story moving forward, even though the specifics of the mission after this point don’t provide much excitement.

Still, much of the mission feels like the start of a checklist that can been made for different situations for Bond in each film. You can now cross out “underwater fighting” from the list. From what I understand, though, this isn’t quite as abysmal as other locales we’ll see in future films.

The Villain

With the return of SPECTRE we again see (well, not totally) Blofeld, but we also meet a number of new associates and understand that they are ranked in some sort of order of influence. Blofeld, being the leader, is of course #1, but Thunderball mainly follows his #2, Emilio Largo. As for SPECTRE, we fully understand the depths of their evil because they will quickly and mercilessly dispatch members for mistakes or unsubstantiated complaints. It’s odd that this is a tell-tale sign for evil characters across media — I’m sure it plays within the same game that makes most henchmen completely nameless and faceless.

Largo, having risen so far in the organization, has a similar mentality, which makes him notable, albeit a mostly boring villain. Whenever one of his associates or underlings has completely fulfilled their duty, he kills them without as much as a thank you (I wonder how good SPECTRE’s pension plan is). He feels sort of like a disappointed father figure who knows his children will fail at their goals, but he’ll actually kill them once they do.

Largo is probably most known for two things, though: an eyepatch that he wears for seemingly no reason and a love of his pet sharks, who get plenty of treats if you know what I mean. He doesn’t quite have the philosophical eloquence of Dr. No, the taglines and ridiculousness of Goldfinger or the physicality of Red Grant. He also lacks a great sidekick like Oddjob, instead relying on faceless hordes with SCUBA training. He does receive villainous aid from Fiona Volpe, who I will talk about during the upcoming Bond Girls section, though their paths don’t directly meet often.

The Bond Girls

Thunderball features two Bond Girls, both of whom fit fairly defined archetypes. Both are technically villains (one being more outwardly villainous), but neither are safe from Bond’s sexual charms, and neither really provides any particular danger to the spy. With the reemergence of SPECTRE, both women have relationships with the organization and are tied to the men who serve.

First is Dominique “Domino” Derval, who’s the lover of Thunderball’s main villain, Emilio Largo, and the sister to the pilot who’s killed and impersonated at the beginning of the film. Much like Pussy Galore, she’s involved with the villain directly but without really knowing the full extent of his evil. Because of this, she’s easily persuaded by Bond to jump ship and help him with his mission. Similar to other Bond girls we’ve seen, she takes important action to save Bond’s life during the most drastic moments. Other than standing in for this type of Bond Girl, though, I don’t get much sense as to who she is as an individual — she’s important because of her connections to the male characters in the story. Moreover, her involvement with Largo is questionable. I understand that he’s a very rich and powerful man, and that’s a clear reason to be with him, but there’s no way she could not have known the heights of his evil, as he flaunts them pretty openly.

Fiona Volpe, on the other hand, is a woman of action. In a lot of ways she’s more of a straight-up villain than a Bond Girl, as she plots right alongside Largo and directly contributes to many deaths. Her sexual encounters with Bond come as a way to control him, not as any sense of real attachment. In fact, she directly taunts Bond after their love making, questioning his masculinity and inability to make her fall for him. This is a dynamic we haven’t quite seen before — there have been woman slow to warm up to Bond’s advances, but Fiona knows where to hit him the hardest, making her interestingly independent, even though she’s one of the more evil characters in the film.

The Gadgets

The gadgets here really make me question whether I’m overvaluing them in the first place. Q gives Bond very appropriate tools for the countless amount of underwater exploration he’s going to do, but they are very simple, real-world types of gadgets. Specifically, he receives a Geiger counter, an underwater infrared camera, a distress beacon, a flare gun and a small breathing apparatus that allows him to stay underwater for an extended amount of time. Maybe we should blame Q for the extra-long sequences toward the end of the film.

The Song

Sung by the great Tom Jones, the title song to Thunderball only appears during the opening title sequence, so it doesn’t have the reach of “Goldfinger.” Still, with Jones’s signature voice, it fits well as an anthem to the badassery of James Bond.

“He always runs while others walk
He acts while other men just talk
He looks at this world and runs it all
So he strikes like Thunderball”

Aside from the fact that I have absolutely no idea what it means to “strike like Thunderball,” the song actually has the best relationship to the characters in the film. Here is a song about who James Bond is, at least if he was a little more serious about his job. A line like “Any woman he wants, he’ll get / He will break any heart without regret” is particularly accurate. Yeah, that sounds like the Bond I know!

Random Thoughts

- I failed to mention that in the opening scene Bond escapes by using a jet pack. Yeah, that is pretty awesome.

- Bond straight-up punches a woman in the face… OK, so it was a villain disguised as a woman, but it was pretty damn shocking.

- I like that you haven’t seen Blofeld (only his hands and cat), but here it is obvious that they are going out of their way not to show him. Oh well, I think we get to meet him for real soon.

- My guess is that half of Bond’s paycheck is spent on massages.

- Is there anything scarier than someone completely taking control over your life? It’s why Invasion of the Body Snatchers is such a classic. Although it is pretty creepy when it happens here, it doesn’t quite have the same effect.

- MI6’s “conference room” looks more like a Victorian ballroom.

- If I haven’t exhausted it already, I actually think Bond spends half of this film underwater.

- The Kiss Kiss Club: Where strippers put out fires with their feet.

- Halfway through the film Bond attends a parade akin to Carnivale. The costumes in the parade are pretty fantastic, at least from the too-quick glances we see. I think I saw some people with 6-sided die hats and hockey jerseys, KKK outfits and people dressed as bees and corn.

- Thunderball: Brought to you by the SCUBA Recreationist Society.

Serial, Super Sieral will return in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE


tags: james bond, super serial, terence young, thunderball

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