Here’s where things get messy.
Thunderball would have been the first Bond film, if not for all the lawsuits.
Yes — back in 1958, Ian Fleming was already planning a James Bond movie.
Fleming and a young writer and director named Kevin McClory wrote a script that had many working titles — SPECTRE, James Bond of the Secret Service and Longitude 78 West — but mainly concerned spying and an underwater battle. McClory’s first film, The Boy and the Bridge, bombed and somewhere along the way Fleming grew disenchanted with the script and the author.
Not disenchanted enough that he didn’t turn said script into his next James Bond novel. By November of 1963, the case was in court. It lasted three weeks, with a pause after Fleming had a heart attack. The end result? McClory got the literary and film rights for the screenplay, while Fleming could publish the novel, as long as he stated that it was based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and the Author. Fleming would die nine months later.
The legal issues would find their way to Bond producers Broccoli and Saltzman, who were faced with the fact that McClory retained screen rights to the novel’s story, plot, and characters. This could have allowed McClory to make his own series of Bond films — more on that later — and is the reason why so many of the licensed properties, like Victory Games’ RPG, didn’t have SPECTRE.
Guy Hamilton — citing creative burnout — stepped away from the series. And Terence Young, who directed the first two films, stepped back in.
Bond starts this film by punching out the widow of a SPECTRE agent at her husband’s funeral. Surprise — the man was never dead and 007 chases him with his Aston-Martin and a jetpack, which was a practical effect. That said, Connery and several of the stuntmen were nearly killed by sharks while making this, just in case you’re wondering why CGI works.
SPECTRE isn’t having any of this, so Number One Blofeld (still Anthony Dawson in disguise) and Number Two Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi, who used this movie to basically have a career in the Eurospy field; he’s in OK Connery and Danger: Diabolik, two of the better films in this genre as well as tons of giallo) decide to steal some nukes and blow up the world real good unless they get paid $100 million pounds.
Miss France Monde and first runner-up in the 1958 Miss World contest Claudine Auger plays Largo’s mistress Domino. She — of course — ends up with Bond. Auger would later appear with two of her fellow Bond girls (Barbara Bouchet and Barbara Bach) in Black Belly of the Tarantula.
There’s all manner of SCUBA action in this one, some of it coordinated by Ricuo Browing. There’s also a ship called the Disco Volante, an exceedingly long running time and a battle at the end that seems to go on forever.
On SPECTRE’s side:
- Assassin Fiona Volpe is played by Luciana Paluzzi (The Green Slime, Jess Franco’s 99 Women, A Black Veil for Lisa)
- Agent Number Four is Guy Doleman, who was also in the Michael Caine-starring Harry Palmer series; he was also the first Number Two on The Prisoner.
- Vargas is Largo’s main henchman; he’s killed off with a spear gun.
- SPECTRE Number Five, who planned the Great Train Robbery, is played by Phillip Stone, Alex’s dad in A Clockwork Orange.
On Bond’s side:
- Felix Leiter is played by a new actor in this one, Rik Van Nutter, who was once married to Anita Ekberg.
- The doomed Paula Caplan is played by Martine Beswick, who was also Zora in Dr. No; she also played the titular roles in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood.
- Molly Peters plays a doctor who saves Bond’s life; she’s also the first woman to take her clothes off in the series.
- French spy Madame La Porte is played by Maryse Guy Mitsouko, who appears in the Eurospy films Agent 077 – Mission Bloody Mary, Code Name: Jaguar, Z7 Operation Rembrandt, Furia a Marrakec and Bob Fleming: Mission Casablanca.
- There’s also a scene where all the 00 agents are gathered, but we don’t get to see much of them. They would be 002 John Bill Fairbanks, the unnamed 003 through 005, 006 Alec Trevalyan and several others who aren’t named. Of them, only Bond and 008 don’t die all the time.
The theme song for this movie was originally going to be Shirley Bassey’s “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” whose title was taken from the Italian nickname for 007. That track was too short, so it was re-recorded with Dionne Warwick. And then the producers worried that the name of the movie wasn’t in the lyrics, so they got Tom Jones to sing the theme. Jones wanted to impress them so much that he held the last note so long that he passed out.
Johnny Cash sent in a song. It wasn’t used.
This is the first Bond movie where the ladies are nude in the opening credits and the actual actor — Connery of course — appears in the gun barrel sequence. It’s also the biggest blockbuster in Bond history, making $141 million in 1965, which would be worth $1.16 billion today.
As for the legal battles, they would continue long past the release of Thunderball.
In 1976, McClory planned to produce an original James Bond film — called either Warhead, Warhead 8 or James Bond of the Secret Service — but United Artists and Fleming’s estate sued. McClory won two different trials and licensed the rights to Jack Schwartzman for Never Say Never Again.
Speaking of that film — the script is insane. As written by Sean Connery, spy writer Len Deighton (who wrote those aforementioned Michael Caine Harry Palmer films) and McClory, it involves Blofeld, the Bermuda Triangle, sharks with nukes strapped to their heads, an underwater kingdom called Arkos and Bond only showing up for three scenes.
A few decades later, McClory resurfaced with plans to make Warhead 2000 A.D. with Sony, who ended up settling with MGM/United Artists. He also worked with Sony in 1999 to try and get the rights for all past Bond films, but this suit was thrown out as it was decided that McClory had “waited too long.”
A decade or so later — and after McClory’s death — MGM, Danjaq and his estate came to an amicable conclusion over nearly half a century of legal and business disputes.