Light Bondage: “Thunderball”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypical that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

Thunderball (1965)

Somewhere about an hour and a half into this movie, during the six hundredth elaborately staged underwater sequence, near the climax of the film, I found me and my brother (who has never seen any of these movies and is joining me for this project at least until he gets sick of them) discussing maybe replacing the optical drive in his computer. That’s how interesting Thunderball is. And that’s me being nice. My other inclination would just be to call it interminable horseshit and end this piece now.

Thunderball was a movie that was originally going to be the first James Bond picture until a script dispute tied the production up in courts for years. I’m not sure what that movie would have looked like, but I can’t imagine them doing it with the kind of budget Dr. No had. Thunderball is a big, expensive, indulgent piece of cinema. How well you respond to that probably depends on what you’re looking for out of Bond movies.

There’s plenty of action, involving a plot by SPECTRE to steal some nuclear weapons through incredibly convoluted machinations and then to use said bombs not to actually commit any of the terrorist that seemingly makes up their charter, but to ransom the bombs back to the British government. This involves a spa where Bond is staying to keep tabs on SPECTRE, who under Bond’s nose sneak in a look-a-like of a NATO pilot also staying there to hijack the bombs for them. While there, they take the opportunity to try to assassinate Bond via malfunctioning spa equipment. No, really.

Finding good screencaps for this movie is really difficult, so instead enjoy these pretty good paintings that make this movie look cooler than it is.

Once Bond fails at getting anything done at the spa he ends up travelling to Nassau to try to find this now-dead NATO pilot’s sister, which involves a lot of bathing suits and diving sequences in the sunny Bahamas. A bunch of not particularly surprising twists and turns later, and Bond and a bunch of other agents/military forces are having a massive underwater battle and there are a bunch of sharks and shit and it’s ridiculous. Or it would be, if the movie wasn’t so damn boring.

Maybe it’s all the underwater stuff, which while technically impressive is ponderously slow as being in water typically is. Maybe it’s the script, without any memorable villains or Bond girls or elaborate death traps. Maybe it’s because Bond himself spends most of the movie being a witness to stuff happening but not really doing a whole lot. For a man of action, Bond is pretty passive in this whole movie when he’s not making quips and seducing women. Hell, he doesn’t even dispatch the villain in the end. He instead runs around, mostly shirtless, being typically smarmy and atypically wide-eyed about the events going on because the script dictates they must even if they don’t particularly make sense or involve the audience being invested in them.

And while a mindless action film has its place, technically Thunderball just doesn’t have it together enough to make that work. Maybe it’s just a relic of the 60s, but that undercranked action I’ve complained about the last two movies? Back with a vengeance, much to the detriment of the movie. In fact, even at the very end of the movie, which takes place on a runaway boat (something that it seems like they actually filmed going relatively fast for anyone who understands even at top speed boats aren’t exactly race cars) the film is sped up to the point of unfortunate, uninentional comedy. It simply won’t do, this haphazard manipulation of the movie. It’s a damn shame, because I feel in Thunderball‘s 130 minute run time is 90 minutes of decent movie. Not great movie, but certainly better than what we’ve been given. At this point I’m actually looking forward to Moore’s cartoony, ridiculous Bond. And that makes me genuinely sad.

This scene actually happens off-screen in the movie, which is kind of unfortunate because it looks great in someone's head!

The Theme Song/Opening Titles:
This is the part where I talk about how much I like Tom Jones. Maybe it’s a childhood raised on oldies, but Jones is like the Shatner of music (well, actually, Shatner is the Shatner of music, but let’s not split hairs) in that it’s hard to tell if his earnest confidence is knowingly ironic or completely genuine. But either way, his music is awesome and despite “Thunderball” making absolutely no sense when you listen to it Jones sings for the fences in a song that’s so full of gusto that Jones reportedly nearly fainted on the final note. Outside of that, it’s just some naked swimming ladies, so … you know, typical stuff. Though rewatching it after watching the movie itself, I’m getting underwater tedium flashbacks, which is decidedly unfortunate.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
In the now-required contextless cold open action sequence after killing a villain and running away from a hail of gunfire, Bond finds himself on the roof where there is stowed a convenient rocket belt which he uses to fly down to the car below. It’s silly, and not at all practical, but the reason it makes this list is because it is an actual, functioning thing. Given all the almost-plausible gadgets that aren’t real in these movies, it’s perfect that the space age jetpack is the one that is totally real.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
There is no notable Bond girl in this movie. Sure, there are some women, and I guess if I had to pick one I’d pick Claudine Auger as Domino Derval, who ends up helping Bond and double-crossing the bad guy whose name I can’t even be bothered to remember. But she is notable only insofar as she was voiced by Nikki van der Zyl, who also voiced Honey Ryder in Dr. No. Which shows just how little regard for making distinct women characters these movies are getting. Seriously, nobody wins this award. We are all losers.

Best Bondickery:
Bond is in some sort of automatic traction machine to help stretch his back, strapped down by one of the therapists at this spa he’s staying at. Bond has already hit on her, only to be firmly rebuffed. This is a woman who is not interested in Bond at all, seemingly. She leaves him in peace for 15 minutes, and during that time a SPECTRE agent comes in and cranks up the machine, supposedly stretching him to death or something? I don’t know, it’s stupid.

Cheesecake picture? Sure. But you're going to think it's REALLY gross after the next paragraph!

Anyway, Bond passes out and is pulled out of the machine before he can get pulled to death by the machine by this woman, who is shocked that it could malfunction in such a way. Bond, aware that this was a SPECTRE attempt, doesn’t bother informing her of this but instead let’s her believe she nearly killed him. Then, as she starts worrying about the kinds of lawsuits and whatnot she could be facing, Bond suggests that instead of getting fired or going to jail or whatever that she just have sex with him right then and there. AND SHE DOES! So now our hero has gone from womanizing to straight up coercion. Which is a really thin line in movies like these, I know, but this one is just … ugh. I was genuinely angry watching this play out, and then get disregarded as just another conquest before more movie happens.

Ugh. I cannot repeat ugh enough, because that’s how this bullshit makes me feel.

Ugh.

JAMES BOND will return in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Light Bondage: “Thunderball”

  1. kev Whitehead says:

    Even though I love this film this is still a great review. There are some slow moments, yeah the underwater scenes are dull and Bond is a cad but it works brilliantly. Bond should be a cad, not a wishy washy nice guy as Moore would play him. There are elegant moments as can be seen at the casino when Bond and Domino dance. The end battle aboard the boat is amazing. The fight is superbly staged, the camera angles and movement are great. The soundtrack is a masterpiece. Today the film seems slow and boring to several generations bought up on shallow story lines, fast cutting and special making up for unimaginative direction,acting and music. Terence Young, Peter hunt, John Barry and of course Sean…..you are all sorely missed.

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