Thunderball: Making a technical splash
James R | On 09, Sep 2021
“I hope we didn’t scare the fishes,” quips James Bond in Thunderball, his fourth big screen outing. Playing inimitably by Sean Connery, the film saw him firmly at home in the 007 tux after the definitive heights of Goldfinger. This follow-up takes a plunge in more ways than one, as Bond heads to the ocean for some underwater action – and finds himself floundering about in a blockbuster that has all the tension of a shallow puddle.
The clues were there from the off, as the original theme song – Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – was hastily replaced by the less superior Thunderball, the lyrics of which don’t make much sense. And while the Aston Martin DB5, so wonderfully showcased in Goldfinger, gets to sport some water cannons early on, it becomes little more than a carry case 007’s jet pack. That sets the tone for a film that’s determined to dazzle with new gadgets and vehicles, rather than spend time on a script.
The premise (crime organisation SPECTRE hijacks two atomic warheads and holds NATO to ransom) is as time-honoured as they come. While investigating in the Bahamas, Bond bumps into wealthy type Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), who is the number two of SPECTRE – the fact that his main legacy is wearing an eyepatch, inspiring Austin Power’s “Number Two” parody, is a sign of how little impact he has. Indeed, the villainous Fiona Vulpe (Luciana Paluzzi) is more interesting than he is, while Largo’s mistress, Domino (Claudine Auger), only really gets a chance to do anything during the climactic set piece.
Despite the two-dimensional nature of the film, though, it’s a movie that had long been in the works for MGM, with the book (Ian Fleming’s ninth) intended to be the first movie in the franchise, until legal battles left it in limbo. (That legal kerfuffle also opened up room for 1983’s unofficial remake, Never Say Never Again, also starring Connery, which was not only more successful commercially but also proved more memorable.)
That pent-up ambition, though, does pay off in one regard: the film’s underwater sequences, which were genuinely groundbreaking at the time.
While underwater photography was first developed in 1856, and the first full-length underwater movie was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1916, DoP Lamar Boren took it to new extremes. After working the Sea Hunt TV series, and 1963 film Flipper, the veteran underwater expert built on the foundations laid years ago by John Ernest Williamson in 1916, which essentially involved a box in which the camera could work submerged. Now with a way to work without cables restricting the camera’s movements, Thunderball’s watery visuals are a remarkable feat of engineering, with Boren and a team from Ivan Tors Films creating more than a dozen sequences – and working with the inspired simplicity and just breathing in and out to rise and fall, enabling careful adjusting of the camera’s height over long takes.
So convincing was the end result that not only did Loren return to work on You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me, but others thought that Bond really could stay underwater for whole stretches of time – the breathing apparatus designed by art director Peter Lamont, who worked with production design legend Ken Adam on the underwater vehicles, convinced experts that it was all actually functional equipment.
But so impressed were the producers by all this that Thunderball ends up diving into the sea over and over again, with director Terence Young (now on his third Bond outing) failing to keep a tight hold of Richard Maibaum’s over-convoluted script. The result is a bloated, repetitive affair that, partly thanks to the slow-paced underwater movements on display, feels like the whole thing is unfolded at half-speed. It’s no surprise that, while Thunderball is technically an Oscar winner, the Academy Award went to special effects supervisor John Stears (who almost got eaten by a shark halfway through). That sums up the whole endeavour – impressive spectacle but no depth.