Sean Connery returns to play British super-spy James Bond for the fourth time in 1965’s Thunderball; a global smash hit in which the Bond franchise formula arguably solidified for the first time. It may not be the best of Connery’s Bond films – that, to my mind, will always be From Russia with Love (1963) – but it is arguably the most familiar of his films.
When SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) holds NATO to ransom with a pair of stolen nuclear warheads, British agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is dispatched to the Bahamas to uncover Largo’s plot and save New York and London from catastrophe.
All of the core elements of the James Bond film archetype are front and centre in Thunderball: the far-flung and exotic destinations, the ground-breaking and state-of-the-art screen action, the beautiful but disposable femme-fatales, the witty repartee, the futuristic gadgets, and the facially scarred or disabled antagonist. Each of these elements had appeared before, of course – in Dr No, From Russia with Love, and particularly 1964’s Goldfinger – but here they finally all gelled together. At the time Thunderball marked the least inventive of EON Production’s Bond films to date, but it was and remains undeniably satisfying stuff.
The film marks the last great performance of the late Sean Connery as Bond. While he returns to the role three more times, by 1967’s You Only Look Twice he looks resentfully bored and in both Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Never Say Never Again (1983) he has the shocked, apologetic look of a man who has made a terrible mistake. Here there is still a charming sense of play about the character – it is dreadfully sexist stuff, but in its historical context it works as intended. It is always easier for Bond to act as a masculine power fantasy if the character himself appears to be having a good time.
Bond is well matched here by Adolfo Celi as Emilio Largo. While the character is voiced by Robert Rietty (dubbing also affected Claudine Auger as “Bond girl” Domino), Celi brings an impressive combination of maturity and physicality to the role. It is the first time that the villain in a Bond film felt like a genuine one-to-one match for Bond. Previous opponents had matched Bond in terms of smarts or brawn, but not both at the same time. Of course Largo could not be a traditional Bond villain without some sort of injury or disability – here he’s missing an eye, something match Dr No’s prosthetic hands and Blofeld’s facial scars.
Thunderball also sees a ramping-up of the criminal organisation SPECTRE as Bond’s primary enemy. While mentioned in Dr No and lightly referenced in From Russia with Love, Thunderball featured the first major use of the organisation – something repeated for the next three Bond pictures and then revived in 2015’s obviously-titled SPECTRE. The stakes rise from film to film as well: after investigating an agent’s murder, rescuing a Soviet defector, and overcoming a large gold robbery, Bond is tasked here with literally preventing a nuclear holocaust. It is his last stop before he fights SPECTRE’s attempt to cause a Third World War from a hollowed-out volcano lair in You Only Live Twice.
Thunderball‘s extensive underwater fight scenes feel a little dragged-out and overdone, but at the time they were genuinely groundbreaking stuff. Even now they feel like an enjoyable variation on earlier instalments, and are framed by plenty of other more traditional action sequences.
While the formula sets in here, and tends to limit the inventiveness of most future Bond features, there is a pleasant familiarity to Thunderball. There is also the appeal of seeing that formula finally settle into place. It is safe action-packed entertainment, but everything fires on all cylinders and it continues to stand up as a commercial, slickly-delivered entertainment. As one tends to say when movie franchise stretch well into the double-digits: this is one of the good ones.