Thunderball (Ultimate Edition) Review

A coffin lies within a church, draped over which is a cloth with the initials J.B. embroidered upon it. Not James Bond? Actually no, as Bond (Sean Connery) watches the funeral of SPECTRE agent Jacques Boitier from high up within the church but as he glances outside to the car that waits on Boitier's widow (Bob Simmons, Rose Alba), he notices something peculiar. The grieving widow, contrary to what one might expect, opens the car door herself before being driven out of the churchyard. Bond ambushes Boitier at a nearby chateau, from which, after the killing, he escapes using a jet pack and his Aston Martin DB5.

Bond gets away once again but in poor health, he is ordered by M (Bernard Lee) to Shrublands, a health farm in the English countryside. It is there that he meets a curious set of characters, including Count Lippe (Guy Doleman), who appears unwilling to let Bond see a SPECTRE tattoo on his arm, as well as one poor guest wrapped from head to toe in bandages. As Bond and Lippe act against one another - Lippe tries to kill Bond on a traction machine while Bond traps Lippe in a steam bath - this other guest rouses himself from his bed to go prowling about Shrublands at night. When Bond finds a dead man wrapped in the same bandages, his suspicions are aroused.

Soon, though, the fog around the activities at Shrublands begins to clear and Bond makes some sense of it. Lippe was guarding the bandaged agent of SPECTRE, Angelo Palazzi (Paul Stassino), who, by cosmetic surgery, was placed within NATO as an observer on a flight transporting nuclear weapons across the Atlantic. With the real observer, Francois Derval (Paul Stassino again), dead and Palazzi in his place, SPECTRE hijacks the jet airplane and steals the nuclear devices, announcing the theft via a telephone call to the British and American governments. With the 00-agents recalled to London, Bond is assigned to a posting in Canada and recognises Derval as the dead man underneath the bandages. Looking further through the file and finding a photograph of the younger sister of Derval, Domino (Claudine Auger), and asks that he be permitted to follow his hunch and travel to Nassau instead, where a friendship with Domino will take him close to Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi, voice by Robert Rietty), who is better known with SPECTRE as Number 2...

Thunderball is an odd peak in the early Bond films. Ask an average filmgoer as to the most successful of the Connery Bonds and I suspect that most would plumb for Goldfinger but, in box office terms alone, its $124.9m looks rather paltry when compared to Thunderball's $141.2m, a figure that would remain the peak of Bond's box office success until The Spy Who Loved Me some twelve years later. Adjusted for inflation, Thunderball is the most financially successful Bond of them all, proving that after Goldfinger, the public were hungry for spycraft from Fleming's creation. So why did the films that followed Thunderball, such as You Only Live Twice, not prove to be even more popular? Might it be that Thunderball is, well, a touch dull?

Certainly, I was reluctant, at first, to pick up Thunderball out of the set of Bond DVDs that came our way. It always seems so very, very long, so much so that I'm always surprised that it lasts for only a little over two hours. Unlike Goldfinger and the Bonds that would follow it, the opening of Thunderball, which includes the business at Shrublands, is a long-winded affair and entirely without the careful touch that one expects of Bond. The underwater footage, though very attractively filmed, is dreary for the most part, with the SCUBA masks obscuring Connery's acting. He is, when wearing his wetsuit, just another diver and though the filmmakers, director Terence Young amongst them, picks Connery out of the crowd, it need not even be him. Regarding the cast, coming after Rosa Klebb and Auric Goldfinger, Largo isn't a particularly memorable villain, wearing an eye patch, I suspect, in the hope of adding characterisation to what is an otherwise thinly-drawn role. Indeed, in so many respects, Thunderball compares badly to Goldfinger, with Domino being no Pussy Galore, Vargas (Philip Locke) no Oddjob and the waters of the Caribbean no Fort Knox. Even the Aston Martin is underused, assisting Bond in his escape from Boitier's chateau but playing only a supporting role to a jet pack.

Some of this may well be due to the convoluted path taken by Thunderball on its way to the screen. Initially written as a screenplay by Ernest Cuneo for Xanadu Productions, of which Ian Fleming and producer Kevin McClory were partners, Thunderball bumped around Hollywood in various drafts until Fleming, McClory and Jack Whittingham produced the definitive version. Still Thunderball went unproduced and with Xanadu out of business, Fleming took the story and published it as the ninth James Bond novel, which was then sold to Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli as part of their option on all Bond stories with the exception of Casino Royale. Heading for the courts, McClory was given the right to adapt Thunderball for the screen but failing to secure the financing, he approached Saltzman and Broccoli, who then co-produced the film as the fourth official Bond movie, being, "Based on an original screenplay by Jack Whittingham." Hence it is McClory's name on the credits of Thunderball and why Never Say Never Again, which he also produced, is simply a remake of this film. Thus far, and I write this with no small amount of relief, there has been no sighting of McClory's long-promised Warhead 2000 A.D., which, even by its very title, would appear to be yet another remake of Thunderball.

Yet for all of this, there are high points in the film. Luciana Paluzzi, as a member of SPECTRE, is a match for Bond and contrary to Bond's seduction of Domino and Shrubland's Patricia Fearing (Molly Peters), Paluzzi, playing Fiona Volpe is as sexually aggressive as 007. The underwater footage is admittedly spectacular and probably did much to popularise SCUBA diving whilst the portrayal of SPECTRE, Blofeld in particular, is one that would last through You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever and, obviously, Never Say Never Again. But otherwise, there isn't a great deal to recommend Thunderball. Whilst reasonably entertaining, it falls well short of the rest of the Connery Bonds and one would have had to wait until the later Moores to find such tired plotting.

And that, in spite of the complications in the background, may well be the best explanation for the drop in takings between the $141.2m of Thunderball and the $111.6m of You Only Live Twice. Seeing Goldfinger, it looked like Bond promised the world when, with Thunderball, it didn't really look to be much of a world worth sharing. Better then the thrills and spills of You Only Live Twice and the epitome of the villains' lairs, a hollowed-out volcano!


The first of the Bonds to be filmed in 2.35:1, which would remain the preferred aspect ratio, with the occasional exception, from this point on, Thunderball looks good with it displaying no sign of forty years having passed since the first prints were struck. Presented on a big screen, Thunderball looks wonderful with the clean, crisp image on the DVD showing off the colours of the Caribbean to good effect. Colour is the main improvement on this disc, with the film looking much more natural than it did on the Special Edition, with the sky looking more blue and the sea a deeper shade of green. It's even a noticeable improvement on the old Special Edition as these screenshots show.

MGM Special Edition (Above) / Sony Ultimate Edition (Below)

MGM Special Edition (Above) / Sony Ultimate Edition (Below)

Unfortunately, good as Thunderball sounds, it comes to nothing when the lip-synch is as terrible as it is here. If you have a delay function on your home theatre system, you will, as I was, spend the two hours of the film fiddling with its setting to try to bring the sound and picture together but, frankly, don't waste your time. Just when you think you have it, the scene changes and the dialogue is no longer synchronised to the picture on the screen, with two of the scenes with Luciana Paluzzi being amongst the worst examples, the first when she is in bed with Angelo Palazzi and the second when she is with Bond. Comparing this DVD to the MGM Special Edition, which had a DD5.1 remixed audio track that exhibited none of these problems, the fault lies with this Ultimate Edition rather than with the original print. It's pushing it somewhat to say that Thunderball is an unwatchable mess on DVD but it's not far off.


Finally, we have a second disc of extras to review although, to be honest, the best of them have been brought over from the old MGM Special Edition. Disc One includes two Commentaries, both of which have been carried over from the old release, and are once again introduced and narrated by John Cork from the Ian Fleming Foundation, who brings some structure to the memories of various members of the cast and crew. As you might expect, a good deal of both of the commentaries here is concerned with the production of the film and the presence of Kevin McClory, which is well known but explained in fine detail.

The first commentary in the set is like those on the three earlier films, in which Cork appears on the track to introduce contributors and to put them in context, often including each one over a specific scene, such as Molly Peters during her love scene with Connery or Ken Adam when we first see one of his wildly impressive sets. The second commentary is very different with Cork only making an occasional appearance as he lets editor Peter Hunt and writer John Hopkins reminisce about their work on the film. Both are inclined to drift away into their memories at times, as well as leaving the occasional gap, which John Cork swiftly fills, but it's a good-natured commentary. It does, however, feature the original theme song, Dionne Warwick's Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was replaced by Tom Jones' inferior Thunderball and which Cork wisely remains silent throughout.

The second disc is, again, a mix of the old and the new. Brought over from the old disc is Inside Thunderball (3m37s), a look at the changes between different versions of the film and The Thunderball Phenomenon (29m44s), narrated by Patrick Macnee, which explains the success of 007 and Thunderball in particular. Of great interest is the vast amount of merchandising that was available in the wake of the release of this film, including games, toy spy kits and vodka. There is also The Making of Thunderball (26m24s), which is, once again, narrated by Patrick Macnee and is a typical but no less interesting look at the background to the production, including the involvement of Kevin McClory in the film.

The Ministry of Propoganda section on the disc includes the old Trailers (2m54s, 2m49s and 2m14s), TV Spots (57s, 2x 58s, 20s and 11s) and Radio Communications (5m04s) from the Special Edition, from which the Photo Gallery has also been carried over.

The content new to this Ultimate Edition begins with Bill Suitor: The Rocket Man Movies (3m44s), a look back at the use of the rocket pack through behind-the-scenes 8mm home movies. The stunt work continues on A Child's Guide to Blowing up a Motor Car (16m25s), which is a bizarrely-themed behind-the-scenes look at Luciana Paluzzi's destruction of a car through a visit to the set by a gentlemen and his young charge. Written and narrated by Denis Nordern, it's a you-wouldn't-get-away-with-it-now comedy in which the star of the piece and his schoolboy son take a day off school for a birthday treat. Such a feature might have worked well in a 15-minute slot after Screen Test but the interest of social services would be piqued following such truancy and other shenanigans, including patricide. Next, there are three Commercials from 1965 for various goods associated with James Bond, being a Raincoat (30), Slacks (31s, £4.19.6 at Burtons) and the Action Pack Toys (58s). The best of the new features is On Location With Ken Adam (12m34s), which sees the set designer looking back on his work via home movies, which features the wonderful sight of Luciana Paluzzi's mother hiding from the camera behind the deck chairs on Love Beach in The Bahamas.

The last two features are a Thunderball Boat Show Reel (2m49s), which is narrated by Michael Wilson and features a re-edited undersea battle between Largo's men and those of the CIA that was presented at a boat show before Thunderball's release, and The Incredible World of James Bond (48m47s), an NBC Special from 1965. This second feature isn't just a look at Thunderball but one of the entire series up to the point at which it was made and, therefore, includes Ian Fleming's novels, Dr No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger as well as presenting some background to the type of character Bond might have been from army training. Finally, there is an Interactive Guide to Thunderball, which, having finally had the chance to watch one, is something of a disappointment. Under various headings, we're simply treated to short clips from the film, illustrating Bond, his women and a Mission Combat Manual amongst others.

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Last updated: 28/04/2018 21:55:40

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