Why ‘Thunderball’ Was a Thorn in James Bond’s Side for 40 Years
Released on Dec. 29, 1965, Thunderball was the fourth James Bond movie. But it was supposed to be the first, and numerous attempts to film it spanned 40 years, involving many contributors and several court battles.
James Bond's creator, novelist Ian Fleming, had wanted to bring James Bond to the big screen not long after the character's debut in 1953's Casino Royale. But by the end of the '50s, the author had secured nothing for Bond except an episode of Climax! that turned the character into an American and a couple of scripts for an unmade television series.
While many individuals would contribute in some way to the Bond series coming to film, the two who most shepherded it along were Fleming's old friend Ivar Bryce and a hotshot Irishman named Kevin McClory. The two worked together on McClory's directorial debut, a sentimental melodrama called The Boy and the Bridge. Fleming felt confident in McClory's abilities, and the two began to collaborate in early 1959.
Little did Fleming realize that he was launching a series of tangled rights issues that would extend far beyond his lifetime.
McClory and Fleming's first disagreement came when Fleming pushed for a film adaptation of an existing Bond novel. McClory felt that the potential of a Bond series rested on the character more than the stories Fleming had already written. His idea was the origin point for 1965's Thunderball.
The director came in pushing for the story to be set in the Bahamas and for it to include underwater scenes. But McClory largely stayed out of the early phase of development while working on his own movie.
Fleming then went to an old friend, Ernie Cuneo, a lawyer with whom he often bounced around ideas. According to Andrew Lycett's Ian Fleming: The Man Who Created James Bond, Cuneo sent what he called "mere improvisation" and "a basic plot, capable of great flexibility." Ultimately, it bore little similarity to the finished product outside of the Bahamas and the threat of stolen atomic bombs.
As Fleming continued to break the story in the summer of 1959, he and McClory came to feel that the Russian villains populating his novels were becoming passé. Suspecting that the Cold War would end within two years, Fleming developed an alternative league of villains to the Soviet SMERSH collective he had used in multiple Bond outings. This new organization would be SPECTRE, a combination of various criminal entities with no real political agenda but takeover.
By criticizing the author's reliance on "Reds in the bed," McClory had effectively pushed Fleming to devise the idea of SPECTRE, and in court he maintained it was a "joint effort."
The Boy and the Bridge, the feature film McClory had used to sell himself to Fleming, was released on July 28, 1959 to mixed reviews and underwhelming box office returns. The indifference McClory's directing debut received mattered little to Fleming at first. "There is no one who I would prefer to produce Bond for the screen," he said to McClory. As time went on, he and his liaison to McClory, Bryce, grew less and less confident in the upstart's abilities — especially with Bryce losing quite a bit of money on the project.
Watch the Trailer for 'Thunderball'
After turning in a 69-page film treatment to McClory, Fleming departed to write travelogues for the Sunday Times. Their tense collaboration could be eased somewhat by distance, and McClory took that distance to bring on an accomplished scribe named Jack Whittingham. Together, the two turned Fleming's ideas into something more cinematic, less talky. They made his treatment into a movie.
Despite the ideas Whittingham and McClory brought while in developing the screenplay, Bryce had thoroughly lost confidence. So did Fleming. The two decided to halt early production plans.
McClory proved stubborn, fearing that Bryce and Fleming were trying to finagle his and Whittingham's narrative ownership away from him. In the midst of their falling out, Fleming took their combined efforts and saw in it a strong novel. He published it under his own name not long after, thinking that the whole movie idea had fallen apart.
Ultimately, Fleming, the man with an insatiable curiosity and in-depth knowledge of intelligence, was no match for the world of film copyright law.
McClory and Whittingham had made notable changes to Thunderball in developing it. Fleming had a fairly cavalier attitude in adapting the screenplay to novel form, feigning some innocence later on in court. After all, the deal included a novelization of the screenplay.
For most of the last years of his life, Fleming would end up embroiled in a court case surrounding the rights to Thunderball. The case began in 1961, as Whittingham and McClory sued for plagiarism. This was one year before the release of the film Dr. No, the low-budget debut of Bond from Eon Productions that saw the character become a phenomenon.
The nature of Fleming's collaborations with Bryce, Cuneo, McClory and Whittingham was such that most contributions from every party were frustratingly undated, so claims were hard to prove. The only definite fact was that each man had given the project essential pieces.
The case was settled out of court, with McClory and Whittingham receiving credit on the novel, having contributed to the original screenplay. More importantly, McClory would not only be a producer on Eon's Thunderball movie but could also film his own version of the story a decade later.
Bond's battles with SPECTRE formed the plot basis for most of the early 007 movies and created some of the franchise's most memorable villains, including Dr. No, Emilio Largo and Blofeld. The films' inability to follow up on the organization definitely hurt them, especially as they became more cartoonish.
Roger Moore was indeed the last Bond to see SPECTRE until 2015's film of the same name. The cold open of 1981's For Your Eyes Only has Bond dropping Blofeld to his death, but, due to rights issues, it is simply an unnamed bald man with a white cat.
As for McClory, he would spend most of his remaining years attempting to remake Thunderball, succeeding only once with 1983's dire Never Say Never Again, which notably brought Sean Connery back to the part of James Bond and designed to face off against Eon Productions' Octopussy. Sony picked him up in 1997 with the intention of developing a competing Bond series using the elements of Thunderball, but Eon and parent company MGM quickly sued them away.
A couple of years after McClory's death in 2006, a deal was worked out that gave Eon all the rights McClory held onto — in particular the rights to SPECTRE, which led to 2015's disappointing revival of the organization and Blofeld. The magic of Thunderball, it turns out, came not from the plot elements that were fought over, but from the rare and powerful collaboration of multiple strong-willed artists.