RETRO REVIEW: Thunderball (1965)

James Bond (Sean Connery) swims with sharks — Photo: United Artists / Eon Productions.

Directed by Terence Young — Screenplay by Jack Whittingham, Richard Maibaum, and John Hopkins.

In this day and age, where we just had a six year wait between Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time To Die, it actually is a little bit tough to wrap you head around the fact that United Artists and Eon Productions released a Bond-film every year from 1962 to 1965. Add to that, the fact that Terence Young directed three of those films and it becomes even more astounding. However, this was actually Young’s final Bond-film, and that occasion was marked by the fact that the budget was much, much bigger than when Young introduced audiences to the character.

In Terence Young’s Thunderball, James Bond (played by Sean Connery) — Agent 007 — is on a mission to find two atomic bombs that SPECTRE have stolen from NATO. SPECTRE have threatened the British and American governments with using these bombs on unspecified cities, unless they pay the evil organization £100 million. His search sends him to the Bahamas and SPECTRE’s no. 2, Emilio Largo (played by Adolfo Celi and voiced by Robert Rietty), and soon Bond will see the eye-patch-wearing villain’s interest in aquatic life up close and personal.

This film, Terence Young’s Thunderball marked the first time that a Bond-film was shot in widescreen Panavision, which feels appropriate given the sizable step-up in the production budget. I presume that James Bond had now become must-see cinema, and he was well on his way to becoming the iconic screen legend that he is now known as today. However, as for firsts, it was also the first time that the runtime of a film in the Bond-franchise was longer than two hours.

And, unfortunately, it also feels that way. To be perfectly honest, I thought it felt longer. I think there is so much unnecessary filler content in this film. I think the scenes at the health resort go on for way too long, and, while I like parts of the scenes with the SPECTRE agents here, I think these scenes actually overcomplicate the film’s plot. Frankly, it feels like the film doesn’t really begin until there are 90 minutes to go, and even then what we get isn’t particularly exciting.

I gather that many of the extensive underwater scenes were groundbreaking for the time, and some of them are perfectly fine, but I was really disappointed by just how much the film relies on its underwater footage, which is comprehensible in the beginning but not so much when the action picks up towards the end of the film. Admittedly, I did get a kick out of seeing the shark pool scene again, but today it is kind of obvious how some of these shots were made.

I had hoped that perhaps the supporting characters could liven up the film a bit, but, unfortunately, I don’t think they manage to do that. I think the main problem with the supporting characters is that the film lacks a villain or henchman that has the right amount of charisma or eccentricity. Though I enjoyed the all too brief casino scene, Adolfo Celi’s Emilio Largo is all character design. He has this very classic Bond-villain look with an eye-patch and greying hair, but he is all design and no character or personality, which just adds up to his scenes being disappointingly tedious.

But what about Bond? Well, I think that he gets some solid quips in here and there, so there is some fun to be had, but I also think that he, too, is hampered by the film around him. On top of that, I once again have to mention just how uncomfortable it is to watch Bond basically force himself on, or blackmail, some of the women in this film. Connery also looks older than previously, but it is obviously not as distracting as I know it is in later films. I do want to make note of two or three quite silly, or perhaps even campy scenes. I thought the jet-pack was fun, the fact that Bond sprays his enemies with water just before we get the title sequence is a little bit silly, and, even though this retrieval system is apparently quite real, the final shot made me laugh-out-loud. I did not remember that shot at all.

Although it was the first Bond-film to be more than two hours long, Terence Young’s Thunderball was also the biggest box office success in the franchise at the time, and it remains one of the most successful Bond-films ever made. However, longtime box office success doesn’t always equal quality. I think that Thunderball, though it was made on a bigger budget than any of the Bond-films before it, is a let-down. The film feels very long, the action is never very exciting, and the villain is the blandest in the franchise thus far. Thunderball is just a surprisingly sluggish film.

5.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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