Any Bond film was going to pale in comparison to Goldfinger, but even so Thunderball was a remarkably weak effort – and easily the weakest film in the Sean Connery canon. Neither as light on its feet as Goldfinger, nor as taut or propulsive, Thunderball mainly unfolds in the Bahamas, where Bond has to thwart Spectre as they prepare to launch a nuclear missile. From the outset, however, it’s clear that Thunderball wants to exceed Goldfinger and become the definitive Bond film. Not only was this the longest Bond film to date, at over two hours, but it presents MI6 and Spectre with a new systematic sweep. In one scene, we see all of Spectre meeting, and in another all the 00 agents gather to consider the threat unfolding in Nassau.
The action is also much faster this time around. The opening scene sees Bond fire out water nozzles from the back of his car, before escaping villains in a jetpack. This prompts the camera to quicken as well, sometimes through jerky hand-held cinematography, and sometimes through accelerated frames that almost look like stop-motion animation. In an early scene, Bond is attached to a spine stretcher at Shrublands, a psychiatric and medicinal facility. When the nurse leaves the room, a Spectre agent dials the machine into the danger zone, providing us with a manic, jerky, frenetic camera that depicts Bond’s point of view as he tries to escape. Similarly, many of the scenes in Nassau intersect with the local Mardi Gras, include a chase sequence in which manic drumming gives way to the fastest editing in the franchise thus far.
This hyperactive pace changes the nature of car chases and car travel as well. The car chases of Goldfinger were all about ingenuity – the ingenious way Guy Hamilton shot them, the ingenious way Bond negotiated them, and the ingenious accoutrements of the Aston Martin itself, which we saw for the first time in this film. By contrast, the car scenes of Thunderball are about speed, speed and more speed. We start with a hyperactive chase between a car and motorbike, and proceed to a scene, in Nassau, when a Spectre agent accelerates so quickly that Bond has to ask: “Do you fly here often?” Underwater, we’re presented with a different, but equally kinetic chase – sharks chasing humans, in the custom-made shark tank that Emilio Largo, Spectre’s No. Two, played by Adolfo Celi, uses to dispose of his enemies.
Throughout these action scenes, you sense that regular terrestrial space is no longer enough for Terence Young, who clearly returns to the franchise keen to outdo Hamilton’s work on Goldfinger. While there are a few half-hearted efforts to take the action to the air, Goldfinger did aerial sequences so well that it feels like a dead-end here. Instead, Thunderball turns its attention to underwater action. In the first and best underwater scene, we watch the Spectre operative as they hijack a NATO plane, land it on a strip just beneath the surface of the Caribbean, and sink it to the bottom, before camouflaging it with a canopy of seaweed fabric.
Whereas Hamilton seemed less interested in Bond as a Casanova, Young uses the extended running time of Thunderball to double down on Bond’s promiscuous tendencies too. Unlike Goldfinger, most of the investigation occurs through flirtation, which is a shame, since all the scenes with women are pretty tedious – misogynistic, repetitive and awkwardly dubbed. While all the Connery films are dubbed, it’s especially noticeable here – the women all have the same “exotic” voice, and all seem interchangeable after a while, which is a problem when they’re meant to carry so much of the narrative burden. Pussy Galore worked so well, in part, because she used her own voice, and there’s nobody to match her charismatic presence here.
In Young’s hands, Bond’s flirtation also seems peculiarly humorless – more like another form of aggression – which makes his continuous seduction pretty implausible too, even as a fantasy. It doesn’t help that the story itself is baggy, long-winded and expository, full of brief scenes that feel as if they were included belatedly to ensure continuity. Even the expository moments tend to be tangled, convoluted and contorted, while Largo is remarkably boring as a villain – a true Number Two, who doesn’t exist for any other purpose than to serve the head of Spectre, who only comes into his own in the next film. As a result, there’s no charismatic or comic stand-off between Bond and nemesis, as there is from the very start of Goldfinger.
Most remarkably, for such a long film, there are virtually no set pieces. Instead, Young opts for rapid cuts between scenes, resulting in an overlong film with overshort scenes – in other words, a long film that feels twice as long to watch. The closest we come to a set piece is the scene when Bond invades Largo’s house, which perches on the tip of a cay on the outskirts of Nassau. Even then, though, the film fails to make much of what should have been the central spectacle – Largo’s shark tank – treating it as an opportunity for kinetic action where Hamilton would have used it to generate an evocative sense of space. The underwater viewing window at the end of Dr. No was also far more evocative – by comparison, it makes Largo’s shark tank (the supposed centrepiece of his compound) look like an instalment at a children’s aquarium.
Even more strangely, Thunderball doesn’t excel at underwater action either. Despite the superb suspense of the initial scene where Spectre conceals the plane underwater, there’s no subsequent interest in the balletic and operatic potential of action beneath the ocean. The final, intermimable sequence is more like an enormous underwater fight than a proper action set piece. You can only assume that this kind of submarine combat was pretty novel at the time, since it goes on so long that Young has to eventually cut to underwater creatures to make it all seem exotic – a weirdly shaped fish, an octopus, a lobster, and a pack of sharks.
In the end, what Thunderball is interested in is speed – and speed defines the ending more than underwater combat or set pieces. In the final scene, Bond finds himself on an accelerating boat, which Young conveys through sped-up motion outside and regular motion inside. He has to jump off this boat just before it smashes into a rock, and then propel himself and his Bond Girl up to the back of a plane, in an echo of the opening jet-pack. By this stage, the film needs this hyper-kinetic pacing to compensate for its own sluggishness, paving the way for a different kind of Bond film from Goldfinger – the B-grade Bond film, full of rapid action scenes and turgid exposition, that almost demands to be relegated to the background.
As fate would have it, then, Connery couldn’t have chosen a better film from his canon to remake as Never Say Never Again – the title a winking nod to the subpar quality of this particular film as much as Connery’s own part in the Bond franchise. And, in retrospect, this speed, while limiting the scope and style of Thunderball, is also an asset, since it moves us as fluidly as possible between Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, the next film in the sequence.