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Hitchcock, Lawsuits and Remakes – The Troubled History of Thunderball

Take it easy, Mr. Bond…

So began Thunderball, Ian Fleming’s ninth literary outing for his now-infamous Secret Service agent James Bond, 007. When the story was finally adapted for the big screen in 1965, it brought to fruition the hard work and misery of the seven years it had taken since Fleming and a small group of associates had first set out to bring to life in all his cinematic glory. In that time, Bond had become something of a pop culture icon following the success of three motion pictures – Dr. No, From Russia with Love and, most recently, Goldfinger – but due to a mixture of bad luck and legal issues Thunderball, which had initially been written as an original screenplay in which to mark Bond’s movie debut, had remained unproduced.

To cinemagoers, Sean Connery, the actor chosen to take on the role of Bond, embodied all the characteristics of the gentleman spy, with his suave, calm demeanour and ruthless willingness to get the job done. Even as other studios tried to capitalise on the public’s new-found interest in spies in the wake of Bond’s popularity, resulting in such capers as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, fans eagerly awaited the next 007 instalment in both paperback and at the cinema. But when Thunderball was first published by Jonathan Cape Ltd in 1961, Connery was still a struggling actor and James Bond’s sole foray onto the screen had been in a 1954 television adaptation of Casino Royale, Fleming’s first Bond novel, with California-born Barry Nelson stepping into the role of Bond.

The world of spies, espionage and war was not something that Ian Fleming had been unfamiliar with. Prior to embarking on his career as a novelist, Fleming had served as the personal assistant to Rear Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, during the Second World War. Their principal function was to decode ciphers and devise covert missions, including the abandoned Operation Ruthless and the infamous Operation Goldeneye, which would later lend its name not only to a James Bond movie but also the house where Fleming would write many of his novels.

In 1942, halfway through the war, Fleming formed the 30 Commando Unit, a special team of commandos who would participate in countless missions in Africa and Europe, including the Normandy landings on what has become known as D-Day. After being discharged from the Navy in November 1945, Fleming finally settled in Jamaica, having visited the island during the final months of the war, where he constructed a home which he named Goldeneye. Using his experiences as a catalyst, in 1952 Fleming created the character of James Bond, a 00 agent of the MI6 with a licence to kill, who is dispatched to all areas of the globe in order to stop terrorists, criminal masterminds and drug barons from fulfilling their aspirations of world domination.

James Bond made his debut in 1953 with Casino Royale, but Fleming had designs on the character, with countless novels detailing his various missions against all manner of megalomaniacs. At the time of its publication, the world was in fear of Communism and nuclear bombs in the wake of of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, two events which signalled the end of the Second World War. With the Nazis having been defeated by the Allied Forces, the United States had turned its fear towards the Soviet Union, with an underlying tension between the two nations causing something of a stalemate. As a result, both countries attempted to infiltrate the other through the use of covert spies, and the public’s awareness of this would coincide with the arrival of Bond.

Following the minor success of his first mission, 007 returned a year later with a new adventure, Live and Let Die, released around the time that Fleming would sell the television rights to his first novel to CBS. Fleming soon found that his writing had earned him some unexpected praise from Senator John F. Kennedy who, in just a few short years, would become the the thirty-fifth President of the United States. Following the publication of Dr. No, the sixth 007 novel, events would be set in motion that would start James Bond’s slow and troublesome journey to the big screen.

Fleming had become close friends with a young man called Ivar Bryce while the two had studied together at Eton College during the 1920s, although they had first crossed paths while on a family holiday in Cornwall a few years earlier. In 1950 he had married Marie-Josephine Hartford, whose grandfather had ran the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company for many years, while her father was the founder of the Hartford Suspension Company, allowing her a comfortable lifestyle.

Bryce, meanwhile, had recently embarked on a creative partnership with a young producer called Kevin McClory, who had been struggling to develop a project with Of Mice and Men author John Steinbeck, despite the latter’s disappointing experience of working with Alfred Hitchcock on the 1944 drama Lifeboat. The result of Bryce and McClory’s collaboration was The Boys and the Bridge, a drama directed and co-written by McClory which Bryce had financed and the pair had produced under the banner of their new company Xanadu Productions. While seeking distribution for the picture, they began to search for their next project and, after giving some thought to adapting Paul Gallico’s Flowers for Mrs Harris, Bryce suggested the James Bond novels as an ideal source of inspiration.

McClory was not familiar with Fleming’s work and so over the following weeks purchased the existing 007 novels and analysed their commercial appeal, eventually agreeing with Bryce that they could serve as the basis for a series of action movies. Fleming agreed to their proposal, but to his surprise McClory suggested that instead of adapting one of the Bond novels they create a new story with which to bring James Bond to life. McClory’s further requests were that the story be set in the Bahamas and utilised underwater sequences, and with this in mind, and the addition of U.S.-based lawyer Ernest Cuneo, discussions began regarding ideas for what kind of mission Bond could embark on in his latest adventure.

With Fleming being offered a fee of $50,000 for his contributions to the project, he began to form a treatment based on notes taken by Cuneo during their discussions, but unable to provide a draft that the group deemed satisfactory, McClory took over the task of forming the basic story. But if the screenplay was to be of a high standard then it was agreed that an experienced writer would be required, and after negotiations with both Paul Dehn (who would later work on the script for Goldfinger) and William Fairchild (who was also to direct) failed to deliver, Jack Whittingham was hired to complete the work.

While McClory looked into Shepperton Studios as a potential home for the production, Bryce began the search for a suitable director, and after a chance viewing of a spy caper while on a return trip to New York, he finally found the ideal candidate. Alfred Hitchcock had enjoyed the most successful decade of his long and prestigious career during the 1950s, which had resulted in some of his most acclaimed and influential pictures; Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and Vertigo, in particular, remain favourites among his fans. In the summer of 1959, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released a big budget thriller that incorporated the many trademarks that Hitchcock had made his own, particularly the innocent man on the run.

Cary Grant played Roger Thornhill, a charming executive who, through a series of misunderstandings, is mistakenly believed to be a spy called George Kaplan. North by Northwest would embody many of the themes and visual motifs that Xanadu hoped to achieve with their Bond production, and upon returning home Bryce suggested Hitchcock as director of their screenplay, which at that point was known only as James Bond. Unable to contact the filmmaker directly, Fleming sent a cable to crime author Eric Ambler, who was friends with Hitchcock, requesting an introduction. Two days later, he received a response informing him that Hitchcock was to arrive in London and requested further information on the project.

Hitchcock had proven early in his career that he was able to balance both critically acclaimed and thoughtful pictures with box office success, and as a result was often granted carte blanche on his productions, overseeing ever aspect of development. By the time that he had relocated from Britain to the United States in 1939, Hitchcock was the most respected filmmaker in his native country, but within just a few short years he would become one of the most revered in the world. A name like Alfred Hitchcock would provide James Bond with the kind of credibility that the project needed, and so Bryce began serious negotiations in trying to obtain his services.

Rumours soon began to circulate among Xanadu that Hitchcock was hoping to work once again with James Stewart, which would mark their fifth collaboration, following Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much (a remake of Hitchcock’s earlier British thriller) and Vertigo, neither Fleming nor his associates saw Stewart as the quintessential gentleman spy. Despite his interest in the project, Hitchcock made no effort to arrange a meeting with Xanadu and by the end of the year he had backed out of negotiations and instead opted to adapt another novel; Robert Bloch’s Psycho.

Thunderball

Thunderball

Further issues would threaten James Bond when the commercial failure of The Boy and the Bridge in the United Kingdom resulted in the North American distribution being dropped. Fearing that he could be heading for bankruptcy, Bryce announced that he would no longer participate in the financing or development of the project. But even as the 007 movie, which had since been retitled James Bond of the Secret Service (after brief consideration of The Right to Kill), slowly began to unravel, Fleming had relocated to Goldeneye to commence work on his next novel, Thunderball.

While since the release of Goldfinger in 1959, Jonathan Cape had released a collection of short Bond tales called For Your Eyes Only, Thunderball was to be Fleming’s first full-length novel since he had entered into discussions with Bryce and McClory. The book would be something of a burden for the author, having become disillusioned following the disappointing experience of developing James Bond, but Fleming was blessed with a resource that he would use as a starting point for the novel…Whittingham’s screenplay.

Fleming’s Thunderball opened with a worn-out Bond, having been drinking and smoking excessively, being summoned to the office of his MI6 superior, M. Concerned over his mental and physical state, Bond is ordered to spend two weeks detoxing at Shrublands, the ‘Gateway to Health,’ while his own duties will be overseen by agent 009. For fourteen days, Bond is forced to confront his self-destructive lifestyle, eventually returning to the Secret Service healthier and with a more positive outlook. His rehabilitation coincides with the introduction of an organisation known as SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), a criminal body under the leadership of Supreme Commander Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

One of Bond’s most infamous villains, Blofeld would become the antagonist of Fleming’s 1963 novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and would also be featured in You Only Live Twice the following year. Upon Bond resuming his duties at MI6, he is ordered once again to the office of M, who reveals that the Prime Minister has received a letter informing that an aircraft on a NATO training flight has been apprehended, its crew murdered and the two atomic weapons now in the possession of SPECTRE.

The demands of the organisation are £100 million in gold bullion, and failing to do so within seven days will result in the destruction amounting to this sum. If the PM fails to act after this attack, a city will be destroyed and the organisation will address the world and claim responsibility for the terrorist act. Instead of merely plagiarising the work he had done with Xanadu, Fleming took the basic premise and several key moments and fashioned his own story. But his decision to do so without the blessing of those who had contributed to the treatments and screenplay, or his reluctance to credit them in the novel (although there is a note dedicating the book ‘To Ernest Cuneo Muse’), would instigate decades of legal action that would continue to haunt the Bond franchise for years to come.

While Bryce felt that the project had run aground, McClory had little interest in letting the production fall apart and requested that Whittingham continue his work on the script. But Cuneo was insisting that McClory him sent copies of the script as Bryce, who had financed the development, was the rightful owner to the story. Following a heated debate with Fleming in Jamaica, McClory confronted Bryce, whom he discovered had been in meetings with MCA without his involvement.

In March 1961, three months after Fleming had signed a contract with his publisher, McClory received an advanced copy of Thunderball in which he would be able to make his final decision on whether or not he felt Fleming’s work infringed on the work McClory had done with Whittingham. After numerous failed attempts to come to an agreement on the right to the story and with no satisfactory response from either the author or publisher, McClory made the decision, with Whittingham’s blessing and support, to pursue legal action.

Three days later, he attended a hearing at the High Court in London, in which he stated that, while he knew Fleming had been working on a new Bond novel that may include elements of their screenplay, he believed that he would have been credited accordingly. Despite McClory’s best efforts to delay or block the release of the novel Thunderball was published by Jonathan Cape on 27 March to considerable success. Almost simultaneously, Canadian producer Harry Saltzman had approached Fleming with the intention of securing the rights to Bond for a feature film. This news had come just a year after Twentieth Century-Fox had expressed interest in optioning Casino Royale, which was to star Peter Finch (fresh from his BAFTA-award winning performance as Oscar Wilde) in the role of Bond.

With Saltzman struggling to make his Bond project a reality, he was approached by American producer Albert R. Broccoli and the two formed a partnership, Eon Productions, and after learning that United Artists had also shown interest in Fleming’s creation, Broccoli and Saltzman travelled to New York to strike a deal with the studio. Despite Casino Royale being the first of the Bond novels and the obvious place to start, UA instead suggested the recently-released Thunderball as the basis for Bond’s feature debut. Richard Maibaum, who had started his writing career in the mid-1930s with the Spencer Tracy flick They Gave Him a Gun, was brought onboard to adapt Fleming’s story into screenplay form, with no thought given to McClory and Whittingham’s already-existed script.

But as the legal issues surrounding Thunderball continued to play out in court, UA reluctantly decided to abandon the project and instead focus on adapting the sixth Bond novel, Dr. No. Maibaum was once again hired to write a screenplay, with the participation of Wolf Mankowitz, who had first introduced Saltzman to Broccoli. With Terence Young directing and Sean Connery in the role of Bond, Dr. No was released by United Artists in Britain on 5 October 1962 and became an overnight success, although when an American release followed in March 1963 it took longer to make an impact.

Ian Fleming passed away on 12 August 1964 at the age of just fifty-six, having been plagued by ill health for some time. A little over a month later, Goldfinger, the third film to be based on Fleming’s Bond series (following 1963′s From Russia with Love) was released and become a phenomenal success, eclipsing the box office takings and reviews of its predecessors and finally cementing Bond as a lucrative franchise. Meanwhile, Saltzman and Broccoli had considered adapting On Her Majesty’s Secret Service next, but when the two were able to begin peaceful negotiations with McClory over the rights to Thunderball, that seemed the obvious choice.

Despite Guy Hamilton having successfully replaced Terence Young as the director with Goldfinger, he felt he had worn himself out with the production and had little interest in going through the process once again. As a result, Young was offered the chance to return and Maibaum, a veteran of the three previous Bond films, was hired to adapt Fleming’s novel. Ironically, Maibaum had already worked on a Thunderball screenplay for Saltzman and Broccoli shortly after the producers signed a deal with UA some years earlier, although with the screen character of Bond now defined by Connery, there were many significant differences between the two versions.

Principal photography commenced in February 1965, with Connery back in the role of Bond and Bernard Lee reprising his part as M, the head of MI6. While Young was shooting the movie at Pinewood Studios and in the Bahamas, Jonathan Cape published the last of Fleming’s full-length James Bond novels, The Man with the Golden Gun, although critics seemed a little underwhelmed by the result. Indeed, when the movie adaptation followed nine years later, the New York Times declared, ‘if you enjoyed the early Bond films as much as I did, you’d better skip this one.’

Young’s Thunderball would offer more elaborate and expensive set pieces than the previous three films, although many would criticise its continuity and pace. There was a reason for this, however, as the initial cut for the movie had totalled four-and-a-half hours, but with Young having moved on to another project, the task fell to editor Peter Hunt to reduce the running time by over half its length, thus removing or severely cutting many of the scenes. Regardless, the reviews and box office takings had proved that there was still a loyal audiences for James Bond, with Connery returning two years later with You Only Live Twice.

Unlike Flemming’s novel, the contributors to the various different drafts of Thunderball were given credit on the movie, with Maibaum and John Hopkins given the official screenplay credit, Whittingham receiving ‘original screenplay’ and McClory, Whittingham and Fleming billed with the story. McClory was also credited as a producer, although as is traditional, the opening of the credits announced ‘Ian Fleming’s Thunderball.’ Connery and McClory remained in touch after the drama that was Thunderball had finally been laid to rest, with McCorry returning to his home country of Ireland and stepping away from the hostility of the film industry.

The settlement that he had reached with the courts and studio regarding the movie had included a clause which stated that, while he had the right to make his own version of the story if he so wished, this would not be allowed for a full ten years after the release of the movie. This restriction had expired in the mid-1970s and now McClory was free to adapt Thunderball and finally make his own Bond picture. While he could easily have returned to the screenplay that had been developed under the banner of Xanadu Productions, McClory did not merely want to repeat himself but instead make something contemporary, a James Bond movie that could stand up against those produced by Eon and United Artists.

Eon Productions was facing a crisis of its own as Saltzman, one of the co-producers of the James Bond movie franchise, had found himself in financial difficulty after several financial investments that had failed to reach fruition. By the end of 1975, desperate to avoid bankruptcy, Saltzman sold his shares in the series to United Artists and retired from the film industry, leaving Broccoli to oversee the future of 007. Sean Connery, who had grown tired of the role, had initially stepped down after the release of You Only Live Twice and had been replaced by George Lazenby for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but a lukewarm response to his performance was enough to convince the producers that Connery was too important to the franchise.

Reluctantly, the forty-year-old star agreed to return for a significant fee but only one last time, making his swan song with 1971′s Diamonds Are Forever. A new actor was then required to take over the role of Bond and Saltzman and Broccoli finally agreed on Roger Moore, then best known for his lead role in the long-running series The Saint. Moore would remain James Bond until he bowed out after seven instalments with 1985′s A View to a Kill. The sixth 007 movie, however, would face more than just the expectations of the critics and fans, as a rival James Bond picture entered production at the same time.

McClory had spent several years struggling to find a studio that was willing to take a risk on a James Bond movie that would not be considered canon by the loyal fan base; as in those not produced by Eon and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who had taken over United Artists in 1981. It would be through the intervention of entertainment lawyer Jack Schwartzman, who had been unable to assist McClory during his time at Lorimar, that he was finally able to land his break. Schwartzman had since launched his own production company, Taliafilm, and had offered to produce McClory’s Bond project, but in an effort to avoid the project being easily shut down, McClory sought finance from multiple sources.

Lorenzo Semple Jr., a veteran of the 1960s Batman series, was chosen as the writer who would adapt Thunderball into a new screenplay, far-removed from the 1965 feature of the same name. Much like the Eon’s Thunderball, however, McClory’s remake, Never Say Never Again, would prove to be a difficult script to develop and would still be rewritten even as shooting commenced. Irvin Kershner, who had already proven that he could direct a superior sequel with 1980′s The Empire Strikes Back, was brought on as director, despite Schwartzman criticising him to his slow pace.

While McClory’s Bond film was in production, Eon were overseeing their own 007 adventure, Octopussy, the fourth to be directed by John Glen (who would remain with the series until 1989′s Licence to Kill) and the penultimate to star Roger Moore. Despite the much rumoured conflict of the two movies, there was little in the way of competition as far as Moore and Connery were concerned, with Moore commenting in his autobiography My World is My Bond, ‘There was no animosity between Sean and me. We didn’t react to the press speculation that we had become competitors in the part. In fact we often had dinner together and compared notes about how much we’d shot and how our respective producers were trying to kill us with all the action scenes they expected us to do.’

Never Say Never Again

Never Say Never Again

Octopussy was released in the summer of 1983 to mixed reviews, although it did perform relatively well at the box office, but when Never Say Never Again followed in October the reception was surprisingly positive. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times opened his review with a sentiment felt by many, ‘James, it is good to have you back again,’ while Variety added, ‘Connery, in fine form and still very much looking the part.’ While Moore had brought his own brand of charm to the role, many felt his tenure was saturated with too many gadgets, love interests and camp humour, and with Never Say Never Again those cynics had been given something they never thought they’d see again…Sean Connery stepping back into the role of Bond.’

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