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T H E   P R E M I E R   J A M E S   B O N D   W E B S I T E       ianfleming.org
Inside THUNDERBALL


by John Cork

Thunderball marks an important touchstone in the James Bond film series. It was the pinnacle—marking the high-point of fandom, budgets, marketing, and, of course, box office. More people saw Thunderball on theater screens in its initial release than any other Bond film to date. Thunderball wasn’t just the big hit of Christmas, 1965, Thunderball was Christmas, 1965.

Thunderball was not so much created as evolved. From concept to screen, Thunderball grew, changed, and metamorphosed from the hoped-for first James Bond screen adventure to the gargantuan 007 hit which peaked the popularity of the series in the sixties.

What may be most remarkable is that from Thunderball’s initial conception to its final print, there is a paper-trail of the growth of the story. Now, for the first time ever, this paper trail has been examined and documented.

Inside the rare bits of Bond history discussed here, the story of Thunderball unravels, revealing the origins of ideas, and remarkable clues to the creative process. At every turn, myths explode and sacred cows are called home. This is the real story—the story of how a great James Bond adventure rose from laughable ideas into a remarkable novel and stunning screen adventure.

Come with us and take a look . . .


SPECIAL NOTES: While this article looks at the history of the Thunderball story, it makes no assumptions about the legal issues raised before the filming of Thunderball or since. While documents cited are credited to specific writers, there is no guarantee the credited writer actually came up with the ideas or concepts included. It would be foolish to make any such assumptions about the collaborative process of the writing of any of the versions of Thunderball.

An ideal companion to this article can be found in Raymond Benson’s The James Bond Bedside Companion, and in Raymond’s article Thunderball, the Beginning, in 007 Magazine, #23. It should be noted that while Benson’s article relies on interviews conducted between 1982 and 1988, this articles relies on the actual documents produced by the writers.


The Inception

On May 27, 1959, Ernest Cuneo wrote a James Bond story. The next day he sent it off to Ivar Bryce. The idea was, like many things associated with the film industry, born out of convenience. At the time it wasn’t much of a tale, but it started a fantastic process which would cost some participants tens of thousands of dollars and make others millionaires.


                                      May 28, 1959.

Dear Ivar,
     Enclosed was written at-night, mere improvisation
     hence far from authors pride, possible authors
     mortification. Haven't even re-read it.

                        ......Ernest Cuneo.

Cuneo wanted a story for Xanadu, a film partnership he was remotely involved in with Kevin McClory, Bryce, and Ian Fleming. Xanadu’s idea was to bring Bond "into the big-time" (according to Bryce in his Fleming remembrance, You Only Live Once).

Cuneo designed the story to meet certain limitations, for Xanadu wanted to finance it under the Eady Plan. The Eady Plan was a windfall for Britain-based filmmakers after the second world war. Eady called for film company profits earned in Great Britain to be partially reinvested into the British film industry. Thus, major Hollywood studios found themselves with funds which could only be spent on British film product, like the unmistakably British 007. According to Cuneo, the story had to "be 75% British" to qualify.

Other qualifications necessary for Cuneo’s story, according to Cuneo’s memo came from Kevin McClory. McClory felt the movie’s box office would be strengthened if the movie contained plenty of underwater action, and if it were shot with the Todd-AO—a camera system developed by Michael Todd, McClory’s former employer. In fact, the memo seems to indicate McClory’s desire to have this new Bond story mirror many of the ingredients for Michael Todd’s hit film, Around The World In 80 Days.

Cuneo’s initial concept of the story, which later became Thunderball, had Her Majesty’s Secret Service tracing radio signals—apparently from a USO plane. Bond transforms himself into a (gulp) "performer-actor" and goes undercover in the USO to check things out. Cuneo tells it better than anyone:

Bond goes to, for example, Noel Coward, who gives him thirty seconds to view the top British performers in action: Fonteyn, Gielgud, Gingold, Morley—everyone from Gracie Fields to Old Vic—in short presentation. Bond’s efforts to imitate, until he finds his metier, can be amusing. Coward and Olivier finally work out an act for him.

Some elements in Cuneo’s initial outline remained in the final story. There are trawlers with trapdoor hulls—the forerunners of the Disco Volante, and there is a giant underwater battle. Sadly, the star-studded luster of Around The World In 80 Days intrudes even on this element of Bond’s world. Cuneo writes:

As Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Dinah Shore, etc. etc., pile into a plane which will transport them from Miami to Nassau, British and American frogmen are dressing for battle.

The Reaction

Well, the problem was obvious to Fleming. In a memo to Cuneo and McClory he writes:

"One small point. I am all for the light relief of the actors, etc., but this should be kept very separate from the main espionage plot."

Fleming goes on to suggest that Bond’s "act" should be as a trick revolver shot—an act Fleming uses later for Scaramanga (and Bond in the showroom scene), in the novel, The Man With The Golden Gun.

Then Fleming changed Bond history. Fleming states in the memo that he believes the Russians should be dropped as the villains in the story. His suggested replacement: The one and only SPECTRE! This memo marks the first written evidence of SPECTRE.

"Then Fleming changed Bond history...

Fleming's note
This memo marks the first written
evidence of SPECTRE."

Raymond Benson says both Cuneo and Bryce believed McClory came up with SPECTRE. That may be true in concept, but Fleming had a fascination with the word. In the novel Diamonds Are Forever, the villain has a faux western town named "Spectreville", and remember in the novel From Russia With Love, the decoder was named the Spektor, not the Lector.

SPECTRE proved to be a remarkable windfall for James Bond, a re-occurring element which helped define the early films and later novels with its villainous deeds. No other contribution to the Thunderball story-line would be as important as the creation of SPECTRE.

At its inception SPECTRE stood for Special Executive for Terrorism, Revolution and Espionage.

Counterintelligence, revenge, and extortion would seem more attractive attributes later.

While the addition of SPECTRE seems revolutionary now, it obviously did not attract the attention of the others involved in Xanadu.

Getting the Treatment

Fleming took his first stab at the story shortly after writing his memo. The biggest surprise? SPECTRE is gone, replaced by the Mafia. The Mafia would remain the villainous organization in all the rest of the Xanadu material.

In the film’s opening scenes, which he wrote in great detail, one can almost see Maurice Binder’s intro:

A white head-and-shoulders cardboard target fills the center of the screen . . . ‘XANADU PRESENTS’ comes onscreen . . . there is a roar of muffled automatic fire which sprays bullets into the heart of the target.

The opening turns out to have elements of introductions from the novels Moonraker and From Russia With Love (Moonraker opens with Bond in the shooting range; in FRWL Bond is chastised for still using a Beretta .25—which happens to Bond in this treatment).

In Fleming’s treatment, as Bond enters M.’s office, the Chief Of Staff speaks a line to Bond which is only slightly modified for the novel, Thunderball: "Fasten your seat belt." In the novel, it is the more British, "Fasten your lap strap," and is used by Fleming as a chapter title.

The villain is Henrico Largo. M. and Vallance of the C.I.D. (who appears in some of the novels) have already figured out the Mafia wants an atomic bomb. They believe the Mafia has plans to steal one from British soil, and that Henrico Largo is the leader of the group.

Bond goes to investigate Largo at Largo’s Mafia-run nightclub. There, he meets Dominique (Domino) Smith, a member of Scotland Yard’s "Ghost Squad," who has a cover job as a cigarette girl. Bond meets her as a patron-in-disguise, sporting cheek pads and a hold tooth. Domino tells him to be careful, but Bond, masquerading as an alarm company repairman, decides to meet Largo.

Neither the silly disguise nor the cover work, for when Largo encounters Bond, he immediately takes him prisoner.

Domino rescues Bond, but by the time he gets back to headquarters, Largo and his men, disguised like American Army officers (a la the film Goldfinger), have stolen an atomic bomb from a British base.

Eventually, the bomb ends up in Nassau. Largo, along with several Mafia agents, takes over much of a hotel while waiting for Western powers to pay a hundred million dollar ransom for the bomb’s return. Domino poses as a BOAC stewardess and accompanies Bond to Nassau to help him identify the Mafia goons. Once there, Bond meets with Felix Leiter. Targets for the bomb are discussed. Leiter requests a submarine from the US Navy. Meanwhile, Largo hosts a large party at the hotel casino.

There is a great bit: Largo realizes it is no coincidence Domino has ended up in Nassau. Largo captures Domino in his hotel room, and proceeds to try to beat information out of her. Bond has taken the best room in the hotel (much to the American Mafia chief’s chagrin), which happens to be right above Largo’s. In a scene reminiscent of the finale in the novel Diamonds Are Forever, Bond swings down from his balcony onto Largo’s. Largo is so caught up in his attack that he doesn’t notice Bond, who walks up and taps Largo on the shoulder. Bond speaks in an easy-going fashion: "If you must murder your wife, I wish you’d make less noise about it....Couldn’t you wait and kill her in the morning?" Largo is so taken aback by this confrontation that he allows Bond to leave with Domino unmolested. It is pure Bond.

After Bond gets Domino away they have "a love scene." Bond also gets the chance to show off his heretofore undisclosed water-skiing skills as he skis near the Mafia yacht, dubbed, in this version, The Virginia.

Largo and Domino apologize respectively for the previous night’s fight, and Largo invites Domino onto The Virginia for a party. Somehow, it is hard to imagine the dialogue here.

Bond gives Domino a Geiger counter to take onto The Virginia --a story point which remains in the final film. Needless to say, Domino is caught with the clicking Geiger counter and is aggressively questioned by Largo. Fleming writes: "Toni (a Mafia strongman) has a lighted cigarette and there is much threat of torture." This idea eventually developed into the fire and ice torture scene in both the novel and film versions of Thunderball.

Also the same in both Fleming’s treatment and his novel is Largo’s target—a rocket bas in the Bahamas. As the Mafia team goes to plant the bomb, Bond, Leiter, and the US Navy frogmen surprise them. Domino ultimately saves Bond by shooting Largo with her spear-gun.

Connery on Disco Volante
some six years later in the resulting film.
Sean Connery As one can see, the essential elements of the novel are in place, even in this initial film treatment. Stolen atom bombs, Domino, Largo, and the underwater battle. In the reading of the treatment, though, everything is jumbled up. The treatment reads as though it were written quickly and not taken too seriously by Fleming—more like a Fletch novel set in the late 50s than a Bond story.

Fascinatingly, many of the cinematic elements are also in place: Bond’s humor is evident, though not as smooth as it would become in the films. Even Bond’s signature introduction is spelled out: "My name is Bond, James Bond," Fleming writes. But, as we shall see, the story of Thunderball was only just beginning.

Growing Pains

Kevin McClory wrote to Ivar Bryce on Sept. 18, 1959, after having met with Fleming at the French resort, Le Touquet, and discussed the idea of having the bomb heist take place in the air. McClory went on to note how one could discard the bomber, scuttling it "into shallow water (30 or 40 feet in the outer islands) in the Bahamas."

McClory also wrote about bringing in a writer to work with Fleming. Eventually Jack Whittingham was chosen for that job.

Jack Whittingham’s job was to adapt the treatment into a workable script. He offered notes on the treatment, including obvious observations: "too much story told in dialogue...Bond practically never in danger until the end...Domino escaping and making ‘monkeys’ of the Mafia far too easily..."

Whittingham’s notes are none too kind to Fleming’s draft, but they do offer up ideas that later make their way into the novel and finished film Thunderball. He suggests, for instance, the Mafia "should perhaps steal two bombs—the first to show they mean it, if no money is forthcoming."

By October 2, Whittingham was writing on his own, sending a new opening for the story off to McClory. This opening is impressive. A fiery red-head, Sophia, is introduced as Largo’s lust-mate. In ways, she will transform into both Fiona Volpe and the new Domino. Also introduced is Jack Petachi, who becomes Fleming’s Giuseppe Petacchi in the novel, and Angelo/Derval in the film.

Most of Whittingham’s opening consists of a chilling scene where Sophia and Largo play backgammon for ten thousand dollars. The money was used by Largo to bribe an informant. Once Largo has his information, he orders the informant killed and fed to sharks. Largo returns to Sophia (who does not know of the killing) and offers the cash roll as a stake for the new game. If she loses, he gets his way with her. As the informant provides a ghoulish lunch for the sharks, Largo uses the cash roll as play money.

The remainder of the document maps out the new aerial theft of the atomic bombs—very similar to the final novel and film. In this version Petachi shoots the crew of the plane. Maybe he didn’t know bullets would go through the fuselage "like a blowtorch through butter."

Most surprisingly, American folk singer and actor Burl Ives (singer of Jimmy Crack Corn, and I Don’t Care) is suggested for the role of Largo.

Whittingham closed his document with a few notes. One of the notes he suggests advanced the story of Thunderball more substantially than at any point to date: He suggests Bond discover the sunken bomber and find "something on the sea bed" nearby. "Perhaps a ring or a wrist watch?" This "leads to Bond being able to convince Sophia that her own cousin (or brother)—Petachi—has been double-crossed and murdered by Largo. Thus Sophia moves into Bond’s camp." This plot twist vitally altered the course of most of the Thunderball material which followed.

Moving Write Along. . .

On October 21, 1959, Fleming had his secretary send off a new draft of his treatment to Jack Whittingham’s lawyer. Fleming also mentioned Mr. Ives for the role of Largo, claiming Ives wanted a part in the yet unwritten film. He also noted that Cuneo should have a role as the Italian Capo of the Mafia.

In the treatment, Fleming adopted Whittingham’s opening, making one major alteration: Fleming changed Largo’s partner from Sophia back to Domino.

Fleming’s new treatment was an improvement over his past effort, but still had a long way to go. Even with the entire structure in place, many of the story beats remained flat:

Bond first meets Largo when he accompanies the police in a Geiger search of the yacht. Later, Bond must seduce Domino right under Largo’s nose. Even worse, Fleming only half-way adopts the Petachi/Domino relationship plot twist.

In this version, Petachi is Domino’s true love. Bond later finds the stolen bomber on the recon mission with Leiter—just like in the film and novel. But Bond never explores the downed bomber (Bond and Leiter decide they need clearance from HQ to take a closer look), so Bond never gets the important evidence of Largo’s treachery which he can use to confront Domino. Later, when Domino brings up Petachi, Bond merely recognizes the name from the flight list.

Also in this draft, Felix Leiter takes up water skiing and is killed for his trouble. Since Fleming wrote this scene, it is hard to argue that the character would at least look very odd skiing with a missing let and arm. Fleming obviously decided to reconstitute the fair-haired Texan so the sharks could eat him all at once this time. The film incarnations of Felix Leiter have remained sound of body until License To Kill.

Another thing is quite apparent from this draft—Fleming had never heard of political correctness. In this treatment, Bond confesses his suspicions about Largo and the others (who are posing as garment union leaders). Bond notes, "These Garment people look innocent enough, but they are, after all, Italians." Archie Bunker, secret agent.


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