RECAP: Thunderball

Thunderball (1965): Terence Young

The iconic, canonical Goldfinger defined James Bond for generations of fans. Its followup was Thunderball, an terrific jaunt in the tropics, with huge explosions and fight sequences few movies have ever tried again.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: James Bond travels to the Bahamas to foil a SPECTRE plot to steal nuclear bombs and destroy Miami. 

Hero (5/10)

James Bond (Sean Connery) opens Thunderball at a funeral for a JB, which, hey, aren’t those James Bond’s initials? They are. But not. The funeral honors a man who killed two of Bond’s colleagues. Bond decides to pay respects to the widow by following her home and surprising her in the drawing room.

Well, it turns out, that widow isn’t a widow at all–it’s a man! I mean, she is a he, but he is still a widow, maybe? It was a set up, OK? The man who was supposedly dead went to his own funeral posing as his wife. Of course that would work, right?

It doesn’t. Bond fights the man and kills him and escapes the chateau in a jet pack to a car with water jets. Now that’s what I call a Bond opening.

In Thunderball Bond is back at odds with SPECTRE. Number One is present again, like he was in From Russia with Love, faceless and stroking his white cat, but this time we meet Number Two, a man named Largo (Adolfo Celi), who orchestrates SPECTRE’s most ambitious plan to date, and wears an eye patch.

That’s right, Largo wears an eye patch.

Bond, meanwhile, spends much time recuperating at a rich-people clinic in southern England. This clinic is conveniently located beside a NATO air base that is a major part of Largo’s plan. Bond stumbles upon this plan partly by accident and partly because he is observant.

Largo’s plot and Bond’s connection with a dead NATO pilot sends him to the Bahamas, where he contacts the pilot’s beautiful (duh) sister Domino (Claudine Auger). Domino is Largo’s “kept woman” and Bond’s cover story for meeting Largo.

Largo deduces that Bond means trouble for him, but he can’t rid himself of the pesky 007. Bond, meanwhile, tries his best to ruin the situation. Bond needs a lot of help in Thunderball, though you won’t catch him saying thanks.

Bond nearly dies in the English clinic, first by the traction machine at the hands of the imposter pilot, then by a couple of assassins trying to cover up the whole plot. He nearly blows his cover in calling Domino by that name, realizing, luckily, that the name was on an ankle bracelet he had cause to see.

Bond needs to raid Largo’s compound one night, so he has a local call the governor, who shuts off power across the entire island, only to learn that Largo has backup power. He’s nearly killed spying on Largo’s yacht one night.

Many of Bond’s troubles are bad luck. Consider the night he survives spying on Largo’s yacht. He swims to shore and flags down a driver, who happens to be another SPECTRE agent just having a night drive. Later, when Bond joins the diving team to retrieve the hidden nuclear bombs, Largo recognizes Bond through only the eyes visible in his mask. I’m not sure I could do that with my own family.

James Bond is the world’s most formidable spy, but he needs luck and plenty of help to foil SPECTRE’s big plot. His underwater martial skill is world-class, and that’s how he gains victory.

Villain (3/10)

Largo is second-in-command at SPECTRE, an organization we have met several times now. We get to see their headquarters, a massive secret room in Paris, inside the building housing a stateless persons organization.

Whether Largo thought of the plan or merely runs it is unclear and immaterial. Here it is: For two years a SPECTRE recruit has studied the mannerisms of a NATO pilot named François Derval (Paul Stassino), including changing his face to resemble and sound like the man. This is why he was at the same clinic as Bond and tried to kill him.

The fake pilot boards a Vulcan jet carrying two nuclear bombs for a training run. During this flight the pilot poisons the air supply of the flight crew, using a separate air supply to achieve this. He flies the jet solo to an underwater hiding spot in the Bahamas near Largo’s estate.

A long sequence shows this plan in action. After the jet hits the water a team of divers departs from Largo’s yacht using an underwater hatch. They cover the jet with camouflage netting and steal the two bombs. Largo kills the pilot.

With the bombs in hand, SPECTRE is free to demand ransom. It wants £100 million in diamonds dropped in a special bag off the coast of Burma. The UK government will signal is acceptance of the demands by making Big Ben strike seven times at 6pm.

And there’s your plan. Largo executes it with skill and efficiency. His men are compliant and loyal. He’s brought a Polish nuclear scientist to arms the bombs. He’s got the perfect yacht for the job. He even has a submersible built to the exact specifications of two nuclear bombs and armed with harpoons, which will come in handy.

In Largo’s spare time he studies sharks, including the ones housed at his compound named Palmyra. He enjoys skeet shooting and the pleasures of kidnapping Domino. Did I mention the eye patch? He wears an eye patch. It’s pretty awesome.

Action/Effects (7/10)

One of the all-time great Bond sequences, the US Navy SEAL attack on Largo’s men as they transport the bombs ranks as a masterpiece of cinema. Few fights would dare go underwater, and certainly the Thunderball underwater battle made moviegoers gasp when they saw it. Nothing like it had been or has been tried.

As Largo and his men swim toward Miami, the SEALS parachute from a plane above, easily able to spot the enemy in the clear waters. (I assume these men are SEALs. Who else would be qualified?) Each side has about 18 divers, all equipped with harpoon guns. Largo’s men have about six miniature submersibles, plus the large one carrying the bombs. All of these come with harpoon guns.

The Americans wear orange, and as they hit the water they form up and swim straight into Largo’s men. No flanking maneuvers for these guys. Some bad guys respond by shooting dead the two lead SEALs. The large sub fires several bolts, and the SEALs respond in kind. We see two of Largo’s shot.

Fortunately the Americans wear easy-to-spot orange, while Largo had the foresight to order black, harder to spot underwater. As the two sides clash, we get a wide shot of all the action. Largo leaves aside the large sub for a moment. He’s eager to kill.

The fighters pair off or take cover. One American writhes as he’s shot in the gut. Another dodges a bolt and kills his attacker. Some men are shot in the back; others grapple hand-to-hand. Largo is the first to cut a guy’s breathing tube, which basically kills him if he can’t reach the surface in time.

Bond, still on the Coast Guard chopper, suits up in orange. Felix tells him, “On you everything looks good,” and he’s not wrong. Bond starts a propulsion system that speeds him toward the fight. I can almost believe the Coast Guard would have all this gear onboard a helicopter.

All the fighters are in single combat, knives out, struggling for the upper hand. Now, I’ve never tried to kill anyone underwater before, but I imagine getting below my opponent would be an advantage IF I could blow bubbles into his mask. Enough bubbles would effectively blind my opponent. I didn’t see evidence of this tactic.

One American attacks the large sub, but he’s subdued by the two drivers. Bond glides in and unmasks a bad guy before zooming away. Largo spots Bond and swims after him. Bond attacks two goons and cuts both tubes. Another goon swims by and, before he can shoot, Bond reveals the harpoon gun attached to his propeller system, killing the goon. That’s three “kills” for Bond. Should be enough to sway the balance, since, that constitutes 1/6th of Largo’s force.

You didn’t think there’d be consistency in the numbers, did you?

Bond swims toward an ally cornered on the shipwreck near the fight, where Largo planned to stash a bomb. Bond kills two bad guys with one rope, after he shoots a rope holding up a door and it crashes onto the two bad guys. Bond’s up to five kills now.

Bond next swims into the wreck and removes his air tank and propeller, switching to his rebreather (good for up to fur minutes) and taking a small tank with him. Three goons follow his bubbles in there to investigate. Bond swims around and drops the tank, which turns out to be an underwater grenade, which explodes. Bond has now killed eight, nearly half the Largo force.

Well, maybe not, because there’s still plenty of guys left grappling. One baddie gets stabbed in the eye. A lobster is shown amongst the fighting. Some other fish are swimming blithely. Bodies are still everywhere, and several panning shots prove it. More guys are shot in the gut. One is shot in the breathing tube. Another is shot through the arm. All these blokes bail out of the fight or die.

Well, you might be wondering why all this blood isn’t drawing in the sharks. The sharks have heard your questions, and they arrive now. Everyone starts shooting the sharks.

At this point Largo’s men finally give up. They came with 18, 19 died, and five surrender. That’s some movie math for you. It was a damn great fight though.

Sidekicks (2/8)

Bond’s chief aid is the comically out-of-place Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter). It’s unbelievable how much the CIA agent sticks out, as if he were trying to stick out, but I know he’s not. On the beach he wears a suit, looking like the biggest mark outside of Las Vegas. Later, he sports tropical shirts, including a masterpiece of fashion–a pineapple shirt.

When he greets Bond at his hotel room, he nearly calls him “007,” which earns him a gut punch from Bond. During their night espionage of Largo’s yacht, when Bond is exposed, Felix just leaves him there. About his only contribution is flying a helicopter so Bond can investigate the sea.

Domino is less sidekick and more victim. She is Bond’s connection to Largo, socially, and we know how much Bond loves social connections with his marks. Poor Domino is a pathetic creature, like a deer caught in a fenced-in yard. She’s beholden to Largo, but we don’t learn why. Does he have dirt on her, or has he threatened her if she ever left?

Domino turns on Largo, of course, when she learns the truth about her brother, courtesy James Bond. I didn’t like Domino to start, however, because she grabs a turtle and holds it while it swims. That’s a big no-no.

Henchmen (5/8)

Redheaded Fiona (Luciana Paluzzi) is a force in Thunderball. Her role in SPECTRE seems more free agent than numbered associate. She first appears in England, seducing the real NATO pilot. She’s been with him for who knows how long, but long enough to correct the imposter pilot when he bids adieu. He says Ciao, she tells him.

Later, Fiona shows up as a member of the group’s execution branch, driving a motorcycle armed with rockets, which she uses to kill a fellow SPECTRE agent who did wrong and thus deserves death.

Fiona is a part of Largo’s plot, of course, but it’s not clear what part. She’s there to spy on Bond, and picks him up one night on the back roads, where we learn that driving 100 miles per hour barely raises her heart rate. Knowing Bond’s weakness, she tries seduction on him, and it works. Fiona sneaks into Bond’s room one night and takes a bath. Bond surprises her. “Aren’t you in the wrong room?” she asks. “Not from where I’m standing,” Bond says. She asks for something to put on; Bond hands her shoes.

After a night of love making she describes Bond as a “sadistic brute.” Bond fires back that he did her “for king and country,” a funny thing to say considering a queen presided over the United Kingdom at the time. Fiona counters that she will not be one of those girls who returns to good after sleeping with Bond.

Fiona bosses two of Largo’s men one night when they are tasked with bringing in Bond. They lose Bond, of course, but the men take orders unquestionably from Fiona. After a chase through a parade, they find Bond again at the Kiss Kiss Club, which rarely happens in these movies after a successful escape. Bond and Fiona dance, and only supernatural bullet anticipation from Bond allows him to survive when Fiona gets shot by her own man.

Fiona was an interesting character who outshone the villain. She should have been Bond’s primary antagonist. She has a cooler head than Largo, proved during a visit to Largo’s compound. Both are shooting skeet, when Largo laments that he wants to kill Bond. “As an enemy of SPECTRE,” he says, “he should be killed.” Fiona knows that killing Bond will only prove to the British that the missing bombs are with Largo. “I shall kill him,” she says.

Stunts (6/6)

Many critics called the underwater sequences overlong and in need of editing. I disagree. I find them compelling and marvelous. The skill needed to choreograph and film these scenes is unparalleled. Perhaps shooting in outer space would be more difficult, but few terrestrial locations would surpass it.

You have to hope the water is clear enough to see. Seeing anything through a mask can be tough, couple that with looking through a mask through a camera lens and you can imagine the problems compounding.

The continuity doesn’t work, as I’ve already stated. The numbers of combatants in the climactic battle are less important than their near-equality.

Apparently the boat explosion that ends the film was large enough to blow out windows across the island.

Climax (2/6)

After the big fight underwater, Largo and two others get away. Bond chases them and kills one, but Largo escapes to return to his yacht.

Things are getting hairy on the seas. The Navy and Coast Guard have ships in the area, ready to strike the Disco Valante. It’s over for Largo, and he knows it, but he won’t give up. His yacht has countermeasures for such an attack, and he deploys them. The front of the yacht detaches from the rear and becomes a large speedboat. The rear section floats to a halt, which spells trouble for the men remaining on it. A cannon and several machine guns fire at the Americans following, but they are sitting ducks.

Bond has swum aboard the fast boat by grabbing the fins beneath it. He climbs topside as the boat speeds away behind a smokescreen. There’s little reason for Bond to do this. The Navy recovered both nukes, and Bond doesn’t seem to care much about Domino being on the boat; he might not know she’s there.

Bond doesn’t give up on a fight, though. He enters the main cabin and starts fighting. He kicks a goon and beats back another so he can slap Largo. Bond throws headphones at a bad guy. He throws a chair at another. Anything that can be thrown is thrown.

The movie’s funniest moment must be accidentally so. While the ship supposedly races out of control, a Largo servant enters the cabin with a tray of champagne and a glass, supposedly to honor Largo’s victory. We must salute this man. Programmed to act at certain moment, this man believes so strongly in his superior that all evidence of failure is ignored. The plan was meant to succeed at time X. It is now time X. The plan has succeeded. This unnamed, silent character, fodder for Bond to beat upon, is a hero of the film, one of the best henchmen ever hired by any villain.

Of course, this man is knocked out as Bond and Largo do battle. With the help of another underling, Largo gains the upper hand and even takes hold of a gun to point at Bond. He sneers a look of resigned hatred. He knows the plot is foiled, but at least he can kill Bond.

We hear a thunk and see Largo lurch backward. He’s got a harpoon in his back, courtesy of Domino, who emerges from the depths of the boat behind him. “I’m glad I killed him” Domino says coolly as if she has no idea the boat is out of control.

Bond does know the boat is out of control. He takes Domino and the nuclear scientist who helped free her and they leap into the water before the boat crashes and explodes. Another Connery Bond movie ends with him making out with a woman in a powerless boat on open waters.

Jokes (2/4)

Bond quips are in full effect. When Bond kills Vargas with a harpoon, he says, “I think he got the point.” I mean…that’s classic. In a long line of Bond quips, I put this one at the top.

Setting (3/4)

The gorgeous Bahamas hosts the crew in Bond’s fourth outing. The Eon team was really in its element. What’s better than a camera crew on the Bahamas, how about a camera crew above and beneath those islands?

Thanks to a huge underwater fight and several helicopter flights over the islands, we tour the Bahamas by land, under sea, and by air. Large hotel rooms are the norm, as is an island-tip estate complete with shark pool.

I’m always impressed when movies can film people in the tropics and not make them look hot. Maybe it’s all the shorts and people in the water, but the tropics are damn hot! They never look it.

Commentary (0/2)

Bond is truly escapist cinema. Here’s a 1960s plot with nuclear weapons, jet bombers, and NATO, yet you’ll never hear the words “Russia” or “Soviet Union” spoken. Payments are demanded in diamonds. Villains pet cats all day and wear eye patches.

Bond movies could never have existed in the 1950s, but would they have had the same impact in the 1970s? I don’t think so.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

There’s less “man talk” dismissiveness in Thunderball. In fact, Fiona leads a team of goons to capture Bond. Bond does, however, compliment Domino for her swimming technique, which is like a man’s.


  • There’s an actor named Guy Doleman in this movie. “Guy DULLman” it sounds like, if you say it fast. Guy. Dull. Man. Could there be a more boring name?
  • MI-6 has a man named Sir John who speaks at the mission briefing. He stands up and tells everyone that he knows nothing. M thanks him for his input.
  • Why would the Kiss Kiss Club have a big, separate party during the island’s biggest party of the year?

Summary (35/68): 51%

Thunderball features near the top of all Best Bond lists, and rightly so. The producers seemed to ask how they could make a good Bond movie, and then triple everything they did. They crashed a plane in the water, they made a detachable speedboat, and they filmed that massive underwater fight sequence.

Moviegoers rewarded that excess. Thunderball made $63 million in the US, the most of any Connery Bond movie and not topped until 1979. Adjusted for inflation, the movie sits between Black Panther and The Dark Knight on the all-time list, so you know it was a world-beater when it hit the big screen.