Thunderball Is the Best James Bond Movie, by David Bax
I don’t hate the James Bond movies as much as I sometimes pretend to. With a total of 24 entries in the franchise, I’ve only seen a third of them so it would be disingenuous of me to dismiss them outright. But I do hate a lot of what they represent. Mostly, I hate their heavily formulaic nature which is not overlooked by audiences but actually embraced. There are a handful of things that happen in every movie that have become items on a checklist. The girls, the gadgets, the globe-hopping; these extravagant elements are now perfunctory, as predictable and boring as the Back to the Future series recycling the same plot a third time. As a result of this auto-pilot approach, the blend of silliness and brutality that marks Bond movies is increasingly, idiotically presented at face value. There was a time, though, before those aspects were codified, when Terence Young, the original Bond director, brought them all into harmony with grandeur and self-awareness. Though many erroneously cite Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger as the zenith of James Bond, the real best of the bunch is the follow-up, Thunderball.
It was in this fourth entry (Young’s third) that everything came together. Rewatching Thunderball today, it’s striking how many of the things we think of classic Bond are on display here. The cinematography by Ted Moore, who had been with the series since the beginning, captures the lush and exotic locales in a widescreen glory not quite achieved in the previous movies (though the more grounded approach to the also great From Russia with Love is striking and memorable in its own right). Bond’s high-tech gadgetry was taken to new heights (literally) in the prologue’s jetpack escape sequence. James ending up in a boat was nothing new by this point but the rescue via sky-hook certainly was. And let’s not forget one of the most important elements of any James Bond movie, the theme song. Tom Jones’ title track is so iconic, it’s the one “Weird” Al took as inspiration when he did his parody of Bond themes.
Thunderball isn’t just a survey of Bond tropes done well, though. The film’s whole tone is cheeky and, more importantly, consistent, a descriptor that sadly cannot be applied to many in the series. The Bond girls, Domino (Claudine Auger) and Fiona (Luciana Paluzzi), are actual characters in their own right. Furthermore, Fiona fails to be swayed to the side of good by the powers of Bond’s lovemaking, a welcome corrective to the offensive Pussy Galore storyline from the overrated Goldfinger. The movie is fun (Bond fighting a cross-dressing bad guy in a well-appointed chateau in the prologue), tense (the slow foot chase/slow dance that ends with Fiona’s death) and exaggeratedly violent (just how many guys get massacred with harpoons in the underwater finale? And I mean before the blood in the water attracts the sharks?).
Yet, despite all the goofiness, Young’s best outing is part of the reason Bond movies continue to carry a whiff of prestige. There’s a big budget mix of professionalism and playfulness on display in Thunderball that matches James’ own personality beat for beat. Also, it’s the only one where we see all the double-0 agents in the same room. So that’s pretty cool.