The evolution of Thunderball

Thunderbass poster 2

A look at three scripts that trace how “the Biggest Bond of All!” developed

By Bill Koenig

Originally published in The Spy Command

Thunderball marked the height of the spy craze. When it went into production in early 1965, it was assured of being an enormous financial success.

When the movie came out at Christmas of that year, spies were everywhere in popular entertainment. With Thunderball, however, James Bond had a spectacle that the others couldn’t match. 007 made it seem effortless.

It wasn’t, of course. One of the most difficult tasks was the story.

It had been years in development, originally as a never-made film from producer Kevin McClory. Then, it was supposed to be the initial effort from Eon Productions, until a legal fight between McClory and Ian Fleming (who based his Thunderball novel off material McClory had developed).

What follows is a look at three key Thunderball scripts: the first draft by McClory’s screenwriter, Jack Whittingham; the first draft by Richard Maibaum when Eon planned to start its 007 series with Thunderball; and a Thunderball draft that includes pages written shortly before production, with some revisions during filming.

This article was made possible by Bond collector Gary Firuta, who has copies of a number of 007 scripts.

Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive look. But reading these three provides an idea of the long road it took to bring Thunderball to the screen.

Jack Whittingham (1960)

Jack Whittingham’s first draft, titled Longitude 78 West, was an uneven effort at best.

The draft is dated as being completed on Feb. 15, 1960. The title page specifically refers to it as a “first draft screenplay” that’s “Based on a story by Ian Fleming.”

The villains belong to the Mafia and are led by Giovanni “Joe” Largo. Except we’re told in the second half of the script that name is an alias. Nevertheless, he is identified as Largo throughout the script in both lines of dialogue and in stage directions.

Aside from the hijacking of two atomic bombs, there’s no other action in the script’s first half. It begins with a short pre-credits sequence where U.S. President Harry S. Truman comments about how, one day, civilization could be destroyed by atomic weapons.

“It is hoped that we may be able to persuade Mr. Truman to record this scene,” the stage directions read. “If not, it’s (sic) intention and content can be expressed quite easily some other way.”

Bond doesn’t appear until page 26. The rule of thumb is that one page of script equals a minute of running time. So 007 wouldn’t be seen until almost a half-hour into the movie. He’s on the shooting range at headquarters, in a scene similar to the opening of Fleming’s Moonraker novel.

Bond is summoned to M’s office. Here, the secretary to the MI6 chief is named simply Penny, not Moneypenny. The British government has been notified by the Mafia it has the atomic bombs and it wants 100 million pounds.

We also see things unfold in the Bahamas. Largo’s mistress is Gaby. It’s clear she’s not particularly enthusiastic about the arrangement. He wants her for, in effect, decoration at an upcoming meeting of delegates to a supposed union meeting (of course they’re fellow members of the Mafia, or the Brotherhood). “I’ve got a lot of entertaining to do, and I want you around,” Largo tells Gaby.

Bond meets Gaby at a hotel on page 38. It turns out Largo’s group is meeting there as well. Bond orders a planter’s punch from a bartender and buys a vodka martini for Gaby. They talk until page 41, when Bond first gets a look at Largo and 007 meets the villain on the following page.

Shortly thereafter, Bond meets up with the CIA’s Felix Leiter. After a meeting with the governor of the Bahamas, the agents have lunch. Bond talks a lot about food. When Bond asks the waiter for a wine list, Leiter replies: “Not for me thanks. Bring me a glass of water.” Bond says, “Of course, I’d forgotten!” What he forgot is never explained.

In the story, there’s a sequence that goes back and forth between Bond romancing Gaby and Leiter keeping tabs on Largo’s group. There’s also a scene where Gaby talks to Johnni, a young boy who’s a crew member on Largo’s yacht. Bond wonders why Gaby is so interested in children. She replies because she can’t have any.

The action picks up in the second half. Largo is mad about Bond being with Gaby, and the agent gets beaten up. Eventually, the Mafia makes it move and is ready to bring one of the bombs to Miami.

Bond plays Largo in a game of baccarat. Presumably, this is an homage to Fleming’s Casino Royale and the scene is more important that a similar scene in Thunderball; in that version, the card game is where Bond and Largo first meet. Bond tries to win Gaby to his side and instructs her how to deactivate, or activate, the bomb.

Meanwhile, Leiter, while not an equal to Bond, is more of a participant in events than he’d be in Thunderball. He gets captured by Largo and is on the villain’s yacht.

In the climax, Bond is involved in an underwater fight with the Mafia (though not as expansive as would take place in Thunderball). Largo shoots Leiter, after the CIA agent had gotten free. Largo takes Gaby and the other bomb in an airplane.

Bond tends to Felix and watches the plane getting away. Then, the aircraft goes up in an atomic explosion. “She’s done it…She had the guts…She’s done it!” Bond says as the story ends.

Besides the downer ending, which 007 audiences wouldn’t experience until 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the script is unusual in other ways. It’s very chatty. VERY chatty. Scenes go on and on. Bond comes across as a social worker where he quizzes Gaby about her fondness for children.

Granted this is a first draft, but one suspects if this version had gone before the cameras, the cinema 007 might have ended right there.

Richard Maibaum (1961)

Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman formed Eon Productions in 1961 and immediately got to work trying to bring James Bond to the screen.

Their first effort, soon aborted, was to bring Thunderball, the newest Ian Fleming novel, to the screen. On Aug. 18, Richard Maibaum delivered his first draft. At this point, Sean Connery had not yet been cast as James Bond.  So the draft gives us an idea what it was like for Maibaum to approach the material without worrying about adapting it to a particular actor.

Maibaum, a veteran of a number of Broccoli-produced movies, went for a straight adaptation of Fleming’s novel. In some places, it bears a close resemblance to the movie that would arrive in theaters four years later. In other ways, it’s quite different.

Maibaum’s draft actually has a pre-titles sequence. However, it’s nowhere near as elaborate as the 1965 movie, which featured Bond with a jetpack.

Instead, it begins simply in Paris. It’s more or less how the 1965 movie plays after the titles. But instead of seeing Emilo Largo going to SPECTRE headquarters, it’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

The stage directions state Blofeld is 53 (the age of the literary Blofeld in 1961, not to mention Ian Fleming, with whom the villain shared a birthday) and is “over six feet, weighing 280 pounds, once all muscle.”

The sequence plays out much the way audiences saw in 1965, with some different details. We eventually witness the start of the SPECTRE board meeting. The gathering is larger; there are 20 SPECTRE members gathering.

Blofeld does his fakeout bit (killing No. 12, after putting No. 7 on the spot). The reason: a young woman, Della Blomberg, was kidnapped by SPECTRE, but a member of the organization “conducted himself in a thoroughly unacceptable manner.” He adds, “I have confirmed through a source in Nice that the incident occurred aboard the Blue Train from Marsailles.”

The girl, we’re told by Blofeld, “is presently under intensive medical and psychiatric treatment.” After No. 12 is electrocuted, the main titles begin.

Afterward, we’re still at the SPECTRE board meeting. Blofeld (who apparently loves to talk) tells us SPECTRE has told the treasurer to return $300,000 (half of the ransom) to the girl’s family. We then have the financial reports.

Some of this would be in the movie Thunderball, but with changes. One example: in this script SPECTRE blackmailed  a former S.S. officer living in Havana under an assumed name. The group only got 240,000 pesos, “all the man had.” In the 1965 movie, it was a Japanese double agent who was blackmailed.

We also get an additional detail: Blofeld gets 10 percent of the total take, and the other members get 4 percent each. Now, we’re on to talking about Plan Omega and the hijacking of atomic bombs.

On page 10, we’re introduced to Shrublands and on page 12, James Bond finally puts in his first appearance. Patricia Fearing is almost hit by a Bentley driven by Count Lippi (instead of Lippe as in the 1965 film). Bond “gathers her up by the waist” to prevent her from being struck by the car.

“She gasps as the Bentley skids to a stop and looks up in flurried astonishment into the face of JAMES BOND, whose right hand is momentarily cupped over one beautiful breast.” In other words, 007 copped a feel as he saved her.

Maibaum’s description of Bond is more or less direct from Fleming: “He is in his middle thirties, with dark, rather cruel good looks except for very clear blue-grey eyes. A scar runs down his right cheek.”

Later, Bond gets a rubdown from a masseur, who comments about all the scars on Bond’s chest and back. Bond also spots Lippi’s tatoo and calls Moneypenny as in the 1965 movie. It’s similar but in this script the scene is longer. Instead of “on yogurt and lemon juice? I can hardly wait!” Moneypenny says, “On nuts and youghurt? I can hardly wait!”

Eventually Bond and Lippi get cross ways (including Lippi trying to kill Bond on the traction machine). Bond gets even with Lippi in a slightly different manner. He still turns up the heat while Lippi while he’s in a steam cabinet. But 007 pretends to be an attendant and fakes a Cockney accent.

SPECTRE, of course, does succeed in hijacking the atomic bombs (and killing the crew of a bomber plane), thanks to sellout Petacchi. But instead of Largo doing in sellout Derval (as in the final film), it’s Vargas who kills Petacchi, and with a stiletto while the plane hasn’t yet sunk. Meanwhile, Largo doesn’t make an appearance until page 40.

Bond has a briefing with M. The MI6 chief makes an interesting comment: “The Double O section’s discretion to liquidate has come under considerable criticism. Exercise it with extreme caution. The usual denials of responsibility from The Service will be more emphatic than in the past.”

That’s pretty interesting, but a notion that’s not really developed in this script and wouldn’t come up when Eon made other Bond films. It sounds similar to Mission: Impossible’s “the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”

Bond, after a false start or two, is assigned to Nassau. We finally meet Dominetta Vitali, Pettachi’s sister, on page 58 (this would be almost an hour into a movie filmed from this script). She and Bond meet and there’s a lot of chatting.

She drives him out to a restaurant, but after they’re done, she’s going the other way and he’ll have to catch a cab. After she departs, there’s this amusing bit of stage direction.

BOND
(if the censor will permit)
Bitch.

Bond gets back to his hotel room. The agent can tell somebody is in there.

VOICE FROM INSIDE ROOM
(very American)
Don’t shoot 007. This is 000.

Of course, it’s Felix Leiter. “He is an American version of Bond except that a steel hook replaces his right hand,” according to Maibaum’s stage directions.

Here, they’re depicted as being old friends. In a later scene, there’s even a reference to how they’ve both disobeyed orders when necessary.

The duo go out to Largo’s yacht, the Disco Volante, with Bond posing as someone interested in taking over the Palmyra — “the property I believe you rent from Mr. Bryce.” Presumably, that’s an in-joke reference to Fleming friend Ivar Bryce.

The rest of the script plays out, more or less as Fleming’s novel did with some flourishes that’d make it into the 1965 movie. Bond kills Vargas (shooting him with a regular gun, rather than a spear gun). There’s an underwater fight, but not as elaborate as the later movie.

Work on this, of course, ground to a halt because it soon became evident there was a dispute about the rights. Kevin McClory, upon seeing Fleming’s Thunderball novel, began legal action. The eventual result was a settlement. Fleming could keep publishing his novel (but future editions had to note how it was based on a “screen treatment” by McClory, Whittingham and Fleming” while McClory got to keep the film rights.

Eon changed direction and begin developing Dr. No for the screen instead. Nevertheless, reading this first effort, Maibaum had set a direction for “the Biggest Bond of All.” He, along with writer John Hopkins, would take it from there a few years later.

Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins (1965)

In 1964, with Goldfinger on its way to being a big hit, Kevin McClory cut a deal with Eon’s Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Thunderball would become the fourth film in Eon’s series as interest in spies was skyrocketing.

Richard Maibaum got his second chance at the material and he was able to utilize some of his 1961 draft. English writer John Hopkins would be hired to revise Maibaum’s work.

The title page of the draft supplied by 007 collector Fruta has the names of both Maibaum and Hopkins. Some pages have different dates, an indication the script was being revised well into filming.

Regardless, this script drips with swagger starting with the very first page. Bond was now the big kid on the block and the script reflects that.

The draft begins much the way the final film version did — at a funeral, where we see the initials JB on a casket. Quickly, we learn Bond has been present, observing it along with a woman.

This stage direction pretty much sets the tone.

Here stand two people looking down, apart from the crowd, yet interested. One of them is an elegant FRENCHWOMAN in her late twenties, and beside her, that idol of the intelligentsia, that opiate of the oppressed and working classes, JAMES BOND.

This page is dated Jan. 19, 1965, not long before filming was to start. But this copy of the Maibaum-Hopkins script indicates things still weren’t locked down.

For example, in the pre-credits scene where Bond punches out Colonel BoitIer (posing as his own widow), Boiter’s outfit gets ripped “leaving half the dress in BOND’s hand, exposing the falsies he is wearing.”

That’s not all. “BOND, still holding the falsies, whips them around BOITIER’s throat, like a garrotte…Then he slowly tightens the falsies around his neck and strangles him.”

Bond gets away with the jet pack, but instead of the Aston Martin DB5, to a Ford Thunderbird, where the woman agent is waiting.

“As he lands, she helps him step out of the harness, and watches him as skilfully he folds up the mechanical contraption,” according to the stage directions. “It takes him no longer to do this than a golfer with a collapsible trolley, or a secret agent in Istanbul would take with a folding sniper’s rifle.” (Emphasis added) Presumably, that’s a reference to From Russia With Love, which will come up again shortly.

Meanwhile, the Tbird doesn’t have gadgets and Bond simply drives away to lead into the end titles.

Afterward, Largo makes his appearance in Paris on his way to the SPECTRE board meeting. The stage directions say Largo’s car is “not a Ford, but something of the Ferrari-Maserat (sic) breed.” Evidently, in the final film, Ford Motor Co. had to make due with a consolation prize and have the Tbird be driven by Largo.

Ford would have a big presence in the final film. Besides the Thunderbird Largo drove, the film’s femme fatale (more on her later) would drive a baby blue Mustang; the pre-titles sequence included a Lincoln Continental and Bond drove another Continental in Nassau. Henry Ford II, then the head of the automaker, worked as an extra in the movie.

At the SPECTRE meeting, we’re told Largo is No. 3 (rather than No. 2 as in the film). Ernst Stavro Blofeld (his face not seen), says, “I was saying how much we at Spectre regret the death in the Istanbul affair of Number Six…Rosa Klebb, who will be sadly missed.” Nice to know Blofeld has a sentimental side. Also, it’s the second reference to From Russia With Love within a few pages.

Also, amusingly, when the financial reports are given, we’re told about the kidnapping of the same young woman, Della Blomberg, referenced in Maibaum’s 1961 first draft of Thunderball. In this version, we’re told she’s the “daughter of the Argentine industrialist” and SPECTRE got 1 million pesos. No mention of a sexual assault, as in the ’61 script.

As in the final film, we see Blofeld kill one of the members about embezzling proceeds from distribution of Red Chinese narcotics in the U.S. We’re given the additional information the guilty party had gambled heavily.

What’s more, this draft clearly was written before all the casting was in place. The femme fatale is Fiona Kelly, who is “red-headed, Irish” and “the most beautiful accomplished young witch since Morgan Le Fey.” Of course, the character’s nationality and name would be changed when red-headed Italian Luciana Paluzzi was cast.

Also, there seemed to be a debate what to call the SPECTRE operative who’d be called Count Lippe in the movie. On the pages dated Jan. 19, he’s named Lipson, but in other pages he’s called Lippe. Maibaum had called him Count Lippi in his 1961 effort.

This script also reuses a bit from Maibaum’s 1961 screenplay where Bond pretends to be an attendant with a Cockney accent in trapping Lipson in the steam bath.

The scene where Bond has sex with Patricia Fearing in the sauna is a little different than how it plays in the movie.

Steam billows round the camera as it moves forward, and it is with difficulty that we can just make out a woman’s bare feet as she stands on her tiptoes stretching upwards. A few inches away are the man’s feet and legs.

(snip)
PATRICIA
No, you’re wrong…this is *not* what I meant by the *full treatment*.

The steam rises higher and higher making is even more difficult to see anything at all.

This is probably just as well.

After SPECTRE hijacks the jet with the two atomic bombs (and Fiona kills Lipson/Lippe), Bond is back for his briefing with the 00 agents. Another stage direction makes it appear the filmmakers were considering all-star cameos for the agents.

As those agents rise get up the stage directions state that they are “ALL big stars who have played intelligence agents. If not, faces should not be shown.”

The script also demonstrates that the story was being revised during filming. Some pages are dated March 3 and later. In any case, the female lead character is named Dominique, a change from Maibaum’s 1961 script.

Unlike the 1961 script, the character of Q had been established. The script, again, is similar to the movie with Q having to equip 007 in the field. However, here Bond does specify that Q is Major Boothroyd.

The script also has some bits between Largo and Fiona that didn’t make the final movie. When they’re talking at Palmyra about how Bond was almost killed while swimming underwater around the Disco Volante, this comes up.

LARGO cradles FIONA’s face in one of his hands. She does not move away from him. She does not react at all.

LARGO
I think you forget — I found you. I made you.

At that point, both watch Domino swimming “briskly across the pool.” Fiona says, “That woman should not be here, Largo. It is dangerous.”

When Bond arrives at Largo’s invitation at Palmyra, the two shake hands. Largo says he likes “a man with a strong grip,” while Bond replies that Largo’s handshake “is undeniably — forceful.”

“Not like a spectre?” Largo asks.

There’s a lot more (including a scene cut from the movie where Bond gets to go aboard the Disco Volante) and the Fiona-Bond seduction scene, which is written differently that the final film. But let’s go to the climatic fight. Based on this script (pages are dated March 10), the sequence is still coming together.

After Felix Leiter rescues Bond from a nasty spot, he takes 007 to a “cushioncraft,” where Q and a maintenance crew are waiting with Bond’s gear. The cushioncraft skims “across terrain toward the water” Once in the water, it’s going faster than the Disco Volante.

Felix is ready to drop Bond off so he can participate in the big underwater fight. The CIA man asks 007 if he should come with him. “You mind the store,” Bond says.

The good guys are AQUAPARAS while the bad guys are SPECTRES. When the combatants begin to surface, Leiter gets in some action from aboard the cushioncraft, shooting two of the SPECTRES while others surrender to the Aquaparas.

As in the finished movie, Bond and Largo have at it on an out-of-control Disco Volante. Domino shoots Largo, and she, Bond and scientist Kutze jump off the ship before it crashes and explodes.

Felix shows up in the cushioncraft and rescues Bond and Domino, without any mention of Kutze (!).

But the script isn’t over. It has an odd epilogue (to take place during the end titles) where two surviving SPECTRES in a sub get blown up after trying to get a container that was dropped from an aircraft by parachute into the water. It was probably just as well this was dropped.

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