My Problem with “Thunderball”

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

“Thunderball” was the first Bond movie that really let me down. I had been waiting for it since the summer when I oogled the barber shop copy of Esquire, featuring a multi-page preview of what promised to be the biggest and best Bond film to date. I saw it on Christmas Eve, the first day of Christmas vacation from high school at the Fox theater in Philadelphia–a genuine movie palace, long since departed. The sad thing about “Thunderball” was that it could have been really good. It had the potential to be better than “Goldfinger” dealing as it did with a nuclear terror plot–in 1965, no less–and with the fate of Miami hanging in the balance.

Here’s where I think it all went wrong. The Bond films always built to a big confrontation between Bond and the villain, and the “Thunderball” posters featured some smashing Robert McGinnis artwork of an underwater battle between Bond and another diver. This led you to expect that the underwater battle between Navy and SPECTRE frogmen would climax with Bond taking on Largo, a thoroughly unlikable villain, and he does–sort of. He makes a feint or two, then Largo–ever the dirty-fighter–rips off Bond’s face mask and swims away. Quite a let-down. They do meet up again aboard Largo’s hydrofoil and they have a slightly better fight there, but again, Largo gets the drop on Bond and is actually killed by the Bond girl. Then, with a dead Largo at the wheel, the out-of-control hydrofoil crashes into a reef and explodes–a potentially good ending wasted.

Now to explain my thoughts on how things should have played out–to view the “Thunderball-of-my-mind,” we need to back up a bit. There is a minor SPECTRE flunky in a film, a Prof. Kutze who defected to SPECTRE from the Iron Curtain. His job will be to arm two NATO A-bombs, hi-jacked by SPECTRE if England and the U.S. refuse to pony up the ransom that is being demanded. Kutze was played by character actor George Pravda. In the “Thunderball” that plays in my mind, he would have been promoted to full-fledged co-villain with Adolfo Celi’s Largo, with Largo handling the operations end of the project and Kutze handling the scientific side, and he would have been played by Herbert Lom. Since I’m being my own producer, and talk is cheap. Let’s give Kutze an interesting back-story. We know that Largo is wealthy, collects sharks for marine institutes and serves on the board of a charitable foundation for re-settling refugees that serves as a SPECTRE front. Let’s say that Kutze had a family that perished when Warsaw was “liberated” by the Russians. As a Pole he works for the Russians, but he hates them. He also hates the British and Americans because he blames them for giving the Russians a free hand in his country. Now we have an interesting pairing of villains. Adolfo Celi’s Largo is a modern-day buccaneer who is only in it for the money. He wants and expects England the U.S. to pay up. Lom’s Kutze wants them not to. He wants to vaporize Miami as a payback for Warsaw. Fortunately Largo is in command.

Back to that big underwater battle–let’s have Bond and Largo fight-to-the-death. Let’s have Bond kill Largo. Now Largo is dead, there’s one atomic bomb aboard the Disco Volante, and Kutze is in his glory–the West has tried to cheat again–sending in Bond and the Navy–now Kutze will use the Disco as a high-speed delivery device to ram an A-bomb down Miami’s throat. Now you are set up for a terrific pulse-pounding climax. Bond has bested the criminal Largo, now he must stop the madman Kutze from destroying an entire city. The fight aboard the Disco would now be between Bond, Kutze and the surviving SPECTRE men. Now Philip Locke’s slender, blond, balding Vargas was an interesting character, Largo’s pet killer “who does not drink, who does not make love”, but he too was wasted in the throw-away death scene, being speared by Bond as he spies on Bond’s meeting with Largo’s mistress Domino. Largo had another henchman, frequently seen with Vargas, a burly black-haired fellow. Why not make him the spy that gets speared? That would leave Vargas alive and well aboard the Disco to torture Domino at Largo’s command. (He has already performed a similar service on Bond’s captured colleague Paula Caplan.) In this way, it could be Vargas who gets the drop on Bond, Domino could have her revenge by spearing him, rather than Largo, Bond could then overpower Kutze and handcuff him to the wheel of the Disco. Now when Bond and Domino dive off of the out-of-control craft, instead of having a not-very-exciting dead Largo at the wheel, you have a live, terrified Kutze trying to regain control of the doomed craft. This is the “Thunderball” that plays in my mind, and the “Thunderball” I wish that I had seen on December 24, 1965.

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