THUNDERBALL, the fourth James Bond film, premiered Dec. 21, 1965, in New York City, but would have been the franchise’s first episode had things gone differently six years earlier.
Novelist Ian Fleming, who created 007, producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham had partnered in 1959 to develop an original story & screenplay they called JAMES BOND, SECRET AGENT, which would have been Bond’s screen debut. McClory reportedly had Richard Burton in mind for that role. What happened next isn’t entirely clear, but Fleming reportedly changed his mind about going forward with McClory when another of his films underperformed.
This wasn’t the first time Fleming had scrapped plans for a Bond spin-off. When a TV series and a newspaper comic strip went into his deep freeze, Fleming re-used some storyline elements in his novels. He did the same with the SECRET AGENT while writing THUNDERBALL, but here it wasn’t clear if he had the right to do that.
McClory, for one, insisted Fleming wasn’t entitled to use that story material. After Harry Saltzman acquired from Fleming the movie rights to his Bond novels and then partnered with Albert R. Broccoli to produce them with distribution through United Artists, McClory took them to court. That’s why DR. NO, rather than THUNDERBALL was the first Bond movie.
McClory’s court case began on Nov. 19, 1963. Ten days later Fleming settled out of court, giving McClory the movie rights to THUNDERBALL plus £50,000 in damages. Although the movie THUNDERBALL was adapted from Fleming’s novel, the settlement’s specified writing credits were: “Screenplay by RICHARD MAIBAUM & JOHN HOPKINS – Based on the original story by KEVIN McCLORY, JACK WHITTINGHAM, and IAN FLEMING.”
THUNDERBALL, which starred Sean Connery, was directed by Terence Young, director of DR. NO (1962) & FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963). Guy Hamilton, who directed GOLDFINGER (1964), was originally asked to do THUNDERBALL but felt creatively drained and passed. Young stepped in and THUNDERBALL became his third and final Bond film.
It’s the only Bond movie where Saltzman & Broccoli are credited as executive producers rather than producers. It’s also the only Bond episode from their Eon Productions where McClory is credited as producer. McClory did, however, produce a second Bond movie not associated with Eon — Warner Bros.’ NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983), which was Connery’s final on-screen performance as 007. NEVER, of course, was a remake of THUNDERBALL, which McClory’s settlement 20 years earlier allowed him to do.
It was in THUNDERBALL that Connery performed the now iconic Bond opening gun barrel sequence for the first time. Because this was the first Bond film in the then-new Panavision widescreen process, it was decided to show Bond firing his gun rather than just using an actor in the shadows as had been done. After THUNDERBALL, Bond would always do the gun barrel shooting.