Thunderball. The one word title evokes images of Bond mania at its peak:
theatres playing the film 24 hours a day to capacity crowds, the iconic jet pack, sharks and scuba divers, Bond merchandise flooding stores, and Sean Connery at the middle of the storm, at the middle of his Bond career.
Behind this extreme success lies a convoluted path to the screen that defies imagination. It begins with an Irishman blinded by his desire for fame, a financier in over his head, and a writer running out of steam. And although 2 films have been made from the ideas generated during the ill-fated collaboration, some rights issues tied up in the case are still in question 45 years later.
Robert Sellers, in The Battle for Bond: The Genesis of Cinema’s Greatest Hero, navigates through the labyrinthine origins of Thunderball in a lively prose that quickly engages and informs. The highlights of the book revolve around the Thunderball court documents provided by Sylvan Whittingham Mason: correspondence, memos, storyboards, and pictures that have never previously been published.
Commanderbond.net’s Charles Helfenstein recently spoke with Robert Sellers about his landmark book, his love for Thunderball, and his other works in progress.
Welcome to Commanderbond.net. Thank you so much for giving us exclusive access to some of those images and documents you uncovered. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became so obsessed with Thunderball?
I’ve been a Bond fan since I was a kid growing up in the ’70s, my first cinema experience was seeing a double bill of Dr. No and Goldfinger—I was hooked, who wouldn’t be.
I’ve been writing movie books since the early ’90s, bios on Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Cruise, George Harrison’s HandMade Films and Lew Grade’s TV company ITC. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to write a book about 007, but it’s been a great experience working on something that I have a real passion for, and getting paid to do it. It’s been such fun I’ve got two more Bond books in the works.
My obsession for Thunderball comes really from the fact that since I can remember it’s always been my favourite. I think it’s the perfect mix of old and new, retaining the toughness and edge of the first Bonds, with the epic scope and way out fantasy that later dominated the series. For the record my top 5 Bond films are:
- You Only Live Twice
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
- From Russia with Love
- The Spy Who Loved Me
The worst Bond film, there isn’t one.
The backbone of your book comes from Sylvan Whittingham Mason’s archive. What was it like going through this historic collection with her? What was your favorite find?
That was a special day and I did truly feel privileged going through that material, the first person to do so for 40 years. Most of it was packed in boxes bound by red ribbon and opening them one felt so much anticipation, even Sylvan didn’t know what was inside as Peter Carter Ruck, McClory’s lawyer in the case, had only recently passed them on to her just before his death. Being a Bond nut I immediately recognised the significance of many of the documents inside and realised pretty quickly that this was a major find.
As for my favourite item, it has to be the seven pre-production drawings that McClory commissioned to help sell the proposed Bond movie at the 1959 Venice film festival, my bloody jaw dropped open when I saw those. I knew that no Bond fan in the world had seen them before, or even knew that they existed. All seven are re-produced in the book and look stunning.
Researching a film from the ’60s often needs to rely on second hand accounts and memories from participants trying to recall events that are 40 years old. With The Battle for Bond you weren’t able to talk to the major participants like Ian Fleming, Terrence Young, Jack Whittingham or Kevin McClory but you had unprecedented access to their correspondence and court documents that weren’t hindered by faulty memories. Would you have preferred interviews to documents or documents over interviews?
Documents and correspondences of the period can’t lie, or for that matter twist the truth to suit a personal point of view or agenda, so for that reason having all that material was much more valuable than depending on withering memories for one’s facts.
Had any of the major players still been alive, however, it would have been fascinating talking to them, armed as I would have been with the truth. I could also have got their autographs—and put them straight on EBay.
Was the book always going to be about the attempted remakes and Never Say Never Again, or were you originally going to solely focus on Thunderball?
My original thought was to write a book solely on Thunderball, with a view to it coming out at the end of 2005, in time for its 40th anniversary. That all changed when Sylvan came on board and I got access to all that material, then I realised I had the opportunity to finally document the incredible story of Kevin McClory, a story that Bond fans have long been fascinated with but the facts have either been misleading or elusive. I had those facts now literally at my fingertips. It was a great feeling.
It’s very interesting when books suddenly change course. When I was writing about HandMade Films, the company behind Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Time Bandits, Mona Lisa and others, it was meant purely as a celebration of those great movies. I’d no idea what a mess the company had been in and the calamities behind the scenes, until my first interview with producer Stephen Woolley who ranted and raved for two hours about how he’d been screwed by them. I realised then that I’d opened Pandora’s Box and there was no turning back.
It was the same with my ITC book, which started as simply a celebration of shows like “The Saint”, “The Prisoner”, “Thunderbirds” etc. A few interviewees, however, had various axes to grind and risqué stories to divulge. A lot of fans were upset that the book included these elements, but as a journalist you have to present the whole story, warts and all, and that’s what I’ve also done with The Battle for Bond.
From 1961 onward, “Thunderball” has been surrounded by lawsuits. Were you concerned that your efforts to uncover information long since buried might attract legal attention from Eon or other parties?
A lot of potential publishers backed out because of the fear of legal action, of Eon or the Fleming trustees coming down hard on the book, but I knew that every word in it could be backed up by official documentation.
I’m still waiting to hear from Eon actually. I’m sure they know about the book, maybe they’ve even read it. I’d love to know what they really think. Most of it is probably news to them!
Your original manuscript was completed over 2 years ago—can you give us some background regarding the writing and production of the book and why it took so long to come to fruition?
I had the idea to write a book on Thunderball in 2004 and yes it took a good two years to produce. It took that long because I always write two books at a time. Not only does this stop me getting bored, as I can jump between projects as the mood takes me, but it also means that I arrive at each book refreshed and re-enthused.
Finding a publisher was probably the most depressing part. Everyone and I mean everyone I approached turned me down. I think there’s a criminal lack of interest from major publishers (and even independent ones) in serious-minded film books. I’m beholden to Tomahawk Press for rescuing the project. Believe me; this book would never have seen daylight without them.
Ian Fleming’s choice of an actor to portray James Bond has often been cause for speculation and debate. Where you shocked to uncover that Fleming was willing to have Jimmy Stewart play Bond if Hitchcock was part of the package?
That was one of the book’s many revelations. I think Fleming at that time was dizzy over the prospect of Hitchcock coming aboard the Bond project and quite frankly if the director had wanted Grace Kelly to play Bond I think Fleming would have agreed.
Film is a visual medium—and your book delivers with 100 rare photographs. How did you decide which shots would make the cut and which wouldn’t?
Pretty much everything we had in connection with McClory, the abandoned Bond film, the court case, Warhead etc is in the book, along with publicity or behind the scenes stuff from Thunderball and Never Say Never Again. Much of it hasn’t been seen before, like the 3 shots we’ve got of Connery location scouting in New York for Warhead. My eyes were on storks when I came across those shots.
Kevin McClory is one of the most controversial figures in Bond history. Some see him as a victim of Fleming’s plagiarism; others see him as a villain, taking undeserved credit and miring Bond rights in perpetual litigation or threats thereof. What’s your take on McClory?
Before embarking upon this book I knew as much about McClory as any generally well-informed Bond fan. By the end I really felt I knew him after reading so many of his letters and private thoughts and speaking with people who knew him. Even those colleagues in whom McClory stirred bitterness, even hatred, found it difficult to truly despise the man, he was the epitome really of the charming rogue and I think my book paints a pretty three-dimensional portrait of this very intriguing individual.
My own take on McClory is that he was extremely hard done by; he was really the first filmmaker to recognise the cinema potential of James Bond and to act upon it. His Bond film never materialised, leaving the way open for Broccoli and Saltzman, who McClory always believed stole his rightful place in history from under him. Although let’s face it, McClory was no saint and treated a lot of people shamefully, none more so than Jack Whittingham.
I also uncovered a few very dark facts about McClory, one is only hinted at in the book, and the other I kept out, it added nothing to the story. Interestingly, just before the book came out a tabloid newspaper in England wanted me to spill the beans on McClory. I refused. Somehow I felt I owed the old bastard that much.
Getting Len Deighton’s input and endorsement of your book was quite a coup. How did you track down the reclusive author and did you by any chance ask about his rumored contributions to From Russia, With Love?
Strangely, I didn’t actually interview Len Deighton for this Bond book. Late last year I began researching a new book project and that’s when I first contacted Deighton. He was delighted to help and I met both he and his wife at a London hotel and spent a very charming two hours with them. They were both an absolute delight. It was only at the end of our time together that I asked Len briefly about his Warhead connection. When my book was about to go to the printers I contacted Len again and asked if those quotes could be used. Not only was he perfectly willing for that to happen, but he also asked if he could read the manuscript and then endorse it. I couldn’t believe it. Nor could I believe the very generous comments he made about the book. He’s a very nice chap.
I also think he should have been given a shot at the new Bond novel. Who knows, maybe he was asked and turned it down.
Deighton cautions in his blurb that this story demonstrates what a treacherous business filmmaking can be. I came away from The Battle for Bond with an even greater appreciation for the fact that Bond landed in the capable hands of Broccoli and Saltzman, rather than amateurs like Bryce and McClory. Was that your intention?
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly what readers should come away thinking. That was never my intention, by the way. I’m a journalist so I take no sides; I just report the facts and allowed them to speak for themselves. That’s why I think, if anything, this book is pro-Eon. We must congratulate McClory for being the first person to identify that James Bond was a viable cinematic character, but thank god the film itself never got made with him in charge. Just think about it, had McClory made that first Bond film it would have been without Ken Adam, John Barry, Richard Maibaum, Ted Moore, Peter Hunt and Bob Simmons, incredibly talented people that all played a highly significant part in the eventual success of the Bond series. It was Broccoli and Saltzman who hired that talent in 1962, Sean Connery as well, of course. Had McClory made Thunderball back in ’59 or ’60, I think it would have flopped.
Your early chapters detail the extreme naiveté of both Bryce and McClory for believing they could conquer the film business with scant experience, and of Fleming for plagiarizing the work of McClory and Whittingham. Were you surprised that these otherwise intelligent men could make such colossal mistakes?
In one letter Fleming revealingly describes himself and Bryce as ‘amateurs’ in the Bond film making business, which of course they were. We have those lovely pictures of Fleming appearing on the sets of Dr. No, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, but as a guest only. Here he was one of the main people behind the film, deeply involved in the script, on hand to be an advisor, and financially implicated, too. I think the project got too big for Fleming and Bryce and they were desperate for an American studio to come in and help them out.
As for Fleming plagiarising the work of McClory and Whittingham, I’m afraid that was plain arrogance. I don’t think he could be bothered to come up with another story for a Bond novel and so the easy option was to use the Thunderball script. He must have felt that being who he was, and with his background, this nobody called McClory from the bogs of Ireland would just shut up. Unfortunately for Fleming he’d chosen the last man on earth to lie down and just take it.
Claudine Auger, Luciana Paluzzi, or Mollie Peters—which is your dream Thunderball girl?
Not only my dream Thunderball girl, but I believe the most stunning Bond girl of all—Claudine Auger.
Since you love Thunderball so much, how do you feel about Never Say Never Again?
What I feel about Never Say Never Again is what most people feel about that film. It’s like Christmas, you wait so long for it to arrive, and when it does all you get is a pair of socks. I thought Octopussy beat it hands down and I’m afraid to say this but I believe the reason is because it was made by Hollywood. Most of the time Never Say Never Again feels like an extended episode of “Hart to Hart”. Just remember what Hollywood did to those other great British institutions The Saint and The Avengers, turned them into god damn awful movies.
I understand you have written the authorized biography of Bond stuntman and 2nd unit director Vic Armstrong. Can you tell us a little bit about that and when it is due for publication?
It’s been my absolute honour recently to help Vic with his official book. What’s been a big plus is that besides being a very knowledgeable guy, Vic is also extremely funny and the book is packed with hilarious stories from his 40-year-plus filmmaking odyssey, from Indiana Jones to Superman, Rambo to The Terminator, by way of James Bond, of course.
The book will feature many photographs from Vic’s personal collection and also includes exclusive contributions from those who have worked with Vic over the years including Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Christopher Lee, Martin Scorsese, Kenneth Branagh and Lord Attenborough.
The book will be out sometime in 2008. I’ll keep you posted.
Thank you Robert for your answers, and we look forward to your forthcoming books.