Perhaps the most infamous story in the history of James Bond is the plagiarism lawsuit brought against Ian Fleming for ripping off Thunderball. In this episode we take a look at The Battle for Bond between Fleming and film producer Kevin McClory, as well as how a book about the controversy was suppressed and shredded.
Long time listeners will have heard me mention this controversy before, and I’ve been promising an episode on this story for quite some time so I’m glad we’re finally here. Essentially, this is a tale of Ian Fleming’s early efforts to turn the James Bond book series into a film franchise, which ended up with him ripping off a screenplay he’d co-written in order to write the book Thunderball. This then became a deeply entangled legal mess over who owned not only the rights to Thunderball, but to the entire cinematic version of the Bond character. Things came to a head via a lawsuit in the mid-1960s, and during the trial Fleming had two heart attacks and then waved the white flag, conceding defeat.
You may have heard some of this story before, or it may be new to you, but I find it incredibly interesting, for reasons we’ll get to at the end, if not before.
The best source on this is Robert Sellers’ book The Battle for Bond. Sellers set out to write a book about the making of Thunderball, one of his favourite films, but his investigations led him to Sylvan Whittingham Mason. She is the daughter of Jack Whittingham, who’d co-written the original screenplay for Thunderball, which Fleming then plagiarised. She had copies of all her father’s papers, not just scripts and treatments, but correspondence between Fleming and the others involved, as well as legal papers from the court case.
Mason essentially copied all of this for Sellers, and his book became about the battle between Fleming on one side, and McClory and Whittingham on the other. The first edition of his book came out in 2007 but there was a problem – he’d included copies of letters written by Fleming which he found among Whittingham’s papers.
The Ian Fleming estate, known formally as the Ian Fleming Will Trust, protested, saying the letters had been reproduced without their permission.
This resulted in the publisher handing over all remaining copies of the first edition to the Trust, who shredded and pulped them. A second edition of The Battle for Bond, which is largely the same but without the Fleming letters, came out in 2008, and if anything the Trust’s actions only drew more attention to the Fleming plagiarism scandal.
You can buy copies of the first edition in a few places (for a lot of money), but I found a scanned copy, and of course I own the paperback of the second edition. There really isn’t much difference between the two versions so the Fleming Will Trust’s efforts accomplished very little except harassing an author and a small publisher.
Nonetheless, their overreaction should tell you how sensitive this whole matter is. Indeed, there have been a long string of lawsuits around ownership of the Bond film franchise, this is only one of them, but it’s the most interesting because it’s the first, and the rest are mostly just corporations bickering with each other.
On top of that you have the issue around the role that the Bond character plays in British society. He’s practically a national icon, Daniel Craig keeps doing shit with the Royal Family, he was recently made an honorary commander in the Royal Navy, he’s been to CIA headquarters, everything. Bond is essentially a post-war aspirational figure who lives a luxurious lifestyle at a time when most Brits were still on rations, but he’s also a symbol of the coming post-colonialism. Instead of militarily occupying countries in typical empire style, Britain and most of the other major European powers shifted to using MI6 and their equivalent agencies to murder, deceive, manipulate and exploit.
Thus, having a sexy, stylish, urbane sociopath marching round the third world, socking it to the natives, was a very useful image for the British establishment. It basically sold what they were really doing, while at the same time gave them a public cultural counterpoint that they could point to and say ‘our agents aren’t like James Bond’. Even though Bond has actually been cited in legal rulings excusing undercover police and intelligence officers from committing crimes.
Therefore, having the origins of the most successful and important film franchise in British history be a squalid case of plagiarism is embarrassing, not just to the Fleming family but to the whole country. This is why you’ll never see the BBC cover this in a primetime documentary, and even the suppression of a book about this scandal was relegated to local news.
The Backstory – Fleming, Bryce, McClory and Whittingham
I’m sure you all know who Ian Fleming was – a former Naval intelligence commander who became the man behind the world’s most famous spy. What you may not know is that he was one of several senior British spies who bought properties in Northern Jamaica in the period after World War 2.
Fleming’s house was called Goldeneye, and among the others who moved to Jamaica were Noel Coward, who had worked for MI5 making propaganda in Paris during the war, and William Stephenson, who is credited with playing a key role in shifting US public opinion in favour of entering the war on the side of the Allies.
Note, Fleming’s work for the Royal Navy mostly didn’t involve public propaganda. There was a lot of stuff about fooling the enemy, but the operations and schemes he dreamt up mostly weren’t aimed at a mass audience. Whereas Coward and Stephenson, along with at least one other in this small group of spies, did work in mass psychological warfare in some way or other.
According to Andrew Lycett’s biography of Fleming, these men would meet up and drink and talk late into the night, including about their adventures as well as ideas for Fleming’s novels. Keep this in mind as this story goes on.
Fleming always wanted Bond to be a movie star – from the moment he created the character he wanted to see him on the big screen. Throughout the 50s, following the success of Casino Royale and the other early novels, he made numerous attempts to get TV and film producers interested, but all of these efforts met in failure. For one thing, Fleming’s writing style wasn’t suited to the screen, while his books are full of little character actions and long sequences where no one says anything, his attempts at screenwriting were far too dialogue-heavy and simple-minded.
Meanwhile, an enterprising Irishman named Kevin McClory was making progress in his bid to become a movie producer. He worked on Around the World in 80 Days, Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick, but was looking to strike out on his own, and was developing ideas for an underwater adventure movie set in the Bahamas.
McClory, by all accounts, was a fairly flamboyant guy and a bit of a chancer. He did break through by producing The Boy and the Bridge in 1959, about a boy who lives on London Bridge. He was only able to shoot the film due to his high society connections – the Foreign Office stepped in and pushed through his request for access to the bridge for two whole months.
The movie was financed by Ivar Bryce, a wealthy philanthropist who dabbled in funding films. Bryce was also known to Fleming, and in 1958, the same year The Boy and the Bridge was made, Fleming and Bryce had formed a loose partnership with the aim of getting Bond onto the big screen.
The initial timeline of events is that in early 1959 Bryce, who thought highly of McClory, told him to read all the Bond novels and see if he could think of a good way to adapt them for the cinema. McClory came back saying that he thought a whole new idea, rather than an adaptation, was the best way to go. He signed on as a director/producer.
Shortly afterwards, another curious figure joined the group – Ernest Cuneo, a writer and lawyer who used to work for Bill Donovan at the OSS. He was also an adviser to FDR for a time. In May of ‘59 they all met up and hashed out some ideas for the new Bond story, which Cuneo documented in a memo, reproduced in Sellers’ book.
This memo contains some of the details that would eventually form the Thunderball story, but also some rather amusing ideas such as Bond going undercover as a popular entertainer in a USO tour. Nonetheless, there is a nuclear hijack/threat plotline and a culmination via a lengthy underwater battle, the two signature aspects of Thunderball.
Over the following months changes were made – the initial villains were the Ruskies, but Fleming wanted to change this because he worried that the Cold War might be over by the time the film came out. This led to Fleming inventing SPECTRE, though McClory would later claim he came up with SPECTRE, which led to another lawsuit which is why Spectre didn’t appear in the Bond films after Diamonds are Forever, at least until Spectre a few years ago.
In the summer of ‘59, Fleming wrote the initial story treatment and the group started looking for a screenwriter. They settled on Jack Whittingham, an experienced and talented writer who developed longer treatments and eventually drafted the screenplay for Thunderball.
McClory, meanwhile, came up with the idea of the nuclear weapons being stolen in mid-air, and it was Whittingham who found a way to make this work. But the problem was that McClory’s film, The Boy and the Bridge, had come out and did not do well with critics.
Fleming started to have doubts about having McClory as a director/producer on the project, and after Bryce saw North by Northwest he suggested Hitchcock as a possible director. Fleming wrote to Hitchcock to ask him to come on board, and he was interested but wanted Jimmy Stewart to play the lead. This apparently didn’t meet with Fleming’s expectations, and soon enough Hitchcock was off working on other things.
Still, it’s interesting to think that had events played out differently, it might have been Hitchcock rather than Terence Young who laid down the cinematic style for one of the longest-running, most successful film franchises of all time. Apropos of nothing, Terence Young was in military intelligence in World War 2, and took part in Operation Market Garden, before going on to direct three of the first four Bond movies, as well as Triple Cross, the film based on the life of Eddie Chapman.
So, fractures started appearing in the relationship – McClory was off scouting locations in the Bahamas but not getting paid for it, Bryce wasn’t sure he wanted to keep pumping money into the project given Fleming’s reservations about McClory, the whole thing got messy.
Exactly who is to blame for this isn’t clear, and of course it depends who you ask. Every time this story gets told by someone, they contradict what someone else has claimed. What is clear is that McClory made significant contributions to the overall story for the Thunderball script, and Whittingham actually turned their fairly basic story treatments into an actual screenplay.
McClory found out that Bryce and Fleming were shopping around for an alternative director, meanwhile Bryce and Fleming were hatching a plan to cut McClory out of the production company they’d put together. Whittingham finished a draft of Thunderball, and started working on another Bond script – all without a contract in place, on the assumption of being paid further down the line.
Throughout 1959 the financial problems increased, with Bryce having sunk hundreds of thousands of pounds into the project and, with little windfall from Boy and the Bridge, was running short on cash. There were lengthy discussions about the story, largely between McClory and Whittingham, and Fleming developed a second story treatment which Whittingham then signed a contract to turn into a screenplay.
Towards the end of the year, relations continue to fray and McClory’s plans for the production added up to a budget of around $3 million, which would mean signing on with a major studio and surrendering control and profits. Whittingham got to work on the new script – now actually titled Thunderball, a term Fleming heard from someone describing atomic bomb tests.
January 1960 saw Fleming take his usual winter trip to Jamaica, as he had done for several years and would continue to do almost up until his death. His publisher wanted a new Bond novel after the huge success of Goldfinger in 1959, but Fleming had run out of ideas. He’d published a selection of short stories, and even put out a romance story written by a woman who was in love with James Bond – apparently written by a female fan of the novel series.
So what did Fleming do? He plagiarised the Thunderball screenplay and turned it into a novel. While Whittingham worked on the latest version, Fleming took ideas from McClory and Whittingham and created a new Bond novel. He swapped SPECTRE back in for the mafia, who had replaced SPECTRE during rewrites of the screenplay, and added in Blofeld and some other original material.
Fleming never told McClory and Whittingham he was doing this, he never sought their permission and he did not acknowledge them in any way. As he modified his draft of the novel throughout 1960, McClory was out and about trying to get financing and distribution in place for the movie.
One of the problems was that Bryce was telling one story to Fleming and another to McClory, while Fleming was trying to elbow McClory out of the deal so he could take the script and try to set it up somewhere. McClory cottoned onto this but thought that if he could land a deal to make the movie, Fleming and Bryce would go along with it.
Without getting into all the details, because you can read about them in Sellers’ book, the film project fell apart and Fleming signed a contract with his publisher for Thunderball that asserted that it was a wholly original work.
Thunderball is Published, and Fleming’s World Explodes
In reality, the publisher Jonathan Cape were well aware of the possibility of a copyright injunction and the ongoing dispute over rights to the Thunderball screenplay. When McClory found out about the book, he demanded to see a copy to determine how much was material he and Whittingham had come up with.
In March 1961 McClory’s solicitor was sent an advance copy, in the hope of resolving the situation before publication. McClory wrote to the publisher, informing them that the book infringed on his copyright. As such, when the publisher later asserted in an affidavit that they knew nothing of the copyright dispute over the novel, they lied. In fact, they committed perjury.
McClory initially sued to try to prevent the publication of the book, as neither he nor Whittingham were acknowledged. The judge ruled in favour of the publisher, saying it was too late to halt publication, but conceding that a large proportion of the novel appeared to be based on the screenplay.
So Thunderball was published, and was a huge success – buoyed up, no doubt, by all the attention caused by the legal battle. This, in turn, helped the film franchise finally get off the ground. Harry Saltzman, who had worked in a transatlantic psychological warfare unit during the war, and Albert Broccoli, who had made films with the British military, were introduced by Wolf Mankowitz, who was being spied on by MI5 as a suspected Communist.
The pair formed Eon Productions, and struck a deal with United Artists for a million dollar budget for their first Bond movie, Saltzman having optioned the books a few months earlier. By the time the copyright case actually made it to court in November 1963, Dr No and From Russia with Love had already been made, and the Bond franchise had been established.
Approaching the trial, Fleming wrote to a friend to admit his concern about what would happen, saying he was winding himself up, ‘like a toy soldier for this blasted case with McClory. I dare say that a diet of TNT pills and gin will see me through, but it’s a bloody nuisance.’ The ‘TNT pills’ were nitro-glycerine, prescribed after Fleming had the first of several heart attacks.
Both sides assembled a crack team of lawyers – Fleming having come from money and having made plenty of it too, while McClory had recently married a wealthy heiress whose family were happy to bankroll his case. The defence’s argument was that McClory himself had phoned Fleming and asked him to write a novel based on the Thunderball screenplay, to help promote the film.
However, Whittingham and McClory had put together an extensive report on all the things Fleming either took from the screenplay, or changed. For example, most of the character names were changed, which smacks of trying to cover for plagiarism than trying to help the movie’s prospects.
Similarly, Fleming changed the story so that Bond trails Largo’s yacht in a Polaris submarine, whereas in the screenplay he uses a gunboat. The notion that they’d be able to secure filming access to a Polaris – i.e. nuclear armed submarine – for the film was ridiculous, so again this doesn’t help the film but does help cover up for what Fleming did.
There were numerous other changes, including the bad guys becoming SPECTRE again, instead of the mafia, changing the name of Largo’s home to distance it from the scouting trips McClory had done, things like that – all of which were strong counter-arguments to Fleming’s defence.
McClory’s lawyers also argued that the production company set up by Bryce – Xanadu – was clearly for the purpose of making the Bond film, and hence McClory had some kind of rights to make a Bond film. After 9 days the defence gave up, even though Harry Saltzman and Al Broccoli offered to fund another two weeks of fighting the case.
There were essentially two reasons – Bryce, having blown a bunch of money on the original Thunderball project and got nothing back, was now also blowing money on lawyers. Even for a wealthy guy, there has to be a limit. Fleming, on the other hand, was increasingly unwell, having suffered two more heart attacks. There is also the implication that Fleming and Bryce were having an affair of some kind, so maybe they were worried that it might be exposed if they continued ploughing through the papertrail in open court.
As a result, McClory and Whittingham’s names got added to the title page of every subsequent printing of Thunderball, and Fleming signed over ‘all the copyright in the film scripts and the exclusive right to re-produce any part of the novel in films and for the purpose of making such films to make scripts.’ McClory also got, ‘McClory’the exclusive right to use the character James Bond as a character in any such scripts or film of Thunderball’.
This is why we didn’t just get Thunderball, we also got Never Say Never Again in the mid-1980s, when McClory exercised his right to make another James Bond film based on the Thunderball script and novel. He even developed an additional Thunderball script which would have seen Bond skating through the New York sewers on the back of a robotic shark, trying to chase down a nuclear warhead.
Despite all this, McClory was privately unhappy with the deal, and thought his lawyers had got into bed with Saltzman and Broccoli, the established Bond movie producers. Fleming and his wife blamed Bryce, saying he had betrayed Fleming, while Broccoli and Saltzman were not enamoured of having to let McClory produce Thunderball.
In the event, the movie (which had DOD, MOD and CIA support) was an enormous success, pulling in the equivalent of over a billion dollars. And it is a great spy movie, accepting the production value limitations of the 1960s. The underwater sequences, which was always the element McClory was most fascinated by, and championed, are fantastic. I don’t know if it’s my favourite Bond film, but it’s certainly up there.
However, Fleming would never get to see it. Despite his role in co-authoring the Thunderball story, he died of a massive heart attack 9 months after the trial, aged 56. Undoubtedly, the stress of the trial and having his reputation called into question in the worst way an author’s reputation can be, helped accelerate his death.
Whittingham Left Out in the Cold
This also meant that Whittingham, who had written several drafts of the Thunderball screenplay, got screwed. McClory’s deal did not include anything for Whittingham beyond an acknowledgement in all future printings of the novel. He was pursuing legal action for damages against Fleming, and to assert his own role in creating the cinematic Bond and the Thunderball screenplay, when Fleming died.
Because McClory had spent those nine months going round threatening to make a competing Bond film, with another actor such as Richard Burton, he ended up striking a co-production deal with Saltzman and Broccoli to make Thunderball part of the official Bond franchise. This meant jettisoning Whittingham as the screenwriter, and bringing in Richard Maibaum, the primary Bond screenwriter.
Maibaum, you may not be surprised to learn, was in the US Army signal corps during the war, i.e. military intelligence. He helped produce propaganda films, alongside his work in Hollywood writing military-supported major movies. Maibaum went on to write and produce the film OSS immediately after the war – the first film to mention and promote the Central Intelligence Agency, a year before it even existed.
As a result McClory got to make his Thunderball film, and then remake it 20 years later, but Fleming died and Whittingham was left seriously out of pocket. The guy who had behaved honourably throughout the whole deal was the most screwed over.
Much of the rest of Sellers’ book is a making-of story about Thunderball, though he curiously didn’t find out about the CIA front company lending the production the skyhook plane. However, Charles Russhon (the former Air Force and probable CIA guy who consulted on the films) did obtain some experimental rocket fuel for blowing up Largo’s yacht at the climax of the film.
Amusingly, it was a little more powerful than they expected, there was a massive explosion and the boat flew up in the air before crashing down on top of the crew filming it. They survived, but when they got back to Nassau about 30 miles away they found that all the windows in the main street had been blown out.
Another passage from Sellers’ book illustrates the extraordinary cooperation the film-makers received:
The Vulcan plane and the atomic weapon used in Thunderball were unusually authentic. Because of Ken Adam’s RAF history (after fleeing the Nazis in 1934 he became the only German to fly with the RAF as a fighter pilot during the war), the designer was invited to a Vulcan base in England. There he was accorded carte blanche to look at the bomber at close quarters and observe them in flight.
Adam’s assistant Peter Lamont was also invited to bomber command and shown round the most highly secretive areas by a squadron leader. “All the questions that you have asked me, if you look, all the answers are here.” he said. Lamont also surreptitiously photographed some bombs using a secret camera. At the time the public really didn’t know what nuclear weapons looked like, so Jordan Klein was able to construct his A-bombs based on the real thing.
The book goes on to outline the release of Thunderball, the making of Never Say Never Again, and some of the other lawsuits and arguments over the Bond franchise. Interestingly, the latest development is that with Amazon buying Paramount, they have the streaming rights to the entire back catalogue. Both Jack Ryan and James Bond are now, partly, Amazon properties.
The book is also replete with interesting anecdotes about the various people involved – such as McClory owning an amphibious car when he lived in the Bahamas. He had a habit of picking people up from the airport when they came to visit, taking a coastal road and then suddenly turning and driving out into the ocean. It wasn’t until the 70s that Bond got his own amphibious car.
Curiously, while Thunderball got full support from a number of governments, the remake Never Say Never Again was turned down by the DOD, due to the loose nukes scenario at the centre of the plot. The director, Irving Kershner, admitted,
‘l wanted to put in a contemporary theme which bothered me at the time. And that was that the American military said, our atom bombs, our nukes are perfectly safe: they’re protected. Nobody can get to them. Well this is bullshit. and the terrorists are going to prove it one of these days. That’s why I liked the fact that the nukes are stolen. So for me the picture did have a message of sorts. I was having a go at the military.’
So, while Thunderball was an absurd piece of propaganda that I broke down in my James Bond and the CIA episode, the remake was in many ways the opposite. And the DOD recognised this – they didn’t like the nuclear hijacking storyline, even though the stolen nukes were British, and they didn’t like the depiction of a drug-addicted Air Force officer.
While McClory persisted with attempts to make a third Thunderball film, with a script partly written by Sean Connery, the project languished in development and was never made. He also tried to make an animated James Bond series, but it never got going and Eon then made James Bond Jr. as a counterpoint, rendering McClory’s project pointless.
Ultimately, he died in 2006, just days after Casino Royale came out, having outlived Fleming by over 40 years. While McClory gave us one of the most interesting making-of stories of all time, he was a bit of a failure of a man, his legacy being two broken marriages, lots of missed opportunities and a hell of a lot of lawsuits.
Of course, this means I thoroughly recommend The Battle for Bond, especially if you can find a copy of the first edition. As I mentioned at the top, this edition was largely pulped due to a copyright challenge from the Fleming estate. While it’s entirely possible the publisher and author could have won a lawsuit, that would have been very expensive so they opted to give in and then just republish without the supposedly offending material.
I will also say that if you want to learn more about this then check out James Bond radio. They’ve done several episodes on this story, including interviewing Sellers, and while they’re Bond enthusiasts who’ll never get into the propaganda angle, it is a useful resource for things like this.
But I want to leave you with a different take. You’ll probably have noticed how almost everyone in this story has a military or intelligence background, and many of the key progenitors of Bond worked in either black operations or propaganda. I am not sure I’ve ever come across a book and film franchise where such a high proportion of the people involved fit this profile.
So, is this story actually a tale of how Bond was a corporate work, not the invention of a single author? That’s been proven with Thunderball, it’s apparently what happened with The Spy Who Loved Me, so how far can we go back? I am not disputing that Fleming actually typed the pages that became the novels, but as this story shows, there’s often a lot more to how a book gets written than one person sat at a typewriter.