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The James Bond films, like the books on which they are based, have always pushed the boundaries of acceptable portraits of sex and violence.  Documents from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) show how for Thunderball they reviewed the script, recommending many changes if the film was to achieve the ‘A’ certificate that the producers wanted.  They also reviewed an early cut of the movie and made further recommendations to help reduce the ‘sex, violence and sadism’ in the finished film.

Thunderball by numbers

Thunderball was a benchmark film in several key respects.  More ambitious even than Goldfinger, it combined high technologies, a wide range of exotic locales and a close-to-the-bone plot about nuclear missiles in the Caribbean.  Bear in mind the book came out in March 1961, a month before the CIA’s Bay of Pigs operation, a key step on the road to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The film did not come out until 1965, by which point it was safe to ‘trivialise’ the Missile Crisis in entertainment form.  These factors combined to make Thunderball the most successful Bond film at the time, and the first to take over a billion dollars in revenue (adjusted for inflation).  It wasn’t until Skyfall in 2012 that Bond would scale such heights at the box office.

Inflation adjusted revenue for James Bond films

Another crossing the rubicon aspect of Thunderball is that it was the first film that the CIA used to help promote themselves.  In the 1950s, when the CIA were sabotaging productions about the OSS and removing any references to the CIA from Hollywood movies, Fleming had no problems publishing his James Bond novels, which explicitly mentioned by the CIA and MI6.  It probably helped that by the end of the decade he had become good friends with CIA director Allen Dulles, but even years before they met Fleming was not only referring to the CIA in books but depicting them in crucial roles.

So it is perhaps not surprising that the Bond films likewise became the first to feature a CIA agent as a main character (Felix Leiter).  Ditto the fact that when the producers asked a favour of the CIA, through their government liaison Charles Russhon, an Agency front company provided the Thunderball film-makers with a plane equipped with a skyhook, for the dramatic rescue at the end of the movie.

Similar state-sponsored rescue scenes appear at the end of Goldeneye and Jurassic Park III – the latter was written in at the request of DOD entertainment liaison Phil Strub.  Thunderball was also supported by the British and American navies, who in the sequence prior to Bond and Domino’s rescue are shown battling with Largo’s forces.  The crescendo to this film was almost entirely made possible through government support, and in return these agencies are portrayed in an entirely heroic manner.  In turn this elevated Thunderball above the standard 60s spy-schlock, and reaped huge rewards at the box office.

Thunderball and The Battle for Bond

Another reason why Thunderball is the most important of the early Bond stories is that it resulted in an enormous and long-lasting legal battle.  In the late 1950s, as Fleming turned his attention to getting Bond on the big screen and teamed up with Jack Whittingham, Ivar Bryce and Kevin McClory to write a series of treatments and screenplays.  This project fell apart when McClory’s first film tanked, making the other partners nervous about his ability to deliver a successful Bond movie.  A couple of years later when Fleming, by now in his 50s and in bad health, sat down to write a new Bond novel he took many elements from the screenplays and turned them into the novel Thunderball.

McClory tried to prevent publication but it was too late, so after the book came out he and Whittingham sued Fleming for plagiarism.  While Whittingham dropped out of the suit the case went to trial in November 1963.  Fleming suffered two heart attacks during the trial and ended up reaching a settlement with McClory, paying him a chunk of money and granting him the rights to film and TV adaptations of Thunderball in perpetuity.

The following year Fleming died, and McClory negotiated with Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman so he could produce the cinema version of Thunderball, which was enormously successful.  How ironic, since it was fears over McClory’s bankability as a writer-producer that led to the conflict in the first place.  In the 1970s McClory announced his intention to producer another Bond film, leading to United Artists and the Fleming estate trying to block this in court.  After a protracted struggle the courts upheld McClory’s right to make another Bond film, resulting in the production of Never Say Never Again, starring Sean Connery as James Bond for the first time in over a decade.

McClory tried once again in the late 1990s to re-adapt his Bond screenplay, this time called Warhead 2000 A.D.  Sony were very interested but MGM/United Artists, who had merged and were the owners of the Bond franchise, sued Sony.  Sony in turn sued MGM, saying McClory was a co-creator of the cinematic James Bond character and therefore was owed royalties from all the existing Bond films.  This case was thrown out and Sony came to a settlement with MGM/United Artists in the dispute over McClory’s rights.  Bizarrely, in 2004 MGM were sold to a consortium including Sony Pictures, though their financial troubles led to them filing for bankruptcy in 2010.  Now somewhat recovered, their deal with Sony to co-produce Bond expired with Spectre, and no one is entirely sure when the next film will be or which studios will be backing it.

The BBFC’s Censorship of Thunderball

In April 1965 the BBFC reviewed the screenplay for Thunderball and wrote to Eon Productions to explain why it was highly unlikely they would grant the film an ‘A’ rating (meaning a child could see the film if accompanied by an adult).  The letter outlined numerous scenes that needed to be changed before concluding:

I get the impression that this screenplay has been deliberately hotted up with a view to its including more sex, sadism and violence than the previous Bond pictures, and it seems less light-hearted in tone and therefore likely to be taken more seriously than other films.

The censorship board’s concerns mostly surrounded the sex and violence in the film, which certainly were ‘hotted up’ from previous incarnations.  These included the scenes where Bond is being massaged by a nurse with a mink glove, which is reversed later after Bond has seduced the nurse:

I am not sure about the mink gloves, which have a strong sexual connotation. I hope you will have an alternative available.

Similarly they had no problem with violence as such, but didn’t like sadistic violence or lingering on suffering.  They particularly objected to a scene where Bond is violent towards a woman he had just slept with.  They also didn’t like the fact he slept with a woman he knew to be his enemy and Bond joking that he did it ‘for King and country’.  In the BBFC’s view:

This is the kind of imported sex which will give this film a great deal of trouble here.

Likewise they objected to one overtly sexualised shot of a woman, saying:

We would not want to see any shot of Patricia ‘flat on her back with her legs straddled’.  I do not imagine you will give us one.

It seems most of these changes were made because when the Thunderball film-makers submitted a rough cut to the BBFC some months later the board only requested one further modification.  A note from November 1965 – a month before the film was released – says that if the producers wanted an ‘A’ rating they would have to:

Remove the first of the two scenes in which James Bond is seen stroking the back of a partially nude girl on a bed with a mink glove.

I’m not sure if someone at the BBFC had a bad experience with mink gloves or whether this was just the usual censorship board hypersensitivity, but the film-makers acquiesced and got their desired ‘A’ classification.


BBFC records on Thunderball, 1965