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Never Say Never Again: The Bond film that should never have been?

April 27, 2010

His word was his Bond?: Turns out turning his back on Bond was more like Never Say Never Again for Sean Connery

It’s a Bank Holiday Monday. It’s raining cats and dogs outside. And you’re at  a loose end. Anything on the box? Well, as is often the case there’s a Bond film, but it’s that one from the early ’80s with Connery in it. You know, the one he came back for long after his ’60s heyday; the one that isn’t supposed to be ‘official’. So do you give it a try or a berth as wide as Connery’s middle-aged belly?

For me, a big Bond fan, it’s an interesting question. Because this flick is a curiosity, an anomaly, a  real black sheep among its Bond contemporaries. But does it deserve the low opinion it seems to have cultivated for itself? Is it really as bad a Bond film as all that? And how on earth did it come to be made in the first place? Well, settle back into your favourite chair with a dry Martini, because – like Val Doonican – I want to tell you a story, a bloody good one…

It starts way back  in 1961, a year before the first ‘official’ Bond film Dr No, made by Albert R ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman’s Eon Productions, was even made – and Bond creator Ian Fleming is in trouble. Eager to get his literary sensation on to the big screen, Fleming had worked on a screenplay along with friend Ivar Bryce, fellow scribe and screenwriter Jack Whittingham and Irish film producer Kevin McClory. However, having proceeded to turn the ideas into a novel entitled Thunderball - the ninth in his long line of 007 books – Fleming now found himself being taken to court by McClory and Whittingham, their claim being it was unfair the former should get sole financial reward from a story they had originally authored just as much as he had.

Taking place at London’s High Court in November 1963, the trial resulted in future printings of the novel being credited to McClory and Whittingam as well as Fleming, and McClory receiving damages and court cost payments amounting to £52,000. McClory had done well, for sure, but his relationship with  Whittingham (who recieved no help from him in paying his hefty court costs) and Fleming was no more – indeed, 007′s creator wouldn’t be the only member of the ‘Bond family’ McClory made an enemy of.

Water-sport: Kevin McClory and family out for a drive in a car Q would be proud of

Kevin McClory was a colourful figure; it’s been claimed he loved the idea of becoming a celebrity, seduced by the glamorous world of Hollywood, and would climb over anyone to get what his burning ambition wanted. Born in Dublin in 1926, at 16 he entered the British Merchant Navy’s Nowegian Marines and, while serving as a radio officer during the Second World War, his ship was torpedoed and he drifted for 14 days in the North Atlantic on a lifeboat. Perhaps it was this incident that instilled in him the uncompromising fighting spirit he would show in future years? Following the war, he found himself in Hollywood and established himself as a jack-of-all-trades on the John Huston films The African Queen (1951), Moulin Rouge (1952) and Moby Dick (1956), and the multi-Oscar winning Around The World In 80 Days (1956). In 1957, he wrote, produced and directed The Boy And The Bridge, thanks to financial backing from Ivar Bryce’s heiress wife. It wasn’t a success, and hampered attempts to get his, Fleming, Bryce and Whittingham’s original Bond script made into a movie.

In the meantime, of course, Bond had made it to the big screen via the Broccoli and Saltzman route and had proved a resounding success, first with Dr No, then From Russia With Love (1963) and then with the enormously popular Goldfinger (1964), all three of which were based on previous Fleming Bond novels. Come 1965, though, and Broccoli and Saltzman decided to turn their attention to Thunderball. They had considered turning it into their first 007 big screen adventure, but owing to its disputed authorship, had to pass on it. With the trial now over, however, it could be made – and its glossy, sunny Bahamas-setting and big-stakes nuclear warhead crisis-driven plot must have been seductive to the two producers who were now riding the tsunami-like wave that was Bondmania following Goldfinger‘s box-office gold rush. The one problem was that, in order to bring it to the screen, they had to make a deal with McClory. Eventually, it was legally agreed he would receive a sole ‘producer’ credit, while they would get mere ‘presenting’ credits, plus he won the rights to re-make the film again after 12 years of its release, if he so desired.

In the event, Thunderball turned out to be a monster success – the tenth biggest grossing film of the ’60s, in fact, and only helped solidify Bond and Connery’s iconic positions in that decade’s popular culture. But behind the scenes, all was not well. Not only did Broccoli and Saltzman, perhaps predictably, not get on with McClory, but Connery himself was not a happy bunny. He’d become tired of the character, who seemed to him more Superman than super-spy these days, and couldn’t stand the press intrusion into his life. He claimed that the public seemed incapable of separating him as an actor from the character – once during this period a woman asked him for an autograph and complained he hadn’t signed as ‘James Bond’.

“Kevin had a project in life and that project was Kevin McClory” – Jeremy Vaughn, friend of Kevin McClory

Following one more outing in the role, the Japanese-set You Only Live Twice (1967) – during the filming of which a reporter even followed him into a toilet; now that’s real intrusion into one’s private life – Connery hung up the shoulder holster. Only not for long. Four years later, in the wake of the supposed lack of box-office success for the George Lazenby-starring and rather wonderful On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), he was back for Diamonds Are Forever. Although he claimed this one had the best script of any Bond film he’d worked on, he wasn’t doing it for the art; in fact, he was doing it for a then incredible $1 million fee, and a deal with distributor United Artists he’d star in two further films for them, as well as a big donation to a charity he’d just set up for Scottish children’s education. This time then, following Diamonds, Connery was done with Bond for good, right?

Wrong.

Enter the ’70s and Connery’s pal Roger Moore was comfortably entrenched in the role, making his debut in Live And Let Die (1973), and following this up with The Man With The Golden Gun (1974). But now, suddenly, disaster seemed to strike oo7′s cinematic existence – as it so often seems to have done over the decades. Broccoli and Saltzman’s own relationship had reached breaking point owing to the latter’s dodgy financial dealings forcing him into bankruptcy. Saltzman sold his rights in Bond to Cubby, who continued to plough forward as sole producer of the film series. However, the legal wrangles this fall-out necessitated had delayed production on the next espionage epic, so once again in stepped McClory – and Connery.

It was now 1976, very nearly 12 years after Thunderball, so McClory was free to remake said film if he wanted to, and he did. The same year, Broccoli was finally ready to plough on with Bond too and the Fleming novel he was going to adapt for the tenth in Eon’s Bond series was The Spy Who Loved Me. In the deal Fleming made with Eon way back in the ’60s to turn his books into movies, an odd stipulation was included regarding this novel, as Fleming was unhappy with how it turned out (written as it was from the heroine’s viewpoint rather than 007′s), he said the title could be used, but none of the characters apart from Bond and those of MI6, and none of the plot. Cubby then was free to come up with an entirely original story to hang the title on, which – using several different writers including  Anthony Burgess and John Landis – he duly did. The story he seemed to settle on involved an international terrorist group stealing submarines for the nuclear missiles, which, of course, in essence sounded an awful lot like the basic premise for… Thunderball.

Statuesque figure: Connery visits the Statue Of Liberty in the 1970s, a proposed location for an action set-piece, during location scouting for McClory’s James Bond Of The Secret Service/ Warhead

McClory, having now roped Connery into the mix for his proposed new Bond flick, saw his chance and was gathering momentum in getting it made – possible titles included Warhead, Warhead 8 and the highly imaginative James Bond Of The Secret Service. It’s unclear whether McClory and Connery knew of the similarities between the The Spy Who Loved Me and Thunderball plots, but it’s surely very likely they caught wind of what Broccoli was planning. Even so, given this likelihood, surprisingly this time it wasn’t McClory who sued, it was United Artists, still distributors of Eon’s series. The upshot was that in the face of the big film studio’s lawyers, McClory’s remake, which Connery had dabbled in scripting and planned on directing as well as starring in, was as dead in the water as a dud warhead. Conversely, The Spy Who Loved Me was released and became the most successful Bond flick at the box-office since Thunderball itself, and was followed by the Star Wars-inspired hokum that was Moonraker (1979), which made more money than either of them.

The ’70s became the ’80s and, no doubt in spite of his best efforts, McClory’s folly seemed doomed to failure. But now on the scene appeared American film producer Jack Schwartzman (husband of Rocky and Godfather actress Talia Shire, and by extension step-brother of Francis Ford Coppola) and, in one of the best ironic twists in this saga, his Hollywood muscle pulled off what all of McClory’s single-minded ambition never could – the rival Bond film was being made, helped out by the clout of movie studio Warner Bros. And it featured Sean Connery as 007 once again. Not just that, though, Never Say Never Again (which owed its title to a jokey suggestion from Connery’s wife in reference to his second return to the role) would be released in 1983, the same year as Eon’s latest Bond opus, the India-set Octopussy, and no doubt in the same summer season.

And now, in stepped the media. The press fell over themselves to create a contest out of the two films, pitting them as rival productions and dubbing the development as the ‘Battle Of The Bonds’. As it turned out, though, the movies weren’t released relatively near each other; Octopussy opened in the summer, Never Say Never Again in the autumn. The former, with its summer release, perhaps predictably made more money, and nowadays it seems that the latter, as the ‘unofficial’ upstart that made less money is remembered as something of a failure, an interesting one, but a failure nonetheless.

But is this fair? What is Never Say Never Again actually like? Was it worth all the effort, time and acrimony it took to bring it to the screen?

Femme fatale: Barbara Carrera’s Fatima Blush making her entrance in Never Say Never Again – an explosive exit awaits

Well, for most fans of the Eon series, the answer is probably no. But for the curious filmfan, Never Say Never Again offers a great deal.  True, it is practically a re-run of Thunderball, one of the most popular Bond flicks ever made. But it’s Thunderball updated for the ’80s – instead of Bond using a jetpack, there’s Bond in his first motorbike chase; instead of a jet being stolen from clipped-voiced RAF chaps, a jet’s stolen using a nifty, electronic eye-recognition kit; and instead of a card game showdown between Bond and the villain; there’s a surprisingly cool and satisfying computer game showdown between Bond and his foe (which, in fact, is the film’s best scene).

The movie, directed by The Empire Strikes Back‘s Irvin Kershner, has a screenplay credited to Hollywood legend Lorenzo Semple Jr, but, in actual fact, Brit writing duo Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais worked on it as script doctors, their CV also including TV classics Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, Porridge and Auf Weidersehen, Pet. No surprise then that it has it’s fair share of witty one-liners and amusing set-ups (among them is Bond’s hotel room blowing up while we expect him to be in it, only unbeknown to us he’s seeing a girl in another one from whose balcony we see the explosion, and a henchman seemingly dying from Bond throwing a glass of liquid into his face, which turns out to be a sample of the MI6 star’s urine).

The casting too is, well, frankly too groovy to pass up checking out. In addition to a finely sardonic Sean Connery as Bond (Girl on a waterski: ‘Oh, but I’ve made you all wet’/ Bond: ‘At least my Martini’s still dry’), there’s ’80s blonde bombshell Kim Basinger as the heroine; quality German actor Klaus-Maria Brandeur as an eerily unhinged yet nerdy villain; legendary Swedish star Max Von Sydow as Blofeld; Bernie Casey as the first black Felix Leiter (pre-dating Jeffrey Wright’s in Casino Royale by 23 years); Rowan Atkinson in his first cinematic debut as a bumbling Bahamas contact; and Nicaraguan knockout Barbara Carrera as sexy assassin Fatima Blush. Not only does her character possess a terrific name, but her performance – including one of the most ludicrous and most entertaining Bond baddie deaths – is delightful cartoon villainy to the max; she received a Golden Globe Award nomination for it.

Virtual reality: Bond and villain Largo face-off over the ‘Domination’ computer game – Never Say Never Again’s answer to Thunderball’s casino showdown

And for its worth, even though Octopussy outgrossed it, the ‘unofficial’ flick was actually a surefire hit. Made for $36 million, it grossed $160 million and set the record for the biggest ever box-office opening for a film released in the autumn. Audiences then lapped it up – and so did Roger Ebert. Upon its release, the legendary US film critic wrote: “Sean Connery says he’ll never make another James Bond movie, and maybe I believe him. But the fact that he made this one, so many years later, is one of those small show-business miracles that never happen. There was never a Beatles reunion. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez don’t appear on the same stage anymore. But here, by God, is Sean Connery as Sir James Bond. Good work, 007″.

But what of Never Say Never Again‘s real cast of characters – what did it do for them? Well, Connery went on to re-find his mojo later in the ’80s, with the likes of The Name Of The Rose (1986), The Untouchables (1987), for which he won an Oscar, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989) and The Hunt For Red October (1990). Cubby Broccoli continued to produce hugely popular Bond films until his death in 1996. And Kevin McClory? Well, he tried again to re-make Thunderball, with a turn-of-the-millenium effort to be entitled Warhead 2000 (this time reputedly with former Bond Timothy Dalton returning as 007), but once again the big studio lawyers stopped him in his tracks. And his dream of producing a Bond film ended for good in 2006 when he died – four days after the release of the latest massively popular Eon-produced reinvention of Agent 007, Casino Royale with Daniel Craig in the role.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, of course, but it does seem McClory backed the wrong spectre all along; Bond was – and, who knows, probably always will be – Broccoli and Eon’s ‘Domination’ game.

~~~

For more on Never Say Never Again and its history, read Robert Sellers’ book The Battle For Bond: The Genesis Of Cinema’s Greatest Hero, available from Tomahawk Press.

~~~

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Fae permalink
    May 16, 2010 6:57 am

    Hey, George!

    Decided to check out this little article and can I just say thank you for writing this up. Firstly I learnt a fair bit about NSNA (which is a Bond film I still haven’t seen and no basically nothing about besides the basics), and secondly it provided a welcome distraction from my homework.

    And BTW the place is swingin’ :)

    Fae

    • May 16, 2010 7:13 am

      Fae,

      Only too pleased to have been of service – on both counts!

      Thanks for the kind words; glad you like the blog…

      George

  2. Soumik permalink
    September 29, 2010 6:53 am

    Very informative article…I didnt like the film that much the first time I watched..maybe I would like to see it once more…Thanks George!

    • October 1, 2010 1:55 am

      Thanks, Soumik.

      My advice is give it a go again – NSNA’s a real curate’s egg when it comes to Bond, but was worth being hatched, as it were…

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