The film follows Bond's mission to find two NATO nuclear bombs stolen by SPECTRE, who holds the world to ransom for £100 million in gold, in exchange for not destroying an unspecified major city in either England or the United States (later revealed to be Miami). The search leads Bond to the Bahamas, where he encounters Emilio Largo, the card-playing, eye-patch wearing SPECTRE Number Two. Backed by the CIA and Largo's mistress, Bond's search culminates into an underwater battle with Largo's henchmen.
Thunderball was associated with a legal dispute in 1961 when former Ian Fleming collaborators Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham sued him shortly after the 1961 publication of the Thunderball novel, claiming he based it upon the screenplay the trio had earlier written in a failed cinematic translation of James Bond. The lawsuit was settled out of court and Broccoli and Saltzman fearing a rival McClory film allowed him to retain certain screen rights to the novel's story, plot, and characters. The film had a complex production, with four different units and about a fourth of the film consisting of underwater scenes.
The film was a critical and financial success, earning a total of $141.2 million worldwide, exceeding the earnings of the three previous Bond films and breaking box office records on the first weekend of opening in France and Italy. The film won an Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Visual Effects awarded to John Stears in 1966 and Ken Adam the production designer was also nominated for a BAFTA award.
Bond is sent by M to a health clinic to improve his health. While massaged by physiotherapist Patricia Fearing, he notices Count Lippe, a suspicious man with a criminal tattoo (from a Tong). He searches Lippe's room, but is seen leaving it by Lippe's clinic neighbor who is bandaged because of plastic surgery. Later, Lippe tries to murder Bond with a spinal traction machine but the attempt is foiled by Fearing. Bond soon finds a dead bandaged man, and survives a second murder attempt. The dead man is François Derval, a French NATO pilot deployed to fly an Avro Vulcan jet bomber loaded with two nuclear bombs for a training session. He is replaced by SPECTRE's surgically altered henchman named Angelo who gasses the crew during the training and sinks the plane near the Bahamas. He is killed underwater by Emilio Largo (SPECTRE No. 2), however, for considering himself underpaid, and following this Largo and his henchmen steal the atomic bombs on the seabed. The theft summons Bond and all other double-0 agents to Whitehall. En route, Lippe chases Bond but is killed by an assassin, Fiona Volpe, for failing to foresee Angelo's greed.
At the meeting, Bond recognizes Derval as the cadaver he encountered in the health clinic from a photograph. Since Derval's sister, Domino, is in Nassau, Bond asks M to send him to the Bahamas. Domino turns out to be Largo's mistress. Bond exploits the connection to approach Largo after meeting Domino while scuba diving. Bond and Largo immediately recognize each other as enemies but play a mutual psychological cat-and-mouse game to draw each other out. Bond's assistant Paula is eventually abducted by Largo for questioning; she kills herself just before Bond can rescue her.
At a Junkanoo celebration in Nassau, Volpe tries to kill Bond but is shot by her own bodyguard. Soon, Bond and CIA case officer Felix Leiter search for the Vulcan by helicopter, eventually finding it underwater, along with the crew corpses and Angelo the counterfeit NATO observer pilot. Afterwards, Bond tells Domino that Largo killed her brother, pleading for her help in finding the nuclear bombs. She tells Bond where and how to replace a SPECTRE agent on a mission with Largo, who is retrieving the bombs from a submarine hiding place. Disguised as Largo's henchman, Bond uncovers his plan to detonate the bombs in Miami Beach.
En route to the cave where the bombs will be temporarily stored, Bond's cover is blown by Largo. After an underwater battle with Largo's men, Bond is rescued by Leiter who orders a unit of United States Coast Guard agents to parachute to the area for underwater battle against SPECTRE frogmen. Bond joins the fray, killing several SPECTRE frogmen with high tech submarine weapons, and his knife and hands. The surviving henchmen surrender.
Finally, Largo escapes to his ship, the Disco Volante (Italian: Flying Saucer), which still has one bomb aboard; Bond follows him and sneaks aboard. During a hand-to-hand fight, Largo gains the upper hand and is about to shoot Bond, however, Domino shoots a spear into Largo's back. With the dying Largo death-locked to the uncontrolled yacht's wheel, Bond and Domino jump overboard as it runs aground and explodes. A sky hook-equipped U.S. Navy airplane rescues Bond and Domino from the sea.
The sources for Thunderball are controversial among film aficionados. In 1961, Ian Fleming published his novel based upon a television screenplay that he, and others developed into the film screenplay; the efforts were unproductive, and Fleming expanded the script into his ninth James Bond novel. Consequently, one of his collaborators, Kevin McClory, sued him for plagiarism; they settled out of court in 1963. The book The Battle for Bond, by Robert Sellers, details this as part of the Thunderball mythos.
Later, in 1964, EON producers Broccoli and Saltzman agreed with McClory to cinematically adapt the novel; it was promoted as "Ian Fleming's Thunderball". Yet, along with the official credits to screenwriters Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins, the screenplay is also identified as based on an original screenplay by Jack Whittingham and as based on the original story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming. To date, Thunderball has twice been adapted cinematically; the 1983, McClory-produced Never Say Never Again, features Sean Connery as James Bond, but is not an official EON production.
Guy Hamilton was invited to direct, but considered himself worn out and "creatively drained" after the production of Goldfinger. Terence Young, director of the first two Bond films, returned to the series. Coincidentally, when Saltzman invited him to direct Dr. No, Young expressed interest in directing adaptations of Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball. Years later, Young said Thunderball was filmed "at the right time", considering that if it was the first film in the series the short budget — Dr. No cost only $1 million — wouldn't have good results.
Filming commenced on 16 February 1965, with principal photography of the opening scene in Paris. Filming then moved to the Château d'Anet, near Dreux, France for the fight in pre-credit sequence. Much of the film was shot in the Bahamas, Thunderball is widely known for its extensive underwater action scenes which are played out through much of the latter half of the film. Filming was shot at Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire, Silverstone racing circuit for the chase involving Count Lippe, Fiona Volpe and James Bond's Aston Martin DB5 before moving to Nassau, and Paradise Island in The Bahamas where most of the footage was shot and Miami.
On arriving in Nassau McClory searched for possible locations to shoot many of the key sequences of the film and used the home of a local millionaire couple, the Sullivans, for Largo's estate. Part of the SPECTRE underwater assault was also shot on the coastal grounds of another millionaires' home on the island. The most difficult sequences to film were the underwater action scenes and the first to be shot underwater was at a depth of 50 feet to shoot the scene where SPECTRE divers remove the nuclear warheads from the sunken Vulcan bomber. Peter Lamont had previously visited an air force base carrying a concealed camera which he used to get close-up shots of the secretive missiles and those appearing in the film were not actually present. Most of the underwater scenes had to be done at lower tides due to the sharks in the Bahamian sea.
Connery's life was in danger in the sequence with the sharks in Largo's pool and one which he had been in fear of when he read the script. He insisted that Ken Adam build a special Plexiglas partition inside the pool but, despite this, it was not a fixed structure and one of the sharks managed to pass through it. Connery had to abandon the pool immediately, seconds away from attack. Another dangerous situation occurred when special effects coordinator John Stears brought in a supposed dead shark carcass to be towed around the pool. The shark, however, was not dead and revived at one point. Due to the dangers on the set, stuntman Bill Cummings demanded an extra fee £250 to double for Largo's sidekick Quist as he was dropped into the pool of sharks.
The climactic underwater battle was shot at Clifton Pier and was choreographed by Hollywood expert Ricou Browning, who had worked on many films previously such as Creature From the Black Lagoon in 1954. He was responsible for the staging of the cave sequence and the battle scenes beneath the Disco Volante and called in his specialist team of divers who posed as those engaged in the onslaught. Voit provided much of the underwater gear in exchange for product placement and film tie-in merchandise. Lamar Boren, an underwater photographer, was brought in to shoot all of the sequences. United States Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Russhon, who had already helped alliance Eon productions with the local authorities in Turkey for From Russia With Love 1963 and at Fort Knox for Goldfinger 1964, stood by and was able to supply the experimental rocket fuel used to destroy the Disco Volante. Russhon, using his position, was also able to gain access to the United States Navy's still-experimental Sky hook rescue system, which was used to lift Bond and Domino from the water at the end of the film. Filming ceased in May 1965 and the final scene shot was the physical fight on the bridge of the Disco Volante.
While in Nassau, during the final shooting days, special effects supervisor John Stears was supplied experimental rocket fuel to use in exploding villain Largo's yacht, the Disco Volante. Ignoring the true power of the volatile liquid, Stears doused the entire yacht with it, took cover, and then detonated the boat. The resultant massive explosion shattered windows along Bay Street in Nassau roughly thirty miles away. Stears went on to win an Academy Award for his work on Thunderball.
As the filming neared its conclusion, Connery had become increasingly agitated with press intrusion and was distracted with difficulties in his marriage of 32 months to actress Diane Cilento. Connery refused to speak to journalists and photographers who followed him in Nassau stating his frustration with the harassment that came with the role; "I find that fame tends to turn one from an actor and a human being into a piece of merchandise, a public institution. Well, I don't intend to undergo that metamorphosis. In the end he only gave a single interview to Playboy as filming was wrapped up, and even turned down a substantial fee to appear in a promotional TV special made by Wolper Productions for NBC The Incredible World of James Bond. According to editor Peter Hunt, Thunderball's release was delayed for three months, from September until December 1965, after he met Arnold Picker of United Artists, and convinced him it would be impossible to edit the film to a high enough standard without the extra time.
Bond receives a spear gun-armed underwater jet pack scuba (allowing the frogman to manoeuvre faster than other frogmen). Designed by Jordan Klein, green dye was meant to be used by Bond as a smoke screen to escape pursuers. Instead Ricou Browning, the film's underwater director, used it to make Bond's arrival more dramatic.
The sky hook, used to rescue Bond at the end of the film, is an actual rescue system used by the United States Military at the time. At Thunderball's release, there was confusion as to whether or not a rebreather such as the one that appears in the film existed; most Bond gadgets, while implausible, often are based upon real technology. In the real world, a rebreather could not be so small, as it has no room for the breathing bag, while the alternative open-circuit scuba releases exhalation bubbles, which the film device does not. In fact, it was made with two CO2 bottles glued together and painted, and a little mouthpiece put on. For this reason, when the Royal Corps of Engineers asked Peter Lamont how long can a man could use the device underwater, the answer was "How long can you hold your breath?
Maurice Binder was hired to design the title sequence, and was involved in a dispute with Eon Production to have his name credited in the film. As Thunderball was the first film shot in Panavision, Binder had to reshoot the iconic gun barrel scene which permitted him to not only incorporate pinhole photographic techniques to shoot inside a genuine gun barrel, but also made Connery appearing in the sequence himself for the first time a reality as stunt man Bob Simmons had doubled for him in the three previous films. Binder gained access to the tank at Pinewood which he used to film the silhouetted title girls who appeared naked in the opening sequence and was the first time actual nudity (although concealed) had ever been seen in a Bond film.
In 1965, the film received generally positive reviews. Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times remarked after seeing the film that "The cinema was a duller place before Bond. In Kinematograph Weekly, she emphasised the enjoyment of the film particular the combination of humour, the Bond girls, and the effectiveness of the Caribbean location on the cinema screen. However she criticized part of the plot in that the explanation of SPECTRE's ransom plan took too long in explaining to the audience. David Robinson of The Financial Times criticized the appearance of Connery and his effectiveness to play Bond in the film remarking "It's not just that Sean Connery looks a lot more haggard and less heroic than he did two or three years ago; but there is much less effort to establish him as connoisseur playboy. Apart from the off-handed order for Beluga, there is little of that comic display of bon viveur-manship that was one of the charms of Connery's almost-a-gentleman 007.
Critics such as James Berardinelli praised Connery's performance, the femme fatale character of Fiona Volpe and the underwater action sequences remarking that they were well choreographed and clearly shot. He criticized the length of the scenes, however, and believed they were too long and were in need of editing particularly during the climax. At Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 90% "fresh" rating.
Thunderball won an Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Visual Effects awarded to John Stears in 1966. Ken Adam the production director was also nominated for a Best Production Design BAFTA award. The film won the Golden Screen award for Best Film in Germany and won Golden Laurel Action Drama award at the 1966 Laurel Awards. The film was also nominated for an Edgar Best Foreign Film award at the Edgar Allan Poe Awards.