Never Say Never Again: Sean Connery returned as James Bond for the last time in this bizarre remake of ‘Thunderball’

Never Say Never Again(1983), directed by Irvin Kershner, is a remake of the fourth James Bond film, Thunderball(1965). The film, produced by Jack Schwartzman (and not by Albert Broccoli’s Eon productions) saw Sean Connery returning to his career-making role after a hiatus of more than a decade.

“Never Say Never Again” is one of those films where the events surrounding the making of the film is much much more interesting (and thrilling befitting a James Bond film) than the film itself. I guess everyone who is a fan of Bond films already knows that:

  • The films is an unofficial Bond film not produced by Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions; the film was produced by a Hollywood lawyer named Jack Schwartzman (husband of actress Talia Shire, father of Jason Schwartzman, and brother-in-law of Francis Ford Coppola) through his Talia Film Productions company, and was distributed by Warner Bros. studios (and not United Artists).
  • With this film, Sean Connery returned to his career-making role of MI6 agent 007, James Bond after a hiatus of 12 years

Sean Connery maybe the only actor in the world who quit a film franchise, not once or twice, but thrice. Connery first retired from the ‘James Bond’ franchise in 1967, after finishing the fifth Bond film, “You only Live Twice,” but he was persuaded to return for the Seventh Bond film “Diamonds are Forever.” After finishing the film, he once again quit the franchise, this time, he said, for good. But Movie stars are such fickle people: for the next decade or so, Connery tried to establish himself as a credible actor and bankable leading man away from the Bond franchise, but met with more failures than successes. By 1982, Connery had racked up almost 8 flops or so in a row, with his last decent success being the “The Man who would be King” in 1975(in which he co-starred with Michael Caine), and the last blockbuster being “Diamonds are Forever.” So when producer Kevin McClory proposed the idea of him returning as James Bond, Connery, a self-made working class guy who always had his eye on the bottom line, accepted it. The proposal had the added benefit that this film was not being produced by Connery’s bête noire Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli of Eon Productions. One of the reasons Connery opted out of the official Bond franchise was because he felt that he was unfairly treated by Broccoli: who did not adequately compensate him for the work he was putting in, as well as the fact that he was not allowed to have any creative inputs into the films. But now with McClory promising him both, and his career being in such pathetic state, he plunged enthusiastically into this new venture.

The new Bond film was to be based on the 1961 James Bond novel Thunderball by Ian Fleming, which in turn was based on an original story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Fleming. After a Legal dispute between Fleming and McClory, which was settled in the latter’s favor, Fleming had to surrender the film rights of the book to McClory. So, “Thunderball” was one of those books that was not owned by Eon productions (then) headed by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. In 1965, Eon struck a deal with McClory to make the book into a film, by which McClory would be listed as sole producer on the film. In turn, McClory promised not to adapt the book again for a decade. The film “Thunderball” was made, released and became the biggest Bond blockbuster of all times. In 1975 McClory began trying to put together a new adaptation of “Thunderball,” which finally materialized as “Never Say Never Again”- after being purchased and packaged by Jack Schwartzman; McClory stayed as the executive producer. Broccoli sought an injunction against this rival Bond movie but wasn’t successful in stopping its production. “Never Say Never Again” was scheduled to release approximately the same time as the official Bond film, Octopussy, starring Roger Moore as James Bond, that year. But production problems delayed its release, and it was finally released in October of 1983, while Octopussy had already bowed in theatres that summer. Connery’s wife, Micheline Roquebrune, suggested the film’s title, as Connery was reported to have said “Never again,” when she first asked him about the possibility of his return as Bond. Connery was involved in almost all aspects of the production: from scripting, casting, choosing the director, and even the actual production, as debut producer, Jack Schwartzman, proved to be weak and ineffective. Connery actually wanted to quit before the film even began shooting seeing how haphazardly Schwartzman was managing the production; he could have coolly pocketed his $3 million (by some accounts $5 million) salary and walked away from the film, but he decided to stick with the project and finished the picture battling incredible odds.

The plot of the film is a bloated and overcooked version of “Thunderball”, which itself was one of the weaker Sean Connery Bond films, and its incredible success coming mainly due to ‘Bond mania’ being at its peak in 1965. The script of “Never Say Never Again” is credited to Lorenzo Semple Jr. (best known for his work on the campy television series Batman, and the political/espionage films The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor),but more than half a dozen writers worked on the film- reportedly even Francis Ford Coppola took a crack at the script. The production of the film was so chaotic that scenes were being rewritten right up to the point when they were being shot. This is very much apparent in the film’s rambling, incohesive screenplay that goes something like this: When British Secret Service agent James Bond gives a substandard performance during a training exercise, his superior, “M,” sends him to the Shrublands health resort to improve his physical condition. There, by the most strangest of coincidences, Bond, in the midst of physical exercises and bedding down chiropractors, gets wind of a criminal conspiracy hatched by the head of international crime syndicate SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld; a Middle-East operation, code-named “The Tears of Allah.” Facilitating the operation is brainwashed American Air Force Captain Jack Petachi, implanted with a cornea identical to that of the President of the United States. He is currently ensconced at Shrublands, under the care of SPECTRE agent Fatima Blush. One night, Bond spies Fatima physically abusing Capt. Petachi. Fatima recognizes James as he approaches, and leaves during the night, taking Petachi with her. At Swadley Command Center in the United States, Petachi gains access to a computer using his counterfeit eye-print, and orders the system to install thermonuclear warheads on a pair of missiles undergoing a test launch. Petachi is later killed by Fatima, who causes his car to crash and explode. Meanwhile, SPECTRE technicians redirect the missiles and confiscate them. The following day, Blofeld addresses the NATO via closed-circuit television, and demands twenty-five percent of member nations’ annual oil purchases, or the missiles will be deployed. M apprises Bond of the situation, and sends him to the Bahamian island of Nassau, equipped with a dossier on SPECTRE agent, Maximilian Largo, who is the agency’s chief suspect; for the mission, Q equips Bond with a fountain pen that fires an explosive charge, and a laser gun disguised as a watch. On his luxury yacht, The Flying Saucer, Largo presents Petachi’s sister, Domino, who’s his mistress, with a diamond pendant bearing the inscription, “The Tears of Allah.” Largo considers it his most valuable possession, besides Domino, and promises to cut her throat if she ever tries to leave him. Upon his arrival on Nassau, Bond runs into Fatima at an outdoor lounge. Unaware that she knows his identity, Bond accepts her invitation to go SCUBA diving. After making love on Fatima’s boat, she and Bond explore a sunken ship. She places a tracking device on his back and abandons him to be attacked by electronically controlled sharks. But Bond is smart enough to escapes from the sharks, while later, a little bit of good fortune (and his sexual prowess) helps him to evade a second attempt on his life by Fatima.

Bond pursues Largo’s ship to the south of France, where he is joined by fellow agent, Nicole, and CIA agent Felix Leiter, who take him to their rented villa. Upon learning that Largo is hosting a charity ball that evening, Bond gains entry and introduces himself to Domino. Aware of James’s identity, Largo invites the agent to play an electronic game called “Domination”; Bond loses the first three rounds, but defeats Largo in the final round, and requests a dance with Domino as his prize. On the dance floor, Bond informs Domino that her brother is dead, and Largo is the prime suspect in her brother’s murder. When Bond returns to the villa, he finds Nicole drowned and Fatima driving away from the scene. Bond give chase on a motorbike, and the chase ends at a warehouse, with Fatima holding Bond at gunpoint, demanding he write an affidavit saying she was the greatest lover he ever had. James fires a tiny pellet from his fountain pen, causing Fatima to explode. The next day, Bond returns to The Flying Saucer, but is caught by Largo. The ship takes them to a castle in North Africa; Largo locks Bond in a dungeon, but he manages to escape and also save Domino, who is being sold into slavery for refusing to marry Largo: they leap from a turret to a boat manned by Felix Leiter, as a Secret Service submarine fires on the castle. Aboard the submarine, M notifies Bond that one of the missiles is no longer a threat, but the other must be located. The submarine pursues Largo to a petroleum-rich peninsula on the eastern Mediterranean coast, which resembles the image etched on Domino’s diamond pendant. Divers emerge from the hull of The Flying Saucer and follow an underground river, known as “The Tears of Allah,” to the cave containing the second missile. Felix and Bond follow in jet-propelled modules, but Largo escapes with the missile on a hydroplane. Bond intercepts Largo and disables the hydroplane, causing it to land on the ocean floor, trapping Largo underneath. While Bond disarms the nuclear warhead, Domino appears and shoots Largo with a harpoon gun. The film ends with M calling Bond – now retired and leading a quiet life with Domino – back into action, and Bond declining the call saying “Never again.

Obviously, the highlight of this film is Sean Connery reprising Bond: he looks fitter, more eager, more involved and even more sexier than he was in “Diamonds are Forever,” which came twelve years ago. He brings back that mixture of suaveness, stylishness, seriousness and understated humor that made James Bond what he is, and cemented his reputation as the best James Bond ever (Nope! Daniel Craig is definitely not the one for me). But having convinced Connery to come back, the filmmakers failed him bigtime by giving him almost nothing special to do. The film comes across as a very peculiar, and even eccentric take on “Thunderball.” There are times when the film works splendidly, looks great and has moments of good humor, glamor, action and adventure, but then there are portions that are so bland, looks so cheap, and appears very clumsily put together, as if it didn’t even have a professional film unit working behind it. Now I know that there were production problems galore on this one, with Connery himself declaring it a “bloody mickey mouse operation.” I also think that Irvin Kershner was not the right guy to direct the film; true he was coming of the best “Star Wars” film, “Empire Strikes Back,” but that was really George Lucas’ baby. Kershner was more at home in intimate dramas like “A Fine Madness,” where he first worked with Connery- and hence the reason why Connery hired him to helm this project. Kershner doesn’t know how to build up his hero: Connery gets some of the most unmemorable scenes and dialogues in his career, with nary a punchline; also, Kershner’s attempts at mixing the various ingredients of the Bond formula does not translate into a tasty whole; just remaining interesting in parts. I wonder what Connery’s first choice, Richard Donner, would have done with this film- this one was right up his alley. But I think the main reason why the film has such an inconsistent and erratic tone to it is because of all the legal entanglements surrounding the film that prevented the filmmakers from using some of the artistic trademarks of the Bond films and characters. This is amplified by the inability of the filmmakers to replace them with something unique and interesting of their own.

Of course, since this is not a Eon production, the filmmakers could not use the iconic ‘gun barrel’ opening scene; gone are also the great John Barry’s brilliant score and Maurice Binder’s unique opening credit sequence that we so identify with Bond. So, even with Sean Connery returning as Bond after an absence of twelve years, this film was always going to be a tough sell. Now the filmmakers could have gone on a different route, and opened the film in some other interesting way, but alas! the title sequence is so clumsy, and the theme song and the music is so terrible, that it totally negates the impact of Connery’s return. French Musical composer, Michel Legrand, has composed more than two hundred film and television scores in his lifetime. He has won three Oscars and five Grammys, but when it came to delivering for the one and only ‘James Bond’ film he scored in his career, Legrand dropped the ball. Singer Bonnie Tyler was originally hired to perform the theme song, but declined after hearing it, and you can understand why. As rendered by Lani Hall, the song is irritating to say the least. So right from the opening sequence, the film has failed its star and its audience. From then on it’s difficult to stay interested in the proceedings, but with Connery on screen playing an age-appropriate Bond you still soldier on; and things do get interesting, but only intermittently: some good scenes are always followed by some bad ones. Kershner had commented on how difficult it was to construct scenes for the film, because ultimately, it was the lawyers who decided what went into the film, and not the filmmakers. They would create a scene and then pass it on to their lawyers, then after they have vetted it, they would pass it on to Eon’s lawyers, they would send it back marked with revisions, and the same process would be continued until everyone is satisfied. How can anybody make a film like this is beyond me?. One of the reasons why Connery chose to do this film was he would have creative control over it. He had hated being treated as a puppet pulled around by Broccoli and Saltzman; how he must have felt chaffing under the power of Eon’s lawyers is anybody’s guess. So the question is: why the hell did he choose to return as Bond with this project?, Was he not aware of the legal complications involved in this film?. maybe not; maybe he fully trusted McClory and Schwartzman when they told him that all legal hurdles are cleared. Anyway, the whole process turned out to be a nightmare for Connery. Though Connery had not announced it loud, his intention was to start a new series of Bond films in collaboration with McClory, with the second film to follow in 1985. But so bitter and exasperated was he with the “Never Say never Again” experience that he retired, not only from Bond forever, but from acting itself for almost three years.

Within the film, one can feel the conflict between Connery’s idea of a more character-driven Bond film and the producers desire to replicate the splashy, gadget-driven silly spectacles of Roger Moore’s Bond. Connery’s Bond is given his age-related vulnerabilities, but they are not developed beyond a point. The over-the-hill agent making one last stand in a modern world, which he doesn’t fully understand, is a very rich subject matter, but it’s never explored fully. The more fascinating ‘ménage à trois’ aspect of the Bond-Domino-Largo relationship is also unbalanced by treating Domino as a wimp; I felt that this was much more effectively handled in “Thunderball” despite Klaus Maria Brandauer being one of the best Bond villains, and the better Largo. Barbara Carrera as the femme fatale Fatima Blush is a true highlight of the film- Kershner directs and stages her scenes well: her each entrance is a colorful, whimsical event on to itself, and she gets a great send off as well. Kim Basinger makes for a stunningly beautiful Bond girl, but she has no role to play as ‘Domino’. It also doesn’t help that she is much too young, and looks more like Connery’s daughter rather than his lover. Edward Fox as ‘M’ is irritating in his continous dislike and dismissal of Bond; though that’s not entirely Fox’s fault, that’s how the character is conceived. Tech specs are uneven: the film is richly photographed by Douglas Slocombe- who shot the first three Indiana Jones films; but the stunt choreography, editing and production design, which are the heart and soul of the classic Bond films, are average to below-average. They cannot hold a candle to the work of Bond maestros, Editor Peter Hunt and Designer Ken Adams.

Though the film cost more (and grossed less) than Octopussy, the film was still a solid commercial hit: grossing $160 million against a $34 million budget. The reviews were also glowing, with everyone hailing the return of Connery as Bond. I guess it was a time when the Roger Moore Bonds had set the bar so low that even a half-decent Connery Bond film looked great. The problems surrounding the film did not end even after its release: Connery filed a complaint against Schwartzman claiming he had not received his agreed-upon percentage of profits. Schwartzman filed a lawsuit against director Irvin Kershner for failing to stay within the film’s budget. Connery also filed a complaint against Cubby Broccoli and Eon Productions alleging that they caused him mental distress and owed him dues from Bond films. And as it is the case with these lawsuits, all of them were either dismissed or settled out-of-court. In 1997, MGM studios, which controlled United Artists, bought “Never Say Never Again” outright from Schwartzman’s widow, Talia Shire- Schwartzman had died in 1994 of pancreatic cancer. So after all the hullaballoo surrounding the making of an unofficial Bond film, the film was now safely back in the official fold. On an end note, i would say that one of the more amusing aspects of the film for me was Rowan Atkinson, the future Mr. Bean, playing Nigel Small-Fawcett, Her Majesty’s bumbling station supervisor in the Bahamas. I’m a big Mr. Bean fan, and even though his appearance here may not be Atkinson’s finest hour on film (I like his introduction scene where he converses with Connery’s Bond through clenched teeth while scanning the horizons for nonexistent eavesdroppers), I really got a kick out of seeing (the best) Mr. Bond and Mr. Bean in the same frame.

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