Friday, August 30, 2019

The Other Rogue Bond Film

Never Say Never Again (1983) excites almost as much controversy among fans of the series as does the other 'rogue' Bond movie, 1967's Casino Royale.  Although, on the face of it, completely contrasting films in their approach to their source material, both of these non-series entries do share an intent to satirise their genre and the format of the Bond films.  Both are intended as 'correctives' to the way in which the series was developing.  Whereas Casino Royale did this by presenting a broad parody, its episodic structure mirroring the way contemporary Bonds were built around a series of action set-pieces, loosely linked by an overarching plot, its excessively ludicrous climax parodying the way in which the official series had moved from excess to excess between Dr No and You Only Live Twice, Never Say Never Again attempts a somewhat subtler approach. It tries to present a Bond movie which exists in, sort of, the real 1983.  This time around, Connery's Bond has to operate against a background of budget cuts, declining British influence on the world stage and a new management regime focused on 'modernisation', seeing double O agents as outmoded, their unsubtle methods out of step with the modern world.  (Interestingly, it would take the official series nearly fifteen years to try a similar scenario, in Pierce Brosnan's debut, Goldeneye (1997), with aspect emphasised even more in the subsequent Daniel Craig films).  Hence, we have a Q producing cut price gadgets in a damp basement, a new M obsessed with health regimes and clean living and a Bond who complains that he now spends most of his time teaching and training.

All of this, of course, was seen as a corrective to the Eon produced official Bond series which many critics, claimed had, during the then Roger Moore era, had become a flabby shadow of its former self, entirely reliant upon spectacular action set pieces, Roger Moore's charisma and excessive humour.  What better rebuke to this than to bring back the original Bond, Sean Connery, in a back-to-basics Bond film, a film based on a classic era Bond move, Thunderball?  Except that the official series had already started 'correcting' itself.  After the excesses of Moonraker (1979 - James Bond in space - Eon clearly realised that they had taken the series as far as they could in that direction, so decided to follow it up with their own back-to-basics Bond, For Your Eyes Only (1981).  While the official film Never Say Never Again went up against - Octopussy (1983) - wasn't quite as hard edged and stripped down as For Your Eyes Only, it was still a far cry from Moonraker, with a nuclear threat plot which seemed 'ripped from the headlines' and far less humour than earlier Moore entries. Consequently, upon its release, Never Say Never Again didn't seem quite the radical departure its producers were trying to sell it as.

To be fair, for most of its running time, Never Say Never Again is far lower key than the official films, with location shooting even for most of the interiors eliminating the extravagant studio sets of the Eon series and giving the whole film a far more 'realistic' look.  The action sequences are also scaled back, with a very physical fight between Connery and Pat Roach, which wrecks large parts of the Scrublands health clinic a highlight.  Also, instead of the gadget-filled Aston Martins or Lotuses of previous films, Bond's mode of transport in the main automotive chase is a motorcycle.  But toward the end, the gadgets start appearing, from Bond's laser-equipped watch to the submarine launched jet packs used by Bond and Leiter, it starts feeling dangerously like an official Bond film.  The film also manages reasonably well in its attempts to update the Thunderball scenario it is based upon, with hijacked US cruise missiles replacing the hijacked British nuclear bombs from the original.  A surgically faked retina sed to give 'Presidential' authority to arm the missiles with live warheads via a retinal scan device, replacing the original's replacement of a bomber pilot with a surgically created double in order to hijack the plan and its payload.  Another modernising touch sees SPECTRE now using the stolen warheads to threaten Middle Eastern oil fields.

Never Say Never Again has its origins in Kevin McClory's successful 1960s legal action against Ian Fleming, which centred around the fact that Fleming's novel Thunderball was based upon an original and unused screen treatment written by Fleming, McClory and Jack Whittingham as part of an early attempt to bring Bond to the screen.  Fleming failed to acknowledge this in the original editions of his novel and McClory was subsequently awarded the screen rights to the story, allowing him to make movies based on the original script and other materials pertaining to the failed film development (including SPECTRE and the character of Blofeld, although Eon got away with the use of these elements for several years, due to their inclusion in several of the Fleming titles they had rights to).  Which meant that Eon Productions, which had subsequently acquired the rights to all of the Bond novels (except Casino Royale, which had earlier been sold to Rank in a one-off deal), were unable to film Thunderball until an agreement was reached with McClory.  This happened in 1965, with McClory producing the film under Eon's banner.  Unfortunately, he reportedly proved difficult to work with, putting Eon off of further such collaborations, hence the failure to produce a version of Casino Royale under a similar arrangement, resulting in the Charles Feldman produced spoof version.  McClory, of course, retained the rights to Thunderball and spent several years trying to mount a new version.  But with studios and distributors wary of trying to compete with the official series and McClory's reputation for being 'difficult', he was eventually forced to licence an independent producer, Jack Schwarzman, to make a version.  With the participation of Sean Connery, this won backing from Paramunt, with the result being Never Say Never Again.

In the interim, several screen treatments had been prepared, with writers such as Len Deighton and Lorenzo Semple Jr being involved and even Sean Connery himself making contributions.  At various times proposed films based on these treatments, sporting titles such as Warhead and James Bond of the Secret Service, were announced, but never materialised.  Ultimately, the problem faced by any attempt to make a Bond movie based on McClory's rights was that it would inevitably simply be a remake of Thunderball, no matter how many tweaks were made to the original concept, it had to involve weapons theft, nuclear blackmail, Blofeld and SPECTRE.  Even the mechanic of the plot would have to adhere fairly closely to the original in order to avoid legal action by Eon.  The resulting script for Never Say Never Again reflects the fact it has clearly been stitched together from a number of earlier drafts, themselves all firmly tethered to the original McClory-Fleming-Whittingham script.  Which means that, at some points, it doesn't entirely make sense.  The decision, for instance, to move the main action from the Bahamas of the original to the Mediterranean and Middle East, makes sense in terms of modernising the script, but is compromised by the desire to retain the Bahamas setting for the introduction of Largo, his yacht, Fatima Blush and Domino.  It means that Largo's yacht seems to be able to sail half way around he world, from Nassau to the South of France, virtually overnight.

Despite problems with the script, the final version does boast some excellent dialogue and witty one liners, which is only to be expected, as it was the work of Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais.  While Irvin Kershner's direction lacks either the hard edge of official Bond directors like Terence Young, Peter Hunt or John Glen, or the glossy smoothness and spectacle of the likes of Lewis Gilbert or Guy Hamilton, he does move the film along at a decent pace.  Indeed, the fact that his direction gives the film a look and feel unlike regular Bond films is surely the point - this was meant to be the 'different' Bond.  The film's greatest strength is its cast.  Connery looks far more comfortable (and sports a much better hair piece) than he had in his previous Bond comeback movie, Diamonds Are Forever (1971) in the official series. (In fact, Never Say Never Again is a far better film than Diamond Are For Ever, Its script and style better tailored to an older and mellower Connery).  If nothing else, this time around, he actually looks as if he wants to be there.  The rest of the cast, including Edward Fox as a tetchy M, Klaus Maria Branduer as a quietly deranged Largo, Barbera Carrera as the dangerously delusional Fatima Blush and Max von Sydow as a suitably shadowy Blofeld are all outstanding.  For many years I had mixed feelings about Never Say Never Again, but I eventually ead an online review, where the author advised that to enjoy it, you just had to forget that it had any connection to the rest of the films and simply appreciate it on its own terms: as a one off alternative take on the source material.  He was absolutely right.  Seen as a free-standing entity, Never Say Never Again is an enjoyable, if flawed, action film. It has great performances, is stylishly made, has good dialogue and Micheal Legrand's subtle score, if a long way from John Barry, sets the right tone for the film and the theme song, performed by Lani Hall, is suitably catchy.

There have, of course, been subsequent attempts to launch rival Bond films based on McClory's properties, most notably Columbia's attempts to set up a series of films after they acquired the rights to the McClory scripts and Casino Royale, but none succeeded.  With Columbia's parent company, Sony, having bought a stake in MGM, co-producer of the Eon series, the various properties have now been united under the one banner, (which allowed Eon to produce their own Casino Royale in 2006), seemingly ruling out, once and for all, the possibility of any more rogue Bond films.

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