Imagine a James Bond movie featuring the Bermuda Triangle, robotic sharks carrying nuclear bombs in the sewers of New York, a helicopter attack on the Statue of Liberty and Bond bonking away to the strains of ‘Rule Britannia’. Got it? Well, there was a Bond film that could have delivered all this – plus Sean Connery. It was called Warhead.
Only it was never made. That a script was written at all is a minor miracle. But to understand how things ever got that far, you must first understand the history…
In 1959, maverick Irish film producer Kevin McClory teamed up with author Ian Fleming. His proposal? To bring Fleming’s secret agent James Bond to the screen.
The resulting script, written by Jack Whittingham, was entitled Thunderball. It was hoped Alfred Hitchcock would direct (he declined and made Psycho instead) and Richard Burton would star. But the project floundered, spurring Fleming to use the storyline as the basis of his next Bond novel.
Only he didn’t seek permission, motivating McClory to sue for plagiarism in one of the most high-profile media trials of the ’60s. The Irishman ended up winning the film rights to Thunderball while Fleming, already gravely ill, succumbed to a heart attack a few months later.
Co-producing Thunderball in 1965 with Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, as an official Bond movie, part of McClory’s deal was a promise that he wouldn’t exercise his rights to the story for another 10 years. Why Broccoli and Saltzman agreed to this is unclear. Did they miss it in the small print or did they believe that in a decade’s time Bond would be beyond its sell-by date? If so, it was to prove a monumental mistake. For the next 10 years, McClory vanished from the entertainment world. But he was merely biding his time. In 1975, he was ready to strike… His first step was to secure the writing talents of thriller novelist Len Deighton – creator of Harry Palmer, the famous anti-James Bond spy immortalised on screen by Michael Caine. Impressed by McClory’s insistence that he wanted to make a trad Cold War spy thriller with the stylistic verve of the pictures coming out of New Hollywood, Deighton agreed to come on board.
“Kevin was something of an eccentric,” Deighton says today. “I went on location recces with him to Tokyo, Okinawa and Florida. In New York I was arrested as I got off the plane but the NYPD detective who arrested me was a close friend of Kevin. To compensate for the joke, he had me made an honorary member of the NYPD.”
Securing Deighton was a coup. But McClory, a natural born gambler, harboured even bigger plans: he wanted Connery to return as 007.
The answer was a resounding no, Connery refusing to reverse his decision to quit after 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. McClory suggested he collaborate on the script. The star was intrigued enough to agree, not least because of Deighton’s involvement, whom he greatly respected.
A smart businessman, McClory knew that many of the throwaway lines in the early 007 films were Connery’s own invention and that he’d contributed to the scripts in other ways too. But the real motive was getting the Scot’s name attached to his Bond project any which way he could.
It worked. The entertainment world sat up and took notice. And all the while McClory secretly hoped that as Connery worked on the script he’d again start to care about Bond. Maybe, just maybe, he’d reappraise the character he’d once labelled as his own Frankenstein’s monster.
For the next few months the three men worked both in Ireland and at Connery’s Marbella home. The fruit of their endeavours was the script James Bond Of The Secret Service. Almost immediately, Bond copyright holders Eon objected to the title’s similarity to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. McClory relented, changing it to Warhead.
Warhead featured Bond super-baddies SPECTRE’s most outlandish plan yet for world domination. Luring Russian and American planes and ships into the Bermuda Triangle, they steal a cache of nuclear weapons and commandeer the Statue of Liberty as a base from which to unleash a robot hammerhead shark armed with a nuclear bomb. As if that wasn’t crazy enough, RoboFish would be escorted by heat-seeking tiger sharks into the sewer system, swimming to the centre of the city before it went BOOM! (In one grisly scene, a team of SWAT soldiers meet up with the piscarian posse; Bond can only watch helplessly as mutilated limbs float out amid toilet paper and sewage.) Oh, and there was also an undersea HQ that rises out of the ocean and a black muscle-bound henchman named Bomba whom the script described as “making Muhammad Ali look like a fag.”
Ecstatic over the industry reaction – mega agent Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar proclaimed it one of the most exciting he’d ever read – McClory announced shooting would begin in February 1977; Paramount would back it to the tune of $22m. Rumours circulated that Orson Welles was to play arch-villain Blofeld and Richard Attenborough was to direct.
But who’d play Bond? Paramount had millions at stake and would settle for nothing less than Connery. Amazingly, after much introspection, the actor agreed, musing, “There was a certain amount of curiosity in me about the role, having been away from it so long.” It seemed he had protested too much – apparently he missed the old boy.
Naturally, his decision made headlines. McClory added to the hype, equating the Scot’s comeback to, “Muhammad Ali, when he’s at his most fit, when someone else is champion of the world, throwing his hat into the ring.”
BOND ON BOND
The only people who didn’t want Connery back were Eon. Their last Roger Moore Bond offering, The Man With The Golden Gun, had performed poorly at the box office. Worse, Harry Saltzman had quit as Bond producer, bowed by financial problems. He left Cubby Broccoli alone to steer the franchise through choppy waters.
Deep in pre-production on The Spy Who Loved Me, Broccoli was incensed when news reached him of McClory’s project… and his blood pressure didn’t get any lower when the Irishman filed an injunction to hold up filming on Spy. Its scenario was too similar to Warhead, bleated McClory, pointing to Spy’s ocean-obsessed megalomaniac and a SPECTRE plot to destroy the world with the use of hijacked nuclear weapons. Broccoli fought back by arguing that McClory had no right to make his own Bond film.
The Irishman then played his trump card. According to his favourable decision in the 1963 court case, he claimed to own the film rights to SPECTRE as it had been created solely for the intended 1959 Thunderball film. Only later was it incorporated into Fleming’s novel. When Broccoli and Saltzman began their Bond movie series with Dr No in 1962, they wisely avoided the clichéd use of Russians as baddies, finding a ready-made criminal alternative in SPECTRE, who became the perfect umbrella organisation for the fantastical schemes pulled off by Fleming’s gallery of rogues. Thus SPECTRE turned up in all of Connery’s Bond pictures, except Goldfinger, even though they never featured in the original books. Broccoli, therefore, never had any right to use SPECTRE or Blofeld, claimed McClory – yet they had already done so. Six times.
Perhaps sensing trouble, SPECTRE had been mysteriously absent from the first two Roger Moore Bonds, but for The Spy Who Loved Me Broccoli intended to pull out all the stops, including the villainous organisation’s dramatic return. Updated to include members of the Bader- Meinhof gang, Japan’s Red Army, Black September and other terrorist organisations, this modern SPECTRE had no interest in blackmail and extortion, just mass destruction – a sort of embryonic Al-Qaeda. The opening of Spy would have seen this new radical splinter group bursting into SPECTRE HQ and assassinating the old guard. But fearing a long legal battle that would hold up production, Broccoli removed all traces of SPECTRE from his script, replacing it with a pseudo Blofeld baddie in Stromberg and his SPECTRE-like private army. (neither SPECTRE nor Blofeld have appeared since in any Eon Bond film.)
McClory may have won this particular battle but Broccoli fully intended to win the war. He wasn’t about to let a rival filmmaker spoil his well-earned monopoly on 007 and instigated legal proceedings to obstruct the progress of Warhead at every turn. McClory made public his view that Broccoli and Eon knew full well that he had the right to re-make Thunderball: “They cannot stop this picture from being made, and they know it,” he said. “Let them live with their consciences, if they have them.”
Connery was less gung-ho. Despite accompanying McClory on a trip to New York, scouting potential locations, including the Statue of Liberty, the legally cautious star was now having second thoughts about the minefield McClory was preparing to traverse. “Before I put my nose into anything, I want to know it is legally bona fide,” said the actor in 1978. Paramount then got cold feet and withdrew. It was the final straw: Connery pulled out and Warhead was dead, slayed by imminent legal obstacles and a gathering army of lawyers.
McClory finally got his Thunderball remake off the ground in 1983. But it wasn’t Warhead: that script was ditched. Instead we were greeted by Never Say Never Again, its box office buoyed by Connery’s return as Bond after a 12-year absence. Encouraged by its success, McClory began fantasising about launching a completely separate series of Bond films. But not until 1995’s smash hit GoldenEye did he re-emerge, trumpeting Warhead 2000 with – wait for it – Timothy Dalton as Bond. And this time he had the backing of Sony Pictures.
MGM hit back with a $25m lawsuit. Two of Hollywood’s biggest studios were now at war over the lucrative Bond franchise. Sony even hired Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the team behind Independence Day, to work on their rival Bond movie, while Liam Neeson became interested in playing 007 and rumours circulated that Connery would return, aged 68. The news, however preposterous, got Hollywood talking. US television chat show host Jay Leno joked that any new Connery Bond film should be called Octo-prostate.
ONE FINAL TWIST
Then things got really serious. McClory claimed that his involvement in the 1959 Thunderball script set the style and format for all subsequent Bond films; therefore he had a stake in the series and claimed a portion of the estimated $3 billion profits it had generated. Hollywood waited with bated breath for a giant court battle in which the entire future of James Bond was to be decided.
In the end Sony backed down and McClory, deflated and defeated, finally said goodbye to his 40-year Bond obsession. After earning millions from Thunderball, he died last year a virtual bankrupt.
Yet there was to be one final twist of fate. Part of Sony’s settlement was the promise by MGM to pay them $10m for the film rights to Casino Royale, which Sony had owned for years. What had started out as a dispute over the right to re-make Thunderball finished with Eon winning the rights to the one Fleming Bond novel that was never under their control.
Released in 2006, Daniel Craig’s debut as a brash, ball-breaking, back-to-basics Bond re-invented and invigorated the 007 franchise. It was just one of the many ironies in the Kevin McClory/Thunderball story...