The Non-Bonds

James Bond's Bitter, Decades-Long Battle... with James Bond

by J.C. Macek III

4 October 2012


The Day Ian Fleming Rolled Over in His Grave

There are many possible reasons why this film managed to be the disjointed and confused enormity that it was, not the least of which being that the insanity of the film reached behind the camera as well. The number of James Bonds in front of the camera was outmatched only by the number of directors on its flip side. John Huston, Robert Parrish, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath and Val Guest are all credited directors of the film with Richard Talmadge also directing, but going uncredited.

The screenplay, very loosely based on Fleming’s novel, was credited to Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers but also contains uncredited contributions from Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Orson Welles, John Huston, and Billy Wilder.

The cast was the very definition of “All Star”, with the Bond Girl actually played by the original Ursula Andress and Ian Fleming’s own first choice for Bond, David Niven, playing “Sir James Bond”, the original with all of the many MI-6 competitor Bonds falling behind in imitation. The film also featured John Huston himself, along with the legendary Orson Welles, Deborah Kerr, George Raft, Jacqueline Bisset, Woody Allen, William Holden, Peter O’Toole and, of course Peter Sellers.

With this much talent on screen, on the page and in the director’s chair, how could this comedy possibly lose? Well, the old proverb of too many chefs spoiling the stew comes to mind. With six directors, you can forget about any semblance of a unified directorial vision. Each director took his own piece of the screenplay which he may or may not have written and may or may not have been re-written by two or three other people, including the cast, other directors and a few people otherwise completely unrelated to the production. While the screenplay is packed with notable names, the result was hardly a collaborative effort, especially when you note that both Sellers and Welles have been reported as script contributors. Sellers and Welles reportedly were in the midst of a bitter feud and refused to work together Though they did ultimately grace one or two scenes in the same frame, in general they were never in the studio at the same time.

Needless to say, the already significant (for the time) budget of $6 million quickly ballooned and doubled into $12 million, making it one of the most expensive films made to date and definitely the most expensive James Bond movie made up until that time, besting even Thunderball by a full million dollars.

Worst of all, the decision to make Casino Royale into a spoof reportedly wasn’t actually shared with much of the cast at the time of their signing. In fact, the camera rolled on many of the actors believing this to be a serious competitor to the Eon-Produced films. Peter Sellers, who played one of the Bonds, may be considered a paragon of farce acting today, but at the time he was annoyed at playing James Bond as a comedy and wanted to actually portray a “real” Bond.

While it was not well-received by critics and was a far, far cry from the financial successes of the official Bond entries, Casino Royale did manage to make back almost double its budget in the United States alone and ultimately pulled in almost $42 million worldwide. The press at the time didn’t make much of the “showdown” at the box office between the Bonds (that would have to wait until 1983) but Eon’s official You Only Live Twice earned well over twice as much at the worldwide box office at over $111 million. Today, Casino Royale has found a new audience, just as its 1954 predecessor did and is considered, along with Our Man Flint and The Silencers (both 1966), to be a pre-cursor to the spy spoof genre. It’s written all over the Austin Powers films. If you’re still curious about this film, while it’s true that the Bond Girl is played by Ursula Andress, (SPOILER ALERT), the nefarious Bond Villain is played by Woody Allen.

Casino Royale (1967)

Casino Royale (1967)

In other news, Ian Fleming rolled over in his grave in April of 1967.

After 1967 the Bond series continued. Sean Connery famously left the role of James Bond in the capable hands of one George Lazenby who, in turn, left the role of James Bond after only one film in the capable hands of one… Sean Connery. Like Lazenby with 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Connery only signed on for one film, 1971’s Diamonds are Forever after which he famously said he was leaving the series “forever” and would “never again” return. But as Saintly Roger Moore joined the very exclusive club of James Bond actors, another familiar name started to echo around the fictional halls of the Ministry of Intelligence: Kevin McClory.

McClory’s Thunderball deal included his agreement to make no Bond adaptations for a period of ten years so as not to compete with his own Blofeld and SPECTRE creations on film (both of which appeared as late as 1971 in Diamonds Are Forever). That ten year period was set to expire in 1975. Pretty much immediately, McClory began work on a new Thunderball adaptation, tentatively called Warhead. Just as Feldman had taken cues from McClory as he sought to make Casino Royale, so did McClory follow in Feldman’s footsteps as he approached Sean Connery to collaborate on the project. Connery agreed, surprisingly, but not as an actor, as a writer. The problem was that McClory’s rights to Bond, James Bond, included, but were limited to, adaptations of Thunderball, so wherever Eon Productions could quash McClory’s pet project they would and did.

With the title reverting back to James Bond of the Secret Service (which would have made it the only James Bond movie with “James Bond” in the title) and producer Jack Schwartzman helping to clear up the remaining legal issues, the film was back on track.  Schwartznman’s successes in bringing the film to life continued with his hiring of Irvin Kershner to helm the film. Fresh off of his incredibly successful sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Kershner was an important factor in continuing the story of a world-famous film character, from the work of previous directors. Schwartzman also managed to bring one more vital element to the film. Its star.

Connery had famously stated that he would “never again” play Bond after Diamonds are Forever and as late as 1980, Connery was maintaining in interviews that he was signed on as a co-writer with “no thought of actually being in the film.” However, Schwartzman rightly recognized what Charles K. Feldman already knew. One could not compete with the Eon Bond series without a real James Bond, so Schwartzman pursued the man that many still considered to be the “real” James Bond, Sean Connery (it is assumed that he did not invite Barry Nelson to audition).

Connery was wary of breaking his promise to never again reprise the role, but his wife Micheline Connery encouraged him to reconsider with the sentence “Never say never again”! This helped Connery to respond to Schwartzman with the demand of the still huge fee of three million dollars, along with script and casting approval and a percentage of the gross. Unlike Feldman before him, Schwartzman did not balk and gladly gave Connery what he wanted. Soon the remake of Thunderball, now titled Never Say Never Again (yes, Micheline received an onscreen credit for the title) was on its way to the big screen to combat Roger Moore’s sixth Bond film, Octopussy at the 1983 box office.

This time, the press did take note and the much heralded “Battle of the Bonds” was covered and debated with Warner Bros’ Never Say Never Again bowing in October 1983, four months after MGM/ UA’s Octopussy‘s June release. Who would win, Connery or Moore? One thing was for sure… the winner would be (a) James Bond.

Never Say Never Again offered a more seasoned James Bond, owing to Connery’s return to the role. We see a pensive, introspective, aging agent forced to re-evaluate who and what he is and has become, even as he battles SPECTRE and Blofeld to help save the world. Perhaps this more mature take on Bond was the reason that Never Say Never Again was the clear winner with critics, as opposed to Moore’s much campier Octopussy. On the other hand, while Never Say Never Again was also a box office success, it still made less money than its contemporary in Moore’s increasingly silly entries into the Bond saga. Perhaps audiences preferred the “official Bonds” to the “Non-Bonds”. Or perhaps moviegoers merely longed to see a spry James Bond in his prime, not an older, wizened James Bond questioning his past. Never mind the fact that Roger Moore is, in fact, three years Sean Connery’s senior.

The main series kept producing films with one more film for Moore, two for Timothy Dalton and four for Pierce Brosnan. During this (somewhat) more solid era of Bond, the closest thing to an “Non-Bond” was the 1991-92 animated series James Bond, Jr., strangely featuring the nephew (not the son) of James Bond. While the series is hardly canonical, its production companies did include Danjaq, United Artists Television and MGM Television, so its status as an “Non-Bond” is tenuous at best.

Legal battles continued for McClory with the trustees of Fleming’s estate, as well as MGM/ UA. Still, the man who rolled the Thunderball continued to work toward more remakes to the only Bond film he held the rights to. His next planned film was to be called Warhead 2000 A.D. (with Timothy Dalton approached to star) and he was in talks with Sony Pictures (owner of Columbia) for distribution when MGM/ UA again took legal action to prevent mad McClory from producing anything beyond Thunderball. Complicating matters was MGM’s purchase of the rights to Never Say Never Again from Schwartzman’s Taliafilm imprint (named for his wife, Talia Shire). Meanwhile, Sony attempted to strengthen their claim by purchasing some or all of McClory’s rights, depending on whom you ask (the deal remains “undisclosed”).

The tangled web of the rights to 007 was further entwined with the rights to another major pop culture character called Spider-Man. The rights to Spider-Man had long been disputed and by the time superhero films were finally taken seriously, MGM and Sony were butting heads over both Bond and Spider-Man, with McClory caught somewhere in the middle.

Amid the chaos, Quentin Tarantino worked with Sony and the Fleming family (but never Eon) to create his own, grittier version of Casino Royale (which might have become the “ultimate Non-Bond”). Finally, Sony got Spider-Man and MGM got the rights to the only James Bond property they hadn’t yet touched, Casino Royale (Tarantino had already moved on to make Jackie Brown in 1997). And while webbing Spider-Man was a big boon for Sony, MGM didn’t just get the rights to make Casino Royale, they got the rights to both existing versions of Casino Royale too. Thus after the main Bond series continued with Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan trying on the black tuxedo, MGM was set to reboot the franchise with Casino Royale, making the last “Non-Bond” an official Eon release.

McClory vowed to persist and march on with the making of Warhead 2000 A.D., even in the light of MGM’s now complete control over the “Non-Bonds” and Eon Productions still controlling the rights to the main series. Sadly, as the last remaining “Non-Bond”, Casino Royale, debuted in theaters (with Daniel Craig as the new Bond), Kevin McClory was on his death bead, passing away four days after that film’s release.

Presumably McClory took the last remaining chance for another “Non-Bond” with him. In a comeback scheme worthy of a James Bond film, Sony followed up their settlement with MGM by heading a consortium that also included cable company Comcast and several investment firms, collectively known as MGM Holdings, Inc. to purchase MGM. Sony not only immediately regained the rights to Casino Royale but control over all of the Bond films contracted by MGM with Eon/ Danjaq.

Will the real SPECTRE please stand up?

While the James Bond film franchise remains one of the most acclaimed, successful, recognizable and marketable movie series in history, there was a time when the mighty Mister Bond had some stiff competition at the box office… from himself. By today’s standards, the history of the “Non-Bonds” is as bizarre as the concept of The Dark Knight Rises having to contend at the box office with a legally made film like “Michael Keaton’s The Dark Knight Returns”. Those strange, competitive days may be behind us now, thanks to the machinations of Sony, MGM and then Sony again, but for a while there was a strange saga behind the saga. That of the “Non-Bonds”.

So until the estate of Roald Dahl pops up with a signed contract from Fleming, decreeing that Dahl should not only write the screenplays for both You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (both of which, he did) but would also forever own the rights to an entire set of James Bond stories Fleming had hidden away just for this very purpose, thus rebooting the very saga of the Non-Bonds, I’ll see you in the Next Reel!

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