The Non-Bonds: James Bond's Bitter, Decades-Long Battle... with James Bond
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: himself.
Cool cars, filterless cigarettes, Walther PPK, impossibly incredible gadgets, smooth talk, high stakes card games, vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred) more sexual conquests than Van Halen and Kiss put together and (if the story allows for it) a little espionage now and then, the James Bond franchise is quite possibly the best known film series of all time. Adjusted for inflation, the man known as “Bond, James Bond” also covets the enviable title of the single most financially successful movie franchise of all time. Without adjusting for inflation, it still took Harry Potter and all his Wizarding Ways to take the top spot (and James Bond is still in second place).
With Skyfall debuting this November as the 23rd film in the James Bond franchise, the Danjaq, LLC/ Eon Productions series is also among the longest running set of sequels ever made. However, not every movie based on Ian Fleming's James Bond novels (and their derivative works) was actually an Eon production. These “Non-Bonds” are completely legal and valid adaptations of the world's most famous spy but managed to compete as best they could against the main, lucrative series. Whether due to contractual agreements, lawsuits or even behind-the-scenes trickery, these alternative James Bond flicks have managed to give the main series a run for its Moneypenny, have formed a strange covalent bond with the main series and, as a little known fact, even preceded the first “Official” James Bond film.
The first “Non-Bond”, also, in fact, the first James Bond adaptation ever filmed, has its roots in the very first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. It may be hard to imagine a time that James Bond, agent 007, was not a pop culture icon and a stalwart resident of our collective consciousness, but in 1954 Ian Fleming accepted a mere one thousand dollars from the CBS Television Network for the rights to adapt Casino Royale as the third episode of its anthology series Climax!
In that the novel that first introduced Commander Bond to the world had only been released in April of the previous year, a live broadcast on national American television in October 1954 could serve to expose Fleming's “dreadful oafish opus” (as he called the novel) to a wider audience and to launch its author (himself a retired Naval Intelligence Officer) to stardom. This is especially true, considering the first book's sluggish sales in the American market. However, with American Television being what it was at the time (and James Bond being little more than an upstart character in, by that time, two novels) liberties were taken with our beloved super-spy in ways that would rankle true Bond fans of today. The 48 minute adaptation (written by Anthony Ellis and frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett) featured a fully American Secret Agent known as “Card Sense Jimmy Bond” played by fully American actor Barry Nelson.
Nelson was dapper enough, but a far cry from the suave, debonaire Bond of the films that we know so well. Bond may be a Yank here, but his best known American amigo, Felix Leiter has been recast as British Intelligence agent Clarence Leiter. If that fails to be enough to beckon you into the Casino, perhaps witnessing Peter Lorre's turn as the first ever major Bond Villain, Le Chiffre, will. Owing to the relatively short run-time and limitations of live television, Casino Royale's title is its only location and much of the action of the novel is removed in favor of a an hour of much more card playing than spying (complete with an audience-friendly education on how to play the game of baccarat).
The episode did help novel sales, but wasn't nearly the big splash we would come to expect for one of the most recognizable characters in pop culture. As with a great many live television episodes, Casino Royale was not preserved by the studio and was considered lost for decades. In spite of its many departures from the character and novel, fans embraced Casino Royale when a film historian located a kinescope of the first “Non-Bond” in 1981. Its subsequent airings on TBS and releases on VHS were still forced to omit the final sequences, which were not rediscovered for another several years. This year's DVD release contains the entire episode as aired. While this one is certainly a unique earmark in the history of Mr. Bond, it remains an interesting look at an early version of our beloved espionage hero.
As for “interesting”, this was only the beginning. The behind-the-scenes machinations of this period of Bond Mania proved to be more interesting than the plots of many of the movies yet to come. While not exactly Fleming's ideal Bond, the experience was successful and amusing enough for Fleming to accept CBS' invitation to write a proposed 32 more James Bond episodes. While the author began to write outlines, CBS backed out of the offer, leaving Fleming with fodder for his later collection of short stories For Your Eyes Only and with a strong desire to see his now famous character on the big screen as close to his original vision as possible.
Enter Irish writer and director Kevin McClory. This frequent John Huston collaborator (who was once engaged to Elizabeth Taylor) was introduced to Fleming through their mutual friend Ivar Bryce. After bringing in an American newspaper man named Ernest Cuneo (with a background in intelligence of his own), a partnership called Xanadu Productions was formed. And in Xanadu did Kevin McLory, the stately next Non-Bond decree.
Throughout much of 1959, the four worked diligently on ideas for this planned first big-screen Bond. Multiple scripts and scriptments were drafted and redrafted over the months until Fleming's absence (owing to his world travel for the nonfiction book Thrilling Cities) led McLory to bring in experienced playwright Jack Whittingham. At the end of 1959, Whittingham and McClory turned in what they hoped would be the final version of their script and after nearly a year of work, the screenplay that had been known as SPECTRE, James Bond of the Secret Service and Longitude 78 West was officially retitled Thunderball by Fleming himself.
Instead of pitching the screenplay in Hollywood as planned, Fleming first retired to his Jamaican estate (known as “Goldeneye”) to adapt the screenplay into a novel, allegedly working with Bryce to force McClory out of the film project. However, before Thunderball could be published, McClory filed an injunction in the High Court in London and finally sued Fleming directly for breach of copyright. McClory alleged that the novel Thunderball (at the time credited only to Ian Fleming) was largely the work of the Xanadu partners, especially McClory himself. McClory further claimed that the main villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld and even Blofeld's infamous terrorist organization SPECTRE were his own inventions. Fleming was hardly in fighting form for this court battle. Before the case could be finished, Ian Fleming had a heart attack, forcing him to settle with McClory out of court. Fleming retained the rights to the novel, but future publications of the novel had to be credited as “based on a script treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and Ian Fleming” (in that order). Fleming ultimately admitted that the novel contained many of McClory's and Whittingham's ideas, including the storyline itself. Less than one year later in August of 1964, Fleming would die of another heart attack at age 56.
Still, Fleming hardly went out as a loser. This was 1964 and Fleming had lived to see two of his James Bond novels adapted for the big screen by Eon Productions and United Artists. Dr. No (1962) pulled in a remarkable $60 million worldwide and had made an icon of its star Sean Connery as well as the character he played. That's not even to mention Ursula Andress' creation of the “Bond Girl” in her now equally iconic bikini. From Russia with Love (1963) made almost $80 million worldwide and kicked the Bond formula into a higher octane zone. At the time of Fleming's death, Goldfinger was complete and in the can, set for release just one month after its creator's demise. That film went on to be a game-changing blockbuster, earning $124 million worldwide and changing the Bond franchise from a surprise success to a stalwart blockbuster. The official Bond Films had hit the big time. With rights to all of Fleming's novels at their fingertips (except Casino Royale and, of course, Thunderball), Eon was on the cusp of a new eon of success, provided they played their baccarat right.
It may be important to note that such successes for sequels were unprecedented and, unlike the lines that form around theaters for each franchise entry into the Star Wars or Star Trek canon, such an excited fan base was unheard of. Goldfinger rewrote the rules of fandom in solid gold ink. So how were producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli to follow-up on a runaway success like Goldfinger? After a haul like that, could everything they touched still turn to gold? The gold bar was set high and the pressure was on. With Fleming gone, there was still one Bond creator ready, willing and able to help produce a sequel. That man was the rights holder to all film adaptations of Thunderball, Kevin McClory.
With McClory producing and Terrence Young (director of the first two films) re-taking the helm, Thunderball was firmly rooted in the history of James Bond. Due to the legal ramifications that still surrounded the film rights, the screenplay, officially credited to Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins also carried the subsequent on-screen credit of “based on an original screenplay by Jack Whittingham” as well as “based on the original story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming” (again, in that order).
Could Thunderball possibly match Goldfinger? Well that is a tall order, so no. Thunderball topped Goldfinger in every way. Upon its December 1965 debut, Thunderball broke box office records (and bested the second biggest-grossing film of 1965 by over ten million dollars). Critical reviews were generally strong and the film even went on to win a Best Visual Effects Oscar (awarded to John Stears). Its overall haul, globally, was over $141 million, which is a blockbuster even by today's standards, however, adjusted for inflation, Thunderball has earned well over a billion dollars in 2012 money. Judging from ticket sales alone, Thunderball still remains one of the biggest selling films of all time.
If everyone involved with Thunderball walked away a winner, the biggest winner of all was Kevin McClory himself. McClory's deal included licensing SPECTRE and Blofeld to Eon for future sequels (ensuring his fingerprints remained all over the saga, even outside of Thunderball's blast radius) and he still got to keep the rights to the Thunderball screenplay and any derivative works thereof, including future films, Eon or no Eon. And thus, the film destined to be a “Non-Bond” became the most successful (even to this day) of all of the official Bond films. But we still hadn't heard the last of Kevin McClory.
Pop Quiz, Bond Fanatics. What was the next James Bond feature film? Here's a hint: It featured Ian Fleming's own first choice to play Bond in the Bond role. You Only Live Twice? Survey says... Absolutely wrong. While You Only Live Twice (1967) was the next “official” Danjaq and Eon produced James Bond film, it was preceded by an adaptation of the one remaining novel they didn't have the rights to by a solid three months.
After the CBS/ Climax! deal fell through, Fleming quietly sold the future film rights to Casino Royale to producers Michael Garrison and Gregory Ratoff back in 1955. These rights were, in turn, sold to producer Charles K. Feldman who was keen on producing his own adaptation after witnessing the previous four James Bond movies increase their profits release by release. Feldman followed in the footsteps of Kevin McClory and approached Saltzman and Broccoli to co-produce the new Casino Royale. However, McClory, who had initially been rebuffed by the duo, had proven to be a negative experience for them once they did say yes. Thus they didn't make the same “mistake” twice and left Feldman's answer as a decidedly vehement “No.”
Feldman's next recourse was to attempt to co-opt the star of the films. Sean Connery was growing tired of the saga and had all but decided to make his next James Bond film his last. Surprisingly, Connery agreed to make the movie with Feldman instead of Brocolli and Saltzman, for the fee of one million dollars. In that this was an astronomical figure at the time, Feldman refused the offer and Connery went on to make You Only Live Twice, leaving Feldman with his film rights and little else. Finding no way to actually compete with the boffo box office behemoth that was the James Bond film franchise, Feldman, who had his most recent success with the bizarre comedy What's New Pussycat?, decided to continue in that farcical vein and to produce Casino Royale for Columbia Pictures as a madcap parody of the James Bond films and novels.
And madcap it was. The 1967 Casino Royale is an often psychedelic comedy trip that features no less than five James Bonds (including the presumed “original”) and enough surprising subplots to make the entire thing into an irreparable mess that collapses under its own weight almost as soon as it gets started.