A nine-day court case that has lingered for almost exactly 50 years has finally come to a permanent, irrevocable end, and that is very good news indeed for fans of James Bond.
“Thunderball” is probably the most important Bond film ever made, although I doubt it’s anyone’s favorite. I would love to know what Ian Fleming was thinking when he tried to cheat Kevin McClory in the first place after they spent a few years working with him to try and turn the still relatively new James Bond character into a potential movie franchise. They started in 1958, and they worked up several treatments and screenplays together. They finally settled on “Thunderball,” which was called “Longitude 78 West” at that point, and they started work on the film. That’s when Fleming figured out that he was low man on the totem pole, financially speaking, and he started trying to kill the deal. He and Ivar Bryce, one of the other producers on the film, made some very shady moves to cut McClory out of the movie, and it killed the movie before they got out of pre-production. At that point, Fleming could have probably gone back to writing original Bond books and been fine, but for some reason, he turned the script they were going to shoot into the novel that was published as “Thunderball,” and he published it in 1961 with absolutely no mention of either McClory or Jack Whittingham, the other writer who had been part of the development process.
Total lunacy, right? When Whittingham and McClory sued Fleming, they went to court in November 1963, and it took less than two weeks for the court to order Fleming to pay £35,000 to McClory as well as court costs of £52,000. In addition, he gave away every right he had to any of the screenplays or treatments that he had developed with McClory and Whittingham, and he had to credit them as co-writing the story in all future editions of “Thunderball.” He had to give the film rights to “Thunderball” to McClory as well, and when it was finally turned into a film, EON had to allow McClory to co-produce it. They only retained the production rights for ten years, and at that point, all rights for any future versions returned to him completely.
That made McClory a very dangerous and frustrating man to EON for decades. Every time McClory tried to make his own James Bond film, either United Artists or the Fleming Estate Trustees would sue him, and every time, McClory would win. They managed to ruin his momentum and stall him, though, and it took him seven years to make “Never Say Never Again” with Sean Connery playing 007, as a clear a middle finger as I think he could possibly give to EON.
It’s ironic that Sony is the current distributor of the Bond series, because there was a point where Sony was trying to make a Bond film with McClory to compete against the EON movies, and MGM/UA sued them over it. The settlement in that suit led to Sony acquiring part of MGM, so I think it’s safe to say that was another legal challenge to McClory’s rights that failed. Until the day he died, there were legal actions back and forth and back and forth, and ultimately, I think it’s sort of a disgusting legal legacy for EON and Danjaq and MGM/UA to have created. McClory was clearly wronged by Fleming, and as much as I believe Fleming is the creator of the character and the primary person who should have had any say in the character’s fate, what he did to McClory and Whittingham was so specifically and intentionally illegal that I feel like he lost any legal or moral high ground.
Now, finally, MGM and Danjaq have purchased each and every last right still owned by McClory’s estate. The reason this matters is more than just righting a long-standing wrong. This means that the official franchise now once again has the legal right to tell stories about SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld. This is basically as big as Batman getting back the legal right to tell stories about The Joker. This is the big-picture bad guy that the franchise needs, and I cannot wait to see if this plays into “Bond 24,” which John Logan is scripting right now with Sam Mendes set to once again direct for a November 6, 2015 release in the US. Could this be the movie where they finally reveal the mastermind behind the events of “Casino Royale” and “Quantum Of Solace” and tie it all together using Blofeld?
It’s exciting news, and I am eager to see how this plays out. I only wish they’d done the right thing during McClory’s lifetime.
“Bond 24” will open in the UK on October 23, 2015. If Blofeld’s in it, I’m buying a damn plane ticket to see it as early as humanly possible.