Since 1962’s Dr. No, the James Bond franchise has been an institution, reinventing itself subtly (or with greater force at times) transitioning from one actor to the next. But there was a moment in 1983, however, when two of the role’s most recognized actors, Sean Connery and Roger Moore, were almost in direct competition with two distinctly different Bond films. The story of how this came to be is the result of a long legal battle over author Ian Fleming’s source material and an unfilmable adaptation that dates to the late 1950s.
Most “Bond” films are considered to be part of the same canon, but there is a small handful of unofficial Bond films that are each considered separate entities. The first is a largely-forgotten 1954 American production of Casino Royale that aired on CBS, and starred Barry Nelson as “Card Sense Jimmy” Bond, a distinctly American spin on the character. That title would be recycled in 1967 for the spy parody starring David Niven. The final entry is 1983’s Never Say Never Again, which, after 12 years, saw Sean Connery return to the role he’d made famous.
Back in the late 1950s, independent film producer Kevin McClory had worked with Fleming and screenwriter Jack Whittingham to produce a Bond movie tentatively titled Longitude 78 West, having obtained partial screen rights to the character. At the time, the movie was deemed too expensive to produce, and the project was shelved. However, Fleming liked some of the elements that went into the story, and as a writer who was “always reluctant to let a good idea lie idle,” used several of the script’s elements in his 1961 James Bond novel Thunderball. McClory then took Fleming to court that year for failing to credit him and Whittingham for their contributions.
Eventually, Eon Productions, the company responsible for the canonical Bond movies, adapted Thunderball for the big screen in 1965. McClory was credited as a producer, but afterward was forbidden from re-adapting the material for a minimum of 10 years. As soon as his decade-long moratorium expired, McClory began working with Connery to re-adapt Thunderball, with the project taking on names like Warhead and James Bond and the Secret Service. Problems with Eon productions hindered production, as did Connery’s unhappiness with the script, prompting him to involve himself in the writing process, and the film was stalled in pre-production.
Eventually, the film proceeded, despite one last effort to keep it from being released. It got a new title from Connery’s wife (who received an on-screen credit for her contribution), as he’d vowed in 1971 that he’d “never again” play the role of James Bond. When it was finally released in 1983, it meant that year saw two James Bond films in theaters, Octopussy, starring Roger Moore, which was released in the same year by Eon Productions, and Connery’s return in Never Say Never Again.
While Never Say Never Again was, more or less, an updated remake of the 1965 movie Thunderball, there were a number elements missing due to copyright issues with Eon Productions. Most noticeably, the trademark gun-barrel opening and John Barry’s iconic theme were absent. With two Bond films released by rival studios in the same year just four months apart, the media dubbed it “Battle of the Bonds,” with many anticipating Connery’s return would be the reigning champ at the box office.
While critics preferred Bond’s ‘return to form’ in Never Say Never Again, citing Octopussy as being too campy and cartoonish, the latter would win at the box office by a significant margin, as audiences may have not been put-off by the missing trademark elements of a Bond film, so much as they were sour to the lackluster effects slapped on to a story they were already familiar with.
McClory tried to remake the film yet again in the 1990s (this time titled Warhead 2000 A.D.) and asked Timonthy Dalton (who’d just made his last Bond movie with Eon Productions) to play Bond after approaching Sony Pictures to distribute it. With McClory’s claims to the material under legal scrutiny, Sony ceded all interests in the James Bond franchise to MGM (who’d distributed all of the “official” Bond movies), so they could concentrate on a new franchise — Spider-Man.
Refusing to give up hope, McClory even tried auctioning off film rights to the highest bidder, taking out advertisements in trade publications to generate interest. In 1998, McClory claimed he was going to have Connery return yet again for what was now titled Doomsday 2000, a film that was allegedly intended to open on Dec. 31, 1999, against Eon’s Pierce Brosnan starring The World Is Not Enough. One thing you could say about the man, he was certainly persistent.
After his death in 2006, McClory’s family sold any remaining stake they had in the 007 franchise back to Eon Productions’ parent company, Danjaq LLC in what was, I imagine, an effort to say “never” to another Never Say Never Again-style assault on the franchise and to close this chapter in the franchise’s decades-long history. Never Say Never Again may never be viewed as a “true” James Bond film, but no one can say it wasn’t interesting.