History, Legacy & Showmanship

Connery’s 007 Swan Song: Remembering “Never Say Never Again” on its 35th Anniversary

October 5, 2018 - 3:39 pm   |   by
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“This is a 1983 film with the director of the highest-grossing film of 1980, the cinematographer of the highest-grossing film of 1981, and Sean Connery starring as James Bond. What could go wrong?” – John Cork, author of James Bond Encyclopedia

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 35th anniversary of the release of Never Say Never Again, the remake of 1965’s Thunderball and the final film in the long-running series to feature Sir Sean Connery as Agent 007.

Our previous celebratory 007 articles include Live and Let DieOctopussy, Casino Royale (1967), Tomorrow Never Dies, Die Another Day, Dr. No, The Living Daylights, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Casino Royale, For Your Eyes Only, Thunderball, GoldenEye, A View to a Kill, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Goldfinger, and 007… Fifty Years Strong.

The Bits continues the series with this retrospective featuring a Q&A with an esteemed group of film historians and James Bond authorities who discuss the virtues, shortcomings and legacy of 1983’s Never Say Never Again. [Read on here...]

The participants for this segment are (in alphabetical order)…

Thomas A. Christie is the author of The James Bond Movies of the 1980s (Crescent Moon, 2013). He has written numerous other books, among them A Righteously Awesome Eighties Christmas (Extremis, 2016), Mel Brooks: Genius and Loving It! (Crescent Moon, 2015), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Pocket Movie Guide (Crescent Moon, 2010), John Hughes and Eighties Cinema: Teenage Hopes and American Dreams (Crescent Moon, 2009), and The Cinema of Richard Linklater (Crescent Moon, 2008). He is a member of The Royal Society of Literature, The Society of Authors and The Federation of Writers Scotland.

Thomas A Christie

John Cork is the author (with Collin Stutz) of James Bond Encyclopedia (DK, 2007) and (with Bruce Scivally) James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002) and (with Maryam d’Abo) Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond (Abrams, 2003). He is the president of Cloverland, a multi-media production company. Cork also wrote the screenplay to The Long Walk Home (1990), starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek. He wrote and directed the feature documentary You Belong to Me: Sex, Race and Murder on the Suwannee River for producers Jude Hagin and Hillary Saltzman (daughter of original Bond producer, Harry Saltzman). He contributed new introductions for the original Bond novels Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Goldfinger for new editions published in the U.K. by Vintage Classics in 2017.

John Cork

Lee Pfeiffer is the author (with Dave Worrall) of The Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007 (Boxtree, 1998/Harper Collins, 1999) and (with Philip Lisa) The Incredible World of 007: An Authorized Celebration of James Bond (Citadel, 1992) and The Films of Sean Connery (Citadel, 2001). Lee was a producer on the Goldfinger and Thunderball Special Edition LaserDisc sets and is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Cinema Retro magazine, which celebrates films of the 1960s and 1970s and is “the Essential Guide to Cult and Classic Movies.”

Lee Pfeiffer

The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.

And now that the participants have been introduced, might I suggest preparing a martini (shaken, not stirred, of course) and cueing up the soundtrack album to Never Say Never Again, and then enjoy the conversation with these James Bond authorities.

Never Say Never Again (1983)

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is Never Say Never Again worthy of celebration on its 35th anniversary?

Thomas A. Christie: Never Say Never Again is one of the great curios of James Bond on film. Independent of the main Eon Productions series, it brought Sean Connery back to a role that few (if any) imagined he would ever assume again, and brought the story of Thunderball – and the SPECTRE organization – right up to date for the technologically-focused world of the 1980s. This Warner Bros. release was a gift to entertainment journalists at the time, who eagerly commentated on a “Battle of the Bonds” between Connery’s belated return and Roger Moore’s sixth appearance in the role, Octopussy, which debuted in the same year. (In reality, of course, several months divided the premiere screenings of each film, making it less of a head-to-head skirmish than had perhaps seemed likely.) Worlds apart from 1967’s deeply divisive comedic ensemble caper Casino Royale, this slick Irvin Kershner-helmed feature answered a question that many a critic had previously asked, namely what a James Bond movie might look like if it was produced by a creative team other than the one that had been responsible for the series’ meteoric success ever since 1962’s Dr. No.

John Cork: Celebration? It is a stark warning, a cinematic signpost marking danger, a brutal example that cross-breeding nostalgia with greed never results in a beautiful baby. It is an unabashedly terrible film. Yet, it is fascinating. It is the answer to every fan who thinks, “If only I were running the show.” It is the film that CBS should have watched before they brought back Burke’s Law thirty years after it went off the air, the movie Kathleen Kennedy should have watched before greenlighting Solo: A Star Wars Story, the movie that made me realize that we never needed a Beatles reunion. This is a 1983 film with the director of the highest-grossing film of 1980, the cinematographer of the highest-grossing film of 1981, and Sean Connery starring as James Bond. What could go wrong? This is not to say that the film is without any charms, that certain scenes and performances don’t work, that fans who love the movie are somehow “misguided.” I love talking to those who are passionate about films that fall flat. The script isn’t terrible, but Irvin Kershner was absolutely not the right director for the film. He had once been pressured to work for the CIA but had resisted. He didn’t like spies or spy films, his only previous experience in the genre being the messy 1974 parody, S*P*Y*S. He and Connery got on well and were friends (they had worked together years earlier on A Fine Madness), but the film needed a visionary director who wanted to make the best Bond film ever, not one that looked down on the genre and the character. For years, Kevin McClory had tried to exploit the rights to Thunderball, which he had obtained in a legal settlement with Ian Fleming’s oldest friend, Ivar Bryce, back in 1963. For years, fans who objected to the “silliness” of the Roger Moore Bond films cheered him on. When, after years of legal wrangling this movie came to pass, the Bond fan community could barely contain their glee. But as Ian Fleming wrote in You Only Live Twice, “It is better to travel hopefully… than to arrive.”

Lee Pfeiffer: The film is significant primarily because it marked the final screen appearance of Sean Connery as 007. Bond fans seem to have mixed emotions about the film with most considering it as having fallen short of its potential. Nevertheless, it did close the books on the Connery era of Bond and for that reason alone it has significance in movie history.

Coate: Can you describe what it was like seeing Never Say Never Again for the first time?

Christie: I watched Never Say Never Again in the eighties, and was immediately struck by the film’s strange mélange of modernity and traditionalism. Given that it was unfettered by the cast and conventions of the Eon series, it’s strange to see just how conservative the divergence often actually is between the official Bond movies and this independently-produced feature. Many of the familiar tropes are all in place, albeit that the regular supporting characters are recast with different faces such as Edward Fox as “M” and Pamela Salem as Miss Moneypenny, all fulfilling similar or near-identical functions to their counterparts in the Eon films. Yet others, such as replacing Desmond Llewelyn’s avuncular, eccentric “Q” with Alec McCowen’s curmudgeonly, resource-strapped quartermaster Algy, seem like strikingly effective creative choices which offset the jarring absence of long-established elements such as Maurice Binder’s gunbarrel logo or the legendary Monty Norman theme music. Perhaps most intriguing of all is seeing Bond as a character in middle age (Connery was 52 at the time of filming), now forced to rely more on his wits than his physical prowess to achieve his aims – a dash of realism that seemed a world away from the wisecracking excesses familiar from some points of the Roger Moore era.

Cork: For a few short hours, I thought I had the greatest story for seeing Never Say Never Again for the first time. I had, with a friend, snuck into a screening at the Academy Theater in Beverly Hills by giving the list-checker a name that I had spied on his list a few moments earlier. But the next day, I ran into [collaborator and frequent contributor to this series] Bruce Scivally. We were both students at USC and both Bond fans. I dropped that I had seen the film. Bruce had, too. Then he told me his story. He knew a fellow student who had gone to school with Sean Connery’s son, Jason, and that student invited Bruce and some others to attend that same Academy theater screening. Well, their names were not on the list. A demand was made for a telephone, a number was called and some poor publicist from Warner Bros. was soon standing at attention saying things like, “Yes, sir, Mr. Connery. Right away, Mr. Connery. So sorry, Mr. Connery!” So, Bruce got to see the film for the first time because Sean Connery demanded he be let into the theater.

Seeing the film was a strange experience. Although I was a college student, I had worked my way into two premieres and a critics’ screening for Octopussy. Since I had, well, lied my way into this screening, my friend and I were hiding in the darkest corner of the theater sitting next to the wall. Fortunately, there wasn’t a bad seat in that theater. When the film started with that atrocious soft jazz title song, it became clear that something was off. This looked more like a film from The Cannon Group than a slick Bond film. I remember thinking, “How could the cinematographer of Raiders of the Lost Ark make a film look so bad?” But I was a hardcore Bond fan, so I looked for things to love. I found a few. It took a while for it to sink in to me just how disappointing the film was.

Pfeiffer: I saw it at an advanced critics’ screening in New York City. Anticipation was through the roof if you were a Bond fan. Connery had already quit the series in 1967 only to come back in 1971 with Diamonds Are Forever. While that film was a major hit, most fans were disappointed by the flabby script and overt emphasis on sometimes over-the-top humor. So they felt they had another bite at the apple with Never. There was also the sense that the film couldn’t disappoint because it was a remake of Thunderball. Without going over well-trod territory, producer Kevin McClory had been involved in a lawsuit in the early 1960s over the rights to the novel Thunderball. He was awarded the screen rights and served as one of the producers on the blockbuster 1965 screen version of the book which also starred Connery. When McClory tried to exercise his rights to remake the film in the mid-1970s using a screenplay co-written by himself, Len Deighton and Sean Connery (who did not intend to star at that time), Eon Productions took legal moves to block the production from going ahead. It finally did see the light of day in 1983 with Never Say Never Again because producer Jack Schwartzman succeeded where McClory couldn’t, though McClory is still listed as an executive producer. By this time, Connery had been convinced by his wife to star in the film (she also came up with the title.)

In 1983, much was made over “The Battle of the Bonds” because Eon was simultaneously filming Roger Moore’s “official” 007 film Octopussy. They were both supposed to be in theaters at the same time but Never ran into production difficulties that delayed its release until the fall. Octopussy opened in the summer. By the time fans got to see Never, anticipation was at a fever pitch, but the film didn’t live up to expectations. It didn’t have the same feel or polish as the Eon films and of course the absence of the gunbarrel opening and a pre-credits scene also felt strange. The script was rather patchy as well but for me, I suppose the excitement of seeing Connery back as Bond made me overlook flaws that became apparent on future viewings. For one, Michel Legrand’s sparse musical score is mediocre at best and the absence of dynamic music really drags the film down. There’s a bootleg version floating around in which a fan dubbed in old John Barry music over the action and it works considerably better. Additionally, the climax of the film is a genuine mess and was botched during production, causing Connery to have to return to reshoot some of the climax. It’s still a mess especially compared to the spectacular battle at the end of Thunderball. Instead, Never gives us a murkily-photographed and edited one-on-one struggle between Bond and the villain Largo that ends the film on a rather limp note. Having said all that, there is much I like about the film even if it’s better in parts than as a whole. The computer game battle royale between Bond and Largo is particularly enjoyable and some of the dialogue is quite witty. On the other hand, there’s too much satirical humor. Edward Fox’s “M” is abysmal, making him a complete idiot and Rowan Atkinson’s appearance as a bumbling agent is best forgotten.

Coate: In what way did Sean Connery’s return and final performance as Bond stand out?

Christie: Just as Never Say Never Again called for a more mature version of Bond, now middle-aged and no longer the superfit man of action he was in his 1960s glory days, so too did Connery step up to the plate with a suitably seasoned and nuanced take on the role. Though still quick on the draw with a serrated one-liner and able to routinely out-think his opponents, this was a Bond who seemed mildly like an anachronism in the high-tech digital age of the eighties while never quite appearing to be entirely out of his depth. Connery’s take on this older variation on the character is interesting. He seems considerably more comfortable with the character, offering a Bond whose usual professional efficiency is complemented by occasional mellowness and easy wit, and judging by interviews at the time he seems to have enjoyed the filming experience far more than his numerous appearances back in the golden age of the spy thriller (albeit that the production was reportedly not without its frustrations for him on occasion). Connery’s career was, of course, on the cusp of entering a long winning streak at that particular point, with roles such as Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez in Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander (1986), William of Baskerville in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986), Professor Henry Jones Sr. in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and most especially his Oscar-winning performance as Jimmy Malone in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), all just a few years away. These movies each called for him to portray wise, paternalistic characters who can offer experience and understanding (often to younger, less practiced figures) that came with years of practical knowledge and proficiency in various particular skills. In a way, his interpretation of Bond as an astute veteran of the espionage world in Never Say Never Again would kick-start this new phase of Connery’s filmography, emphasizing the ways in which 007’s deadly physicality had given way to an approach to the intelligence world that relied more on problem-solving and outwitting enemies than being able to overpower them. For this Bond, age may have lessened his brute strength, but it brought dividends in the form of greater insight and self-knowledge.

Cork: Sean Connery is always a joy to watch, particularly as Bond. But his performance in Never Say Never Again shows the importance of a strong director with a clear vision. Too often, Connery looks like a man out of step with the modern world, one who is baffled by seemingly most everything. He too often looks confused, cautious, confounded. When Patricia (Prunella Gee) knocks on his door at Shrublands and, later, when Q surprises him with an exploding pen, he seems genuinely startled and worried, unlike the unflappable Bond he used to play. He can’t even peak through a window properly without setting off the roll-up blinds. After seeing clearly suspicious behavior and surviving an assassination attempt, he fails to properly investigate and report what happened, thus allowing the world to be held hostage to nuclear terrorists. When he talks, he too often sounds like a bemused old uncle who grumbles about how in his day you had to get up and walk over to the TV to change the channel. And then we must endure the spectacle of James Bond wearing overalls in the film (an homage to his sibling Neil’s overalls in Operation Kid Brother?) and later biking through town in his boxer shorts looking all too pleased with himself, which still galls me to this day.

Pfeiffer: I think it’s one of Connery’s best performances as Bond. His wry wit is ever-present and he refreshingly plays up the aging process that Bond has to contend with. He looks terrific even if there seems to be some inconsistencies with his toupees. He also seems to be having a good time even though he was quite miffed at what he felt were unprofessional aspects of the production when filming was underway. I think Connery felt comfortable working with director Irvin Kershner, who he had collaborated with on the 1966 zany comedy A Fine Madness. The film will never be a so-called “Gilt-edged Bond,” but it is underrated in many aspects.

Never Say Never Again (1983)

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