Never Say Never Again’s 30th: Battle of the Bonds round 2

Never Say Never Again's poster

Never Say Never Again’s poster

Never Say Never Again marks its 30th anniversary in October. The James Bond film originally was intended to go directly up against Octopussy, the 13th film in the 007 film series made by Eon Productions, that came out in June 1983.

Sean Connery, after a 12-year absence from the role, was going to make a James Bond movie his way. Warner Bros. and producer Jack Schwartzman had made the actor the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse. He was not only star, but had approval over various creative aspects. He had much of the power of a producer without the responsibilities.

Schwartzman, an attorney turned film producer, took charge of a long effort to make an non-Eon 007 film. Kevin McClory, who controlled the film rights to Thunderball, had been trying to mount a new production since the mid-1970s with no success. Schwartzman became the producer, with McClory getting an executive producer credit and both men “presenting” Never Say Never Again.

McClory, at one point, had attemped a broader new 007 adventure. Never Say Never Again was only supposed to be a remake of Thunderball. Lorenzo Semple Jr., who had scripted non-serious (the pilot for the Adam West Batman series) and serious (Three Days of the Condor) was hired as writer. Irvin Kershner, who had directed The Empire Strikes Back, was brought on as director. As an added bonus, Kershner had a history of working with Connery in the 1966 movie A Fine Madness.

“As far as I’m concerned, there never was a Bond picture before,” Kershner said in quotes carried in the movie’s press kit. “There is a certain psychological righness to the characters as (Ian) Fleming saw them. He understood people very well. He was an observer of life and that’s what makes him a good writer. I tried to maintain that quality in the film. I wanted the people to be true.”

Not mentioned in the press kit was the fact that Connery, who had script approval, objected to Semple’s effort. As a result, at Connery’s urging, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were hired to rewrite but didn’t get a credit.

The end result was a storyline that veered from a version of Largo who’s clearly off his rocker to goofy site gags involving the likes of British diplomat Nigel Small-Fawcett (Rowan Atkinson). Perhaps Connery really meant it when, in 1971, he called Tom Mankiewicz’s lighthearted Diamonds Are Forever script the best of the Eon series up to that point.

Also present in Never was an over-the-top SPECTRE assassin, Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera), a far wilder version of Thunderball’s Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). In Thunderball, Bond tells Domino (Claudine Auger) her brother has been killed in a dramatic scene on a beach. In Never, he tells Domino (Kim Basinger) in the middle of a tango in a campy scene with loud music playing on the soundtrack.

Speaking of music, composer Michel Legrand was recruited by none other than star Sean Connery, according to Jon Burlingame’s 2012 book, The Music of James Bond. According to the book, Legrand felt burned out after working on the movie Yentl. “Sean’s warmth and enthusiasm persuaded me,” Legrand is quoted by Burlingame. Legrand’s score is a sore point with fans, who still give Connery a pass for his role in bringing Legrand to the film.

Understandably, fans prefer to focus on Connery’s performance in front of the camera, rather than decisions he made behind it. The actor, who turned 52 before the start of production in 1982, looked fitter than his Eon finale, Diamonds Are Forever. A survey of HMSS editors reflects admiration for his acting while mostly downplaying his decision making behind the scenes.

At the box office, Never Say Never Again did fine while trailing 1983’s Eon entry, Octopussy, $55.4 million to $67.9 million in the U.S. The Schwartzman production had been delayed by four months compared with Octopussy.

Years later, Connery was seen on a CBS News show, saying that Never had “a really incompetent producer.” For Schwartzman, things didn’t end happily. He died in 1994 at the age of 61 of pancreatic cancer. Connery remained a star until he retired from acting in the early 2000s. Eon and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer eventually gained control of the rights to Never Say Never Again.

007 observations/opinions about Never Say Never Again (1983)

Never Say Never Again has always been an odd duck among the James Bond movies. It’s not part of the film series, yet it has the original film Bond. It’s the only movie that’s an actual remake of another James Bond movie, Thunderball. It’s the one time audiences have really gotten to see how a production company other than Eon Productions would fare making a 007 film; the 1967 Casino Royale was an out-and-out spoof that made no attempt to mimic (much less surpass) any of the Eon series.

Never Say Never Again also spurs debate among Bond fans. Because of that, we offer the following observations and/or opinions:

001. Making a James Bond movie is harder than it looks. Originally, Never was supposed to come out in the summer of 1983 and go up against Octopussy, the 13th film in the Eon series. But the film’s release date got delayed until the fall of 1983 (some of that history can be found by CLICKING HERE), giving Eon’s Octopussy the summer market for itself. (Not that Octopussy didn’t lack for competition — Return of the Jedi came out that same summer — but it didn’t have to worry about a competing Bond film).

Never was a sprawling production, with scenes shot in the south of France and in the Bahamas. While one can critique Eon’s series, you have to concede the company met its commitments once a release date was made. Jack Schwartzman, Never’s producer, apparently found out the hard way that making 007 films isn’t easy. Add insult to inury: after catering to Connery, the star later called Schwartzman “a really incompetent producer” while commenting on a radio show that was filmed and aired later on television. If Schwartzman heard those comments, one supposes he could have called up Eon bossman Albert R. Broccoli to trade war stories about dealing with Connery.

002., Never Say Never Again isn’t any more serious than any other 007 film made between 1971 and 1985. Bond informs Domino that her brother has been killed by SPECTRE chieftain Largo during a campy tango scene played for laughs. Rowan Atkinson provides a preview of the schtick he’d do as Mr. Bean while playing Nigel Small-Fawcett, a British diplomat. Bond defeats an attacker by using his own urine specimen as a weapon. High drama, this is not. It’s on a par with exploding villains (Live And Let Die), stuffing a murderous dwarf in a suitcase (The Man With The Golden Gun) or using a Beach Boys song for an action scene (A View To a Kill).

003. Many 007 fans give Sean Connery a pass for Never Say Never Again. Hey, some fans say, it’s Connery so it has to be good. Problem: Connery was a de facto producer of Never Say Never Again. Without him, the movie doesn’t get made. If Connery wants new writers (Ian La Frencais and Dick Clement? Get them! So if you like Nigel Small-Fawcett, Connery gets part of the credit. If you think Nigel is a silly, over-the-top character? Well, it can’t be Sir Sean’s fault. Can it? Put another way, Connery had more input on Never than he did with any other 007 movie, for good or for ill. But fans tend to concentrate on the former and ignore the latter.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Ask yourself the following two questions: 1) Is Never Say Never Again really better than Moonraker/The Man With the Golden Gun/A View to a Kill? 2) Are you really being honest?

004. It’s inferior to Thunderball. Never is a remake of Thunderball and, thus, begs for that comparison. Thunderball had spectacle (even if it had editing and continuity issues). It even had drama amidst the typical mix of action and humor (Bond telling Domino her brother had been killed as part of SPECTRE’s plot). Never often comes up short in direct comparison to its predecessor, in our humble opinion.

005. If Roger Moore had done Never Say Never Again instead of Octopussy, some of Never’s fans would scream it was too campy. Moore gets blamed by some fans for the tone of the Bond film series from 1973 to 1985. He was the star, so he does bear some responsibility. But he also was doing was directors Guy Hamilton, Lewis Gilbert and John Glen told him to do. Famously, Moore objected to a scene in For Your Eyes Only that called for Bond to coldly kick a car containing a killer off a cliff. Still, he did it, an indication that his input only went so far. Connery’s input on Never (and, for that matter, Diamonds Are Forever, his last film for Eon, where he publicly praised Tom Mankiewicz’s rewrite of Richard Maibaum’s early drafts) suggests he didn’t mind light stuff at all. Would Connery have really minded briefly disguising himself as a circus clown in Octopussy? We’ll never know, but the answer may not be as conclusive as some fans believe.

006. Michel Legrand’s score is a contender for worst 007 score of all time. Michel Legrand could make grown men cry with his score for the 1971 TV film Brian’s Song, he could do a serviceable score for the adventure film Ice Station Zebra, he could do musicals such as Yentl. But he was no competition for John Barry, who scored 11 of the Eon films and established the 007 musical sound, or even the likes of Marvin Hamlisch or Bill Conti, who provided the music for some of Eon’s films when Barry wasn’t available. Good news for Legrand: Eric Serra’s score for Eon’s GoldenEye (1995) does provide Legrand competition for the worst 007 film score so it’s not automatic that Legrand get branded the worst Bond movie composer.

007. Never Say Never Again generates strong arguments among fans. Some fans bristle at the notion of referring to Never as an “unofficial” Bond film (a typical description for Bond movies not produced by Eon) saying that’s an unfair label. POn the other hand some will attack it because how dare anybody other than Eon attempt to make a 007 movie. Now those are broad generalizations but visit a typical Bond fan site message board and it won’t take too much effort to find posts taking either position.