The teaser trailer for the twenty-fourth James Bond film, Spectre, was recently released. In this post, Ryan looks back at the troublesome franchise history of the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion (SPECTRE).
Revenge and Extortion: The Troublesome History of SPECTRE and Intellectual Property Rights
When Ian Fleming created James Bond in the 1953 book Casino Royale, the rival spy organization to the British MI6 was the Soviet SMERSH, not SPECTRE. The Special Executive came out of an original 1959 screenplay that Fleming wrote with Jack Whittingham and Kevin McClory. That screenplay was for a movie called Thunderball. In it, a terrorist organization called SPECTRE, led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, hijacked two nuclear bombs and held the West to a £100,000,000 ransom.
When the plan to make the movie failed to get off the ground, Fleming decided to use the screenplay as the basis of his new Bond novel, also titled Thunderball (1961). Unfortunately, and rather recklessly, he did not acquire permission to use Whittingham and McClory’s ideas. This sparked a 52-year-long legal battle that would haunt the franchise.
For years, Fleming, as well as producers Harry Saltzman and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, tried to put 007 on the silver screen. Finally around 1961, things came together. The plan was to adapt Fleming’s Thunderball into a feature film. However, Fleming was locked in a legal battle with both Whittingham and McClory over the rights to Thunderball‘s story and characters. Saltzman and Broccoli picked another Bond book to adapt, and thus, Dr. No became the first Bond film in 1962.
Though SPECTRE plays no part in the 1958 Dr. No novel (nor is it in the From Russia with Love novel), the decision was made to use SPECTRE in the film franchise. Hence, we have these scenes from Sean Connery’s original tenure as 007:
In 1963, Kevin McClory was awarded the film rights to Thunderball. He was driven, some may say obsessed, with making his own version of Thunderball. Saltzman and Broccoli, terrified of a rival film franchise springing up, struck a deal with McClory and made an official Eon production out of the Fleming book.
Part of this deal stipulated that McClory could not make his own film version of the story for a decade. This led directly to 1983’s Never Say Never Again — the first and only “unofficial” Bond movie (and Sean Connery’s last time playing 007). Surprisingly, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the movie rave reviews when it was released.
In the years that followed, McClory’s attempts at making more film adaptations continued. However, those plans never came to fruition. He passed away in 2006.
In 2013, after 52 years of lawsuits and legal fights, MGM received the film rights to the Blofeld character and SPECTRE. Blofeld and the Special Executive are set to return in Spectre and likely again in the untitled follow-up, which is also set to be Daniel Craig’s final 007 outing.