Sunday, December 30, 2007

Fleming’s Law

Around this same time last year, I wrote in detail about the death of maverick film-maker Kevin McClory, who was one of James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s co-writers (with Jack Whittingham) on Thunderball (1965). I had to be careful in the piece, as McClory was a veteran litigator and I had no wish to get involved in my own legal confrontation--even though he was dead. The story about establishing the rights to both the Thunderball novel and subsequent film, in my view, contained as much intrigue as a Bond thriller. So it’s hardly surprising that in 2008--the centenary of Fleming’s birth, and the year in which his super-spy creation returns to the printed page--we should look forward to a book detailing the Thunderball courtroom saga.

That work, The Battle for Bond: The Genesis of Cinema’s Greatest Hero, has led its author, Robert Sellers, to once more recount the messy legal proceedings involving Fleming and McClory. Writing today in The Times of London, Sellers says:
It’s the most fascinating and controversial episode in the history of James Bond. So, why has nobody written before about the collaboration between the maverick Irish film producer Kevin McClory and Ian Fleming to make what would have been the first 007 film, back in 1960--with Richard Burton as Bond, and Alfred Hitchcock directing? Instead, it led to Fleming being accused of plagiarism, a bitter court case, betrayals, deaths and broken lives.

Over the years, writers have been put off delving too deeply into the issues thrown up by this story because of the fear of lawyers descending. Cubby Broccoli, who launched the Bond series with Dr. No, in 1962, along with Harry Saltzman, always tried to ignore McClory. Intrigued by this murky subject, I hoped to pursue my own book on it, but I had to get the facts right. The problem was, nobody really knew what the facts were; the truth has always been elusive.

Then one day, I found it. Or, rather, her: Sylvan Whittingham Mason, the daughter of Jack Whittingham, the man hired by McClory in 1959 to write an original James Bond screenplay after Fleming himself had tried twice and failed. Fleming was no screenwriter, as he confessed in a letter to McClory. “The trouble about writing something specially for a film is that I haven’t got a single idea in my head.” So it was Whittingham who produced the first 007 screenplay, Thunderball. My contact with Sylvan led to a significant discovery: several official-looking cardboard boxes. Inside were all the documents relating to the infamous 1963 plagiarism case involving Fleming: the actual papers used by McClory’s legal team, unseen for more than 40 years. And private letters, several hundred of them, written by Fleming, McClory and other important players in this sad tale.
I find it particularly sad to read that the fight for the rights of ownership and credit to Thunderball may have taken their toll on all those who found themselves in court. Again from The Times:
For years, McClory fought with the Bond producers to prove he had the right to his own 007 franchise. Most audacious of all were his claims that, because Thunderball was technically the first Bond screenplay, it influenced every subsequent 007 picture, meaning he had played a significant role in the creation of the cinematic Bond and thus deserved a share of the series’s estimated $3 billion profits. Had this been substantiated in court, it would have turned the movie-making world of 007 upside down, even threatened its existence. The claims were thrown out of a Los Angeles court in 2001.

McClory’s final battle was played out on November 20, 2006, with his disease-ravaged body. Despite earning millions from his profit share in
Thunderball, he died virtually penniless, his fortune squandered on court cases and dodgy funding of things happening in the north of Ireland. His cremation took the form of a Viking funeral.

Whittingham was abandoned by McClory, despite promises that he would benefit from any eventual production of the
Thunderball film. It was a particularly cruel betrayal considering the sacrifice the writer made during the trial to give his beneficial evidence. The two men hardly ever spoke to each other again. Whittingham died in 1972, his contribution to Bond forgotten.

As for Fleming, he left the High Court in 1963 a wounded and humiliated man. “I feel Bond would have done something to liven it up,” he said about the case. “Like shooting the judge.” Friends tried to cheer him up. In a letter, [British poet and broadcaster] John Betjeman urged: “Write on, fight on.” But on August 12, 1964, nine months after the plagiarism trial, he suffered a huge heart attack and died. He was just 56. He died at the height of his earning powers, with his books selling in undreamt-of quantities. And, while he witnessed the popularity of the earliest 007 movies, he never lived to see his creation become a phenomenon, which was thanks to the unprecedented success, ironically, of the story that had caused him many of those health problems in the first place:
You’ll find the whole Times piece here.

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