Spectre, Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as British superspy James Bond, debuts in American in theaters today, already having broken records elsewhere. After the 2012 installment, Skyfall, became the highest grossing Bond movie in the entire 53-year movie series, Spectre has high expectations. But there’s another reason why Spectre is worthy of attention. It features something no other official Bond movie has had in more than four decades.
SPECTRE is the eponymous, shadowy organization around the bad guys Bond encountered since the character debuted in 1962’s Dr. No. The terrorist group — decoded as SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion — have been led by one Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the bald, wheelchair-bound, cat-petting enthusiast and criminal mastermind memorably lampooned by Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies. But the character disappeared, only to be teased again in the final scene of Skyfall, giving contemporary Bond fans reason to be excited for what came next. Blofeld and SPECTRE didn’t simply vanish from the Bond mythos because their Cold War era plotting was hopelessly outdated to modern audiences. They didn’t appear in movies to terrorize 007 because of a decades-long legal battle going back to Bond’s beginnings with author Ian Fleming.
By the end of the ‘50s, Fleming had churned out popular Bond novels like Goldfinger, Casino Royale, Dr. No, and more. They’d become so popular that filmmakers jumped at the opportunity to adapt the widely read spy thrillers into big screen fun, prompting Fleming to enlist filmmaker Kevin McClory and playwright Jack Whittingham to help him create a Bond screenplay in 1959 titled Longitude 78. It included Blofeld and the made-up terrorist organization as a way to keep the post-WWII East-versus-West tensions in the stories without specifically mentioning the Cold War. But the movie never materialized, and Fleming grafted the story from the script into his ninth Bond novel, Thunderball, which was released two years later.
Angry that Fleming just co-opted their ideas, McClory and Whittingham sued Fleming in the British High Court in 1961, forcing the author to pay £35,000 in damages. McClory’s part of the settlement also included any film rights to Thunderball, which at that point was a big deal. Producing partners Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman wanted to move forward with bringing Bond to the big screen with their production company, Eon Productions.
Broccoli and Saltzman looked to make Casino Royale or Thunderball the first Bond movie, but were stopped because of licensing issues. The rights to Casino Royale were unavailable because they had been bought in 1954 in order to make a nearly hourlong TV episode version on CBS with actor Barry Nelson as Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. McClory held on to his legally won rights to a potential Thunderball adaptation, hoping to produce his own. Broccoli and Saltzman then brought 007 to movie theaters with Dr. No and then From Russia with Love.
Led by the suavest of the suave, Sean Connery, those movies helped Bond become a cultural phenomenon. By the time the idea for a third installment of the now lucrative and popular franchise came up, the Eon producers wanted Thunderball. In 1963 the company paid McClory for the rights in a deal that would have the property revert back to McClory if a Thunderball movie wasn’t made within 10 years. Eon fast-tracked production, and Connery starred in Thunderball in 1965, with McClory receiving a “produced by” credit in the final movie.
Bond battled SPECTRE in Thunderball, but Blofeld appears out of frame and uncredited as he did in Dr. No. In that movie, the unseen character is simply credited as “?”. But now that Eon had the character rights, Blofeld would appear in four Bond films in a row from 1965 to 1971. He is seen in full for the first time and played by Donald Pleasence in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, played by Telly Savalas in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and by Charles Gray in 1971’s Diamonds are Forever.
By 1973, Broccoli and Saltzman’s rights to SPECTRE and Blofeld expired, per their deal, prompting the villain and his organization to disappear from the Eon productions and McClory to attempt to cash in on what at that point had become an unprecedented franchise.
That didn’t stop the resentment over the rights issues from Eon continuing onscreen. In the pre-credits sequence for their 1981 Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, an unofficial Blofeld lookalike taking over a helicopter with 007 inside and attempting to crash it. In typical Bond fashion, the spy takes control of the copter, impales the wannabe Blofeld on its landing gear, and drops the obvious supervillain send-up down the chimney of Beckton Gas Works in London.
With rights reverted to McClory, he produced the unofficial Bond movie Never Say Never Again, a 1983 remake of Thunderball with Max von Sydow appearing as Blofeld and a now vintage, 53-year-old Connery reluctantly returning once again as 007. This was at the same time Roger Moore was starring as the quote/unquote “official” Bond from Eon in movies like Octopussy, released only four months before Never Say Never Again.
Eventually Bond continued to battle other villains onscreen while the rights to SPECTRE and Blofeld continued offscreen. McClory set plans to make another Bond movie, called Warhead 2000 A.D., in the mid-’90s by bringing back Timothy Dalton to portray 007 during the same time Eon was producing movies like Goldeneye, with Pierce Brosnan in the role. But it never panned out. In a surprising legal curveball in 1997, Sony bought McClory’s rights in 1997 for $2 million, intending to start up a Bond franchise of their own, but a lawsuit from Eon’s 007 studio partner MGM quashed Sony’s plans.
McClory continued to bar Eon from using SPECTRE and Blofeld up until his death in 2006, at which time his family continued to keep the issue in legal limbo. That is until 2013 when the family finally settled in court with with MGM and Danjaq, LLC, the holding company representing Eon for right to all the other Bond characters, paving the way for Spectre. Up to that point, the Craig films had created their own evil organization called Quantum, which in the new movie is conveniently retconned to be a smaller arm of the bigger organization, now that the legal squabbles were settled.
It’s a fitting ending to what was set up in the Craig-led Casino Royale, teased in Skyfall, and now paid off in Spectre. Craig’s Bond has turned into a more old fashioned version of the character. He’s quipping, using gadgets, rocking an Aston Martin from Q, being cheeky with Miss Moneypenny, and now facing off against one of his older foes. And it only took 44 years.