Sunday, August 29, 2010

007 In Depth: The Battles for Bond

Ian Fleming always hoped his novels would be made into films, but it took several false starts before they were. The messiness of those false starts eventually led to the courtroom.

In June 1961, there were three separate production teams trying to get James Bond films off the ground. All would eventually succeed in doing so. One was Maribar, a company set up by the American actor, director and producer Gregory Ratoff. He had bought a six-month option on Casino Royale in 1954, and after that option ran out had bought the full rights to the novel. After his death in December 1960, the rights were bought by Charles Feldman.

Also trying to make a Bond film at this time was Irish producer Kevin McClory, who in 1959 had gone into partnership with Ian Fleming and his friend Ivar Bryce, forming a company called Xanadu and working with several others. By June 1961 Fleming and Bryce had severed ties with him, but McClory believed he still had the right to film Thunderball, a Bond storyline that he had helped create.

The third group, and the newest on the scene, was Lowndes Productions. This was a company due to be set up by producers Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman (perhaps named after Lowndes Cottage, where Saltzman had once lived in London).

The full story of how these three projects evolved and interacted with each other has never been told. Broccoli and Saltzman’s efforts to bring Bond to the screen have been very well documented, as they were the overall victors. In 2007, Robert Sellers published The Battle for Bond, which focused on Kevin McClory’s struggles to make a Bond film, with the attempts of Broccoli, Saltzman, Ratoff and Feldman reduced to side-players in that story. The attempts to film Casino Royale between 1954 and 1966 have yet to receive in-depth analysis. Despite the James Bond series being the most successful film franchise of all time and there being a mass of material about it, there is no full-length book or documentary that looks in total at the story of how Ian Fleming’s novels came to be filmed.

This is not such an analysis, but I hope to show with the use of archive material why it is worth looking in closer detail at all three of the projects. I think one notable gap in the current knowledge is precisely when the individual players in each found out about the others, how they found out, what they felt about the situation and how they reacted to it. In the 1950s and early ’60s, it would have been unimaginable that James Bond would go on to sustain global success for several decades and feature in over 20 feature films. Armed with today’s knowledge, it may seem that Ian Fleming sold the rights to his novels in an unwise way, but he didn’t realize how problematic it might be if films or TV programmes of his work were made by separate companies. Fleming did not write his novels as strictly sequential and interlinked stories: with a few exceptions, they worked well as standalone thrillers. This may have given him the impression that in selling the rights to different novels he was selling off entirely separate properties. But it was the glue that bound them all together – James Bond – that would become the most valuable asset to everyone involved.

When Fleming became involved in plans to make a Bond film with Kevin McClory and Ivar Bryce in 1959, he did not fully consider the implications of his having sold the rights to his first novel to Gregory Ratoff four years earlier. Instead, he promised McClory and Bryce the right to make the first full-length Bond feature film, with a treatment for it written by him.1

It seems unlikely that Ratoff would have been aware of this new deal, as it would have had a serious impact on his work on Casino Royale, which he was still trying to get made, in partnership with Twentieth Century-Fox. As I discussed in a previous article, in January 1956 The New York Times announced that Ratoff’s company would film Casino Royale in England, San Remo and Estoril, with the action of the novel transplanted to the Second World War. The same article revealed that Ian Fleming had himself written an adaptation of the novel, but that Ratoff intended to hire a well-known screenwriter instead.

Despite this, Fleming collaborated with McClory in his attempt to make a James Bond film, and they were both quoted in the Daily Express in connection with it. The Express had a close relationship with Fleming: it had been serializing the Bond novels since April 1956 and had been running comic strip adaptations of them since July 1958. On June 11 1959, the Express published an article titled ‘Who do you think fits the part of James Bond?’, which featured a friendly disagreement between McClory and Fleming as to who should be cast in the part:
‘James Bond, the tough action hero who has made £30,000 for author Ian Fleming in six best-sellers, is to be brought to the screen in a British film.
But last night author Ian Fleming was not satisfied with the star selected to play his hero: Trevor Howard. Which is likely to cause complications for producer Kevin McClory, who is keen for Howard to have the part…’2
This was a more intriguing way of letting it be known that the film was forthcoming than a simple announcement. McClory gave the argument for Howard, who he felt looked as though he had ‘lived it up’ enough to be convincing as Bond. Fleming then provided the knock-down to this:
‘Howard is not my idea of Bond, not by a long way. It is nothing personal against him. I think he is a very fine actor. But don’t you think he’s a bit old to be Bond?’3
Howard (pictured) was 43 at the time, and Fleming stated that Bond was in his early thirties, adding:
‘I wonder how many people who follow the James Bond strip in the Daily Express would see Howard as that character. Not many, I bet.’4
Fleming said he felt that Peter Finch was ‘nearer to it’. When it was pointed out to him that Finch was just a year younger than Howard, he reconsidered, saying:
‘I would be happier if the part could be given to a young, unknown actor, with established stars playing the other roles.

Otherwise I am keen on the project. The film will not be an adaptation of one of my books. I am writing an original screenplay for it.’5
The authorship and ownership of the resulting story would later be a matter of much more serious disagreement between Fleming and McClory, but for now they had succeeded in stoking a ‘controversy’ over who should play Bond in a national newspaper, and as a result readers wrote in with their own choices, some of which were printed in the paper’s letters page of June 15 1959: picks included Richard Burton, Michael Craig and Richard Todd.6

Peter Finch, British-born but Australian, and now best known for his role as the deranged news anchorman Howard Beale in 1976’s Network, may seem an unusual actor for Fleming to have picked, but in the ’50s he was a leading man and his latest film, which had been released by Rank in Britain in January, was Operation Amsterdam, a thriller about commandos trying to secure a stock of diamonds during the Second World War, with a key scene featuring a spectacular bank raid.

McClory, Fleming and Bryce continued with their plans, for the time being. On June 28 1960, The Times published an article titled ‘Big American Film Plan For England’, which began:
‘Mr. Spyros P. Skouras announced at a meeting in London yesterday that 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, of which he is president, has decided to make almost the whole of seven films in Britain and to release 12 British films now in the course of being prepared. The cost, placed at $20m., was estimated as probably being higher than it would be if the same programme were to be carried out in Hollywood, where the corporation’s normal output of films will not be reduced as a result of the work now to be done in Britain.’7
The article detailed some of the proposed films:
‘Of the British films to be released by 20th Century-Fox, Casino Royal (sic), based on a novel by Mr. Ian Fleming, will have a cast including both the recent interpreters of the character of Oscar Wilde – Mr. Robert Morley and Mr. Peter Finch…’8
This was news of Gregory Ratoff’s production, and it has several intriguing aspects. Firstly, it shows that Ratoff was not only still trying to make Casino Royale as late as 1960, but also that he had enough interest from Twentieth Century-Fox for its president to include it in its future roster and announce it to the press.

The two actors named are also interesting. To be announced in this way by Skouras, one would imagine they had both committed themselves to the film. They may even have signed contracts. Finch, of course, had been Fleming’s pick for James Bond the previous year. Was his involvement coincidence, or had Ratoff or Skouras read the article in the Daily Express? If so, what did they make of the fact that there was another Bond film in production, and one that Fleming was promoting? Had they snatched Finch from under the rival production’s noses – and had he committed to being the first film Bond? In a further ironic twist, Finch had played the lead in The Trials of Oscar Wilde, which had opened in cinemas the previous month. That film was made by Warwick Films, and was co-produced by Cubby Broccoli, who had yet to enter the Bond fray. Ratoff had directed his own film, Oscar Wilde, starring Robert Morley as the playwright, which had also been released the previous month. It is unclear whether Ratoff was considering the avuncular Morley (pictured) for the part of M, Le Chiffre or another character.

The news that Twentieth Century-Fox was planning to release Casino Royale was also reported in The Los Angeles Times, on July 7 1960, mentioning Ratoff as the director and Finch as the star.9 McClory read it and was furious. He had been told that his company had the right to make the first Bond film. He confronted Bryce, and the acrimony spiralled towards litigation.10

On December 14 1960 Gregory Ratoff died, and his widow subsequently sold the rights to Casino Royale to his former agent, Charles K Feldman (pictured). But within months of securing the full film rights to the novel, Feldman was leapfrogged: in June 1961, it was announced in the press that some new players had entered the arena:
‘The remarkable James Bond thrillers are to be filmed at last.

This will be splendid news for the several millions fans – which includes President Kennedy – of Ian Fleming’s blood curdlers.

They have been bought by English producer Harry Saltzman, who produced “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli.

“Actors are falling over themselves to play Bond,” Saltzman says. “Cary Grant, David Niven, Trevor Howard, James Mason, all are interested. But I want to use an unknown…”’11
 In July, The New York Times filled in some of the details:
‘WHOLESALE LOT: In the frenetic business of acquiring properties for the movies, it is standard procedure for a company to buy a book, play or script in competition with others. But it is extremely rare for a producer to snag practically all of an author’s works for filming. Such was the case the other day when the independent production team of Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, in association with United Artists, bought no fewer than seven novels by Ian Fleming, British newspaper man, to be made under the Saltzman-Broccoli corporate banner of Lowndes Productions for U.A. release.’12
Broccoli and Saltzman would soon settle on a different name for their company, Eon Productions, although Saltzman would later form his own production company called Lowndes independently of Broccoli, with which he made such films as The IPCRESS File and Battle of Britain. The article said that the first of the films would be filmed in England and the West Indies that autumn, that it was likely to be Dr No, and that they were in negotiations with Wolf Mankowitz to write the script.

It looked like James Bond was in a new set of hands, and that they held all the cards. But neither Charles Feldman or Kevin McClory would fold that easily...

Note: Since writing this article, I have unearthed Ben Hecht's 1964 drafts of Casino Royale. For more information on that, please go here.


1. pp25-26, The Battle for Bond, Robert Sellers (Tomahawk Press, 2008 edition).
2, 3, 4, 5. ‘Who do you think fits the part of James Bond?’ by John Lambert and Peter Evans, Daily Express, June 11 1959.
6. ‘The Rush To Cast James Bond’, Daily Express, June 15 1959.
7, 8. ‘Big American Film Plan For England’, The Times, June 28 1960.
9. ‘Hamilton Leads in ‘Act One’ Race’, The Los Angeles Times, July 7 1960.
10. pp86-87, Sellers.
11. ‘A Rush To Be James Bond’, Sydney Morning Herald, June 25 1961.
12. ‘Passing Picture Scene’ by A.H. Weiler, The New York Times, July 16 1961.

This is part of 007 In Depth, a series of articles on Ian Fleming and James Bond.


  1. Thanks for writing this, Jeremy; it's even more illuminating than I'd anticipated! :-)

  2. Shame you haven't got the time to pursue the avenues you have uncovered here Jeremy. Never knew that Fleming suggested Howard for the part. This sheds so much light on how Fleming saw Bond. Who are we to argue with Fleming's choices. Then he back tracked. Fasanating Jeremy!

    Having just watched The Ipcess File I was very surprised to see Saltzman produced it, it also gives a wonderful view to the period Paul Dark was stomping around London.

  3. Thanks, Nick. I have a lot more in this series lined up but am a bit bogged down with other stuff at the moment. I'll come back to it in a few weeks, I hope. One of the things I want to explore is Ian Fleming and Len Deighton's interactions.

  4. I got Howard mixed up with Finch! Your to kind to point out my mistake. My appolgies Jeremy.

  5. Not a problem, Nick. And yes, I think Finch was an intriguing choice. Wonder what it was that led Fleming to consider him.

  6. This is unrelated to the topic of your post, but whenever I see articles like the one mentioned below I think of you...

    Literary criticism from the CIA(!): "In the Service of Empire: Imperialism and the British Spy Thriller 1901–1914"