The first thing you notice upon reading the Warhead script is how refreshing and comforting it is to find yourself back in the real Bondian universe. Exagerrated superscience, armies of jumpsuited goons, megalomaniacal plans, near-superhuman henchmen, a self-confident panther-like Bond, luscious ladies, astounding futuristic headquarters, a finale that's right out of a war epic... it's all here. And it's been missing in action since For Your Eyes Only.
The second thing you notice is that you've seen this movie before. It's not just Thunderball, it's The Spy Who Loved Me as well. An undersea city that moves, a megalomaniac taking control of the world's oceans... Even Blofeld's henchman Genghis is a less inventive version of Jaws (superstrong, invulnerable, doesn't speak).
In fact, Kevin McClory tried to stop the production of TSWLM on the grounds that it was too close to Warhead. He lost that battle but did stop the Broccolis from using SPECTRE as the villains in their film - which was the original plan.
The result is a script that couldn't have been filmed as written without it being accused immediately of ripping off the 'official' entry in the series that year. McClory couldn't have won (unless he had managed to scuttle the filming of Spy for good).
What about the script itself? It's gained a legendary stature over the years - but is it good? Or great? Or amazing???
Well... it's uneven. The climax - the three climaxes, in fact - would have made for the wildest ending to a Bond movie ever - and I mean that in a good way. To have SPECTRE use the Statue Of Liberty as a base is an incredible idea. Bond stopping the robot sharks in the NY sewers while being stalked by Genghis could have been a very exciting, tense sequence. In fact, the film would benefit from being made today because of the increased quality of special effects - while reading it, I often wondered how on earth they expected to pull off this level of spectacle in 1976-78.
But much of the rest of the script isn't as impressive, unfortunately. That's not to say it couldn't have resulted in an enjoyable 007 romp, but there are definite weaknesses which should have been addressed.
Structurally the film sticks very closely to Thunderball in its first act (everything up to the recovery of the nuclear bombs). The details are different, of course, and Blofeld takes center stage as the main villain, but the similarities constrain the narrative. In fact the only major differences are the capture of the plane of the UN Secretary-General in the opening scenes, and Petacchi's attempt to kill Bond during the parachute lesson (both sequences are more elaborate and make more sense in the James Bond of the Secret Service draft).
Interestingly, there is no pre-title sequence: it's noted as still to be written. The result is that the first act of the film is largely devoid of action. Luckily, the SPECTRE base and Blofeld's plan are so huge and spectacular that they capture the attention of the reader, but when the focus returns to Bond, the story treads water.
Once Bond returns to the UK, things start to change a bit more. The interlude with the SPECTRE cleaning lady and Fatima in Bond's home is pure farce (the cleaner even gets trapped under the bed while Bond and Fatima engage in lovemaking) and the demise of Fatima is a strange, throwaway gag.
Once Bond is back in Nassau and infiltrates Shark Island with Felix Leiter, we come to the worst part of the script: the discovery of Domino, the twin sister of Fatima. In one extended scene she has to run the gamut of emotions from being frightened by Bond, trusting him, declaring Blofeld is to be punished for being behind Fatima's death, having sex with Bond and agreeing to work inside SPECTRE as a double agent. Phew! There's no way this would have worked on screen. It also doesn't help that this is the first time we've seen Domino, as there was no mention of her before at all.
Interestingly, there is no chase in this script, nor is there a sportsmanlike competition between Bond and Blofeld - in fact, Bond doesn't face him across the backgammon board but sleeps with his girlfriend instead while Blofeld waits for him to show up at the tournament.
Domino is not very interesting as a love interest: she is abominable at being a double agent (being discovered immediately by Blofeld and Genghis) and she spends most of the rest of the script off-screen again. The Thunderball-approach of having Domino be Petacchi's sister, and involving her from the start in the investigation, was far more effective.
After Bond and Leiter are captured and saved from the death trap, the script becomes completely different from the original. Once Blofeld's threat is announced to the world, there is a strange 'dedoubling' of the master plan, though. If the UN do not acquiesce to his demands, Blofeld will blow up a city. If that doesn't work, he'll dislodge the Antartic ice cap. Why not go straight for the ice caps instead? Or stick with blowing up cities until the world surrenders?
Nevertheless, Bond, M and Q discover his target (New York) in a scene full of terrible expository dialogue, where Bond also suddenly becomes a scientific super-genius. It's a clear case of getting the infodump over with so we can get to the good stuff.
Luckily that good stuff is very good, even though the Bond - Genghis fight could have been made to be far more spectacular and suspenseful, and the final defeat of Blofeld is accomplished by pure luck on Bond's part.
Structure-wise, then, the script is a bit wonky. There's too little going on in the first act, especially from Bond's point of view, the to-ing and fro-ing from the Bahamas to London and back is pointless and once again works against the momentum of the narrative, and the love interest is the weakest part of the film.
Moreover, Bond only gets involved in the case around the midpoint - which is very, very late indeed. Tightening up the first 70 pages (of a 140 page script) and adding some investigation and jeopardy for Bond would have worked wonders.
This also means that once Bond really gets involved, there's not much room left for him to get active. One infiltration leads to both the seduction of the villain's 'piece of posterior' and Bond and Leiter being captured. And after his rescue, Bond goes straight on to the third act pyrotechnics.
It's also very strange that no one tries to find out whether the UN plane passengers and crew are still alive or have all been killed by SPECTRE. It's as if the governments of the world don't really care about them. This plot element might better have been deleted completely.
Dialogue throughout is serviceable, but the one-liners (with some exceptions) are fairly disappointing. Luckily, though, Bond isn't the compulsive quipster he became during the Moore years, and the action scenes, no matter how exagerrated, are taken seriously. There are no lame gags added to these scenes to deflate their seriousness - another aspect of the Moore years that really took the films in the wrong direction. Strangely enough, this trend started after The Spy Who Loved Me.
Bond is also 100% Bond in this film: a human panther, a womanizer, lethal opponent and slightly rebellious prep school boy all in one. There's but one moment which I find puzzling: when Petacchi saves Bond and Fatima from drowning in the Jacuzzi (disguised as Hellinger), he warns Bond to stay away from Fatima. Bond replies by dousing him with water: an incredibly lame, childish reaction. The ill-advised assasination attempt also results in Petacchi being beaten up and humiliated by Bond, not in his death - they still needed him in the plot for the big SPECTRE nuke robbery! However, both these moments could have been removed from the script because it reduces Bond and his opponent to the level of murderous little boys.
As for Blofeld: he's perfect, the ultimate mastermind villain - although I don't understand why his goal in taking over the sea is to end pollution. That's a GOOD thing, isn't it? Shouldn't his plan have been... evil? As in, no ship is allowed to sail anywhere without SPECTRE permission? Or the seas becoming a refuge for every villain, criminal and murderer in the world as long as they pay SPECTRE for the privilege? The anti-ecological bent of the Bond-stories is continuing to this day (in the abysmal Quantum of Bullsh... uh, Solace), and it's really regrettable.
Warhead has all the necessary elements for making a great Bond movie, and it also takes itself seriously enough to avoid deliberate campiness (once again with the exception of the bedroom farce sequence). But structurally it's not as strong as it should be, and some of the secondary characters come off pretty badly. Nevertheless, it's a trip to Memory Lane and one of the most fascinating might-have-beens in cinema history (right up there with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly almost starring together as the leads in Stanley Donen's Give A Girl A Break).
Mission accomplished, 007.
You'll never get to see Warhead, but these three films are as close as you can get to the experience: