The Strange, Wild History of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld
With the opening of newest James Bond adventure Spectre, we’re taking a look at that title and seeing both a return of James Bond’s long lost nemesis and a jumping off point for the current Bond franchise to reboot the “what-once-was-old-is-new-again” relationship between Bond and his most nefarious enemy. Much as Skyfall filled in Bond’s early backstory, which was absent from the previous films and author Ian Fleming’s books, Spectre is a re-imagining of the iconic Bond enemy within the new continuity of the modern franchise. The title might even be cheekily ironic, since the S.P.E.C.T.R.E organization, or the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, and its nominal CEO Ernst Stavro Blofeld, have been MIA from the official Bond films since last appearing briefly thirty-four years ago in For Your Eyes Only (1980), when Daniel Craig was thirteen years old. Gone, but never forgotten. Where has Ernst Blofeld and his business enterprise been hiding all this time, in the age of Dr. Evil, Bin-Laden, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS? The answers, as devious and complicated as any nefarious S.P.E.C.T.R.E plot, are recounted in rich detail in Battle for Bond by Robert Sellers. We take a look at the organization and its fearless leader as they appeared in the Fleming books and films over the years.
S.P.E.C.T.E. and Ernst Stavro Blofeld made appearances in three of Fleming’s novels and eight of the Bond films (which includes his appearance in Spectre (2015) and the non-Eon Productions, Never Say Never Again (1983)), with the organization itself being central to the story in only one of those three novels, Thunderball. Blofeld’s look changed with each appearance, whether in novel or movie, which matches with his desire to be an ultimately unknowable but ever present super-villian. He first appeared in the novel Thunderball, the ninth James Bond adventure, released on 27 March 1961 (UK first edition).
Except for this first edition of the novel, all subsequent printings state the following on the copyright page: “This story is based on a screen treatment by K. McClory, J. Whittingham and Ian Fleming.” We’ll come back to that sentence.
This first appearance had Blofeld with black crewcut hair, weighing close to 300 pounds, a broad, physically imposing man. Elements of this look were used for the character’s first film appearance in From Russia with Love (1963), where he is seen only from behind his chair, his hands petting his trademark white Persian cat. Anthony Dawson played him on screen, while Eric Pohlmann supplied his voice. That same year Blofeld made his second appearance in Fleming’s series of books, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There Bond learns that Blofeld’s appearance has changed to a tall, thin man, under 200 pounds, with long, silver hair, a lack of earlobes, and a disfigured nose due to infection. He’s hiding out in the Swiss mountains under an alias, planning an eco-terrorist assault against Britain’s agriculture economy. Blofeld’s third and final appearance in the Fleming books was in 1964’s You Only Live Twice. He is now hiding in Japan after plastic surgery, and is more muscular, his nose infection has healed, and he sports a gray Fu Manchu-style mustache. In this novel it becomes clear that Blofeld has gone insane, which he admits to Bond in their confrontation. At the end of the book Bond strangles him to death. After another brief and obscured appearance in 1965’s Thunderball movie, played once again by the same two actors, Blofeld debuts in all his maniacal glory in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, played by the inimitable Donald Pleasance.
Now he’s for the first time bald, sports a severe vertical facial gash from his right forehead straight down the right side of his face, causing his right eye to droop, and wears a stylish Nehru-like gray suit while speaking in German-accented English. Pleasances’s performance pretty much defined Blofeld in the public eye. But that didn’t stop a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas taking up the role in the next film adaptation, of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).
Aficionados consider this film, underrated at the time, to be one of the best Bonds, with great action sequences and in retrospect one of the finest Bond portrayals, by George Lazenby. Savalas was fine as Blofeld, showing no real disfigurement other than the missing earlobes, but it seemed underwhelming compared to Pleasance’s maniac portrayal. In 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, the filmmakers grafted Blofeld’s prologue appearance from the novel You Only Live Twice and placed it here. Now hiding out in Japan, his appearance altered through plastic surgery, he is portrayed by the actor Charles Gray, tall, muscular, white hair, with a refined British temperament.
In addition he also altered the appearance of many of his henchmen, also through plastic surgery, to act as doubles. A brief appearance in the prologue of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, where his face is unseen but back with his trademark bald head and Nehru gray suit, and in a wheelchair, he tries to kill Roger Moore’s Bond before Agent 007 dispatches him. Cue opening titles. Not showing Blofeld’s face and the lack of screen credit for the character was puzzling, but made sense after Sean Connery returned to the screen as Bond in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, a remake of Thunderball, independently produced by Kevin McClory. That’s the same “K. McClory” listed on the copyright page of all editions of Thunderball. And so with Connery’s re-appearance as Bond in a movie not connected to the official Bond films then starring Roger Moore, the general public became aware of the lawsuit that had caused a cleft in the franchise since’s its origins in 1959.
It was early 1959 and Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, had written eight books over the past six years on the adventures of his suave British secret agent with a license to kill, yet he could not get any Hollywood studios to bring 007 to the big screen. Rejection after rejection had the books as too sadistic, too violent, and too far-fetched (really?!). Fleming would write six more Bond adventures over the next five years until passing in 1964. Together these fourteen books form the basis from which 53 years of Bond movie adventures have sprung. But in 1959, there was only one maverick movie producer willing to bet all on bringing secret agent James Bond to the big screen, except like the Hollywood studios, he didn’t think any of Fleming’s existing stories translated well for the movies! But Kevin McClory loved Fleming and loved the character of James Bond. After serving in the British Merchant Navy in WWII, McClory decided to enter the British movie industry in 1946. He rose fast, going from gopher and boom operator to movie producer in ten years. By 1956 he was both scouting and filming foreign locations all over the world for American producer Mike Todd’s three-hour 70mm widescreen Technicolor extravaganza Around The World In 80 Days. It was filled with action set pieces set in beautiful international locations, and crammed with celebrity cameos, techniques that would later find their way into the Bond movies.
Ernest Cuneo, a former WWII spy for the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA), and a mutual friend of both McClory and Fleming, introduced the men. Fleming had first met Cuneo during the war when Fleming worked for British Naval Intelligence (a trait he passed onto Bond). The three men hit it off in the early months of 1959, and Cuneo wrote up a rough treatment summary of their story ides for a Bond movie, having Bond battle the Communist menace. However Fleming thought having Soviet Russia as the enemy might date the project, as the Cold War seemed to be thawing between the two superpowers. He suggested a private, international terrorist and spy organization beholden to no power – S.P.E.C.T.R.E. – made up of ex agents from the Russian spy services, the Nazi Gestapo, Mafia goons, and gangsters from Peking’s Black Tong criminal dynasty. All agreed it was a great idea. Fleming took a crack at a first draft screenplay, and while his story was intriguing, it was bogged down with too much exposition – Fleming had never written a movie script before. McClory brought in an old screenwriting friend, Jack Wittingham, who did a re-write, which Fleming then revised as his own second draft, and together the three, Fleming, Wittingham, and McClory, turned out a great James Bond story, eventually titled Thunderball. They got director Alfred Hitchcock interested, but became wary of Hitch’s reputation for taking over projects lock, stock, and barrel and freezing others out. They got Richard Burton interested in playing Bond. But as 1959 closed, McClory could still not break though with financing and Fleming’s publisher was pressuring him for another Bond novel.
Fleming seemed spent having turned out story ideas for the screenplay that was going nowhere, and suffering from a bit of writer’s block, he retreated to his Jamaica compound Goldeneye at the beginning of 1960. Soon he produced the novel Thunderball, incorporating many of the story ideas from the just finished screenplay project, and adding new elements, including the leader of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., Ernst Stavro Blofeld. When the book was published in early 1961 and proved to be Fleming’s biggest success up to that point. McClory was incensed and sued for copyright infringement in London’s high court. To make matters even worse for McClory, two independent American producers, Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, seeing the success of the Thunderball novel, had purchased screen rights to all Fleming’s Bond novels, formed the Danjaq holding company and EON Productions, and intended to finally bring James Bond to the big screen, in Thunderball!
Yet the lawsuit threatened their plans, as did Fleming’s eventual decision to settle the case with McClory, who got that copyright notice printed in all subsequent editions of the book, all future film and TV rights to the Thunderball novel, and full copyright to all the earlier screenplays and treatments – in essence, McClory owned Thunderball. Broccoli and Saltzman had forged ahead during the lawsuit and commissioned a script from Richard Maibaum, had found and hired Sean Connery to play Bond, and was getting the money lined up. Except with the settlement, they now had no rights to the story they were planning to bring to the screen. They approached McClory with offers, but McClory rebuffed them all, intending his own Bond project to get up on the big screen first. Broccoli/Saltzman bit the bullet and chose another Bond novel, Dr. No, as their first Bond film, while McClory watched from the sidelines, hoping for a flop.
That didn’t happen and the success of 1962’s Dr. No quickly led to two more Bond movies in the next two years, Goldfinger (1963) and From Russia With Love (1964). By then McClory realized he couldn’t mount a competing Bond against the EON juggernaut and so, when you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. EON went into production on 1965’s Thunderball with McClory as producer, as he granted a ten-year license of the rights to the Thunderball storyline and characters to Eon Productions. After Blofeld and SPECTRE had been immortalized in the subsequent films of the late 60’s and early 70s, the rights returned to McClory in 1975, who immediately set out to remake Thunderball on his own, a dream he eventually achieved – even getting Sean Connery to star – eight years later in 1983, which went up against that year’s Roger Moore starring Octopussy.
McClory held onto the Thunderball rights up until his death in 2006, always trying to get a third Thunderball reamake off the ground. Thus S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld were in legal limbo. It was not until 2013, seven years after McClory’s death, that his estate reached agreement with Danjaq, relinquishing all rights to the Thunderball material and uniting the Bond franchise material for the first time ever, fifty-four years after that first Thunderball screenplay was commissioned. 2015 brings the welcome return of Spectre and it’s leader Blofeld, played by Christoph Waltz. It's a wild, corkscrewing return to the center of the Bond universe for it's most enigmatic, shape-shifting villain.