The Battle For SPECTRE - The Rights War That Complicated James Bond For Decades

Spectre a scarred Blofeld confronts James in the ruins of MI6

Time and time again, we’ve seen issues surrounding intellectual property rights complicate everything from a film’s production to its theatrical release. But some cases are so complicated that they don’t simply go away after the cameras are packed and the posters are removed. And in the case of most other areas of his expertise, nobody does complicated rights better than James Bond.

What started as an idea for a film became a flashpoint of massive legal proportions that, until recently, left the 007 franchise without the usage of one of its most iconic bodies of villainy for quite some time. With the resolution of this conflict still pretty fresh in recent history, and Bond 25 currently in production, the battle for SPECTRE’s very place in the series’ canon is a vital piece of history to revisit.

Spectre glass cracked into the octopus symbol


In the history of the film adaptations to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, the most formidable threat to the world was the SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. Known as SPECTRE for short, it was the one stop shop for villainous personalities like Dr. Joseph No, Auric Goldfinger, and most notably Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the leader and “Number One” in charge of SPECTRE’s operations.

SPECTRE and its personnel were used in the films intermittently, starting with 1962’s series starter Dr. No, with 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever marking the supposed end of the organization and the one true death of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. It wasn’t until 2015’s Spectre that the James Bond series would reintroduce both that character (through the casting of Christoph Waltz), as the rights issues surrounding the creation and implementation the man and his legacy were subject to legal challenges that weren’t easily circumvented.

Thunderball Domino and James Bond on the beach

The Movie That (Almost) Started It All

When author Ian Fleming looked towards turning his literary franchise into a box office hit, Thunderball was originally considered to be the first film to do so. The eighth novel in his series, his 1961 book was a creation that drew on a rather controversial source: an original screenplay that was written between himself and screenwriters Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham in the late 1950s. While Fleming eventually decided to distance himself from the writing process, McClory and Whittingham would finish the screenplay, which eventually got its title from Ian Fleming himself.

After reading the finished novel before publication, McClory felt that Ian Fleming had plagiarized the screenplay of Thunderball for his novel. Even with some differences separating the two projects, one such difference being the alleged creation of SPECTRE to stand as the villains, Kevin McClory tried to stop the book from being published. While that tactic failed, McClory eventually pursued further legal action that granted him the literary and film rights to Thunderball, leaving Ian Fleming with the rights to the novel he wrote from its screenplay.

Diamonds Are Forever Blofeld stands in front of his plastic surgery model


With Kevin McClory owning the rights to Thunderball, this kind of threw the question of who created SPECTRE into the air, with McClory and Ian Fleming being the two parties the issue landed in-between. In the end, while the matter wasn’t officially resolved, Ernst Stavro Blofeld would make his final appearance in Diamonds Are Forever, with SPECTRE not even being named in the film at all. While there were intentions to use Blofeld and his criminal enterprise in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, McClory was ready with another injunction to prevent this from happening.

Instead of fighting another court battle to continue, the film was altered to omit the organization and its leader, opting instead for an original character, shipping magnate Karl Stromberg, as its villain. Though turnabout was fair play at that same point in Bond history, as Kevin McClory and Sean Connery had worked on a story entitled Warhead, which would be the first of several attempts to revive Thunderball in his own image. With the rights firmly in his hands, it was only a matter of time before he tried again.

Never Say Never Again Blofeld holds his cat close as he monologues

The Remakes That Stoked The Fires

Sure enough, Kevin McClory would go on to two more attempts at remaking Thunderball in his own way image. The first was 1983’s Never Say Never Again, in which James Bond and Ernst Stavro Blofeld fought for custody of two nuclear warheads yet again. And oddly enough, Sean Connery was convinced to play the character of 007 yet again, after famously saying he’d never return after Diamonds Are Forever. With this film being released in the same year as the official Bond series’ Octopussy, there was obviously a competition between the two films. Ian Fleming’s estate attempted to prevent such a race, but lost their bid to stop the film’s release. In the end, the two films only saw a $27.5 million difference in their grosses, with Roger Moore’s official James Bond movie winning out.

The second, and final, time that Kevin McClory would try to remake his intellectual property was with the film known as Warhead 2000 A.D. With Sony spurring him on in hopes it could create further competition with its own James Bond franchise. But, much as McClory prevented MGM from using SPECTRE and Blofeld for The Spy Who Loved Me, the studio was able to successfully prevent Kevin McClory from achieving his goal, through a deal with Sony. If the film had progressed, there would have been a chance that either Timothy Dalton or Liam Neeson would have played the role of Bond. But alas, it was never meant to be.

Spectre a scarred Blofeld confronts James in the ruins of MI6

Reuniting Bond and SPECTRE

It seemed that the true James Bond series would never see SPECTRE again in its lifetime. Even Albert Broccoli and EON Productions, the parties that practically ran the show with MGM, thought it to be so. Nowhere was that clearer than in the bold statement they made in the prologue to For Your Eyes Only. With a huge action sequence that saw Bond tormented by and dispatching of a bald man sitting in a wheelchair with a white cat in a smokestack, the message was clear: that contractually complex character is dead, and they didn’t need him anymore.

While the series would eventually move on for decades without official use of SPECTRE or its main villain, circumstances eventually saw those rights landing with MGM and EON Productions once more. After Kevin McClory passed away in 2006, his family would move on to the point where they sold the rights to the intellectual property he held onto through the rest of his life back to the studio. So it came to pass that in 2013, SPECTRE became a part of the official 007 playground once again, just in time to tie the organization in with its modern counterpart, Quantum, in the 2015 film named for this shadowy group of newly restored evil.

At this point, the only way that Ernst Stavro Blofeld won’t return would be due to Christoph Waltz not wanting to portray the character again. Though if the history of Blofeld has taught us anything, it’s that he can always be rewritten for a new actor through cosmetic surgery. It’s worked for him in the past, though if the casting of Rami Malek goes through, it seems unlikely that this route is going to be taken. But at the very least, SPECTRE will be around for any future villain to take their place in, ready to use its apparatus to make James Bond’s life a living hell.

James Bond will return in Bond 25, when it hits theaters on April 8, 2020.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.