If audiences rallied to the sight of Raquel Welch wearing nothing more than a fur bikini for the entirety of One Million Years B.C. (1966) and a skin-tight suit in Fantastic Voyage (1966) Twentieth Century Fox must have reasoned they would surely return in droves were the star to spend most of Fathom in a succession of brightly-colored bikinis.
Given such a premise who would care that a sky-diving expert was named after a nautical measurement? Or that Welch came nowhere near the height indicated by her name? Or that the character as described in the source material (a novel by Scottish screenwriter Larry Forester) had a distinctly harder edge; murder, sex and drugs among her proclivities.
With Our Man Flint (1966), the studio had successfully gatecrashed the burgeoning spy genre and spotted a gap in the market for a female of the species, hoping to turn Modesty Blaise (1966) starring Monica Vitti and Fathom into money-spinning series. The Fathom project was handed to Batman, The Movie (1966) co-conspirators, director Leslie H. Martinson and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Flash Gordon, 1980).
Female independence was hard-won in the 1960s and there were few jobs where a woman was automatically at the top of the tree. Burglary was one option for the independent entrepreneur (see The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl) and sport was another.
Welch plays an innocent bystander recruited for her top-notch sky-diving skills (her aptitude demonstrated in the opening sequences) to help British intelligence recover the “Fire Dragon,” a trigger that could explode a nuclear bomb. That turns out to be baloney, of course, a MacGuffin to point her in the direction of a valuable Chinese heirloom. And then it’s case of double-cross, triple-cross and whatever cross comes next. Anthony Franciosca, still a rising star after a decade in the business, who receives top billing, doesn’t appear for the first twenty minutes. And then he behaves like a walking advert for dentistry, as though his teeth can challenge Welch’s curves.
There’s an intriguing mystery at the heart of this picture and a couple of top-class hair-raising moments. In one she is trapped in a bull ring and stunt double Donna Garrett had a few very definite close calls trying to avoid the maddened beast. In another she is stalked at sea by a circling motor boat while being peppered with harpoons. There is also an airplane duel and a ton of great aerial work. A couple of comic sequences are well wrung – Ronald Fraser as the spy chief pins his business card to one of the prongs of a pitchfork being brandished with menace by Welch while Franciosca delivers a classic line: “The only game I ever lost was spin the bottle and that was on purpose.”
The biggest problem is that the film veers too far away from the source material which posited the heroine as a much tougher character, one who can despatch bad guys with aplomb. Instead, Welch is presented almost as an innocent, bundled from one situation to another, never taking charge until the very end. Minus karate kicks or a decent left hook, she is left to evade her predators by less dramatic means. She has a decent line in repartee and by no means lets the show down. However, the idea, no matter how satisfactory to her fans, that she has to swap bikinis every few minutes or failing that don some other curve-clinging item, gets in the way of the story – and her character.
There’s no doubt Welch had single-handedly revived the relatively harmless pin-up business (not for her overt nudity of the Playboy/Penthouse variety) and had a massive following in Europe where she often plied her trade (the Italian-made Shoot Loud, Louder…I Don’t Understand in 1966 and the British Bedazzled in 1967) but she was clearly desperate for more meaty roles. Those finally came her way with Bandolero (1966) and 100 Rifles (1969) and Fathom feels like a lost opportunity to provide her with that harder edge.
She’s not helped by the odd tone. As I mentioned she gets into plenty of scrapes and proves her mettle with her diving skills but some of the supporting cast look like they’ve signed up for a completely different movie. Richard Briers – Ronald Fraser’s intelligence sidekick – looks like a goggle-eyed fan next to Ms Welch and Clive Revill thinks it’s a joke to play a Russian as a joke. In the hands of a better director and with a few tweaks here and there it could have been a whole lot better and perhaps launched a spy series instead of languishing at the foot of the studio’s box office charts for that year.
But it is certainly entertaining enough and you are unlikely to get bored.
See the “Book into Film” section for a review of the source novel A Girl Called Fathom.