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 Fathom (Raquel 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 Colonel Campbell (Ronald Fraser) of British intelligence recover the “Fire Dragon,” a trigger that could explode a nuclear bomb. Her sky-diving skills are required to land in the courtyard of playboy Peter Merriwether (Anthony Franciosa).
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.
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 – Campbell pins his business card to one of the prongs of a pitchfork being brandished with menace by Fathom while Peter 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, Fathom 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 fans of the actress, that Fathom 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. Into the eccentric mix also come a millionaire (Clive Revill) and a bartender (Tom Adams).
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 (1968) 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. 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.
Anthony Franciosa (Rio Conchos, 1964) , 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. And some of the supporting cast look like they’ve signed up for a completely different movie. Richard Briers (A Home of Your Own, 1965) – Ronald Fraser’s intelligence sidekick – looks like a goggle-eyed fan next to Ms Welch while Clive Revill (The Double Man, 1967) thinks it’s a joke to play a Russian as a joke. Ronald Fraser (Sebastian, 1968) provides decent support.
But it is certainly entertaining enough and you are unlikely to get bored.
Book into Film: A Girl Called Fathom by Larry Forrester (1967)
The blurb gives the game away. The British paperback published by Pan went: “She was blonde. She was beautiful, she was six foot tall. She’d killed the man who had dragged her to the lowest depths of addiction and lust.” The American Fawcett Gold Medal paperback was more succinct: “lady by birth, tramp by occupation and murderess by design.”
If any of that rings a bell, it was not from the film Fathom (1967) starring Raquel Welch which chose to ignore her background and her venomous skillset. The novel opens with the heroine killing a man in cold blood. He had promised her a film career but turned her into a call girl and heroin addict. Her father, now dead, was in the British secret service. Once she has committed her first murder, she is immediately kidnapped by a secret organization (C.E.L.T.S. – Counter Espionage Long-Term Security) and trained to become an even more ruthless government-sanctioned killing machine.
Larry Forrester was a Scottish television scriptwriter who had worked on a stack of British series such as Whirligig (1953), Ivanhoe (1958) and No Hiding Place (1960-1964) before publishing his first novel A Girl Called Fathom. His sole screenplay was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) after which he concentrated on U.S. television including episodes of Fantasy Island (1980-1983) and Hart to Hart (1983-1984).
A Girl Called Fathom is split into two. Comprising roughly two-fifths of the book, the first section concentrates on her brutal training and on getting her off drugs. There’s a fair amount of sexual intrigue not to mention sex. But also a lover’s betrayal. For the final part of her training she is abandoned in the middle of nowhere in scorching heat and barely makes it home. “She had passed over a great divide. She was empty, hard – dehumanized. Alone. She would always be alone.” And then she is forced to kill again.
As was common with this kind of book in the 1960s, it was fast-moving and globe-trotting with plenty of realistic detail to offset the preposterous plot. For the remainder of the book, which shifts location to Europe, Fathom is up against an organization called W.A.R. (World of Asian Revolution) which aims to destabilize the existing world order. Her arch enemy is an American-born Soviet agent (and whip and knife expert) Jo Soon (who turns up in the film Fathom in slightly different form as Jo-May). Fathom’s team must protect French elder statesman Paul-Auguste Valmier whose playboy son Damon (who fantasizes about burning people alive), a friend from her past, is her main contact.
The book is peopled by interesting and occasionally outrageous characters – for example Tin (shades of Iron Man), who has hardly a human bone left in his body; the far-from-harmless Aunt Elspeth; and a sadistic colleague who loves her but dare not let his emotions out lest he loose on her his love of pain. The central plot is driven by a mass of twists and turns, heroine endangerment, fights with knife and gun and fist, traitors (naturally) and the clever idea of killing off the leaders of the free world with a bomb hidden in the coffin of a man worthy of a state funeral being held in Paris.
At the end she is counting the human cost of victory and sees herself as one of the walking wounded, a reject, driven from the herd. The film was apparently based on an unpublished sequel so it’s conceivable that the plot concerning the Chinese heirloom was pulled from that in its entirety. But even so the film’s heroine was neutered, not a patch on the ruthless killer with a sordid past outlined in A Girl Called Fathom.