Leslie H. Martinson
Lorenzo Semple Jr.
based on a novel
The first time that I saw Raquel Welch on the big screen, she was wearing a skin tight unrevealing white jump suit aboard the submarine Proteus in the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage. At that time I was much more interested in the special effect wonders of a miniature sub exploring the inner workings of the human body than the outer covering that was lurking beneath Raquel's clothing and wet suits.
That all changed not very long afterwards when the first movie ads for One Million Years BC were released. There was Ms. Welch looking extremely bold, dynamic, and extraordinarily sexy decked out in the latest designer animal skin duds inviting every red blooded male in the world to be the ultimate caveman to her ultimate cave woman. It was the poster and the film that would launch Raquel into sex symbol superstardom. But for Raquel, it would at times prove to be more of a curse than a blessing.
"The Sixties was not the best time to be a sex symbol, at a time of flower-children and the beginnings of the anti-war movement. It was weird - you couldn't cast me in anything. I would have been happy doing the kind of roles that Marilyn Monroe did in comedies like Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes -- eds). My talents lay in singing and dancing. But that era has passed."
And although there were to be as many misses than hits in her career, there were times when Raquel did some very good work and probably deserved a lot better material than what she was given to work with. In films such as The Three Musketeers (for which she won a Golden Globe), The Four Musketeers, Kansas City Bomber, Crossed Swords, 100 Rifles and Bandolero she showed herself to be more than just a gorgeous face with a perfect body. In the TV movie Right to Die, she played a woman stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease and was nominated for a Golden Globe.
But a Welch film often overlooked over the years is this goofy but enjoyable little gem called Fathom which also is the name of the lead character. Her full name is Fathom Harvill. Undoubtedly you are sitting on the edge of your seat, biting your nails, and wanting to know why this beautiful young skydiving dental hygienist is called Fathom.
Reporter: Señorita, how did you ever get a name like Fathom?
Fathom: A fathom is six feet. Papa was hoping for a tall son. Papa was disappointed.
Peter Merriwether: Fathom, eh? I never met a Fathom. Where did you ever get a kinky name like that?
Fathom: First initials for uncles- Freddy, Arthur, Tom, Harry, Oscar, Milton. They were all rich, and Papa wasn't taking any chances- unlike me.
Fathom: The name's Fathom Harvill.
Mike: Fathom? How'd you get a name like Fathom?
Fathom: It's short for Elizabeth.
Sergi: Please sit down, Miss...?
Fathom: Harvill. Fathom Harvill. Please don't ask me how I got the name Fathom.
Sergi: Let me guess. Your father wanted a very tall son. Or you were named after wealthy relatives. Or as a child, you were very deep.
Fathom: Two out of three, that's not bad.
Why do I think she is called Fathom? It's because it's such a cool name to play the name game with:
Fathom, Fathom, bo bathom, banana fana fo athom, fee fi fo mathom, Fathom!
That bit was for all you oldies fans out there. Now that we know all the possible origins of her name, who exactly is Fathom?
As I said before Fathom is a dental hygienist and she's a skydiver and a damn good one at that. (Good Skydiver that is, as the movie gives us no indication as to her abilities in the world of orthodontics) We find this out in the opening title sequence as we watch Fathom expertly prepare her parachute for her next jump in a bright red skin tight T-shirt and bikini bottoms that practically bursts off of the screen.
Director Leslie Martinson, wardrobe designer Kiki Byrne, wardrobe supervisor Bridget Sellers and Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe make no bones early on about the fact that we are here to watch Miss Welch play in her movie world sandbox. She could be folding a napkin in this opening sequence and you wouldn't have noticed anything different.
Photographed against a soft green landscape from just about ground level, you won't be able to take your eyes off of her even if you were really interested in reading the credits or taking a lesson in the proper way to prepare your chute. The red outfit contrasts against anything and everything in the scene, thus making sure we focus our attention solely on Ms. Welch. Hey, I would have done that even if the suit had been poopy brown.
We quickly find out exactly how good of a skydiver Fathom is when the five male members of her team float down to earth towards a ground target and each and every one of them miss it. Having observed male incompetency for all it's worth, it is Fathom's turn to jump. We watch from afar as stunt double Donna Garret spins twirls and whirls on her way downward until she finally opens her chute and morphs into Raquel Welch.
Of course, unlike her male counterparts, Fathom (dressed in a striking metallic silver jump suit) hits the target dead center to an appreciative and cheering crowd.
In the midst of all of this adulation, some young constantly grinning British fella shows up and informs Fathom that he was assigned to give her a ride into town upon which Fathom replies, "I'll be with you as soon as I change!"
Now, I don't have to tell you that if I had known that all I had to do was drive up to Raquel Welch in a broken down old hummer, and yell at her that her ride was here, and that she would hop aboard no questions asked I would have done that forty years ago. Even if I couldn't drive yet. So Fathom is quite the trusting person, probably a bit more than your average skydiver, but what the hell. Introductions are always a colossal bore anyway.
Down the road a bit, Fathom notices that they missed their turn at the Slauson Cut Off, at which time friendly British person who picked her up is now referring to her as "Luv" (we're taking a slight detour, luv) but has not yet told Fathom or us or anybody his real name. He tells her that they are going to meet a Colonel Campbell to which Fathom replies that she knows of no Colonel Campbell (Ronald Fraser). Friendly Grinning British Guy with the name we do not know simply says that she will know him soon. Fathom doesn't say anything, but does have this inquisitive look on her face like she isn’t so sure that hopping in a 1968 Hummer with someone just because she likes being called "Luv" with a British accent was such a hotsy totsy idea after all.
When they arrive, it turns out that Campbell is homesteading in a trailer out in the middle of nowhere on ground that looks like it could be turned into the county landfill at any moment. It is only after she follows Campbell and British guy into the trailer that she finally puts her foot down:
Fathom: I'm going to be very calm about this whole thing. You take me back to my hotel room in the next ten minutes and I'll forget all about it. If you don't I'm going to holler bloody murder to the American Embassy.
Yeah, that little speech will have the bad guys shaking in their boots. But as it turns out, Campbell and Nameless British Guy are not the bad guys we thought they might be or at least that's what they say.
Campbell: A very normal reaction Miss Harvill. I'll tell you what, if my credentials don't entirely satisfy you I'll holler with you.
Now, there's a trustworthy fellow if there ever was one. Campbell explains to Fathom that he belongs to a super duper top secret organization known as HADES, also known as Headquarters Allied Defenses Espionage and Security, an organization of which Campbell is the head honcho.
I've often wondered if movie studios keep someone on staff just to come up with the names of these super secret organizations so that their abbreviations will spell clever words such as Uncle, Thrush, Spectre, Zowie and now Hades. If so, can I have that job?
We finally find out that Smiling Young British Guy is not just a pervert out picking up female parachutists but is in fact Flight Lieutenant Timothy Webb (Richard Briers), Royal Air Force, on leave of absence. Aren't you glad we cleared that up? So if these two budding secret agents aren't after a threesome, exactly what do they want with Fathom?
They need her to help them find the "Firedragon." What is the Firedragon?
Colonel Campbell: Sometime ago there was a calamity in the air. One of our hydrogen bombs was lost in the Mediterranean Sea.....the bomb they found but not the fire dragon. The Firedragon is a fail safe device that triggers the hydrogen bomb by electronic signal.
He then tells her that one Peter Merriweather (Anthony Franciosa) and his friend Major Jo-May Soon, Mongolian KGB (Greta Chi) are Red Chinese agents who are after the Firedragon because with it they'd "have the power to turn the world into a black broiled mushroom cloud."
Fathom's mission, if she decides to accept it before this review self destructs in thirty seconds, is to parachute into Meriwether's secluded villa with an electronic device and turn it on which in turn will remotely trigger a listening device they had planted earlier.
And of course, not wanting the world world to go kaboom, Fathom agrees to make the jump for the two Hades agents and for the sake of mankind every where.
Fathom makes the jump. landing perfectly onto the balcony, triggers the listening device and enables Colonel Campbell and Boy Wonder Timothy to retrieve the Firedragon thus saving the world from a nuclear holocaust. Well not exactly.
She does in fact land on the balcony and triggers the listening device but it's all downhill for her from there. She stumbles across one dead body, is quickly framed for murder by Merriweather and his cohorts, is accused of working for Campbell and Timothy, and is then promptly blackmailed into helping dispose of the deceased.
And this is where Fathom's story really begins and my synopsis comes to an end. To tell you anything more would entail having to give away every single plot twist there is. Suffice it to say, not everybody in this film may be who you think they are or who Fathom thinks they are. Later on, we even meet up with a Batman type villain that goes by the name of Sergi Serapkin, who may or may not possess the Firedragon. Just like the villains of comic book days of yore, Serapkin distinguishes himself with the odd fact that he can never seem to be able to get warmed up. He is the polar opposite of Mr. Freeze and is wonderfully played by Clive Revill.
The truth is that the Firedragon may or may not even exist, and if it does it may or may not be capable of doing what it is you think it may do, if it does anything at all. It is what Alfred Hitchcock called McGuffin. What is a McGuffin?
A McGuffin is a plot device that motivates the characters or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise. And that is what the Firedragon is. It is simply an object to wrap our plot and characters around as Fathom leads us from one encounter to the next in an effort to get to the end of the game. In Fathom, it is simply an excuse to show off the charms, beauty, and assets of Miss Welch, and the fact that we get a fairly decent and interesting spy spoof in the process is just a whole lot of icing on the cake.
Just as in the opening parachute scene, every outfit worn by Welch in every scene in Fathom is designed so that our attention is always drawn to her. And I don't mean that in a physical or lustful sense at all. There are plenty of actresses out there with first class sculptured bodies dressing as flimsily as possible to lust after, but it is Miss Welch's beauty that grabs our attention first and foremost much in the same way that it was Marilyn Monroe's screen presence that attracted us to her. It doesn't matter if she is outfitted in a green bikini, a red T-shirt, or a green jump suit. She has the same effect regardless.
Raquel not only occupies every scene, her presence is often overpowering. There have been better actresses in films, but none who can light up each and every scene just by being in it. At least not in the way that Raquel Welch does in this film.
And being honest here, her acting abilities were sometimes derided simply because once you are pegged as a sex symbol, you are permanently pasted with that unable to act stigma for all time. In this film she does exactly what one would expect the main character to do. She acts as if she is having a good time and because she does, we do too. When I saw the much more publicized One Million Years B.C. it was quickly forgotten by me, unlike this film
When our celluloid type male spies, male secret agents, and male counter spies act in such a manner, their performance is accepted because hey, that's the way the spy game works in the movies and it's all just for fun. When a woman does it in the same kind of role and in the same manner, she is told she can't act.
Raquel's character Fathom does quite well stacked up against her male co-stars. What I really like about the film is that the writers did not fall prey to scripting the obligatory sex scene between the two main leads. They leave them as they are, which for the most part is adversaries, enabling the action to flow seamlessly from one scene to the next. And there is plenty of that.
Raquel's scenes with Tony Franciosa, (who mysteriously has top billing in this film. Must have had a helluva agent), are simply fun to watch. He does of course harbor the usual male sexist attitude but she will have none of it and views him more with disdain than anything else, even up to the final scene. As for the many chase scenes and action sequences, they are done quite well especially when you consider that this film was obviously done on a shoe string budget.
I'm not going to pretend that this film is great cinema. But it is a lot of fun once you allow yourself to get swept away and entertained by the sheer silly goofiness of it all and accepting it for what it is, which is a decent but highly watchable and worthwhile spy spoof.
As far as Miss Welch is concerned, she may never have been able to replace Marilyn Monroe, but like Marilyn she was able accomplish something that is sorely lacking these days in those who are pretenders to the sex symbol throne.
Just because you are saddled with the one dimensional label of being a sex goddess, you can still carry on with a lot of class, a whole lot of dignity, and not lose the ingredients that make you something special. And for that alone I would have no choice but to give Fathom my grade, which is a B+.
I rented Fathom from Netflix a few years ago, but received two broken discs from out of town before the third one was the charm. That was a warning sign, and checking the web site now it is no longer available, just as I suspected. Back when I originally wrote this, you could only buy it as part of a Raquel Welch Sex Goddess boxed set, but it appears the singled edition is available once again at Amazon so get it while you can because these things come and go, then you’re stuck paying outside seller prices which are exorbitant when a film is out of print. Use the product links in the review to help me out a bit if you want.
More Raquel Welch Films:
Also by Raquel Welch: