BOND, JAMES BOND: You Only Live Twice (1967)

Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay by Roald Dahl
Additional Story Material by Harold Jack Bloom
Release Date: 13th June 1967 (U.K and U.S)

For a film series famous for its seemingly indestructible lead character, it’s interesting to note that of the first five films in Eon’s Bond series, three of them open with the supposed death of 007.

From Russia with Love tried to fool us with a training exercise and a SPECTRE agent in a Sean Connery mask, while Thunderball went with the lovely visual gag of a coffin draped with the initials JB on it. You Only Live Twice goes all out and actually appears to have Bond shot and killed in its opening moments. 007’s supposed bullet-riddled body takes the audience into Maurice Binder’s psychedelic credit sequence involving semi naked Japanese women and lava spewing volcanoes.

Everything about the fifth Bond film cries out ‘excess’. With Spymania in full swing by the mid-60s, and many films of the genre trying to replicate the increasingly big budgeted production values of the Bond series itself, including Charles K. Feldman’s spoof adaptation of Casino Royale, once again Eon would need to prove that nobody could compete with them. More was going to have to be more.

For the fifth Bond film, the producers opted to adapt Fleming’s eleventh novel, but given that the book of You Only Live Twice involved a recently widowed 007 travelling to Japan and getting into a battle to the death with Blofeld in a castle, it was clear that some changes would be needed to be made in order to bring it to the screen, not least that in not following the order of the novels, Bond was yet to be married on screen.

Because the series had yet to make a film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and was following up Thunderball, Roald Dahl’s screenplay was going to have to jettison Bond mourning for his recently murdered wife Tracy and his quest for revenge against Blofeld who was responsible for killing her.

In fact, Dahl’s screenplay would do more than just ignore the central story of the novel, instead pretty much becoming an original James Bond story that owed less to Fleming’s prose and more to the excessive nature of 60s spy movies that were increasingly favouring epic, expansive borderline fantasy adventures that sometimes threatened to go into the realm of science fiction.

James Bond doesn’t go into space in You Only Live Twice (he would have to wait twelve years and a different actor for that), but if Goldfinger and Thunderball had taken the character and the movies into an increasingly gadget driven aesthetic, then You Only Live Twice was going to take it even further, in a narrative dominated by technology and preoccupation with the space race.

On top of concerns over nuclear war, and in a decade that saw a stand-off in Cuba that very nearly did threaten to end life we know it, the other geo-political concern that drove the world was the borders beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

A wonderful scene stealer, Little Nellie was indicative of just how much the Bond films were becoming dependent on technology.

While James Bond on the silver screen is sometimes thought of as a character drenched in a Cold War atmosphere, truthfully the series had never really allowed itself to be fuelled too much by the political air of the period. Certainly, From Russia with Love had played with espionage elements with a political slant, while instalments in the 80s would have their stories be driven more by the geo-political sphere, but the Bond franchise was never dominated by political themes in a manner that might have seemed obvious for a character playing in a world like the one he existed in.

In making SPECTRE the main antagonists of the series right away, jettisoning SMERSH who were a real-life organisation that were behind many of the threats and stories in the early Fleming novels, the films were aiming to be somewhat apolitical, even if it never stopped them from insinuating in Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice that China had a hand in the fuelling the threats driven by Auric Goldfinger in 1964 and Blofeld and SPECTRE in 1967.

If they were promoting or revelling in anything, it was a more old-fashioned belief in Britain having a large hand in world events. The British Empire was long gone by the time 007 came along, with the geopolitical sphere dominated by the United States and the USSR, and yet James Bond and MI6 are portrayed, particularly here, as the level headed world’s policeman keeping the dogs of war from barking, literally sitting between the US and Russia as peacekeeper at one stage.

This status even applies to Bond’s interactions with Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese Secret Service and Japan’s equivalent of M. Bond is basically a white British agent wondering into an Asian country and telling the head of its secret service what to do at various points which seems wrong given that Tiger should be the one giving orders to 007. Equally wrong is Bond donning fake heavy eyelids and a wig to make himself look Japanese for a stretch in the film’s second half, which is a storytelling device that doesn’t play well in 2020, nor Bond’s appreciation for how ‘men come first, women second’ in the country.

In many ways, Bond being very much in charge is a carry-over from the Fleming novels; while his books may never have gotten as grandiose as this film does, they themselves were playing in a fantasy of the British being so highly regarded by the rest of the world that, even if they didn’t have an Empire that stretched the way it did generations past, they could still be relied upon to keep the world ticking over even if there was a clock counting down to the nuclear Armageddon.

What is representative of the real world is the US and Russia at loggerheads, itching to destroy the other in an escalation of Cold War rhetoric and to be in the lead of the space race. While You Only Live Twice doesn’t become pure sci-fi in the manner that 1979’s Moonraker would (although they both share the same director, Lewis Gilbert), this was the most preposterous film in the series so far.

The first time we meet Blofeld face-to-face, Donald Pleasence’s performance as the character would become one of the most famous in the canon of Bond villains, and was a massive inspiration behind Mike Myers’ iconic Dr Evil.

Gadgetry was everywhere in Thunderball, but it still boiled down to a somewhat relatively plausible plot of sorts involving stolen nuclear warheads, and one that was more evocative of a nice weekend away in the Bahamas than a relentless thriller. That film still had its own set of preposterous moments, but there is a touch of fantasy to Dahl’s script that takes the Bond franchise even further away from the more grounded elements that were part and parcel of Fleming’s novels or even the likes of From Russia with Love.

Dr. No might have been about toppling rockets and built itself up to a climax involving a villain with metal hands in a lustrous Ken Adam control centre, but everything about You Only Live Twice is the Bond formula cranked up to an epic level that was indicative of it being a film with nine times the budget of the very film that began the series.

Ken Adam’s work on the film represented a high watermark for not only the Bond franchise but in the art of production design. The work of Adam had been a vital factor in the series and was a massive factor in contributing to what we think of as a ‘Bond style’ that other spy-fy movies were trying to emulate, and yet Adam went and outdone even his own spectacular work in Dr. No, Goldfinger and Thunderball with an astonishing achievement in filmmaking craft.

The fact that the volcano set that housed Blofeld’s hide-out could contain a space rocket, a monorail and was so huge that it could have hundreds of extras fighting to the death come the final act made the film one that revelled in spectacle in a way that would have seemed unthinkable in 1962, and yet the film represented the production team at the height of their powers.

Gilbert’s first time behind the camera on a Bond picture, remarkably the structure and story behind much of his first film would be reused when he would return to make two further films of the series in the 70s, one of which would be tasked with relaunching the series after a three year absence due to legal issues which very nearly (and not for the last time) brought the series to an end.

It’s strange to think that ten years later, when the series needed a shot in the arm after a box office disappointment and issues regarding the behind the scenes partnership that started the series, that You Only Live Twice would be used as a format with which to bring the series back. While 1967’s Bond film was still a sizeable box office hit, it did mark the first time since the series started that an installment of the series had not outgrossed the previous entry on release. It still made more money than Dr. No and From Russia with Love, but it was lower than Goldfinger and Thunderball.

Yet, the film still managed to be as impactful on the genre and the spy genre. Marking the first time audiences would get to see the face of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the appearance of Donald Pleasance, with a scar down his cheek and a white persian cat on his lap, would end up becoming one of the most famous in the genre, inspiring so much in the way of satire, most famously Mike Myers with one of the most iconic comedy characters of the late 90s and early 2000s with Dr. Evil.

After the disappointment and blandness of the villains in Thunderball, You Only Live Twice made up for it with memorable antagonists. The film is ridiculous for sure, but it also manages to be a hell of a lot more fun than Thunderball was, with pace, verve, style and, even with some of its more problematic issues, it manages to be a vastly entertaining film that moves at such a pace that you only question how silly it is when Nancy Sinatra’s haunting theme song plays over the end credits.

It’s a film filled with confidence, a production team at the top of their game and actually knowing it. Everyone here is firing on all cylinders, not least John Barry with another superlative score, while the action sequences, which might be a million miles away from Fleming, sees stunt coordinator Bob Simmons really deliver the goods, from a rooftop fight filmed in a delirious helicopter shot to a massive battle involving hundreds of extras and numerous explosions, You Only Live Twice is frothy style over substance, but what froth it is.

Yet, trouble was brewing.

With Connery adamant he was leaving the series, and with the movie industry moving away from the fantasies of spy-fy and gravitating towards grittier material that would be spearheaded by the success of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, as well as Bonnie and Clyde, 1969’s entry into the series was going to have a tougher time on its hand. A new lead actor was going to be needed, and the series was finally going to bring On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to the screen after it previously being a possibility after Goldfinger, this time Eon putting the series into the hands of Peter Hunt who had edited the films to fantastic precision up to this point.

With the series looking as if it had reached a commercial peak and a new leading actor having to be sought, the series was about to hit something of its first hurdle. While the posters for You Only Live Twice proclaimed that Sean Connery IS James Bond, Broccoli and Saltzman were going to have to prove that if the series was going to have considerable commercial legs for the foreseeable future, it was going to have to succeed without the actor that was a major factor in making the series a substantial success.

Bond, James Bond will return with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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