Well, here we are: the sort of halfway point in this mad quest to write something relatively new every single day about every single Bond movie in order from worst to best. I know many have given up their lives in order for me to reach this point. I have no idea why they would do something so irretrievably stupid, but there you are. Perhaps they will rise from their graves in order for me to witness doing something foolish like a series of posts that compare the seven Police Academy movies to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. (It is a given that the Colossus of Rhodes is comparable to Police Academy 3: Back in Training, right?) Anyway, they might just live again because twice is the only way to live.
Yes, that was my ham-fisted way to get into today’s subject: 1967’s You Only Live Twice. The novel was actually one of Ian Fleming’s best. It reads at times like a fever dream, showing a desperate Bond trying to come to grips months after the sudden murder of his wife at the end of the previous book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond is sent to Japan and discovers arch-nemesis Blofeld to be there under an assumed identity. You can feel the Bond’s satisfying rage as he throttles Blofeld to death. But Bond receives a head injury in the end, losing his memory aside from his belief that his past has something to do with Russia. He decides to go there at the end of the book, setting up the next novel The Man with the Golden Gun.
You Only Live Twice was chosen as the fifth James Bond movie which causes a bid of a muddle with the source material from the books. The story order for the “Blofeld Saga” in the Fleming books is Thunderball, then On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and finishing with You Only Live Twice. The EON films went with Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and then On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Then the producers ended up jamming Blofeld into Diamonds Are Forever next, even though he has no business being there.
Supposedly, the reason for the order switch was because they would have had to find snowy locations for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Seeing as how they ended up filming that one in Switzerland, even I could have told them that there were snow-covered mountains there. It seems someone should have known because not only are the Swiss Alps the location from the book, but I believe they also existed prior to the movie’s production. Anyway, the producers went with You Only Live Twice because Japan was more weather friendly. Besides Sean never skied in any of his Bond movies, presumably because he wasn’t going to wear a kilt on the slopes.
Lewis Gilbert was chosen to direct You Only Live Twice, the plot of which is about SPECTRE stealing space capsules from both the U.S. and the Russians in order to inaugurate World War III. Later on, Gilbert would direct The Spy Who Loved Me, which was about a criminal organization stealing nuclear submarines from both the U.S. and the Russians in order to inaugurate World War III. Hey…wait a minute!
Sean was back for the fifth time as Bond in what would turn out to be his last outing as 007. Until 1971 that is. And then again in 1983. He needs to just stop saying never, doesn’t he? He walked away from the role for two reasons: 1) the local fans swarmed over him every single minute he was in Japan and 2) his contract was up. Also he seems tired in the role, which is quite a shift from when he was in Thunderball. His hairpiece is more prominent for sure, which is never a good sign in a Connery Bond movie.
Charles Gray was cast as Henderson who is killed within 3 minutes of meeting Bond. Of course, Gray was later Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, but more importantly his character in You Only Live Twice when serving Bond a vodka martini says, “That was stirred, not shaken? I hope I got it right.” And then Bond agrees with him! Was the line a flub? Was the line a joke thrown in? Was the line correct and Bond is just being friendly because he is a visitor? Should this be analyzed even more up to and beyond the point of ludicrousness? I want some grant money!
Many Japanese actors were hired for this film, most importantly for me was seeing Burt Kwouk as a technician in the SPECTRE headquarters. Yes, Kwouk was also in Goldfinger, but he also starred as the longsuffering Kato in the Pink Panther movies. Karin Dor was cast as the bad Bond girl. She was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz, which is the one Hitchcock movie people never claim they have seen. Even if they are caught sitting in a theater that is playing Topaz, they deny they’re watching it.
Donald Pleasance was hired to play Ernst Stavro Blofeld, whose face we hadn’t seen in two prior Bond movies. He has some kind of scar that crosses a side of his face and the make-up was placed with far more care than his acting choices. Don’t get me wrong, Pleasance is a great actor in other movies, just watch how evil he is in Will Penny, how good he is in The Great Escape, and how determined he is in Halloween. However, he was a last minute replacement for the original actor they had hired for Blofeld and that must have meant Pleasance had a hard time in sticking with an accent. Apparently Jan Werich, originally cast as Blofeld, resembled St. Nick and director wouldn’t have it. Frankly, I think having a Santa-type of jolly fellow would be a wonderful choice to see cast as the head of SPECTRE, but what do I know?
Despite Sean’s displeasure with the role and some questionable plot and casting choices, You Only Live Twice has some nice moments. The pre-credits teaser sequence where Bond is assassinated is actually quite entertaining. I don’t think anyone truly bought that Bond was killed, seeing as how there was a lot of movie to go yet, but it was still done well.
There is also a rather good, if brief, fight scene that Bond has in an office using a couch and a statue against a random bigger henchman. The staging is done rather well. Then again most of the stunt work in a Bond movie usually is pretty good. It is only when awful background composites or CGI comes lumbering in that I cringe. That being said, I can accept most of the effects done with circa 1967 technology.
For instance, there’s a scene that my helicopter loving son loves more than any scene in any other movie in You Only Live Twice. The helicopter fight between Bond’s gadget laden gyrocopter and four machine gun wielding helicopters is well done on a technical level. Not that any of that stuff matters to my son who just keeps on repeating “Again!” in order to get me to repeat the scene on the DVD. I comply of course not only because it is James Bond, but anything is better than having to sit through any of his usual shows one more blessed time.
The sets are incredible too. Ken Adam outdid himself in the visions he brought to Bond movies and this one is no exception. Blofeld’s volcanic lair cost one million dollars, had working elevators, a monorail, and the roof could open so a helicopter could land in it. It is that type of production value that you didn’t find then and you don’t find now. When my billions of dollars inevitably come: I want a full scale version using Adam’s blueprints. And not only will I also get a helicopter to land and take off through it, I’ll get a working rocket too!
John Barry’s score is top notch throughout. It invokes oriental themes and sounds that are woven throughout the film. The title song is one of the best Bond themes too. Nancy Sinatra brings a very soft and sensual quality in her performance. Obviously the producers couldn’t have hired Frank Sinatra because he was the only person on earth that could have made James Bond look like an effete simp.
Okay let’s get to the huge Asian elephant in the room that I’ve been avoiding. During the course of the plot, it is revealed that Bond must not only train to be a ninja but he must also go undercover as a Japanese fisherman in order to get close to Blofeld’s volcano. This is all well and good, except for that it isn’t and it isn’t. It doesn’t make a lick of sense if you think about these kinds of things for too long.
So let me get this straight, Bond, who is a highly trained British agent and has shown some knowledge of martial arts, must now undergo an extremely rushed training program to become an actual ninja? Then after a weekend of training, Bond must go undercover as a Japanese villager, take a wife as part of his cover, all while wearing a bad wig together with even worse eye appliqués? Also the last thing one wants to do is draw even more attention to an even worse than usual hairpiece on Connery. Yet there it sits, waiting for his eyebrows to darken so you won’t be completely distracted by it.
Yep, that’s your plot point that sets up the final third of the movie. I often wonder how I would have reacted if I first watched the movie at the point where Bond is already undercover. Would I have been taken in by his cunning disguise and have been shocked when it turned out to be none other than Sean Connery? Would the Japanese spoken with a Scottish brogue been a giveaway? How about that Bond is about a good nine inches taller than everyone else in the village and isn’t Japanese? What about the point that Sean’s disguise is a hair below the offensive caricature of a Japanese spy that Moe Howard played in a World War II era Stooges short? When John Belushi’s samurai character from Saturday Night Live would fit in a Japanese village just as well as Bond, if not better, it is time to have a rewrite conference.
Apparently ninjas train by breaking chunks of ice with their heads. As Johnny Carson would have said, “I did not know that!” Who knew there would be that much possible attacking ice around the volcano to prepare for? And what do we finally see of Bond showing off his newfound ninja skills? Um…well he shoots people and tosses Blofeld’s big bodyguard into a pool of piranhas. That’s it. I going out on a limb here but perhaps 18 hours of training just wasn’t enough to become a full-fledged ninja?
You Only Live Twice was the end of an era. Connery certainly proved himself as an actor and box office draw beyond James Bond in the years that followed as well. However, you’ll notice that he never portrayed a Japanese character ever again. Well, to be fair he barely played one in this movie. At least they didn’t have him yell “Godzilla!” whilst running like mad away from the destruction, offending everyone.
Back then no one knew that Sean would be back and since he cemented the role, there were those that thought Bond was done as a character. Who else could possibly fill Sean’s shoes? Granted, five others in this series have proven themselves to be worthy Bonds, but it is always Connery they come back to for Bond. Bond certainly lived more than twice in any case.