Coming off the back of the biggest, most successful Bond film to date, what were the producers to do? Having had such major success in sticking closely to the source novels, they decided the best thing to do would be to take the title and setting of the last of Fleming’s Bond novels published before the author’s death and chuck everything else away.
So, the Bond readers of 1967 found themselves in exactly the same situation as “Game Of Thrones” readers at the end of Season Five of the successful HBO TV Series: no idea what’s going to happen. Not only that, but the film opens with the unexpected death of a much beloved main character. Hmm.
When an American space probe is attacked and captured by an unidentified spacecraft, the Americans immediately point the finger of blame at the Soviets, who deny all knowledge. With the rhetoric escalating, the Americans and Soviets both plan space launches, threatening each other with retaliation if anything happens to their probes. Meanwhile, the British Government believes a third party is responsible for events, operating from somewhere near the sea of Japan and send their best agent to investigate.
This is another of those Bond films where 007 hardly appears in the cold open. This time round, our Binder Bullet HoleTM opens to reveal outer space and we are witness to both the space probe hijacking and the gruesome death of an astronaut unfortunate enough to be out on a spacewalk when the hull closes. In those heady, pre-austerity days of plenty, NASA have spared no expense in staffing their Hawaiian control room with experts: Ed Bishop (who would go on to command SHADO’s anti-alien efforts for Gerry Anderson) and Shane Rimmer (who would remain with NASA long enough to oversee the lunar mission which was attacked by General Zod in “Superman II”) are both on hand to narrate the unprecedented space piracy to both the audience and the ultra-hawkish military supervisors. The brief summit scene is notable mainly for the adorable conceit that the United Kingdom would somehow merit a table at this conference and that it would be placed directly between the USA and USSR. Well, what the Hell. Our secret agent, our movie, our rules 1960s world view.
When we do eventually get to see Bond, the naughty scamp is in flagrante delicto with another conquest during assignment in Hong Kong. However, his passions are quickly extinguished as he is caught in a foldaway bed and brutally machine gunned. Pronounced dead by officers of the Hong Kong Police (including an early appearance by “Doctor Who” Master-in-waiting Anthony Ainley), Bond’s blood stains blossom into silhouetted parasols as John Barry’s memorable theme song kicks in.
The titles are everything you’d expect at this point, although in hindsight it’s amusing to note they completely give away one of the movie’s biggest twists by almost entirely featuring volcanic activity – which connects to nothing else in the story apart from Blofeld’s base – as the backdrop to the silhouetted shenanigans. Barry’s theme song, and score, are masterful and among his very best. The usual brassy pomp and energy is there but this time tempered by an elegant oriental accent that seeps into the film, providing a sense of exoticness that the occasionally grey and drab urban Japanese locales lack.
Thankfully, Bond’s ‘murder’ before the credits was merely a ruse so the world’s highest profile secret agent could have a few days peace and quiet to, you know, actually be an effective spy. Good job too, otherwise the film would have been pretty short. In fact, the opposite was true. The original cut of the film was over three hours long, based on a screenplay by Roald Dahl, presumably in a tit-for-tat retaliation for Fleming dabbling in children’s books with “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”. Indeed, although a friend of the author, Dahl declared it one of the worst Bond novels and retained almost nothing of the book’s story save a few character names.
Dahl’s screenplay is weighed down with a sort of parochial racial stereotyping of Japanese culture and Lewis Gilbert’s direction ensures that we miss none of the none-too-subtle references. Thorough use is made of the apocryphal Japanese tradition of paper-walled houses and Bond meets a contact at a Sumo wrestling match because: JAPAN! It’s one of the few Bond films where there is little to no globetrotting at all and the action pretty much stays in one country, unless you count outer space. It’s also the first Bond film which has no scenes set in the UK, we’re given our first taste of M and Moneypenny being out and about, this time aboard a Royal Navy submarine. Literally fresh from his funeral, Bond is handed his mission and told to liaise with local MI6 contact Dikko Henderson (Charles Gray). They then fire Bond out of a torpedo tube and leave him to swim to the coast on his own. While a cool sequence, it’s kind of weird they launch him without breathing apparatus of any kind. I mean, it’s not like they had the exact gadget he could have used in “Thunderball”…oh, wait. This time, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka is our Japanese Felix Leiter substitute, only with a sweet-ass headquarters accessed by a cool fun slide and a house with an en suite underwear model bathhouse.
When the original three hour cut by Lewis Gilbert’s editor Thelma Connell received terrible responses from test audiences, unsung Bond hero Peter Hunt was brought in to salvage the picture and while he managed a creditable job, retaining a coherent plot, it’s hard to ignore the many scenes and sequences which simply abut one another rather than flow together. Stunts are retained at the expense of context and logic, such as the impressive sequence where a car full of henchmen sent to kill Bond and Japanese Secret Service agent Aki are intercepted and captured by a helicopter carrying a magnetic crane. The helicopter lifts the car off the road then flies out to see to dump their cargo. Sure, it gives Bond a ‘witty’ line about Japanese efficiency being a ‘drop in the ocean’ but this happens at a point in the film where time is running out and Bond, Aki and Tanaka have little information and hardly any leads to investigate. Might have been better to take four enemy agents to a secure location for questioning, no?
The film also spends a lot of time on a game of brinkmanship between Bond and proxy villain Mr Osato, and his henchwoman Helga Brandt, as all parties are aware of the true identity of the other very early on but all seem to agree to keep their various charades going while secretly trying to kill each other. It’s kind of frothy fun, but makes the story feel like it’s treading water when there should be a sense of urgency given the impending space launches. There’s an overly long sequence based in a Ninja Academy (JAPAN!) where Bond is not only trained to be a ninja in a matter of days but also undergoes a cosmetic disguise process which makes “Team America: World Police”’s Valmorification look like a masterclass in subtlety and ethnic sensitivity. It’s also worth noting that Bond boasts he gained a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge yet needs to be told what a ninja is and seems unable to understand anyone who speaks Japanese around him. But possibly the most crass result of the poor script/ choppy editing is the death of Bond girl Aki. Having been sexing her up pretty thoroughly for most of the film and even contemplating marrying her, he simply shrugs off her murder – committed as she slept by his side – pretty easily. That’s cold – even for Bond.
Eventually, the meandering travelogue gives way to a proper, high stakes Bond adventure as we discover the SPECTRE connection and get to see one of cinema’s best ever villain’s lairs. We will gloss over the fact that in order to pull off their scheme, SPECTRE have created a reusable, powered take-off and landing spacecraft which would have cost way more to develop than they intend to recoup for their ‘Start World War III on behalf of the Chinese (maybe)’ scheme and instead marvel at the sheer chutzpah of hollowing out a volcano and installing a monorail, helipad and all the other mod cons supervillains look for. Not only that, but there’s a plush private office suite with a trap door bridge over a pool stocked with man-eating piranha. By this point, you’ve forgiven the film all its foibles and missteps because Roald Dahl has decided that what Bond needs is the dark, sadistically twisted mirror image of the Chocolate Factory, with Blofeld as a demented Willy Wonka.
After waiting nearly five whole movies, Blofeld is finally revealed and it’s Donald Pleasance’s scarred face which sears itself onto the public consciousness so indelibly that Mike Myers basically lifts the image wholesale – Nehru jacket and all – for Austin Powers’ nemesis thirty years later.
Nothing becomes “You Only Live Twice” like the ending of it and the last thirty minutes or so are pure Bond gold. Although gadgets are thin on the ground, Little Nelly is a joy and something only a Bond film could really pull off with a straight face. The surprise, I guess, is that this is her only appearance and provides Q’s only screen time in this film too. Lewis Gilbert clearly enjoyed the helicopter sequences though because the rest of the film is peppered with aerial shots, including the odd fight at the docks where Bond is shown shooting dead a bunch of malnourished and unarmed dock workers for plot purposes.
Despite the bravura ending, there’s a strained feeling overall to “You Only Live Twice”, the result of an unhappy production, a disgruntled star (it was announced during production that this was to be Connery’s last Bond film (ironically, that would turn out to be untrue twice) which explains the slightly more bullish outro caption: “THE END of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE but James Bond will be back ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”) and a script which, while imaginative and ambitious, often just falls back on stringing together all of the familiar Bond tropes rather than creating a tight narrative. None of the problems stopped it from delivering some of Bond’s most recognisable scenes and gimmicks, which fans of “The Simpsons” and “Austin Powers” can readily attest to. Despite a less rapturous reception of this latest instalment, the franchise was still in rude health which was just as well, as it was about to face its most serious challenge to date…