Nick’s analysis of the James Bond series continues with
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)
You Only Live Twice, the 5th EON produced James Bond movie, was the winner in a 1967 pissing up the wall contest. Seriously, crude analogy aside.
In the Spring of 1966 the previous Bond movie, Thunderball, had broken box office records, been showered with awards (including an Academy Award win for best visual effects) and had cemented James Bond’s place in the cultural firmament. Bondmania was at its peak and the world saw the birth of cinematic merchandising as toys, games, soundtrack albums and posters devoted to James Bond. The impact of James Bond and in particular the previous two movies in the series; Thunderball and Goldfinger, was being felt right across film and television. Spy movies, especially those which featured plenty of action and sex, were the in-thing of the time.
In 1966 alone there were scores of spy movies in cinemas trying to cash in or exploit the popularity of James Bond. From the very tongue in cheek, over the top excesses of Our Man Flint and the Matt Helm movies, to the gritty, downbeat Cold War thrillers such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold via the plethora of cheaper European and Japanese Bond knock-offs exploitation films with titles such as “Agent 0008”, “OSS 117” and “Operation Goldman”, movie producers worldwide were snapping at Bond’s…or more accurately…EON Production’s heels, trying to cash in. Bond faced competition from television as well, most notably The Man From UNCLE which even had input from Ian Fleming before his death in 1964. Bond wasn’t even safe from his own producers: Harry Saltzman had purchased the rights to film Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer novels which propelled Michael Caine into stardom in a similar way Bond had done for Sean Connery. Whereas the other knock off movies and TV shows tried to either ape, send up or go in excess of the Bond movies the Harry Palmer trilogy was almost a complete reaction against them. Palmer would have none of the glamour, the gadgets, the luck or the respect of his superiors but shared a similar intelligence and oblique approach to problem solving. I like to think that both Bond and Palmer share the same fictional universe but from two differing perspectives within the British Intelligence agencies. But in the Summer of 1966, when EON could sit back and revel in the box office returns and acclaim for Thunderball, it was hit by yet another attempt to cash in on Bondmania but this time Bond was up against himself in the form of a rival Bond movie; Casino Royale.
The source novel was not part of the package when EON secured the rights back in 1961 because they had been already sold to the American CBS network who in turn passed them on to a producer called Gregory Ratoff. He died in 1960 and the rights then went to another producer, Charles Feldman. Feldman, at one time, thought he could make a movie of Casino Royale in a manner similar to the deal struck between Kevin McClory and EON over Thunderball. When an agreement couldn’t be met, Feldman decided to go ahead anyway and make the movie. He secured a massive budget, which was to increase massively as the film was made, and assembled an all-star cast of A listers such as David Niven, Peter Sellars, Woody Allen and Orson Welles, plenty of reliable British comedy actors and a small army of international movie stars who would walk on, say one line and walk off again. The fact that Casino Royale was going to be a spoof, not a serious adaptation of the novel, didn’t matter to Broccoli and Saltzman: They had a big time rival to go against now.
EON responded to the challenge of a horde of imitators spearheaded by a licenced James Bond product by going all-out in presenting the biggest and most outlandish James Bond movie yet. You Only Live Twice wouldn’t be over the top like a spoof, but it would push the limits of the Bond series to the edge of realism, a Bond movie with all the style and familiarity of the series but with no limits to the content.
It would be the first Bond movie where the presence of the novelist would not be felt; either Fleming or Kevin McClory. The task of writing the script fell to a star writer; Roald Dahl, who took the Japanese setting of the novel and ditched everything else. The director would be Lewis Gilbert, who was a seasoned veteran movie-maker fresh from making an international hit movie…Alfie. The volcano hideout set seen in the climax of the movie cost the production team $1,000,000. Everything would be pushed to the limits on this one in order to smash the opposition and the copycats.
The whole movie can be seen as a metaphor for EON productions being besieged from all sides. For example, the Kobe docks fight scene have knife wielding stevedores popping out of the woodwork from all sides as Bond and Aki try to escape. The wonderfully filmed rooftop fight shows a small James Bond having to swat assailants from all over the place as they close in on him, much like EON had to fend off the small, but never ending stream of spy knock-off movies, much like later on when Bond in Little Nellie has to fend off a swarm of helicopters.
As Doctor No revelled in the lushness of its Jamaican location, You Only Live Twice revels in the exoticness of Japan. We are constantly reminded in the movie about how Japan is ‘other-worldly’ and how different they do things over there, even though they are as technically sophisticated as the West (“I imagine your M has a similar arrangement”). The script has Bond being technically ‘reborn’ after a fake death and throughout the film we get references to this as Bond has to learn things the Japanese way right up to the point where he has to become Japanese, physically (or not, if your suspension of disbelief doesn’t stretch to Connery doing Yellowface). Early on in the movie he proudly declares that he has a First in Oriental languages from Cambridge, and yet he doesn’t understand Japanese culture. That is what he truly has to learn. He’s made a start though, by appreciating the correct temperature for Saki (“98.4 degrees Farenheit”…one of my all-time favourite Bond movie lines) but everything else must be taught to him. Even having to say the code phrase, “I love you” seems awkward and unnatural to him, as if to underline Bond’s initial strange status as being legally dead and having to walk in a strange land to find someone he’s never met who can help him get to the bottom of a mystery no one believes. The much reviled turning Japanese scene becomes more palatable when viewed from the perspective that it represents Bond’s absorption into Japan and its ways.
This adventure through the Oriental looking glass contrasts well with the plot, if there is indeed one, of Casino Royale. That is a movie where the protagonist apparently knows what’s going on if the audience doesn’t. In You Only Live Twice, it is Bond who is initially bewildered but the story is simple, in fact the simplest of the Bond movies thus far. It’s just a matter of following one bit of the trail at a time, as SPECTRE has inadvertently left a trace of breadcrumbs for Bond to follow. Two things ultimately doom Blofeld’s plan: The first is that Osato is not a clean operator. Blofeld is absolutely right in his ultimate assessment of the man he has entrusted to implement his grand scheme; that it is his failure to cover up his trail that has led Bond and Tanaka’s Ninjas to the volcano hideout. The second is, of course, allowing Bond a final cigarette.
The plot of You Only Live Twice is very simple so that the big set pieces, on which the film rests on, can take place. The opening scene sets out the stall with the hijacking of a Gemini spacecraft. It’s a masterstroke of film-making which already takes a swipe at the Bond rivals in the way it’s constructed. First, it’s grounded in reality. The Gemini spacecraft, the communication with Mission Control and the spacewalk are all familiar to a 1967 audience. By contrast, the Bond knock-offs such as In Like Flint or The Ambushers (a Matt Helm movie) from the same year give us ludicrous spacecraft or scenes which are pure science-fantasy. By using realistic spacecraft and dialogue, You Only Live Twice is setting itself apart from its imitators. And then there’s the added flourish that cements itself into the public consciousness; the John Barry score. This is the start of Barry’s best period of being a Bond composer with this movie and the next two and the space march is arguably one of the most iconic bits of incidental score in the series’ history. Eat that, Casino Royale!
And the cinematic dick-wangling just goes on from there. Aided by Freddie Francis’ clinically sharp cinematography which gives the movie a polished, shiny look compared to the vibrant colours of the previous four movies which suits the Ken Adams sets with its polished and brushed steel abounding. The chase sequence is given a new twist with the sheer overkill of Little Nellie. All those weapons and one camera. On Bond’s head. The Ninja training camp; and by the way You Only Live Twice is the first time a mainstream Western movie references Ninjas. You can thank it for introducing this shadowy band of Japanese assassins into Western pop culture. Moving on, there’s the aforementioned Kobe docks fight with the rooftop battle and finally the volcano. The £1,000,000 price tag of that one set is all up there on the screen.
It’s a film of reveals, much like Dr No, where we finally get to see the villain and he’s like a ramped up version of Dr No himself. Originally the part of Ernst Stavro Blofeld was to be played by a Czech actor called Jan Werich but he did not match up to the movie’s grand idea of menace, so they went to the go-to guy for creepy menace, Donald Pleasance, who turns in a performance that is not altogether consistent with the way the character had been portrayed in his two previous appearances. However, Pleasance’s interpretation of the role has become a benchmark and the basis for most parodies of the Blofeld character since then. His cold and mechanical delivery is in synch with the environment of the volcano hideout; he seems at one with his surroundings here without some of the decadent trappings Blofeld will surround himself in with the next two Bond movies. Pleasance’s often inhuman delivery of lines, from “the power to ani-hil-ate a small army…you can watch it all on TV” to “KILL. BOND. NOW!” elevates Blofeld from the scheming master criminal in From Russia With Love and Thunderball to the architect of a new, totalitarian world order. What is retained from the earlier movies is Blofeld’s sense of justice and retribution when people let him down. He punished Kronsteen and not Klebb even though arguably it’s Klebb’s choice of people to carry out Kronsteen’s plan that led to its failure. Here, he punishes Helga Brandt and not Osato for failing to stop Bond. Osato is the weak link in Blofeld’s operation because he has left a line of clues for Bond to follow but in Blofeld’s mind, Brandt must die to motivate Osato in upping his game.
By the end of the movie it is clear what EON productions, Saltzman and Broccoli think a Bond epic should be like to both the audiences and competitors. It had ramped things up and set a new benchmark and, predictably, the spy-fi craze of the 1960s would hereon in fade away. In the following two years the last Matt Helm movie, The Wrecking Crew, would be made. A second Bulldog Drummond movie starring Richard Johnson would be made in 1969 and the TV series The Man From UNCLE, I Spy and Get Smart would all be cancelled. Espionage on screen would adapt and become more gritty, paranoid and down to Earth. In these movies and TV shows spymasters couldn’t be trusted by their own agents, agents are very expendable and plots would be labyrinthine. It was the only way the genre could cope with James Bond; by letting him operate alone in the action-spy playground. Bond would play Chemin De Fer, everyone else would play Chess.
As for Casino Royale, it surprisingly made a profit at the box office. It was a curiosity and oddity; an attempt to make a Bond movie without all of the Bond trappings. Arguably, it didn’t even have James Bond…only people using his name. After its run at theatres, it faded into some obscurity in the 70s and 80s, until it started doing the rounds on TV, VHS and DVD. Now it’s seen for what it is; a mess…sometimes fun, often irritating, a movie of what could-have-been and a warning about working with Peter Sellars.
But You Only Live Twice’s victory at the box office and in pop culture recognition came at a price; the other James Bond…Sean Connery. He had had enough and was now resigning from the series. Critics have often said that Connery looks bored in this film but I disagree. He is instead given little room to develop the character as he had done in his first four movies. Bond is now an icon, not a character and Connery plays the role as just that. The marketing for the film makes a point that Sean Connery IS James Bond, accept no substitutes. A ploy that nearly backfired on the producers in the years that followed.
It was no surprise that Sean wanted out. After 5 movies there was nowhere else for him to take James Bond the way he had shaped it. Bond isn’t at the centre of his fabulous world, he now navigates his way through it and that wasn’t what Sean’s Bond was about. Plus there were the demands on him as a person and an actor; a relentless schedule, a press besieging him and a desire to do something more, something meaty. 1965 was a crucial year in Sean’s career: Not only had he done Thunderball, he had also starred in two very good movies in “A Fine Madness” (a black comedy) and “The Hill” (a gritty military drama). Even he couldn’t put up with the level of Bond-mania. Leaving the series on a grandiose note killed that mania. No one could compete with a production like You Only Live Twice and no one could match up to Sean Connery.
The script even plays along with this idea. Four times Bond assumes a fake identity in the movie and each time it doesn’t work. His fake death doesn’t fool anyone, he pretends to be a Mr Fisher (businessman turned industrial spy) but that ruse lasts all of 60 seconds. He undergoes a “transformation” to look Japanese but….it’s not remotely plausible but I think that’s part of the intention, a meta-comment on Bond’s recognisability and iconic status…and he tries to pass himself off as an astronaut, which doesn’t fool Blofeld…who’s one step ahead of Bond’s attempt at disguise and concealment methods. This is the subtext of the movie: Bond is so big, he can’t be hidden. But when you lose your star at the end of this exercise, because Bond is getting so big he’s threatening to crush the man most associated with the character, then the ploy can be said to have backfired somewhat.
This would now become a problem for Broccoli and Saltzman. The imitators had faded away but they still had a series of movies to make and 8 novels to adapt but no star. They simply had to find someone who could just about match up to Sean Connery.
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