Should I Watch..? You Only Live Twice
What's the Big Deal?
You Only Live Twice is an action spy thriller film released in 1967 and is the fifth film in the James Bond series. In his fifth consecutive appearance as 007, Sean Connery plays British secret agent James Bond who is sent to Japan to search for a missing spacecraft and potentially prevent a war between the US and the Soviet Union. Unlike previous Bond films, this was the first to largely dispense with creator Ian Fleming's novel of the same name as it used only certain characters and locations from the novel. Instead, the film is mostly based on a rewrite of the novel by author Roald Dahl who, despite being a friend of Flemings, had no previous screenwriting experience. Like the earlier movies, it was a critical and financial success and has been often parodied by the likes of Mike Myers in Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery (1). The film was also beset by the news that Connery had grown tired of the role and that this would be his last appearance in the role—a fact which later turned out to be untrue.
What's It About?
An American spacecraft is snatched in orbit around the world by an unidentified craft with the loss of two astronauts on board. The US naturally assume that their Cold War enemies the Soviet Union are responsible but they deny all knowledge. The British, mediating talks between the two, have another idea - the unidentified craft disappeared somewhere in the sea near Japan and so James Bond is sent to Tokyo to investigate.
Working alongside the head of the Japanese secret service, Tiger Tanaka, 007 becomes fully immersed in the Japanese culture whilst searching for clues as to the whereabouts of the missing spacecraft. Meanwhile, a Russian spacecraft is also snatched from orbit and the Russians are prepared to go to war as a result. With the clock ticking down to full-scale nuclear war between the two superpowers, Bond begins to suspect that SPECTRE and their enigmatic leader Blofeld may be behind things...
Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Roald Dahl *
Release Date (UK)
13th June, 1967
Action, Adventure, Thriller
What's to Like?
The film, while certainly having its issues, still finds the time to provide the Bond series with plenty of iconic scenes and moments. Pleasence's brief appearance as Blofeld would define the character forever and inspire a legion of imitators such as Dr Evil from the Austin Powers movies. It's a pity he's not given more screen time because his presence in the film is both unsettling and chilling. The film is still dreadfully over-the-top compared to the likes of From Russia With Love (2) but it does tone it down a bit from the excessive Thunderball (3). But it's still fun and enjoyable which is what you want any film to be.
There are two outstanding moments for me. The Little Nellie sequence, despite the difficulties getting it filmed, is brilliant - full of drama and excitement and soundtracked to the legendary Bond theme by Monty Norman. But personally, the film truly belongs to set designer Ken Adam who created an astonishing set for Blofeld's volcano lair. With a movable helipad, working monorail and apparently made with more steel than the London Hilton (700 tonnes worth), it is a sight to behold and a perfect backdrop to the overblown finale.
- Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, set designer Ken Adma, director Lewis Gilbert and cinematographer Freddie Young missed a flight from Tokyo after being invited to an unexpected demonstration of ninja. 25 minutes after take-off, the plane they should have been on crashed and killed everyone on board. It gave the film's title an unsettling new meaning.
- The Toyota 2000GT's featured in the movie were never convertibles - they had to cut the roof off so Connery could fit inside, which meant a clothed roof could also not be used.
- Adam's set for the volcano lair cost almost as much as the entire budget for Dr No(4). It could be seen from three miles away.
What's Not to Like?
Beset by numerous off-screen issues, the somewhat chaotic production behind You Only Live Twice naturally leads to a number of flaws. Connery, who was being increasingly hounded by the media, decided to quit the role during production and his relationship with Cubby and Saltzman had deteriorated to such a point that he wouldn't act if they were on set. As a result, Connery's performance in this movie feels disinterested and limp - compared to Thunderball, he's a shadow of the secret agent we all know and love.
The film's script also isn't the strongest as it's a basic retread of Dr No, something Dahl himself admitted. It also loses its way towards the end with hundreds of ninja storming the base with noisy machine guns and grenades, tools and tactics I don't usually associate with ninja. The film's pace is also uneven as it slows down during Bond's apparent transformation into a Japanese man. Firstly, I didn't exactly understand why this was necessary to complete the mission. Secondly, he looks more Vulcan than he does Japanese and the whole process whiffs faintly of 1960's-style racism. Lastly, it strips the movie of any kind of momentum as the film grinds to a halt as Bond undergoes surgery in what can only be described as Russ Meyer's idea of a hospital.
Should I Watch It?
You Only Live Twice is not the strongest Bond film in the series - in many ways, it was the weakest produced so far - but it can still conjure up enough of the old magic to entertain, enthral and entrance us. Pleasence's brief screen time and Adam's gob-smacking sets lift the picture out of the mire as Connery's presence slowly diminishes. It's still worth a look but the series was still off the pace of Goldfinger (5) and needed new ideas and a new leading man to go forward.
Great For: Bond fans, Mike Myers, Robbie Williams.
Not So Great For: fans of the first two films, quality dubbing, Japanese stereotypes.
What Else Should I Watch?
Goldfinger is Connery's best Bond picture which combines glamour, danger, action, comedy and unforgettable characters. It's also a stark contrast to From Russia With Love which may lack the fun factor but still entertains as a gripping spy thriller without all that 'Pussy Galore' nonsense.
After Goldfinger, things were never quite the same again as Cubby & Saltzman felt that they had stumbled onto the formula for box office gold. The series had no choice but to carry on being silly but still entertaining films and while I personally don't rate him as a Bond, Roger Moore's era had plenty of films that fit that bill. The Man With The Golden Gun (6) is a good example - it's utterly stupid but an entertaining film with its larger-than-life villain (played with typical menace by the late Christopher Lee) and his unusual sidekick, truly mind-blowing locations and it even tacks on a diabolical plot along the standard storyline.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox