To mark the 50th Anniversary of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time and as James Bond prepares for his 23rd official outing in Skyfall later this year, I have been tasked with taking a retrospective look at the films that turned author Ian Fleming’s creation into one of the most recognised and iconic characters in film history.
After the phenomenal box-office success of Thunderball in 1965 the Bond series producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were left looking for an out of this world adventure for Bond’s fifth outing, You Only Live Twice. When Richard Maibaum the screenwriter of all the previous films became unavailable the producers hired popular short story and children’s writer Roald Dahl to pen the screenplay. Dahl had been a close friend of Fleming but described the original novel as “Fleming’s worst book”. Taking only a handful of ideas from the story, Dahl wrote an almost completely original screenplay disregarding much of Fleming’s plot and adding elements from a rejected script by screenwriter Harold Jack Bloom.
As before, many of the crew members from the last four films returned including editor Peter Hunt, production designer Ken Adam, art director Peter Lamont, stunt co-ordinator Bob Simmons and special effects director John Stears. With a budget of $9.5 million, just half a million more than Thunderball the producers brought in a new director, Lewis Gilbert who already had an established track record of well regarded films such as Reach For The Sky, Carve Her Name With Pride and Alfie. Gilbert was persuaded by Saltzman and Broccoli to put his own stamp on the series and in the process was to make the most ambitious Bond film to date.
During the promotional tour for Thunderball, Sean Connery had begun to show the early signs of disillusion with the role. The burden of leading the franchise and the amount of time required to publicise the movies were beginning to take their toll on his blossoming career as well as the fear that the role could lead to typecasting. Connery made the shock announcement during the making of You Only Live Twice that this would be his final Bond film.
(About to make love to Helga Brandt)
James Bond: Oh the things I do for England.
The usual twinkle in his eye that had been evident since From Russia With Love is sadly missing from his performance in You Only Live Twice. He seems jaded and a little bored by the role, lacking the spark that had defined his portrayal of the character. Contributing factors may have included a number of changes in the production team for the fifth film in the series, a new director and screenwriter as well as the fact that Connery was given a hard time by the Japanese press during the making of the film which may have also affected his performance. One thing was for sure that it was the right decision to leave the role before completely running out of steam. He would leave a legacy that would be hard to beat and would prove to be the standard against which all that would follow would be compared.
Pre-Credits & Theme Song
In a change of form after the previous two films’ opening sequences that featured scenes bearing little relation to the main storyline, You Only Live Twice opens with a scene setting in motion the main plot thread for the movie. Beginning in space during a US mission by NASA, an astronaut makes his way out of the space capsule for a space walk. Moments later his mission is literally cut short by a mysterious spacecraft that intercepts the NASA craft mid-flight, opening its nose cone to swallow the US capsule.
With the US and Russian space programs in full swing during the sixties and NASA’s Apollo missions only two years away from making the first moon landing, the space race was a hot topic of the day making it inevitable that it would be an obvious choice of storyline for Bond to become involved in some way.
The second part of the pre-credits sequence sees Bond very briefly enjoying the company of a Chinese girl in a Hong Kong boudoir. As she steps away from the bed it folds up against the wall with Bond still on it as a number of gunmen sweep in and fire machine guns at the underside of the bed. As the bed is folded back down it is revealed that Bond is dead and Maurice Binder’s Japanese infused opening titles begin.
The actress playing the Chinese girl is Tsai Chin who would make a return to the Bond films almost forty years later appearing in Casino Royale as a poker player in the tournament where Bond takes on Le Chiffre. This part of the opening sequence is so brief and lacking the thrills of the pre-credits scenes of both Goldfinger and Thunderball making it one of the series’ least memorable openers.
The title song was written by John Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse and for the first time was performed by a non-British star, Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank. Barry’s elegant score uses motifs from the title music throughout the film resulting in one of his finest musical accompaniments for the whole series.
When a US spacecraft is hijacked mid-flight, the Americans initially suspect it to be the work of the Soviet Union. British secret service agent James Bond is assigned to the case which leads him to Japan where he is partnered with his opposite number in the Japanese secret service Tiger Tanaka. Together they discover that the true mastermind behind the hijack is Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the leader of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion).
When a Soviet rocket suffers the same fate as the US spacecraft tensions reach an all time high between the two superpowers. Bond uncovers Blofeld’s secret underground base hidden inside a volcano where he is plotting to spark a nuclear strike between the two countries by disrupting their space programs.
Unlike many of Bond’s later globetrotting adventures, You Only Live Twice is confined to just the one country. It totally embraces Japanese culture and spends a lot of screen time on a number of Japanese traditions from sumo wrestling to a lengthy wedding scene culminating in a tea ceremony. The observations of the country’s customs seem overlong and are mere padding for a screenplay lacking in excitement. They are, however, played out with respect but when the decision is made to make Bond look more Japanese things take a turn for the worse. It is a largely pointless scene and the transformation is racially dubious and far from convincing, not least the fact that at 6ft 2in he towers above most of the people around him.
The character of Tiger Tanaka, played by Tetsuro Tanba, is essentially a Japanese version of CIA agent Felix Leiter. He is still a likeable character and plays an important role in the overall plot of the film. He is Bond’s link to the Japanese way of life and provides invaluable training and assistance from his ninja army for the climactic battle. The final assault on Blofeld’s lair is a large scale affair with some jaw-dropping stunt work and features the now legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong in one of his first films as one of the ninjas abseiling into the base.
Blofeld’s volcano lair remains one of the largest, most elaborate sets ever built at Pinewood Studios. The set had its own monorail running around the edge and was big enough to house the full scale rocket used by Blofeld to hijack the US and Soviet spacecraft, it was also possible to fly a helicopter in through the roof to the landing pad in the centre of the base. Designed by Ken Adam, the set is probably his most famous creation for the Bond films and not only featured the main base but also housed Blofeld’s living quarters complete with piranha pools.
Adding to the film’s epic scale, the cinematography was provided by the incomparable Freddie Young who had previously captured the ambitious scope of Lawrence Of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago for director David Lean. He provides Bond with some unforgettable shots beautifully framing the gargantuan sets as well as capturing some imaginative footage of the action scenes. In particular a spectacular rooftop chase is seen from above with the camera pulling back to reveal Bond fighting his way through dozens of goons all taking place in one wide shot.
This fifth film is a far cry from the relatively low key likes of Dr. No and From Russia With Love. The excesses of Goldfinger and Thunderball are exaggerated to create Bond’s biggest adventure to date. While Dahl’s screenplay may be slightly flawed in its approach, essentially borrowing elements from the previous films, it all somehow works to create an overall familiarity that helped shape the mould of the classic Bond.
The Bond Villain
After several brief glimpses in From Russia With Love and Thunderball and with a build-up not afforded many villains in film history, the face of the leader of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld is finally revealed in You Only Live Twice. Sadly however it is not quite the staggering reveal that one would hope following such anticipation but this could be attributed to the fact that the actor playing the role was changed after the cameras had already begun to roll.
Czech actor Jan Werich had been the first choice to take the role but conflicting reports suggest he was either fired or fell ill shortly after shooting had commenced. Established screen actor Donald Pleasance was brought in by Broccoli and Gilbert as a replacement and he soon settled into the role by trying to put his own stamp on the character. Initially suggesting he should play the character with a hump, a limp, a beard or a lame hand before finally deciding to go with the scar across the eye.
Blofeld: James Bond. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Ernst Stavro Blofeld. They told me you were assassinated in Hong Kong.
James Bond: Yes, this is my second life.
Blofeld: You only live twice, Mr. Bond.
While Pleasance is undoubtedly a fine actor he does not quite imbue enough menace into the character of Blofeld. Instead he is played as more of a feeble, diminutive man who relies on others to take care of business. While he may be one of the greatest criminal minds, Blofeld is clearly no real match for Bond and would certainly come out worse in a physical fight but then that is probably why he surrounds himself with henchmen. Pleasance’s interpretation of Blofeld is possibly the most recognised and iconic of all the Bond villains setting a standard that would be followed throughout the series and often used as the starting point for Bond parodies.
After the previous films’ henchmen heavy approach, You Only Live Twice is surprisingly light on supporting villains. Obviously inspired by the success of Fiona Volpe in Thunderball, another redheaded bad girl steps up to take down Bond. SPECTRE’s Number 11, Helga Brandt played by German actress Karin Dor. While not quite as ruthless as Volpe, she takes a similar approach in seducing Bond only to then attempt to kill him by leaving him pilotless in a stricken light aircraft as she parachutes to safety. When her plan inevitably fails she is at the mercy of Blofeld who, as we have seen before does not tolerate failure, before going on to drop her into his tank of man-eating piranhas in a graphic death scene performed by Dor herself.
Mr. Osato: You should give up smoking. Cigarettes are very bad for your chest.
Helga Brandt: Mr. Osato Believes in a healthy chest
(Bond eyes Helga’s breasts)
James Bond: Really?
Blofeld’s other henchmen include Mr. Osato, possibly one of the least threatening villains of the series and the 6ft 8in Hans, Blofeld’s personal bodyguard who with his blonde hair and muscular frame brings From Russia With Love’s Red Grant to mind but lacks the style and wit that made that character so memorable.
The Bond Girl
You Only Live Twice is highly unusual in that the main Bond girl role is effectively split between two characters of which we learn very little over the course of the film. The first is Aki, an agent with the Japanese secret service played by Akiko Wakabayashi. As soon as Bond arrives in Tokyo she is by his side with an uncanny knack of arriving just in time to rescue him in her white Toyota sports car. Incidentally, this is the only Bond film that does not feature him driving a car himself and the Toyota used in the film had to be modified with a soft top to accommodate Connery who proved too tall for the standard model.
Aki is a feisty and likeable sidekick who remains with Bond throughout most of the film until her death at the hands of a ninja assassin who, planning to kill Bond with poison delivered on a thread from above while he sleeps, inadvertently kills Aki instead.
Aki: I think I will enjoy very much serving under you.
The second Bond girl is Kissy Suzuki played by Mie Hama with whom Bond is paired in an arranged marriage. Her name is never actually mentioned and it is only listed as Kissy during the end credits, the surname is taken from the character in the book. She serves very little purpose in the overall story and despite the fact that one of her main roles is to swim for help from Tanaka, she could not actually swim herself and was doubled by Connery’s wife Diane Cilento wearing a black wig. Kissy seems to be merely someone for Bond to end up with in the final scene purely to maintain the Bond tradition.
Bond’s main gadget in You Only Live Twice is also one of his most well known only rivalled by the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger. Designed by former RAF Wing Commander Ken Wallis, Little Nellie, a WA-116 gyrocopter painted in a distinctive yellow and black livery and heavily armed with machine guns and rocket launchers proves to be one of the highlights of the film. Coming to Bond courtesy of Q branch, housed in four large packing cases and assembled in a neat stop-frame montage, Little Nellie steals the show during an exciting set-piece. Piloted by its creator the gyrocopter holds its own against a squadron of enemy helicopters in a spectacular aerial battle that proved to be very challenging to film. With 85 take-offs and more than 5 hours flying time the sequence was filmed on location in both Japan and Spain after the Japanese government refused to allow any explosions over their national park.
James Bond Will Return…..
The film was the first Bond film to be released during the summer rather than the traditional October/ November release date and was the first to be screened for a Royal premiere. There seemed to be no stopping Bond at the box-office with the film once again grossing over $100million however this was the first film not to out-gross the previous movie leading some to speculate that a change of direction would not necessarily be a bad thing for the franchise. With Connery out of the picture for the next adventure, producers Broccoli and Saltzman knew they had a tough act to follow but the search had to begin for a new Bond…..
To catch up on previous installments of the James Bond Retrospective click below: