You Only Live Twice: 007 Succumbs to Style Over Substance

Connery swallows a Martini too many as Bond’s bigger is better ambitions finally take their toll


It’s June 12, 1967. The Cold War takes a breather after the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War ends without escalating into a larger conflict between the superpowers. Young people are listening to the Beatles’ latest album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the influence of counterculture evident in the music, styles, and ideals of the moment. In London, one of the world capitals of counterculture, the Odeon Leicester Square hosts the world premiere of the fifth James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Queen Elizabeth II is in attendance. It is the first of many Bond movie premieres Her Majesty will attend in the years to come. 

It’s been two years since Bond last thrilled audiences in the spectacular Thunderball. There has never been a longer wait between instalments, and the desire for new thrills is palpable. You Only Live Twice has all the ingredients for a larger than life 007 adventure that includes exotic locales, thrilling action scenes, new gadgets, and beautiful women. By now the formula is well established. And therein lies the problem. After four films, each decidedly bigger than the one before, the James Bond franchise appeared to hit a ceiling. You Only Live Twice is the first Bond film to underperform its predecessor at the box office, but it was also an underperformer for fans. 

Naturally, Bond producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman did not aim to give audiences a subpar 007 film. They found a solid director in Lewis Gilbert, fresh from his surprise hit Alfie with Michael Caine. Gilbert was reluctant to take the job at first, but he competently handled the signature elements of the Bond formula. He also brought his friend and cinematographer Freddie Young to lens the film. Young won acclaim for his work on David Lean’s epics Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago earlier in the decade, and he had a reputation as one of the best cinematographers working in film at the time.

Roald Dahl was brought in to replace Richard Maibaum, a veteran Bond screenwriter who had contributed mightily to every prior film but was unavailable. A talented writer of children’s stories, Dahl was given a surprising amount of latitude from Broccoli and Saltzman despite his lack of screenwriting experience. Dahl was a friend of Fleming, but he considered You Only Live Twice one of his lesser works. Dahl’s first decision in adapting it was to dump the book’s narrative and come up with something new. Consequently, You Only Live Twice is the first Bond film to share little with its source material other than the title.

For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.

Tanaka

Inspired by the space race going on between the superpowers, Dahl whipped up the most convoluted Bond tale yet. Someone is plucking American and Soviet space capsules out of orbit using a rocket with giant mechanical jaws. The superpowers blame each other, and World War III appears imminent. The British, however, think it’s more complicated than that. They have traced the rocket to Japan and send 007 to investigate. Bond travels around Japan in search of clues, and we get an eyeful of beautiful scenery along with some cringe-inducing moments of cultural insensitivity. It turns out that none other than SPECTRE is behind the space kidnappings. Operating from a secret base in a dormant Japanese volcano, the dastardly international criminal brotherhood has been hired by a foreign power (presumably Communist China, but never specified) to instigate a shooting war between the superpowers and alter the international balance of power. If you were able to handle the heavy doses of megalomania and complex schemes served up by the likes of Auric Goldfinger and earlier SPECTRE agents Dr. No, Rosa Klebb, and Emilio Largo, then this caper works. And there are some magnificent set pieces to go along with the proceedings. 

Ken Adam’s production design delivers another visually stunning experience, with Blofeld’s rocket base set as the main attraction. This marvel goes beyond any of Adam’s previous endeavors, proving once again the Bond villains always have the best hangouts. This goes beyond anything Adam did for Dr. NoGoldfinger, or Thunderball, and it would not be topped until the clunky effects-laden Bond films of the late 70s. At 200 feet across and over 100 feet at the peak, the volcano set was built by 250 laborers, used 700 tons of structural steel and 200 tons of plasterwork, and was visible from three miles away. Of course, the set gets blown to hell when Bond and his ninja cohorts storm the base to stop Blofeld’s evil plan. Adam is also responsible for introducing Bond fans to Little Nellie, the gyrocopter Bond uses in the film to search for SPECTRE’s secret base. Adam heard about the one-person copter on the radio, and invited its inventor, RAF Wing Commander Ken Wallis, to be part of the production. Little Nellie in the film is a deadly little toy, complete with missiles, machine guns, and aerial mines which she uses on a group of SPECTRE attack copters. The final seven-minute sequence took 46 hours in the air to shoot, and cameraman John Jordan lost his foot in a crash during filming.

You Only Live Twice includes some good fight scenes, including a well-choreographed brawl at the Kobe docks complete with long distance crane shots that allow us to watch the action from above. We also get to visit a sumo wrestling match and a traditional Japanese wedding in the countryside. These set pieces immerse us in the locale, which is described in great detail in Fleming’s book. The producers scoured Japan for several weeks before filming to spot shooting locations. It looks as if they tried to include everything they saw on the screen.

John Barry returned to score his fourth Bond soundtrack, Nancy Sinatra performing the title song after her father, Frank, turned down the offer. Barry’s soundtrack and Sinatra’s opening tune flawlessly accompany the proceedings, but reception for both was not as great as earlier or later Bond music. Shirley Bassey, whose vocal talents adorn Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker, recorded a version of You Only Live Twice in 1987 for a 25th anniversary collection of James Bond movie tunes. The album featured Bassey singing covers of several other Bond songs, but it was never released. Her version of You Only Live Twice was made public in 2007.

Oh, the things I do for England.

James Bond

The film’s sights and sounds are everything Bond fans had come to expect. But the energy wasn’t there. Sean Connery is James Bond, but by this fifth film he looks tired of the role. Watching Bond in action, we get the sense that he already knows where each punch is going to land and how he will get out of each trouble spot. It turns out there is a fine line between suave and sophisticated and bored and cynical. Connery crosses it several times in this film. It’s hard to enjoy a movie when the film’s star doesn’t seem invested in proceedings, but it’s also hard to blame Connery for turning in less than his best. James Bond made Connery an international superstar, but the actor paid for it by being typecast and basically signing away his private life. Everywhere he went in Japan, he was swamped by the press and fans eager for a glimpse of the actor. Connery had been contracted for five films, and he fulfilled his contract. He told Broccoli and Saltzman before shooting began that he was not interested in renewing it. 

Series regulars Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewelyn return as M, Moneypenny, and Q, respectively. They all follow Bond to Japan like a portable team that can be deployed in the field at will, presumably to make Bond feel at home when he is far away. This leads to one delightfully ridiculous moment where Bond enters M’s office on a British submarine anchored off Hong Kong and finds it decorated exactly like his space in London, complete with a fireplace. Donald Pleasance is the fourth actor to portray Blofeld, and for much of the film his face remains obscured as we have seen Blofeld in the other films. It is only when Bond is captured in the volcano base that he, and we, get to meet the head of SPECTRE face to scarred face. Pleasance, known at this point for more nebbishy roles in The Great Escape and Fantastic Voyage, was a peculiar choice for a supervillain. He’s certainly not physically menacing, but his shark-like stare convinces you that he would own a pool filled with henchmen eating piranha.

Indominable character actor Charles Gray, who will play a superior Blofeld with scenery chewing relish in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, has a small role in You Only Live Twice as Dikko Henderson, a British agent living in Japan. He is only in one scene to provide Bond some background information, but we wish there were more of him. Gray’s character is so cool that he mixes Bond’s signature martini wrong, and 007 simply goes with it rather than correct him. Bond’s Japanese allies include Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka, Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki, and Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki. All three were recognized film and television actors in Japan but had little Western film experience before or after You Only Live Twice. Wakabayashi and Hama were originally cast for each other’s roles, but Hama’s poor English forced a switch, and she was given the less talkative role with the cooler name. German film actress Karin Dor joined the league of Bond women as Helga Brandt, a.k.a SPECTRE Number 11. Known as “Miss Crime” in Germany for her gangster movie roles, Dor doesn’t really have enough screen time to make an impression like the deadly Fiona Volpe in Thunderball. Consequently, Dor doesn’t deliver much menace and becomes just another Bond conquest who is later dropped into Blofeld’s piranha pool.

You only live twice, Mr. Bond. As you see, I’m about to inaugurate a little war. In a matter of hours, when the United States and Russia have annihilated each other, we shall see a new power dominating the world. 

Blofeld

For die-hard Bond fans, it’s worth noting appearances by two character actors who will continue to appear in 007 films for several years. The first is Shane Rimmer, known for small roles in dozens of films, often playing military or technical parts. He briefly appears as an American space technician in You Only Live Twice and later appeared in Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Love Me. Richard Graydon, a stunt performer in two prior Bond films, makes an onscreen appearance in You Only Live Twice as a Russian cosmonaut. He also was a stunt performer and onscreen heavy in several Bond films up to A View to a Kill.

You Only Live Twice, being a James Bond film, is superior to most other spy thrillers. No other combination of actors, writers, directors, producers, designers, and technicians can do what these people did. But, within the uncompromising world of 007, You Only Live Twice lacks the energy and self-awareness of prior (and some later) instalments. It’s a middling effort that might have been more successful had its premise been a bit more… down to Earth. But maybe that’s a jaded view from someone who has seen these and other spy movies too many times. That was the feeling of movie audiences in 1967, though. You Only Live Twice was the first 007 movie to face direct competition in the spy thriller genre at the box office. There was James Coburn as Derek Flint, Dean Martin as Matt Helm, Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the ColdThe Double ManThe DefectorThe Deadly Affair, and so on. 

You Only Live Twice wasn’t even the only James Bond film that year. In April, producer Charles K. Feldman’s Bond spoof Casino Royale opened in theatres to puzzled reactions. Feldman held the rights to Fleming’s first novel before Broccoli and Saltzman came along. The three could not work out a deal to co-produce a Bond film, so Feldman took an alternative route with the material he still owned. He made a campy, crazy, and unfortunately not very funny Bond spoof. James Bond’s name alone made it the 13th highest grossing film of the year, but few have ever viewed it twice. 

Success had become its own trap, maybe even more than James Bond could handle. Casino Royale made just half what You Only Live Twice managed at the box office. But the Bond franchise felt the sting of competition. Broccoli knew he could have done better were it not for the competition. He foresaw in the early 60s that the franchise would encounter challenges, even in success. The key to sustaining that success was in keeping Bond fresh. Broccoli and Saltzman would certainly get their chance. James Bond’s return in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have a whole new look. And for the first time ever, a whole new James Bond. 

Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay: Roald Dahl
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Music: John Barry
Editing: Peter R. Hunt

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