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Non-Review Review: You Only Live Twice

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

You Only Live Twice was my favourite when I was younger. It was energetic, witty, bright, colourful and adventurous. The stakes were ridiculously high – no less than the Third World War. Bond’s trip to Japan painted the country as an exotic wonderland to a mind as young as my own. The script was smart and the action was fast-paced – the movie still breezes along even today. The cost of the speed is that the movie is ultimately fairly light – it doesn’t carry anything particularly heavy or thought-provoking. This means that it ends up feeling relatively light-weight when measured against some of Sean Connery’s earlier outings like From Russia With Love or Goldfinger, which worked at least as much with suspense as with action.

Is Bond turning Japanese?

Interestingly enough, the movie marks the first time that the film franchise would greatly depart from Ian Fleming’s source novel. The book, which is a great read, was set after the climax of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It followed Bond as he engaged on a roaring rampage of revenge against the organisation which had conspired to kill his young bride. It’s kinda like the movie Quantum of Solace ended up, but a lot more focused on the revenge aspect. It’s a powerful plot which was really helped by the Japanese setting – a world of honour, with Bond avenging his beloved.

Instead, this film borrows only the location and a few key characters, occurring – as it does – before the film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s set in Japan, but – rather than Bond’s revenge – the plot focuses on the kidnapping of American and Russian spacecraft by the mysterious evil organisation SPECTRE. There’s nothing especially personal about Bond’s quest, in fact it’s fairly by-the-numbers. The plot sounds like the kind of thing that would become common during the Moore years, with abductions of entire space craft, but here there’s a hint of novelty and scale – this isn’t the theft of gold or the stealing of nuclear weapons, this is grand theft space.

This is the series’ first venture into the realm of full-fledged fantasy. Though there were elements of fantasy in the earlier films (Goldfinger’s plan to nuke Fort Knox, for example, or any number of gadgets and gizmos), here they are pushed very much to the fore. From M’s ridiculous submarine office (complete with secretary Moneypenny in the outer office) through to a Buck-Rodgers-style spaceship-eater, the film makes no pretense of being an average espionage thriller. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Bond prepares to strike a Blo(feld) against international terrorism...

This sort of adventure would be done to death in the years following Connery’s departure (and perhaps this was his gift to his successors – to do it once himself), but here it’s executed with a sense of style and class. I won’t pretend it’s half as substantial as the movies that led into it, but it’s certainly well-handled. Technically it’s impressive – the musical score is among the very best in the series and the design of the volcano lair is one of the best sets produced for the franchise. There’s plenty of action on show, and pacing isn’t an issue – it just floats along incredibly quickly.

Roald Dahl’s script is about as witty as any of the early Bond adventures. One senses the author is having a bit of fun at the expense of the secret agent, as Bond’s libido here is played for laughs – as opposed to being used as a force for good (in Goldfinger, where it converts a bad girl to the side of good) or deconstructed (in Thunderball, where it doesn’t). It’s implied that Bond’s womanising is a bit of a joke to anyone in the profession. “The one thing my honorable mother taught me long ago was never to get into a car with a strange girl,” Japanese intelligence official Tiger informs Bond, “but you will get into anything with any girl.” On finding Bond dead in bed after a night with a Chinese double-agent, the official remarks, “At least he died on the job. He’d have wanted it this way.” Yes, yes, he would.

It’s funny to see Dahl write Bond as a member of the upper class. Here Bond is every part the “very cultivated” gentleman’s gentleman. Here we’re informed that Bond “took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge.” Casino Royale, attempted to modernise the character, would imply that Bond was a lower-class blow-in who was there by the charity of others, but there’s no sense of that here – one imagines that Bond came from a long line of Cambridge Bonds, and keeps his old varsity tie with pride of place in his wardrobe. Interestingly, this represents Dahl’s first produced screenplay – Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang being the second.

A Bond they can all share...

The film engages in a fairly gratuitous amount of Oriental fetishism (packed as it is with “very sexyful” women). I wish I could say – like Bond’s somewhat casual attitude towards consent in earlier films – that this was a product of the times, but this is the sort of thing that movies still do today. “In Japan, men always come first,” Tiger assures Bond as he leads him to a bath full of beautiful and scantily clad Japanese women. “Women come second.” Bond seems to agree with this sentiment, “I might just retire to here.” At one point, Bond is disgusted to hear his colleagues remark that the woman he is marrying “has a face like a pig.” I sense a HR complaint waiting to happen.

The movie is, in fairness, packed to the brim with stereotypes. Most of them have, in fairness, dated relatively well. Though it’s undoubtedly cliché, it’s still deadly to hear Tiger respond to Bond’s query about whether he has trained commandos on stand-by. “I have much, much better,” he declares, showing Bond the ultra-secret training camp which seems mandatory in these films at this stage, “Ninjas!” The climactic assault is packed with ninjas wielding samurai swords taking on a militia armed with guns. The footage from Tokyo by night – a neon paradise – looks as good now as it did all those years ago. On the other hand, I’m not convinced by Bond’s Japanese disguise.

The movie features a great theme song performed by a great artist. Nancy Sinatra delivers the lyrics with wonderful force, never seeming as downright over-the-top as Tom Jones did in the previous movie, for example (it helps that the lyrics are just great – “and love is a stranger…”). It’s no surprise that You Only Live Twice is possibly my favourite Bond theme (aside from, maybe, GoldenEye). Coldplay once described it as “the sexiest song ever written” and they aren’t far wrong.

The lair is layered...

As if all the above isn’t enough to mark You Only Live Twice as an important Bond film, it’s notable for two other things – both concerning the actors cast. First, there’s the rather obvious fact that Sean Connery would be departing the role, as he announced to the press during filming. Being entirely honest, he seems to be sleepwalking through the film, and I think it’s fair to say he had already peaked as Bond. The first three films saw the actor define and grow in the role, and then he was just… Bond. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I respect Connery for leaving when he did – he didn’t draw it out to the point where it became sad, like Roger Moore would. He would return twice in movies that just couldn’t capture the spark of his first five Bond films (Diamonds Are Forever and the out-of-continuity Never Say Never), but the fact that he donated considerable chunks of his sizable salary to charity make that excusable in an “at least somebody did well off those films” sort of way.

Connery was the benchmark for Bond. It’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t consider him the best – in fact “your favourite Bond” discussions should arguably be more honestly referred to as “your favourite Bond who isn’t Connery” discussions. I don’t like to play favourites – I think every Bond (including… sigh… Lazenby) brought something to the table – but to me Connery is Bond. The poise, the dignity, the violent heart underneath a civilised surface, all of these facets can be traced back to Connery. Indeed, I’d almost regard the characterisation of each of the actors who followed as “facets of Sean”, as you can trace most of them back to a single aspect of Sean Connery’s performance.

Lazenby ramped up the humanity (the guy who wants a woman in his life who isn’t dead the moment she sleeps with him), Moore played up the wit and humour (literally, in Octopussy, the sad clown), Dalton expanded on the calm and cynical nature (the Bond who does what he has to for Queen and country), Brosnan brought the effortless sophistication masking an animal underneath (the Bond who can pick a fine wine and beat a henchman to within an inch of his life with it), and Craig is the sheer unrestrained impulse in the man (the crack shot who never thinks through the consequences of his actions). I think if you compare two of those directly – say comparing Lazenby and Dalton or Moore and Craig – you’d sometimes have a hard time synching up the character. However, Connery’s Bond fits each perfectly and seems almost like a bridge.

Looks like he's about to Blo a fuse...

The other notable aspect of the film is the fact that it features Donald Pleasant as Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Blofeld doesn’t do much here. Running an evil terrorist-for-hire racket and keeping pet piranha in his office are about as much personality as the character gets, after being alluded to since the second film. He’d get little more development when he appeared in the subsequent two films (and even making a cameo in a Roger Moore film). However, it’s a mark of Pleasant’s skill that he manages to make the character so darn iconic.

He’s small, snivelling and ambiguously foreign. Yet this version of the character became engrained in popular culture. When you think of an evil terrorist mastermind, you picture him as bald, stroking a cat in a grey jumpsuit – possibly with a scar over his eye. I’m not overly impressed with Blofeld as a Bond villain – probably since “just won’t die” seems to be his defining character trait – but Pleasance is fun to watch in the role. He resists the temptation to take large chunks out of the scenery, and offers an understated performance.

It’s interesting to note that the next time Connery’s Bond faces Blofeld – in Diamonds Are Forever – the villain looks just like Henderson, Bond’s contact who is murdered early in the film. It’s by no means unprecedented – we’ve already had two iterations of Felix Leiter and we’d have another Bond in the next film – but it’s just fun to wonder why Blofeld chose that look. Though, given the choice, I suppose there are worse things to look like than the narrator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. By the way, actor Joe Don Baker would make a similar transition, albeit in reverse – he goes from the villain in The Living Daylights to a sidekick in GoldenEye, another gap of two films and one Bond.

Bond has something to look to...

You Only Live Twice is a flawed Bond film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t goo fun. It’s exciting and fun, and it moves along at a decent pace. It’s wacky and sci-fi, but that’s not necessarily a problem. It does feel less substantial than what came before – but it also feels more substantial than some of what would follow as well. It’s good fun if you can go with it.

We’ve got full reviews of all of Sean Connery’s Bond films, if you want to check ’em out:

The following bloggers also have reviews of the film up as part of James Bond January:

8 Responses

  1. great review! a couple of factoids: – The actor who played
    Tiger told Connery that it would be unthinkable for him to hold a
    door open for a woman and allow her to go through it first. Men
    always came first. – The movie came out before most of us had heard
    of ninjas, so their introduction in the movie was a big deal. –
    Blofeld’s scar was done with glue. Pleasance, being a trooper, put
    up with hours of pain and subsequent damage to his face to play the
    role.

  2. oh, I forgot was I was originally going to say: the director flew all around Japan looking for a castle like the one in the book. there wasn’t one. while looking, he spotted the volcanoes, which is how the volcano set came to be. had there been a Japanese castle that served, I supposed the movie would have been quite different.

  3. What an interesting take on Connery – his being popular because he encompassed a little bit of each iteration of subsequent Bonds.

    joem is right – this film was the first time that Western audiences got a peek at Japanese martial arts. According to the following article from August 1967 issue of Black Belt magazine, the film used a variety of martial arts, for which the magazine praises You Only Live Twice. It also tsks at the lack of accuracy, though.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=QM4DAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA7&dq=black+belt+august+1967+page+34&hl=en&ei=SNMnTeH2M9WmngeVv73QAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=true

  4. Never heard of “Nina” Sinatra before. Is she related to Nancy Sinatra?
    And is Donald “Pleasance” the same person as Donald Pleasence?
    I’m surprised the reviewer got the name “Bond” right!

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