Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. It continues with a look at the debut of Blofeld in You Only Live Twice.
Producers Saltzman and Broccoli wanted to adapt On Her Majesty’s Secret Service after Thunderball, but struggled to find the necessary snowy locations for filming. They chose Japan-set You Only Live Twice as the next film, culminating in the first appearance of Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Meanwhile, chaos was raging behind the scenes as Sean Connery became even more disillusioned with playing the lead role in the world’s biggest action franchise. The producers also had to deal with an enormous budget for the extravagant sets and a villain who needed recasting at the eleventh hour.
You Only Live Twice relocates the franchise to Japan and, after Thunderball’s underwater finale, keeps its feet mostly on the ground.
Bond goes East
Bond (Connery) is apparently assassinated by SPECTRE operatives before the credits even roll. He returns to duty in order to investigate a plot to steal Russian and American space shuttles, igniting tensions between the two countries and inflaming the Cold War. In Japan, Bond allies with secret service boss Tiger (Tetsurō Tamba) and agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi).
The path eventually leads Bond to SPECTRE’s volcano lair and its cat-toting leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence). Bond must join Tiger’s army of highly-trained ninjas to bring SPECTRE down and prevent war.
You Only Live Twice marks the beginning of the real decline of the Connery Bond films. It’s got a bizarre, deeply stereotyped, grasp of Japanese culture and goes on just a little too long. That said, it remains an enthralling thriller and it has a genuinely impressive all-action finale.
"You, I’m afraid, will get into anything. With any girl."
Roald Dahl, who would later become a household name as a children’s author, was hired to write the script. Dahl was a friend of Ian Fleming, but called You Only Live Twice his worst book and therefore opted to change almost everything on the path to the big screen. This ignited a trend of originality that would continue throughout the Bond franchise. Many of the future Bond films would be more loosely based on the novels from which they take their name.
Dahl worked in collaboration with director Lewis Gilbert, who was also a newbie to the series. Gilbert initially turned down the role, but Broccoli called him to convince him that he would regret the decision. In fact, he would return to take the helm of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.
Connery continues to excel in the lead role, even as his enthusiasm for the job waned. His Bond is an old-fashioned sexist, but has charisma for miles and a great way with a quip. He is handed an awful Japanese disguise for the final act of You Only Live Twice, but he finally gets to square off with his greatest enemy.
Blofeld himself is terrifically realised, despite his relatively meagre screen time. Pleasence’s portrayal of the character is immediately iconic and there’s a certain appeal to the Big Bad of the entire franchise being a tiny, disfigured man in a chair who has little in the way of physical capabilities. Compared to Pleasence, subsequent portrayals of the character were lacking in recognition value.
Ninjas, cats and volcano lairs
For most of its running time, the Bond film You Only Live Twice most closely resembles is Dr. No. Dahl’s script pushes Bond’s investigation along in interesting fashion, with betrayals and surprise revelations at every turn. Unfortunately, it’s a little longer than that film and has a slightly saggy middle act as a result.
"You wouldn’t touch that horrible woman, would you?"
Dahl’s script also gives short shrift to the women in Bond’s life. None of Bond’s romantic entanglements in this film are given any real depth. Kissy Suzuki, played by Mie Hama, is particularly under-written – only introduced at the start of the third act. She goes from turning down Bond’s advances to being hopelessly in love with him in a matter of minutes.
You Only Live Twice does, however, explode with energy when it enters Blofeld’s hollowed-out volcano lair, beautifully realised by set designer Ken Adam. The final conflict between the SPECTRE forces and Tiger’s ninjas is thrilling, even if it leaves Blofeld himself somewhat sidelined.
Second life at the box office
When You Only Live Twice premiered in Leicester Square in 1967, it was the first of the Bond premieres attended by the Queen. It was one of the biggest films of the year, scoring over $100m at the worldwide box office.
The film received broadly positive reviews, but there was criticism of its reliance on Bond’s gadgetry rather than his spy abilities. Ken Adam’s set design was universally praised by critics, but many attacked Blofeld’s appearance as something of a letdown.
"We corpses have no sense of time."
You Only Live Twice may not be the most impressive outing for the franchise, but it’s one that’s worth watching to see Connery continue to strut his stuff and for the sensational climax.
Next week, a new super-spy steps into the tuxedo for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
What do you think of You Only Live Twice? Where does it stand in the pantheon of Bond films? Is Sean Connery the best lead in the franchise’s history? Let me know in the comments section and keep your eyes peeled for more Bond Reloaded next Monday.