Tuesday, 9 February 2016

You Only Live Twice (1967)

"Well, at least he died on the job..."

Well, it's quite the contrast. Thunderball was a pile of pants, an incoherently directed film with little in the way of charm or entertainment, whereas You Only Live Twice is superb, and easily the best Bond film so far. What went right? Well, the straightforward direction by Lewis Gilbert helps; Thunderball may be much artier (It has wipes, for Christ's sake! In a James Bond film), but it fails to make the narrative clear. Here we have no such problems. What we do have is a well constructed and paced film courtesy of a script by the great Roald Dahl. Yes, that Roald Dahl.

Even the opening sequence is innovative-the image of a NASA space capsule being eaten by another spacecraft is delicious, as is Bond's apparent death before the titles. And the image of a spacewalking astronaut drifting helplessly through space to what he knows will be his death has all the existential horror of the late David Bowie's "Space Oddity" a couple of years later.  All this before we even get to the theme song from Nancy Sinatra, who gives the great Shirley Bassey a run for her money.

We then move straight to the Americans blaming the Soviets for the swallowing of the spacecraft, with both of them portrayed as squabbling juvenile warmongers, leaving the British (naturally) as the voice of reason. This is a little uncomfortable to watch from a distance of fifty years, however. In the wake of Dean Acheson's famous comment Britain is being portrayed here as a "Greece to America's Rome", which smacks very much as a consolation prize for a wannabe superpower. Even this film, which portrays the clever British as in control and saving the world, can't hide the fact that the Americans and Russians of 1967 are sending people into space and we are not.

The fact that M and Moneypenny are in a submarine is brilliant, as is the recognition of Bond's naval rank. The two superpowers are at loggerheads and world war beckons if all this is not sorted out before the next spacecraft is launched. Fortunately, there's a lead pointing to Japan. Also fortunately, Bond took a First in Oriental Languages at Cambridge.

It's interesting that the film's inevitable misogyny (as ever, women are seen through the eyes of a fifteen year old boy) is somewhat obscured by the presentation of all this in the context of what Japanese culture is supposed to be like. There's also the question of ethnic stereotyping, and while this can't be dodged the film gives a broadly positive image of Japan, perhaps remarkably so less than a generation after the War. We get Sumo wrestling, geishas and, of course, ninjas. The tropes are all here to play.

Is impossible at this point not to mention the cute and willing Aki ("I think I will very much enjoy serving under you") who is killed, while Bond's initially more modest "wife" is not. Hmm. Still, this Japan is cool, and I love Tanaka.

The bit with "Little Nellie" looks suspiciously as if it was just crowbarred into the film to give Desmond Llewelyn something to do, but it isn't long before the Russians launch a rocket of their own (Norse pagans will be either pleased or outraged that the Russian for "three" is "Odin"), which is duly swallowed again. Cue more recriminations and a reminder of the stakes, although it certainly makes me wonder how credible it is that a criminal organisation like SMERSH could have the resources to send a rocket into space capable of doing this. Best to banish such thoughts.

This film is possibly the most influential Bond film in popular culture and certainly for Austin Powers: the volcano base is brilliant, and Donald Pleasance's splendidly hammy performance as the now-revealed Ernst Stavro Blofeld is blatantly the inspiration for Dr. Evil. And the piranhas, and the collapsible ramp above them, are perfect.

This is an incredible film and easily the best so far. I'm genuinely unsure if anything will top it.


  1. A couple of notes on this one; Fleming in fact visited Japan during his world tour covered in ''Thrilling Cities'' (one of his non-fiction books) and liked it a lot.

    Secondly, "odin" is one in Russian. Three is "tri". Easy mistake to make.

    Finally, one of the policemen in that Hong Kong scene is an uncredited Anthony Ainley i.e. the 1980s Master!

  2. Ooh, I knew Anthony Ainley was in one of the Bond films as an extra but I had no idea it was this one!