You Only Live Twice: The First Epic James Bond Movie

Arguably the first "epic" James Bond film, we look back at You Only Live Twice, starring Sean Connery...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This one’s big. So big it exerts a gravitational pull, orbited by numerous pop culture satellites, sketch shows and 90% of Austin Powers. Has some nice little moments and memorable big moments. Shame about the bits inbetween. A James Bond movie that I loved as a child and find increasingly flawed. Characters so two-dimensional you could stick them to the fridge, writing that dips into laziness and is occasionally outright indolent. Plus, Sean Connery looks bored by the whole thing.

The Villain: It seems perverse to label one of the great villains of cinema a disappointment. And, despite several incarnations, there’s no denying this Blofeld, Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld, is still seen as the archetype. The cat, the baldness, the scar, the lack of stature have all entered into (pop) cultural lore. Yet I find Pleasance’s Blofeld a largely unsatisfactory villain. He’s rarely onscreen and does very little when he is. Also a terrible offender of “why don’t you just shoot him!” (Or WDYJSH – catchy, no?)

The Girl: The first real dud. Utterly anodyne, utterly unmemorable. Does pioneer the unwanted title of “Bond girl by proxy after the better one was killed off.” (See: Goodnight, Mary.) Ironically is best remembered for a vaguely silly name. Hold on – that’s not ironic! Oh yes it is: because her name isn’t said once in the entire film. Not ever. The film literally forgets to name her. Hold on – films can’t literally forget to… and that’s the space filled up. Thank heavens.

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Sean Connery made four landmark Bond films: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and You Only Live Twice. By my reckoning that’s half of the landmark films in total. The others: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Moonraker (really), License to Kill, and Casino Royale. These aren’t necessarily the best Bonds, but to varying extents these films altered and redrew the perception of what exactly James Bond is.

Perhaps The Spy Who Loved Me deserves a place, perhaps Goldeneye – but while both are fine films, the respective peaks of two notable custodians, did either one really change the meaning of James Bond? No, I stand by my original eight – giving Sir Sean ownership of 50% of the most significant films in the series. And, after Goldfinger, the film most integral to the Bond legend is this one.

Watch You Only Live Twice on Amazon

You Only Live Twice is the first epic Bond. We’re talking spaceships, the threat of nuclear Armageddon, armies of henchmen (all in lovely color coded uniform), armies of ninjas, volcanic eruption and the greatest lair in cinema. There is also the first truly bonkers villainous scheme, courtesy of SPECTRE. Namely (deep breath): we shall use our giant spaceship-eating-spaceship to eat the spaceships of Russia and America, causing each to blame the other (whilst we hide in a volcano) and ultimately triggering nuclear war between the two powers, and after the inevitable mutual atomic destruction we shall emerge from our volcano to rule over the smouldering lump of rock that is now Earth for several years before dying of radiation poisoning.

This is quite impressive considering the plan in From Russia With Love was steal a typewriter, kill Bond, and make the front page of The Daily Mail.

Actually… I always thought SPECTRE were the sole baddies here. But rewatching the film I realised this isn’t the case. Just before piranha-ing Helga Brandt, Blofeld congratulates two Asian gentleman on their “superb equipment” (for anyone who giggled: their response is “we congratulate you, sir, on the way you handle it”).

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There is also reference to a satisfied “government” – and Blofeld later tells Bond how a new power will emerge, which I assumed meant SPECTRE but may actually be the mysterious government. The smart money is on China.

You Only Live Twice pioneers the silliness that soon became emblematic of the franchise. Bond turning Japanese, Little Nellie, helicopters swinging cars from giant magnets and utterly random assassination attempts counterbalanced by nobody ever killing Bond when he’s actually at their mercy. Not all of these are necessarily bad (I do love the giant magnet) but most would look terribly out of place in early Connery and utterly at home in late Moore.There is acceptable silliness.

Take Bond’s ‘death’ in the pre-credits sequence. Midway through a lovemaking session the bed folds into the wall with Bond inside, men rush in, machine gun the wall and rush out, British soldiers rush in and unfold the bed to reveal a seemingly dead Bond. It’s a great little sequence and a real surprise if, like the 1967 audience, you don’t know what’s coming. The film doesn’t explain the logistics – empty guns? Reinforced bed? – nor whether Ling or the assassins were in on the scheme. This stuff doesn’t matter; what matters is the delight of the unexpected, the ‘OMG’ moments that are the lifeblood of any good thriller.

Another pearl is Bond’s burial at sea. The service is read, the guns salute, and the coffin is tipped into the waves. It floats to the seabed, is recovered by divers and taken aboard a battleship via a secret entrance in the hull. The coffin is opened and there is Bond! – wearing an oxygen mask and full naval uniform. Sure, a weighted coffin and a secluded hotel room might be a more practical strategy, but where’s the joy in that? 

James Bond Casket

These sequences are fun, witty and rather ingenious. They understand the crucial difference between winking at the audience and treating us as fools. Worth remembering at the points where You Only Live Twice hands us a piece of paper with ‘Turn Over’ written on each side.

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The low point is Helga Brandt. Mr Osato’s smoking secretary marks the first truly bad moment of the series. The point the Bond films start taking the viewer for granted…

Detour. How did we get here? Thunderball sent the series stratospheric, raking in $65 million worldwide. $65 million is a tidy sum today – in 1964 that was ‘solid gold toilet seat’ type of money. Hell, throw in solid gold toilet paper for kicks. Measured by 2015 inflation, Thunderball made over $1 billion. Which essentially meant two things:

1) We’re gonna need a bigger budget. There is a direct correlation between the amount of cash we throw at a Bond film and the amount of cash the Bond film throws back. Who wants a diamond studded mattress?

2) Scripts don’t matter. OK, slight exaggeration – but even if You Only Live Twice was two hours of Sean Connery driving the Aston down a flaming highway of $50 bills, the film would still have turned a hefty profit (and been more credible than Moonraker). 

Spectacle trumped sense. On matters of character, coherency and plot, the writers had rather a lot of “creative scope.” Certainly enough to carve out the mantra of many, many future films: “it doesn’t matter what happens, or why it happens, provided something happens.” Preferably expensively.

Back to Helga. Even as a child I noticed the stupidity of Helga threatening the captive Bond, only to release Bond, screw Bond, betray Bond and fail to kill Bond in barely two minutes. If she wants to shag him so much, why not do the deed and then call in the guards? Why let him anywhere near a plane? Where are the guards?!

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But hey (thought the writers as they smoked Cubans in the jacuzzi): another twist, a few minutes killed. And we needed a bad girl. (Redhead: bonus points!) And now Blofeld gets to show off his piranhas. Two boxes ticked.

The Bond girl isn’t much better. The most interesting thing about Kissy Suzuki is the fact she isn’t called Kissy Suzuki. Not in the film anyway: the name is lifted from the novel. She isn’t called anything in the film because the film forgets to name her. Watch it. She’s charmingly described as “having a face like a pig.” (Which at least would make her memorable.) She is occasionally referred to as Bond’s bride or Tiger’s agent. But never by any name at all.

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Now call me pernickety, but when you forget to name your supposed heroine I feel a slight characterisation problem might be brewing. This isn’t her backstory, or her motivation, or her personality we’re talking about – it’s her goddamn name! Everybody has a name! Did nobody in the production notice this rather major omission? Probably too busy topping up their tans.

Kitty is a cipher, but then all the characters are ciphers. Even the ones who trick you into believing they aren’t. Take Tiger. He’s a good natured kind of chap who happens to be Head of the Japanese Secret Service. And…that’s it. If we were creating a dating profile for Tiger that’s essentially all we could put. ‘Likes being washed by women, I guess, but we’d probably leave that bit out. As with so many characters in the film, Tiger exists to tick a box: in this case the ‘Ally’ box. Quarrel and Kerim Bey felt like real, if colourful, people who you could imagine existing outside the confines of their films. Tiger is a charismatic void.

What of Aki? She is certainly a better heroine than what’s-her-name, just as Blofeld stands indisputably taller than Nick-Nack. But nobody would put Aki anywhere near a list of Great Bond Girls. She wouldn’t make a list of Rubbish Bond Girls – which I suppose is a positive, yet also an indictment of Aki’s complete perfunctoriness. She’s rather like Tilly Masterson; perfectly inoffensive, there because Bond needs a girl, killed off because the main girl is coming and God knows we can’t have two of them.

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The execution of Aki’s death is very clever – beads of poison running down a thread is a wonderful idea, a real throwback to the first two films – but the emotional impact is badly fudged. Or rather there is no emotional impact – she dies, Bond and the film immediately move on. Bond hisses “Aki” pathetically as she chokes to death in front of him. By the following scene he’s messing around with the ninjas, a cheery smile on his face (at least until one ninja tries to stab him). Aki is never mentioned again.

Finally, Blofeld. He is one of the few figures of cinema to be iconic twice, both as a faceless figure stroking something and as a bald scarred man of limited height. Either of these onscreen is generally a Blofeld homage; so kudos to Donald Pleasance and the make-up department for giving a famously unseen character an equally famous embodiment.

James Bond Villain with Cat

I do think a clear distinction must be made between the ‘unseen’ Blofeld – encountered twice before – and the ‘visible’ Blofeld, who is basically a separate character in his own right. It is difficult to reconcile the Blofeld of You Only Live Twice with the Blofeld of From Russia With Love and Thunderball. Does this matter? Well it needn’t – but it does require You Only Live Twice to establish Blofeld as a credible threat rather than simply point and go, ‘ooh there’s Blofeld!’ Which is pretty much what it does.

My trusty James Bond companion claims Dr. No has the least screen-time of any Bond villain, but I suspect the authors counted the Blofelds collectively. Because despite the Great Reveal, this Blofeld is a fleeting presence. Forget screen-time; you could easily count the number of times Pleasance appears onscreen.

(And no, I didn’t. I thought about it. But I didn’t.)

Another problem is backstory. Dr. No isn’t around for long but he spends most of that time talking about Dr. No. We see enough of Goldfinger and Emilio Largo to get an idea of how they live (stupendously well, at least pre-Bond.) But Blofeld has no backstory. Nor is he given any characterisation beyond being evil. I needn’t know about Blofeld’s favorite animal, childhood dream or the time he cried himself to sleep after musing on the beauty of mist in moonlight. But a vague hint of a personality wouldn’t go amiss.

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How on earth did Blofeld get the gig? Whereas Telly Savalas has a thuggish intelligence, and Charles Grey is aristocratically assured, Pleasance offers no insight into exactly how he made SPECTRE Number 1. While no Bond villain is a plausible person, they must still be credible as a concept. I never believe in this Blofeld, even within the Bond universe. His style is undeniable, memorable, and ultimately damaging. His substance is non-existent. The parallels with the film are hard to miss.

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Oh, and let’s not forget another piece of writing so lazy it probably siestas thrice daily. After the ninjas have stormed the volcano (what a sentence) Blofeld decides to take Bond for walkies. If you can’t recall: Blofeld leads Bond out of the control room, acts like he’s going to shoot him, shoots Osato instead, leads Bond into the middle of the battle, is about to shoot him for real but gets shurikened by Tanaka.

Excuse me, Ernst, but WHY NOT SHOOT HIM IN THE CONTROL ROOM?? Or in the secluded corridor if you must. Anywhere, anywhere but the massive warzone swarming with hostile ninjas. Did you just want company for the stroll? Like Brandt, this is another utterly illogical moment that completely takes me out of the film. Obviously Bond must survive somehow. But rather than devise a clever or even adequate escape, the writers cobble together a wheezing old banger of a sequence with fingerprints all over it. And then, doubtlessly, they hit the beach.

What else? I like the sumos, and Henderson is cool. Charles Grey gives a nicely sinister performance, dying for the first of several times in a Bond film. Also I rate how Bond kills Henderson’s assassin and, impersonating him, ends up at Osato’s building. Nice throwback to the improvisational spying of old. Although questions must be asked of the driver here. Fair enough for not identifying Bond in the back of a shadowy car – but he then carries Bond upstairs! Admittedly Bond’s wearing a mask; but generally if you sling a 6’2, 190 lbs Scotsman over your shoulder then you know you’ve slung a 6’2, 190 lbs Scotsman over your shoulder.

And the helicopter! Not Little Nellie; the SPECTRE helicopter that inadvertently saves the world. First it reveals the volcano base to Bond by flying into it. Then it allows Bond to infiltrate the base by flying out. Surely, on Armageddon Day, Blofeld might have kept shit on lockdown?

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And yes, Little Nellie is a lot of fun. Albeit a lot less fun than she used to be. When younger, I loved Little Nellie and all her weaponry. Now I yawn during that battle but can’t ignore the flying deus ex machina. Adulthood is so sad.

James Bond Helicopter

But who’s to say adulthood is right? I wrote this whole piece, and only right at the end, just as I grasped for a conclusion, did I remember: heck, I loved this film once. Aged ten I watched it incessantly. It was my favourite Bond of the lot. It isn’t now (you might have noticed) – but is my older self necessarily a better judge than the ten year-old? Put it another way: I loved You Only Live Twice aged ten more than I love any Bond, perhaps any film, perhaps anything, as I am now. You can’t discount that. You just can’t.

If it wasn’t for You Only Live Twice, I probably wouldn’t be writing this now. I wish I could watch the film as a ten year-old again. I wish that ten year-old could write this article. Yes, I found You Only Live Twice disappointing, both compared to its predecessors and my own memories. But maybe I let it down by growing up?

Best Bit: The piranhas or the volcano. Can’t knock the classics.Worst Bit: Helga Brandt and her “I’m bad, no I’m good, no I’m bad” routine. A TV series character arc accomplished in five minutes.