All good things must come to an end. Or must they? We still have the Bond series today. Most pop-culture icons tend to stick around in one form or another. A culture of rebooting means that anything deemed to have the potential to find an audience in the future will, at some point, find its way back. It’s probably more accurate to say that a phenomenon cannot stay at the peak of its success forever. By the time of Thunderball, the Bond series ruled the cinematic world. At some point, there had to be a diminishing return: either the box office would come in a little lower, the critical reaction would be less enthusiastic, or the leading man would move on. With You Only Live Twice, EON Productions managed to encounter all three at the same time.
Connery had not been happy for some time. Although it is difficult to find definitive information on salaries, most common sources suggest a flat fee of less than $20,000 for his appearance in Dr No. By the time of this film, this had risen, by all accounts, to around $750,000, with an additional cut of merchandising grosses. In Connery’s view, however, this was insufficient, in light both of the exceptional worldwide success of the series, and of the financial packages that Cubby and Harry had managed to secure for themselves: Connery perceiving they were looking after themselves, and neglecting his role in the performance of the series.
Aside from money, Connery was unhappy at the scheduling of the films – with one every year making it difficult to take other roles, though he did manage to fit a performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie in between his second and third Bond entries, along with the legendary Sidney Lumet’s The Hill, in 1965. The producers had tried to accommodate his concerns with a two-year gap after Thunderball. Connery felt, also, that the increasing scale of the films had reduced the acting challenge; that it was simply about showing up with the ‘constitution of a rugby player’. Finally, the unexpected success of the Bond character had left Connery a very surprised superstar, who suddenly found he had little privacy, whilst finding himself a target for Bond fanatics. He was no longer attending the premieres of the films, after a fan had broken from the crowd and jumped into the DB5 with him, as he drove it around Leicester Square as publicity for the evening. Once in Japan to shoot You Only Live Twice, Connery could not even visit a public toilet without being followed by fans or press. Never a particularly vain man, he declined to wear his toupee when not in front of the camera, but even this failed to prevent the more fervent fans from failing to make a distinction between actor and character. That he arrived on set for this film visibly heavier than in his first four performances in the role is less surprising in light of all this: Connery wanted out, one film shy of completing his six-film contract.
This is the first film in the series to deviate seriously from the source Fleming novel. This would be more common going forward. Whilst the films would continue to use names and scenarios from various books (both Fleming and the continuation novels written by others, after his death), only On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and 2006’s Casino Royale would directly adapt a novel with any degree of faithfulness – and EON would not own the rights to the latter until the end of the 20th Century. This appears to be based on the timing and details of the deals done between Ian Fleming – or his estate – and EON. Earliest films could be adapted directly from source; some of the later efforts were allowed, in some cases, to use as little as the title only. By contrast, the book follows on from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and deals with the aftermath of Tracy’s murder at the end of that story. The rumours of the ‘Shatterhand’ title for Bond 25 stemmed entirely from the fact that 2015’s Spectre saw Bond fall in love once again (very like Majesty’s), and end the film with Blofeld seemingly beaten – also very like the Majesty’s story. The potential parallels to follow it in a manner similar to the books are reasonably obvious; plus that closure was never provided, fully, on-screen, as 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, although acknowledging Bond’s wish for revenge, effectively ignores its predecessor.
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Enough of the film we could have had. The film we did get sees Bond ‘killed’ in the opening pre-title (and yes he’s with a lady!). Before this, we see an American spacecraft hijacked, in orbit, by an unknown culprit. It becomes clear after the title – accompanied this time by a song performed by Nancy Sinatra (her performance assembled from over 20 takes, due to her extreme nerves during recording sessions) – that Bond’s death was faked, in order to allow Bond to go back to working undercover, as he was becoming too well-known to his enemies. Perhaps if he didn’t announce himself by name everywhere he went, he wouldn’t have this problem (slightly unfair in this case, as he does go by ‘Mr Fisher’, when needing to be undercover).
Briefed in the field by M, Bond is in Japan, as the only lead they have is that the unknown spacecraft landed in the Sea of Japan. Following a lead, via MI6 operative Dikko Henderson (a pre-Blofeld Charles Gray playing the swiftly-murdered agent) Bond ends up meeting Head of the Japanaese Secret Service, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba). Having stolen some documents from Osato Chemicals when trailing the assailant that killed Henderson, Bond and Tanaka have a lead that they can investigate: cargo ship, the ‘Ning-Po’. Following this lead brings Bond – eventually, after meetings at Osato Chemicals, a close shave with henchwoman Helga Brandt (Karin Dor, as a vague copy of Fiona Volpe from Thunderball), the loss of his lover, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), a marriage of convenience (in order that Bond can pose as Japanese, and get to a location necessary to further his investigations) to Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), and the stealing of a Soviet spacecraft by the same mysterious spaceship, bringing China and the US to the brink of war – to the source of the plot. The famous hollowed out volcano lair – parodied in Austin Powers – comes from this film. There he finds SPECTRE Number One (Donald Pleasance), and a plot to start a US-Soviet war. Bond must then race against time to stop Blofeld and prevent war.
It would have been easy to write far more on the plot to this film: it is somewhat overstuffed. The script for this was the first not to be produced by American screenwriter Richard Maibaum – who would work on a total of 12 entries between Dr No and Licence to Kill. In his place was Roald Dahl (yes, that Roald Dahl – author of children’s books). Dahl was handed a detailed template from which to work: right down to how many women to include, what should happen to them, and in what order. Consequently, Bond’s first romantic liaison dies, and the film then partners him up again, in order that he can finish the film in the arms of a woman. That he shares none of the chemistry with Kissy that we had begun to see developing with Aki, means this doesn’t really work. Hama’s lack of proficiency in the English language didn’t help either. This structural detail of Bond having to end the film in the arms of a woman, at least until the Craig era, meant that this problem of occasionally having to rush in a second love interest would recur in the future: it is directly responsible, it can be argued, for the Dr. Christmas Jones character (Denise Richards) in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough. Making that character a love interest was a mistake, but the formula of the time demanded it.
For all the film’s flaws of overbearing spectacle, slightly disengaged leading man, rushed love interest, and overstuffed plot, You Only Live Twice is iconic in its imagery – the villain’s lair in particular (which cost more to design and make than was allocated to Dr No, in total). This film was the first entry for Lewis Gilbert. Gilbert went on to direct 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, and 1979’s Moonraker. Outside of the Bond franchise, he’s probably best known to UK audiences for 1966’s Alfie, and 1983’s Educating Rita, both starring Michael Caine. It can be argued that he made the same Bond film three times, in effect, but he had a strong visual style and was probably the most flamboyant director to grace the series, in terms of his work looking distinctive, and larger than life.
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Two final points of note. First, John Barry produced one of the finest scores of the series for this film. In fact, his three-film run in this franchise, from here to Diamonds Are Forever in 1971, represents one of his many career highs, and a standard he would thereafter approach only rarely in his tenure with the Bond films. Second, editor Peter R. Hunt – who’d been with the series since Dr No – had intended sitting this one out. A poor early cut from his replacement sent EON running to him for help. He was happy to oblige, provided he could direct the next in the franchise: a demand that led directly to a little slice of magic in 1969.
The Bond series would continue to be the biggest franchise in the World, arguably until Star Wars arrived in 1977. More accurately until 1980, with the release of The Empire Strikes Back, as this was the point where Star Wars became a cinematic franchise. At this point though, EON had lost its leading man – Connery announcing his retirement from the role during filming – and it was far from certain that the public would accept a replacement. The series had seen its first drop in box office takings – with the film accumulating a shade under $112 million worldwide – and, not for the last time, the series had moved too far into the realm of fantasy and spectacle at the expense of character and story. EON needed to strip things back, return a little closer to Fleming, and to find a new Bond. To whom would they look to replace the iconic Connery? To an Australian car salesman and model with no acting experience, obviously!
The Road to Bond 25 will return with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).