Readers of Ian Fleming’s 1964 book You Only Live Twice would have been exceedingly surprised upon seeing the film adaptation in the summer of 1967. Gone was Fleming’s hauntingly atmospheric tale of 007’s vengeance upon Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the murder of Tracey who died on their wedding day at the conclusion of the previous novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Instead came an outlandish adventure featuring the machinations of Blofeld and SPECTRE to start a worldwide conflict from their secret base within an extinct Japanese volcano by stealing American and Russian spacecraft from Earth orbit.
For the first time producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman discarded Fleming’s source material, bar for a few characters, and created their own narrative. Richard Maibum, the chief writer on the previous films and who had repeatedly demonstrated a feel for adapting Fleming’s material, was unavailable so a new scriptwriter had to be found. Initially Harold Jack Bloom was chosen to write the script but the producers rejected most of his material and hired novelist Roald Dahl to write the final version of You Only Live Twice. A friend of Ian Fleming, Dahl was a truly bizarre choice for such a major production given that he’d never written a script before. In the end much of his writing was done in conjunction with director Lewis Gilbert. Dahl subsequently wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the only non-Bond film that Broccoli produced after the inception of the James Bond series, and featured Bond notables such as Ken Adam, Gert Frobe and Desmond Llewelyn.
At the helm of You Only Live Twice was first time Bond director Lewis Gilbert. Famous for Reach for the Sky and Alfie Glibert had been almost strong armed into directing the film after initially declining the offer from Broccoli and Saltzman. With the assistance of highly acclaimed cinematographer Freddie Young, who had worked on Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago with David Lean, Gilbert produced the most sumptuous looking Bond film to date. His use of long shots during 007’s rooftop battle at the Kobe docks remains one of the highlights of the series for its inventiveness in not adhering to type and zooming in for close ups of the combatants.
Costing $1million, the equivalent of the entire budget for Dr. No, the centre piece of You Only Live Twice is undoubtedly Ken Adam’s extraordinary volcano set. The set contained 200 miles of tubular steel, 250,000 square yards of canvas, a full scale replica rocket, a working monorail and a helipad. The spectacular visual of a stuntman army abseiling from the rafters of the set at a incomprehensible rate of knots into the rank of SPECTRE henchmen with explosions going off left, right and centre justifiably remains one of the definitive images of the James Bond film series. Unfortunately the expansive nature of the film highlighted the producer’s ill-advised junking of virtually all of Fleming’s narrative template with numerous ideas and concepts introduced seemingly on a whim.
The autogyro Little Nellie was written in after one of the production team heard a radio programme about Wing Commander Ken Wallis and his remarkable autogyros. Unable to find a castle of the type mentioned in the novel it was decided to locate Blofeld’s base within an extinct volcano as apparently someone believed it was exactly the type of place the SPECTRE chief would operate from. Those decisions resulted in an muddled and at times boring plot that was designed more with visual attractiveness in mind rather than logical plot narrative with James Bond at the forefront of proceedings.
Since Goldfinger Sean Connery had been extremely vocal is his dissatisfaction with the James Bond films. The vast amount of time he had to devote to filming and publicising each entry in the series left him with barely any time to undertake other projects. Although Broccoli and Saltzman agreed to make Connery’s fifth Bond the final one of his original contract and offered him $1 million to appear in a sixth it did not come as a surprise to anyone when he announced his departure from the series during production of You Only Live Twice. The final straw for Connery came during filming in Japan when he was plagued by the press and even followed into the toilet by a journalist asking questions. Connery coasts through proceedings looking bored at the poor material he’s been given to deliver, doing his utmost not to be blown to smithereens by the enormous supply of pyrotechnics that the special effects team have access to, and fighting not to be swamped by increasingly elaborate and gargantuan backdrops.
Connery’s woes were not helped by the mediocre cast assembled to support him. Apart from the minimal scenes with the reliable regulars M,Q and Moneypenny, the only actor Connery sparked with was Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese Secret Service, an ally in the mold of the well-received Kerim Bay of From Russia With Love fame. Lack of plausible characterisation in the script for the Bond Girls was most certainly a contributing factor but zero chemistry between Connery and leading ladies Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama as Aki and Kissy Suzuki respectively certainly did not help matters. Possibly the worst casting decision of the film related to Bond’s archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Until You Only Live Twice Blofeld had represented by the voice of Eric Pohlmann and the hands of Anthony Dawson (Professor Dent in Dr. No). Now he was revealed in his full glory. And he was Donald Pleasence! Without question a superb actor Pleasence was utterly miscast here. His slight frame when placed against Connery was laughable, as was the attempt to toughen him up with the addition of a scar across his eye. Pleasence’s Blofeld would later inspire the creation of Dr Evil by Mike Myers for the Austin Powers trilogy. In fact Pleasence was a last minute replacement for another piece of miscasting, that of Czech actor Jan Werich who had been cast as Blofeld by Harry Saltzman. After five days on set the filmmakers concluded that they had made a huge error as Werich resembled a “poor, benevolent Santa Claus” rather than a person with the capability to be Bond’s archenemy . The casting of Blofeld in the official Bond series has always been fairly dire with only Telly Savalas coming close to the potential offered by the character. It is something of a mystery why two-time Blofeld voice artist Eric Pohlmann was not simply asked to appear in person.
By making this film ahead of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service the character narrative of the literary Blofeld Trilogy was ruined and is an indicator that the producers were becoming less reverential of Fleming’s material than had been the case for the first four films in the series. Ultimately You Only Live Twice was a surfeit of exciting bangs and flashes on the big screen as opposed to a development of engaging material that actors could exercise their talents upon. Money was now more important than merit.
1 From Russia With Love
4 Dr. No
5 You Only Live Twice