This is the fifth essay in a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas. I encourage everyone to comment and join in on an extended conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #5: Solving the Murder of You Only Live Twice
by James David Patrick
Though one could potentially argue this point, the first four James Bond films were legitimate attempts to translate Ian Fleming’s character to the big screen. Though Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball embellished the more winsome characteristics of 007, they ultimately remained largely free from the old “nudge nudge wink wink.”
The fifth James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, however, represents a significant shift toward not only silliness but self-parody. How did this happen at the peak of James Bond’s global popularity? Why did EON change the formula? Was the shift even intentional? These questions lingered weeks after watching this polarizing Bond adventure. I decided to do some digging and along with the help of some irresponsible conjecture I feel like I’ve solved the murder case nobody knew they wanted cracked: who murdered James Bond’s You Only Live Twice? First a round up of the usual suspects:
(I never thought I’d get to combine Clue and Casablanca references in the same breath.)
Ian Fleming, in the Bahamas, with the grim prose
The Ian Fleming book from which the movie is “based” is a dark, plotless revenge story that takes place in the aftermath of the death of Bond’s new wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. M is planning to dismiss Bond from the service because he’s been incapable of performing his duties. Rather than sack him outright, M gives Bond the opportunity to redeem himself as part of the diplomatic branch of the service. He’s re-numbered as 7777 and sent to Japan on what is considered a hopeless bit of diplomacy. Bond is to meet with the head of Japanese intel, Tiger Tanaka, and convince him to turn over intercepted Russian radio transmissions in exchange for Britain’s information stream. When Tiger reveals that the Japanese have been tapping into British intelligence, Bond realizes he has no bargaining chip whatsoever. Instead, Tiger asks Bond to assassinate Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, a foreign scientist that has taken over a Japanese castle and populated it with botanical horrors. For Japan, the “Garden of Death” is a political blemish. The Japanese people are flocking there to commit suicide en masse.
In the scenes that follow, there is much discussion (at times bordering on Western xenophobia) between Bond and Tanaka over sake about the specific motivations within the Japanese culture that cause so many people to commit suicide. Bond agrees, figuring that assassinating Shatterhand will complete his mission. After viewing a picture of Shatterhand and his wife, Bond recognizes the evil duo as none other than Blofeld and Erma Bunt, the murderers of his wife. Bond does not reveal the identity of Shatterhand because he believes that he would be remove him from the mission. Tanaka trains Bond, Mr. Miyagi-style to blend with the Japanese and fight like a ninja. This includes the proper posture, manners, deference and humility. To establish a cover and plan the mission, Bond then goes to live in a humble fishing village near the castle and marry a local girl and former Hollywood actress Kissy Suzuki.
Devoid of action-packed thrills, the novel proves impossible content for escapist entertainment. At best 20% of the novel concerns actual “espionage.” The Bond character in You Only Live Twice finds himself caught between the love of country and the loss of his wife. This is Bond on the fringe, a shell of his former self. Drinking to excess, mired in notions of mortality and morality. Once he discovers Shatterhand’s true identity, the narrative becomes driven by grim revenge but Bond is again given a reason to live.
Esquire‘s Malcolm Muggeridge wrote about the novel:
You Only Live Twice has a decidedly perfunctory air. Bond can only manage to sleep with his Japanese girl with the aid of colour pornography. His drinking sessions seem somehow desperate, and the horrors are too absurd to horrify … it’s all rather a muddle and scarcely in the tradition of Secret Service fiction. Perhaps the earlier novels are better. If so, I shall never know, having no intention of reading them.
And perhaps this is why I found Fleming’s You Only Live Twice to be such a fascinating novel. As an outlier it challenges the Bond image, which by the time of this novel’s 1964 release had been firmly established through 11 prior books and 3 movies. In the end, Bond succeeds in killing Blofeld, destroying the castle but the physical trauma of the mission renders him an amnesiac. His superiors believe him to be dead, and Bond goes back to living (albeit this time sincerely) as a fisherman, fake-married to Kissy Suzuki. After a few months, Bond leaves for Russia, drawn there because he thinks he can uncover his true identity. Kissy knows he will not return and she does not tell him that she is pregnant with his child.
The “Garden of Death” premise feels like something out of a Hammer horror film and likely not something that could have been played out on screen in 1967 due to the graphic nature of many of the deaths in the book. Vincent Price could have played Blofeld in a straight adaptation and not been out of place. At the same time, I lament that the “Garden” and the devilish castle filled with booby traps never appeared on screen in some form. As opposed to the “garden variety” conclusion of the You Only Live Twice film adaptation, it would have been deliciously unique rather than generic and forgettable. And there would have been naked diving girls instead of the ridiculous screaming ninjas. Think about that trade off.
Roald Dahl, in Japan, with the typewriter
Due to prior commitments, longtime Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum was unavailable to work on You Only Live Twice. Saltzman and Broccoli hired Oscar-nominated screenwriter Harold Jack Bloom to adapt the text, but ultimately rejected his work. They passed Bloom’s script along to longtime Fleming friend and children’s author Roald Dahl (who at that point had published, most notably, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach).
Dahl, despite having no screenwriting experience except for an in-progress script for The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling (he would later successfully adapt Fleming’s short Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), was given free reign with the script other than two essential components: the three-girl formula and the Japanese setting (more on this when we consider the guilt of the producers). Some of Bloom’s original script remains in the finished product, for which he retained an “additional story” credit. At the very least Bloom contributed Bond’s fake death and burial at sea and the ninja-attack climax. Since this is all we can know for sure, let’s assume that everything in between belongs to Dahl. After a strong opening with Bond infiltrating Osato Chemicals, Dahl filled the script with re-purposed elements from old Bond movies. He pilfered the narrative from Dr. No, turned car chases into autogyro vs. helicopter silliness, copied SPECTRE’s From Russia With Love henchman and sent the last half of the movie into a spiral of self-parody, ninja-training and preposterousness.
Peter Sellers, at the cinemas, with rapier wit
By this point in the series, the Bond formula had been established. Bond had been going about his business with near perfect success. Four films, all commercially successful – the last, Thunderball, being the highest grossing film of all. By now the movies had reached a cultural saturation. They were ripe for parody. Enter Casino Royale. Loosely based on the Ian Fleming novel, the film starred an ensemble cast and six different actors playing Bond (including David Niven and Peter Sellers) and aimed to send up 007 and the spy genre as a whole. Even though it is regarded as a self-indulgent clunker, Royale resonated with audiences growing weary of the popular spy genre formula. Released months before you Only Live Twice,the film banked a strong $42 million at the box office (almost half what You Only Live Twice would earn).
It is curious then that the authentic Bond adventure goes so far over the top to be a parody of sorts it its own right. Had EON picked up on the same zeitgeisty moment in popular culture that inspired the producers and screenwriters of Casino Royale? The latter half of You Only Live Twice is a farce, Dahl’s script regurgitating vignettes from old Bond films in increasingly more laughable scenarios. For a fun time, follow the migratory scarring on the face of Donald Pleasance as Blofeld. Or the comically out of place Bond theme as 007 hovers in a miniature whirlybird fending off legions of baddies in a silly little bike helmet. It’s almost as if the film was made to prevent further parodies, like the insecure fellow at a party that makes fun of himself to pre-empt criticism. It also speaks to the nature of spectacle (as I talked about in my Thunderball bit) – the need to constantly surpass what came before. And with YOLT, the Bond team went bigger, sillier, more kinetic. It’s a jarring shift from the meditative and wholly earnest underwater stasis of Thunderball.
“What’s that? I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over my scar.”
If it sells, why change? But this paint-by-numbers filmmaking had begun to take a toll on the talent.
Sean Connery, at the barber, with the scissors.
The press attention while filming in Japan had proven overwhelming. Security had to be on hand at all times. One persistent Japanese photographer reportedly snuck into the bathroom stall to get a picture of Connery on the toilet. During interviews, even reporters addressed Connery as James Bond. The notoriously private actor had grown tired of the attention the role offered, especially in light of the eroding focus on the character of Bond. And in You Only Live Twice, Bond is given very little to do. After identifying Blofeld’s volcanic hideout, 007 takes on a middle management position, marshaling ninjas into the abyss, occasionally punching someone out until the climactic confrontation with Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld.
The series had begun in Dr. No with a character, an image, and very little else. You Only Live Twice is all flash and bang without any of the depth of the best films in the series. It’s clear that of Connery’s growing disinterest seeps into his performance here. The cocky vibrancy of his Bond had disappeared. Connery looked tired. He looked like he spent time between takes rolling his eyes at the corny dialogue rather than wholly embracing the one-liners he’d once lobbed in his sleep. But it’s not until Connery is given the Japanese Moe haircut and a little bit of eyeliner that his angst really translates to the big screen. He slumps. He slouches. Is he moping? Bond appears castrated by this attempt to blend in with the locals. And by “locals” I mean the clan of ninjas. (And curiously by “clan of ninjas” I mean what essentially amounts to a militia and not ninjas at all.) It’s just as bizarre on paper. A 6’2” Scotsman is supposed to disappear among a clan of ninjas just because he has a bowl cut and a bathrobe.
Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, at the drawing board, with their formula.
I must go back to the decision to pass the You Only Live Twice screenplay to an inexperienced screenwriter and children’s author – even a children’s author like Roald Dahl with a dark streak to his prose. But this just as easily could have been a bold stroke of genius. What really fails the longtime producers of the James Bond series is their steadfast insistence on paint-by-numbers. It is because of their strict insistence on the formula that Roald Dahl likely turned to prior Bond films for inspiration, lifting and regurgitating. Three Bond girls, check. One good (she survives), one shady (she dies at the hand of Bond’s enemy) and one downright evil (she is marginalized, courtesy of Bond). Need a chase scene, too. Don’t forget the henchman. Blond, tall, muscular. Mad lib the names.
But ultimately the problem wasn’t the formula itself (the formula clearly works) but the lack of a workable novel to ground the formula in the more restrained universe of Ian Fleming’s prose. Without a text, the filmmakers were left to their own devices. Saltzman and Broccoli’s limited vision collided with Dahl’s limitless imagination, the ignoble spawn of which turned out to be the slapdash déjà vu of You Only Live Twice.
In the end, however…
You Only Live Twice still manages to entertain (with reservation) because of the pure, misguided enthusiasm. Technically, the movie pops on screen. The cinematography in Japan, the massive sets and elaborate design work are arguably unparalleled by any of the other Connery Bond films. But the thrill feels hollow, empty, like we’ve done this all before and done it with a more exquisite focus on the character of James Bond.
At this moment in time, Bond needed the makeover he received for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a simplification and return to the foundation of the character. Instead he got a children’s bike helmet, a whirlybird and a not-ninja clan. It’s a polarizing entry in the series, a love it or hate it film that shows what would have happened to many of the other Bond films without the grounding presence of Ian Fleming’s writing, even if this particular novel proved too grim and gonzo to put on film.
The Identity of the Murderer is...
Ernst Stavro Blofeld, with his ego, because he said so…
Like all the great criminal masterminds, Blofeld can’t let an unsolved murder go unclaimed — even in our fictional game of Clue. I really thought I had it solved too. I was going to announce Nancy Sinatra, in the title credits, with her crooning, because this side of Lulu, I can’t offhand think of a more treacly (perhaps overrated?) opening track. Nancy Sinatra’s generally better than this material, and Bond never deserved such a flaccid introduction (although it might be sadsack Slouchy Bond’s favorite jam). Anyway, that Blofeld’s a f’ing jerk. He can’t even let Nancy Sinatra be the villain for once. Everyone gets a turn, Blofeld. Everyone gets a turn! SPECTRE has their mitts in nefarious doings all over the world. Why not even here, at #Bond_age_, our safe zone for expression of thoughts, no matter how controversial or disagreeable.
Time to move on to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Previous James Bond #Bond_age_ Project Essays:
Dr. No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live and Let Die / The Man with the Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View to a Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence to Kill / GoldenEye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day / Casino Royale / Quantum of Solace / Skyfall