You Only Live Twice (1967) Director: Lewis Gilbert
This was Lewis Gilbert’s first time directing a Bond film (he would later return to the genre with The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 and Moonraker in 1979, both featuring Roger Moore). Interestingly enough, the script for You Only Live Twice was written by noted children’s novelist, Roald Dahl (very loosely based on the Ian Fleming novel which actually reads as a sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with Bond seeking to exact revenge on the people who murdered his wife). You Only Live Twice was Dahl’s first screenplay. It was also the first to discard most of the plot of a Fleming novel (lamentably). This was originally intended to be Sean Connery’s final Bond film (Connery made it no secret that he was done with the James Bond franchise), but he later returned in the spin-off Diamonds Are Forever in 1971.
At the outset a NASA spacecraft is suddenly swallowed whole by another spacecraft. The U.S. blames Russia (with the British acting as arbiter) while the U.K. blames Japan since the unidentified aircraft appears to land somewhere in the sea of Japan. International hostilities are high and time is short in order to prevent war. To investigate the situation, Bond fakes his own death and travels to Tokyo where he witnesses a sumo wrestling match. He is taken by Aki, a secret spy disguised as a geisha, to another MI6 agent who is promptly killed via stabbing. Bond chases down the assailant, kills him and dons his clothes a disguise while taking the now-deceased assailant’s place in the getaway car. Bond steals documents from the killers but is rescued at the last moment by Aki. Unsure if she can be trusted, Bond chases Aki through a subway until he falls down a trap door to the underground lair of Tiger Tanaka, a secret double agent who is rarely seen in public. They investigate Bond’s stolen papers, which lead to a ship called the ning-po, meanwhile Bond and Aki fall for each other. Eventually Bond is led to a secret base inside a volcano which leads him to his arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the leader of SPECTRE. His lair is fully equipped with a pool of flesh-hungry piranhas (which are used when one of his henchmen fails to kill Bond). Aki is tragically killed by mistaken poisoning when a SPECTRE agent tries to poison Bond, so Bond and Tanaka infiltrate and booby-trap the volcano, while Bond attempts to board SPECTRE’s space rocket incognito. However, Bond is captured at the last moment and taken to Blofeld (where he meets the unimpressive Blofeld for the first time -the scene is a bit anti-climactic). The launch of the rocket is intended to create a nuclear war between the U.S. and the USSR, however a group of Japanese ninjas suddenly arrives at the volcano. For this odd twist, the ninjas attack the base allowing Bond to activate the self-destruct sequence for SPECTRE’s rocket, thus preventing nuclear war. In the end, Blofeld escapes leaving Bond, Tanaka, and the ninjas to escape the volcano before it detonates. Thus concludes one of the sillier James Bond movies from the Sean Connery era -a movie which was plagued by drama and unhappiness behind the scenes.
You Only Live Twice (the title alludes to Bond’s fake death at the outset) is a pretty weak film, even for a Bond picture. Perhaps the most ridiculous scene (aside from the end with the deus ex machina ninjas that arrive to save Bond) is one in which Q suddenly shows up and gives Bond a miniature helicopter mobile. Instantly, and only once, Bond uses the vehicle to destroy four other helicopters chasing him: he destroys one with a machine gun, another with rockets, another with missiles, and the last with a backwards shooting flamethrower. Again, the plot is somewhat confusing – why is Blofeld actually trying to start a nuclear war between the U.S. and the USSR? And why, in this dramatic first meeting, does Blofeld (played by Donald Pleasence) appear so ridiculous? After Frank Sinatra turned down the opportunity to sing the title song, his daughter Nancy Sinatra sang the title song. The film is unique for mostly taking place in Japan and featuring ninjas, Bond in “yellow-face,” and for being pitched as the final canonical Eon James Bond film to feature the now listless Sean Connery.