History, Legacy & Showmanship

James and the Rocket Factory: Remembering “You Only Live Twice” on its 50th Anniversary

June 13, 2017 - 2:01 am   |   by
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“Ken Adam’s production design is a work of genius. Incredibly, he was not nominated for an Oscar, but the people who designed the living room set for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were.” — 007 historian Lee Pfeiffer

The Digital Bits is pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the golden anniversary of the release of You Only Live Twice, the fifth (official) cinematic James Bond adventure and first of three directed by Lewis Gilbert.

As with our previous 007 articles (see Diamonds Are Forever, Casino Royale, For Your Eyes Only, Thunderball, GoldenEye, A View to a Kill, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Goldfinger, and 007… Fifty Years Strong), The Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship continue the series with this retrospective featuring a Q&A with an esteemed group of James Bond scholars, documentarians and historians who discuss the virtues, shortcomings and legacy of You Only Live Twice. [Read on here...]

The participants (in alphabetical order)…

John Cork is the author (with Collin Stutz) of James Bond Encyclopedia (DK, 2007) and (with Bruce Scivally) James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002) and (with Maryam d’Abo) Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond (Abrams, 2003). He is the president of Cloverland, a multi-media production company, producing documentaries and supplemental material for movies on DVD and Blu-ray, including material for Chariots of Fire, The Hustler, and many of the James Bond and Pink Panther titles. Cork also wrote the screenplay to The Long Walk Home (1990), starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek. He wrote and directed the feature documentary You Belong to Me: Sex, Race and Murder on the Suwannee River for producers Jude Hagin and Hillary Saltzman (daughter of original Bond producer, Harry Saltzman). He has recently contributed articles on the literary history of James Bond for ianfleming.com and The Book Collector.

John Cork

Bill Desowitz is the author of James Bond Unmasked (Spies, 2012) and crafts editor at IndieWire.

Bill Desowitz

Lee Pfeiffer is the author (with Philip Lisa) of The Incredible World of 007: An Authorized Celebration of James Bond (Citadel, 1992) and The Films of Sean Connery (Citadel, 2001), and (with Dave Worrall) The Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007 (Boxtree, 1998/Harper Collins, 1999). He also wrote (with Michael Lewis) The Films of Harrison Ford (Citadel, 2002) and (with Dave Worrall) The Great Fox War Movies (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006). Lee was a producer on the Goldfinger and Thunderball Special Edition LaserDisc sets and is the founder (with Dave Worrall) and Editor-in-Chief of Cinema Retro magazine, which celebrates films of the 1960s and 1970s and is “the Essential Guide to Cult and Classic Movies.”

Lee Pfeiffer

Bruce Scivally is the author (with John Cork) of James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002). He has also written Superman on Film, Television, Radio & Broadway (McFarland, 2006), Billion Dollar Batman: A History of the Caped Crusader on Film, Radio and Television from 10¢ Comic Book to Global Icon (Henry Gray, 2011), and Dracula FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Count from Transylvania (Backbeat, 2015). As well, he has written and produced numerous documentaries and featurettes that have appeared as supplemental material on LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray Disc, including several of the Charlie Chan, James Bond, and Pink Panther releases. He is Vice President of New Dimension Media in Chicago, Illinois.

Bruce Scivally

Matt Sherman is the author of James Bond’s Cuisine: 007’s Every Last Meal (CreateSpace, 2014). He is considered a top “Bondologist” and has led dozens of 007 fan and memorabilia events featuring appearances by over 120 actors, authors, film technicians and real world intelligence officers (spies!). He has contributed to Chicago Tribune, The Daily Mail, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Parade, Time and Time Europe. His website is bondfanevents.com.

Matt Sherman

The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.

And now that the participants have been introduced, might I suggest preparing a martini (shaken, not stirred, of course) and cueing up the soundtrack album to You Only Live Twice, and then enjoy the conversation with these James Bond authorities.

You Only Live Twice

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is You Only Live Twice worthy of celebration on its 50th anniversary?

John Cork: You Only Live Twice is simply an utterly insane movie, released in a year filled with insane movies. The film makes little sense, but then again neither did Charles Feldman’s Casino Royale, The President’s Analyst, The Ambushers, In Like Flint, The Happiest Millionaire, or Point Blank…. There is a delightfulness to insanity. I think of the Apple ad: “Here’s to the crazy ones.” It makes no sense that a secret agent would go tooling around in a bright yellow gyrocopter, certainly not buzzing fishing villages, but who cannot love Little Nellie? Possibly the least efficient way to deal with a car filled with assassins would be to lift them off the road with a giant electro-magnet dangled from a helicopter. Of the eight thousand ways to kill Bond, dribbling poison down a string must rank almost as low as staging the crash of an expensive private plane. But each attempt to kill anyone in the film has a Road Runner cartoon-like absurdity. And the film embraces that absurdity. Here’s to hollowed-out volcanoes, well-armed gyrocopters, abseiling ninjas, and operating rooms staffed with bikini-clad technicians.

Bill Desowitz: There are two important aspects worthy of celebrating You Only Live Twice: It marked the first official appearance of nemesis Blofeld (Donald Pleasence), leader of SPECTRE, and the first farewell of Sean Connery as Bond. Also, the combination of exotic Tokyo and venturing into outer space were new to the franchise. In addition, Ken Adam’s lavish volcano lair was the crowning design achievement of the Connery era, Little Nellie was a clever variation on the Aston Martin, Freddie Young’s cinematography was stunning, and John Barry’s score was beautiful…. However, the final result (directed by franchise newcomer Lewis Gilbert) was a missed opportunity. Because they had to push back the making of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, they were not able to make the so-called “Blofeld Trilogy” in order. As a result, it robbed Bond of his emotionally dramatic arc. The Ian Fleming source material was abandoned for the first time and Roald Dahl’s script ended up being an action-driven, Dr. No-like reworking. However, the death-rebirth theme was an interesting one.

Lee Pfeiffer: You Only Live Twice remains one of the most popular and enduring Bond films. It is probably the most spectacular in terms of locations and production design, even though it must also be said it’s the first Bond movie that completely ignored Ian Fleming’s source novel in place of a modern, hi-tech plot. It’s also the first Bond script that went off totally into the realm of the fantastic. The central plots of Dr. No, Goldfinger and Thunderball were certainly far-fetched but they remained in the realm of the conceivably possible. With Twice, however, the idea of a villain who resides with a private army and a personal version of NASA inside a hollowed-out Japanese volcano required a suspension of any pretense of logic. I often wondered just how these SPECTRE employees report to work in the volcano. Do they punch time clocks? How do they get home from this tiny island after their shifts are over? What transportation do they use to get there? It always reminded me of a similar situation in The Man from U.N.C.L.E TV series wherein we were to presume that hundreds of agents report for work through the doorway of an innocuous neighborhood dry cleaners. With Twice, the whole premise is absurd but the film is so slickly made and moves so rapidly that the absurdities don’t interfere with the enjoyment of watching the movie — in fact, they probably enhance it.

Bruce Scivally: You Only Live Twice is a benchmark film in the 007 series, for two reasons: (1) it was the first not to be scripted by Richard Maibaum or shot by Ted Moore, and (2) it marked what appeared to be the end of Sean Connery’s five-movie run as Bond. But it’s the first point — the absence of Richard Maibaum — that makes this film unique…. You Only Live Twice was scripted by Roald Dahl, the Danish author of fantasy, macabre and children’s tales best known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Big Friendly Giant. Dahl had known Ian Fleming, and even used an idea of Fleming’s as the basis for a short story (with Fleming’s permission). But by the time he was approached to adapt You Only Live Twice, Fleming was dead, and the 007 producers, having decided to film Fleming’s “Blofeld trilogy” of Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice out of order, chose to eschew Fleming’s plotline and create a more fanciful and fantastic story. Dahl was just the man to deliver it…. In fact, Dahl’s script is so fantastic and fanciful that it seems totally out of step with the first two Bond films, which were more grounded in reality, and a great leap ahead from the 3rd and 4th, which were more tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and posit a wacky fan theory: the film You Only Live Twice is 007’s drug-induced dream…. Remember: at the end of Thunderball, Bond had been yanked up out of the ocean by a Skyhook. What if, say, Domino panicked, and in his efforts to calm her, Bond slipped through the hoop and fell back into the ocean, where his super-fit spy body survived the plunge, but just barely, leaving him unconscious and in a coma? In hospital, Bond is given medications that cause him to have a mad dream, where he has become so well-known and targeted by his enemies that the only way to evade them is to fake his death. He resurrects in a submarine, where M’s office is inexplicably, but conveniently, located, and is told that this is “the big one” — the mission that will absolutely decide the fate of the free world, and he’s the only man who can accomplish it. He proceeds to Tokyo, where he falls down a chocolate factory-type chute into the abode of a Japanese man who is kind of a combination of both Bond and M, and is introduced to a society where all the women are young, pretty, bikini-clad and “sexiful,” and live only to please their men, the kind of place he’d like to retire to. He narrowly escapes death in a crashing plane, vanquishes big enemy helicopters with his nimble gyrocopter, adopts a ridiculously unconvincing Japanese disguise, and trudges up a mountain where — once he reaches the top — day suddenly becomes night, ninja clothing magically appears beneath his Ama fisherman’s garb, and suction cups strong enough to support his weight appear out of nowhere. He climbs down into a fantastic hole filled with fox-like tunnels, until he’s captured and finally comes face-to-face with his mortal enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a man that up to this point he has never met, but whom he imagines as a bald, scarred-face reptile of a man in a Mao suit, with a henchman who is a big unfriendly giant. Of course, Bond overcomes his enemy and gets the girl...and after the fade out of this dream, 007 awakens back in a more grounded reality, only to find that the fall into the ocean has altered his features and inexplicably changed his accent from Scottish to Australian. And this explains why he doesn’t recognize Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Matt Sherman: You Only Live Twice is a spectacle worthy of a big screen. The monumental Ken Adam volcano set is…monumental. The theme tune and soundtrack are lushly orchestrated and cinematographer Freddie Young added some of the most attractive filmic technique of all the Bonds, making Twice a pretty film to watch. As a time capsule, 1967 is when audiences would pack houses to watch Sean Connery read a phone book aloud for two hours. But what they saw was a blockbuster grander in scale than even Thunderball, the previous lavish Bond film.

You Only Live Twice

Coate: Can you describe what it was like seeing You Only Live Twice for the first time?

Cork: I saw You Only Live Twice for the first time on November 2, 1975, its broadcast premiere on ABC. By that time, I had probably read the plot summary so many times in John Brosnan’s James Bond in the Cinema, I could all but storyboard the movie. I was just about to turn 14, had read all the Bond novels at least twice, and for me at that age, 007 could do no wrong. I was unfazed by bad matting of stock volcano footage, sub-par model work, ineptly switched footage of Soyuz and Gemini launches and plot holes the size of the Milky Way…. The first time I saw it on the big screen was at the NuArt in Los Angeles in September 1980. At that point, I found other things to love: Sean Connery’s deadpan delivery (“I like ships, and I used to be a sailor”), Blofeld’s cat completely freaking out when the explosions go off, and the amazing fight between Connery and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s grandfather (Peter Fanene Maivia) in Osato’s office. Everyone needs a sofa that can be used to batter one’s opponent!

Desowitz: I saw it in the fall of ’67 at one of the local West [San Fernando] Valley theaters. As a kid, I enjoyed it. We finally met Blofeld and it was fast-moving fun. I also liked the TV promo special, which also served as a wonderful tease for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Pfeiffer: The release strategy for the early Bond movies tended to be the industry norm: big movies would play first exclusively in a few theaters in big cities for a number of weeks before they would sent to local neighborhood theaters. I grew up in Jersey City, which is a stone’s throw across the Hudson River from Times Square. I was nine years old when it opened. My dad was a big Bond fan and I wanted to see the film ASAP so he took me to the Astor, I believe, to see it on Times Square. For many weeks, every time we had gone through the area, I was being teased by that now famous gigantic billboard for the movie that hovered over Times Square. The artwork was stunning and exciting and I couldn’t wait to see it. The movie didn’t disappoint. I loved it then and love it now. Of course, when we got home, I was kind of a “big man on campus” because I had seen the film before anyone else. Naturally, when it opened at the Loew’s in our neighborhood some weeks later, I went with the whole gang to see it numerous times. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it over the decades but I never tire of it. Curiously, it didn’t do as well as the preceding film, Thunderball, although it certainly achieved blockbuster status. I think the overwhelming number of spy films and TV series had whetted the public appetite by 1967. Not helping matters was the fact that that big budget spoof version of Casino Royale was still in theaters competing with Twice.

Scivally: I first saw You Only Live Twice on television, and because of its episodic construction, it’s one of the Bond films that seemed almost improved rather than damaged by ABC’s frequent commercial breaks. It wasn’t until about 1981, after I’d moved to Los Angeles, when I saw it on a theater screen and could get the full effect of its extravagance. And extravagant it is, with 1960s Japan spectacularly rendered by cinematographer Freddie Young, who had previously shot David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

Sherman: I first caught a showing at home on television. I found the Asian locations and the wild action hypnotic. When Bond slides beneath the Tokyo streets to board Japanese Secret Service head Tiger Tanaka’s private train, wow!

Coate: In what way was Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld a memorable villain?

Cork: Blofeld has so little to do in You Only Live Twice. He kills more underlings and business partners than good guys. Do you realize how much money he could have made by just selling tourist tickets to his rocket base? Yet, everyone remembers the scar, the Mao jacket, and the bald head. It is all about first impressions, and Blofeld’s introduction is brilliant…. Donald Pleasence was a wonderfully skilled actor. He worked with Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman before (Killers of Kilimanjaro for Broccoli and Look Back in Anger for Saltzman), and got the part when the first choice, the talented but completely miscast Jan Werich, was summarily fired from the role. His work as “The Dark Hermit” (Satan) in The Greatest Story Ever Told secured him the part. It’s iconic. You ask any Bond fan to describe Blofeld, they describe Pleasence from You Only Live Twice. Sure, part of that is the scar, but Pleasence made that scar come to life. He’s brilliant as Blofeld.

Desowitz: This was the first crack at Blofeld. He looked and acted more menacing and it’s interesting how his iconic look became so influential, both in Austin Powers and SPECTRE. I’ve since found it interesting that Charles Gray’s droll Henderson, the MI6 contact, would’ve been more spot-on as Blofeld than Gray’s over the top turn in Diamonds.

Pfeiffer: Donald Pleasence’s appearance in Twice as Blofeld is one of the most iconic introductions of a screen villain ever. Until then, the character’s face was unseen in the previous Bond movies. Originally a little-known actor named Jan Werich had been hired for the part. He actually shot some scenes before he was replaced by Pleasence, ostensibly because he became ill, though I always suspected that he didn’t have the right approach to the character. Pleasence is so good as Blofeld that you lose sight of the fact that he is on screen for a very limited amount of time. Peter Hunt, the long-time editor of the Bond films, once told me that he was brought back to help oversee the editing process on the movie, that he loathed working with the footage of Pleasence because that he didn’t walk in a menacing manner but, rather, “minced” about. Hunt tried to minimize any footage of Pleasence on his feet for that reason. Not having seen what was cut, I can only say that what emerges of the Pleasence footage is the stuff of Bondian legend. In fact, Mike Myers was so impressed that he based the character of Dr. Evil on him.

Scivally: Pleasance was a last-minute replacement for Jan Werich, who was originally cast as Blofeld but was considered not to be menacing enough. While Pleasance is very slight in stature (painfully obvious when he’s standing next to Sean Connery’s 007), he did convey cool, calculating menace. This was just two years after he’d played Satan in The Greatest Story Ever Told, and four years after starring as the notorious murderer Dr. Crippen, so he was well-versed in playing darker characters. To me, his Blofeld is the most reptilian and snake-like, perhaps because Pleasance seems to be almost hissing his lines.

Sherman: Pleasence had to live up to Ian Fleming’s painstaking, calculating Blofeld. Ice in his veins, Blofeld puts aside sex, relationships and the lives of anyone blocking his illicit empire. Which actor had the book Blofeld’s penetrating, deep black eyes surrounded by white irises, staring out from a muscular body weighing 240 pounds? Pleasence, the first fully realized screen Blofeld, is memorable for sneering as the world rages and his lair burns. And after three underfed glimpses of the villain in the earlier Bonds, Pleasence, wearing a horrific facial scar, also appears haunting, skin-crawling. People still think of Pleasence’s Blofeld when they think about Bond villains. There have been thousands of skits and cartoons in the past 50 years featuring his scarred megalomaniac stroking a cat. A virtuoso actor, Pleasence’s silken tones match Fleming’s description of Blofeld’s “soft, resonant, and very beautifully modulated voice.” But Pleasence remains seated for much of his appearance, as he stood 5’7’’ only. Connery stands seven-inches-plus taller and far broader.

You Only Live Twice

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