I hate to crash the party, but I have to say something that you may find hard to read… Not all of the Bond films are great, in fact some of them are terrible. As a critic of cinema there are no more, for me at least, than 14 Bond films that warrant repeat viewing. As a kid, however, I did not think this and loved re-watching all the copies of Bond I had recorded on VHS from ITV. Of all the memories I have of Bond as a youngster, You Only Live Twice stands alone as the film I watched the most and as an adult I can see why; it’s fun, it’s thrilling and for me, it’s the best Bond there is.
When it was first released in 1967, You Only Live Twice was a significant change from the 4 Bond films that had preceded it. For starters, while it kept the same name as Fleming’s book it shied away from the narrative of the novel. You Only Live Twice the novel is a dark tale that follows Bond as he deals with the death of his wife Tracy and the culture shock he experiences when in Japan. The bulk of this narrative could not be covered as we had yet to see the death of Tracy. Therefore, the makers brought in Fleming’s own friend and celebrated novelist Roald Dahl (yes, that one) and asked him to throw a few ideas together and the result is the film I know and love. It should also be noted as the Bond film that has probably been parodied the most over the years; Austin Power’s arch-nemesis Dr. Evil is based on the Blofeld character, first revealed fully in this film.
The plot follows Bond as he travels to Japan to investigate the disappearance of both US and Russian spacecraft. These are disappearances that, if they continue, will plunge the world in to war. As Bond’s investigation progresses, it appears that the disappearances are the work of Blofeld and his SPECTRE organization. This realization eventually leads to a showdown between Bond, Blofeld and numerous extras within Blofeld’s Volcano lair.
From the traditional gun barrel opening onwards, everything about You Only Live Twice screams classic Bond and I guess that’s why I love it so much. The plot may be preposterous, but it’s also a classic espionage tale, with our protagonist trying to avert a megalomaniac’s attempts to plunge the world in to war. It’s fun, exciting and thrilling from start to finish.
The film is enhanced by Connery’s superb performance as our favorite British agent. This being the 5th film for Connery to play Bond, he had hit his stride as the character and is a real treasure to watch on the screen. Admittedly, Connery has never been my favorite Bond but he is the classic embodiment of the role, managing to effortlessly balance the serious and silly with great aplomb.
This is also a film blessed with a truly memorable villain to boot. Blofeld had been in previous Bond films, but had only been partially seen. Here we get to see the full Blofeld, if you will, chillingly brought to life by a memorable performance from Donald Pleasence. All other interpretations of the role wither in comparison; Pleasence’s soft vocal tones, icy stare and facial disfigurement make Blofeld a truly memorable villain who has only been matched a handful of times – most recently by Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale – and who you remember long after the film is over.
As you would expect from Bond, the action in You Only Live Twice is superb and consistently thrilling. Moreover, this film contains some of the standout action sequences of the series. The “Little Nellie” scene is so impressive; it is just as exciting as anything in a modern day actioner. Then there’s the brawl between Bond and Blofeld’s thugs at the Kobe Docks, which is mesmerizing to watch and shows just how well the hand-to-hand combat was choreographed during the Connery era.
Of course it’s a film with flaws; the scenes in which Japanese intelligence try to disguise Bond as a Japanese citizen remains unintentionally hilarious. And the death of Aki minutes later is passed over too quickly for a character that is initially presented as integral to the plot.
However, it all builds up to a sensational finale that is better than anything that precedes it and for me is Bond’s finest hour. Ken Adam’s breath-taking Volcano lair set provides the perfect setting as hundreds of ninjas do battle with Blofeld’s army. It’s a shootout that is nothing less then an action lover’s escapist dream. It’s loud, exciting and lots and lots of fun.
Add to this a great soundtrack, Nancy Sinatra’s title track is Bond’s best in my book, and a script full of twists and turns as well as those trademark Bond one-liners and you have a film that, for me, embodies everything a classic Bond film should be. There are good Bond films… there are great Bond films… and then there’s You Only Live Twice, a film that for me cannot be topped and is the definitive outing of everyone’s favorite secret agent.