You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody

You Only Live Twice
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The 1967 spoof Casino Royale was released the same year as Sean Connery’s fifth James Bond film – but there’s a lot to send up in You Only Live Twice too.

This feature contains minor spoilers for You Only Live Twice and Casino Royale (not that one).

“This is my second life.”


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Spoofs of James Bond movies have existed almost as long as the franchise itself. Some of the official Bond escapades were more tongue-in-cheek than others, and certainly the time of Goldfinger and Thunderball, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli had hit upon a fantastical formula that proved a massive box-office smash and generated merchandising tie-ins worth an estimated $50 million.

And yet, with leading man Sean Connery being vocal in his displeasure with various aspects of the franchise, from the quality of the scripts to the all-consuming media circus that came with starring in the biggest movie franchise in the world, Saltzman and Broccoli were already considering how the franchise might go on without him.

Nevertheless, for the fifth film in his six-film contract, Eon accommodated Connery’s demands for a reduced shooting schedule and more time between films. A planned adaptation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was postponed after they agreed to push the next film from 1966 to 1967, and in a bid to capitalise on the franchise’s success in Japan, the producers brought You Only Live Twice forward because its plot was mostly set in the country.

Fleming’s novel is the third in a Blofeld-centric trilogy, following directly from the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Swapping the order around necessitated a much looser adaptation of the story, so the film opens with the apparent assassination of 007 in Hong Kong before Nancy Sinatra makes that title her own forever, singing the film’s gorgeous theme song.

Buried at sea, Commander Bond is picked up by a British submarine where his condition is upgraded to “alive”, but with the world believing he’s dead, he’s free to undertake a more covert mission than usual. SPECTRE are hijacking Russian and American spacecraft to try and start a war between the two superpowers, and with the aid of the Japanese secret service, Bond hurtles towards a confrontation with the mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence).

Despite Saltzman and Broccoli pledging to meet Connery’s other demands by making Bond more human and reducing the number of visual-effects gimmicks, You Only Live Twice manages neither. Indeed, it’s both the most iconic and the most risible of his Bond outings – an adaptation that dispenses with the customary British-exceptionalist presumptions of Fleming’s novel, only to invent brand-new ones instead.

Wherever you stand on this entry, it’s no surprise that when Eon released Connery from the sixth film in his contract, hoping to negotiate a new, better deal for the next film if possible, the star duly got the heck out and announced it would be his final film as Bond.

As it happened, 1967 also saw a film with several non-Connery actors playing James Bond, and another one with a very Connery-like stand-in, but these were both parodies. Arguably though, You Only Live Twice does a serviceable job of sending up and undermining itself, inspiring countless other parodies in the process.


Beyond Bond

With the fifth Bond film pushed back to 1967, there were still countless imitators to fill cinemas in the 18-month gap between missions. There were no fewer than 30 secret agent films released in the United States in 1966, and two among those were the tongue-in-cheek Matt Helm films, starring Dean Martin as Donald Hamilton’s US government counter-agent.

As Columbia Pictures’ more comedic answer to Bond, the 1966 Helm movies The Silencers and Murderers’ Row were followed by 1967’s The Ambushers and 1969’s The Wrecking Crew, the latter of which is featured prominently in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, when Martin’s co-star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) catches an afternoon matinee of her latest film. The film later mentions Rick Dalton’s lucrative run in “Italian James Bond knock-offs”, and we’ll come back to that sort of thing imminently.

Having passed on the franchise back at the start of the decade, Columbia put out a lot of their own spy movies once Bond really took off. Most notably, they backed producer Charles K. Feldman’s very loose adaptation of Casino Royale, the film rights to which Fleming had already sold prior to his deal with Eon Productions for the other stories.

Having tried to get a Casino Royale movie off the ground before Dr No came along, Feldman went to Eon with an offer to co-produce the film. Saltzman and Broccoli prioritised the ongoing negotiations with Kevin McClory over Thunderball, and Feldman went off to make his own version. Judging the main series to be too successful to compete with, he decided to make the film as a spoof.

While familiar characters and plot elements of Casino Royale do turn up in the resulting film, they’re just a relatively minor part of this anarchic, star-studded sideshow. It begins with sanguine retiree Sir James Bond 007 (David Niven) being coaxed back into action to fight back against the Soviet counter-intelligence organisation SMERSH, which has been ordering hits on British agents. The practical, morally upright Bond takes over MI6 and decrees that “all agents will be named James Bond 007, even the girls” to confuse the enemy.

And so, before the main series had even recast the main role once, this one gives us Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Joanna Pettet, Daliah Lavi, Barbara Bouchet, and Terence Cooper, all playing James Bond 007. Together (or edited together in post-production, in some cases) they aim to beat SMERSH operative Le Chiffre (Orson Welles!) in a high-stakes baccarat game at the titular casino but wind up tangling with the mysterious Dr Noah too.

The film has almost as many credited directors as it does Bond actors – John Huston, Ken Hughes, Robert Parris, Joe McGrath, and Val Guest all took a hand in directing different sequences. And that’s nothing compared to the list of screenwriters – Ben Hecht’s original script was punched up by Wolf Mankowitz, Michael Sayers, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, (who also co-stars as Niven’s nebbish nephew Jimmy Bond), and countless other uncredited writers. “Too many cooks” is an understatement for this one.

It was dubbed an “experimental” film in some quarters, but watching it now, its most avant-garde material seems to be a mix of extreme self-indulgence and whopping patches over some behind-the-scenes difficulties. Chief among those difficulties was Sellers, who apparently took the part wanting to play Bond less comedically and was by, all accounts, not a happy collaborator.

After several weeks of not turning up to set and filming Bond’s pivotal showdown with Le Chiffre separately from Welles, the star exited the production before all his scenes had been shot. To salvage the material they had, the filmmakers devised a framing device that gave Niven a larger role in the proceedings, facing off against Dr Noah in the film’s contrived finale.

Incidentally, Niven is one of the spoof’s few saving graces – originally considered to play Bond proper in Dr No, he sends up the character marvellously here, whether decrying the “sex maniac” that’s been using his name and number since he left the service, or happily kicking henchmen in the face during the chaotic climax.

He’s funny in a film it’s quite difficult to be funny in. Welles’ idea of Le Chiffre’s prowess at cards including close-up magic is indulgent but it does get laughs, and the great Deborah Kerr provides a hilarious riff on the female villain Niven seduces without even trying. As to Sellers – well, let’s be charitable and consider that he apparently wasn’t trying to be funny here and leave it at that.

The film was supposed to shoot from January to June 1966 and be finished for a Christmas release date – in reality, production didn’t wrap until November, prompting a delay to April 1967, two months before You Only Live Twice. It’s also a whopping 131 minutes long, which is longer than any of the first five 007 outings.

In that year’s battle of the Bonds, the wildly incoherent satire was handily outmatched by the main attraction but riding the franchise’s coattails still carried the film to a $41.7m box-office haul worldwide.

A week after Casino Royale was released, the Eurospy film O.K. Connery was released in Italy. Fronted by Sean’s brother Neil Connery in his acting debut, the film boasts an all-star cast of Bond alums, including Lois Maxwell, (Miss Moneypenny) Bernard Lee, (M) Daniela Bianchi (Tatiana in From Russia With Love) and Adolfo Celi (Largo in Thunderball). To underline the point, the film hit US cinemas towards the end of 1967 under the title Operation Kid Brother.

Already unhappy with his star profile, Sean Connery was reportedly incensed about his family being dragged into the ongoing press circus that came with playing Bond. In a 1996 interview, Maxwell recalled Connery confronting her and shouting at her for appearing in the film, but she also noted that she made more money for O.K. Connery than she had from all her appearances as Moneypenny up to that point combined.

That much goes to show that even the Bond knock-offs were a lucrative business, but it all added to the unwanted burden of stardom on Connery, which only intensified with the release of You Only Live Twice.

Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond 
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen

Turning Japanese?

Beyond Connery’s umbrage, there was more bother behind the scenes. This was the first film where Saltzman and Broccoli were reportedly falling out, but the complications of extricating their stakes in the mega-franchise led them to an informal arrangement of alternating as lead producer on different instalments, starting with Broccoli on this one.

Elsewhere, Peter R. Hunt was initially peeved not to be given a promised directing gig, which went to Alfie director Lewis Gilbert instead, but eventually fulfilled his usual duties of second-unit director and supervising editor. The script was written by Roald Dahl (yes, that one) with “additional story material” by American screenwriter Harold Jack Bloom – a phrase here meaning that Broccoli didn’t like his script but made sure Dahl used several of its story ideas, leading to a battle over the proper credit before release.

Eon preferred Dahl’s script, though the later-beloved children’s author remarked to his UK agent that it was “the biggest load of bullshit” he’d ever written. It’s a fair assessment too – the screenplay for You Only Live Twice is arguably the worst of the entire series. (Go on, argue in the comments if you want, I’ll wait.)

The story is episodic, the one-liners aren’t funny or clever, and by turns, it’s either racist, or sexist, or both at once in a way that should give even the biggest Bond apologists pause. Strictly speaking, it’s not that the series has suddenly started taking itself seriously, (and nor have I in this rewatch) but the way the film lines up its set-pieces and gimmicks is barely as coherent as the comic casserole that was Casino Royale. It’s not funny either – the biggest laugh comes from Blofeld trying to keep hold of his reluctant feline co-star near the finale.

For the most part, it hews to that Bond formula. According to Dahl, included a “three-girl formula”. Apparently based solely on Thunderball, Broccoli and Saltzman told him that the film needed to feature three specific female characters – a pro-Bond character who dies, “preferably in his arms”; an anti-Bond character of the kind Deborah Kerr is sending up in Casino Royale, who dies “inventively”’; and a violently pro-Bond character who only finally topples into bed with him as we fade out.

As formulas go, they don’t get much less sexy (or “sexyful”, as Dahl has Japanese spy boss Tiger Tanaka put it) than that, but so it goes with the rest of the film’s listless movements from beat to beat. Fronted by a fed-up Connery, it feels less self-knowing and more self-automated.

An early beat in which Bond, M, and Moneypenny do their standard expository routine in naval dress and offices evolves into a running gag about field offices during Roger Moore’s era but is unconvincing here.

But it establishes a whole load of other tropes too, mostly relating to the villains. Most obviously, it’s the first instance of a highly generic recurring scheme where villains frame two rival powers for a crime in a bid to stoke war between then, then several question marks, then profit!

Meanwhile, Czech actor Jan Werich was originally cast as Blofeld but was replaced by Donald Pleasence after a few days of shooting. In his one-and-only turn as Blofeld, Pleasence is upmost in the inspiration that this particular film lends to the Austin Powers trilogy.

Providing a hugely successful outlet for Mike Myers’ Anglophilia, the Powers movies have a hero more like that of BBC1’s Adam Adamant Lives, and who looks more like Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File. But their main comic target is still 007, and for all that it’s inspired by other Bond films with Frau, (after Rosa Klebb) Number 2, (after Largo) and Random Task (after Oddjob), the villainous side of things is so squarely based on You Only Live Twice.

It’s not just the obvious nod of Myers’ Dr Evil make-up and performance tics (that run!) spoofing Pleasence’s bald, scarred weirdo either. We can’t go further without saying You Only Live Twice is impressive even by the series’ high visual-effects standards at the time. Created by mighty production designer Ken Adam and an army of crewmembers between May and October 1966, the $1m hollowed-out volcano lair set is a landmark in every sense – once complete, the 400-foot-tall set could be seen three miles away from Pinewood Studios.

The spectacle of ninjas and SPECTRE goons battling it out in the finale employed 120 stuntmen – it’s as dazzling to look at as it is ridiculous to think that SPECTRE has all these anonymous boiler-suited henchmen on hand to lay down their lives for a megalomaniacal boss. It’s the sort of scene that Bond returns to again and again and Austin Powers more effectively lampoons. But this, the grandest, most memorable example of it, is scarcely justified by the half-baked script, whose biggest contribution to the Powers canon is the “why don’t you just kill him” of it all.

And most incredibly, the big thing they decided to keep from the novel is the passage where Bond poses as a Japanese worker to infiltrate Blofeld’s lair, even though there is objectively no way to realise this visually that isn’t absurd. All the same, the film gamely leans into that, by putting Connery in make-up and a (different) toupee, sending him to “ninja school”, and marries him off to Bond Girl Function #3 (Kissy Suzuki is never even referred to by name in the film).

Let’s ignore that Bond manages to pose as a smaller Japanese hitman in another ridiculous scene earlier in the film by putting on his hat and trenchcoat – he’s got a couple of feet and several stone on the other fella, but it doesn’t stop a guileless goon carrying him back to their headquarters. The later full-on transformation is the sort of shite Trey Parker and Matt Stone were probably thinking about with Team America’s high-tech “valmorphanisation” of American puppets into terrorist puppets.

You can say what you like about the rest of the Bond franchise, but for our money, this ninja school sequence is the nadir. Forget the Kananga balloon, forget the double-taking pigeon, forget the invisible car, even forget who the author of Bond’s pain was all along – the idea of a strapping Connery learning to be more Japanese than the Japanese by putting on Mr Spock eyebrows and swinging sticks about for two days is the most embarrassing thing in any 007 film.

It wouldn’t be Connery’s final Bond film after all, but You Only Live Twice represents a weak ending to what the consensus holds to be the franchise’s original golden age. Even without judging its howling missteps “by today’s standards”, it’s a feeble excuse for a travelogue compared to Goldfinger, or even Thunderball, which isn’t a favourite of mine either.

Most of the main movers would redeem themselves in the following decade, from Gilbert, who excelled in directing both the sublime (The Spy Who Loved Me) and the ridiculous (Moonraker), to Connery, who was convinced back for Diamonds Are Forever (a story we’ll cover in two weeks’ time!)

The film was still a warmly reviewed box-office success when it came out in June 1967, eventually grossing $111.6m off a $9.5m budget, but it feels as though the creative problem was the same as Bond the character has before the start of this film – he’s made too big a name for himself. The character has had his share of resurrections since, but this miscalculates in trying to top Thunderball’s scale with an more scattershot story.

From here on, the end of the annual cycle of production may have saved that golden formula from wearing out prematurely. Saltzman and Broccoli didn’t stray too far from it but innovating within its bounds proved vital to differentiating it later films from their imitators and parodies. And for various reasons, the next instalment would mark the series’ biggest departure to date…

You Only Live Twice is now streaming on Prime Video and will also screen in select VUE and Odeon cinemas nationwide from Friday 13th May. 1967’s Casino Royale is also streaming on Prime Video.

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