Friday, September 21, 2012

You Only Live Twice - Dir. Lewis Gilbert (The Bond Project #5)

You Only Live Twice (1967)
Dir: Lewis Gilbert
James Bond Gets Yellow Fever
by Jay Maronde
Every so often in the course of filmmaking history, all the aspects and fates and personalities of a particular project come together in a perfect amalgam that yields an outstanding piece of cinema that truly stands the test of time. You Only Live Twice is certainly an example of this rare occurrence. The film, while possibly not the best Bond, is nevertheless a tremendous epic and a highly entertaining Bond--which is a refreshing reprieve after all the underwater nonsense of the previous film.     

To really understand this fortuitous collaboration, one must first place certain events in their historical context. First, Bond, and spy films in general, were hugely successful and outrageously popular at this time during the 1960s, so there was a huge budget for YOLT.  Though by this point Sean Connery had expressed his desire to retire from the Bond franchise, he was essentially bribed with a contract far larger than the entire budget of Dr. No, plus a promise of 12.5% of the film's gross earningsSecond, The Cold War was steaming away, so the opportunity for Bond to literally stop World War III from breaking out betwixt the USA and USSR seemed almost too good to be true from a production stand point. Finally, the James Bond cinematic franchise was very popular in Japan, so the opportunity to shoot the movie (which would be based on a book that one screenwriter referred to as "essentially a travelogue of Japan") on location was impossible to pass up.

Which while we are on the topic of "passing up," the director Lewis Gilbert tried repeatedly to pass on directing this movie, but a personal call from producer Albert R. Broccoli, who said, "You can't give up this job. It's the largest audience in the world,” luckily changed his mind. So with production locations much more difficult to find for the next Bond in the pipeline, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and I should mention that certain prints of the film Thunderball contain the closing credit that: “James Bond will return in OHMSS”) the producers chose to revamp what was the last Ian Fleming James Bond novel published during Fleming’s lifetime (the rest were released posthumously), and so came the delightful You Only Live Twice.   

The making of You Only Live Twice wasn’t all plum sake and cherry blossoms though--there were definitely some obstacles to be overcome. First and foremost, the novel has little to no plot, at least not one that could appropriately serve as the basis for an epic action film. To solve this problem two separate screenwriters were brought in. First, a man named Harold Jack Bloom was given the task, and while the producers didn’t like his outcome, they used enough of his ideas to give him the “additional story material” credit. The second person was an inexperienced writer (in film, at least) and friend of Ian Fleming’s, who would go on to have tremendous literary successes of his own: Roald Dahl.

Yes, that Roald Dahl, who wrote many beloved children's novels (one of which was adapted into the cinema classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and others which were made into memorable films such as The Witches, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and the more recent Fantastic Mr. Fox) was commissioned to write the screenplay. The novel didn’t really leave him much to work with, but the man definitely had a fantastic imagination, so he ran forward with a big, broad, epic sweeping story, which he said was the best he could do with the “formula” that he was told to work with. Personally considering the influential outcome (most notably inspiring huge parts of the Austin Powers Film series--which I was trying to avoid mentioning in these reviews--particularly Dr. Evil as an obvious parody of the fantastic performance of Donald Pleasence) of the film, I think he did a more than adequate job.

It should be noted however, that YOLT deviates from the “formula” in certain ways: Bond spends almost the entire movie in one country (Japan) and rides in a Toyota. YOLT is actually the only film in which James Bond never drives any car. Also, the car he rides in is a custom “roof-less” model, made to look like a convertible in the film, but the cars (only two of which were ever manufactured, with one currently in the James Bond Museum and one in a private collection) had to have their roofs removed for filming, not necessarily to look “cool,” but because Sean Connery was simply too large to fit in the car with the roof.  Moreover, YOLT is also the first film to deviate substantially from the original novel: the only matching elements of the stories are the characters of James Bond and Kissy Suzuki and the country of Japan. Thus, almost the entirety of the script is a result of the sheer genius of Dahl. 

Dahl wasn’t the only genius involved in this production; director Lewis Gilbert also exerts his cinematic talents to the fullest. Most notable was his work with set designer Ken Adams to achieve the fantastic look of the film. Even very early on in the film, this writing/directing/set-designing trilogy of geniuses work out all sorts of issues, like how Bond should be briefed by M and Moneypenny if he is never to step foot in Great Britain (he meets them in a unique office within a British submarine) and how he is going to receive his traditional Q branch briefing without going to their offices either. While on the Topic of Q branch, Desmond Llewelyn returns yet again to equip 007, except in a clever twist to include the gadgets (and therefore stay within the “formula”), Bond requests that “M send Little Nellie and her Father.” Little Nellie is the name the franchise gives to the Wallis Auto Gyro. This was a real, working, mini-helicopter on which Bond has one of his most memorable scenes of the entire franchise: he fights off a whole wing of angry enemy helicopters in an epic air battle that was a tremendous feat of filmmaking so essential to the rest of the production that it consumed over five hours of film and a camera person's foot, which was severed in the process.

Another outstanding part of this film is Ken Adam’s amazing volcano set, which is stormed by an army of ninjas. The volcano is the setting for the finale of the film at the evil villain’s super-secret lair (and was also the inspiration for Dr. Evil's lair in the first Austin Powers movie)--easily one of the most recognizable artifacts from this film. In real life, the volcano base, which was constructed outside of London at Pinewood Studios, was almost 150 feet tall, could be seen from 3 miles away, and really had a working heliport and monorail. Clearly without the tremendous budget allocated for this film, such an extraordinary set would not have been available to the production staff.

Many have said that You Only Live Twice was only successful because it followed the standard James Bond Formula of "girls, gadgets and action," but I would espouse that the film’s success comes from its producers following the far more classic formula of a creative script, a budget that spared no expense, a talented group of actors and production workers, and superb timing.

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