Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘You Only Live Twice’

If Plato’s Theory of Forms has anything to it (which I really doubt, but it’s spurious intro time again), the implications are profound. Basically, the idea is that everything in the world is the physical embodiment of a quintessential version of itself existing in some metaphysical otherworld. Thus every chair in some way is an imperfect recreation of the primal Chair Form, every dog is a flawed embodiment of the Dog Form, and so on. The connection with the Form is what allows us to recognise things as what they are. I am frankly dubious about this, but I got thinking about forms and formulas the other day with particular reference to movie franchises, and the Bond series in particular.

People talk about Bond films being formulaic as if it’s a negative thing and I suppose there’s a case to be argued here. And you can’t really deny that there is a fundamental blueprint for these movies that Eon have been very, very careful about staying close to (it’s almost inconceivable that they’d produce something as left-field as Ian Fleming himself did with his version of The Spy Who Loved Me – for the uninitiated: first-person viewpoint, lengthy pseudo-autobiographical section, two Canadian gangsters as the bad guys and Bond’s hardly in it).

Even people who don’t like these films and haven’t seen many of them know how the game is played: big opening stunt/action sequence, plot is established, Bond gets briefed, Bond gets tooled up, off to another country, meeting with local ally (often marked for death), meeting with first Bond girl (ditto), encounter with main villain (often involving a game or wager of some kind), etc, etc. I expect Wikipedia or somewhere has produced a table showing which elements are in which movie.

Now, you would expect this kind of semi-mandatory tick-list of elements to be the enemy of good, popular film-making, but the strange fact is that the best and most popular of the Bond movies are the ones that stick closest to the formula, while the ones that do wander off into other areas are the least well-remembered. So, the question must be asked – which of the movies is closest to the Platonic Bond Movie Form?

For a long time I thought it was You Only Live Twice. I suspect this is mainly because when people (and here I really mean Mike Myers) set out to parody Bond, this is the movie they mainly take as a template to work with. And up to a point, this is true, but.

You Only Live Twice was made in 1967, directed by Lewis Gilbert. International scallywags SPECTRE (headed by Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld) have built themselves a spaceship which goes around eating other spaceships, all in aid of starting a war between the USA and the USSR. British intelligence get a clue that these troublemaking operations are based in Japan and soon top agent James Bond (Sean Connery, like I need to say so) is sent to investigate.

Well, if the basis of the plot isn’t enough to tip you off as to the kind of film this is, let me explain to you how Bond decides to get to Japan. Does he pop on a scheduled commercial jet flight, possibly under an assumed name? He does not. Instead he fakes his own death in a collapsible bed, has himself buried at sea, is retrieved from the sea bed by a submarine, and then has himself fired out of a torpedo tube onto one of Japan’s many picturesque beaches. None of this, strictly speaking, is demanded by the plot.

Yes, this is an openly and ostentatiously silly film from beginning to end, but it still somehow works even as it floats cheerfully from one outrageously overblown set-piece to another, occasionally waving at logic and credibility as they sit, fuming, somewhere off in the distance (for example: at one point Connery has to disguise himself as a Japanese fisherman. He appears do so by covering himself in fake tan and putting his hairpiece on backwards, and yet the ruse still seems entirely effective). Scriptwriter Roald Dahl almost completely dispenses with the downbeat and internal plotline of Fleming’s novel and seems to have been given carte blanche to do absolutely anything he felt like in its place. Connery swaggers through the whole thing and the rest of the production follows his example. The franchise may have got both feet off the ground for the first time but it’s also absolutely at the height of its powers – silly it may be, but it’s also irresistibly self-confident and lavish.

But at the same time it’s not quite the Bond-by-numbers you would expect, and it departs from the formula a fair amount too. There’s hardly any of the frantic globetrotting you’d normally expect to see: once Bond arrives in Japan, very early on, the story stays based there for the duration. And this leads into another stylistic quirk – Dahl may have dismissed the novel as not much more than a Japanese travelogue, but there are times when the movie is just that. There are relatively lengthy sequences devoted to displays of Japanese customs and martial arts, most notably a traditional wedding. I suppose this all seemed rather more exotic back in the sixties.

That said, the traditional Bond elements are very strong here, and despite the absurdity of the story Lewis is careful to mix in corresponding levels of grit and toughness and wrap them around a solid narrative structure. Donald Pleasance, famously a piece of after-the-last-minute casting, nails the Bond supervillain role in perpetuity. Neither of the Bond girls here are likely to score highly in terms of name recognition, but they’re both highly qualified for the role. The action is nicely put together too.

I don’t think You Only Live Twice is the particularly Bondy Bond film I originally took it for, but it does have a tremendously strong identity within the series, simply due to its scale and energy. Even by modern standards this is a big, fun, engagingly ridiculous action movie, and possibly the overall high point of the franchise.

Read Full Post »