You Only Live Twice: A volcano lair to remember
James R | On 10, Sep 2021
How do you top stolen nuclear weapons and sharks? The answer: get your own volcano. That’s the infallible logic behind the memorable You Only Live Twice and, decades later, while some parts of the film have dated quite horribly, it’s impossible to deny the sheer entertaining spectacle on offer.
The film, scripted by a Roald Dahl who’d never penned a screenplay before, does away with almost all of Ian Fleming’s novel – a taut, character-driven tale of revenge that showed us a side of 007 that would later be glimpsed in Daniel Craig and Timothy Dalton’s tenures – and instead takes us into faintly plausible territory: we begin with World War III brewing, as the USA and the Soviet Union try to work out why and how their rockets are going missing. Naturally, they blame each other, which is exactly what Ernst Stavro Blofeld wants, as his criminal organisation returns to cause havoc once again.
Sean Connery, who would depart after this outing (only to return reluctantly two more times), shows no sign of being bored in the role, comfortably wearing the character of 007 like he wears a sharply tailored suit. He’s suave, actually funny (although some of his supposed one-liners are borderline nonsensical) and, as in Goldfinger, genuinely good at this spying lark: he almost gets assassinated in his sleep but reacts by immediately jumping into the assassin’s clothes and smuggling himself back to their HQ, he plays nicely with Japan’s secret service, led by Tiger Tanaka (who sees right through Bond’s weaknesses), and isn’t above climbing down the side of a volcano using nothing but some sucker pads stuck to his knees and elbows.
It’s the latter that really impresses, as the film ends up inside Blofeld’s new lair: a hollowed-out volcano that’s so big it can house a space rocket, a helicopter, hordes of minions, its own monorail network and even hundreds of ninjas, who storm the whole thing come the wonderfully overblown climax. The result undoubtedly tops the groundbreaking achievements of Thunderball, but where that lost its focus chasing underwater thrills, You Only Live Twice manages to keep the balance between excitement big and small.
Director Lewis Gilbert (fresh from Alfie, who would go on to helm The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) confidently gives equal weight to the volcanic eruptions and the tiny moments of tension, from the unnerving assassination attempt (involving the classic poison-down-a-string method) to a delightful set piece involving an agile giro-copter called Little Nelly. There’s even a nice touch where a car is dropped into an ocean through a magnet-wielding chopper – years before the Fast & Furious franchise would attempt such feats. Even Mie Hama’s fellow spy, Kissy Suzuki, gets to save James Bond multiple times.
The pacing, plotting and direction is so slick that it almost helps to distract from some of the more painfully dated elements of the film, such as when Bond is supposedly transformed into looking Japanese through some prosthetics – a subplot that plays like the Team America “Valmorification” sequence, but without the self-aware satire. (“I got a first in Oriental Languages at Oxford,” 007 tells Moneypenny early on, before going on to spend the entire film speaking in English with a thick Scottish accent.) Add to that a typical tourist’s-eye-view of the country’s culture and you have a film that trades in stereotypes to an almost uncomfortable degree.
But take those poorly conceived components as dated signs of when it was made and You Only Live Twice still remains ludicrously enjoyable – largely because the film swiftly moves on from its attempt at an undercover wedding and instead gets back to what matters: the volcano. Inside, Donald Pleasance delivers the definitive turn as Blofeld, all menacing smile and arrogant smarts, and he sets the standard for not only Austin Powers’ Dr Evil but also every other Bond villain that would follow in his cat-stroking footprints.
The real star of the show, though, is Sir Ken Adam, OBE, the genius who designed the volcano lair. He crafts a steel-and-stone base that’s impossibly huge, swallowing up every inch of DoP Freddie Young’s epic compositions – and sticking in your memory for decades after. The result is bigger than Thunderball, and it feels it, both in terms of scale and scope. That cheesy evil organisation seems like a towering force to be reckoned with, while the franchise’s ambitions allow it to look beyond Connery to whoever might step into the 007 tux next. Chuck in a theme song performed romantically by Nancy Sinatra and you have a Bond outing that’s not just enjoyable but, in its own way, iconic.