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‘You Only Live Twice’ at 50

As the early Bond films gradually reach thir respective anniversaries, 2017 marks the Golden Jubilee of ‘You Only Live Twice’ which premiered 50 years ago today

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Hijacked spacecraft, ninjas, a gigantic volcano lair and legendary gyrocopter “Little Nellie” – the fifth Bond film continued the tradition of 007’s extravagant and action-packed cinematic adventures.

With a screenplay by British novelist Roald Dahl and directed by Lewis Gilbert, ‘You Only Live Twice’ wasn’t originally intended to be the next installment of the popular James Bond franchise. Initially, producers had aimed to adapt ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. However, this would have required extensive location scouting for high and snowy locations.

Being known for character dramas, Lewis Gilbert was reluctant to direct a Bond epic and declined the offer by producer Albert R. Broccoli. Charming and persuasive as Broccoli was, he eventually got Gilbert on board by saying that he couldn’t “turn down the largest audience in the world”.

The filming from July 1966 to March 1967 was costly as it had become standard. Primarily shot in Japan and at Pinewood studios, the film swallowed a ten million Dollar budget. One million alone went into the construction of Ken Adams iconic SPECTRE volcano base. Completely fitted with an operative helipad and monorail, the 45 m tall set could be seen from 5 kilometres away.

The massive purpose-built volcano set at Pinewood Studios / Photo by Larry-Ellis

Once again saving the world by stopping evil mastermind Blofeld and thus averting a third World War, Sean Connery was visibly bored with playing the role that had made him a star. At 36 and after five Bond thrillers, he had decided not to reprise the role.

However, it was not only Connerys slightly stale performance but also the flawed and confusing plot of ‘You Only Live Twice’ that made film critics boil inside. Maybe screenwriter Roald Dahl should have made better use of the original Ian Fleming novel instead of discarding most of it and forming a completely different story around a few original characters and locations. Although criticized for being “noisy, wildly violent and shamelessly excessive”, the film managed to haul in $111 million dollars worldwide.

The film celebrated its glamourous world premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square on 12 June 1967 – exactly 50 years ago today. It was the first James Bond premiere attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Sean Connery attended together with his wife Diane Cilento.

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Critics and flaws aside, the film has aged exceptionally well. It is a joy to watch this over the top matériel battle and, quite naturally, to roll one’s eyes from time to time. But then you literally feel that ever growing, remarkable obviousness with which the Bond producers made these early films. James Bond had been firmly established as a spy thriller franchise with high demand in Cold War times. Some of the things we might call ridiculous today, people in the 1960’s were genuinely frightened of.

At 50, ‘You Only Live Twice’ still presents each and everyone of us with some great moments of Bond history. Whether it is the most iconic (and most copied) Blofeld portrayal in cinema history, the first wedding of agent 007, the wonderful locations in Japan or the masterful music by John Barry – it is 100% pure Bond. Big, bold and loud.

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