Saving Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
–quoted from the song Space Oddity by David Bowie, 1969
The movie You Only Live Twice, 1967, reviewed by Everard Cunion in April, 2015
This is my review of the 2007 ‘Ultimate Edition’ DVD by MGM.
You Only Live Twice is a 1967 James Bond film that stands out for its aviation and space action. Like all the early Bond films, it is set during the cold war between the capitalist west and the Communist Soviets. The Vietnam War—the first war to employ armed helicopters—was at its height, as was NASA’s Gemini space program in preparation for the Apollo moon landings a few years later.
The film features a signature tune used as background music throughout, and a full song version performed by Nancy Sinatra at the beginning and at the end. In complete contrast to her other great hit, These Boots are Made for Walking, she sings in an old-fashioned style – similar to the style of Karen Carpenter.
The film contains plenty of real flying action and uses special effects only where there was no other practicable way. It opens with an American Jupiter 16 space mission in progress. (It looks like a Gemini to me!)
The British government did not join with the USA in the American war in Vietnam. (Indeed, British ships continued to supply Communist North Vietnam.) In keeping with those times, in You Only Live Twice, the British delegation at a multinational conference disagrees with the Americans, who blame the Soviets for the loss of the American spacecraft.
The enemy seems to be based somewhere in Japan, but where exactly? British secret service agent James Bond is sent to find out. His time is limited because a Soviet spacecraft is due to launch shortly and the Russians have stated that if it is attacked by another craft, they will assume it is an American reprisal. World War 3 is on the cards.
Hong Kong was under British control at that time, and in the accompanying screenshot, British Hong Kong police arrive at the scene of a reported shooting. What follows is one of the most absurd yet nightmarish scenarios I have ever seen in any film.
However, the underwater scenes, of which there are not many in this film, are nowhere near as spectacular as those in Thunderball, an earlier Bond movie. (They are not meant to be.)
Commander James Bond, secret service agent 007, is played by Scottish actor Sean Connery while Miss Moneypenny is played by Lois Maxwell, from Canada. This screenshot is set in Moneypenny’s office aboard a Royal Navy submarine. I do not know much about submarines, but I imagine that submarine crewmen watching that part of the film, being used to confined spaces with equipment on all sides, were rolling in the aisles.
Bond is secretly inserted into Japan and he makes contact with a female agent of the secret service of Japan at a wrestling match. The need for secrecy is used as the reason for some funny scenes that lead up to a ride in the dedicated Tokyo tube train operated for Tiger Tanaka of Japan’s secret service.
The film makers used a mountain resort hotel in Japan as Tanaka’s residence, staffed by bikini-clad young women.
The screenshot of the inside of one of the offices used by the bad guys shows a data input terminal made by Burroughs, a commercial computer company that was IBM’s main competitor at the time. See Bondsmanship, a programming and technical writing digression from this review.
Unlike previous Bond films (according to Wikipedia anyway) this was the first in the series to not stick to the original Ian Fleming novel. Instead, screenwriter Roald Dahl wrote a script for an action-packed flying movie, which has different requirements from a novel. Dahl, a fighter pilot who suffered a head injury in World War 2, was then a popular author of children’s stories. (He is not the only RAF combat pilot heavily involved with You Only Live Twice.)
While the number of helicopters in this film is not as great as that in Apocalypse Now, it has more than its fair share of these giant man-made insects, which do not so much fly as beat the air into submission.
Several panicking hit men occupy the car slung under the Boeing CH-46 in the screenshot. A minute ago they were chasing James Bond along a highway…
Little Nellie is one of the stars of You Only Live Twice. It is a gyroplane designed, built, and flown by Wing Commander Ken Wallis, a former World War 2 bomber pilot. He also flew Westland Lysanders, large, single engine, black painted, and slow-flying aircraft used for inserting and retrieving secret agents behind enemy lines at night.
Close-ups of Sean Connery sitting in the cockpit with a wind machine blowing his shirt and a moving backdrop filmed from a helicopter provide the illusion of there being just one James Bond. That illusion was shattered subsequently when Connery resigned the role and was replaced by a different actor for the next film in the series.
This take-off sequence, from a suburban street into a sunny mid-morning sky ringed by building cumulus, is real.
According to the Wiki, Little Nellie was destroyed when Wallis
crashed it made a sub-optimal landing in it at a display in Northern Ireland. He walked away.
Airfix used to manufacture a 1:48 scale kit of the Wallis Autogyro. You could build it either in its armed Little Nellie configuration or as the more bare-bones version evaluated by the British Army.
According to the Wikipedia entry for the movie, the gyroplane filming was initiated in Japan then relocated to Spain. (The gyroplane is a Spanish invention, after all.) Aerial scenes in the movie The Battle of Britain, released in 1968, were also filmed in Spain.
That this film was made with input from real aviators is demonstrated when Bond notices the shadows of several helicopters closing in from behind.
The lightweight gyroplane, it seems to me, was made redundant by the powered ultralight of the late 1970s.
The dialog during the Soviet spacecraft sequence is not subtitled or translated in any way. It does not need to be.
A leading female character is accidentally killed when an attempt to assassinate James Bond goes wrong randomly. That kind of thing lends realism to the plot.
Another helicopter transports Bond to Tanaka’s ninja training centre for a
crash sub-optimal course in the use of unusual weapons, ancient and modern.
Bond even finds time to marry a girl in a fishing village. (That’s Bond, in the hat, bowing to the girls.) However, it is all part of the urgent task of discovering the source of the spacecraft attacks.
While the rocket launches are real (except for that of the SPECTRE rocket) the space scenes, necessarily fake, are reasonably well done bearing in mind that the film was made before the age of digital effects.
Could this film be the first occurrence of the ‘bikini girls and guns’ phenomenon? The screenshot is from the final battle fought between, on one side, Bond, his girl, and Tanaka’s ninjas, and, on the other, hordes of SPECTRE troops.
The opening scenes have ground control addressed as ‘Cape Com’, which I can only imagine is some kind of merging of Cap-com (the astronaut at Mission Control who serves as ‘capsule communicator’ on the radio link to the spacecraft) and Cape Canaveral. Or maybe Cape Com is a hitherto unknown facility near Cape Cod…
For the Soviet rocket launch they use film of what is clearly a Titan II rocket while, for the second American launch, they use film of an Atlas launching. The Atlas (for some reason) does not have the distinctive black and white panels of most contemporary American boosters (a paint scheme devised by Werner von Strangelove himself, apparently) so they should have used the latter for the Soviet launch. A minor point, I suppose.
The SPECTRE rocket launch is unrealistic in that the smoke, flame, and steam generated is obviously inadequate, especially in that we see several real rocket launches in the movie. Technicians crouch behind a fire truck just yards away from the booster as it launches! However, complete accuracy was impossible to achieve.
You Only Live Twice has some great flying action, beautiful Japanese women (and an Anglo-Chinese woman), a plausible plot, and great scenery. It is hard to think of what more a film needs.
Whicker’s World was a popular television series whose opening featured dramatic (for the time) film of a large jet airliner landing. At ten years old, I was disappointed when the programme turned out to be nothing to do flying. It featured a spectacle-wearing geezer in a suit talking to people. Not to pilots, astronauts, or motorcycle racers, but to dull and ordinary fat people in offices or in the street.
However, an edition of Whicker’s World broadcast in March 1967 was about the up-coming Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Had I watched it at the time, I might have realized that some of the dull ordinary fat people in it were talented organisers and the creators of great art and literature.
The two-disc ‘ultimate edition’ of the DVD contains only a few minutes of the Whicker’s World documentary, but I found the full program on YouTube.
Although the Whicker documentary concentrates mainly on actor Sean Connery and producers Harry Salzmann and Albert Broccoli, it does reveal the difficulty of organizing the filming of a large cast in the heat and humidity of coastal Japan in August, hindered by the language barrier, while being pursued by the press.
Disc 2 of the DVD set (of two) includes some documentary film narrated by set designer Ken Adam.
Just as often happened in helicopter operations in Vietnam, fog engulfed the top of the mountain where they were shooting scenes that would lead to the final battle, preventing helicopter extraction. The cast and crew endured an arduous hike down the mountain.
Once I met a colonel who had a plan to shorten the war by dropping piranha into the paddies of the North.
— Michael Herr, Dispatches, 1977
It strikes me as possible that the colonel obtained that idea from this movie.
Disc 2 also includes a bizarre short film titled Welcome to Japan, Mr Bond. It consists of snippets of Bond women and action scenes from earlier Bond movies, all linked by an unknown woman and Miss Moneypenny each independently speculating about who he is going to marry in You Only Live Twice.
A ridge too far—my review of The Bridges at Toko Ri, 1954 (more flying action and also ground scenes in Japan)
Adolf versus Adolph–my review of The Battle of Britain, 1968 (more flying action filmed in Spain)
T minus 15 seconds, guidance is internal—my review of First Man, 2018, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11
Saving pilot Durant—my review of the Ridley Scott movie Black Hawk Down, 2001 (more helicopters)
Saving Private Kouta—my review of the anime Elfen Lied by Mamoru Kanbe, 2004 (also set in Japan)
Space flight and hang gliding including a photo of Wally Schirra, who could be one of the crew aboard the Gemini in the launch screenshot here
Space suits and frocks on the box—my review of The Right Stuff, 1983
Terry Prendergast, like You Only Live Twice screenwriter Roald Dahl, Prendergast was a former RAF Hawker Hurricane pilot
You Only Live Twice performed by Nancy Sinatra (Google video search). One video, of poor resolution, has Sinatra strolling through a grey and damp city populated by mannequins.