1967 was a big year for Bond. As previously discussed in this series, he was spoofed on the big screen not once, but twice that year. In the world of entertainment, there’s no higher honor than to be lampooned. After the critical success of Thunderball and the formation of the spy genre as a whole, it was inevitable. Inevitable is a word that comes up frequently when discussing the Bond franchise, and it was inevitable that the masterminds at EON Productions would have to continue on that success if Bond was to continue to enjoy his position at the top of the pile. That meant the inevitable face-to-face confrontation between James Bond and his heretofore unknown arch nemesis, the shadowy mastermind behind SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
A great deal had changed in the world since Thunderball. The cultural counter-revolutions kicked in, and 1967 would be hailed as the summer of love. You’d never know it looking at the headlines. American involvement in Vietnam escalated while the Apollo program demonstrated some considerable leaps forward in the space race to the moon, overshadowing Soviet progress for the first time. While Thunderball was being made, Winston Churchill passed away, and Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power. Now, all eyes were on communist expansion in the East. Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had begun only a year earlier, orchestrated to remove the volatile “counter-revolutionary” elements from China. In that same year, Bruce Lee became a television star, overshadowing his leading man on the series The Green Hornet. Meanwhile, Godzilla had been stomping all over Japan at this point, becoming a cultural metaphor for both the United States and for nuclear proliferation.
With all of these things simmering in the world’s stew pot, EON tapped British novelist and poet Roald Dahl as the unlikely choice to adapt Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name, published in 1964 just after his death. While incorporating quite a bit of material from the novel, great license had to be taken with the story as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had not yet been filmed, and the events of the novels have their own continuity. This marks the first serious departure of the film series from its source material. The result is a film that some have called the quintessential spy thriller of the era. I disagree with that notion, but I didn’t get to cast my vote. It’s also considered to be one of the most cultured Bond films to date, featuring authentic portrayals of Japanese life at that time. For me, the result is an uneven adventure that in spite of misguided intent, sadly becomes more racially offensive and unintentionally goofy with every passing year, not because of the cultural aspects, but because of Bond’s role in them. It doesn’t diminish the sheer audacity of scale, however. There are few things out there that can compete with a Ken Adam set. When a supervillain gets a secret rocket base inside a volcano, there had better be a script that can showcase that properly.
And you just know that those spoofs wished they had this much material to work with when they were released. It wouldn’t be until Austin Powers came along that it would be proven just how influential this film really was. This lair design was also used heavily for the Pixar film The Incredibles.
The film begins with the orbital American capsule Jupiter 16 being intercepted by an unknown craft that literally swallows it whole. As intended, the Americans point fingers at the most likely offender, the Soviet Union, who in turn declares themselves innocent. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, Bond is seemingly betrayed in bed, assassinated with machine guns before our eyes. Post credits, Bond’s funeral is well-publicized and appears to have been a ruse. His new assignment is Japan, where British Intelligence has traced the landing of the unknown spacecraft.
Bond’s contact in the Japanese SIS, Aki, takes him to the home of Dikko Henderson, a British agent who has lived in Japan for 28 years and claims he’s still getting a handle on the customs. Henderson reveals that a third party organization, Osato Chemicals, is launching their own spacecraft. A coded inventory list includes the item “LOX,” which Bond says is an American term for smoked salmon, but also the scientific shorthand for liquid oxygen, used in rocket fuel. Henderson is stabbed before he can reveal anything further, and after dispatching the assassin, he disguises himself and takes his place by feigning injury in the back of the getaway car. After infiltrating Osato Chemicals and obtaining a film negative, Aki helps him escape. Bond isn’t trusting at this point, however, and he chases her right into a trap set by the head of Japanese Intelligence, Tiger Tanaka. The film negative reveals the ship Ning Po and a small notice that the American tourist that took the picture was killed by someone working for Osato Chemicals. Given their history of using private corporations to undermine international efforts, Bond theorizes that Osato Chemicals is operating as a front for SPECTRE.
Bond meets with Osato himself and his assistant Helga Brandt under the guise of a businessman, but he is x-rayed, and his execution is ordered. He’s chased all over the docks and is eventually ambushed, awakening in Brandt’s room on the Ning Po, tied up and ready for interrogation. He seems to be able to seduce his way out, but finds himself trapped in the back of a small plane as she bails via parachute. Escaping again, Bond uses the mini-copter gunship “Little Nellie” to survey the island where the spacecraft is believed to have been traced. He evades and destroys enemy gunships, leaving no doubt that SPECTRE is involved.
Meanwhile, the Russian spaceshot is engulfed by the unknown spacecraft, and the Americans are blamed, painting the British as the only reasonable ones in the intelligence community. Funny how that works. The Russians will use this as the excuse to shoot down the next Jupiter launch, and the Americans change the date of that launch accordingly.
Osato and Brandt, revealed as SPECTRE’s Number Eleven, are summoned by Number One, and confronted with the x-ray photo of Bond’s signature Walther PPK, Brandt is executed by being dropped into a piranha tank.
To prepare for the upcoming confrontation, Bond is ordered to Tanaka’s vast estate where he will take up ninja training as the first part of the operation. Part two is to “become Japanese” and to cement that cover by taking a bride, an agent of Tanaka’s who resides in the local fishing village near their target. Completely believable plan, wouldn’t you say? The makeup prosthetics are so incredible, nobody would suspect there’s a Scotsman under all of that.
Quiet, you. You’re laughing and/or groaning too loudly, probably both.
Part three of the plan is for Bond and his new bride, Kissy Suzuki, to break off from the fishing fleet and investigate the island and its volcano. Again, all of this is totally necessary for the operation’s success according to some notion I have trouble fathoming. Just go with it… it’s a Bond film, after all. The problem is the Americans are revealed to be launching that day, so time is of the essence if Bond is to avert international disaster.
Discovering how to enter the volcano through its false “lake” inside the crater, Kissy is sent back to get Tanaka and his ninjas while Bond makes his way inside with his newly acquired ninja skills. I can’t even type this with a straight face, it’s so… well, you fill in the appropriate adjective here as you will. It likely applies no matter how you choose to see it. From there, Bond tries to stop the next launch and is taken to face Blofeld himself, who monologues about the nuclear war between the superpowers he’s hoping to instigate that will eliminate them both from his world stage. Bond opens the way for Tanaka’s ninjas to enter, the epic fight ensues, and Blofeld sets the lair for self destruct as he makes his escape.
One of the big questions I always have about this film is whether or not the marriage to Kissy is legitimate under Japanese law, or if the whole thing was a ruse. My understanding of how Tanaka operates leads to me to believe it’s legitimate, which complicates matters considerably for the next film if there was no annulment. I have to assume that got worked out. Then again, continuity gaffes are part and parcel with any series. For example, Bond tells Henderson that he’s never been to Japan, but in From Russia With Love, he tells Tatiana that he and M had an adventure together in Tokyo.
Behind the scenes, the role of Blofeld originally went to actor Jan Werich. Five days of shooting made both director and producer recast with Donald Pleasence in the role. The official excuse was that Werich was “ill.” The fact is, Werich simply wasn’t menacing enough. If there’s one thing we can all agree on about this film, Pleasence’s take on Blofeld sets the standard. Blofeld’s cat, on the other hand, was the exact opposite of menacing. Spooked by all the loud noises from the finale, it was discovered days later in the rafters of the volcano set, scared out of its mind.
I’ll leave you with this thought: this film almost didn’t get made, and Thunderball was almost the finale for the franchise. Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, director Gilbert Lewis, and set designer Ken Adam were all scheduled to return to the UK after location scouting in Japan on a Boeing 707 flight. They cancelled their tickets at the last minute when they were given the opportunity to see a ninja demonstration. 25 minutes after takeoff, the plane crashed, killing all on board. “You only live twice, Mr. Bond…”