Last Thursday I was at the British Film Institute (BFI) at London's Southbank to see film composer David Arnold introduce You Only Live Twice. The event was one in a series of 'Screen Epiphanies', in which notable individuals discuss a film that has influenced or otherwise inspired them.
I must confess that You Only Live Twice isn't my favourite Bond film. The script, which is built almost entirely around a volcano that the film makers happened to see when scouting for castles by the coast, is a shameful waste of Fleming's novel (although ironically elements of it have appeared in subsequent films). The three-Bond-girl formula, as revealed to screenwriter Roald Dahl, the 'stirred, not shaken' vodka martini, and the mysterious cameras relaying images of the helicopter picking up the car with the magnet and the capture of a space capsule back to Aki's car and Blofeld's control room respectively, suggest a careless and somewhat cynical approach to the plotting. Then there's the Japanese bath scene, which has dated badly, even without the help of Austin Powers.
So when I sat down in the auditorium, I was rather glad I'd had a fortifying cocktail (a 'gipsy martini', which contained Kina Lillet, an ingredient of Bond's Vesper martini). By way of an introduction to David Arnold's involvement with the Bond series, the audience was shown the titles sequence to Casino Royale. Brilliant stuff, and I was rather hoping the projectionist would let the film run on. Still, this set the mood perfectly, and as the interviewer brought him on to the stage, David Arnold was deservedly greeted by warm applause.
The interviewer naturally asked David Arnold about why You Only Live Twice was an epiphany. Arnold revealed that the film was the first (?Bond) film he saw. He was 8 years old or so, and was at a birthday party at community hall when a projector was brought out and You Only Live Twice was played. The screen was small and the sound poor, but the young David was entranced by the film and its music. Moments such as the Kobe dock scene and the Little Nellie sequence, and musical themes, particularly John Barry's 'Space March', helped create a life-long Bond fan and inspired his future work.
Surprisingly, David Arnold wasn't entirely sure about how he came to be involved with the Bond series. By 1996, when he began having conversations with Barbara Broccoli about scoring a Bond film, he had written the score to Stargate, and was producing Shaken and Stirred, an album of reinterpreted James Bond music and title songs. In one version, David Arnold was recommended to Barbara Broccoli by John Barry, to whom David Arnold was introduced by George Martin. At that meeting, Arnold took the opportunity to play Barry a few tracks from his album. Barry liked what he heard, and went to Barbara Broccoli. In another version, Barbara Broccoli heard some of the tracks independently and had decided to hire Arnold without John Barry's intervention.
David Arnold spoke a little about his work scoring the open ceremony of the Olympic Games in 2012, and his recent work on Sherlock and the forthcoming musical, Made in Dagenham. While open to the prospect of working again with Eon Productions, he gave no hint about his future involvement, if any, with the Bond series. As for Skyfall (scored by Thomas Newman), Arnold thought very highly of the film and the score, and was happy to have watched the film as a Bond fan on the other side of the screen.
On that note, the interview finished, and it was time to watch You Only Live Twice. Did watching the film on the big screen change my opinion of it? Possibly, a little. I admit the film is hugely spectacular. The opening space-set sequence in which the SPECTRE capsule captures the American spacecraft is creaky, but it still manages to look awesome and pack some emotional punch as one of the astronauts is cut off and drifts into the vastness of space. The sumo wrestling scene is nicely shot and integrated into the film, and reminded me that one thing the Bond films do very well is present local colour, events and customs to help ground the films and give them a sense of place (think of, for example, the bull-fighting in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, or the Palio di Siena in Quantum of Solace). The ninja drop from the roof of the volcano is epic, and with the help of Freddie Young's photography and Ken Adam's sets, audiences have no doubt that every penny spent on the film can be seen on the screen.
But for all these pluses, there still remain, for me, a large number of significant irritations – the inability of Blofeld to shoot Bond (there must be better ways of extracting Bond from moments of peril other than relying on Blofeld's procrastination), the comical effect produced by one of Mr Osato's employees ('Spectre 4', played by Michael Chow) saying everything twice, and the faults already mentioned – which all contribute to the feeling that plotting and coherence were the least of the film-makers' concerns. But then again, the Bond producers recognised as much, as they returned to Fleming with On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a fantastic film and a favourite with the fans, me included.