The awkward and annoying disregard for character continuity during Jame Bond’s first period of change.
I stumbled upon You Only Live Twice on TV the other evening and, in lieu of anything better to do at the time, decided to watch it – the film had been on for less than a minute and I hadn’t seen this much-maligned Bond film for a long, long time – perhaps not since childhood.
Yes, it’s an extraordinarily awkward film, arguably the tipping point from classic Bond to 1970s Bond and full of eyebrow-raising moments – and I’m not talking about Bond’s embarrassing ‘Japping Up’, which at least makes a certain sense within the context of the narrative even if Sean Connery is perhaps the most unconvincing fake Oriental in that particular phenomenon’s dubious cinematic history. Some of the special effects are very shoddy – let’s not forget that this was 1968, the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, and the effects and blue-screen processes have the look of a cheap knock-off. Even Hammer did better on a much lower budget with Moon Zero Two. It smacks of laziness, frankly, a series resting on its laurels and very much taking a ‘that’ll do’ approach. No wonder the arrival of a new Bond was seen as an opportunity for reinvention, even if all that reinvention was effectively retconned out of continuity once George Lazenby walked away and panic set in.
But it’s that continuity that struck me as the most glaring issue here – and not just here. Let me explain. In You Only Live Twice, Bond comes face-to-face with Blofeld, the only recurring supervillain of the classic Bond era. There’s no ambiguity here – they meet, Blofeld immediately recognises Bond and they spend a fair amount of time together. Yet the next film’s central plot hinges on the pair hanging out together for days without either recognising the other – Bond suspects it is Blofeld but isn’t quite sure (the character in the novels is known to change his appearance with plastic surgery, so this is at least a little plausible if we accept the movie concept of how effectively plastic surgery works) and if Blofeld knows that this is Bond all along, he does a good job of pointlessly stringing him along rather than just killing him straight away. At the very least, you might think that Bond would remember their last meeting and so consider going in undercover to be a bit of a non-starter as far as plans are concerned. But no, a fake accent and a kilt is all he needs, apparently – and if he’d been able to make Little James behave and not buggered up his fake credentials, he might never have been found out.
Maybe it’s because Blofeld has lost his ambiguously-located supervillain accent and facial scars. Maybe – and this is a leap into Bond conspiracy theory – it’s because ‘James Bond 007’ is a code name that is applied to whichever agent fill the role at any particular time. But On Her Majesty’s Secret Service goes out of its way to tell us that this is the same James Bond that we’ve known and loved – he’s absolutely the same person. While Bond films have long demanded a certain suspension of disbelief – namely that the character wouldn’t age from the earlier 1960s to the late 1990s – until the Daniel Craig era, the films still maintained the pretence that it was the same person throughout, and even the Craig films seem to be more of a restart of the story than the introduction of a new character (though people can – and will – debate that point at length).
There is also the theory that because Bond was disguised as a Japanese man when the pair first met, Blofeld would not have immediately recognised him. That might hold water if Bond looked anything like a Japanese man when they met – but of course, by this point of You Only Live Twice, any efforts at even maintaining that look had fallen by the wayside and he looks even more like Sean Connery than he did when the laughably bad disguise was fresh – and at no point in the film does he not look like Sean Connery.
So why do Bond and Blofeld act in OHMSS as if they’ve never met before? And why is Blofeld a completely different character – not just in appearance, but in accent, personality, height, the lot – from the one seen in You Only Live Twice, even taking into account the change of actor from Donald Pleasence to Telly Savalas (I’ll go out on a limb and assume that Pleasence wasn’t asked to reprise the role).
It’s not as if there was a huge gap between the films – OHMSS was the next film in the series, made just a year later. One reason might be that the production order was switched and OHMSS was originally planned to be shot after Thunderball and before You Only Live Twice – OHMSS the film follows the source novel more closely than many of the movies did, and in the order of publication, it comes before You Only Live Twice, marking the first meeting of the two characters. Notably, the meeting between Bond and Blofeld in You Only Live Twice was something added to that film by screenwriter Road Dahl. But surely the makers of OHMSS should’ve known what had happened in the last film and worked around it accordingly – it’s the least we expect from a series. In the end, it all smacks as laziness and a disregard for any sort of ongoing narrative that was endemic in the Bond films, all of which seemed to exist as stand-alone films where the only sense of continuity outside the recurring cast will be the odd returning character from the previous film, itself smacking of desperation rather than actual thought-out continuity – neither Jaws nor Sheriff Pepper was revived for narrative or continuity reasons.
Now, OHMSS is one of my all-time favourite movies, an absolute masterpiece that in many ways exists outside the established Bond universe. The inconsistencies between this and You Only Live Twice don’t bother me at all when I watch it, because as I said, I haven’t exactly returned to the earlier film on a regular basis. I can appreciate OHMSS as what it is – a stand-alone movie just like all the Bond films were. This isn’t something that I sit awake at night thinking about. But when I do think about it, these things niggle at me because they are so unnecessary. Had the Bond films been made in the same order as the novels, this wouldn’t matter because You Only Live Twice is a direct follow-up to OHMSS. But of course, the Bond novels were filmed in a seemingly random order, based perhaps on the commercial appeal of the titles. In any case, in most of the movies, all that remained of the book was the title, a few character names and – if you were lucky – some slight narrative resemblance. OHMSS might be more faithful to the novel than most, but still makes a lot of changes so changing the villain from Blofeld to someone else that Bond has been pursuing for years wouldn’t have been that difficult or that damaging – yes, Bond talks about his ‘obsession’ with Blofeld in the film, but this is something that seems to have developed between the movies – in You Only Live Twice, he has no idea that Blofeld is behind the central plot and, in fact, barely seems to show any recognition of or fixation with the character when they meet.
The Bond films are not alone in this disregard for continuity – in fact, film franchises from the days before anyone ever called them franchises often played fast and loose with continuity – the Universal horror films were notorious for it. But most of these series of films were piecemeal affairs, with sequels made only in response to the box office success of the previous film and frankly, any sense of continuity was novel. The Bond films, certainly by this point, were an ongoing series, so confident of their success that they would announce the next film during the closing credits of the previous one. With that in mind, would it really have been too much to ask for writers and producers to actually pay attention to events in one film and not contradict them in the next? Given how OHMSS spends so much time establishing the new Bond as authentic and plays heavily on nostalgia for the series so far with visual and musical call-backs to earlier films, this random approach to continuity just seems clumsy and distracting.
Of course, in the list of terrible things that the Bond movies have done, this comes pretty low – it’s not even the worst thing involving Blofeld (that’ll be his final demise, being unceremoniously dropped down a chimney in a ridiculous comedy moment at the start of For Your Eyes Only – surely the most shameful and stupid demise of an iconic villain in any series ever). Bond fans can (and do) excuse or explain this continuity gaff any way they want – but it still feels like a mistake and it irks me more than it has any right to.
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Charles Gray’s Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever isn’t even bald!
That’s the other continuity irritation I have with many, many series – the casting of actors who have already played a different role in an earlier film. Are there really so few actors around that the same person has to be cast again and again as different characters?
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