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The Monorail Trilogy: When the James Bond Franchise Ruled the (Movie) World

October 11, 2020

I should have seen it coming. Our campuses are empty. The high street is a ghost town. Only the pubs are doing good business, when the pubs are allowed to stay open. So I guess it was inevitable that the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, has had its release date delayed again, this time until April 2021. Who knows what the world will look like then, and how relevant Bond 25 will seem but, rather than drown my sorrows in Vodka Martini’s, I decided to revisit some of the films.

The three Bond films directed by Lewis Gilbert, You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) were dubbed by MI6 Confidential magazine as ‘the Monorail Trilogy’. Each film features a megalomaniac villain who, in addition to his plans to take over the world, appears to be a fan of installing one-way railway systems in his evil lair. The plots of the three films are remarkably similar and the epic, bombastic tone of the trilogy captures much of the best and worst of the Bond series. If you have never seen a Bond film (and there must be a few of you out there), then these three would be a good place to start to see where so many spy cliches originated and why the series is so often imitated and lampooned.

You Only Live Twice

Gilbert was a prolific director whose output veered more towards war films and comedy dramas. In that sense, he might have seemed an odd choice to helm You Only Live Twice but he embraced the spectacle of the Bond films and did much to increase it. A NASA spacecraft is swallowed whole by a larger, unidentified craft. Bond is sent to Japan to follow a lead that the hijacked vessel may have landed there. When the same fate befalls a Russian spacecraft, the world is pushed to the brink of World War Three, with both superpowers blaming each other. Bond discovers his old adversary SPECTRE is behind the plot. SPECTRE’s follicly challenged leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld dreams of world domination once the US and Soviet Union have annihilated each other.

Bond finally came face to face with Blofeld in You Only Live Twice

YOLT’s absurd plot caused Sean Connery to finally lose patience with the series. An uncharacteristically dull performance by Connery, exacerbated by his feud with the producers and the stress of filming in Japan where Bond was wildly popular, hampered the film. Yet, there is still much to admire here. John Barry’s lush score beautifully evokes the Asian setting. Gilbert brings an art house sensibility to some of the action scenes. The rooftop chase across the Kobe Docks is beautifully shot, as the camera pans back and captures the full scope of the scene. Gilbert, and screenwriter Roald Dahl, aren’t afraid to make Bond look small on this cinematic canvas. Ken Adam created a remarkable movie set for them to shoot on, with Blofeld’s volcano lair, complete with rocket launchpad, piranha pool and, of course, a monorail.

The Spy Who Loved Me

Four Bond films had been produced before Lewis Gilbert was invited back to do another film in the series. After the excesses of YOLT Bond had shifted into more of a detective character and the films had stronger plots. But The Man With The Golden Gun had suffered at the box office due to a lack of strong action sequences, and Gilbert was keen to reintroduce the fantasy elements. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore has settled into the character of Bond and the spectacular pre-credits sequence, in which Bond skis off a clifftop only to be saved by his Union Jack parachute, signals to the audience that we are in for something special. The plot is very similar to YOLT, only this time it is a submarine which is swallowed by a larger ship. Arch-Villain Stromberg is trying to provoke nuclear war as an excuse to build a new underwater civilisation. Silliness abounds, but Moore is totally comfortable with it, as is the beautiful Barbara Bach who plays his love interest, Russian spy Anya Amasova. Gilbert can still create sequences which are arty and beguiling. The scene where Jaws is stalking Fekkesh through the Pyramids against the backdrop of a tourist show is one of the most suspenseful and chilling moments in the entire series. Once again, Ken Adam’s production design does not disappoint. The Liparus supertanker set was one of the largest sets ever constructed at the time and is said to have inspired Norman Foster’s design of Canary Wharf Station. Naturally, Stromberg has a monorail and it seems to run more smoothly than most Tube services.

Stromberg’s Liparus Supertanker

Moonraker

Gilbert’s final film in the series was Moonraker. Often considered his weakest, the film is a fairly blatant attempt to cash in on the Star Wars sci-fi craze. The plot is still very Bondian and similar to Gilbert’s previous films. A space shuttle is stolen and the trail leads Bond to Hugo Drax, the billionaire head of the manufacturing company that produces the shuttle. Drax’s dastardly plan is to poison all of humanity from space, and then repopulate the earth with his Aryan employees. For years, this was my least favourite Bond film and certainly there’s a lot wrong with it. The Amazon speedboat chase is a lifeless affair, with Bond just pushing buttons on gadgets to dispose of the bad guys. The slapstick humour in the first half is especially grating. However, upon rewatching the film recently, I found the second half to be much stronger. Ironically, the film gets more serious and convincing once Bond travels to space. An operatic score by John Barry coupled with the biblical parallels of the story, Drax’s ‘Noah’s Ark’ operation, make this one of the most unique Bond films. To be fair to the producers, the series had dabbled in science fiction before, and Bond was only moments away from being shot into space in YOLT, so it feels right that with Gilbert’s farewell to the series he finally managed to complete Bond’s journey. Moonraker also has one my favourite scenes of any movie. Bond being lured by a beautiful woman to an Edenic Amazonian pyramid, only to find a serpent is waiting for him. Gilbert excelled at imagery such as this.

Once Gilbert walked away from the series, he returned to the comedy dramas for which he was known best. The Bond films got serious again with For Your Eyes Only, and would go through several more changes in tone in the ensuing decades. The Monorail trilogy achieved several stylistic tropes for better or worse. They discarded much of Ian Fleming’s writing and forged original Bond stories. They pushed the Cold War setting into the background to tell fantastical stories of villains bent on global domination. And they made sure the action and settings were spectacular and breathtaking enough to help the audience forgive their flaws. In this, they were successful. Goldfinger and Casino Royale, for example, might be better Bond films, but the Monorail Trilogy stands out as what the audience expects from a Bond film.

Just don’t expect the next Bond film to be released any time soon…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2020 1:14 pm

    Love this post and essay….

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