(1969) Directed by Peter Hunt; Written by: Richard Maibaum and Simon Raven; Based on the novel by Ian Fleming; Starring: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewelyn; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“…We agreed after a lot of umming and ahhing that we should not over-emphasize the re-introduction of a new Bond.” – Peter Hunt (from the DVD commentary)
“I should have done two. Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. And if I’d have done two, who knows what would have happened. I would have probably said to myself, ‘Hey, I’m James Bond now, what can I do?’ and gone on for seven.” – George Lazenby (from documentary, Inside On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)
I’m excited to participate in the Winter Sports Blogathon, hosted by Michaël Parent of Le Mot du Cinephiliaque. Not only does today’s selection feature a veritable cornucopia of winter sports, it’s my first review of a James Bond film. If there was a candidate for the James Bond Winter Olympics, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would surely be at the top of the list, with its assortment of events, including downhill skiing, bobsledding, ice skating and curling (yep, curling).
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one title in the James Bond canon that often gets overlooked among fans of the long-running series. The film elicited its share of controversy, due in no small part to the producers’ choice for Agent 007. After starring in five Bond films, Sean Connery decided enough was enough, and left the franchise, leaving some big shoes to occupy. Enter former car salesman/male model George Lazenby to fill the void. While the movie made a tidy profit at the box office, it underperformed compared to its predecessors. As a result, Lazenby only played the character (at least in an official capacity) once.
Lazenby does a respectable, if not quite standout job of playing Ian Fleming’s fictional super spy. While he hits all the marks, it’s hard to shake the impression we’re watching Connery’s understudy, rather than a replacement. He lacks the debonair, roguish charm of Connery, or the tongue-in-cheek quality of Roger Moore. Compared to both actors, he falls a bit flat. Sadly, history has only reinforced the perception of Lazenby as a placeholder 007, since Connery was wooed back for the follow-up film, Diamonds Are Forever. All faults aside, he brought a certain je ne sais quoi to the role. How that might have played out in a second appearance would have been interesting to see.
Outside of the fact this film was the star’s debut and swan song, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service remains an oddity in the series. For starters, the opening credit sequence doesn’t begin with a pop tune, as was customary with all but the first movie, and remained a tradition with all subsequent films. Instead, we’re treated to a series of clips, chronicling 007’s previous exploits. In an early scene, the protagonist handles artifacts from his earlier adventures, accompanied by snippets of music to cue the audience that this is, unequivocally, a Bond film. While the scene accomplishes its task, it’s a blatantly obvious attempt by the filmmakers to remind us what we’re watching (“See? This is the real James Bond. Get it?”).*
* In another, more subtle scene, a dwarf janitor (Norman McGlen) whistles the title tune to Goldfinger.
Bond unwittingly rubs elbows with crime syndicate boss Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) to glean information about the elusive villain Blofeld. In trade, Draco encourages a courtship between Bond and his free-spirited daughter Tracy (Diana Rigg). It’s not love at first sight for the two, but after an obligatory romantic montage, accompanied to the strains of Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World,” they fall in love. The tune, referenced in John Barry’s rousing score, provides an ironic undercurrent to the film, and its tragic conclusion.
Rigg (fresh off of a stint as Emma Peel on The Avengers) dazzles as Tracy*, one of the best Bond girls of the entire series. A far cry from the pretty ornament that “Bond girl” evokes, she’s smart, headstrong and good in a scrape against evil henchmen. In one scene, she helps 007 escape from the bad guys by driving into a winter stock car race.It’s not Bond who reigns in Tracy, as her father had intended, but the reverse. While Bond is true to form, bedding every young, nubile woman who crosses his path (once he reaches Blofeld’s Swiss mountaintop lair, Piz Gloria, they practically line up to see him), it’s clear that he and Tracy share something more than mere sexual attraction.
* Fun fact: As tough as it is to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role, Brigitte Bardot was the producers’ first choice.
Aside from the uncustomary romantic theme throughout, there’s much to distinguish On Her Majesty’s Secret Service from other Bond flicks. The film boasts some truly exciting action scenes, including an Alpine ski chase,* an avalanche, and a bobsled pursuit. The most exciting sequence involves our hero attempting to escape from the aerial tramway wheelhouse in Piz Gloria. The scene conveys tension and a sense of imminent danger, as he hangs from an icy cable. The climax and sobering finale provide a downbeat note to an otherwise high-spirited film, as a final reminder of the steep price Bond’s profession dictates.
* Although Vic Armstrong is often credited as Bond’s ski double, the DVD commentary attributes the more daring exploits to German skier Willy Bogner, who contributed to three other Bond films.
Telly Savalas is excellent as the arch-nemesis Blofeld, who’s Professor Moriarty to Bond’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s always one step ahead, as he hatches an evil scheme from his mountaintop retreat. His plan to dominate the world is more than a little ludicrous, as well as the scene where he hypnotizes a woman to overcome her food allergy (accompanied by a psychedelic light show), but Savalas really sells it.
If you weigh the considerable pluses with a few of the minuses, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service compares favorably to the better entries in the enduring series. It’s unfortunate that Lazenby never had the chance to prove himself, and the producers didn’t have the faith to weather the growing pains of their new star, but the film stands out as a vital chapter in the Bond saga.