In the latest instalment of Our Word Is Our Bond, Shawn Gordon gives his verdict on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) starring George Lazenby, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas.
The sixth James Bond movie from Eon Productions was the first to star an actor other than Sean Connery. The change in the lead star is what has come to most distinguish On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in fans‘ minds. It has consistently caused the movie to be overshadowed and overlooked as one of the very best and most faithfully adapted screen renderings of the James Bond character.
Australian male model George Lazenby became the second actor to take on the call number 007 on the big screen, forever cementing his place in pop culture history by being remembered as the guy who played Bond only once. This, probably more than anything, has led many people to dismiss the film. If there is one Bond film that gets forgotten it’s this one, not the more likely non-Eon Never Say Never Again (1983), remembered for seeing Sean Connery return to the role (most people are hardly aware that it was actually the second time Connery returned to his signature role after having abandoned it). Lazenby should be remembered more fondly for making the most of his one and only outing as 007, which he certainty does.
Bond goes undercover in the Swiss Alps, posing as a gay genealogist, and manages to get close to his arch nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas). It seems that Bloefeld has set up a “clinical allegory-research institute”, which is just a cover to take his 12 female patients and use them as his secret “angels of death”. His plot is to place the girls under hypnosis to brainwash them and direct them to distribute bacteriological warfare throughout various parts of the world. Once his cover is blown, Bond is given aid from Tracey di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), a countess and the daughter of crime-boss Marc-Ange Draco (Gabrielle Ferzetti), who he helped escape from a scrape earlier. Tracey will prove to be “the one” for James Bond, taming his wild heart.
Lazenby accepted the role after many other actors (including future Bond Timothy Dalton and TV‘s Batman Adam West) had all been considered but passed over. Lazenby was the youngest actor to ever portray the character at only 29, but he seems very comfortable and assured in the part. He also ‘looks’ the role, being handsome and rugged. Lazenby, however, is a more than a bit wooden and lacks Connery’s charisma – but it was first film, and so he should be commended for delivering a decent stab at the part, which may have very well grown into more over time. Lazenby’s contribution to the character is rarely appreciated and he will forever fail to measure up, it seems, when compared with Connery.
Assuming his only directing chore for the series is Peter R. Hunt, another first-timer. Hunt was responsible for the quick and distinctive editing of several of the previous movies in the series. Hunt had also done some second-unit work on the previous two Bond films. While not a distinctive director, Hunt manages a more realistic look and feel to his movie. Hunt also knew his way around a good action scene, and helps to infuse On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with some of the best the series had offered up to this point. The director even helped to create action scenes for the film sometimes on the cuff while the movie was filming. He keeps the movie fast and exciting, despite its 140 minute running-time, the longest of the series up to that point, and one of the longest running times of them all even now.
Adapting Ian Fleming’s 1963 novel of the same name was screenwriter Richard Malbaum, who ended up writing 16 of the Bond movies altogether. This was the first of several times a conscious decision had been made to tone down the more outrageous aspects of the series, to tell a tougher and grittier story like those found in Fleming’s novels, and to get away from the gadgets and effects that were starting to define the film series. This is, to all intents and purposes, a return to the 007 found in the earlier pictures. The novel is quite faithfully adapted, with most of the events in the movie taken directly from the novel; even the idea of using “in-jokes“ came from the source novel.
Unlike earlier movies in the series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service relies much more on its supporting cast. Where previous movies could always rely on Sean Connery’s charisma to carry them, now that he was absent and an unseasoned actor was taking his place, the supporting players had to be top notch… which they are! Diana Rigg, the popular star of TV’s The Avengers, makes the perfect foil for Bond, being completely in command as the woman who will ultimately become Mrs. James Bond. Likewise, Savalas – the second actor to provide a face to 007’s arch antagonist Blofeld, Following the great Donald Pleasence in You Only Live Twice (1967) – nearly steals the movie. Isla Steppat, who died four days after the movie’s premiere, is superb as Bloefeld’s cold-blooded henchwoman Irma Brunt.
The exciting, well-light cinematography by Michael Reed nicely captures the scenic adventure. Reed is helped by incredible ski photography (provided by professional skier Willy Bogner, using a hand held camera to capture some impressive POV action scenes). Other Olympic skiers where used as doubles for the actors to capture the awe-inspiring action on the slopes. The sharp editing is by John Glen, who would continue to edit 007 films until ascending to the director’s chair himself, helming al five memorable Eon productions in the 1980s.
This was the last of the series not to open with a vocal track incorporating the movie’s title. However, a fine theme song, We Have All The Time in the World, is included midway through the film, and proved to be the last song recorded by the legendary Louis Armstrong before his death in 1971. Composer John Barry, who had composed all the previous James Bond feature movies, delivers one of his most memorable scores for the franchise here, utilizing electric guitars and synthesizers for the first time. Barry also co-wrote the Armstrong song.
he film is often thought to have flopped at the time of it’s release, but it absolutely did not – it grossed $87 million worldwide against a $7 million budget. Likewise, Lazenby is often mistakenly thought to have done only one Bond movie because of its box office failure and having not been offered the chance for future assignments. In actual fact Lazenby was offered a 7 year contract by producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and left for personal reasons of his own. Over time, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has found a faithful and loyal fan appreciation. It could almost be called the “cult film” lurking amongst the long-running series. Accomplished British film-maker Christopher Nolan has cited it as his favorite Bond movie, and even referenced the picture in his popular Inception (2010).
Here’s an interesting footnote (note, it contains spoilers for those who have not seen the great On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so you should stop reading now if that’s you and go watch the movie!) The next instalment, Diamonds Ae Forever (1971), was originally conceived as a direct sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and was to have Lazenby return as Bond to get revenge for the murder of Tracey. This idea foreshadowed the Daniel Craig-era where the movies are all thematically connected like one continuous flowing narrative, unlike the other films in the series. It would have been tough and gritty, unlike the tongue-in-cheek direction the series took more and more following Lazenby’s departure.
MoM Rating: 9.5/10