This past weekend, I attended the annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival here in Los Angeles, a weekend of celebrating movies from the 20th Century (which we’re now no longer in, doncha know) on the big screen, usually in gorgeous formats, and often with people involved in the making of the film. On Friday night, I was lucky enough to get into the packed screening of the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was preceded by a 30-minute discussion between TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and the film’s star and the only one-time 007 in the official film canon, George Lazenby. Now, Lazenby is a throwback of a person, a swaggering Aussie who still talks about “girls” in a quite derogatory way like it were nothing, but who still recognizes he made a huge mistake walking away from the franchise his lawyer told him was on its way out.
I’m not going to talk about the sordid history of this film and its aftermath, because that’s pretty well documented other places, including in the fascinating documentary Everything Or Nothing, which you can watch on Netflix. What I will talk about is how utterly fantastic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service actually is, in everything from the directing by Peter Hunt to the screenplay by longtime Bond scribe Richard Maibaum to the excellent supporting performances by Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas.
I’ll even say this, which might be controversial: Lazenby, who had zero acting experience and was only in his mid-20s, gave the most layered and complex performance as Bond in the whole series until Daniel Craig. Unfair rap.
I really hate this trailer, because all it does is draw attention to the fact that Sean Connery ISN’T playing James Bond in it, but at the time, following five enormously successful films made by Danjaq Productions and its founders Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, there was no guarantee people would even go see a movie without the dashing Scotsman. Instead, they had to big-up what was different about it, and truth be told, everything was different.
Following You Only Live Twice in 1967, which is about as gadget-heavy and needlessly bombastic a film as they did (certainly in that decade), OHMSS was a return to basics, evidenced by Maibaum’s script hewing as close as possible to Ian Fleming’s source novel. This explains why Bond and Blofeld act like they didn’t meet in the last film; their first meeting in the books is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so that’s what the movie does. It’s also the only one of the movies perhaps until after Roger Moore where the story is actually ABOUT James Bond and not just FEATURING James Bond.
The movies plot, which I’ll try to make brief since this is the longest James Bond movie of the first 20, begins with Bond following a woman onto a beach at night were she attempts to commit suicide by drowning herself in the ocean. Bond runs out and saves her and as he’s doing so, he’s attacked by a trio of thugs whom he takes out in only the first of the film’s amazingly well choreographed, shot, and edited fight sequences. But, it’s too late and the woman has stolen Bond’s car and driven off. Later, at a casino, Bond sees the woman again, the Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, known as Tracy, played by Rigg. She makes a bet she can’t cover at one of the tables and Bond covers her tab. She then invites him to her room to “say thank you,” though it’s clear that’s all it is. The next day, Bond is kidnapped and taken to an office where he meets international businessman and mafioso Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) who, it turns out, is Tracy’s father and who wants to pay Bond $1 million if he’ll marry his free-spirited child. Bond, of course, declines.
Meanwhile, M takes Bond off of the trail of Ernst Stavro Blofeld because his leads have all come up empty, which pisses of 007 royally and he means to resign, though Moneypenny is able to swing it to him just having two weeks leave. He goes to Portugal to meet Draco and, though Tracy figures out her father’s machinations, she and Bond have a whirlwind romance. He asks for Draco’s help in tracking down Blofeld and eventually the agent gets information that Blofeld is attempting to claim the title of Count de Bleuchamp but needs a genealogist’s help to do so. Bond then assumes the identity of Sir Hilary Bray, the man with whom de Bleuchamp has been corresponding and Bond heads to the Alps, to the Count’s alpine resort-turned-laboratory where he also is attempting to cure a group of international beauties of their rare allergies. Bond, of course, beds a couple of them in order to learn the truth, which is that the Count is brainwashing them for some nefarious purpose.
Eventually, Blofeld discovers that Bray is actually Bond and he needs to escape the high-mountain fortress and warn London of Blofeld’s plan. This leads to some ski chases and snowy fights, and eventually Bond meets Tracy again, who has come after him, and the two attempt to get away across ice and snow in her car, being chased by bad guys. While snowed in an old barn one night, Bond confesses he loves the Contessa and proposes marriage, which she accepts, but as they attempt to get away from Blofeld again, Tracy is kidnapped. Receiving no help from M, Bond recruits Draco and the Mafia to stage a daring rescue and a destruction of Blofeld’s brainwashing.
Hey, I did a pretty good job of that.
Anyway, I think this movie is just the bees knees. It’s so full of frenetic action, in a way that none of the films had really been before. Peter Hunt, the director, had been the film editor on the previous five entries, and it shows. Each sequence is amazingly well timed and cut to maximize pace and excitement. The car chase on the ice is particularly dizzying and the final chase on bobsleighs between Bond and Blofeld is basically perfect. It really brings both characters into the action. Where Blofeld is normally just a man behind a desk, Savalas’ take on the criminal is much more physical, going out to hunt Bond along with his thugs and going fisticuffs with the superspy by the end. The fights in this are, on top of being well-edited, brutal and fast in a way that usual movie haymaker-throwing just couldn’t touch. Hunt’s pacing is much more in line with today’s fight scenes and must have been insane for viewers in the late-’60s.
And while Lazenby the guy might be a misogynist, his take on the role of James Bond takes that aspect down a bit from where Connery had him. He’s certainly got the wry grin and the twinkle in the eye, but he really seems to care about Riggs’ Tracy and it doesn’t feel weird or forced at all that they would fall in love. Bond always has women in these movies, but this is the first time one felt like something other than just a damsel or a passing plaything to the character. He marries her for Chrissakes, and the tragic ending and Lazenby’s playing of that downbeat scene is something I don’t think Connery ever could have done. As much as I love the four early Connery movies, Bond isn’t a character as much as he’s merely a dashing hero. Somehow, even though he’s very green on camera, Lazenby captures a side of James Bond that Connery could not, on top of being very physical and able to perform fights and stunts impeccably.
It’s a shame the movie didn’t do better at the time; even though it made a shit-ton of money, it didn’t make as big a shit-ton as any of the previous ones, based on budget. However, it does make me really happy that the intervening years have given us a chance to reexamine the film for what it is, and not just as “That one with the guy who wasn’t Sean Connery.” As the years have commenced, and I see the movie more, and especially following Friday night’s screening, I would have to go so far as to call On Her Majesty’s Secret Service perhaps my third most favorite Bond movie of all time, following From Russia with Love and Skyfall and ahead of The Spy Who Loved Me and Goldfinger. That’s a pretty good top 5 if I do say so myself, wouldn’t you?
If you haven’t seen On Her Maj, or just haven’t seen it lately, now’s as good a time as any. After all, you might not have all the time in the world.
(The movie also features my favorite of John Barry’s themes. Enjoy)