Arriving in 1969 just as the winds of counterculture threatened to challenge old-world ideas in the mainstream for the first time, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service delivered what by today’s standards can be considered the first “modern” James Bond movie. Peter R. Hunt, graduating to director after working second unit on all of the previous 007 installments, was determined to make his film look different than those of the Sean Connery era. The most obvious change: the arrival of Australian George Lazenby, who accompanied a script that stuck meticulously to its source material. But upon the film’s 50th birthday, what remains most vivid about Hunt and his collaborators’ contribution to the superspy canon was to effectively dismantle the cool of a character who had to that point been unflappable. In doing so, they set the stage for a decidedly more complex and vulnerable Bond, even if that version and those ideas wouldn’t be explored in more depth until Daniel Craig took over several decades later.
Suffice it to say that following in the footsteps of Connery would have been an intimidating prospect after five hugely successful, star-making films. But Lazenby makes it look easy. The film cheekily acknowledges the switch—“this never happened to the other fellow,” Lazenby’s Bond quips in the opening scene—and then slyly references some of the gadgets and lore of earlier installments to establish an invisible if sometimes inconsistent continuity. But even after the character’s zig-zagging responsibilities in You Only Live Twice, which included a sham marriage to a fellow agent, Bond never faced a challenge like the one in OHMSS: marry the troubled daughter of a European crime syndicate in exchange for £1 million and details on the whereabouts of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), his elusive nemesis.
Infiltrating criminal dealings, of course, was common for Bond; brokering a partnership with one, on the other hand, showcased a more complicated world for him to navigate, reflected in the real world, where heroes and villains weren’t so clearly defined. But Draco’s daughter Tracy (a brassy, effervescent Diana Rigg) is not simply a conquest, as were many of the women in prior Bond ventures. Her febrile restlessness is a match for Bond’s, just without the same sort of professional focus. This is why the two of them fall head over heels in love, in precisely the kind of pragmatic, accepting way that dovetails into Bond’s occasional, uh, acts of diplomacy in the line of duty. He of course doesn’t disclose his rendezvous with other women, and she doesn’t ask, but it’s clear that the connections he has during these fleeting encounters lacks the substance and depth he shares effortlessly with Tracy.
Much of the plot involves Bond’s obsession with apprehending Blofeld, which requires him to go undercover as a genealogist at an institute populated by beautiful young women (the delightful sort of occupational hazard that only a spy could fearlessly confront). But after he is discovered and detained by Blofeld’s SPECTRE regime, Bond mounts a daring escape, and he is pursued by henchmen to a local village where he hopes to avoid detection, and likely murder. Stealing a coat and huddling on a bench next to an ice skating rink, Bond had never before—and few times since—looked so helpless, so desperate, and at the end of his rope. And when Tracy unexpectedly shows up with a more or less literal getaway car, our relief feels eclipsed by his: they race away into the snowy hills with her in the driver’s seat, and virtually all Bond can do is repeatedly kiss her cheek in appreciation as she thwarts one pursuer after another.
The action in the film is extraordinary. From the opening scene to the finale, the violence feels more tangible, more real than it ever had before in a Bond film, which gives another visceral edge to the character’s humanity. These feel like real beatings, and real stakes, that he’s facing each time he lands in harm’s way. (It’s no surprise that Christopher Nolan borrowed liberally from the film for Inception. It perfectly encapsulates the excitement and intrigue and brisk, operatic scope of his characters’ mind’s-eye universe of a remote stronghold and the perils associated with infiltrating it.) But the film’s coda is where all of its themes and ideas converge into one heartbreaking, game-changing payoff: on their wedding day, right after the ceremony, Tracy is murdered. The onetime confirmed bachelor committed to a life of security, and monogamy, and it was destroyed almost immediately.
Lazenby handles the scene so wonderfully, and delicately. (Reportedly, Hunt had him up at the crack of dawn rehearsing and finally shot it in late afternoon, giving him the dazed and exhausted look that Bond has in response to her death.) But again, the notion of real loss isn’t something that Bond had ever really dealt with, and wouldn’t do so meaningfully again, until Casino Royale, when the character succumbs to a doomed relationship with Vesper Lynd (the bewitching Eva Green). There are, of course, echoes of Bond’s relationship with Tracy in Craig’s Bond’s relationship with Vesper. But at a time, and for such a brief time, in Bond’s early days when he was still being formed and formalized as a tough, too-cool, indefatigable presence on screen, it feels like a remarkable achievement to invest an icon with that much vulnerability.
Although the film didn’t have an official title song, which had become tradition by that point, longtime composer John Barry crafted an impeccable, rich score for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, topped off by one of the most beautiful themes in the history of the franchise: “We Have All the Time in the World,” sung by Louis Armstrong. It’s incorporated effortlessly into the main themes of the score, but plays as a song only at the end, as bittersweet punctuation to the relationship between Bond and Tracy that has just been cruelly snuffed out.
Five decades later, that juxtaposition still feels a like it injected almost too much reality into a franchise that was built on supercool escapism. But then and now, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service tapped into some important and thought-provoking concepts that audiences didn’t yet know they wanted, but would eventually embrace. All the while, the film reinforced essential, and most importantly timeless elements of the character that underscore why he’s endured and flourished on screen as one of moviegoers’ most recognizable and beloved icons, no matter who’s playing him.
Images: United Artists