“We have all the time in the world…”
But, of course, they didn’t. And neither did George Lazenby or Peter Hunt, since this movie would mark the last entry in the Bond franchise for both of them (also being Lazenby’s first entry). Louis Armstrong, who sang the song, didn’t have all that much time left, either. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a particularly divisive movie, given how much ambivalence it stirs—mostly hinging on whether Lazenby was a great or poor Bond.
OHMSS is one of the movies I saw more recently than some of the others, though it had of course been over ten years even for that one. But I remembered the general plot of it, how good it was, and how closely it followed the plot of the novel (which I had also read). So I was looking forward to seeing it again. I wasn’t disappointed; the movie still holds up well on repeat viewing even today. There wasn’t a lot here that surprised me.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Another Cinemascope film, this movie marked Bond editor and second-unit director Peter Hunt’s debut as a director. He had wanted to direct You Only Live Twice, but had to settle for second-unit directing and re-editing with a promise of absolutely getting to direct this one. Personally, I think he got the better end of things—directing a movie based directly on one of Fleming’s best books, and making sure it hewed as close to the book as possible, rather than directing a movie with a story made up out of whole cloth due to Fleming having written an unfilmable book. Having the experienced Bond scribe Richard Maibaum available to write the script rather than the inexperienced Roald Dahl didn’t exactly hurt matters either. Hunt brought along editor John Glen, who had worked with him on the movie adaptation of Fleming’s children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, to fill his old editor shoes; Glen would later direct five Bond movies himself.
This was also the first Bond movie recorded in stereo rather than mono. As with the other digitally-restored Blu-rays, it looks and sounds terrific.
After two years of searching fruitlessly for Blofeld after the events of You Only Live Twice, Bond is on his way back to London when he runs across a girl, Tracy, who is just about to commit suicide by wading into the sea with her clothes on. He rescues her, beats up a couple of thugs who attack them, and follows her to a hotel where he makes her acquaintance—and subsequently the acquaintance of her father, a construction (and organized crime) baron named Draco. Draco wishes Bond to woo his daughter…and in return, he will provide Bond with information concerning Blofeld’s whereabouts. Tracy isn’t fooled, however; she makes Draco fork the information over immediately…but Bond stays around and woos her anyway. (Draco sure doesn’t know Bond very well, does he? Since when did he ever need a bribe to woo a pretty girl?)
Following up on that information, Bond makes his way to Switzerland, where Blofeld has established a clinic, supposedly for the treatment of allergies. Masquerading as a genealogist, Bond infiltrates the clinic, discovers Blofeld’s plot to sterilize the world’s food crops, and makes a daring escape—aided by Tracy, who shows up to save him in the nick of time. Tracy is recaptured, and with Draco’s help Bond mounts an operation to rescue her and take out Blofeld’s headquarters. Blofeld is defeated, Tracy and Bond marry…but unfortunately, fate has an unpleasant surprise still in store.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had a mixed reception at the time it was released. It had a number of poor reviews, most focusing on Lazenby not being Sean Connery and the film’s true-to-the-book downer ending. All the drama in the press about conflicts on the set during the making of the film didn’t help matters, either.
Nonetheless, like many great films, it looks much better in retrospect. It was nowhere near a financial failure; it had earned $84 million worldwide on a $7 million budget as of 1970, and that was well before television licensing and home video revenues. And leaving aside the disagreements over Lazenby’s performance, it was easily one of the franchise’s best entries yet in terms of writing, setting, cinematography, directing, music, and stunts. Even Sean Connery later said, in retrospect, that he regretted not being in it.
The movie was based on one of Fleming’s best novels. The script was written by the Bond movies’ best-known scribe, Richard Maibaum, working with Peter Hunt to keep it as close to Fleming’s book as possible. (Hunt carried an annotated paperback copy of the novel on the set with him to refer to.) This was the first Bond movie since Dr. No to strip Bond back down to basics—just the man and his gun, without the vast array of gadgets that could pose a distraction to the audience. It’s subsequently become a popular idea (just look at the Daniel Craig movies), but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service did it first.
The scenery in the Swiss Alps is breathtaking, especially in Cinemascope. Not only was this the first Bond to incorporate skiing, it also had the amazing skiing cinematography of Willy Bogner (who was known for skiing forward or backward with a camera to capture skiiers equally well from behind or in front) and the amazing flying cinematography of Johnny Jordan (who dangled underneath a helicopter for the best unimpeded view from the air). Having had long experience with the Bond franchise and mostly the same team of people he’d worked with on the last few movies, Peter Hunt knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it, and editor John Glen cut it together perfectly. John Barry turned in one of his best scores yet, incorporating synthesizers for the first time on a Bond film—not to mention the Louis Armstrong song remembered as the movie’s love theme.
There were some amazing action sequences. Car chases, stock car races, ski chases, and an avalanche. Some of the special effects don’t age especially well—particularly Bond and Tracy fleeing an avalanche—but on the whole, they’re more than exciting enough to keep viewers’ attention. At two hours and twenty minutes, this is one of the longest of the Bond films, but the pacing never falters.
So how was Lazenby’s performance? Pretty good, actually. He’s a little hesitant in the role sometimes, but not noticeably. The worst that can really be said of him is that he isn’t “the other fellow.” If he’d had the chance to grow into the role over several movies, I think he could have been a better Bond than Roger Moore.
The problem was that Lazenby—a complete neophyte of an actor who effectively bluffed his way into the role—was unaccustomed to the pressures of fame, and they quite went to his head. Between that and some bad advice from his agent (whom he fired a couple of years later), Lazenby came off as a bit of an insufferable jerk in the period interviews included as extras on the disc. He also believed that the clean-shaven, short-haired Bond didn’t have a future in the Age of Aquarius, and showed up at the movie premiere looking like the fifth Beatle. Broccoli and Saltzman weren’t amused.
It’s a pity that they couldn’t get over their differences and keep working together—or even go back to Lazenby after Moore was finished. Lazenby would have been about the same age by then that Moore was when he came to the role. It feels like Lazenby would have been a lot closer to Connery’s portrayal than Moore was. Ah well, what might have been.
The rest of the cast does well, too. Diana Rigg plays Tracy with aplomb; she’s no helpless damsel in distress. She actually rescues Bond during his escape from Piz Gloria, and later has a great fight scene and manages to kill a thug before Bond even gets there. She was a fitting match for James Bond. Pity about the ending.
Telly Savalas plays a rather more polished Blofeld than Donald Pleasence in the previous movie. Suave and sophisticated, it’s easy to see why he was used as the model for Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor in Paul Dini’s Superman and Justice League animated series. Gabriele Ferzetti’s Draco was amusing, and Ilse Steppat’s Irma Bunt was fittingly evil in the best Rosa Klebb tradition.
It’s interesting to me how often the Bond movies seem to return to familiar archetypes. Draco was much the same character as Kerim Bey from From Russia with Love, or Tiger Tanaka from You Only Live Twice—and, for that matter, Columbo from the later For Your Eyes Only and Mathis from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. (I’m sure there are others I’ve forgotten, too.) Irma Bunt is basically a new iteration of Rosa Klebb. (Perhaps Blofeld has a specific taste in matronly henchwomen?)
This was also the first Bond movie to feature downright blatant references to earlier films in the series—the clips from previous movies during Maurice Binder’s opening titles, and all the objects in Bond’s office when he is considering packing up and resigning. Their use here is not surprising, as the movie goes to great lengths to reassure watchers that, yes, this is still the same James Bond after all. It’s a far cry from all the references for the sake of triggering nostalgia that come about in later Bond films. (Such as that venerable Aston Martin that keeps popping up in the Brosnan and Craig movies—even though the rebooted Craig Bond never actually had the chance to use it “back in the day”!)
Carrying on a theme from my last couple of reviews, Bond still finds new things to do with the hat toss, even if he’s not seen wearing it much. He tosses it in the office as part of the reassurance that he’s still the same old Bond—and he tosses it to Moneypenny like a bouquet at the wedding. Clever.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service represents the end of an era. Apart from Roger Moore lurking on the horizon, this is also Bond auteur Peter Hunt’s last Bond film. He had been with them from the beginning, bringing a whole new style of fast-paced editing to the films and to movies in general, and he had definite ideas about what kind of character Bond should be. He left his imprint not only on Bond, but on all the action movies that followed it.
If Hunt had remained with the franchise for a few more movies, would he have kept more of a lid on the campy humor that ended up making its way into the Moore films? (Oddly enough, Hunt later worked with Moore on a couple of non-Bond films, Gold and Shout at the Devil. It would be interesting to watch them and see what kind of performance he got out of Moore.) We’ll never know now.
The On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Blu-ray disc has a number of interesting extras on it. There are the usual commentary track plus featurettes about the making of the movie, including a couple of period making-of films showing the filming of the stock car race chase and the ski chases. There are interviews with Lazenby before, during, and after the movie (it’s interesting to watch how his hairstyle and whiskers change over time). There is also a featurette on the life and work of Bond title designer Maurice Binder, demonstrating how he designed and created the opening titles that were one of the more memorable aspects of the Bond films.
Next up: Connery’s official Bond swan song, Diamonds are Forever.