Film Reviews

De-Evolution of James Bond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

In a post-Casino Royale world, the perception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has shifted from interesting footnote to essential Bond film. Released in 1969 and featuring George Lazenby’s sole portrayal of the iconic spy, the film underperformed during its theatrical run and received middling reviews, but time has been kind to it. It’s not a perfect film, but it takes chances the series hadn’t tried before, follows the Fleming novel of the same name more than most of the films, and features one of the series’s most intriguing Bond girls. This is a more “serious” Bond film, gadget-free and more interested in Bond as a human being.

The film purports to center around Blofeld (played by Telly Savalas here) and his plan to use a medical retreat claiming to cure allergies through hypnosis as a front for brainwashing women into releasing bacteriological warfare that will destroy the planet’s plant and animal reproduction. Bond learns Blofeld has been corresponding with a genealogist (George Baker) in the hopes of claiming the title “Count Balthazar de Bleuchamp,” and decides to infiltrate the retreat by posing as the genealogist in question.  

For a supposed “serious” Bond movie, that is an undeniably absurd storyline, even by Bond standards. The B-plot, involving European crime lord Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) using his daughter, Tracy (Diana Rigg) as a bargaining chip for giving Bond information on Blofeld’s whereabouts sounds just as unpromising. If fact, describing the film’s plot does little to convince the unitiated of its charms.

What distinguishes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service from the rest of the Bond franchise has to do with its concern with Bond as a character. The film possesses an obvious discomfort about a non-Connery Bond.

In a pre-credits moment, Lazenby’s Bond utters the groaner line, “This never happened to the other fellow,” and the opening credits combine naked silhouettes with a clip show of the previous Bond outings. The film practically screams, “It’s okay, guys. It’s still a Bond film. We know what you want here.” Yet, it’s not just another Bond film, and it’s the better for it.

George Lazenby is not a phenomenal actor, and at thirty he’s the youngest actor to don the bond mantle. The film’s head-scratching proclivity for putting him in the puffiest shirts this side of Seinfeld feels misguided to modern eyes, but he has a green sincerity that endears him.

It’s easy to pull for him to succeed, the same way an audience roots for an under-prepared understudy. His inexperience also gives his portrayal of Bond an oddly vulnerable, almost boyish, quality. He isn’t suave or sophisticated, but more of an everyman, complete with a lanky build and perpetually bemused demeanor. When he’s threatened, he actually appears fearful, an emotion his predecessor never allowed to grace his countenance.

I’ve seen arguments that the film would work better with Connery in the role, but that’s a flawed argument. Connery’s acting skills are undoubtedly superior, and he established the Bond mold against which every subsequent actor would be compared, but therein lies the problem. Audiences understood Connery’s Bond, his cool detachment, brute force, and macho swagger. This film is a romance, complete with a romantic montage and a lush, swoony score. The Louis Armstrong sung, “We Have All the Time in the World” remains one of the all-time great Bond themes, even if it occurs during a montage and not over the opening credits.

It’s difficult to picture Connery’s Bond having the emotional capacity to actually fall in love. Trying a different, more character-driven story with an untested Bond makes sense, as there are no preconceptions to mess with the film’s more emotionally driven impulses. I can believe Lazenby’s Bond falls in love, as well as his desire to shed the spy life. He makes little attempt to conceal his disillusionment with MI6’s bureaucracy. This isn’t Bond going entirely rogue, but this is Bond disregarding the stodginess of the establishment in favor of myopic means. He’s an appropriately disaffected Bond for the end of a restless decade of disillusionment. So, while I can see the film working with a better actor in the role, I don’t think Connery is the man for this particular job.

Of course, if you’re going to have Bond fall in love and abandon his life as a spy, you have to have a worthy Bond girl, and Diana Rigg’s Tracy surpasses the label of mere Bond girl.

The film opens with Bond saving her from drowning herself, and their relationship emerges as the narrative’s beating heart. Her character’s melancholy and complexity mean we care as much about her as Bond does. She’s not disposable, but a character on equal footing with the famous spy, and the one female who seems capable of winning Bond’s heart. Rigg brings the same magnetism and sensuality, she brought to the Avengers tv series, and she’s a truly engaging co-lead.

As a viewer, it’s easy to pull for their love story. After all, it’s clearly the narrative strand in which the film is most interested. Their romance dominates film’s first hour and serves as the catalyst for the climax and denouement. After all, MI6 orders Bond not to pursue Blofeld, as a kind of plea bargain has been made. Bond disregards the orders in order to save Tracy, the woman he plans to marry, chosing his heart over duty.

Peter Hunt, who had edited the five previous films and was making his directorial debut here, has a flare for the film’s action sequences, which make up almost the film’s final half-hour. An extended car chase and bobsled fisticuffs emerge as particular highlights.

The film’s kinetic editing and odd angles create a more visually dynamic feel than had been present in previous Bond films. This is a new, enthusiastic director showing off in the best sense of the phrase.  

That’s not to say the film is flawless. The projected scenery behind some of the fight sequences appear more obvious than they should, and the decision to have Lazenby’s voice dubbed by the George Baker while Bond impersonates him is unforgivable and distracting. The film offers no explanation as to why Blofeld, who had just met Bond in You Only Live Twice doesn’t immediately recognize him here. I know Lazenby is not Connery, but Bond is always Bond, and the film should probably try a bit harder to justify the plot point.

There is also some awkward cutting together of cuts clearly done at different times of the day.

Really, though, it’s the film’s ending that gives it its power, and spoilers if you haven’t seen the film. There’s the beautifully sunny wedding, stuffed with near-delirious happiness, and the lovely moment of Bond throwing his hat to a tearful Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), giving her a shy wave as he gets into his wedding car.

They drive away full of optimism and long-term plans, and then the elation gives way to despair. Blofeld and his henchwoman drive by and open fire, and Tracy is killed. Bond sits in his car, grieving and pretending they still have “all the time in the world.” It’s a Bond casualty that wrings genuine pathos and heartbreak from its loss and the film chooses not to downplay the tragedy.

In literary form, Bond had already lost a love, Casino Royale’s Vesper. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the first time the cinematic Bond had been forced to confront that kind of loss, and it’s genuinely shocking and appropriately awful. Tracy would be indirectly referenced throughout the rest of the franchise, and the loss gives an increased understanding of the casual way in which Bond drifts from one liaison to the next. There’s the sense that her death shades Bond’s ability to love, whether the series acknowledges it or not.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a Bond film I didn’t watch until I was in my twenties, but it quickly became one of my favorite Bond films. It’s probably for the best, as it lacks the spectacle and flash of other Bond films, instead emphasizing its characters’ emotional vulnerabilities. Its interest in character and emotional pulls better serves an older viewer. I loved the fact that the movie actually made me care for Bond, and I was knocked out by its gut punch of an ending. This is a romantic drama that finds itself occasionally interrupted by a Bond film. The Bond tropes don’t entirely lie comfortably next to the film’s more romantic impulses, but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service still manages craft a lovely, affecting film with a gloriously human Bond.

5 comments

  1. Not sure if the movie would have worked better with Connery in the role, but it certainly needed an actor with more, well, charisma. Lazenby might be good-looking and maybe a decent actor, but he completely lacks what I would call “Stage presence”, the factor which ensures that no matter what, people just pay attention to you and only you in every scene. Connery and Brosnan have this in spades, which is why they are the best Bonds in my book, the others at least have enough that they aren’t overshadowed by the other actors in their respective movies, but Lazenby just doesn’t manage to be the most important person in the room all the time.

    I am with you that this is one of the Bond movies I like the most (and since I have a fast sliding scale in this regard, this is a huge compliment), but it still isn’t a good sign when I am so focussed on the Bond girl that I forget that Bond is even a thing in the movie half of the time. And not even because she has THAT much screen time, but because for me the movie consists of moments I enjoy her presence interrupted by moments I wait for seeing her again. I mean, it is great to see a Bond girl which is an actual character and not just a prop, but she shouldn’t overshadow Bond so completely, and that she does has nothing to do with the story itself and everything with casting choices.

    I think the existence of this movie is part of the many reasons why I have a hard time with Casino Royale. Having the happy end to just suddenly having it ripped away from you is so much more effective than what Casino Royale did. Especially because it wasn’t telegraphed in the same way. I mean, I remember watching the movie for the first time and thinking “okay, I guess they will have to kill off a wife at the start at the next Bond movie”, but I just didn’t expect it happening right then and there. It was a genuine shock back then, and still the most heart-breaking scene in the whole franchise.

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