On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Starring: George Lazenby, Telly Savalas, Diana Rigg
Director: Peter R. Hunt
Writer(s): Ian Fleming, (novel) Richard Maibaum, Michael Reed (screenplay)
Runtime: 140 min
Official HZ Cinema Score: *** 3/4 stars
James Bond 007 is back!
Hello everyone and welcome to the sixth installment in my series of reviews chronicling the entire James Bond film franchise. In this edition for the first time since I started writing these reviews we have not only a different sort of Bond movie to explore, but also a brand new Bond to examine as well. The film is 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service directed by Peter R. Hunt and starring none other than the infamous model turned actor, George Lazenby, in the role of British Secret Service Agent 007. That’s right, we’re reviewing that movie. This movie is one that sharply divides both die hard and casual fans of this series alike in their opinion of it. Commercially it was among the biggest Bond flops of all time at the box office (although it did turn a substantial profit), and even today it is rarely if ever seen on television due to its rather long running time. And even during the Christmas season when you can normally find James Bond films a plenty on many networks in multiple movie marathons spanning the course of several days sometimes, this movie is still neglected to the point that you could almost say it has been black balled by popular cinematic history to such an extent that whenever someone takes over a role from another well established actor that it has become a fashionable passing joke to say so and so is the ‘George Lazenby’ of their particular franchise..
That is kind of a shame I think, because, personally, I feel this movie deserves a solid spot in at the very least, the top five movies in the entire franchise. So what, besides the running time you ask, keeps this classic movie from getting the recognition it truly deserves in my opinion? You could almost sum the entire diagnosis up in one name, “Connery, Sean Connery”, that is. Up until this point the role and the persona of James Bond had been Connery’s alone, and to the movie going public, to put an actor, any other actor, at that time anyway, other than Connery in that role was tantamount to Bond blasphemy. In later years after Connery finally relinquished the role many other actors would settle comfortably into Bond’s shoes with little resistance, but in 1969, for George Lazenby, the first successor of Sir Connery, he had a bloody uphill battle that was near impossible for him, or anyone for that matter, to come out on top of. It probably didn’t help that before this movie he had zero acting experience whatsoever, and his only experience of any kind in front of a camera, was in the form of being a male model. Other than Lazenby, the role of James Bond in this movie was also offered to Timothy Dalton, another future Bond actor who can sort of feel a kinship with Lazenby in that he is one of those Bonds that divides fans and critics alike in their opinions of both him and the movies made while he was under contract for the role. Dalton of course, turned down the part at this point, feeling that at the time, being in his mid twenties that he was too young to be James Bond. And so with that George Lazenby received the call up and the position was his.
So the question goes, how do I think he did with this role? This is a hard question to answer on many fronts. In comparison to Connery of course he was an absolute farce, and even when compared to later actors like Roger Moore, Tim Dalton, or Pierce Brosnan, he falls far short of each of them for the simple reason that at the time he made this movie he was not an actor, because the people who made this movie felt, I think wrongly, that a true actor was not required for the role of James Bond, but rather just a stuntman. In the case of this movie which I would say is probably one of the most emotionally demanding of any Bond film in history, that an actor the caliber of Connery was absolutely essential. But with all that being said, I personally cannot come down too hard on old Lazenby, as when you consider the difficult place he was put into, he did a more than adequate job of at least not embarrassing himself, or the franchise, when it came to portraying James Bond. In his own special way George Lazenby brought that classic Bond wit, charm, and style, not in droves like Sean Connery did mind you, but enough of it and in the important parts and places anyway, and also when it came down to the heavy emotional scenes, including probably the heaviest scene in the film franchise’s history, I thought and still think, even after multiple viewings that Mr. Lazenby was, if nothing else, a ‘sufficient’ actor to portray James Bond in this movie, which is the nicest thing I can think to say about him in retrospect.
It would have been interesting to see what he could have developed into had he had more time to grow into the role in subsequent pictures, but alas, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was to be his one and only entry into the series, making him the only actor so far in the official EON cannon, not to be brought back for at least one more picture. I cannot and will not heap him with praise and admiration for being one of the best James Bonds to dawn a tuxedo, but, I can say with no shame that I do admire him for stepping up to a very challenging role, and giving us one of the most memorable James Bond movies in the history of the series.
There has been a lot of speculation over the years how Connery would have done with the role of James Bond in this movie. Some suppose that the bored Connery who made ‘You Only Live Twice’ would have been a disaster in this movie. I personally do not think so. Had he not been so adamant about wanting to do something different, which I can respect, and taken this role, I think he would, out of respect for the great script, have upped his game and as a result, this movie, not Goldfinger, not even From Russia With Love, would have been remembered for all time afterward as the one true defining James Bond film to the set the standard for all that would follow it. As it stands now, it is still one of the best in the series, but one that gets heaps and heaps of disrespect and neglect piled upon it.
Now down to the basics of the movie itself, which I will try not to spoil too much, as this is a movie that deserves to be experienced for itself, although I will probably, unavoidably end up giving away a few things, so read on at your own peril. Throughout the movie there are a lot of well done and subtle little nods to the former Connery Bond movies, which, in hindsight probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, since even without them it is hard enough to watch this film without getting a pining feeling for Connery not all that dissimilar to what I imagine it would like to be on a date with a woman who was in many ways like an old ex-girlfriend you carried a heavy torch for, but at the same time, you are forced with the disconcerting reality that no matter how hard you wish her to be someone she is not, or wish Lazenby to morph from a British underwear model into a Scottish badass, it just isn’t meant to be, even when he at one point puts on a Scottish Kilt, which must’ve been done solely to needle Connery. But with that caveat behind us, I did get a chuckle from the intro in which Bond, who had just rescued the main ‘Bond Girl’ of this movie from an attack by two would be killers, and after that she repays him not by falling droopily into his arms for a session of divine romance, but rather, scurries up the hill into her sports car, and speeds away… to which Lazenby quips, straight into the camera ‘This never happened to the other fellow’… Indeed it did not.
The girl in question there was none other than Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, or Tracy for short, who would be the main Bond Girl for this movie, although to stick her with a title like that is almost unfair in a way, as she would go down in history as the one girl for who would be to Bond something more than just a one night stand or a quick aid in a sticky situation. She would even be referenced in later Bond movies by the likes of Roger Moore and with subtle allusions made in the Dalton movies as well. She was the one girl capable even of bringing James Bond to tears, and it was through her that what before had basically been a very fun action caricature, actually became a living breathing character with flesh and blood, and true emotions. Now I know what you’re thinking, “C’mon man, this is James Bond here, we don’t need none of that crying crap!” which is fair enough, but I think when viewed on its merits as a stand alone feature, the infamous ‘crying’ scene in this movie is for my money the most powerful moment in any James Bond movie right up until the end of 2006’s Casino Royale. It, like the aforementioned movie, gave added insight into how the slick, sleek and sophisticated servant of the Queen became the curt, jaded, alcoholic, womanizing, ruffian that we all know and love from both previous and future movies.
Other than the Countess, Bond’s other allies in this film come in the form of the ever reliable Q, M, and of course the ever lovely Miss Moneypenney, and Tracy’s father, and head of his own criminal enterprise Marc-Ange Draco. The primary villain in this film as in the last one and the film following this one is head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played here in what for me may be tied only with Donald Pleasence’s portrayal from the previous film, by Telly Savalas. In between the last film and now Bond has been unsuccessful in finding and apprehending this criminal mastermind, a failure that troubles him so much that at one point he vows that if he cannot find Blofeld, he will retire from Her Majesty’s Secret Service and devote his own personal time to bringing this madman to justice by himself. As you can guess, eventually he does catch up with Blofeld in his mountain resort in the Swiss Alps, which provides a stunningly beautiful location for this film, which in many ways deserves top billing with the actors themselves. Blofeld’s current scheme involves a group of brainwashed girls he calls his ‘Angels of Death’ who live with Blofeld in his mountain hide-away, and whom he is feeding subconscious messages to and equipping with various feminine beauty products that all contain chemical weapons of mass destruction of some kind or another. It’s basically your typical zany evil plot perpetrated here by Blofeld.
After a certain number of movies, you’d begin to think after a while, that he probably in the end, didn’t really expect or even intend to get away with his devious schemes for world domination or destruction, but rather, being an evil genius, he probably just didn’t have anything better to do with his time. The majority of the movie’s running time is spent inside this state of the art facility with Bond seducing one ‘Angel’ after another while slowly but surely getting closer to the truth of what Blofeld is attempting to do to the free world. One thing that is puzzling about this movie though is that Bond’s gadgets, which are normally state of the art, are somehow less advanced than they had been in previous films, as in this movie he uses a bulky unwieldy device to crack into a safe containing important information, whereas in the previous film Connery had used a similar device that he was able to slip into his pocket. So, if just for this one movie, technology it seems, had for once gone in the opposite direction of what it normally does.
Also scarcely seen here are the classic Bond cars with their ejector seats and rocket propelled tailpipes. I can’t say I really missed them that much though as the action itself when it finally kicked in was stimulating enough to take your mind off of all that, with the great fight scenes from beginning to end, and especially the fantastic ski-chase scene during the movie’s climax in which Blofeld and his assistant Irma Bunt along with a horde of S.P.E.C.T.R.E agents chase Bond down a snowy mountain hillside during a starry night… It is probably my favorite chase in any Bond movie, if for nothing else than the great scenery provided. That chase manages to spill into a sleepy little village in the middle of a Christmas celebration, and through all sorts of various twists and turns too numerous to detail.
In the end, my favorite scene in the movie was probably the one in which James and Tracy both find themselves bunkered down in an abandoned barn in the middle of a raging blizzard for a cozy little love scene. It’s in scenes like this that you really get the sense that this was no ordinary Bond girl. I won’t spoil what happens after this, although I’m sure many of you already know. Suffice to say that it’s with this scene in mind that makes this movie’s “dark ending” as effective as it is for me, although I did not care for how they casually jumped from that right into the up-tempo Bond theme music after which was kind of disrespectful… But anyway, to wrap this review up, if you haven’t yet seen this fine Bond movie thus yet, don’t beat yourself up, “you’ve got all the time in the world” but still, I wouldn’t recommend tarrying too long, as this is truly a classic, flawed as it is, that I think you will not regret giving at least one chance to. Thanks for reading, and James Bond, and more importantly, Sean Connery will return next time in my review of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. See you then.