Friday, September 19, 2014

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

By the time You Only Live Twice wrapped up filming, Sean Connery was done. Making the films was proving to be grueling and the intense spotlight of being James Bond was getting too bright. He wanted out and the producers couldn’t convince him otherwise. A lot of people felt that the series was done. For them Sean Connery was James Bone – period. But the producers felt they had a viable franchise and formula. Bond could be played by another actor, and they were going to prove to everyone that James Bond would Return.

James Bond (George Lazenby) is still pursuing his nemesis Blofeld (Telly Savalas). But the trail has gone cold and Bond is spending his time gambling on the French Rivera. It is there he meets Tracy (Diana Rigg) the daughter of a powerful and wealthy “businessman” named Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). Draco may be the head of a crime syndicate. Tracy and Bond connect in a way neither expects. When Draco learns of this, he makes a deal with Bond. If Bond can get Tracy to fall in love with him and calm her reckless and wild ways, then Draco will provide Bond with information where Blofeld is hidden.

Bond’s desire to capture Blofeld is stronger than his drive to enjoy a bachelor’s lifestyle, so he agrees. He quickly finds himself caring about Tracy and really falling for her. So it is actually with some regret that he obtains a lead from Draco. But Bond figures this will be his toughest one yet, because Blofeld is hatching a deadly scheme that will destroy the world’s food supply. If Bond can stop him, then this is the last mission he will serve On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But fate is going to deal him quite a different hand.

Good Points:
  • Takes the best plot from the Fleming novels and brings it to life
  • One of the best scores of the entire James Bond franchise
  • Brings the thrills and danger back to the franchise
Bad Points:
  • The romance heavy first half may be too slow for some viewers
  • James Bond in love this isn’t James Bond!
  • Tries too hard to be familiar and new at the same time
This movie has its flaws, but George Lazenby isn’t one of them. He is the main reason I see people write this one off. However it’s got a great story that actually evolves James Bond as a person. It puts him in some real danger (with the awesome stunt work to show it off). Rigg and Savalas are excellent in their roles. The whole package is top-notch material, and is easily one of the best 007 adventures of the 1960s.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 5
Music: 5
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Bond. James Bond. - 1969
No matter who followed Sean Connery for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service they were going to be unfairly compared and probably disliked. The mentality that Connery was Bond was nearly a given. The producers were fighting an uphill battle and I think they knew it. So they had to knock this out of the park or else it was the end of 007. What is funny is that most people think this movie bombed and was received poorly by critics. But the movie actually did very well in theaters. No it didn’t reach the highs of Goldfinger or Thunderball, but to expect that isn’t realistic. Most critics enjoyed the movie. This was not a half assed low budget cash in. You can see the effort on the screen, something that can’t be said for the films that followed, which can look pretty cheap in comparison (yeah Diamonds Are Forever I said it!).

An honest to goodness avalanche.
When most people remember the setting of this film, it is the snowy peaks of Switzerland that dominate the final two thirds of the film. There is some amazing location shooting in this movie, with impressive helicopter shots. I also have to mention the footage taken on skis. OHMSS features the first James Bond ski chase, and actually gives you two for the price of one. Some of this footage is just plain crazy. When you see all the various camera techniques used to film these action scenes it is amazing. The stunts are top notch and no other Bond film has come close to this much excellent ski action (but ForYour Eyes Only comes really damn close). To top it off, the avalanche you see in the film was actually real. You read that right, no models in those shots. There is also a completely insane car chase scene that puts Bond and Tracy in the middle of a stock car race.

Portugal gives us some additional location footage, mostly for the scene around Draco’s home and during the Riviera sequences. Draco’s birthday scene is most impressive with a full-fledged bullfight captured on screen. But the location is used again for the wedding at the finale of the film, and the mountain top road leading away from it.

Bond meets the Angels of Death.
In addition to the location work, the production design for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is handled well. The movie is going for a more realistic look and Adam’s futurist style would not have fit. Many of the sets have the opulent looks that you expect in a Bond film, but lack that extra touch of fantasy of the previous three films.

Like nearly all the James Bond films of the 60s and 70s, there is some rear projection work in this movie that is less than convincing. It can be distracting and I’ll admit that does affect the final face off of the film a bit. The final sequence occurs on a bobsled run with Bond and Blofeld attempting to kill each other at high speed. The stunt work is jaw dropping, but the rear projection inserts look silly. It’s a shame too, because it robs this final battle of the punch it should have.

Who knew? James Bond invented the slip and slide.
One more key element to the visuals is the unique editing used in the film. Of all the James Bond films up until Skyfall this movie is the most visually interesting when it comes to camera angles, fight scene editing and overall execution. Director Peter Hunt started out as an editor, and his influence on the final visual product is distinctive. It really gives the film it’s own rhythm and feeling. This is a long film, clocking in at 142 minutes, but Hunt’s visual style and editing panache help the whole movie just fly by.

Piz Gloria is one of the most spectacular locations
in the franchise.
Most of the sound effects work in the Bond films is impressive. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service doesn’t disappoint in that regard. But what is interesting is that Hunt decided to shake things up a couple times during the film and used sound in interesting ways. During a fistfight in a tight corridor where Bond attempts to escape some of Draco’s goons, the punches and sounds of the bodies hitting the walls is run through an echoplex.  The result is one of the most surreal fistfights in a 007 adventure. On top of that, you have what director Peter Hunt wanted to go down as the noisiest fistfight in action film history. Bond beats up one of Bloefeld’s minions in a shack filled with bells. The men throw each other around and create one hell of a ruckus. It’s an unusual battle to say the least.

The soft glow of John Barry's score adds to
the romance of the movie.
Composer John Barry returned for his fifth consecutive James Bond adventure. Many film score fans feel that his score to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the best film score he ever wrote for a James Bond film. In addition to a thrilling main theme for the action, he also composed a beautiful love theme called We Have All the Time in the World, sung by Louis Armstrong. I wrote a whole blog about the music and how it works in the films, you can check that out here. Suffice to say, this is easily one of the best scores to any of the 007 films, and is a great place to start your James Bond music collection.

Lazenby was a gamble.
Let’s hit the heart of the argument here. George Lazenby is the make or break for a lot of people. I find that it is the Connery fans that seem to dislike Lazenby the most, maybe feeling that Connery got robbed of one of the better 007 scripts in the franchise. In some ways I can sympathize, but at the same time, I think Connery was burnt out on Bond. You can see it in her performance in You Only Live Twice and you can really see it in his work on Diamond Are Forever. I’d rather have a new actor trying his best over an established actor barely going through the motions.

The outfit that inspired Austin Powers!
That said, Lazenby doesn’t quite seem to have the part down. He works fine in the action scenes and does a decent job with the ladies in Bloefeld’s hideout. But his acting during the relationship building scenes with Tracy doesn’t quite work. He also seems a bit overmatched by Savalas. Now to be entirely fair, Lazenby has a large portion of his dialogue over-dubbed when he is under cover. That adds up to about half an hour where we don’t have him actually speaking. On top of that, someone, somewhere decided that more quips and witticisms were needed in the film. So Lazenby ends up with a bunch of one-liners, obviously dubbed after the fact and often when he isn’t even on the screen. This may add to the feeling that Lazenby was a bit too cheesy in the role.

007 spends some quality time with his favorite
I see an actor who had an immense pressure put on him. He really is trying his best, but his experience prior to this huge film was working in commercials. In a lot of ways, he had to really step up his game and do it really fast. Knowing all this, I think Lazenby did a fine job. Yes, it could have been better. But I also think that if he had tackled Diamonds are Forever that movie would have given us an improved actor along with a more involved actor. The result could have been a better film. As it stands On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the only Bond film in Lazenby’s resume. For various reasons (depending on who you talk to, they shift) Lazenby was not invited back for the next film. But I feel that his onscreen performance was not the reason for it.

Diana Rigg doubts the veracity of your claim.
Besides, no matter what you think of Lazenby’s performance, it is hard to find fault with Diana Rigg as Tracy. If you read the novel, you may feel that Rigg was miscast. But I think she actually changes the dynamic in a way that works well. She seems a better match for Bond, as confident as him at times. And Rigg certainly shows that Tracy can handle herself well. The tremendous car chase scene actually has Tracy in the driver’s seat the whole time. She also does battle with one of Blofeld’s larger henchman. This confidence is certainly appealing, but it the fragility that Rigg brings to the character that attracts Bond. We get glimpses of it throughout the film. It’s a really great performance, certainly making Tracy my favorite Bond girl of the 1960s films.

He's given up the sucker for a cigarette and a
diabolical plan.
When it comes to Blofeld, most James Bond fans feel that Donald Pleasance was the perfect version in You Only Live Twice. And for a more comic book version of Bond, which that film certainly is, he works great. But On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a much more serious film. Blofeld needed to be less cartoonish, and Savalas strikes the perfect balance. He is urbane, cold and ominous. Of all the actors playing Bloefeld he feels the most like he could be a physical match for Bond (which is closer to the novel version of the character). Savalas also has a ruthless charm about him that I like. He really carries the part off well, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see him return for the next film.

007 undercover as an upperclass twit.
The supporting cast is also very good. We have the usual London crew with Bernard Lee as M and Louis Maxwell as Moneypenny getting some good time interacting with Bond. Moneypenny’s reaction to the wedding at the end is pretty funny. Desmond Llewlyn doesn’t get much screen time as Q in this movie. In general the gadgets are downplayed. Gabriele Ferzetti plays Draco as a smooth and confident operator. In an odd turn of events, it appears he’s been completely re-dubbed, so his performance is a bit tricky to judge. Ilse Steppat as Blofeld’s dangerous and determined partner in crime does a good job looking threatening and yet competent with her job. Finally there is the bevy of beauties that are the “Angels of Death”. All are quite lovely, but Angela Scoular steals the show as Ruby, the English gal who throws herself at Bond. But sharp-eyed viewers will also see Joanna Lumley in the group.

This film contains some of the best ski stunts
in the franchise.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the few James Bond movies of the 1960s that actually attempts to develop James Bond as a character. This comes right out of Fleming’s novel, probably one of his best of the series. The script follows the novel very closely, allowing Bond (and us) to meet and fall in love with Tracy, and then get pulled into the Blofeld’s dark plan. The final result works great in the novel, but the movie ends up feeling a bit uneven at times. The first half is pretty much all set up, with the romance taking up a lot of the screen time. It is necessary, and it keeps the relationship from feeling arbitrary or forced. At the same time it contrasts wildly with the action packed final third of the film. This is something that comes right from the source material, so I can’t fault them too much. But I wonder if a better balance could have been found, to give this film a flow that works better. The 2006 version Casino Royale had a similar design, but executed it much better.

Tracy doubts the veracity of Blofeld's claim.
There is also a strange script element that I’m really surprised no one caught. In the novels, James Bond does not come face to face with Blofeld during Thunderball. His first meeting is during On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The men meet for the final time in You Only Live Twice. Since the films switched order a bit, Bond and Blofeld meet in You Only Live Twice for the first time. But in the film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a key plot point revolves on the fact that Blofeld doesn’t know what Bond looks like. This makes sense in the original order of the novels, but not in the movie version. This has lead to jokes that Blofeld didn’t recognize Bond because Lazenby was playing the part.

Bobsledding insanity!
The script gave Peter Hunt a great base to make one of the best James Bond films. Aside from the pacing issue, there is very little to dislike about how he executed the film. Some of the moments meant to reassure fans that this was still the James Bond they knew and loved don’t play too well today. They are painfully obvious, and are pretty much filler. You have the scene where Bond goes through his desk and remembers moments from all his previous adventures (prompted by props and helpful music cues from the other films). You have a janitor whistling the theme from Goldfinger. You even have characters saying things like “Same old 007.” It is distracting and a bit silly.

Tracy drives like a mad woman!
There was also the decision to have Lazenby attempt to look, and act as much like Connery as possible. This was something that none of the following actors had to deal with. Each one got to put his stamp on 007. But Lazenby was basically filling Connery’s shoes and they wanted him to do just that. This was a decision made at the production level, and I can’t blame Lazenby for it. But instead of reassuring people, it invited a direct comparison. This was a stupendous backfire for the production. If Hunt had been a bit more seasoned, he may have had the clout to push back on this idea.

Bond faces his perfect match.
But as a first time director, Hunt brought energy, creativity and excitement back to the series. The best elements of the final third of the film are the action and thrilling suspense scenes. Hunt uses all the tricks in the book to keep ratcheting things up. James Bond really feels like he is in peril in this film, with Blofeld’s relentless pursuit pushing Bond to more and more desperate acts. The escape from Piz Gloria is really one of the best thriller sequences of the entire film series.

Bond did return, but poor Lazenby didn't.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ends up being a James Bond film that is unique in many ways from the rest of the franchise. It breaks many of the conventions of the series that had been established. Other times it stays firmly locked to them. It has a dynamic look and feel that no other Bond film ever managed until Skyfall. It is a story that focuses on James Bond, and gives the character some real gravitas. The final scene of the film gives Bond a defining character moment. One that Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan all got to use in at least one film. Within that block of the first 20 Bond films it is a milestone not just for the story, but also for the entire production. For all those reasons On Her Majesty’s Secret Service deserves to be revisted and reevaluated. The great thing is, I see the movie constantly near the top of “Best of Bond” lists frequently. It is nice to see that it is being judged on it’s own merits, instead of what fans back in 1969 wanted it to be.


  1. My favorite film of the franchise as I mentioned last comment, and yet... I'm actually glad Connery didn't do this one (though I am basically a Connery fan) because the way he played Bond didn't really suit the romantic plot line. They could have done worse than Lazenby. But I can help thinking they could have done better: not a slam on his acting but just a sense he didn't quite fit the part. Peter O'Toole wouldn't have fit either, and he was a fine contemporary actor. When watching it I sometimes think how different it would be another actor in the part -- say, Richard Harris, Michael Caine, or Patrick McGoohan. Nonetheless, it's still a favorite, and if I ever met Lazenby at some convention I'd want his autograph.

    1. Yeah, I think Lazenby could have grown into the part a bit. Starting with something as complicated as OHMSS was probably a mistake. It does require some heavy lifting on the actors part.

      You make some great alternate Bond selections there. McGoohan in particular would have been interesting. I think the producers were hoping to catch lightning in a bottle twice. Connery had been acting before "Dr. No" but he was not well known at all. I think they wanted Lazenby to be the same kind of phenomena. Didn't quite work out that way for him.

  2. I should re-watch this one due to Diana Rigg alone. I've seen parts of it, but admit my movie shame that I haven't seen it from beginning to end. Your recent Bond postings have made me want to go back and watch some of the older franchise, so you review well. Funny when I see some of these scenes like the shot of Telly Savalas how I'm reminded of Austin Power. :) Just can't help it.

    1. Yeah I think Mr. Meyers watched this film quite a bit for his "Austin Powers" flicks. I know he was riffing the spy genre of the 60s in general, but a lot of his visual touches really seem to be inspired by this film and "You Only Live Twice".

      This one is well worth revisiting. Check it out if you get a chance.