The Weekly Bond Countdown: #5 – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

So you’ve have probably seen me reference On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in a few of these reviews and you can probably tell I rate this film highly.  Now it’s time to answer why…

The benefits of watching each Bond film in chronological order is you can see the whole picture.  You can see Bond change and evolve with the times.  On a personal level, it has been an enlightening experience.

But most importantly with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is that every time Bond shows any emotional connection, the parallels link back to this film.  Don’t believe me?  In For Your Eyes Only, Bond visits Teresa’s final resting place, a rare acknowledgement of the past and also the first sign of continuity in the series before Bond moves on with the rest of his adventure.  In Licence to Kill, Bond sympathises with Felix when his newlywed wife is murdered.  Motivated by the past, Bond goes on a revengeful bender to get back at those responsible.  And more recently, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace shows the highs and lows of Bond’s love affair with Vesper.  The “bitch” according to Bond may be dead, but there is no denying that Vesper left an important mark on him, no matter how much he tries to fight it.

When I was young and I watched On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for the first time, I thought it was boring.  I clearly didn’t understand it.  But as I got older (and hopefully wiser), I started to appreciate the film.  As I delved into the history of the film, my appreciation quickly turned to love.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the most underrated Bond film ever made.  Yet at the same time, it is the most unappreciated Bond film and for a while, it was the forgotten Bond film.  So how come this film became so polarized, especially when the film is the most faithful adaptation of Fleming’s novel of the same name?

  • Is it because George Lazenby is not Sean Connery and lacks his presence?
  • Is it because we see Bond wearing a kilt, despite being an obvious disguise for his mission (and a nod to his own Scottish family history)?
  • Is it because we see Bond fall in love and get married instead of going from woman to woman and sleeping with them?
  • Is it because there were no signature gadgets?
  • Or does Blofled’s plot lack the grand spectacle of the previous films – mind control vs. a penis shaped rocket capturing astronauts so he can start World War III from You Only Live Twice?

If there are any faults with OHMSS, then there are only two.  The awesome Telly Savalas was cast as Blofeld.  The scenes shared between Blofeld and Bond show them meeting for the first time.  Hang on a sec!  In You Only Live Twice Bond and Blofeld (this time played by Donald Pleasence) have already met.  Continuity was definitely a problem and I wished they had re-written the dialogue so everything could match.  But it’s also because OHMSS was suppose to be the next film after Thunderball but due to changes in pre-production, You Only Live Twice was rushed forward.

But the biggest fault of OHMSS is the lingering ghost of Sean Connery.  When Connery quit as James Bond, George Lazenby was cast after going through incredible lengths just to win the role.  He was also the youngest actor to be cast as Bond at the age of 29.  But somehow George was at an unfair advantage right from the start.  First there was a lack of promotion for Lazenby as Bond, with the studio opting to promote “Bond” rather than an unknown actor, something that they admitted was a massive mistake.

The film itself had too many flashback moments to Connery’s Bond films –

  • There’s a cleaner whistling the Goldfinger theme.
  • In Bond’s office (after handing in his resignation), he plays with key items such as Honey Ryder’s knife and belt from Dr. No or the breathing contraption used in Thunderball.
  • The opening credits are essentially a montage of key moments from the previous films.
  • The line, “This never happened to the other fella” is a direct, tongue in cheek reference to Connery on how he always got the girl unlike Lazenby who watches Tracy run away from him in the pre-credit scene.
  • Heck even Lazenby’s gun barrel walk is almost exactly the same as Connery.

I understand why they did this – introduce continuity and familiarity.  It was designed to re-educate the audience that the actor may have changed but Bond was still Bond.  But for me, this hampers the film.  It’s a distraction and doesn’t give George Lazenby a proper chance to distinguish himself from Connery.

Despite all this, Lazenby was also the architect of his own downfall.  Loving the fame and attention of being Bond, he became a bit of a diva.  He regularly turned up drunk on set.  He broke his arm during one scene because he wanted to do his own stunts, something the studio bluntly refused.  Not even Diana Rigg could help him. She was cast not only for the part of Teresa (Tracy), but also to help guide George through the scenes.  But that failed when a journalist wrote a damning article about how she ate garlic before every love scene with George.  Finally, George was also led astray by his friend who convinced him that Bond wasn’t going to last.  People were growing their hair, believing in peace not war – the dawn of the hippie movement and Woodstock was fast approaching.  In the end George was let go, his antics proving too much for the producers to handle.

Yet, despite the madness and the controversies (only the making of Blade Runner could top it) the final product is absolutely amazing.  George Lazenby may not be my favourite Bond but I can’t imagine anyone but him playing this role.

Could Connery evoke the same type of emotion displayed at the end of the movie when Teresa is gunned down and murdered? I really don’t know.  Connery’s Bond sets the standard of style and panache but his Bond is a character that always gets his way, especially with the ladies.  For the first time in the series, we see Bond vulnerable, falling for a woman who completes him, played by the excellent Diana Rigg (who is one of my favourite Bond girls of all time).  You genuinely believe in their relationship.  While I’m not trying to do Connery a disservice but if there was one thing George Lazenby got right, he really connected with Fleming’s book.  He shows Bond as brutally violent.  He’s far less dependent on gadgets, preferring his instincts and charm to complete the mission.  Yet it is the very last scene of the film where he holds his dead wife where it pays off for him.  He admitted at the time that he absolutely loved the book because of that scene.  He actually cried during the filming because of how important and significant it was.  Director Peter Hunt had to stop filming and told George to do the scene again because “James Bond doesn’t cry!”  George – you may have gone to lengths to get the Bond job, but after that scene, you truly were an actor.  It’s a shame and a pity he realised this too late.

OHMSS is filled with some of the best action scenes ever filmed in a Bond series.  In fact it is the most realistic action scenes you will ever see.  It’s fast, furious, thrilling and equally dangerous.  In high definition, they are stunning – absolutely visually stunning.  Seriously, please don’t take my word for it; seek this out because hands down, this is the best-looking Bond film in the collection.

The reason why the film adopted a realistic tone comes from director Peter Hunt who wanted to return Bond back to his roots as a spy.  He felt the grand nature or the larger than life persona that was being gradually introduced in the latter Connery films was going too far, losing the integrity of what made Bond, Bond and the rest of the film naturally adopts this.  Telly Savalas avoids the gimmick of Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld with the “his cat must have clawed his face” scars, opting to play the role straight.  In fact the only time we see ‘classic’ Blofeld is when he strokes his pet cat very early on in the movie.  Also, Telly Savalas’s Blofeld is very hands on, often joining in on the ski chases or using his hypnotic voice to control his ‘angels of death’ in order to fulfil his Manchurian Candidate style plan.  Diana Rigg as Teresa (Tracy) is the most resourceful (and awesome) Bond girl, easily proving her worth to Bond and saving his life.  She is fearless and she can also drive the hell out of a car!

OHMSS represented the first time composer John Barry experimented musically on the film.  This is the first Bond film to use electric guitars and synthesizers.  As much as the James Bond theme is the ultimate signature track, John Barry went all out and created two of the best Bond songs ever.  EVER!  I don’t care what a BBC poll says (Live and Let Die was voted best Bond song – a song containing less words than all the Bonds songs put together!)  Every time I hear the theme song to OHMSS that is Bond.  That is Bond escaping from danger.  That is Bond heading towards danger.  That is Bond at his most adventurous.  It’s an exciting piece of music, giving Bond extra dimension and style.  John Barry’s collaboration with Louis Armstrong on “We Have all the Time in the World” is a beautiful track.  Sadly it was the last song Louis Armstrong ever recorded but I can’t think of anything more heartfelt and legacy defining than this.

While over the years Bond fans have grown to appreciate the film and consider it as one of the best (and rightly so), I guess it’s still disappointing that many still don’t rate it.  The ending alone with Teresa’s death is so tragic, cruel and brave because it showed a side of Bond (at that point) that had never been explored.  If they continued that exploration, we would have gotten a more complicated and sympathetic Bond character.  Because of the film’s failure in the US, Diamonds are Forever (which should have been Bond’s revenge against Blofeld) was scrapped in favour of a return to formula of a larger than life spy; the girls, the guns, the gadgets and a film largely set in Las Vegas.  In fact, OHMSS was the last film of the 60s period which saw Bond in this current state.  We would have to wait until the 80s with John Glen as director (who funnily enough served as second unit director and editor on OHMSS) that the franchise showed any kind of continuity to the past and got Bond back to basics after a decade of flamboyance and over the top fantasy from the 70s and Roger Moore.

Like everyone else who was indifferent to OHMSS, I was a victim of the same attitude.  OHMSS was different in tone from all the other Bond films I watched when I was growing up.  I used to think that every Bond film was just a one off adventure.  I was use to the familiarity of the girls, the action and the gadgets.  I’m sure this is how we all discovered Bond when we were growing up.  We essentially enjoyed Bond winning at the end and the clichés that went along with it instead of suffering the heartache.  Clearly my eyes are now open.

I love this film because On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the quintessential Bond film.  The plot may be low key, but that doesn’t make it less spectacular than any other Bond film.  This is a more realistic interpretation of Bond and I rather have this than Bond going into space just like he did in Moonraker.  Were people ready to accept Lazenby as Bond?  Probably not due to the lack of promotion and the fact he only did one film, he was quickly erased from public consciousness…until DVDs came along!

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the key to understanding Bond as a character and why Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig’s interpretations are so easily relatable.  Bond is something more than the girls, the guns, the gadgets and the mission.  I guess you can say that Craig’s interpretation of Bond debuted at the right time and place in our modern era.  Lazenby unfortunately did not, with audiences (at the time) who possibly couldn’t get over the successful impact that Connery had.

While this review may not do this film justice, if you are on the fence or hated it once before, I hope I’ve provided you a meaningful response.

The Countdown So Far:

Check back next week Wednesday to find out which Bond film comes in at #4

Author: Kelechi Ehenulo

Creator and writer of Confessions From A Geek Mind. Loves sci-fi and LEGO - couldn't ask for a better combo!

4 thoughts

  1. Wow, this is quite an epic post! I agree with pretty much everything you say, especially about Lazenby and the faithfulness to the Fleming novel. I took the introduction to Blofeld as being a sham; since he got plastic surgery to look different according to the plot, they both play at not knowing the other. Still, it’s been a little while since I’ve seen it. OHMSS is at this same spot for me in my Bond top five. It’s so underrated, and I’m glad you mentioned the amazing score from John Barry. If you haven’t heard the Propellerheads’ variation on the OHMSS theme, I’d highly suggest checking it out. Great job with this post.

    Like

    1. Thanks Dan – yes I’ve definitely heard The Propellerheads’ version of OHMSS. It’s very good. John Barry = legend.

      Out of all the Bond reviews, this one was definitely my favourite to write down. So much history around this film and its context within the series. For its achievements it deserves to be appreciated. Hopefully my review will help!

      Like

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