On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has often been described as the dark horse of the James Bond franchise, in part due to its atypical ending and for its one-off Bond actor, George Lazenby. Its reputation unfortunately tied Lazenby’s ill-reception, Majesty has been gaining steady recognition over the last few decades with many now noting it as one of the best Bond films ever produced and some even going so far as labeling it the best. How true are these statements? Is it really just the one with the bad James Bond whose ultimate saving grace is that it’s forgettable; or, has it truly earned its place in the top echelons of the 007 series alongside From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and 2006’s Casino Royale?
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
[Major Spoiler Alert] On Her Majesty’s Secret Service finds James Bond (Lazenby) desperately trying to track down head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) following the events of You Only Live Twice. His trail having run cold after two fruitless years of searching, M (Bernard Lee) removes him from the case. Distraught and obsessed, Bond takes a leave of absence and accepts an offer from criminal mastermind Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) for a clue to Blofeld’s whereabouts in exchange for a marriage to his only daughter, Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). Bond, having previously saved Tracy from a suicide attempt, accepts and soon finds himself in the Swiss Alps where Blofeld is devising a new international blackmail plot revolving around a gaggle of brainwashed beauties.
From this point, the second half of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service continues as a practical nonstop chase as Bond attempts to escape Blofeld’s mountainous fortress. From incredible ski pursuits to bell tower brawls and icy crash derby car races, Bond is pushed to his most vulnerable, breathless limit as he barely dodges a never-ending army of goons in fantastic (and, at one point, literal) cliffhanger fashion. When he is eventually tracked down by Tracy, she is as much a reprieve to Bond as she is to the audience.
Unfortunately, their escape is only half successful as Blofeld causes a massive avalanche that blankets both Bond and Tracy leading to her capture as a hostage. With M powerless to sanction an official rescue, Bond teams up with Draco to launch a full scale assault on Blofeld (which includes an awesome shot of Bond sliding across an ice covered walkway belly first into battle with a machine gun!). After a bobsled run leaves Blofeld supposedly dead, Bond, realizing his true feelings for Tracy, marries her leading to a heartbreaking denouement as Blofeld enacts one last act of revenge and has her viciously murdered minutes into their honeymoon.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a showcase of how to properly execute an epic Bond film. Gone are the fantasy and over-the-top machinations of spaceship hijacks, rocket cigarettes, and secret volcano bases from the last film. Though the overall threat level may be reduced comparatively, Blofeld’s plan remains one of global devastation keeping the stakes up to par with the two previous films but with a far more grounded approach (despite the ludicrous nature of the brainwashed girls being utilized for biological warfare).
More significant is Bond’s personal journey at the heart of the picture which effectively sells the danger present. Moreover, Majesty presents one of the rare instances where Bond is a true underdog – the metaphoric St. George vs. the dragon. The desperate barrage of near misses is practically overwhelming and, for the first time since a few hints in Dr. No, we witness a Bond that is almost overcome with fear.
Heck, at one point, as 007 is trying to avoid Blofeld’s goons in a crowd, he accidentally runs into a polar bear-suited man brandishing a camera. Lazenby’s bug-eyed overreaction at the sight is enough to make Bruce Campbell proud!
Regardless, this approach leads to a far more gripping adventure and one that perfectly lays the basis for the film’s tragic ending.
Much has been said about George Lazenby’s performance in this film. Is he the natural successor to Sean Connery? Very few (if any) would say so; however, what he lacks in charm and screen presence, he makes up for in sheer earnestness. His most redeeming quality is that, outside of Daniel Craig, he is the best brawler in the franchise delivering vicious uppercuts and thoroughly selling all his fight scenes – particularly an early rousing mano a mano hotel fight.
Beyond his athleticism (he would later train with Bruce Lee himself), Lazenby’s best scenes are centered on character actions that diverged significantly from anything associated with Connery’s portrayal – particularly Bond’s tender proposal to Tracy and his tearful reaction to her death. In these fleeting scenes, Lazenby more-or-less succeeds in delivering a poignant, sincere performance.
If anything, what really bogs down Lazenby the most is the vestige of Connery. Unlike Roger Moore who was given the opportunity to make Bond his own, Lazenby is put in the unenviable position of trying to emulate him. From the awkward kilt get-up to some awful puns noticeably ADR’d in at the last minute (not to mention a badly conceived pre-credits fourth wall break that bizarrely refers to Connery as the “other fella”), the film may as well have been called In Sir Connery’s Public Shadow.
It doesn’t help that in an attempt to hammer into viewers that this is indeed the same James Bond as Connery, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is full of constant call backs to the previous films, such as Bond looking over his office keepsakes from Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball…
…a dwarf randomly whistling the tune from Goldfinger, and, most egregiously, a credit sequence that focuses on Connery-less clips from the preceding entries in the series! This backfires in a couple of ways: 1.) it keeps reminding the audience of Connery and henceforth how much better he was in the role and, 2.) it establishes the film in a firm continuity with what has happened before – a continuity that the film blatantly breaks by disregarding the fact that Blofeld and Bond have met before!
The Bond producers had shortsightedly adapted Ian Fleming‘s S.P.E.C.T.R.E. trilogy out of order (Majesty is actually the dark middle chapter between Thunderball and You Only Live Twice) causing significant narrative issues and also robbing the natural revenge-bent conclusion that You Only Live Twice aptly provided (akin to releasing Return of the Jedi before The Empire Strikes Back and attempting to place a band-aid on the story issues). In the books, this was the first instance of Bond and Blofeld meeting face-to-face and since this was a more faithful adaptation, a choice was made to not have the characters recognize each other despite meeting at the conclusion of the last film (a choice easily unraveled by the opening credit flashbacks to Twice!). The only slim explanation is that Bond is in disguise (which consists of a pair of glasses – the epitome of incognito espionage – and a different accent) and that Blofeld has cut off his earlobes in the hopes of achieving a prestigious title. But hey, if it works for Superman, maybe it works for Bond too.
Continuity issues aside, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service provides yet another positive up-step in the series in the form of Telly Savalas – hands down the best Blofeld to date (Christolph Waltz included). Smart, menacing, and conniving, Savalas’ Blofeld is the anti-Bond, every bit as charming and clever as our hero. On the surface, he may not look as memorable as Donald Pleasence‘s take on the character, but he is far more effective and a true threat to Bond.
Diana Rigg is as beautiful as she is brilliant as Tracy. It never rings false that this is the woman that finally snags Bond’s heart. Vulnerable but with a subdued fire ready to spring, Rigg is terrific, managing to effortlessly lift the struggling Lazenby in every scene they share. Likewise, once they partner up in the second half escape, they make a memorable, natural team (I especially like Bond stealing kisses as she mercilessly drives enemy cars off the road!).
Her wedding day demise (a death that shrewdly bookends a film that began with her suicide attempt) is a tragedy brought to fruition almost solely due to her indelible charisma – a gutsy move from the Bond producers whose films were mostly known for escapist fun. Keeping in line with the grittier productions of the time such as Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service presented a natural, contemporary progression for the Bond series – a turn that was regrettably rejected in a 180° about face with the campy Diamonds Are Forever two years later.
Peter Hunt, stepping into the director’s chair after editing all the previous Bond pictures, shapes one of the most stylized film in the series. Some of the shots, composed by cinematographer Michael Reed, are incredible with a particular focus on reflections such as Bond wistfully recalling Tracy’s kidnapping while looking through a window…
Suggestive of the story further delving into Bond as a human being (this is, after all, the film where we finally learn more about his history and family motto, “The World is Not Enough”), these artistic touches help accent the story rather than existing only to call attention to themselves.
As mentioned before, Lazenby excels during the action scenes – sequences that run the gamut of creative staging and editing. Although there are a few minor quibbles such as Hunt’s preference for fast motion editing, the film’s set-pieces provide a sustained high-level of excitement with a few creative twists thrown in for good measure (such as a chase through evergreen forest with Bond on one ski).
Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service & Pre-Credit Beach Fun
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fleming’s tenth 007 novel, is one of the most faithful adaptations in the Bond film series – very much a welcome sight after the Roald Dahl-scripted fantasy of You Only Live Twice. As such, there aren’t many significant differences between the source and screen. By the same token, the film version follows the same path as From Russia with Love and Goldfinger with some minor improvements to the novel.
For example, the book has both Bond and Tracy successfully escaping Blofeld’s forces in Switzerland. This leads to an implausible and less motivated reason for Bond to seek out Draco’s assistance for an all out assault on Blofeld’s base – especially since the novel has M sanctioning the attack rather than having his hands tied. This has the unfortunate effect of keeping Bond’s personal initiative lower in addition to unwisely omitting Tracy from the narrative for a significant amount of time.
Despite the overall polish to the novel’s film adaptation, there are a couple of missteps. For instance, both the book and movie begin with Tracy’s beach suicide attempt; however, the book doesn’t present the event as randomly as the movie suggests. The novel spells out that not only has Bond met with Tracy but that they’ve already spent the night together (a scene that takes place later in the film). Guess the producers opted not to have the first woman George Lazenby slept with in the franchise attempt to kill herself afterword!
The novel’s approach to this opening is far superior. Going by the movie, the scene plays out as not only coincidental but totally incomprehensible when you put all the pieces together. Bond randomly follows a girl to a beach, stalks her with a rifle scope, somehow deduces that she is trying to commit suicide rather than a swim (which would have been supremely awkward if he was mistaken), rescues her, and then is attacked by her bodyguards (who really only had one job to do!)? It could be implied that Bond had been tracking her due to her parental ties and possible Blofeld lead but the film later suggests otherwise. While certainly not as egregious as Thunderball‘s pile of coincidences, this is certainly one of the weakest narrative points in the film.
The Curse of the Other Fella
John Barry‘s score for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is not only one of the best in the series but one of the best in his own highly-illustrious career. Opting for a wholly instrumental credit piece rather than the traditional title song, his main theme for the picture has a dynamic sense of urgency and is later used to great effect during the ski sequences.
Pity that the aforementioned credit sequence itself leaves much to be desired. Using an hourglass motif, we are treated to flashbacks from the previous films – many of which are grainy stills. While decently executed for what it is, it not only undercuts the picture by presenting a lack of confidence in its new star but the end-product is also quite forgettable. At the end of the day, only its snappy score holds it all together.
Barry’s only gaffe in the score (which may be attributed more to the producers than himself) is the James Bond theme blaring over the closing credits which are framed over Tracy’s ill-fated window bullet hole immediately following her death. The theme, which is most associated with a victorious Bond, is not only unsuitable given what we’ve just witnessed but leaves an acidic taste on one’s mouth.
More appropriate would have been Louis Armstrong’s excellent “We Have All the Time in the World” which serves as the film’s main love theme (a song that, bittersweetly, was Armstrong’s last recording before his death). Perhaps it would have been too much of a downer following the film’s closing twist but even an instrumental version would have been far more preferable.
Outside of a few flaws here and there, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is very much one of the best in the series. Lazenby isn’t as bad as has been often ascribed and while it would have been interesting to see his continuation in further films had he not backed out, it is doubtful if the series as a whole would have continued as successfully as it did without him. Though it’s a great shame that Connery didn’t get the opportunity to play Bond in this film, which saw a return to form to the more cloak and dagger thriller efforts of the earliest entries in the series, considering his fatigued performances in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever this may have turned out for the best.
With the best Blofeld, one of the strongest Bond girls, a great script, edge-of-your seat action and suspense, and possibly the best musical score in the series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a winner providing a natural sense of pathos that the succeeding 007 films have rarely been able to reproduce.
Did you know that this is the only fully Christmas-themed Bond film, complete with an original holiday song “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” (a song that makes Disney‘s “It’s a Small World” seem macho by comparison)? Heck, if Die Hard can be considered a Christmas movie, why not a Bond film?
One odd note: as Tracy is revealing to her father that she is genuinely falling love with Bond, the scene keeps cutting to 007 ogling a playmate centerfold (a centerfold that he actually rips out and keeps!). True love indeed!
While the shocking ending has been revered as one of the series’ most dramatic moments, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service provides another contender just minutes before. Since Dr. No, the Bond films had established a hat-tossing trick that would introduce the flirty repertoire between 007 and Moneypenny. As the wedded Bond and Tracy approach his Aston Martin DBS, he turns towards a teary-eyed Moneypenny and affectionately tosses her his hat. It’s a quiet, beautiful moment between the two characters.
Perhaps a case of eerie foreshadowing, Lazenby’s gunbarrel sequence is the only one in the series where the dripping blood completely washes away Bond from the screen!
James Bond will Return
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
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