On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Tracy (Diana Rigg) and James Bond (George Lazenby) have some quality alone time. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

Directed by Peter R. Hunt. Screenplay by Richard Maibaum; based upon the novel by Ian Fleming. Produced by Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman. Music by John Barry. Photographed by Michael Reed. Edited by John Glen. Production designed by Syd Cain. Starring George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat, Lois Maxwell, George Baker, Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn.

The movies cater to numerous adolescent fantasies, but when one compares those adolescent fantasies, James Bond ranks supreme. The series is iconic for its sex and violence, globetrotting, ridiculously entertaining villains, exotic locales and over-the-top spycraft. Every Bond movie is more or less the same, just like every Sherlock Holmes story is essentially the same, but when done right the formula is as smooth a foundation as an adventure story could ever have.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the sixth James Bond film, but in many ways it’s one of the most pivotal. Not necessarily for any ongoing story, as Bond has up until recently shied away from such dedicated continuity-building. Instead, Her Majesty is a major landmark in James Bond’s overall longevity. It was already a phenomenon, having grossed $200 million between the five previous films (back when that was a lot of money, and not simply the price tag for one Battleship). But would we still be talking about it today if it weren’t for the risky moves that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service took? It prefigures the series’ penchant for constant reinvention and took the first steps to expand into a franchise with varying flavors. Different epochs of Bond history are distinct from each other and offer different pleasures, which are often signified by what actor is playing Bond, but not always.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the first to replace Sean Connery in the leading role of James Bond, a move necessitated by Connery’s tiring of Bond’s antics. While groundbreaking at the time, now such a step is common in genre pictures. Her Majesty was also the first to try to slim down on the zany gimmicks that were consuming more and more of the series. It successfully brought to the table a more realistic tone, with Bond now influenced more strongly by the Ian Fleming novels from which he sprung. And let’s say it: Her Majesty upended and reconfigured several elements of the Bond mythos and above all proved that the series was as durable, flexible, and able to sustain the changing moods of the ever-growing series.  It’s a rampant trend these days for franchises to “reboot” themselves (that is, to start fresh). Many point to Batman Begins (2005) as the starting point for that, but one could argue that it actually starts right here.

The film knows this. It starts with a shadowy chase sequence, beginning a little mini-tradition: every time a Bond actor is introduced, his face is obscured until just the right moment. Here, George Lazenby races to a remote beach and spies a woman in a billowing dress slipping off her shoes and walking into the surf. He rescues her, runs afoul of another man (and the woman), gets his car stolen, and then smirks at the camera: “This never happened to the other fellow.” It sure didn’t. Fourth-wall breaking jokes aside, even Bond’s later interactions with M (Bernard Lee) and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), staples of the series both, seem low-key. They lack the Connery twinkle but gain a directness. This Bond also makes a smaller number of jokes, goes to fewer locales, and only employs two gadgets: a high-tech safecracker and a regular old camera. Pointedly, the film reminds us that things are different, and makes a case that less, this time, is more.

So the film is an important point in the cinematic evolution of James Bond. Ironically, it was considered a failed experiment at the time, as it financially disappointed, and future adventures were careful not to address the earth-shattering developments of this movie outside of a few stray references. The Bond caretakers, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, concluded after Her Majesty that audiences didn’t want to see a low-key, somewhat fatalistic vision of James Bond: they wanted spectacle, humor and effects. The pendulum on that opinion has swung back and forth as the years have progressed, with each revolution raising the reputation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s now considered by many (myself included) to be one of the best entries of the series.

What it does not have is one of the best actors to ever play Bond. George Lazenby, who was found after  being seen in an ice cream commercial, was given an impossible task in following Sean Connery as the man to play Bond. Nevertheless, even by lowering our standards, Lazenby comes up a little short. He lacks the panache of Connery and the gravitas that future Bonds would have in spades. It’s little wonder that after Lazenby short-sightedly refused to sign for multiple films, the producers ran to get back Connery and got him—for a hefty payday. While Lazenby shares with many James Bond actors the ability to seem endlessly amused about the wild caper he is on, when things turn serious, Lazenby seems duitiful rather than tense. He’s rather dull in the action sequences, and only turns on the charm when paired with Tracy (Diana Rigg), a countess who is icy towards Bond, but soon (naturally) melts.

It is through Tracy that the film finds its soul, as Tracy is unlike any previous Bond girl. She is of course beautiful. That goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Diana Rigg is beautiful. But Tracy is also intelligent, worldly, wise, and an even match for James Bond. While she does fall into bed with the agent, it is a challenging road to get there for Bond, and even afterwards Tracy is treated not as a conquest but instead as a lover, with all the respect that such a distinction entails. Their love story is a deeply-felt subplot, not a scene, and there is real chemistry between the two, who are pushed together by Tracy’s father, Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), as part of a special arrangement with Bond. Tracy is better motivated, more independent and altogether more interesting than a typical “Bond girl,” and so when she is held prisoner and wooed by the suave Blofeld (Telly Savalas), we feel genuine menace, because we have been shown to regard her as anything but a plaything.

Blofeld had appeared before in the series in You Only Live Twice (1967), played with cartoonish supervillainy by Donald Pleasance (which codified the type of performance that Mike Myers mocked as Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films). Here, Savalas gives weight and dignity to the role, acting less as an egghead dweeb and more a genius bruiser with an clever plan for biological warfare that he plans to enact unless he is given a royal title. Of course, Blofeld, as is tradition, has an expansive complex that sits in a remote location—here buttressing a mountain peak in the Swiss Alps. The installation’s features, which include a stern German dominatrix-type and a bevy of nubile young ladies are perhaps of greater interest to Bond than the audience, but we won’t quibble.

It’s appropriate that the Bond film that was most instrumental in preserving the series’ legacy is itself rather obsessed with lineage. We learn a little about Bond’s heritage here, including the wording on his family crest (Latin for “The World Is Not Enough,” which would lend itself to the title of another Bond movie in 1999). Draco tries to push his daughter into what is essentially an arranged marriage, and there is genuine, understated poignancy in a shady businessman trying to make right by his daughter and legitimize her future. Bond, of course, is a man of mystery who hides behind promiscuity and violence, and Tracy gently nudges him into thinking forward for the first time in his life. And then there’s poor Blofeld, who is so hungry for respectability that he’ll ransom the world for it.

The film is one of the more talky Bonds, and concerned more with spycraft and subterfuge than other installments (Bond even goes undercover here, which is rare for him). But when the film turns to the elaborate action sequences that are the Bond staples, it carries them off with pizzazz  Several key chases occur on the slopes via ski, helicopter and luge, and all are examples of terrific action filmmaking craft. The director, Peter R. Hunt, edited the previous five Bond pictures, and you can sense the confidence with which he slides into the director’s chair and gives his own editor, John Glen (who would go on to direct some himself), the best material to work with.

The film’s production values are excellent, of course, with terrific collaboration between production designer Syd Cain and cinematographer Michael Reed, who balance garish late 60’s colors with beautiful landscapes. Also stepping up is composer John Barry, who for once gets the opportunity to score the film’s title sequence in fine style. In fact, this the only James Bond film that saves its “Bond song” for the very end, and instead of a pop hit it’s Louie Armstrong’s “We Have All The Time In The World.” It makes a bigger impact that you would think.

Yet I think the proudest achievement of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is that it eschews the Bond inclinations towards travelogue and loose ends, building its plot not out of glued-together set pieces but a logical series of events that have real consequences. This includes both the espionage plot, with Blofeld an active villain with a knack for barely-disguised cruelty, and the love story, which is told with care, especially in its potent concluding moments. This quality seperates it from some of the sillier, fattier James Bond films, and hews closer to the tight, grim outlines forged by Ian Fleming, which have been honored most recently in the Daniel Craig trilogy of Bond films (Casino Royale [2006], Quantum of Solace [2008], Skyfall [2012]). That latest batch of Bond films owes a tremendous debt to Her Majesty, which paved the way for Bond to be darker, seriouser, meaner, with hints of tragedy and psychology. Not that we always want to see him that well. But it helps to.

Fleming’s signature character has had a life on screen that has outpaced literature, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service made that possible. With this film, the mold was broken, freeing the series to recast and experiment with joy. It opened the doors for the future men to tackle the role (Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig), and each man has brought something to the mix, pushing the series forward in constant, sprawling evolution. As I said before, each Bond story is essentially the same (megalomaniac plots, Bond defeats him), but the modes of storytelling have shifted from tense crime thriller to sprawling epic to Blaxploitation, techno-thriller, comic adventure, and more. The series has had its successes and missteps, but each has informed and allowed for the other to occur, which is why although we all have our preferred James Bond, we would not do without any of them.

And so it goes. 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of cinematic James Bond, and it doesn’t look like he’s going away any time soon. And that’s a good thing to know. After all, we have all the time in the world.

GRADE: B+

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