Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Six: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

There are multiple examples from film history of pieces of work being discovered or reappraised over time.  It’s a Wonderful Life was little seen until the 1970s.  Of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, both Psycho and Vertigo took years to reach the level of critical acclaim that they enjoy today.  For the Bond series, there are a few examples of films being reconsidered some years after release (Licence to Kill, we’re looking at you), but the chief amongst them is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

With the resignation of Sean Connery from the role of James Bond, the film represents the first attempt of the series to prove that it could thrive without him.  George Lazenby was not an actor – having never performed professionally; nor was he British – hailing from Australia.  What Lazenby did have, in abundance, was self-confidence, and the audacity to give it a go.  When he learned of the vacancy, George got himself a haircut from the same barber as Connery, secured himself a suit that had been tailored for Sean but not collected, and bluffed his way past reception at EON Productions.  Once in front of Harry Saltzman, he claimed to have an extensive filmography, compiled primarily in Italy – not verifiable in the pre-internet era.  His sheer chutzpah won over director Peter Hunt (promoted this time from editor), and even when George levelled, privately, with Peter that he had invented his experience, his performance in front of Saltzman had made a believer of Hunt.

That said, Lazenby still undertook four months of screen tests, with Hunt shooting far more footage of him to land him the role than he ever did once George had secured it.  With this, and ongoing work with an elocution coach to downplay the Australian accent, George would arrive on the set of the film as prepared as he could be.  At 29, at the time of casting (30 upon the film’s release), he remains the youngest man ever to play the role of James Bond.

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On Her Majesty’s Secret service begins with Bond in Portugal, his location unknown to MI6.  In the pre-title sequence he takes to the beach to save the life of a suicidal young lady.  Later, at his hotel, he encounters the same lady, Tracy, and saves her blushes when she loses heavily at baccarat.  After sleeping with Tracy, Bond is abducted and taken to Marc-Ange Draco, a crime boss, and Tracy’s father.  When offered a considerable dowry by Draco to marry his troubled daughter, Bond declines, but dangles the possibility of cooperation if Draco will assist him in finding Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

After a sequence where M relieves him of his pursuit of Blofeld, Bond continues to work, off the books; locating his nemesis at Piz Gloria in Switzerland.  With Blofeld in correspondence with the College of Arms in London, Bond goes to Switzerland – after spending some time with Tracy – posing as Sir Hilary Bray, a specialist from the college, there to assess Blofeld’s claim of the ancestral right to the title of Count Balthazar de Bleuchamp.

Once at Piz Gloria, Bond finds Blofeld running an allergy clinic where, under the cover of treating a number of young and beautiful female allergy sufferers, he is working on a plan to blackmail the UK into confirming his title, lest he use these women to unleash germ warfare on the West (a timely plot the year after a major Foot and Mouth outbreak in Britain).  Bond works with Tracy and her father to prevent this plot, and to keep Tracy safe long enough to make good on his wish to marry her and leave the service.

When considering the best of the Bond films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS) simply scores more highly, across a range of categories than its competitors.  It is in the top handful of scores ever produced for the series, John Barry’s work mixing grandeur, whimsy, romance and, in places, unstoppable forward momentum.  This is accompanied by one of the final works recorded by the legendary Louis Armstrong, with ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ being both a beautiful song in its own right, but with extra poignancy lent by words with that sentiment being sung by a man in such poor health – someone close to the end.  It cannot be stressed enough that OHMSS has very few competitors in the music department.  We are blessed that the running order of the films put this one where it is in both time and series order, as so much would have been lost had John Barry been at any other stage of his career – the work would have remained excellent, but it may not have been… this.

With regard to visuals, this film is strongly in the argument for the best looking Bond film.  The gorgeous Piz Gloria location; long, attractively shot skiing sequences; beautiful, sun-kissed scenes in Portugal; along with the Lauterbrunnen night scenes in Switzerland, and the gorgeous, flower-laden wedding scenes at the end of the story, all leaves OHMSS looking, in places, like something David Lean would create: much less the production line at EON.

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Action in OHMSS cannot hope to match modern cinema – choreography has come a long way in the decades since – but it is fair to say that George Lazenby’s lively performance in the fight scenes represent the best we’ll see from the series until Dalton assumes the role, a full eighteen years later.  That the film puts so much effort into its set pieces – aside from the skiing, there are also ice-staged car chases and a climactic bobsleigh run – speaks to a series reinvigorated by a hungry, first time director: one who had been waiting years for his chance.  It is worth noting here that OHMSS sees the first contribution to the series of John Glen.  Glen would act as second-unit director and editor (the latter being the role in which director Hunt had made his name).  Glen shot the thrilling bobsleigh run that represents the final showdown between Bond and Blofeld, and he is responsible for the kinetic, quick cutting, that made the fight scenes in this film so unique within the series canon.  Glen would go on to direct five consecutive Bond films in the 1980s, from For Your Eyes Only, through to Licence to Kill (his preferred of those, and a personal favourite).

The supporting cast is impressive.  Ernst Stavro Blofeld is played by Telly Savalas – later to be immortalised as Theo Kojak.  As a slightly controversial personal opinion, none of the big screen incarnations of Blofeld have satisfied fully, when compared to the early teases of the sinister, calm, European figure.  That said, Savalas is the only version to elicit the feeling that he is a visceral threat.  His Blofeld is a gangster reaching for respectability, and those who surround Piz Gloria, uninvited, are dispatched with thuggish efficiency.  On Blofeld’s team we have Irma Bunt, portrayed by Ilse Steppat (sadly to pass away four days after the film’s 18th December 1969 premiere).  Whilst not the malevolent presence of a Rosa Klebb, Bunt controls the Angels of Death with ruthless discipline, such that when Bond is caught by Bunt being where he shouldn’t be, the audience is genuinely fearful for his fate.

On Bond’s team we have the gold standard of Bond girls.  Diana Rigg as Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (Tracy) has one of the hardest jobs in cinema – convincing audiences that Bond would give up his job for her.  As a man who has proven repeatedly, at this point in his cinematic history, to be able to have any woman he desires, Bond will require a particularly special woman to entice him away from this life.  There are arguments to be made for other women in the series: Vesper captured Bond’s heart; Pussy Galore captured the screen and audiences.  The mix of a full, distinctive personality, complete with flaws, temper, hidden pain (something developed, heartbreakingly, in the book), bravery, and kindness makes Tracy the most fully realised female character in the series’ history.  That she is Bond’s first cinematic love – and only once ever approached, in execution, in that regard (by Vesper) – makes this entirely appropriate.

Her father, Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti – probably best known to audiences for his role in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West) sits alongside the very best allies of the series – in particular Ali Kerim Bey in From Russia with Love, and Milos Colombo in For Your Eyes Only.  This is a strong entry for Bond allies, with some of the best scenes Bond will share with M in the entire series.  Bond threatening to resign if he cannot continue to pursue Blofeld – then, later, arguing that the department owes a debt to Tracy that demands they mount a rescue, after she is captured by SPECTRE – with both scenes matched only by a handful in the rest of the series (Dr No, Moonraker, Goldeneye, and Casino Royale being those that spring immediately to mind).  In a film with refreshingly few gadgets, and a greater emphasis on Bond’s resourcefulness, it is appropriate that Bond has strong allies on which to call.

So, how does Lazenby do?  It has long been said, by many fans, that this film would be perfect had Sean Connery played Bond.  On the contrary, the Connery of 1969 would likely have given the same compromised performances he had taken to giving in his later efforts.  Additionally, despite the book being set later in Bond’s career, a plot where Bond neglects his duties in order to satisfy his libido – with the character sleeping with some, if not all, of the female patients – is very suited to a younger Bond.  For all of his limitations, Lazenby was very good, in addition, at playing the vulnerable elements of a Bond falling in love, and essaying fear when on the run from Blofeld’s goons in the scenes where he re-teams with Tracy, later in the film.

Where Lazenby is weaker is in the lighter, more humorous scenes, with his delivery being a little over-enthusiastic on occasion.  Overall however, George provides a promising, human performance, arriving for shooting in better shape than Connery had been for some years, and approaching action sequences with enthusiasm.  The natural talent displayed here – on debut, it must be remembered – leaves the world wondering how he might have developed through further entries.  In summary, he is a good fit for this story, and this character arc for James Bond.  That he was, reportedly, an unpopular, diva-like presence on set, who quit the role before the film’s release – turning up to the premiere with long hair and a beard – remains a great shame.

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If the comparatively poor performance of this film has been blamed on George Lazenby, then it must be acknowledged that there may have been some other factors at play.  With its release 13 days before the end of the 1960s, OHMSS is a Christmas film.  It is also a film, however, where the leading man is left desolate over the brutal murder – in the final moments of the story – of the leading lady.  Coupled with the fact that the new James Bond was already the ex-James Bond by the time of release, this meant that it would always be an one-off oddity, and one with a downbeat ending at that.  It is not difficult to imagine audiences leaving in a state of total confusion, as they went in expecting Goldfinger, and left wondering why they would recommend to friends a film starring someone who had already quit, and a piece of work that may well have drawn them to tears.  On that basis, it may be fair to argue that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was decades ahead of its time: similar attempts to darken the palette with Timothy Dalton in the 1980s was met, at the time, with mixed reactions, and it took until the Daniel Craig-era for audiences to be ready to accept greater shades of darkness in their Bond adventures.

Many fans of OHMSS have argued that we’d have got a better film next time out had an engaged, youthful George Lazenby made himself available to appear in Diamonds Are Forever.  As that film has faults that go far beyond a misanthropic lead performance, this is far from certain.  What is far clearer, is that the series lost a major asset here by letting Peter Hunt go after this one directorial effort (with Hunt not working on the series in any capacity going forward).  From now on, and far more during the Roger Moore-era, James Bond would cease to lead cinematic trends, and fall into the trap of attempting to follow the inclinations of the day.  As for Lazenby: a few years later, he would sit down on camera and tell his story.  Next time out, we shall leap forward a few decades, briefly, in order to take a look at this.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Becoming Bond (2017).

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