For decades, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (hereafter OHMSS), the sixth 007 film and the first without Sean Connery, was treated as the red-headed stepchild of the series. Gradually, over the years, its reputation has increased, until it’s now considered one of the best of all Bond films. I think it’s THE best...and here are some of my reasons why.
It’s made, and set, in the 60s, where Bond belongs
As much as I love parts of later Bond films (or all, in some cases - for example, 2006's Casino Royale), to me, Bond belongs in the 1960s. Not only was that decade the height of the Bond craze (which in turn spawned the spy craze in movies, TV and comics), but it's a time that just feels right for the character. Bond (especially in the movies) is a creature of excess, and the Bond films, with their emphasis on hedonism, fashion and globe-hopping, fit right into that 60s aesthetic. OHMSS came out in 1969, at the apex of the decade, and acts as a capper to a magical six film run. Things would never quite be the same for 007 again.
Director Peter Hunt
Hunt was the editor for the first several Bond films. His quick cutting style during the many action scenes in films like From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) set the standard for action film editing for years to come. He finally got his chance to direct with OHMSS, and he didn’t disappoint. He only directed this one film in the series, but it’s a wonderful job. It's easily one of the most lushly framed, designed and photographed of the series, with a very carefully chosen color scheme, as well as style to burn. He understandably excels at the action scenes, which are among the best in a series notable for them. He also helps to make this the most romantic of all Bond films.
The clever "breaking the fourth wall" opening
Nearly all Bond films open with a spectacular action sequence. Here we get some great action (the terrific fistfight on the beach), but what we see has a connection to what comes later in the story. Director Hunt deliberately keeps new Bond George Lazenby’s face obscured or out of focus for the first several minutes, until the precise moment to reveal him comes. Bond, having been nearly run off the road by her, sees Countess Teresa "Tracy” Di Vicenzo try to kill herself by walking into the sea. Despite his cold exterior, Bond always has a weakness for the proverbial “bird with a wing down,” and can’t resist intervening to save Tracy’s life. He brings her back to shore, and we finally get the close-up on Lazenby’s face. "Good morning. My name's Bond. James Bond." Then some goons show up and Bond knocks seven bells out of them, only to see Tracy run to her car and drive off. Lazenby gives a sly grin, cheerfully says, “This never happened to the other feller” and cheekily looks directly into the camera. It's a witty and fun wink at the audience.
Bond does actual spying in this movie!
Usually, in the films, 007 just nonchalantly walks into the casino or lair of the main baddie and announces “I’m Bond. James Bond.” He’s basically poking the villain with a stick to see how he'll respond. Generally speaking, no real spying takes place at all. Not so in OHMSS. Here, Bond actually goes undercover in Blofeld’s mountaintop headquarters for a lengthy period of time, as Sir Hillary Bray, the geneology expert. For much of the middle third of the film, Bond stays in character (or tries to, when he’s not straying with some of the bored young ladies there).
There’s also the supremely suspenseful early scene where Bond sneaks into the lawyer Gumboldt’s office, in order to copy some crucial documents he’ll need for his later undercover work. John Barry’s score slowly cranks up the tension as we cut back and forth between Bond, painstakingly cracking the combination to the safe, and Gumboldt making his return to the office. The scene ends on a lighthearted note as a successful Bond passes Gumboldt in the hallway and heads out the door whilst checking out the Playboy centerfold he found stashed in the lawyer’s office.
To fans of The Avengers, the classic British TV series, deep-voiced, sultry Diana Rigg needs no introduction. Like Honor Blackman before her, Rigg departed the long-running cult show only to appear in a Bond film. Not only did she become a Bond girl, she became THE Bond girl, the one who manages to get the ultimate playboy 007 to abandon his bed-hopping ways in exchange for matrimony. Besides being beautiful, Rigg was also an accomplished actress - rare for a Bond girl. While her thespic skills are by no means taxed as Tracy, she brings a pathos and vulnerability to the part, as well as the expected sophistication, that most actresses hired to play Bond girls, for all their allure, simply can’t match. We are also treated to a bevy of beauties in smaller parts in OHMSS, including Angela Scoular, Catherine Schell, Julie Ege and Avengers girl-to-be Joanna Lumley.
Piz Gloria and other European locations
Having exotic foreign locales is business as usual for many Bond films. But several movies are set in the U.S., and these nearly always turn out to be my least favorites. As an American, I don’t want to see the suave British secret agent running around such prosaic sites as Las Vegas, Silicon Valley or Kentucky. I want foreign glamor, dammit, and OHMSS offers that in spades. Besides having lots of luscious locations in London, Portugal and Switzerland, it also has an ace in the hole in the form of Piz Gloria, the amazing true-life hotel/restaurant on the top of Mount Schilthorn that becomes Blofeld’s clinic and base, the principal location for most of the movie. It’s truly a remarkable place, clinging precariously to an icy cliff, and still can be visited today. All these European locations gives OHMSS a sleek, classy feel.
Telly Savalas as Blofeld
Donald Pleasance, as good as he is in so many other films, made a somewhat underwhelming Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967). Despite being an American, Savalas is a much better fit as Blofeld. Not only is he younger and more of a physical threat to Bond, but he brings a cool, detached elegance to the part that fits well with the character. He makes for an excellent main villain, refusing to camp it up like Pleasance, and as a result, comes off as a serious threat, a force to be reckoned with throughout the film. I also love the way Savalas uses cigarettes in this film. He holds them in a unique, very stylish way. It’s a small thing, but it seems deliberate and adds a nice, Continental flourish to his character.
Fantastic, bone-crushing action scenes
At 140 minutes, OHMSS was the longest 007 film until Casino Royale (which runs 4 minutes longer), and there are long stretches focusing on the plot and characters with no “action” to speak of. But when it comes, boy, is it worth the wait. Including the opening fracas on the beach, we also have two additional fights before settling into the story proper. Then comes the lengthy infiltration of Blofeld’s clinic at Piz Gloria, ending in Bond’s capture and gripping escape from the cable car engine room where he's been imprisoned. Then we get the first, and most exhilarating, ski chase sequence in the Bond series, cued to John Barry’s sweeping score. This culminates in some more excellent fisticuffs down in the village below, then a great car chase on an ice rink race track. Then there’s the unauthorized assault on Blofeld’s lair to rescue Tracy at the film’s climax. Bond and Tracy’s father, gangster Marc Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), lead the attack, and basically blow Piz Gloria, and Blofeld’s evil plans, to hell and gone. Blofeld escapes, pursued by Bond, and we get the last big action setpiece of the film, the bobsled chase and fight. No CGI here folks, this is all the real deal, real stuntmen risking their necks for the sake of movie making. Fabulous stuff.
John Barry's most memorable score
Bond fans rarely agree on anything, but this is one point where many would likely concur. John Barry, composer of numerous wonderful Bond soundtracks, excelled himself on OHMSS. The score is full of grand, stirring themes, from the terrific opening instrumental to the aforementioned ski chase and intense Gumboldt’s office break-in music, to the lush and romantic love theme for Bond and Tracy, not to mention the playful tune that heralds the lovely ladies who are Blofeld’s patients. Barry also wrote the music for the Louis Armstrong song “We Have All the Time in the World,” which has since become a beloved standard. Barry’s music adds such richness and texture to the action onscreen; its impact on the final effect can’t be underestimated.
It has the most unique ending of any Bond film
Most Bond movies end on a playful, jokey note, but OHMSS ends tragically, as Tracy is shot just as the newlywed couple are driving off on their honeymoon. It’s a shocking way to end a big-screen entertainment, Bond tearfully holding his dead love’s head to his chest, as the credits crawl to silence for several seconds, before the inimitable Bond theme kicks in. This tragic ending gives OHMSS more emotional heft than any other Bond film (until, again, Casino Royale; the two films share much in common, including their high quality). We get a real sense of an emotional journey as well as a physical one, and that is yet another reason why this film is so special.
Here we come to the most controversial aspect of OHMSS. The usual litany from Bond fans is “OHMSS would be the best Bond film...if only Connery had played Bond.”
Listen, I’ll admit, no one is, or ever will be, a better Bond than Sean Connery. He just is Bond. No question. That said…by this point, Connery was so fed up with the role that I doubt he would have done such a rich script (for a Bond film) justice. You can sense his tiredness throughout You Only Live Twice. He was fed up with Bond and even if he had agreed to stay on for one more and do this film, would the results have been more than satisfactory? Personally, I doubt it.
All things considered, Lazenby does a terrific job. The youngest-ever Bond (29 at the time of filming), this was also his first real acting role, and he does remarkably well. He has a confident, cocksure quality right off the bat, and manages to hold his own with old pros like Rigg, Savalas and Bernard Lee. He’s easily the most physically intimidating of all the Bonds until Craig came on the scene, and positively dominates in the action scenes, throwing himself into the fights with powerhouse abandon. He carries himself well, moves nimbly and has the proper gravitas for the part. And he manages to convey real vulnerability and emotion at the end. I just don’t think Connery, as good as he was, would have been half as believable in this particular scene.
Had Lazenby stayed in the part (he was offered a seven picture deal by producers Albert "Cubby" Brocolli and Harry Saltzman, which he very foolishly turned down), who knows what sort of Bond he might have become. I think a very good, perhaps even a great one. He could have built upon the solid foundations established here and as he became more experienced, he would have likely matured into a fine actor. Instead, he misbehaved on set and pissed off the EON producers to such an extent that his career was basically over before it had begun. (Things turned out fine for Lazenby, who returned to his native Australia and built up a real estate empire that apparently made him far wealthier than either Connery or Moore). It’s a pity. I think fun but silly Roger Moore outings like Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1975) would have been drastically improved by the more serious tone Lazenby would have likely brought to them.
Some other noteworthy things about OHMSS:
* After a veritable gadget orgy in Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, we get a stripped-down, old-school action fest here. The only gadget featured in OHMSS is the bulky safe-cracker-cum-photocopier machine Bond uses in Gumboldt’s office. This means Bond has to rely on his wits and resourcefulness, rather than using a handy gadget to get out of sticky situations. It makes for a refreshing, back-to-basics change.
* We get to see Bond visit M at his stately manor (and see that even in his own home, M can’t escape being irritated by Bond’s extensive knowledge – in this case about lepidoptery).
* It's the one Bond film that can actually pass as a Christmas movie. It's set around the holidays, there's snow everywhere, and there's even a Christmas tree at the Piz Gloria clinic, Christmas presents for the ladies (OK, so they're a part of Blofeld's nefarious plans for poisoning the major nations' food crops, but still...) and a Christmas song (the execrable "Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown" by Nina, the one bad piece of music in the film). Keep this in mind the next time you plan your holiday movie viewing.
* While there are a few groan-worthy one liners, OHMSS is virtually quip-free. We’re talking serious spy-business, baby. There’s still lots of little, witty touches throughout (Draco to Bond, after Tracy angrily storms off: "She's happy to see you, I can tell." Bond: "You must give me the name of your occulist."). Despite the film’s unhappy ending, overall it’s one big load of fun.
* Related to the above, OHMSS has fun with some throwaway in-jokes. In one scene, a janitor whistles the theme to Goldfinger. We see Bond go through his desk and take out souvenirs from his previously filmed missions (Honey’s knife and belt from Dr. No, the watch from From Russia With Love, the tiny air-tank from Thunderball, etc.) And, of course, the “This never happened to the other feller” bit I mentioned earlier.
* It’s also perhaps the most faithfully adapted of all of Ian Fleming’s novels (which doubtless is one reason for it’s feeling like a more "meaty" film).
There's so much more to say about this film. I could write a book about it. In fact, someone has: The Making of 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', by Charles Helfenstein, which is expensive but an obvious labor of love, chock full of great and rarely-seen photos, production stills, conceptual art and posters.
I never tire of OHMSS, and watch it at least once every year or so. It's definitely one of my personal "Desert Island Discs," typifying everything I love about the James Bond films and 1960s filmmaking in general. For me, it will always sit at the top of the 007 heap.
DVD Note: Images taken from the Ultimate Edition DVD, as I wait with baited breath for the forthcoming Blu-Ray release.
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