On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

James Bond film #06 (George Lazenby Bond)

Film #23: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

All right. Back to Bond. Mostly, anyway -1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service marks the first time in the Eon Productions series that Mr. Bond is played by someone other than Sean Connery. This time around, newcomer George Lazenby fills the role for the longest Bond film that isn’t Casino Royale. It wasn’t until midway through production that Lazenby decided he’d only play Bond once, having been convinced by his agent that 007 would become irrelevant in the 70s. The film’s length and the fact that it features an isolated Bond actor puts it in a unique position amidst the Bond canon, and at times the film seems uncomfortable with itself as it struggles with the new Bond incarnation.

There’s some definite confusion as to how this new Bond should be. Should we expect him to act like Connery, carrying on all the things that we’ve grown to love about the character over the past 5 movies? Or should he boldly strike out into new territory, carving his own path and giving us a new interpretation of the character? The opening segment seems muddled in its decision; Bond is offputtingly introduced with extreme close-ups as he tracks an uninteresting mysterious woman who walks into the ocean. The dark pre-dawn lighting and the dull roar of the waves present a darker and less familiar side to Bond; luckily, a fight scene erupts after Bond saves the damsel in (self-)distress, and some confidence is restored. The fight scene is wholly unlike those in Connery films. Connery fight scenes were often very stagey. He and his foe would wrestle around, use props to bash each other over the head with, and the Bond theme would relentlessly score the whole ordeal. It wasn’t entirely unrealistic, but it seemed more like Bond and his enemy were two random (if athletic) dudes who suddenly found themselves in the middle of a disagreement. Lazenby, on the other hand, just kicks ass. He deals in jabs and uppercuts, not judo chops. His punches and kicks aren’t made light by any theme music – instead, enhanced sound effects accompany every blow. Way more cuts and zooms are used during the fight scenes, giving them a more modern feel compared to the long takes that followed Connery. It’s not necessarily better, but it does provoke more excitement, and it does make the stakes seem more serious.

"This never happened to the other fellow," he says. Cheeky bastard.

Perhaps producers Broccoli and Saltzman were worried that this alteration would be too alienating, because in other parts of the film they almost shoehorn Bond tropes into Lazenby’s hands. The credit sequence – with an instrumental theme instead of a title-referencing lyrical song as we’ve come to expect – actually contains clips from the previous films, as though they were worried the audience had forgotten that they were watching a 007 film. The scene where Bond almost resigns from MI6 is particularly strange, as he goes through items from previous films, packing them away with heavy sighs of longing. But it doesn’t seem right that he’s experiencing this nostalgia. It’s a man reminiscing about somebody else’s adventures, and no amount of musical callbacks is going to make that seem kosher.

In another abrupt change for the character, Bond actually falls in love with Teresa Draco (Diana Rigg), that mysterious woman from the beach, and marries her. It’s a sincere love, too, not a sham marriage done for a mission like in You Only Live Twice. In fact, there’s a whole lengthy sequence devoted to Bond falling in love with this woman. As Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All The Time In The World” starts to play over the romantic montage, the viewer may first be reminded of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and then have to remind his- or herself that no, this is a Bond movie, and James is just being uncharacteristically sweet. In the scenes with Teresa, Bond finally becomes the James that Miss Moneypenny probably dreams of.

Also, however, Playboy.

After the movie spends so much time with Bond, Teresa, and her father Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), he leaves them to go confront Blofeld, who is unfortunately played by a different actor than Donald Pleasance, one Telly Savalas. Gone is the scar, but the bald dome remains, and it’s easy to see why they made the talent swap – this Blofeld is much more physically active than Pleasance was in You Only Live Twice, and he probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it. But Savalas is much less sinister than his predecessor, and although the switch was practical, it seems a shame that such an important character in the series was fated to be played by a revolving selection of actors. It definitely takes away from Blofeld’s legacy, though that legacy is somehow restored through Dr. Evil’s satiric rendition in the Austin Powers films.

The second half of the film, with Bond infiltrating SPECTRE, seems much more like classical Bond. The tender side he exposed with Teresa disappears as he sleeps around with multiple “Angels of Death” that Blofeld is brainwashing in their sleep (another weird and dark aspect to this movie). By time Draco’s forces raid SPECTRE’s ice fortress, the film has completely returned to form. Bad guys throw themselves from the tops of buildings, the theme music plays perpetually, and the action is upped exponentially. You finally get that Bond feel when it comes to a freaking bobsled battle between Bond and Blofeld, which is one of the most awesome Bond chase / fight scenes yet.

Dude, you can't use a grenade in a bobsled battle. Come on, now.

But look at the absurdity of that situation. It’s two grown-ass men battling each other from bobsleds (which, of course, just happen to be at the ready for Blofeld’s escape and Bond’s pursuit). The satisfaction experienced during this sequence shows that Bond excels in the audacious. When its action scenes are over-the-top and ridiculous, it’s truly a good time. When it tries to be more serious, more grounded, and above all, more tender, things just seem out of place and, frankly, somewhat boring.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features George Lazenby, the forgotten Bond, and the film itself is equally immemorable. With its meandering plot and weird hypnosis brainwashing stuff, it sometimes seems a chore to watch. Lazenby is strapping and attractive, but he never really feels like James Bond – more like a kid trying to pretend-play the secret agent spy. When it’s dealing in action, OHMSS is an excellent film; unfortunately, it’s bogged down by too much else.

Final rating: 6/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • Q’s shortest scene yet? Probably.
  • Bond was at his most boring during his lectures to the Angels of Death, as part of his infiltration. Of course, that doesn’t seem to keep these beautiful women (of every race) from falling head over heels for him.
  • Not only are Blofeld and Bond played by different characters, Blofeld apparently doesn’t recognize Bond at all when he first shows up in disguise. The whole situation is confusing and stupid.
  • Moneypenny has to win some kind of award for “Most walked-all-over character in cinematic history”.
  • Bond’s still rocking a hat, even if it’s only as part of a disguise.
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One response

  1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) | The Analytic Critic

    June 30, 2014 at 6:01 am

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