CINEMA CLASSICS: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Joe downs a dry Martini and revisits the franchise’s black sheep, as George Lazenby steps into 007′s shoes for his one and only appearance as James Bond.

Who made it?: Peter R. Hunt (Director), Richard Maibaum (Writer), Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman (Producers), EON Productions.

Who’s in it?: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewellyn.

Tagline: “Far up! Far out! Far more! James Bond 007.”

IMDb rating: 6.8/10.

On the surface, James Bond was still going strong by the time You Only Live Twice hit our screens in the summer of 1967. Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) had grossed well over the hundred million dollar mark, and Bond’s fifth outing only added to the franchise’s box office success. Not only that, Sean Connery now looked utterly confident and assured as Bond, further asserting his status as an icon of the decade. Behind the scenes, though, tensions had reached boiling point, as relations between the films’ major players began to tear at the seams.

The story goes that money-conscious Connery felt taken for a ride by Bond producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and, in particular, Harry Saltzman. As their working relationship began to break down, the friendship duly followed. Things reportedly got so bad that Connery refused to work in the presence of his employer and former friend, Saltzman. The Scotsman soon revoked his contract with Eon; a contract which would have seen Connery don the famous tuxedo one last time (after the monstrosity that is 1971′s Diamonds Are Forever, one wishes he had stuck by his convictions).

And so for the second time, the hunt was on to find James Bond. Where does one turn when recasting the acting role of the decade? Rather then look to the stars (the most famous name bandied around was Michael Caine), the producers turned instead to a man best known for adverting Turkish Delights. Native Aussie George Lazenby certainly looked the part; the former model was both good-looking and athletic. However, problems arose in the acting department, as the inexperienced Lazenby struggled to capture the balance of charisma and danger stamped on the role by his predecessor. Appointed the favourite son of a foreign land, the man from Down Under also found the British accent quite a struggle. Many of the lines in the film are very obviously dubbed, with Lazenby’s mouth appearing not to move. Then again, dubbing was common practice in the early Bond films. Golden girl Shirley Eaton’s voice was deemed too cockney for Goldfinger, and the titled character played by Gert Fröbe was dubbed for sounding too German. All in all though, Lazenby’s performance in OHMSS is rather wooden and forced. We get the sense that the Bond he is aspiring to be is always just out of reach. However, I have always felt that OHMSS is a role that Connery could never have played, and for that, Lazenby deserves credit. In his own way, he is able to reveal an emotional side to Bond never seen before, and more in tune with the novel’s romantic theme.

His last five missions had taken Bond to Jamaica, Eastern Europe, Miami, the Bahamas, Japan and many more exotic destinations. What sets OHMSS apart from the rest is its snow-caped Swiss Alps setting. Placing Bond in this snowy setting gives the film a unique aesthetic. Its daring ski stunts and thrilling chases were emulated in later Bond films such as The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and The World Is Not Enough (1999). Christopher Nolan’s homage to Blofeld’s snow fort in his 2010 mind-bender Inception exhibits the icon status the film has achieved in the Bond canon.

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OHMSS sees Bond compelled to quash yet another of Blofeld’s world domination schemes. 007 discovers that his arch nemesis may be holed up in a mountaintop hideout, under the guise of an allergies research centre. Our hero also suspects Blofeld of undergoing dramatic plastic surgery in order to seclude his evil identity. Bond attains this top-secret information from a criminal rival of Blofeld’s called Draco, who just so happens to have a beautiful daughter. Draco feels his beloved daughter Tracy “needs a man to dominate her,” and believes Bond to be the ideal candidate for the job. In a shift away from the norms of the series, James and Tracy in fact begin a whirlwind romance, and it appears Bond may actually have something on his mind other than sex! Their relationship is condensed into a montage of picturesque encounters, which would be vomit-inducingly cheesy if the scene weren’t accompanied by Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World.”

One of the best Bond themes of all is perfectly complemented by another, in the form of John Barry’s score. If “We Have All the Time in the World” encompasses the romance of the film, then Barry’s theme captures its violence and danger. The film strikes a balance between a love story, breathtaking action set-pieces, gritty violence, and comedy. Upon infiltrating Blofeld’s “health facility” only to find it is inhabited exclusively by beautiful women, Bond’s innuendo goes into overdrive. In fact, the narrative becomes so comical that we begin to suspect OHMSS of being a Bond satire. Bond parodying Bond is something embraced wholeheartedly in the Moore and Brosnan years to come, but in my opinion, OHMSS sets the standard. Bond imitating a posh intellectual called “Sir Hilly,” Blofield’s makeover leaving him ear-lobe-less, the use of brainwashing techniques to cure a chicken-phobia; the film is laugh-out-loud funny at times. In the film’s opening, Lazenby’s “this never happened to the other fella” line to camera immediately broadcasts the film’s tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. Nevertheless, OHMSS still delivers fully on the tried and tested Bond formula.

So what if George Lazenby couldn’t act? He is still a very physical Bond in this action-packed film. His performance doesn’t always convey the emotional depth needed, but there are glimmers of something really great, that perhaps could have been developed over the course of a few films. And if George isn’t your cup of tea, Telly Savalas more than fills the void. For my money, Savalas’ Blofeld fights it out with Donald Pleasance’s iconic interpretation for the ultimate mastermind crown. With his monotone voice, intense stare and devilish grin, Telly truly steals the show.

A dip of over fifty million at the box office suggests that cinemagoers did not initially take to the franchise’s change of direction. But what makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a classic is that it does something different and interesting with a franchise that has been known to run out of ideas. As Casino Royale would do thirty-nine years later, it shows Bond at his most vulnerable – in love. It’s difficult to discuss the film without at least mentioning its ending. Although I’m not one for spoilers, so lets just say that it is George Lazenby’s finest hour, and is truly heartbreaking.

Best Scene

There are two scenes that stand-out. Firstly, at the ice rink where a visibly vulnerable and shaken Bond is being hunted down by Blofeld’s henchmen, only to be rescued by Tracy. And secondly, the film’s climax, where Lazenby claims he shed a tear on the first take, which was left on the cutting room floor. Tears or no tears, it’s a moving moment. Watch the scene here.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The John Barry score for this movie was the first in the EON Production series to extensively use synthesizers and electric guitars.
  • For the opening sequence, railway sleepers (railroad ties) were buried under the sand to allow Bond’s Aston Martin to drive on the beach.
  • A double was used for Diana Rigg at the ice rink as the actress did not know how to skate.
  • The stock car rink had to be specially constructed by flooding a flat field with water and then freezing it.
  • Novelist Simon Raven was brought in to polish the dialogue, notably the exchanges between Tracy and Blofeld.
  • This was the longest Bond film, at 140 minutes, until the appearance of Casino Royale in 2006 which runs four minutes longer.
  • The only James Bond film which is both entirely set and entirely filmed in Europe.
  • First time M’s home (called Quarterdeck in this movie) is seen in a James Bond movie in the series. Casino Royale was the second. M’s home is also seen in the unofficial Casino Royale (1967).

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