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Should I Watch..? On Her Majesty's Secret Service
What's the big deal?
On Her Majesty's Secret Service is an action spy thriller film released in 1969 and is the sixth film in the James Bond series. It was the first time that Bond would be played by a new actor after Sean Connery's refusal after You Only Live Twice (1). Australian actor and model George Lazenby was plucked from relative obscurity to play 007 but off-screen rumours and tensions with the cast and crew meant that Lazenby would only ever play Bond in one film. The movie sees Bond pursue Blofeld to his mountain retreat in the Swiss Alps and the film retains much more of the source material than recent Bond films had done. Despite still being one of the most successful films of the year, the film has divided opinion with some praising the return to reality and others critical of Lazenby's performance.
What's it about?
Two years on from the events in Japan and British secret agent James Bond has been pursuing the former head of international crime syndicate SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but without success. After saving a woman from drowning at the beach, Bond is introduced to the head of European crime syndicate the Unione Corse - Marc-Ange Draco - who promises Bond to repay his kindness for saving the life of his daughter, Tracy. With MI6 prepared to end the hunt for Blofeld, Bond senses a chance to use Draco's connections. Agreeing to keep seeing Tracy, Bond is informed of a mountain complex in Piz Gloria where Blofeld apparently stays.
Bond immediately heads off to investigate and discovers that Blofeld is in contact with genealogist Sir Hilary Bray. Posing as Bray, Bond infiltrates Blofeld's lair and uncovers a plot to unleash bacteriological agents across the world via twelve young women who have undergone hypnotic suggestion. Blofeld's demands are simple - an international amnesty for his past crimes and the title of Count De Bleuchamp which Blofeld believes is rightfully his. But can Bond concentrate on the mission as his attraction to Tracy puts both of them in danger?
Contessa Teresa "Tracy" di Vicenzo
Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Sir Hilary Bray
Peter R. Hunt
Richard Maibaum *
Release Date (UK)
18th December, 1969
Action, Spy, Thriller
What's to like?
After all the nonsense seen in stuff like Thunderball (2) and You Only Live Twice, it feels good to have a Bond film that doesn't rely on gadgets and elaborate action sequences. This is a film that harks back to the very early days of Dr No (3) and From Russia With Love (4) and it's actually a pretty decent thriller. Yes, there are some enormous plot holes - hypnotism is never going to cure an allergy, for example - but you're rarely bored, despite the film's length. If anything, it feels brave for the film to follow the novels so closely and especially considering the vast amounts of money the more comic-book style movies made.
Rigg's performance as Tracy finally gives us our first Bond girl who is more than just a quick conquest for 007 - she contributes something to the movie besides eye candy and in those days, that was also a brave decision. But for me, the bravest decision of all was the ending which I won't talk about too much for fear of spoiling. Even today, it feels unique in the Bond series and challenges the previously accepted idea that Bond was unflappable. The film is also a technical achievement, which is no surprise. When the action does come, especially during the finale, it is exciting and well-shot and the skiing scenes (another first for the series) are wonderful to watch, as Bond darts in and out of machine-gun fire against some stunning backdrops.
- Before the 29-year old Lazenby accepted the part, the producers offered the role of Bond to a 22-year old Timothy Dalton, who declined. Dalton would be 40 when he finally snagged the role in The Living Daylights (5).
- This is the only Bond film in the whole series which is both set and filmed entirely in Europe.
- In the book, Blofeld is described as having long silvery-white hair, a hooked nose, a wrinkled forehead, a slender body, no earlobes and one nostril eaten away by tertiary syphilis. Savalas has none of these features - in fact, he doesn't even have a European accent...
What's not to like?
For me, the movie makes history for not just one bad miscasting but two. Yes, Lazenby lacks the effortless cool and charisma of Connery but just as bad is Savalas who is a weak imitation the chilling menace that Donald Pleasance brought to the role in You Only Live Twice. The movie has little in the way of defining moments and not much you remember after the film has finished (besides the ending). There's no Honey Ryder emerging from the sea or Oddjob throwing his hat or Little Nellie blowing up SPECTRE's private airforce. On Her Majesty's Secret Service settles for being a competent entry in the series instead of a spectacular one, meaning that Lazenby's tenure never had a chance.
The other aspect I disliked was the sense that Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were almost trying to sabotage Lazenby from the beginning, as if to provoke Connery into accepting the role again in Diamonds Are Forever (6) - a tactic which ultimately worked. Compare the earlier film posters to the one above with Lazenby in silhouette and text scribbled over his face. Don't believe me - how about swapping Connery's sun-soaked Caribbean adventures with the girls in bikinis for a cold snow-covered mountain and girls wrapped up in cosy thermals? The lack of a proper theme tune that mentions the movie like the four previous movies had? It doesn't feel natural and organic - the movie feels forced through against its will, as though Lazenby wanted to take the series down a different path but wasn't allowed to.
Should I watch it?
On Her Majesty's Secret Service is certainly one of the more interesting Bond films as it's very different from what was fast becoming the norm for the series by then. It's not as bad as many have claimed and nor is it the worst in the series. But after the wild excesses and sheer fun of Connery's tenure, it does feel a touch disappointing.
Great For: fans of the Bond novels, sparking pub debates, winter holidays
Not So Great For: Lazenby's long-term career, action fans
What else should I watch?
Everyone will have their own favourite Bond actor and I don't doubt that Lazenby will have his fans - I would have liked to see him given a bit more freedom in a second film but we'll never know. Connery's tenure wouldn't officially end until after the next film Diamonds Are Forever when he returned for a sky-high fee but his finest hour will always be Goldfinger (7), the Bond to beat them all.
Of course, Roger Moore would soon take over and introduce a more comedic element to the series. But I reckon his best was The Spy Who Loved Me (8) which had gags, gadgets, girls and a certain white Lotus. Dalton's two films would be rough-and-tumble affairs, typified by the action-heavy Licence To Kill (9) which attempts to be little more than a straight-up shooter of a film - Die Hard (10) in a tuxedo, if you will. Pierce Brosnan's GoldenEye (11) is a great blend of action, technology and intrigue with enough gags to break the tension. And while Daniel Craig's tenure continues for the foreseeable future, he'll have to seriously go some to be better than the excellent Skyfall (12).