I’ve gone back and forth on this film across the years. On occasion I have watched it and thought it was a gripping and romantic spy thriller full of late 1960’s atmosphere and styling and then coming back to it some time later I have found it to be a corny, stilted and outdated misstep that, with its forced one liners and innuendos, often feels more akin to the Carry On films than the Bond Movies. Watching it now it is perhaps no great surprise then to find that it is all of these things. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is an interesting curio that started to take this series in a different direction only, for good or for bad, for everything to snap back to normal two years later with the more prosaic Diamonds are Forever.
From the start of this film you can see the desire to present George Lazenby as a new man doing something different in a movie that was designed to feel unchanged and similar to the five 007 movies that had come before it. I mean right from the start too. We get the famous gun barrel logo sequence but Lazenby drops to his knee before shooting his Walther, something that Connery or no actor since has done; the same but different.
The action then starts with M, Q, Moneypenny and the Aston Martin all present and correct (this time the car is a DBS not a DB5 but is still a thing of beauty). Bond then appears, his face not shown, he stops a woman from drowning herself in the sea, beats up some assailants (in a pretty well choreographed fight), sees aforementioned lady nick his motor (if only to drive up the beach to her own vehicle) before the camera catches him properly for the delivery of the second most iconic line from the film; ‘This never happened to the other fella.’ Boom, cut to the one of the best Bond opening credits sequences and that amazing music by John Barry. He’s new but we are back.
Shorty after we get a scene where Bond is going through souvenirs from previous missions including Honey Ryder’s knife belt from Dr. No and Red Grant’s watch from From Russia with Love. There is no logical reason as to why he would have these items in his possession but it does send the message that he is both this new fella and that other old fella.
We will forever wonder how Lazenby would have developed in the role had he not been swept up by the peace loving nature of the coming 70s, decided he didn’t want to play such a violent role anymore and quit. As it is he is forever remembered as the romantic one as this is the film where Bond gets married.
It is interesting, but perhaps no surprise, that having gone to such pains to present their new Bond in this film the producers were keen not to have to do this again, offering a huge amount of money and a two picture deal on other projects to get Connery back for the next one.
This notion of James Bond being some great tender hearted figure in this film is interesting. It is true that he gets hitched having genuinely fallen for Contessa Tracy di Vicenzo but their’s is a slightly problematic relationship. On their first meeting she has been about to commit suicide and while Jack and Rose met under similar circumstances, this is not the most stable start to a love affair. She is clearly vulnerable and later Bond himself says that she needs a psychiatrist. Of course he has already slept with her by this stage as well as slapping her round the face because he thinks she has lied to him (which for the record she didn’t). This is your hero ladies and gentlemen. None of this shows him in a good light or suggests they will enjoy a loving and lasting marriage – I don’t care what decade it was.
It isn’t only Bond who hits her either; she is punched out by her own father later, who in the worst show of patriarchal dominance possible, seems to think this is the best way to keep her safe. Of course this is the same guy who in response to Bonds suggestion that she needed the help of professional mental health experts, says that all she needed was a man to dominate her. No wonder she is struggling with everything if this was her upbringing.
Still, all of this is apparently forgotten following a love montage as she and James walk around parks and pick flowers to the strains of Louis Armstrong singing We Have All the Time in the World. It’s a great song but it has to work really hard to make you believe in their relationship. Especially as he beds at least one other woman between this point and their nuptials. Yeah, he’s a real Romeo.
Tracy herself is actually quite a strong character and Diana Rigg’s performance is brilliant. You can see why Bond is drawn to her enigmatic fortitude. Tracy’s greatest moment comes near the end where she beats up a random henchman who is attacking her, and it’s not because she has cool martial arts skills but because she is determined, resourceful, brave and presumably sick of being pushed around.
For me the tragedy of the famous ending (SPOILER WARNING) is because a bright and shining human has been destroyed not because it is the end of a beautiful relationship. Despite everything you still feel Bond’s loss as the woman he has married only moments earlier gets shot in the head, though. It is an incredibly downbeat moment to end the film on but the writers were stuck with it as it is the biggest moment from the book (this is back when Bond films were still adapted from books) and to cut it would have been cowardly. I’m not sure if they didn’t know how to handle it or whether they knew exactly how to handle it but it is a shocking denouement that jars with everything that has come before. They could have carried it over to the next movie but since Lazenby bailed it is just as well they didn’t. I don’t think Connery could have done justice to Bond’s words to the police officer who comes over to the bullet peppered car to see if everything is alright. This, of course, is the most iconic line from the film as he hugs her saying ‘It’s alright, she’s having a rest. There’s no hurry you see, we have all the time in the world.’ Roll credits. It’s properly heart breaking. Damn you Blofeld.
This is one of eight films to feature Blofeld, nine if you include Never Say Never Again which we Bond purists rarely do, and up until Christophe Waltz’s upcoming return in No Time To Die he has never been played by the same actor. Here it is Telly Savalas doing the honours and he is worlds away from the others, especially Donald Pleasance who he immediately followed. Savalas is quite the action man here, playing Blofeld less like Davros and more like a 1969 Vin Diesel, all bald head, wide shoulders and chasing down snowy hills on skis and bobsleighs.
As for George Lazenby, he’s okay. I could have stood to have seen him do a couple more. He is regularly referred to as the Englishman but he is so obviously not. The only actor to play Bond from outside of the British Isles (only two of the official film Bonds have actually been English) his Australian twang is clumsily and only sporadically hidden behind round vowels and cut glass elocution. He manages the charm though, hitting women notwithstanding, along with the dryly polite responses to those that wish him harm.
So as stated then, there is good stuff here and bad. It’s not one of the strongest Bonds but unlike it’s lead actor, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service sticks with it and understands the legacy and potential of what it is a part of.