00 Saturdays Week #11 – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Movie Review

“It’s all right.  It’s quite all right, really.  She’s having a rest.  We’ll be going on soon.  There’s no hurry, you see.  We have all the time in the world.” – James Bond

Welcome back to 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure.  This is our weekly walk through the Bond films.  We continue in this eleventh week with 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

And now we get to one of the most underrated films in not just the Bond series, but ANY series ever – the fantastic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Most of the deepest of Bond fans will have none of anyone who puts down this entry in the series for multiple reasons.  First, it’s one of the most shockingly surprising action movies of its era.  What Bond was before with Sean Connery, this one’s different.  It’s not just new Bond George Lazenby (who we’ll get to later) or the new director, Peter Hunt, but it is the first indication of how James Bond can evolve with the times.

Often, the second reason why some will dismiss this movie, much to the chagrin of the biggest of fans of the series, is that it is considered the oddball because George Lazenby starred in only one film in the series.  It’s almost thought of as not even important to consider because Lazenby didn’t return.  At least with the Timothy Dalton naysayers, he starred in two films and his replacement is not due to his films’ performances or the general feeling toward him being Bond after the incredibly popular Roger Moore, but it was because MGM/UA went into financial struggles and couldn’t make another for longer than expected.  I’ve always felt that this criminally underrated film was collectively forgotten just because Lazenby’s tenure was so short and, therefore, not worth watching because he wasn’t “good enough” as Bond.

I’m gonna tell you, that’s not true at all.

As mentioned with You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery was done.  He grew tired of the insane popularity of the series and how he couldn’t have a private life anymore.  So he was out.  The search went on for a new Bond, but dozens of people didn’t wow anyone involved.  If there had been any thought of bringing in Roger Moore at this point, he was likely unavailable do to The Saint.    Interestingly, in 1968, Albert Broccoli approached Timothy Dalton, but he thought he was far too young to play the part.

An Australian fashion model, Lazenby would make a splash in Britain as the model for Fry’s Chocolate.  He learned from his agent that they were having trouble finding a new Bond.  Lazenby went to Connery’s tailor, got his haircut, and showed up at EON Productions’ offices with the intent to wow producers Harry Saltzman and Broccoli.  He barely makes it through, but his maturity would prove his undoing.  He was only a model, and wasn’t quite ready for the pressures of being an actor and star.  Let alone the lead as the most popular action hero of all time.

More on that later.  For now, I need to discuss the brilliant film that was made and not the unfortunate stuff that happened in and around the production.

The film opens with Bond saving a woman from trying to kill herself by walking into the sea.  However, this woman, Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (Tracy for short), is a little bit of trouble.  Tracy is played by the stunning Diana Rigg.  Rigg was already popular at the time because of being on the television show The Avengers.  She proves to be one of the most important women in Bond’s life.

I think what makes Rigg so beautiful in this movie isn’t just her importance to 007 and how the rest of the series will play out after this movie, but she has a particular maturity to her looks. She’s not a bombshell or flighty giggling girl.  She seems dangerously sensuous by simply being not just any other girl, but carrying herself as a woman.

Okay, sure, she’s suicidal and has a pretty rough past.  That’s not exactly the greatest combination in any person.  However, I can’t help but to notice that Bond is reintroduced to her later in the evening after saving her from killing herself by her headless cleavage ponying up to the baccarat table.  Then the third time Bond sees her, she’s holding a gun to Bond while wearing only a robe and her underwear.

What I’m saying is none of this is a bad way to be introduced to your hero’s love interest in the movie.

Another interesting element to the film is that the story carries on for nearly 30 minutes without an official mission from MI6 and his boss, M.  All this should point to the fact this isn’t the usual Bond film.  While there are three fist fights that Bond gets himself into during this stretch, this movie is less about the actual espionage than you’d normally see in the Bond films.

Bond eventually meets Tracy’s father, Draco, the head of the European crime syndicate called Unione Corse.  Draco issues Bond the most interesting proposal…  Tracy needs stability and help.  Bond will be paid one million pounds to marry Tracy.  Bond refuses, and tells Draco that he wants to know where Blofeld is hiding.  Draco has no intention to help Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but would help his “future son-in-law”.  In true Bond fashion, he decides to continue to romance Tracy in exchange for Blofeld’s whereabouts.

Finally, Bond checks in at MI6 where M tells him he’s being removed from the operation to find Blofeld due to his incompetence in finding the head of SPECTRE since that business in Japan.  This is particularly important for a few reasons.  It is one of the earliest times Bond is truly angry at his profession and is willing to go rogue.  He tells Moneypenny he’s quitting and has her send a memo to M.  She tricks him and instead tenders a request for time off.  Now, Bond can go off and romance Tracy, and get those details on Blofeld.

This scene, as well as Bond’s confrontation with Blofeld, brings up a bit of a sticky situation for the continuity of the series and questions that often arise from the audiences.  Bond eventually comes face to face with Blofeld.  Blofeld is the man that for several movies now been burdened with defeat from Bond.  Whether it was Bond killing an underling, or, you know, just a couple years ago when he brought down his giant volcano base…  Bond is a bit of a thorn in Blofeld’s side.

Well, Bond is thinly disguised as a genealogist checking the claim Blofeld has to a title.  So…  What gives?  How could Blofeld not, like, immediately identify Bond the moment he walks into his mountaintop hangout, Piz Gloria?  And the stinger at the end of the pre-title sequence, Lazenby looks at the camera after Tracy ran off to quip, “This never happened to the other guy.”

This leads to many believing that James Bond, each time the actor changed, is actually a name much like the 007 moniker.  It is passed to different people as an alias for MI6 agents.  I’d almost believe that based on Blofeld’s facial blindness and Bond’s quip to the camera if it wasn’t for something that few know from behind the scenes that I think was written out of the final script.

You see, originally On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was meant to be the film that immediately followed Goldfinger.  Broccoli and Saltzman didn’t expect Thunderball to be available to shoot, so they planned to adapt the new, highly acclaimed novel instead.  When the legal troubles with Thunderball suddenly eased, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was postponed.

If it had not been postponed, this would have, in continuity sense, been the first time Blofeld and Bond had been face to face.  An early version of the script did explain that Bond underwent extensive plastic surgery to disguise himself from enemies as well.  Why there wasn’t another rewrite done in the time between You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to ensure this remained, I’m not sure, but I have to believe that is the reason for this awkward plot hole.  It would explain the very different persona of Telly Savalas’ Blofeld from the one seen by Donald Pleasance as well.  I mean, without the original idea of the plastic surgery, I really don’t know how else to soften the legitimacy of those questions about this being a completely different person.

What’s interesting is that the plastic surgery bit is, instead, added to the next film, but not for Bond, for Blofeld.

From a production design, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service does go a different direction than the last couple films.  Not only did Fleming’s novel decide to take a subtle poke at the science fiction-heavy gadgetry of the previous films, but the film moves away from the lavish sets and opts for a more earthy look and feel.  Piz Gloria, a real place in the Alps, is the setting of Blofeld’s hideout.  While the sets and locations used are gorgeous, it might have also been a bit of a hedged bet too.  The budgets of the past films continued to grow almost out of control.  This time it was a little less expensive, and I can’t help but to think it was just in case this untested director and really untested star couldn’t deliver.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a peculiar film.  It feels more personal for obvious reasons, but it’s also bizarre in the sense that there was an awful lot of nervousness during the production.  There was still a lot of separation anxiety from losing Connery, yet this film is, in my opinion, better than almost all of Connery’s.  Bond is still doing his womanizing and his spy thing, but he’s different.  Not just in actor, but in character.  It’s slower but not boring.  It moves away from gadgetry and the more “sci-fi” feel some of the previous films had, but also have a really bizarre sci-fi element to what Blofeld’s plans include (involving creating sleeper agents to carry out assassinations).

The film includes several great action scenes, particularly the big climax at Piz Gloria with Draco getting some guys to help storm the place with Bond and a scene involving a car chase on ice.  Telly Savalas is imposing as Blofeld, if not a little bizarre with such a wild change in personality from the previous film.  In fact, every performance in this movie is great with not just Savalas but also Gabriele Ferzetti as Draco.  Of course, Diana Rigg is wonderful as Tracy.  That said, the film is bookended by two spectacular acts.

The first act sees Bond only sort of on duty, while romancing a beautifully damaged countess that he ultimately really does fall in love with.  Then, the third act where Bond has escaped Blofeld, reconnect with Tracy, and storm Blofeld’s hideout before coming to a crushing conclusion.  And I guess that is the major elephant int he room when it comes to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – the marriage of James Bond to the Countess Teresa di Vicenzo.

I don’t feel like this is much of a spoiler as everyone knows this is the movie in which Bond gets married.  It’s also not much of a spoiler to know what Tracy’s ultimate fate is as she is obviously not seen in any other movie going forward.  You could make James Bond out to be the type of hero like Batman.  Someone who is often alone and remains so.  It’s almost as if he has reached some sort of solace in being on his own.  In the novels (and much later in Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale), you learn a bit about where some of his solitude comes from, but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service decides to set a tone for several films to come.

Bond finally seems to find happiness with Tracy in this film, but Blofeld and his main henchwoman Irma Bunt escape and catch up with the newlyweds to give them a wedding gift.  The bullets meant for Bond hit Tracy instead and the audience is left having to watch Bond in shock over his wife’s assassination.  It’s a shocking conclusion that has only been directly referenced in dialog three times after this film and almost didn’t make it to the screen.

Director Peter Hunt had an idea to actually end the film with the big crane shot that watches Bond’s Astin Martin drive off from the wedding.  Then, they were going to save the drive-by shooting scene for the opening sequence of Diamonds Are Forever.  However, when Lazenby would not return, the film ended with what was shot and Diamonds Are Forever would see Connery return hungry for Blofeld’s blood over the death of Tracy.

Lazenby’s departure after just one film in the role of Bond is due to a few reasons.  First, I’m not sure Broccoli and Saltzman ever really liked him, but they didn’t want to wait to find the right Bond any longer.  There were times in which they felt Lazenby was a little bigger for his britches than he actually was.  Additionally, he even admits he was a little insecure and immature.  He wasn’t ready for the kind of pressure being 007 would bring.  He also wasn’t easily controlled.  He arrived at public appearances for the film with long hair and a mustache.  He was labeled a little bit of a hippie for not being quite as buttoned down as Connery or the image Connery seemed to be upholding for gentlemen.  When Lazenby’s agent proclaimed that he wouldn’t be back for another film, Broccoli and Saltzman decided they weren’t going to deal with his bullshit anymore, and certainly were not going let this kid’s agent try to get more money from them, so they fired him.   I will say, despite what some believe, there is no way Connery would have made this film any better.  This is absolutely a different movie for a different Bond.

In the end, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, while peculiar, is a very, very special film.  Many action movies will have their brash lead man of mystery declare his love for the leading lady, but this comes six films into a series in which we saw the character play a near brute and an unremitting womanizer.  While he has his way with a few of the women at Blofeld’s compound, he’s far more tender and really seems to mean it that he wants to be with Tracy.  She proves herself in the film to Bond in one of the more exciting action scenes where Bond is basically going to be killed by Blofeld’s goons, but she finds him (seemingly by accident but it is due to her father’s deep resources) and she is able to drive the getaway car expertly to save him from certain death.  All this proves to him, and the audience, that she is the ultimate woman for Bond.

Add all that to a really exciting spy thriller, and it turns into one of the very best Bond films that was, and ever will be, made.

Join me next week for a look at the music of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  In two weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the seventh Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever.

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