On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969

It’s been far, far too long since my last 007 mission briefing.  No excuses, just a loss of momentum.  Time to get back on track.

All good things come to an end, and so it was that Sean Connery stepped down from the role of Britain’s greatest super spy in order to pursue other acting opportunities.  As we’ve previously seen, there were already a great many people who portrayed James Bond on the big screen, thanks to the 1967 spoof Casino Royale.  But none of those actors had to deal with the idea of actually assuming the mantle — and the large void — that Sean Connery left behind him.  When it came time, the net was cast far and wide to find someone worthy to wear Bond’s dinner jacket.  Harry Saltzman intended to cast Roger Moore, but Moore signed up for another series in the title role of The Saint.  Cubby Broccoli wanted Timothy Dalton after his film debut in The Lion in Winter, but Dalton declined.  He stated that he was too young for the role and acknowledged the imposing legacy of Connery.  A veritable who’s who of British actors were scouted, with a more global list beyond that.  At one point Adam West was offered the part.  He turned it down because he thought Bond should be British.

Ultimately the role went to Australian unknown George Lazenby.  To this point, Lazenby had been seen only in a handful of television commercials.  To look the part, he claimed one of Connery’s unclaimed suits and a Rolex Submariner wristwatch, then visited Connery’s barber in a bid to intercept Broccoli, who had an appointment.  Impressed by the man’s build and look, Broccoli offered Lazenby an audition.  During the audition, Lazenby punched the stunt coordinator in the face, knocking him out cold.  It secured him the role.

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Lazenby was offered a seven picture deal and was confirmed for Diamonds Are Forever, to be filmed in short order following OHMSS.  Lazenby, however, was convinced by his agent that 007 would be a relic of a bygone era by the time of the more enlightened 1970s.  During the promotional tour for the film, Lazenby’s attitude and change of dress got him dismissed just after the film was officially released.

In the entirety of the Bond canon, there are two women who are more important to Bond than any others.  They help to define who he is as a character and why.  The first is the tragic Vesper Lynd, as written in Fleming’s first 007 novel, Casino Royale.  Vesper was denied an official appearance in a Bond film until the screen rights to the novel were cleared.  She was finally portrayed in 2006 by Eva Green.  The other — and arguably more important — is Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, Tracy to her friends, who appears in this film and in the Fleming novel by the same name.  Tracy was written to be Bond’s equal or better in many regards, capable of standing with him or against him, so this was a role they could not afford to short change if she was to be believable.  In counterpoint to the inexperienced Lazenby, the producers looked for proven talent, turning to former The Avengers star Diana Rigg, who portrayed fan favorite Emma Peel.

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Originally the role of Tracy was offered to Brigitte Bardot, who turned it down to star opposite Sean Connery in Shalako.  Rigg accepted because she always wanted to star in an epic film.  While it opened more doors for her career, all reports suggest that she didn’t much care for her 007 co-star or his inexperience.  It’s a testament to her acting abilities that the two of them appeared to have far more chemistry on screen than they did.

For the returning role of archnemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Telly Savalas was offered the role on Broccoli’s suggestion.  Many questioned the choice to change the character from the more subdued and puckish version previously seen in You Only Live Twice to a far more active and hands-on menace, and many more questioned the change in cast from Donald Pleasence to Savalas.  The thing is, this is all in keeping with the novels, as Fleming tells us that Blofeld changes his appearance.  What has never been questioned was that Savalas’ Blofeld was more than capable of keeping up with the exuberance of Lazenby.

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The plot of the film closely follows the novel, with a few additional scenes added for good measure.  In the pre-credits sequence, Bond is out for a drive when Tracy passes him frantically on the road, drives to the beach, and walks out into the surf intent on ending her life.  Bond stops her, but he’s roughed up by a couple of a hired guns.  Subduing them, Bond watches as Tracy drives off in the confusion.  In the only official time Bond breaks the fourth wall, Bond quips, “This never happened to the other fellow.”  (The only other time this sort of thing happens is in the unofficial Never Say Never Again, as Connery leads into the end credits.)

After the titles, we learn that several in the British government are looking for Bond, who is in turn looking for Tracy.  He finds her at a hotel and covers her bet at the casino.  After facing down a thug in his room, Bond confronts Tracy about it, convinced she’s in trouble.  She denies all knowledge of it and seduces him to pay back her gambling debt.  The next morning, she’s gone, but she has left full payment of her debt behind.  As Bond leaves, he is led away at gunpoint by four thugs, including the one he battled in the room the night before.  Bond lets them take him to their boss, subduing all four just outside the door to the office.  Inside he meets Marc-Ange Draco, international kingpin and Tracy’s father.  Draco believes that his daughter needs a man to “dominate her,” and offers Bond a million pounds to do the job.  Bond rejects the offer, but agrees to similar lines at Draco’s birthday party in exchange for information leading to the whereabouts of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, whose SPECTRE organization is the only criminal outfit with farther reach and resources than Draco’s own.

At MI6, Bond is relieved of Operation Bedlam, the assignment to track and kill Blofeld.  In anger, Bond resigns from the service, but Moneypenny turns in a request for two weeks leave rather than a resignation, which is granted and appreciated by both Bond and M.  At Draco’s party, Tracy pins her father down on the deal between him and Bond, forcing Draco to reveal the information to Bond, and leaving him free and clear to puruse Blofeld without obligation to Tracy.  Bond, of course, opts to pursue both.

Draco’s information leads Bond to a lawyer with connections to Blofeld, and Bond learns from the lawyer’s safe that Blofeld is pursuing a coat of arms and title of ‘Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp’ — de Bleuchamp being the French form of Blofeld.  Laying the groundwork with the College of Arms, Bond visits M at home and gets permission to pursue Blofeld.  Assuming the identity of genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, Bond makes his way to Piz Gloria, a remote mountaintop stronghold and research facility in the Swiss Alps.  In his foppish guise, Bond meets with twelve young women who are undergoing treatment for individual food allergies and phobias.  Their treatment involves brainwashing, which turns the unsuspecting women into Blofeld’s “Angels of Death” who release biochemical warfare on specific targets.

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True to form, Bond seduces some of the women, and he is discovered by Blofeld’s henchwoman, Irma Bunt.  After informing Bond of his various mistakes, Blofeld imprisons Bond, who in turn escapes to the nearby village, pursued by Blofeld’s operatives.  He runs into Tracy, who helps him evade capture and/or death.  Taking shelter in a barn from a blizzard, Bond confesses his love to Tracy and proposes, and she accepts.  When they ski away the next morning, Blofeld and his men give chase.  Blofeld causes an avalanche that subdues them both, and he captures Tracy.

Using his brainwashed patients, Blofeld intends to hold the world hostage by threatening agriculture and food supply.  His price is full amnesty and recognition of his title.  The Prime Minister has rejected an assault on Piz Gloria, saying it’s too risky, and despite pleas from Bond, M denies the task force.  Bond turns to aid from Draco to destroy the radio relays at Piz Gloria, preventing Blofeld from sending his signal to his unwitting agents.

The raid is successful.  Piz Gloria is destroyed, with Tracy rescued, and Bond and Blofeld are the last to escape.  Bond chases down Blofeld and the latter is presumably killed when he snagged by the neck from the bobsled by a forked tree branch.  Bond and Tracy are married in Portugal.

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After driving away for their honeymoon, Bond stops the car to remove the flowers.  Blofeld and Bunt drive by, and Bunt fires several shots from an automatic rifle.  Tracy is killed.

Originally, this final aftermath sequence was to be reserved for the opening scene of Diamonds Are Forever, but with Lazenby having been removed from the picture, it was considered best to end the film and close the story thread.  Bond would still seek his revenge in the next film, but ties to were formally cut to any specific actors this way.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has a unique place in Bond history, and with it comes a number of strong beliefs.  Many believe that since Lazenby only did the one film that OHMSS was something of a box office bomb.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  It was the second grossing picture of 1969, beaten only by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Its box office was only slightly less than Connery’s previous outing.  It also grossed higher than three of Moore’s later Bond films, both of Dalton’s, and Connery’s unofficial film.

In the Bond community, opinions are sharply divided on the quality of the film and of Lazenby as Bond.  Some will say that Lazenby’s performance is so wooden, you can actually see the puppet strings.  Others will discuss his obvious physical exuberance for the role, pointing out that until Daniel Craig, Lazenby was perhaps the most brutal in hand to hand combat.  For myself, while it’s hard to dismiss Lazenby’s attitude and comments after his work was completed, it’s hard to argue that while he was making the picture he was clearly having fun and gave his total commitment.  His inexperience makes him a bit awkward here and there, but the confidence and even arrogance that landed him the role comes across in the performance.  I’m of the opinion that, had Lazenby continued on, he’d have grown more comfortable and skillful in the role and would have made it his own.  We’ll never know for sure, of course, but that’s where my head’s at all the same.  It’s interesting to consider what might have been.

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The producers went out of their way to make this movie “one of the series” despite Connery’s absence.  Lazenby is introduced in shadow with a face reveal the same way as Connery in Dr. No as he says, “Bond.  James Bond.”  The opening titles feature several character shots from previous films, reminding the audience of what came before.  There are physical props and musical callouts to previous films as Bond cleans out his desk.  And so on.  The continuity is certainly there, as Bond has tracked Blofeld for two years as the film opens.  The early ad campaign focused on the Bond character rather than on Lazenby as the performer.  Say what you will about Lazenby, but I contend that his one film, bookended on either side by Connery as it was, still opened the door and made it far easier for other actors to transition into the role.  That he did so by strength of personality alone says quite a bit.  For that if nothing else, he’s to be commended.

I have no particular issues with Telly Savalas as Blofeld.  While I much prefer Donald Pleasance’s creepier and more sinister take on the role, Savalas is likewise having fun and stands as a physical threat to Bond as much as a mental one.  I tend to appreciate that.  I think the only thing that really drives me nuts is how he holds his cigarette.  It seems so unnatural compared to the “norm,” so I fixate a bit on it.

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Diana Rigg as Tracy is easily one of best Bond actresses in the lineup, and as mentioned earlier, it couldn’t be otherwise.  Tracy is able to hold her own or best Bond as a personality, as a driver, as a skier, and at times even as a hand to hand fighter.  It’s easy to see how somebody like that would capture Bond’s imagination.  As with Vesper, Tracy’s tragic ending is part of what keeps Bond unavailable, leaving a line of physical conquests with no emotional connection.  That we get to know Tracy as Bond does, and likewise through strength of personality as much as anything else, makes the ending that much harder.

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As to the film itself, this is one of the longer Bond films, clocking in at 142 minutes.  None of that time goes to waste.  In the classic Bond tradition, we’re treated to exotic locations, beautiful women, tough guys, a few gadgets (though minimal in this film), a mastermind plot, a classic villain, and a climactic finale that quite literally brings the house down.  All this, and Bond meets his match, which is telegraphed in the opening gun barrel when he takes the knee.

The score by John Barry is one of the strongest in this series as well.  It does something a little different and unexpected right from the beginning by changing the orchestrations from brass to a harpsichord.  In the ever-continuing quest for a new Bond theme, his “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” theme is a vast improvement over the “007” theme from previous outings and persists as one of his best themes yet.  I’ve heard some argue that it’s better than “The James Bond Theme” as introduced in Dr. No, but I’ll respectfully dispute that one and point out that when the original theme shines over the climax of the film, it kicks everything up another notch just by being there.  Even so, I love the new theme.  The Louis Armstrong number “We Have All the Time in the World” also checks in as one of my favorite Bond songs.  It makes a great love theme, and Barry makes excellent use of it.  Besides that, it’s just catchy.

Essentially, the filmmakers were aware at every turn that their job was to make the audience forget Connery and focus on Bond, and that comes across at virtually every turn.  This is a rock solid Bond film.  More than that, it pushed the boundaries as to what we could expect from future installments.  The more times you watch it, the easier it is to stop comparing and realize that it really does stand on its own as one of the best of the series for all of the right reasons.

5 stars

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7 thoughts on “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969

  1. *squee* Thanks for this. I’m kinda missing our Bond mission. 🙂

    I love this film and reading your post I am super excited to read the book. It’s on my shelf. Ready for when we get there. Tracy has been one of my favourite characters in the series, and it’s only partially due to me being a Diana Rigg fan. I always thought Tracy was kick-ass but also one of the most balanced, well rounded characters in the series.
    Apart from the characters, the scenery and photography of the film is simply enchanting. There are few of the early Bond films that are as atmospheric.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1963 | Knight of Angels

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