On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Dir: Peter R. Hunt, 1969. Starring: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, George Baker. Action.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Until the more recent Daniel Craig Casino Royal, it would have been easy to call On Her Majesty’s Secret Service the strangest James Bond film ever. This, of course, is not counting the original Casino Royal, a mostly unbearable, unfunny disaster. But like the original Casino Royal, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service almost plays like a spoof with its bizarre villains and story-lines, but it’s much more than that. It has some of the best action sequences of any Bond film. It has the most character driven story and romance (until the more recent Casino Royal). It’s considered a bona-fide cult film. And even with Sean Connery on a one-film hiatus, it deserves its more recent status as maybe the best Bond film ever.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the sixth film in the Bond series, it's said to follow Ian Fleming's 1963 book as closely as any of the films have. But it’s most famous as the film Connery sat out. A big shouldered Australian ex-car salesman, George Lazenby, with little acting experience, replaced him. One of the new Bond’s first lines of dialogue is, "This never happened to the other fellow," referencing what, at the time, was an abrupt shift in actors - something we have become accustomed to since. Lazenby would prove to be one and done as Connery would return for the weak Diamonds Are Forever and then years later repeat the role one last time with the utterly pointless Never Say Never Again, basically a remake of the much better Thunderball.

As is the case with many James Bond films the espionage plot is convoluted and makes almost no sense. Bond on vacation from MI6 poses as a nerdy genealogist, Sir Hilary Bray, to get close to the evil Blofeld at a stunning Swiss villa in the Alps which is used as an allergy research center housing ten young beauties as patients. Bond realizes that Blofeld (Telly Savalas) is brainwashing the women to start a chemical war. Strangely Bond and Blofeld had met in the earlier film, You Only Live Twice, but they don’t seem to recognize each other (which makes sense since both characters were recast with different actors). Meanwhile, pretty much unrelated… Bond has met poor-little-rich-girl Tracy Di Vincenzo (Diana Rigg), the damaged daughter of a gangster; they fall in love and eventually even get married.

Apparently in its day, Bond fans were not satisfied with the film or with the casting of Lazenby. He’s not bad. He’s no Connery, but he is certainly more believable as a physical He-Man than the lithe Roger Moore who would take over the part two films later. However it might have been interesting to see what Connery would have done with the role because the Bond of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the least confident and most vulnerable Bond we would ever see until Daniel Craig would take his turn in the excellent Bond retooling Casino Royal. Though it can be challenging to find depth in Lazenby’s often wooden acting, it is clear that this Bond is capable of feeling fear and doubt. And though he does try to bed a couple of the foxy patients at the institute, he actually falls hard for the Countess Tracy. The tragic ending is about as shocking and moving an emotional moment as any Bond film has ever had.

As Bond’s love interest, Diana Rigg is as interesting piece of casting. Already established in the UK from the television series The Avengers, Rigg, though attractive, was not the usual model/actress we would come to expect from a "Bond Girl." She was a real actress and since has been a major English actress of high brow classics. She owns the role and creates perhaps the most three dimensional woman ever portrayed in a Bond film. As a continuing James Bond foe Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Telly Savalas takes the role from Donald Pleasence in You Only Live Twice (assuming because he already had a shaved head). With the exception of Christopher Walken in A View To A Kill, it could be the strangest casting of a Bond villain. But Savalas makes a menacing villain and is aided wonderfully by his henchwoman Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat), a dreary little German Fräulein.

Making his directing debut with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Peter R. Hunt had been an editor on the previous Bond films. He helps bring Bond back into the more realistic realm that had been missing from the more fantastical previous films (and where the series would head for decades after). The amazing action sequences on skies, stock cars, bobsleds (with some beautiful helicopter shoots), the tough fight scenes and the snowy helicopter attack of the mountain compound - as outrageous and thrilling as they are - still make Bond more real and less the superhero of other films.

Because of the somewhat anti-Bond nature of the film, over the years it’s had its detractors. But it’s also had a small base of fans (like me) who think it’s the best Bond film, making it a legitimate cult movie (often cited in most books about Cult Movies). Like Lazenby, director Hunt would not do another Bond film. And like Lazenby’s dreadful post-Bond acting career, Hunt would have an undistinguished career directing forgettable action films (Shout At The Devil, Wild Geese II, anyone?). But both men can hold their heads up high knowing they did create a most unique Bond flick and one of the most interesting spy films ever.  

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 27, 2010 6:01pm
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