On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) Review

With their star gone, the makers were faced with a real dilemma. Obviously, Bond would have to be recast but should they acknowledge the fact openly in the film. In the end, they settled for a bit of a muddled approach that treated the change of the actor with a few nods and winks (‘This never happened to the other fella’) while simultaneously taking every opportunity to reinforce that this was absolutely the same man who had defeated “Dr. No”, smuggled a Lektor decoding machine “From Russia, With Love”, watched “Goldfinger” squeeze his way out of a private jet window like so much Teutonic toothpaste, toppled Domino with his “Thunderball”s and experienced a volcanic sham marriage in Japan. It’s a real shame that due to scheduling problems, this wasn’t the fifth Bond film and that Connery didn’t stay to make a sixth one. If he had, this probably would have been the ultimate Bond movie, the 007 equivalent of dropping the mic. As it stands, it remains a jewel, albeit a flawed one, in the Bond crown.

1969 On Her Majesty's Secret Service Banner

After the fanciful adaptation of “You Only Live Twice” paid only lip service to the source novel to lacklustre results, the decision was taken to stick much closer to the source text this time round, a sound decision as “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is one of Fleming’s finest Bond novels.

When Bond’s pursuit of Ernst Stavro Blofeld reaches an apparent dead end, a contretemps with M sees 007 take a leave of absence which he uses to chase after  Contessa Teresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo, a troubled young heiress he encountered on the Portuguese Riviera. When Tracy’s father is able to use his criminal connections to find a trace of Blofeld, Bond is back on his tail and travels to the Swiss mountaintop clinic that Blofeld – posing as Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp – has set up as an allergy research institute. But Blofeld’s plans are anything but benign and his allergy ‘cures’ will be used to hold the world to ransom.

After 1967’s cheeky and frankly bonkers “Casino Royale”, every effort is made to emphasise the official nature of this Bond movie, especially with a different actor in the role. Hence we now have Harry Saltzman & Albert R Broccoli being credited during the gun barrel sequence.

The pre-credits cold open plays it pretty coy with George Lazenby’s appearance until well into the action. Tight close-ups show hands, sunglasses and his mouth (Bond’s back on the tabs, by the way) and Diana Rigg’s Contessa Teresa blazes a trail by becoming the first and only principle Bond girl to appear in the movie before the main titles. Not only that, but M, Q and Moneypenny all manage to get in on the action before John Barry’s catchy theme kicks in.

This time out, we don’t have a theme song so much as a theme tune, a wonderfully aggressive action-focussed tune by John Barry, whose brilliant score – one of the best Bond scores ever –would go on to heavily influence Michael Giacchino’s compositions for “The Incredibles” some 35 years later. Barry did compose a song, the gentle and romantic “We Have All The Time In The World” which was used during the courting montage rather than awkwardly as the opening theme.

For the first forty minutes or so, the film plays out as a Riviera romance rather than an action spy film but there’s a real sense of refreshment and energy in the movie. The sullen resentment which was starting to tarnish Connery’s performance is gone and Peter Hunt, the secret editing saviour of many previous Bond movies is deservedly behind the camera for this one.

The actual plot actually kicks in around the fifty minute mark but you won’t be waiting impatiently thanks to the excellent script and a beguiling performance by Diana Rigg and Gabriele Ferzetti as her father Draco. Often derided as a bit goofy, Blofeld’s plan to corrupt the world’s food supply chain is actually more relevant today than it was then and while his delivery system is a bit fanciful, it’s actually one of his more brilliant schemes. Blofeld is refreshingly hands-on here with only Irma Bundt as an assistant. He seems to have done away with or be independent from SPECTRE here, although he still has plenty of anonymous henchmen and it’s quite a fascinating turn for a villain of his pedigree to be looking for an ‘out’ given his demands are total amnesty, recognition of a title and the chance to retire to private life. Of course, it’s the faithfulness of the film to the source novel that causes the biggest continuity problem: why doesn’t Blofeld recognise Bond on sight after they met in the Volcano base in Japan? Mind you, they’re both different actors *winks to audience*.

The action is refreshingly free from gimmicks and gadgets; in fact one of the few pieces of equipment Bond uses is a safecracking gadget which is enormous, especially compared to the one he used in “You Only Live Twice”. This is made doubly funny by the fact the opening lines of the movie are M and Q discussing how miniaturisation is the way forward. Still, it was a photocopier too so I guess it was at least vaguely portable.

Hunt, and his cinematographer Michael Reed, fill the camera with colour and spectacle, from the sunny and opulent Portuguese settings to the snowy and picturesque Swiss scenes, the movie looks vibrant and alive. Many of the action sequences, especially the prolonged ski/ car/ ski chase of Bond and Tracy’s escape from Piz Gloria are among the best Bond has ever done, with Hunt wisely keeping the best stunts – including an unbelievably gory snowplough moment – for the daylight scenes and even craftily foreshadowing the action to come during Bond’s helicopter flight up to Blofeld’s mountaintop stronghold with beautiful aerial shots of skiing, bobsleds and cable cars. The avalanche scenes are a terrific blend of camera trickery, model work and actual footage of an avalanche filmed by Hunt.

Diana Rigg is a sensational Bond girl, helped enormously by the fact that Tracy is written as a fully realised human being. She has agency and import, doesn’t spend her time simply fawning over Bond or screaming for help and it’s little wonder Bond decides to ask this feisty and independent woman to marry him. Her presence is so important to the film that she easily renders the bevvy of beauties being treated at Piz Gloria largely forgettable despite their lipstick writing and suggestive banana eating.

Telly Savalas makes for a more gravelly and suave Blofeld than Donald Pleasance’s prissy mastermind but it works for the film, especially in the scenes where Blofeld goes mano a mano with Bond. But this time, Blofeld is outshone by his  assistant, Ilse Steppat’s Irma Bunt, spiritual successor to Rosa Kleb. Seriously, how awesome is she in this movie? Simultaneously the mother hen clucking around her precious charges and a cold blooded and ruthless henchwoman for Blofeld. It’s such a great performance, and keeps much of the Piz Gloria-set scenes on track.

George Lazenby is actually pretty decent as Bond, and is unfairly maligned given this was his first proper acting role and he was forced to suffer the ultimate humiliation of being dubbed by George Baker for a good portion of the film when Bond is pretending to be Sir Hilary Bray. Dubbing always undermines the performance of the actor being dubbed and it unfairly colours people’s perceptions of Lazenby here. He’s not the world’s greatest actor by any stretch but he’s more than good enough for Bond (as I’ve said before, the better the actor, the less satisfying the Bond) and he delivers when it really counts. In the tragic ending of the movie, Lazenby absolutely nails it.

With the original plans to have Tracy’s death be the pre-credits sequence for “Diamonds Are Forever”, it’s a pity Lazenby’s youthful arrogance and the bad advice of his agent led him to quit after one movie because he could have gone on to become a truly great Bond rather than a one-hit wonder.

As it stands, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is still a high-calibre Bond film, imbued with a sense of uniqueness thanks to the casting and the storyline. Back in the day when one of the undoubted highlights of Christmas Day was the Bond movie (which would invariably follow the Queen’s Speech), “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” always seemed particularly welcome thanks to its snowy set-pieces and it being the only Bond movie to show Christmas in the movie and, like Santa Claus, it delivered then and it delivers now. If you haven’t seen it in a while, this is probably the Bond movie that deserves reappraisal the most.

Craggus’ Bond Voyage will return in “Diamonds Are Forever“…



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