James Bond finding love, meeting his soon-to-be father in law, studying family history, spending time in the snowy Alps, and gathering around the Christmas tree while being subjected to hypnotism - it must be the James Bond Christmas Special, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service!
(With two weeks until the U.S. premiere of Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, Jalopnik’s resident 007 scholar Justin Westbrook is counting down the 10 best entries in the series, with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at number 2.)
This story originally ran on Oct. 22, 2015 and is being featured again for the Jalopnik Christmas Evergreen Bonanza.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the first James Bond film not to star Sean Connery as 007, instead being replaced by Australian model George Lazenby.
Lazenby was discovered after Connery announced his (temporary) retirement from the franchise during the filming of You Only Live Twice, causing a worldwide hunt by the Bond producers for someone to take over the role. After knocking out a stuntman in a screen test, the producers admired Lazenby’s physicality and decided to give him a shot.
With a more hardened-looking Bond now cast, long-time Bond editor and first-time director Peter Hunt, the credited creator of the crisply-edited and praiseworthy style introduced by the Bond franchise, wanted a more realistic approach to a Bond story, keeping very close to the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service novel.
The contents of the novel, which happens to be the first novel published after the start of the film franchise, feature almost completely in the film unlike any other adaptation in the series.
The On Her Majesty’s Secret Service story was intended to be adapted after Goldfinger initially, and then again after Thunderball, but various issues led to the film being delayed. After Connery’s departure, Harry Saltzman, one half of the producing duo including Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, had wanted to replace Connery with Roger Moore and adapt The Man With The Golden Gun. The planned locations for that budding project fell through, and Moore signed a new contract to continue portraying The Saint on television leading to Lazenby’s O.H.M.S.S.
The resulting film ended up being the longest, and most dramatically meaningful, film in the series up until Casino Royale’s running time overshot it in 2006. It’s been subsequently beat by 2012’s Skyfall and next month’s release of SPECTRE.
Reviews of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service have improved over the decades, with it now considered one of the most important films in the franchise – Bond gets married! It’s also notable for its Christmas-time setting and subsequent December release in 1969. Watch it on Christmas. It just feels right.
Unfortunately, Lazenby was convinced by a friend and advisor that the Bond franchise was doomed and wouldn’t make it through the positive vibes of the 1970’s, so he declined a seven-picture deal, which caused the producers to turn back to Connery for 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever.
That’s all very unfortunate, because Lazenby – popular or not – was an integral part to one of the most surprisingly meaningful and emotional Bond films of all, and consequently arguably the best.
I complemented Peter Hunt for his editing in my review of From Russia With Love, and with his promotion to director for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s clear that film was his strongest influence.
The film starts with an all-new Gun Barrel sequence, an opening staple for the franchise since the very first film, Dr. No. Lazenby mixes it up by dropping to a knee, which is slightly more dramatic than the usual pose, and perfectly symbolic for his more exaggerated presence. Surprisingly, Lazenby is the third person to do the iconic twist-and-shoot into the Gun Barrel, as Connery’s first three Gun Barrels used stuntman Bob Simmons instead of Connery, which was remedied with Thunderball.
The film opens with M. hunting for Bond, as a reference to the franchise having to find a new actor to fill in after Connery’s departure. Our introduction to Lazenby’s Bond is slowly hyped, with shots starting behind him in his Aston Martin DBS following a beautiful woman, and then a shadowed face lighting a cigarette. He’s revealed when he rescues said woman as she attempts suicide by drowning herself in the ocean:
Good morning! My name’s Bond, James Bond.
Some goons arrive for the the woman Bond saved, and Bond has a very physical fight with them in the foam of the tide. This is one of the more popular fights in the franchise, despite the continuity of the water depth.
The woman runs off, and Bond picks up her slippers and breaks the fourth wall with “this never happened to the other fella.” Many many people hate the line, as they believe it’s in reference to Sean Connery’s Bond. And it is, in some way.
But in the context of the scene, Bond is of course referring to the story of Cinderella, as Prince Charming never had to fight off would-be assassins.
The slight nod to Connery and a title sequence featuring scenes from all of the previous Bond films is supposed to remind us that Lazenby and Connery are both the same Bond, while winking to the audience to just go with it.
Bond is reintroduced to the woman he saved on the beach at his hotel casino, where it is revealed she is Countess Teresa di Vicenzo, who goes by Tracy. She invites Bond to her room after he bails her out of a gamble, but is instead greeted by a big burly man, and the two manage to make a great mess of her room in the ensuing fight.
Back in his room, Tracy awaits to repay her debts, first through love, and then the money she owes when Bond awakes to an empty bed in the morning.
Bond is picked up by the same man he fought the night before, and taken to Marc-Ange Draco, boss of the crime syndicate “Union Corse,” and Tracy’s father. Draco requests that Bond marry his daughter, as he feels she needs a man such as Bond to ever be disciplined. Bond agrees, on the condition that Draco hands over information on rival crime syndicate boss, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Back in London, M. denies Bond’s request to go after Blofeld, and Bond asks Moneypenny to issue a letter of resignation on his behalf. Instead, she gets M. to grant him two weeks leave, and he thanks her.
When Tracy shows up for her father’s birthday, Bond agrees to court her for marriage, after Tracy forces her father to give him the information he desires. We’re then treated to a lovely montage of the two getting to know one another to the tune of “We Have All The Time In The World,” by Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong was asked to record the song, written by John Barry, from his deathbed, where he agreed. It’s said he nailed the song in just one take. It’s perhaps one of the best love songs ever recorded, and it fits beautifully in what is ultimately a very engaging and serious Bond film.
Bond discovers that Blofeld is in hiding, using the French translation of his surname, Bleuchamp, and has requested that the College of Arms confirm his claim as a Count – Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp – a lineage he is attempting to fake. “The real Bleuchamps are without earlobes,” he says, as one of the cardinal rules of life is that nobility is determined by ear shape.
Bond goes to Blofeld’s “allergy curing clinic” on the peak of Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps, under the guise of the College of Arms genealogist Sir Hilary Bray.
Our introduction of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s Blofeld shows a bald man stroking a white cat and wearing a nehru jacket, as depicted in the previous film You Only Live Twice, but this time played by Telly Sevalas, a far superior replacement for Donald Pleasance’s take on the character.
Bond soon discovers that Blofeld’s clinic is not only to cure his patients, all beautiful young women, of their allergy symptoms, but to use brainwashing, hypnosis, and drugs to execute his plan. That must be the simplest way, right?
Bond is caught mingling with the girls under the watchful eye of Blofeld’s aid Irma Bunt, where Blofeld discovers he is not Bray, but Bond, through his incorrect study of the Bleuchamp family. Blofeld threatens Bond with his plans for international biological warfare, Vitus Omega, which has the ability to render any plant or animal strain infertile, indefinitely. The girls being treated for allergies at the clinic, and brainwashed, are Blofeld’s “Angels of Death” who will release his infertility serum around the world under his hypnosis.
Bond escapes and is chased on skis down the mountainside, which makes for a fantastic sequence of remarkable technical achievement. Bond escapes from Blofeld’s goons when he stumbles upon Tracy, who has come to Piz Gloria looking for Bond. The two hideout in a barn after being chased and getting away in the middle of a snow-driving derby. Bond is suddenly in love, and pops the question.
The next morning the happy couple go skiing, where Blofeld, Bunt, and their goons catch up to them. John Barry’s remarkable theme for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service makes the chase unforgettable, with it widely considered to be a second “James Bond theme,” as iconic as the original.
Tracy is captured and Bond returns to London in an attempt to convince M. to mount an attack on Piz Gloria, but M. declines. The government has decided to pay off Blofeld, pardon him of all his crimes, and grant him recognition of his request to be named as Count.
Bond turns to Tracy’s father, Draco, and convinces him to mount a crusade to destroy Blofeld’s clinic and save Tracy. Meanwhile Blofeld is attempting to court Tracy himself, promising her to be a Countess. As the widow of a Count from a previous marriage, she reminds him she already holds that title.
Tracy hears her father over the radio communicating with Blofeld’s men, convincing them they are journalists interested in covering the clinic. She gets Blofeld to take her to the observation room to view the sunrise, where she shows her smarts and distracts Blofeld by quoting a James Elroy Flecker play:
Thy dawn, O Master of the World, thy dawn;
For thee the sunlight creeps across the lawn,
For thee the ships are drawn down to the waves,
For thee the markets throng with myriad slaves,
For thee the hammer on the anvil rings,
For thee the poet of beguilement sings.
Tracy finishes her quoting just as Bond arrives, and Barry’s instrumentation swells. The shot of the helicopters arriving through the window as the sun rises behind them is perhaps the most beautiful composition of film in the entire franchise.
But enough with the introspective and artistic flare, it’s a Bond film dammit! Bond swan-dives onto the clinic hoverpad while emptying his magazine and literally slides to the rescue on his stomach, guns blazing, and the traditional Bond theme blaring. Goosebumps, man. Goosebumps.
Bond engages Blofeld as Draco’s men rig the clinic to blow, giving the spy and his nemesis only five minutes to handle their business. The two escape just as the place goes up, leading into a bobsled chase down the mountain.
Yes, a bobsled chase. It’s actually quite exciting.
Bond gets blown out of his sled by a grenade, but hops onto Blofeld, engaging in one of the most exciting final fights in the series. Bond manages to shove Blofeld into a branch over the sled track, breaking his neck and seemingly ending him for good this time. Seemingly.
Now comes the best part of the film, the wedding! Bond’s family, the MI6 office crew of M., Moneypenny, and Q., get to mingle with the criminal family of Tracy’s. Moneypenny begins to tear up, and in a heart wrenching display of affection Bond nods and throws her his hat, just as he does every time he enters her office.
I’m feeling emotions! From a Bond film!
If only it ended there.
The newlyweds stop roadside to ponder their future arguing over kids and deciding on adjectives that describe their love. Those who say Lazenby has no charm or depth must skip the ending of this film. As they tease one another, Blofeld and Blunt drive by, aiming to gun down Bond.
He jumps in the Aston, eager to chase them down when he realizes the bullets meant for him caught another victim. The camera peers through a bullet hole in the windshield to show us Bond’s Tracy, eyes closed, blood running down her nose from her forehead.
An officer pulls up beside Bond, now desperately clutching onto his only grasp of normality, trying to warm his deceased wife back to life.
“It’s alright. It’s quite alright, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be getting on soon. There’s no hurry you see, we have all the time in the world.”
Director Peter Hunt had Lazenby rehearsed this scene for an entire day before shooting to get the emotion he wanted, and it makes for an uncharacteristically depressing end to one of the best stories in the James Bond franchise.
It wasn’t always meant to be so, as Hunt planned to return with Lazenby for Diamonds Are Forever. If Lazenby hadn’t turned down returning, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have ended with the wedding, and Diamonds Are Forever would have started with the death of Tracy. Regrettably it didn’t work out that way.
As with last week’s From Russia With Love, the gadgetry in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is minimal, and appropriately so for the story.
Bond is treated to an Aston Martin DBS, the second model from the British luxury automaker to feature in the franchise after the iconic DB5.
The car presumably sports gadgets, but none are ever put to use. There is a sniper rifle hidden in the glove compartment which is briefly shown in the opening. Unfortunately the car doesn’t sport a bulletproof windshield.
The technical achievement behind the scenes is far more interesting than anything on screen.
O.H.M.S.S. is the first Bond film to use stereo sound recording, and the premier theater had to be updated to show the film.
The scenes of the ski chases had to be shot handheld on skis, or from the air, with a stuntman developing a rig that allowed him to hand 18 feet below the helicopter in flight for aerial shots of the action.
The film also used various optical effects for the second ski chase featuring an avalanche, having to edit in the characters over stock footage as they couldn’t manage to film an avalanche of their own.
Diana Rigg as the Countess makes for one of the best – if not the very best – Bond girl in the series. Her embodiment of a stubborn and dangerously intelligent counter to Bond is extremely convincing. The actress was chosen for being an excellent and established actress in an attempt to aid the inexperienced Lazenby in their weighty emotional scenes.
Given some of the most powerful and emotional scenes of the entire franchise to work with, John Barry performs his best Bond work with this film. As previously stated, the O.H.M.S.S. theme is widely considered to be a second Bond theme, and was even reintroduced in the first trailer for the upcoming SPECTRE.
The rest of the film is absolutely gorgeous to listen to, as well as to look at.
Another minor feature I enjoy about the film is the nods to the rest of the franchise, not just the breaking of the fourth wall and the montage of scenes of previous films in the beginning, but there are also various lines from previous Bond films peppered throughout the movie.
The glaring issue with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the continuity error of Bond meeting Blofeld, and neither recognizing one another. The previous film, You Only Live Twice, saw the two meet face to face for the first time, so why how does Bond manage to hold his cover as Sir Hilary Bray, and why does Bond need to prove Blofeld is not a Bleuchamp?
Of course the adapted story came from the novels which were arranged in a different order and had their continuity set. Many fans have made excuses, claiming that Blofeld had plastic surgery, hence the missing earlobes and unrecognizable features to Bond, but the evil mastermind should still be able to recognize Britain’s most favorite spy.
Especially after blowing up his volcano lair.
There is also the long-rumored deleted chase scene that was partially filmed, but edited from the final cut. It showed Bond chase a Blofeld spy at the College of Arms across the rooftops of London. You can check out a video of the discovered outline here.
Nowadays we are pretty understanding of the role of James Bond being a revolving door, but back in 1969 it was a huge risk trying to keep the franchise alive without the irreplaceable Sean Connery. Ultimately I think the filmmakers handled it perfectly, with Lazenby being a suitable actor for 007, if given more time to grow into the role. Unfortunately he didn’t stick around.
The result of the filmmaker’s efforts is a beautifully tragic love story that managed to evoke emotion out of a very one-dimensional character. The film’s reviews have improved over the years, and even gone on to inspire many filmmakers of today, including a very recognizable snow sequence in Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
You wouldn’t think James Bond falling in love at Christmas would make for a series best, but it was extremely difficult not placing this one at the top of our ten best Bond films list. So which film managed to claim the top spot?
Stay tuned for next week, and until then, check out the rest of the list.