Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. It continues with a new leading man at the franchise helm in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
After You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery announced that he was done with James Bond. The Scottish actor had grown tired of the press intrusion inherent to the role and did not wish to return for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. On the hunt for a new star, Saltzman and Broccoli turned to Australian model George Lazenby to step into some big, superspy shoes.
Written on the set of Dr. No, Fleming’s tenth Bond story follows the spy as he investigates Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s bizarre alpine clinic in the hope of discovering a sinister plot and jailing his nemesis.
Lazenby is far from the world’s greatest actor and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is not one of the most impressive entries in the Bond canon. However, in pitting Bond against his arch rival Blofeld once again and packing one of the harshest final shots in the entire franchise, the film manages to become something more than the sum of its parts.
Wedding bells for Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – which features Bond’s ill-fated wedding – was originally supposed to follow Goldfinger in the film franchise. When the dispute over the rights to Thunderball came to a close, that was selected and then production issues led to You Only Live Twice becoming the fifth film.
Finally, the stage was set for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to make its way to the big screen. For the first time, long-time Bond editor and second unit director Peter Hunt moved into the director’s chair. Hunt, collaborating with regular Bond writer Richard Maibaum, decided that the film needed to return to the plot-driven storytelling of From Russia With Love rather than the gadgets of recent installments.
“We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world.”
The film follows Bond (Lazenby) as he investigates Blofeld’s (Telly Savalas) mysterious clinic in the Alps. To gain access, he poses as a highly regarded genealogist (George Baker), helping Blofeld prove his connections to a line of French nobility. Meanwhile, Bond forms a romantic relationship with Tracy (Diana Rigg), daughter of an underworld boss.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service takes a really long time to get going. It isn’t until 45 minutes into the film that we get to Blofeld’s facility, with the action building slowly as Lazenby desperately tries to overcome the fact that he has no acting ability and little of Connery’s innate charisma.
The film really picks up, however, when Bond is initially captured snooping around Blofeld’s lair. The downhill ski run away from the facility is perfectly put together and the incredibly destructive car chase around a stock car track is one of the best high speed pursuits in the entire franchise, culminating in Bond’s proposal to Tracy.
Of course, it is the Tracy storyline that provides the lasting memory of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Moments after the euphoria of her wedding to Bond, she is gunned down in the wedding car by Blofeld and his henchwoman. Bond tearfully cradles her as she lies dead in the seat. Again, it’s a moment that is undercut by Lazenby’s lack of acting ability. With Connery or Craig in that car instead, the moment could have become genuinely iconic in cinema history.
It’s easy to image this being one of the best Bond films if there were a proper actor at the head of the film and a bit of first act streamlining. Hunt’s direction is accomplished, the exotic locales are perfectly chosen and the stunt work is better than Bond had ever previously produced.
“I now possess the scientific means to control, or to destroy, the economy of the whole world. People will have more important things to deal with than you.”
Critics and the ‘Lazenby Effect’
By the time the press tour for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service got started, it was already set in stone that Lazenby was not returning for another film. It was just as well, really, because the contemporary critics absolutely ripped his performance apart.
The film was one of the highest grossing releases of 1969, but still only managed to take home half of the gross of You Only Live Twice. It was an indictment of Lazenby’s power as star and indeed the future of the franchise without Sean Connery in the lead role.
However, fortunately for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s a film that has been reappraised over time. The consensus among many is that the film itself is a really good one, and perhaps sits as one of the best in the series, but finds itself hampered by Lazenby’s central performance as Bond. OHMSS has its share of famous supporters, including filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.
This is something of an over-simplification, for me, as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service does have its share of flaws, even outside of Lazenby’s dull, leaden central turn. Also, it’s not a situation that could necessarily have been solved just by transplanting Connery into the lead role. Connery’s Bond was a swaggering, unemotional figure with an almost dangerously reckless charisma.
That kind of Bond would be completely incompatible with the story of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Lazenby plays the character as a more vulnerable, uncertain figure, but unfortunately lacks the range to bring any real punch to the brutal finale.
“This never happened to the other fellow.”
Overall, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service occupies a rather strange position in the Bond canon. It is being reappraised as something of a misunderstood classic, but it’s tough to get away from the atrocious casting decision that’s plastered all over the poster.
Next week, Connery returns to the franchise for Diamonds Are Forever.
What do you think of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Where does it stand in the pantheon of Bond films? Could George Lazenby ever measure up to his predecessor? Let me know in the comments section and keep your eyes peeled for more Bond Reloaded next Monday.