AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 139 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In Portugal, James Bond saves the Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo from committing suicide by drowning, and later meets her again in a casino. She invites Bond to her hotel room to thank him, but the next morning, Bond is kidnapped and taken to Marc-Ange Draco, the head of the European crime syndicate Unione Corse and Tracy’s father. He offers Bond a personal dowry of one million pounds if he will marry her. Bond refuses, but agrees to continue wooing Tracy if Draco reveals the whereabouts of SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He directs Bond to Gumbold’s law firm in Bern, Switzerland, where he learns that Blofeld is corresponding with London’s Royal College of Arms’ genealogist Sir Hilary Bray attempting to claim the title ‘Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp’. Posing as Bray, Bond goes to meet Blofeld….
And so here we finally come to the film I think is the greatest James Bond film, and I reckon that if I were writing this 30 or even 20 years ago, I may have sounded like an idiot, but this film’s reputation does seem to have considerably grown since then. It is certainly a bit different from your average 007 flick: yes, it contains many of the elements you would expect, and aside from the minimal use of gadgets I wouldn’t say that it’s really a return to realism as the films were never that in the first place and you still have things like Blofeld with a dastardly world-threatening plot [though all he really wants here is amnesty for all past crimes and that he be recognised as the current Count de Bleuchamp], but it’s still quite different, from the way it relegates most of its action to the final third, to the unique glossy look it has to it, to the fact that, at its heart, it’s a love story with a tragic ending. The most common reason for people’s ignoring or dislike of the film is of course the fact that it’s the only Bond film to star George Lazenby, though even opinions of his performance have gotten more favourable. I’ll say right here; Lazenby’s essaying of the role of 007 is still one of the most underrated pieces of acting in mainstream cinema, especially considering he’d never acted before. Like every Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has a few notable flaws – though I love Bond films I don’t think any of them merit being rated higher than 9 out of 10 and the majority of the films are of a fairly similar quality [very good if not quite great] to my eyes – but for me it’s definitely the artistic peak of the series….while still being such damn good fun.
So, after being almost being made twice before, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service finally got going. In the running for Bond were John Richardson, Hans De Vries, Robert Campbell, Anthony Rogers and Australian model George Lazenby, who won the part when he accidently punched a stunt man in the face during auditions. Screenwriter Richard Maibaum considered having Bond have plastic surgery to explain his changed appearance. He changed very little of Ian Fleming’s novel, mainly just adding action, changing the order of some events, and having Tracy kidnapped near the end. Filming in Pinewood, London, Portugal and Switzerland, the crew were only allowed to use the Swiss Piz Gloria restaurant if they financed a full refit, while filming was delayed by snow thawing out during a mild winter and a real avalanche occurring just where they intended to stage one. The inexperienced Lazenby became arrogant to many, wouldn’t commit to a seven film contract, and was convinced by his agent Ronan O’ Rahilly that 007 would soon be archaic, so he quit just before the film’s release, prompting director Peter Hunt, previously an editor of the films and promised the job after being refused You Only Live Twice, to alter his plan to end with Bond getting married and show Tracy’s death in the opening of the next movie. Half an hour was removed from the rough cut, notably a chase over London rooftops, and the BBFC insisted “in the shoulder” be added to the line “I feel a slight stiffness coming on”. Contrary to popular belief, the film was a hit, if less so than the previous Bonds. Some successive versions have been cut, from the UK video which cut the safe break sequence and other smaller bits and pieces, to a US TV version which re-edited the film so it begun with the first chase and then flashed back while Bond [not Lazenby] narrated throughout, though it did contain a deleted shot of Irma Bunt watching Bond and Tracy buy a ring.
Obviously unsure of how people would take the first Eon Bond that wasn’t Sean Connery, the filmmakers introduce him very carefully in the pre-credits sequence, not showing his face fully until the end, though giving him the line: “This never happened to the other fella” is a bit of a groaner. Still, one can immediately feel the quality with the stunning blue-dominated photography of the shots of Tracy walking into the water and the handling of the fight which pushes the Bond style of quick cuts, missing frames, speeded up shots and loud impact sounds almost to its limits. For the first time since From Russia With Love, we get an instrumental piece over the opening credits, and it’s an absolute corker, one of the best and catchiest action themes ever, though the images of faces from previous Bond adventures [more from the most recent two, which I guess in a way makes sense] in a hour glass surrounded by the usual blackened nudes match it. Though we get a bruising fight or two, plus the unusual but lovely moment where Bond supposedly resigns [with more ‘meta’ stuff of Bond looking at props from previous missions, props which he probably wouldn’t really have] and is stopped by Miss. Moneypenny who is thanked by M [yes, M thanks someone], the first third of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is mostly devoted to setting up the Bond/ Tracy affair, which in typical Bond film fashion all-but begins in bed. It’s odd seeing a corny romantic montage in one of these films, but it doesn’t matter when over it is the finest song ever to grace a 007 movie. John Barry’s haunting melody and Hal David’s beautiful lyrics for We Have All The Time In The World being given such poignancy by Louis Armstrong’s delivery, especially if you know that it was the last song he recorded and he was very ill and died soon after.
After a cracking [sorry] safe breaking sequence which is odd because the editing and scoring [a brilliant example of music slowly building and building in intensity] make it really suspenseful despite the fact that you shouldn’t be worried about Bond being caught by a short, bespectacled businessman, Bond sets off for Blofeld’s mountainous hideaway. It’s here where the film falters just a bit. Bond is posing as a London College of Arms professor, Sir Hilary Bray, and because of this George Baker dubs Lazenby for the next half an hour or so, which doesn’t quite work, though I don’t know what else the filmmakers could have done. More damagingly, the film does plod somewhat during this section – I can never understand why people complain about the slow passages of Thunderball, The Man With The Golden Gun or A View To A Kill and don’t criticise On Her Majesty’s Secret Service too – with one lengthy dinner scene where we’re even shown lots of shots of the plates for goodness sake – while Bond and Blofeld meeting and not recognising each other makes no sense considering You Only Live Twice, though again I don’t know how they could have got around this. Bond seducing two of the girls in Blofeld’s allergy clinic tarnishes the central romance, but then this is a Bond who had been doing his damndest not to fall in love with Tracy. This middle section is still pretty entertaining, and when Bond’s cover is blown we get one of the best ‘villain spills the beans’ in the series and some good edge of seat stuff with impressive stunt work when Bond has to escape a wheelhouse he’s been imprisoned in. No gadgets to help him here; he just has to use his physical skill and wits.
Eventually Bond puts on his skies, that wonderful title music kicks in, and we get 45 minutes or so of nearly nonstop thrills, the plentiful ski chasing using real accidents by stuntmen in some of the shots, though the highpoints are a fantastic stock car smash-em-up and the final set piece of Bond and Blofeld chasing and fighting on a bobsled, which is still terrific even if Hi-Definition makes some of the back projection look a bit obvious. It’s all terrific stuff, brilliantly edited by John Glen for maximum impact without making it hard to see what’s happening [unlike so many of today’s action in films], but some of the quieter stuff is just as memorable, such as the moment when Bond falls in love with Tracy when they shelter in a barn, indicated first by Bond looking at her and then, for her next few shots, Tracy’s face being bathed in light and shot in soft focus, like she’s the angel come to save Bond from his meaningless, mechanical bed hopping. This is the kind of stuff you just don’t have in 007 flicks. And then there’s that ending which some fans really don’t like but which helps make this one a bit special. Just after Bond and Tracy’s wedding, Tracy is shot by Irma Bunt, Blofeld’s Rosa Klebb-like aide [Ilsa Steppat, who died of a heart attack a week after the film’s release, playing the only Bond villain who gets away with it], and Bond is distraught. The scene was originally shot with Lazenby crying, but Hunt ordered a reshoot as he said “Bond does not cry”. It’s sad enough and almost brings me to tears just writing about it.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is full of wonderful little bits of detail, like M conversing with Draco and Miss Moneypenny crying at the wedding, which give it terrific flavour. One feels that they really tried so hard to make both a great Bond film and a good film that it’s easy to forgive certain pacing and editorial flaws that occur. Just take the cinematography by Michael Reed which is superbly crisp and gives us some superb individual shots, like Blofeld and some aides slightly blurry with the sun rising behind them as Blofeld talks down to somebody, or, in an absolutely brilliant transition, Bond glimpsed on one side of a window while we still see Tracy being found and taken away in the previous scene. They decided to save some money and not hire Ken Adam as set designer, but the work of Syd Mead is distinctive in its own right, a little more realistic, but with excellent use of colour, like the gorgeous casino room near the beginning. That whole scene for me captures Fleming’s world better than probably anything in any other Bond film. I enjoy the books almost as much as the films, and, while Dr No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball get pretty close, only On Her Majesty’s Secret Service really gets there. The book even has Bond say: “We have all the time in the world” at the end.
There was a time where I thought that the film would be even better if Connery had been in it. Certainly there would have been a greater sense of continuity, Connery was a good enough actor to have pulled off this film’s more vulnerable 007, and it’s possible that the ending may have packed even more of a wallop. However, some time later I changed my mind. Lazenby does not deliver the Bond quips [some of which seem out of place in this particular adventure anyway] very well, and it’s rather obvious that some of his lines were re-done post-dubbing, but his acting inexperience, and therefore the awkwardness that results from that inexperience, in a way suits the depiction of Bond here, while he pulls off some moments, like the proposal scene, incredibly well for a first-time actor. It’s such a shame that he only did one Bond film, because I feel that he would have really grown into the role, and that he would have been accepted in it. But then this is also another thing that makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service rather unique.
Diana Rigg is one of the greatest Bond girls, managing to be both vulnerable and tough [she’s virtually Bond’s equal in a scrape] at the same time and to create a rounded portrayal of a woman whose life has become wasteful and pointless until she’s saved by love. While not as creepy as Donald Pleasance in the role, Telly Savalas’s Blofeld still has the edge over him because he’s more of a physical match for Bond and actually gets involved in the action. Gabriele Ferzetti’s Draco is very much like From Russia With Love’s Kerim Bey and isn’t in the film nearly enough. Barry’s score, which makes much use of the synthesiser, has already been mentioned a couple of times and it’s possibly the great composer’s best ever effort. It’s two main themes – the title theme and We Have All The Time In The World which becomes as moving an instrumental love theme as you can get – are amongst the best ever, but then there’s also the slinky, sexy music for the Piz Gloria girls, that incredible safe breaking cue, that throbbing fight music at the beginning- it’s all great stuff. I must say here though that one needs to buy the Region A Blu-ray [or the first DVD release] to properly hear the score. When they created new sounds mixes for the older Bonds on the Ultimate Edition DVDs, the cretins tasked with doing it often drastically altered the sound balance [and even added new sounds!] and in some cases made the music far quieter than was originally intended, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service being the worst offender. Some of the Region B Blu-rays do have the original mono mixes but not this one. Still, moan over! While not at all the most representative Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the best, and I feel some disappointment that none of the subsequent films I’m going to watch will match it, though of course there will still be much fun to be had!