On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

4 of 5 stars

On-Her-Majestys-Secret-Service-1969-movie-George-Lazenby-Diana-RiggOn Her Majesty’s Secret Service introduces George Lazenby as James Bond in his first and last turn as Agent 007. Audiences in 1969 rejected this film, causing it to become the lowest-grossing Bond film at that point in adjusted dollars, earning a measly 822.86 percent return-on-investment (compared to 5,309.09 percent ROI for Dr. No). Therefore, despite the fact the movie made a ton of money, it was seen as a box-office failure.

Seen today, OHMSS is recognized as one of the better films in the series. It’s exciting, atmospheric, and has visual and emotional variety. The ski chase is one of the best sequences in the series. Lazenby was a bit stiff in the role and certainly didn’t have the screen presence of Sean Connery, but he did a serviceable job. In fact, during the scenes where he’s posing as emasculated genealogy researcher Hilary Bray, Lazenby is quite enjoyable and does an admirable job. However, the film’s initial audience can’t entirely be blamed for overlooking OHMSS’s qualities. At the time the only Bond they had seen was Connery. They hadn’t gotten used to the idea a different actor would play the iconic character each decade or so. General audiences wouldn’t have been aware Barry Nelson had played Bond in an episode of Climax!, and they probably didn’t count Charles K. Feldman’s Casino Royale. Therefore the only basis for comparison was Connery. In that, Lazenby was set up for failure. The 30-year-old Australian model was an unknown at the time, but expectations were unrealistically high.

The movie begins with Bond rescuing a woman (from herself), only to then be attacked by a couple anonymous baddies while the woman runs away. Lazenby then looks directly into the camera and laments, ‘This wouldn’t’ve happened if I were Sean Connery.’ This leads into the opening credits, which plays over a montage of clips from all the previous Bond films, I guess to remind viewers this is an actual Bond film.

Bond returns to work and his boss, M, informs him he’s been taken off the case to track down Blofeld, last seen escaping a volcanic lair in You Only Live Twice, as 007 has generated no leads in two years. Bond then threatens to quit and cleans out his desk. The filmmakers attempt to establish continuity with the rest of the series and include a scene with Lazenby reminiscing on Connery’s missions as he comes across mementos in his desk—Honey Ryder’s knife, Grant’s watch, the underwater breather from Thunderball. This was also possibly included to debunk fan theories that “James Bond” is a codename and the different actors are actually different spies using the same code. But this segment inadvertently introduces plot holes into the series. When Bond leaves Grant dead in From Russia with Love, I didn’t see him remove Grant’s watch. So how’d it end up in his desk? And wouldn’t Q have requested the underwater breather to be returned as per usual?

But these are minor plot holes compared to the gaping Latin American sinkhole-sized one in the middle of the movie, which is when Bond tracks down Blofeld in his lair in the Swiss Alps neither seems to recognize the other. Bond suspects the reclusive count is Blofeld, but is still trying to confirm it. Blofeld doesn’t realize Bond, who’s posing as a herald from the College of Arms, is not genuine until he flubs a detail in his cover. But wait, didn’t these two meet face-to-face in You Only Live Twice? Granted, two years have passed since then, and I’ve been guilty of forgetting someone I’ve met only once. But you’d think given the history between the two, they would’ve instantly recognized each other. This was unavoidable as OHMSS was written before YOLT, and so much of the plot revolved around the two discovering each other. The plot hole was also less obvious given the fact different actors were playing both characters. Had Connery been playing Bond or Donald Pleasance rather than Telly Savalas been playing Blofeld, audiences would have noticed this glaring continuity error and been less forgiving.

Kojak is also quite good as Blofeld. However, like Lazenby, he suffers in comparison to his predecessor in the role. Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld is the one folk picture when they remember the supervillain, however campy he was in the role. The replacement was necessary not just to cover up the above plot-hole, but also because Blofeld in OHMSS needed to be more physical. I’d have trouble picturing Donald Pleasance pursuing Bond on skis at breakneck speed. Kojak fit the role in this film better than Pleasance would have.

Central to the movie is the romance between Bond and Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), daughter of crime lord Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti , Once Upon a Time in the West). Bond saves her from committing suicide in the pre-title sequence, then begins to woo her to use her father’s connections to track down Blofeld, but falls in love with her in the process. An original song, “We Have All the Time in the World,” sung by Louis Armstrong, plays as a motif during their romantic scenes, which is effective in drumming up additional emotion, even if the romantic musical interlude feels like it was lifted directly from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, released two months before OHMSS. (This was the ’60s–every movie since The Graduate needed a pointless musical interlude.)

This makes the ending all the more tragic. Cynical viewers might say it was necessary to kill off Tracy at the end so Bond could continue his womanizing ways in the next movie—as if to hit a reset button. I disagree. Bond girls are often killed toward the middle of the films as part of the formula to provide 007 extra motivation to complete his mission—the “now it’s personal” motive. However, Tracy is killed at the final scene, and the film ends with Bond crying over the dead body of his bride, who is never really avenged in subsequent films. The ending is very emotional, and audiences left with their heads hanging. Bond films are supposed to end with him conquering the villain and getting the girl, preferably on a life boat or raft. The unresolved murder hangs like a cloud over the rest of the series.

That pretty much sums up the reason this movie “flopped”—they tried to change too much too quickly. I don’t mean replacing Connery with some guy off the street or opting for a more serious tone, but by not ending the film on a life raft—an essential element to the Bond formula.

Bond & girl on raft (Thunderball, 1965)
Bond & girl on raft (You Only Live Twice, 1967)

Lazenby walked away from the role after this one film in order to become a hippie.

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James Bond (Sean Connery) will return in Diamonds Are Forever.

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