Welcome to James Bond Revisited, a series in which I watch and review every James Bond film leading up to the 25th film in the franchise No Time To Die, set to release this April. Today, we examine On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
1967 marked the end of an era. For the first time in the series’ history, an actor retired from the role of James Bond.
Sean Connery, who had played the part since 1962, had finally had enough of the role that made him a household name. He felt that he was ill-compensated for what he viewed as an invasion of his privacy by paparazzi and rabid fans and announced his departure from the franchise after You Only Live Twice in 1967.
The producers were in a bind. Not only was Connery widely beloved but even the posters declared, “Sean Connery IS James Bond!”
So who do you get to replace one of the most charismatic actors ever to grace the silver screen? In a baffling move, the producers cast George Lazenby, a 29-year-old model known for starring in a chocolate commercial.
James Bond Revisited: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
The film opens with James Bond driving by the ocean where he spots a woman named Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (or Tracy for short) walking out into the sea. Bond rightly deduces that the woman is intending to drown herself and saves her.
Bond finds Tracy again at a casino where she is making bets she cannot pay and Bond offers his service. Tracy invites him to her hotel room where he is attacked by a killer looking for Tracy. The next day, Bond is abducted and brought to meet a gangster named Draco. Draco is Tracy’s father and offers Bond one million pounds to marry Tracy. Bond does not wish to settle down but agrees if this gangster can tell him where to find Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of the terrorist organization SPECTRE.
Bond takes a vacation from MI:6 but secretly pursues Blofeld. He meets Tracy again and pursues a romantic relationship with her. Draco gives Bond a tip, to go to a law firm in Switzerland. There, Bond learns that Blofeld is communicating with a genealogist named Hilary Bray attempting to prove his lineage so he can claim the title of Count.
Bond travels to Blofeld’s allergy-research clinic in the Alps, posing as Bray. There Bond meets a dozen beautiful women from all over the world who are being treated for allergies. Starved for male attention, one of the women invites Bond/Bray to her bedroom where he discovers that they are being hypnotized.
Bond is discovered and taken to meet Blofeld, who reveals that the hypnotized women will travel home, each bringing with them a biological weapon capable of causing the extinction of entire species.
Bond escapes and is about to be killed when he meets Tracy who helps him escape in a gripping car chase. That night, Bond asks Tracy to marry him and she agrees.
The next day, Bond and Tracy are caught by Blofeld’s men. They attempt to flee on skis but Blofeld sets off an avalanche. Bond survives but Tracy is taken prisoner.
MI:6 tells Bond that they will have to give in to Blofeld’s terrorist demands. Instead, Bond enlists the help of Draco to save his daughter. Draco’s men lead an assault on Blofeld’s base, Piz Gloria. The day is saved. Tracy is taken to safety by Draco and Bond pursues Blofeld in a bobsled but Blofeld escapes.
In Portugal, Bond and Tracy wed. As they are leaving for their honeymoon, Blofeld returns, and his henchwoman opens fire on Bond’s car in a drive-by shooting. Bond survives, but Tracy is shot in the head and killed.
Bond holds her tightly and laments that they had all the time in the world.
If you’ll permit me, I’d like to take time to discuss Lazenby’s gunbarrel which is astonishingly bad.
Until Casino Royale, every Bond film opened with the gunbarrel. This is a grand tradition with hefty significance. Before the audience gets a whiff of the plot or even an opening location, they get the main actor walking into frame and shooting the POV assailant.
As an actor playing one of the most iconic roles in film history, the gunbarrel must be a tense experience. This is your first impression. This is how audiences will meet the FIRST NEW James Bond. It’s a big moment that can define your take on the character. Some are sleek and stylish, others are brutal and clever.
Lazenby’s is god awful.
The problems begin almost immediately as the gunbarrel opens and Lazenby seems to be walking in place as though on a treadmill. The problem repeats for a split second before he turns to fire. Somehow, the filmmakers must have timed this effect incorrectly though why they didn’t reshoot such a simple setup is absolutely baffling.
Lazenby hits his mark dead center of the barrel, which to his credit, even the earlier Bond films couldn’t manage, but he does so by dropping to his knee, which presents him as unsteady, weak, an underfoot figure.
Imagine being Lazenby at the premiere. The film has only just begun and already it’s marred by technical issues and clumsy production.
It’s just the worst.
Bond Song/Opening Titles
For the first time since From Russia With Love, a Bond film opens without a song. Instead, the credits play the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service leitmotif orchestrated by John Barry. The track is dark, ominous, and action-oriented, almost as though John Barry was giving George Lazenby a James Bond theme of his very own.
Fun Fact: If the theme sounds familiar, it is because it was used as the instrumental track for the incredible teaser trailer for The Incredibles.
However, the movie also features ‘We Have All The Time In The World’ by Louis Armstrong which acts as an unofficial Bond Theme. Indeed, while the song doesn’t play over the credits (as tradition dictates), it does recur several times throughout the movie as an instrumental leitmotif.
The song is implemented in-full during the James and Tracy courtship montage, a first in the series. I’ll admit that Louis Armstrong is not what I think of when I think of Bond songs, though I find the effect pleasant.
‘We Have All The Time In The World’ is a wonderful song which lends a romantic feel. The title refers to Bond’s last lines, adding a darkly comic twist of the knife to the entire affair. Never has a Bond song been so intentionally ironic.
The question is, why isn’t it the song of the film? It is possible that the filmmakers thought that to play the song during the credits and over the montage would be repetitive. Or maybe they decided to move the song to the montage in post-production. Either way, it is clear that the song was meant to be the main theme as illustrated by the title design.
Maurice Binder returns to direct the titles to diminishing returns. Once again, we have fit, naked rotoscoped women only this time their bodies are contorted into uncomfortably forced postures.
The titles also feature recurring images of time, adding credence to my theory that ‘We Have All The Time In The World’ was intended to be the main theme.
The titles begin with the Union Jack falling through an hourglass before turning into a martini, which is clever. We also get the hourglass turning into a woman’s hourglass figure, and James Bond holding onto the minute hand of a clock (running counter-clockwise for some reason), homaging Harold Lloyd’s famous scene.
Interestingly, the film makes great efforts to remind you that this adventure is meant to be a continuation of the Connery era, showing clips of the previous films running through the hourglass.
The end result is clumsy and ineffective, especially when you consider how dynamic and fluid the Bond titles would become.
The Codename Theory
Towards the opening of the film, James Bond saves Tracy from drowning herself. Instead of swooning and falling for him, Tracy exits leaving only a shoe behind. James picks up the shoe and grins saying, “this never happened to the other fellow.” This little line is often trotted out to defend one of the most frustrating aspects of Bond fandom: the Codename Theory.
For the uninitiated, the theory goes like this. Over the past 50+ years, James Bond has been played by six different actors, however much of the supporting cast remains the same (Bernard Lee as M, Desmond Llywelyn as Q, Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, etc). How would you explain this? Clearly, there is no James Bond. James Bond is actually a CODENAME given to all agents who inherit the 007 title.
Fans of this theory are also quick to ask “If James Bond is such a super spy, why does he tell everyone his name?”
This “theory” is utter cracked.com bullshit and a microcosm of everything that is wrong with America today. The question on every Codename Theorist’s mind is why do the other actors age while James Bond continues to be relatively ageless? Because they recast the role of James Bond but didn’t recast everyone, you nincompoop!
“But Lukas,” they shout, “It’s all meant to be fun! Why won’t you let us have fun?”
Because fun isn’t worth it if it means ignoring hard evidence.
The “this never happened to the other fellow” line in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is often treated as Exhibit A. Though there is evidence to oppose the theory in the very same film that is concrete and irrefutable. For one thing, Lazenby’s Bond has the same will-they/won’t-they sexual tension with Ms. Moneypenny as Connery’s Bond.
Later in the film, Lazenby empties his desk and takes a moment to cherish a few mementos from previous adventures, including Honey’s knife and Red Grant’s watch. The film even plays the themes from those movies!
Cretins will often point to Bond’s relationship with Blofeld. “Blofeld doesn’t recognize Bond despite the fact that they’ve met previously! Therefore he MUST be a new man.” The problem is that the theory never applies to anyone else. What about Blofeld? Did he get cosmetic surgery to look entirely different? And what about when Moneypenny is recast in The Living Daylights and Goldeneye? Is Moneypenny a codename too?
Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale is also dragged into the muck with people asking how Judi Dench can be M for both Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. However, Skyfall puts this issue to bed quite definitively, showing Bond’s childhood home and the tombstones of his parents, Andrew and Monique BOND.
Simply put, to place any stock in the Codename Theory is to ignore evidence in favor of something you’d prefer to believe. And while James Bond is meant to be enjoyed, there is a direct link between denying evidence so you can trot out this theory at parties and denying climate change.
Believing in the Codename Theory makes you a bad person and you should denounce anyone who does.
The Forgotten Film with a Bad Reputation
For years and years, I ignored On Her Majesty’s Secret Service entirely because of its reputation. The film is treated as the bastard child between Connery and Moore’s tenures as 007.
The fact that Lazenby only made one film also added to the stank that followed the movie like a dark cloud. What’s more, Lazenby is frequently cited as one of the worst Bond performers and his performance at the time was savagely criticized for being wooden compared to Connery.
On top of that, the movie suffers slightly from being the first Bond film that I think you could describe as being aesthetically dated. Unlike Connery’s films, which feature Bond in crisp suits that somehow seem eternally timeless, Lazenby’s Bond seems thoroughly modern and thus immediately dated. You will never see another James Bond wearing a ruffled shirt/kilt combo to a dinner party as long as you live.
Meanwhile, Ken Adam’s striking and iconic production design is replaced by Peter Lamont’s shag carpets.
From the gunbarrel to the awkward titles to the costume design, you would think that I absolutely loathe this film. On the contrary, I would argue that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is damn near a masterpiece.
Directed by Peter Hunt, who edited Bond films previously, and shot by Michael Reed, the film has a production that exudes confidence. Peter Hunt’s experience in the editing bay seems to have given him a preternatural sense of what is needed to bring the action scenes to the next level. While the use of rear-screen projection in the bobsled fight is obvious, the scene is incredibly well-edited.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the most intimate Bond film to date. Instead of bedding a dozen women “just cuz,” Bond only sleeps with women for the job with the sole exception of Tracy whom he loves. Instead of bombastic action setpieces involving areal dogfights or dodging bullets through an enemy base, Bond fights hand-to-hand. Even the breathtaking avalanche is portrayed to bring Bond and Tracy closer together.
The Baddies and their Schemes
Ilse Steppat plays Irma Bunt, the secondary antagonist. Short, stocky, with a stern face like carved leather, and a thick German accent, Irma Bunt is a solid villain. While she’s less of a physical threat, she’s unsettling, and the scene where Bond tries to get in bed with an heiress only to find her lying in wait is effectively frightening. Still, it is impossible to deny that she comes across as Rosa Klebb 2.0.
However, the main villain of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is once again Blofeld, who the series is determined to make Bond’s arch-nemesis and white whale.
Blofeld returns as the villain, this time played by Telly Savalas. He keeps the bald head and fashion but drops the facial scar. Savalas is the first and only American to play the part. Unlike his predecessors and successors, Savalas seems like a true physical threat to James. You certainly couldn’t say that about Pleasance.
Savalas finds a unique balance of warmth and strength. He seems equally at home listening to classical music as crushing someone’s skull, not unlike Vincent D’Onofrio‘s Kingpin on Daredevil. He is cool, calm, and collected while simultaneously presenting as an unmovable object. Indeed, it’s the latter quality that makes him an exciting antagonist in the film’s bobsled finale.
Blofeld’s devious plan is to brainwash representatives from all over the world to spread his Omega Virus which has the potential to eradicate any species on the planet. It’s just the right amount of ridiculous and grand. What’s more, the threat of sterilization directly ties to Bond’s arc, to give up the life of espionage, settle down with Tracy, and have children. While Blofeld is defeated, his murder of Tracy metaphorically sterilizes Bond, depriving him of a future alive and flourishing.
Tracy: The Heart of the Film
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service works so well because of Tracy and the inspired casting of Dianna Rigg (who you might know as Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones).
There’s no question that Diana Rigg is attractive; all Bond Girls are. No, what separates her from the pack at the time is her surprisingly intimate portrayal and character development.
We often hear actresses in the series referred to as “Bond’s equal.” In my opinion, Tracy is the first time it has been done perfectly. She’s no superspy but she doesn’t have to be. She is confident, competent, damaged, and strong. Just like Bond.
We first meet Tracy walking into the ocean with the intention of committing suicide. Later, Bond finds her gambling, making bets she cannot possibly afford to pay off. She isn’t a dangerous woman but she lives dangerously and she does it all with a posh accent. She’s a risk-taker with an air of sophistication. Like James Bond.
But most importantly, she feels isolated by those around her. She has a father figure who attempts to sell her off to a dominant man which she resists. After Bond saves her from drowning he tries to put on the old “Bond. James Bond,” charm to no effect. While she begins to develop feelings for James early on in the film, she doesn’t truly fall for him until they spend a night together in a barn in Switzerland, after he has been vulnerable in front of her.
Her relationship with James develops slowly and tenderly over the film’s 144-minute runtime becoming one of mutual respect and admiration that feels earned, rather than forced. When they are reintroduced on the ice skating rink, the filmmakers intentionally put Bond on his knees looking up at her. He is vulnerable. She is in charge. This is an experience neither has experienced before and it changes them.
When he asks her to marry him she hesitates. She’s not won over by him immediately nor is she forced into a sexual relationship. She is thoughtful and careful from a life of pain and disappointment. Just like Bond.
She gets slapped around, but she also gets the upper hand on her assailants. She is the one behind the wheel in the Switzerland chase sequence and in the climax the ‘Bond Theme’ plays over her fight.
Tracy is one of the great achievements of the Bond series, a character with tremendous pools of empathy. You really believe that she and James have found one another, that they are perfect for each other, which makes the ending all the more gut-wrenching.
In my opinion, the best Bond films are the ones that portray James as more than an archetype but as a character of flesh and blood. He is at his most compelling not when he is a ‘shag and shoot’ fantasy but a tragic figure who throws himself into his work and is punished by the universe for being vulnerable. In a franchise with 25 films to its name, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of only a handful of films to pull this off and it does so masterfully because of Tracy.
Poor George Lazenby
The story of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of tragedy both on and off-screen.
George Lazenby’s rise and fall as 007 was fast and meteoric. The actor claims he took a date to see a Bond film and watched as the woman’s affections shifted from him to Sean Connery. He knew he wanted to be James Bond. Not Sean Connery. James Bond himself.
After hearing that Connery was considering leaving the series, Lazenby, who was an Australian model with minimal acting experience, visited Connery’s barber and his tailor on Saville Row to get that Sean Connery look. He then walked into EON Productions and said: “I hear you’re looking for me.”
Against all odds, Lazenby was able to con his way into the most coveted role in the world, proving himself capable of fighting, swimming, and (according to him), screwing, as 007 should.
And then it all fell apart.
Despite being offered a seven picture contract, Lazenby’s agent, the radical Mr. Ronan O’Rahilly convinced him that 007 was on his way out. The ’60s were ending and the hippie era was poised to dominate the future.
On top of that, and maybe because of it, Lazenby bristled with the cast and crew behind the scenes. Diana Rigg accused him of being unable to act and Lazenby, in turn, accused her of eating garlic before their kissing scenes.
Tempers flared but Producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli were used to that from dealing with Connery. The nail in the coffin came when Lazenby appeared at the premiere sporting long hair and a beard. That may have been the fashion of the time, sure. But that was not what the producers wanted for the star of their Man’s Man motion picture. From their perspective, the star was out of control. The reviews compared him negatively to his predecessor, and that was all the producers needed.
Lazenby was unceremoniously fired. Connery was brought back on board at an exorbitant rate for one last hurrah, and the rest is history.
Game Recognize Game
Time has been exceedingly kind to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with no less than Christopher Nolan calling it his “favorite Bond.” It is easy to see why.
While Goldfinger and From Russia With Love are undisputed classics and You Only Live Twice is grand and insane, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is its own self-contained story. Throughout this article, I’ve done something I’ve never done in these articles or in my life, referred to the character as ‘James.’
Losing Connery and getting Lazenby instead is a blessing and a curse. If Connery had gotten this script and given a Goldfinger-level performance, this film might have been universally praised and acknowledged for its greatness. But perhaps the film would have become “just another Bond adventure.”
By resetting ever so slightly, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service becomes a film of its very own. While I wouldn’t necessarily call this a character piece, it is the most daring and mature. It asks the most of Lazenby (who may or may not have been up to the task) and it asks the most of the audience.
After James and Tracy’s wedding, just before he gets into the car, James tosses his hat to Moneypenny who holds back tears, not because James Bond is married and now she’ll never get him but because this devil-may-care man of action has put aside his toys and settled down. She weeps lovingly for his development as a man.
And when that development is cut short in the quickest and cruelest way, I wept as well. I wasn’t expecting to but something broke inside me. I felt as though I had been robbed of a bright and beautiful future. I was absolutely wrecked. And I can’t recommend that experience enough.