On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – The 6th James Bond Film; The 1st (of 1) George Lazenby Films – Directed by Peter Hunt – Starring George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Frezetti, Ilse Steppat, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, and Bernard Lee.
While I wouldn’t put ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE alongside either CASINO ROYALE or GOLDFINGER, and while George Lazenby’s James Bond oozes this “happy to be here” vibe that just seems completely wrong in some scenes, this is a fantastic movie that can stand alongside any other film in the franchise’s run.
What’s smart about SERVICE is that this is a fully-realized movie that both stands on its own and fits into the larger, ongoing SPECTRE story. Whatever faults Lazenby has, the filmmakers have wisely decided to play to his strengths – that is, he keeps quiet, is good at the physical stuff, and he reacts accordingly.
It’s that last part that’s the most unnerving. Bond should act, not react, and yet Lazenby’s Bond basically does the opposite and reacts more than acts. There’s never really a moment on screen where you’re like, “That’s the coolest guy in the room.” Instead, Lazenby’s Bond is like a master counter puncher. Nearly everything in the film that happens, happens to him before he happens to it. When he seduces Woman #2 at Blofeld’s research institute, it’s almost like he’s a guy who’s already hit the jackpot on a slot machine (Woman #1 seduced him during dinner) and finds an extra quarter in his pocket and figures, “What the heck? Let’s give this here machine another spin.”
The reactive take on the character is different from Connery’s super-confident Bond, and that could potentially harm SERVICE in the eyes of viewers, but the film is smart enough to see it all the way through to the end, so at the very least you’re given a cohesive approach that plays to the actor’s strengths. SERVICE commits to Lazenby’s Bond, and builds a film around him in a manner that must make Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton a tad envious.
It’s almost a shame, too, that this movie is a continuation instead of a reboot because it is a bit silly that we’ve got a new Bond and a new Blofeld (Savalas) and a different take on the character and the film. Whatever that goofy poster on the upper left there makes you think, SERVICE has none of the silly gadgets that have plagued the recent Connery films. Indeed, only GOLDFINGER really gets the over-the-top bad guy more right that SERVICE does. Blofeld’s got this megalomaniacal crazy-ass plot, and he’s got a private estate tucked away in the mountains, and he’s got his henchmen, and he’s got his “angels of death” – a collection of would-be Playmates walking around in their nighties – but the film manages to make it all seem perfectly reasonable in the same way that Auric Goldfinger made his actions seem plausible.
Telly Savalas is great as Blofeld. Gone is the nerdy, physically soft Blofeld of Donald Pleasence from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and in his place is Savalas in all of his “Who luvs ya, baby?” glory. In this film, it’s Blofeld who’s the coolest guy in the room just by sheer force of will. He’s totally at home in his mountain palace/allergy treatment facility, surrounded by gorgeous women who he’s brainwashing into becoming sleeper agents, ready to demand the world gives him whatever he wants.
When he finally recognizes Bond (who’s pretending to be Sir Hilary Bray, a professor from the College of Arms), he’s standing and pacing and Bond is just sitting there taking it all in. Bond’s not tied up or tied down or drugged – he’s just sitting on the couch and reacting to what Blofeld says. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – in this part of his portrayal Lazenby is in line with everyone else who lets the blowhard talk so you can gather information, but given the silly shirt he’s wearing, it does make Bond look a bit weak.
There’s two plots competing in SERVICE. The first is the love arc with Bond romancing the Contessa Teresa di Vincenzo. Tracy is played by Diana Rigg and she’s completely amazing from first frame to last. Tracy’s father offers Bond a bribe to marry his wild daughter, but Bond is more interested in the information Daddy can give him about the location of Blofeld. Bond and Tracy do fall in love, however, and as the film takes them through this long arc you end up really caring about her and caring about the couple. Every so often (FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, CASINO ROYALE) you really do get to see Bond fall in love and here it’s wonderfully played. Rigg and Lazenby don’t always have fantastic chemistry, but Rigg is so good that it more than compensates.
Lazenby’s Bond has this almost sophomoric attitude towards women. While he’s ostensibly bedding two women at Blofeld’s to get information from them, it really comes across as just him being horny with the information a happy side benefit. He’s so immature when it comes to women that he actually steals the Playboy centerfold from someone’s office. That’s just dumb, but I suppose it’s there to balance off his actual, developing love for Tracy.
The two plots combine when Bond makes his escape from Blofeld’s retreat in a really long, really well-executed chase scene on skis down the side of the mountain, where he eventually runs into Tracy. The two of them escape (the initial escape/chase sequence moves through several different segments), eventually defeating Blofeld and getting married, only to have Blofeld and his assistant drive by and gun Tracy down.
It’s a powerful ending, with Bond holding his dead wife in his arms as he tells a police officer, “It’s okay. We have all the time in the world.” The film then clomps all over it by queuing up the Bond theme. I guess they do this to send people out of the theater all happy, but it’s a downer ending and the film should have the decency to let it happen. For the filmmakers to show such strength in sticking to their character and their story for almost two and half hours and then blow it at the end is a shame.
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is a long film with a long title, and alongside the Dalton films it’s the most overlooked of the EON Productions, but it shouldn’t be because it’s a really good movie, and definitely one of the best of the entire series.