James Bond 007: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the most interesting films in the entire Bond series—and one of the best. What most people remember about the film is the fact that a relatively unknown Australian model named George Lazenby takes over the role of Bond. But it’s unique for a number of other reasons as well, such as director Peter Hunt’s excellent action sequences and the way that the story gives Bond a more developed emotional journey than almost any other film in the series (at least until the more recent Daniel Craig films). On Her Majesty’s Secret Service takes Bond in a different direction than Thunderball and You Only Live Twice in order to make up for the irreplaceable loss of Sean Connery, and for the most part it succeeds wonderfully. However, the return of Connery for the sequel would mean that this film sadly remains an oddity in the series, as the filmmakers returned to the trajectory set out in the preceding two films.

The truth is that to many in 1969, the Bond series was beginning to look a little bit stale. Both Thunderball and You Only Live Twice were huge hits, but after five films and in the waning of the 60s, the character of Bond was beginning to look a bit like an anachronism of British imperialism and stodginess, not to mention the character’s misogyny and cruelty. For this reason, Connery had decided during the filming of You Only Live Twice that that film would be his last (though, as it turned out, he would retire two more times from the character he birthed on the big screen, returning for Diamonds Are Forever and the non-Eon production, Never Say Never Again). So, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was going to require the casting of a new actor as James Bond. The producers at Eon ended up auditioning hundreds of actors, before settling on Lazenby, an Australian model with little film acting experience save for some ads for Fry’s chocolate. But Lazenby had the right look and had petitioned hard for the role, going so far as to decking himself out in Connery’s suits and going to Connery’s barber in preparation.

The production also decided to bring in a new director, Peter R. Hunt, though Hunt was someone who had been intimately involved in the previous 007 productions as a stunt coordinator and second unit director. While in many respects Hunt’s fingerprints had been all over the series up to that point, he was determined to leave his mark as a director by pushing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in what he felt was a more serious and complex direction. Thus, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service abandons the lighter tone of the preceding few films, limiting the one liners and intertwining SPECTRE’s plot with Bond’s own personal quest in the name of love. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service addresses the film’s title, asking what it means to serve both queen and country and follow one’s own heart.

The film is based on one of Fleming's novels of the same name, and after the quite loose adaptation of You Only Live Twice, director Hunt hews very close to the plot of the eponymous novel for this film. In fact, On Her Majesty's Secret Service might be the closest of all the Bond films to the novel it’s based on in terms of events and plotting, only changing a few things here and there in order to make it fit with the previous events of the film series (the films and the books do not follow the same order). On Her Majesty's Secret Service follows Bond in pursuit, once again, of his nemesis Blofeld, this time played charmingly by Telly Savalas. Blofeld is going to hold the world food supply hostage in exchange for the world powers legitimizing him with a pardon and bestowing upon him the title of Count Bleauchamp. But this time Bond also goes on a personal journey, falling for and eventually marrying the Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, or Tracy as she goes by, played by Diana Rigg in one of the best performances by a Bond girl in the entire series.

In the film’s pre-credit sequence, Rigg, best known for playing Emma Peel in the UK series, The Avengers, portrays Tracy as someone tired with the life she’s been leading, and the action centres around Bond saving her from committing suicide. This opening eschews having an unrelated pre-credits sequence, instead setting up Bond’s relationship with Tracy and contrasting it with his current status with MI6. After Tracy’s father’s henchmen fight Bond, which allows Tracy to escape in Bond’s Aston Martin DBS, Bond turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall and noting that “This never happened to the other fellow.” It’s a rare moment of self-reflexivity upon the recasting of the role, and a light touch in a film that is otherwise fairly devoid of gags.

It was always going to be risky to recast one of the most popular film characters of the 60s, and the way that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service does handle the recasting—with that pre-credits line and by shifting the film’s focus to the things Lazenby is good at—is preferable to some of the other ideas that were floated in pre-production, like having Bond receive plastic surgery in order to infiltrate Blofeld’s Piz Gloria hideaway, which would explain the change in appearance. To this day there are those who claim that if only Connery had starred in this film, it might rank as the whole series very best. I remain unconvinced that this would be the case, even if I do prefer Connery to Lazenby. The film recast with Connery would be a very different beast if it were to make best use of Connery’s strengths: his charm, his way with one liners, and his ability to fill out a suit. Lazenby’s Bond is both more professional and more sensitive. Again, Lazenby’s relatively straightforward portrayal contrasts to Connery’s verve—I could never imagine Lazenby’s Bond pausing to toss flowers on his dispatched enemy—but it suits the story and the theme of dedication to country vs. self a sense of weight. Connery’s Bond was never that conflicted in his pursuit of hedonism, as Aren’s review of Goldfinger aptly points out. Lazenby’s Bond is believable falling in love with Tracy and expressing exasperation when M refuses to help him rescue her from Blofeld’s lair later in the film.

I’m of the opinion that Lazenby isn’t as good or iconic as Connery, but neither is he as awful as his detractors make out. Lazenby isn’t as funny or charming as Connery is as Bond. Connery’s Bond has a hard edge and a misogynistic streak to go with his surprising ruthlessness, cutting close to Fleming’s character in the novels but you also get the sense that he gets a kick out of being James Bond. Connery’s Bond is the Bond you want to be as well as believe in. It’s no surprise that Connery made him an icon. Lazenby probably wouldn’t have been able to make the character an icon. He doesn’t have the wit or easy-going charm of Connery, but he is thoroughly believable as a secret agent. Lazenby is arguably better in the fight sequences than even Connery was, selling Bond’s athleticism and military precision.

Lazenby is also surprisingly good in the emotional moments that he needs to portray in order to sell the James/Tracy romance central to On Her Majesty's Secret Service’s most affecting moments. For an actor with little experience, Hunt gets a lot out of Lazenby in the film’s climactic moment choking back tears and holding his wife’s body in his arms as he murmurs, “We’ve got all the time in the world.” Had Lazenby stayed on it would have been quite a different shift in the series, and Tracy’s death would have injected a kind of psychological depth to Bond’s subsequent hardening; a man who is cold and deadly because he doesn’t want to get hurt again. It’s a psychological type that would later be explored in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig’s Bond post-Vesper Lynd. Instead as a follow-up we got Connery in his worst entry, Diamonds Are Forever, and then more than a decade of Roger Moore hamming it up.

Lazenby, then, does his best to fill Connery’s shoes in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and doesn’t fall flat on his face. That alone is an achievement, but then the film fills out the rest of the supporting cast with some of the best performances of the series. I mentioned that Diana Rigg is great as Tracy Draco, the daughter of Marc-Ange Draco (played by Gabriele Ferzetti of Antonioni’s L’avventura), head of the Unione Corse crime syndicate. Tracy’s father, Draco, wants Bond to keep an eye on his daughter, constantly trying to encourage Bond to romance her and give her the “control” he feels she needs. Bond refuses Draco’s offer of a million pounds to marry his daughter, but continues his romance because Draco can help Bond get to Blofeld. Again, the personal and professional are intertwined in strange ways for Bond. His dedication to his country leading him to find the love of his life.

Tracy is believable as Bond’s equal. Rigg plays her with a weary confidence, a character who has seen her share of playboys and criminals and isn’t impressed by Bond. Some have commented on Tracy as the most “feminist” Bond girl. She’s capable on her own, not merely as a plot device or eye candy. Her strength contrasts with her father’s insistence that she needs a good man in her life. But she falls for Bond nonetheless. Lazenby’s Bond is one who ends up sacrificing the life of the playboy for one woman (after a couple of seductions of Blofeld’s “Angels of Death” at Piz Gloria first). Rigg draws the best out of Lazenby, selling their romance. Still, when taken in the context of the thematic exploration of duty, Bond ends up exchanging devotion to one woman (“her Majesty” the Queen of the title) for another (Tracy). Lazenby’s Bond is the Bond at the end of of the 60s, looking for purpose and a reason to exist and finding it in a person and a mission. Sometimes the person and the mission are one and the same.

In addition to the compelling love interest, the villain in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is particularly memorable. Telly Savalas’ portrayal of Blofeld is more engaging and charming than Donald Pleasance’s in the previous film (and less silly looking with his bald head). Savalas plays Blofeld as a supreme egotist, but never allows the character to devolve into a joke. There are elements of Savalas’ Blofeld’s charm and danger in later Bond villains such as Javier Bardem’s Silva in Skyfall. His plot to destroy the world food supplies through the women he invites to his Alpine “allergy clinic” is equal parts threat to the world and personal aggrandizement, involving surrounding himself with beautiful women (and giving Bond ample opportunity for seduction) and gaining a title. It also furthers the film’s thematic interest in the titles and allegiances that people claim, from the Queen of England to Tracy’s title as Contessa from a previous marriage.

John Barry’s score for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the series most memorable. The film’s title theme is used over the opening credits sequence rather than the original song, “We’ve Got All the Time in the World” sung by Louis Armstrong. After the original Monty Norman Orchestra “James Bond Theme,” it might be one of the most iconic bits of music in the series, both classical in construction, and of its time with its propulsive Moog synthesizer. Barry’s score goes a long way to fleshing out the film’s grand and romantic appeal.

Thematics and romance aside for a moment, some of the best parts of On Her Majesty's Secret Service are its action sequences. Director Hunt constructs the ski-chase that features Bond and Tracy fleeing Blofeld’s minions on Piz Gloria as well as any car chase in another series. The ski scenes are a thrilling bit of Bond action that have been revisited in later films (For Your Eyes Only, The Spy Who Loved Me, The World Is Not Enough, and apparently, in the upcoming Spectre), but also referenced in films like Inception as well. But On Her Majesty's Secret Service’s alpine action is still among the best: neither ludicrous, nor boring.

As I had mentioned above earlier, Lazenby acquits himself well in the action scenes, especially the final assault on Blofeld’s lair with Draco’s men. The gunfights and staging of the action in this final sequence pushes the action in the Bond films to a new level of kinetic excitement, without losing the clear spatial sense and classical construction that is a mark of the action the Bond series to this point. Hunt presages the quick cutting and propulsive rhythm of contemporary action films without devolving to a mess of quick shots. It makes On Her Majesty's Secret Service feel both of its time and surprisingly contemporary in its filmmaking.

Overall, On Her Majesty's Secret Service stands out as a fairly unique Bond film, not only because it is Lazenby’s lone outing as 007, but because of its excellent production values, thrilling score, and moving performances. It might lack some of the panache and 60s feel that Connery’s first few films had—the 70s feel like they are coming on strong in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, from Lazenby’s ruffled tuxedo shirts to the hippie chic of Blofeld’s “Angels of Death”—but On Her Majesty's Secret Service is still one of the series high points, and arguably a peak of quality filmmaking that the Bond series wouldn’t reach again for a couple of decades.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, UK)

8 out of 10

Directed by Peter R. Hunt; written by Richard Maibaum based on the novel by Ian Fleming; starring George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Bernard Lee.