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Published on October 20th, 2015 | by Rob

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On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Revisionist Bond

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The Story

Following their contretemps in You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service sees Bond hot on the trail of arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The evil machinations of SPECTRE’s Number 1 might’ve been foiled once again, but much to the irritation of the British Secret Service, he escaped to wreak havoc another day.

After randomly pursuing an interesting woman down a strip of Portuguese coastal highway, Bond is forced to rescue her from an attempted suicide. Turns out the woman is the daughter of European crime syndicate boss, Marc-Ange Draco. And this being a movie and all, it just so happens that Draco is the one man who can assist Bond with tracking down Blofeld.

Draco doesn’t work for free though. In exchange for his help, Bond must agree to woo his daughter, thereby curing her suicidal predilections by virtue of his raw, masculine virility. Hey, it was the sixties. That’s how they did things back then.

With the dual objectives of apprehending a criminal mastermind and seducing a gangster’s errant daughter, Bond pursues Blofeld to his hideout in an allergy research clinic atop the Swiss Alps. Posing as a genealogist, Bond finally uncovers Blofeld’s latest dastardly plot: brainwashing a group of impossibly attractive women into sterilising the world’s food supplies with biological agents, unless he is granted amnesty for his previous crimes. As far as blackmailing attempts go, it doesn’t sound all that practical, but then I’m not an evil genius.

Unlike some of the previous entries in the Bond franchise, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a close adaption of the Fleming novel, and is therefore considerably more character and story based than any other Bond flick up until that point. The spectacular action set pieces are still there, but the pace is more leisurely and there are several lengthy dialogue driven sequences. For all the background flapdoodle about saving the world from an arch villain, this is really the story of how Bond finally falls in love and gets married, and as such On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stands almost entirely unique in the Bond canon. We later see flashes of vulnerability in Timothy Dalton’s Bond, and Daniel Craig’s Bond would get to fall in love again in Casino Royale, but this was really the first attempt to broaden the emotional spectrum of the character and portray Bond as something more than a ruthless killer and serial womaniser.

ohmss title sequence

Title Sequence & Bond Theme

Unusually, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ title sequence features an instrumental John Barry composition, as opposed to one of the lounge / big band vocal crooners that was typical of the Bond franchise at the time. There’s also a signature vocal theme song: “We Have All the Time in the World” by Louis Armstrong, which is used to score the movie’s love scenes. The Barry instrumental is pretty cool and was also used in subsequent movies, but the love song is hardly one of Armstrong’s finest moments.

As far as graphics go, we get a distorted hourglass through which we glimpse images from Bond’s previous adventures. As a linking device it works well enough, but the series featured more visually impressive title sequences elsewhere.

blofeld savalas

The Villain And Their Plan

Ernst Stavro Blofeld, perhaps the most iconic of Bond villains, returns for his fourth appearance in a Bond adventure. Well, we might’ve only seen his arm stroking a cat in From Russia With Love and Thunderball , but technically he was still there. After his portrayal of Blofeld in You Only Twice, Donald Pleasence is here replaced by Telly Savalas, establishing a trend for future Bond flicks, in which Blofeld would be portrayed by a different actor every time.

In an amusingly blithe disregard for continuity, Savalas looks and acts almost nothing like Pleasence in the preceding movie. Apart from the fact that they are both bald, it would be difficult to imagine two such different actors. In some respects, Savalas is perhaps closer to Blofeld as depicted in the novels. Fleming characterises Blofeld as a large, physically powerful man, and Savalas certainly fits the bill there. But Pleasence, with his peculiar brand of softly spoken intensity, brought a creepy, understated menace to the role that was sadly absent in subsequent portrayals. Savalas is more like a regular Hollywood heavy and is therefore not as memorable.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service might play it straighter than any Bond since From Russia With Love, but the EVIL PLAN is just as endearingly bonkers as ever. One wonders why attractive women in particular would be necessary for sabotaging the world’s food supplies, the more so when Blofeld evidently has little interest in the opposite sex. Because Bond, of course. Utilising attractive women to carry out evil plots is expected of a Bond villain. Apparently, ninjas or terrorist spies just wouldn’t do.

The secondary villain for this outing is Irma Blunt, a fairly obvious re-tread of Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. As with Klebb, Blunt’s villain’s gimmick is largely based around the fact that she’s too old and ugly to be a viable sexual conquest for Bond. In Bond’s universe, female unattractiveness is equated with unfulfilled sexual desire, which inevitably manifests itself in a poisonous hatred for the world and all its contents. At least the implication of lesbianism seems to have been ditched in the character this time around. Equating homosexuality with perversion and villainy was another favourite trope of the early Bonds, albeit depicted more explicitly in the novels than on screen.

ohmss swiss alps

The Locations

A surprisingly contained movie for the Bond franchise, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features just the three locations, tied with Dr. No for the fewest in the entire series. We begin with brief interludes in Estoril, Portugal and in London (albeit only the inside of M’s office) but the lion’s share of the action takes place in the Swiss Alps.

Bond romping it up in the snow and in particular – at a posh ski resort – would go on to become a series staple. The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only both make notable use of the trope. But On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the first time we had Bond on skis.

Unfortunately, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service looks rather dated today, even in comparison to other early Bonds. I don’t know if it’s the choice of film stock or colour saturation or whatever, but there’s a dinginess to the location shooting that is largely absent from the other Bonds. If you’re looking for lush scenery and exotic locales coming to life on screen, then this probably isn’t the Bond for you.

aston-martin-dbs

The Gadgets

This being very much a Fleming Bond rather than your typical cinematic Bond, the use of outlandish gadgets is kept to a very strict minimum. Q demonstrates some radioactive pocket lint being used as a homing device early on in the movie, but the only gadget Bond uses out in the field is a routine safecracker.

Bond’s car in this case is notable for being an Aston Martin DBS, the first time Bond used a vehicle with “muscle car” styling, in marked contrast to the more elegant lines and curves of the iconic DB5 of previous films. No gadgets installed this time around though; the windows aren’t even made out of bullet proof glass.

Diana-Rigg

Most Inappropriate / Politically Incorrect Moment

Dianna Rigg’s Tracy Draco, in many respects, was the most fully rounded female lead to feature in the franchise up until this point. She is intelligent and resourceful, and her interactions with Bond are more or less carried out on equal terms. It’s also the first (and one of the only) instances in which Bond establishes a genuine emotional connection with a woman. The portrayal of the character is not without its problems, however.

The very serious issue of depression and attempted suicide is pretty much brushed off as a trivial symptom of Draco’s womanish hysteria here, apparently stemming from the absence of a firm, masculine authority figure in her life. Y’see, if a woman has emotional issues, all that’s really required is for a virile man of action like James Bond to take charge and show her what’s what.

If this theory wasn’t already questionable enough, it’s actually advanced in the movie by the girl’s own father. Marc-Ange Draco effectively offers to bribe Bond into marrying his daughter, so that he can cure her mental health issues by subjecting her to physical force:

James Bond: I find her fascinating. But, she needs a psychiatrist, not me.

Draco: [abruptly] What she needs is a man… to DOMINATE her! To make love to her enough to make her love him! A man like you!

Fleming’s gender politics were always deeply suspect, but never so creepily expressed on film as they are here.

Weirdest Moment

After foiling a suicide attempt and fending off some hired thugs in the pre-title sequence, Bond turns directly to the camera and says, “this never happened to the other fellow” – the first, and thus far the only instance in which a James Bond movie breaks the fourth wall.

Best One-Liner

[Bond reacts as a girl writes on his leg under the table]

Irma Bunt: Is anything ze matter, Sir Hilary?

James Bond: Just a slight stiffness coming on… due to the altitude, no doubt.

ohmss puffy shirt 

How Good Is It Really?

How much you enjoy On Her Majesty’s Secret Service depends largely on whether or not you can live with George Lazenby as Bond. While the much maligned Australian model has his advocates – much like any other Bond – he’s generally perceived as something of a weak link. Opinion of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service tends to be coloured by the fact that Lazenby simply isn’t Sean Connery. But to expect Lazenby to compare favourably with the iconic Scotsman is perhaps a little unfair.

This was Lazenby’s first acting role and it shows. His line reading ranges from serviceable to teeth-clenchingly awkward. James Bond isn’t necessarily the most demanding character in terms of emotional range, but the actor should at least appear comfortable in the role. And unfortunately, that’s not something Lazenby is always able to pull off.

Poke a bit deeper into this particular Bond’s persona, however, and Lazenby is not without his compensations. There’s little doubt about him having the right kind of look and the physical presence required for the part; this is easily one of the most athletic Bonds we’ve seen on screen, and while Lazenby might’ve struggled with the dialogue from time to time, he’s never less than convincing in the action sequences. This is a hard hitting Bond who can throw down with the best of them; there’s a satisfying physicality to his fight scenes that is amplified through director Peter Hunt’s pioneering use of action jump cuts.

Lazenby’s Bond is a younger, more feckless Bond, not quite as refined as Connery’s Bond and less concerned with a gentleman’s trappings. In one scene we see Lazenby idling flicking through the pages of Playboy magazine. Connery’s more mature and worldly Bond probably wouldn’t have seen the point in it. While Connery’s Bond knows the correct temperature at which to drink sake, one suspects that Lazenby might be more comfortable with a beer. It’s contradicted by the timeline of events established in the franchise, but one gets the sense that this is still a character in the making, not yet fully established as the unflappable, infallible super-agent he’s destined to become. In other words, this is precisely the formative Bond that was portrayed more explicitly by Daniel Craig decades later.

And because of his ingenuousness and lack of self-awareness relative to Connery’s Bond, there’s a suggestion of vulnerability in Lazenby’s portrayal that was never previously evident in the character. As much as women might’ve fancied Connery and men wished they could’ve been him, his Bond was never a character you could particularly relate to, nor feel much sympathy for. Lazenby is the first Bond that allows his emotions to dictate his actions, which makes the tragic denouement of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service all the more poignant. Pathos in a Bond flick? Whoever would’ve thought of it?

ohmss wedding dress

It was a conglomeration of firsts for James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The first time anybody had played Bond other than Connery and the first and only Bond film directed by Peter Hunt. It’s also the first time Eon Productions adopted a revisionist approach to Bond. By this time, of course, James Bond on screen had diverged pretty wildly from the character and stories as depicted by Fleming. The previous entry in the series, You Only Live Twice, had generally been well received, but it had almost nothing to do with the novel it was supposed to be based on, and there was the sense that Bond was perhaps going too far in the direction of fantasy and silliness. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, then, was the first of several periodic attempts to bring the character back down to earth and return to basics. As such it’s the darkest, grittiest, most realistic Bond since From Russia With Love; things wouldn’t get this serious again until Timothy Dalton’s License to Kill, 20 years later.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, audiences didn’t know quite what to make of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service back in 1969. Movies such as Thunderball had accustomed Bond fans to audacious stunts, fantastical sets and frequent sight gags. A quieter, more thoughtful Bond film, with one hell of a downbeat ending no less, was not necessarily what they were looking for. This was reflected in the box office takings. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the lowest grossing film in the franchise since the initial entry, Dr. No, made long before James Bond was anything like a household name. It would be inaccurate, however, to characterise On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as a flop. It was still one of the top grossing films of 1969 worldwide. It just didn’t do the same kind of business as Goldfinger or Thunderball, when public interest in Bond was at a peak.

But the same reasons cited for the relative lack of success of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are precisely what make it so interesting for audiences today. Following on from Dalton and Craig, the grittier, edgier Bonds are, by now, firmly established as part of the cinematic canon. There’s an increased public appetite for the more believable and fallible Bond portrayed here. As such, probably no other Bond film has been the subject of as much critical revision in recent times. Christopher Nolan, in particular, cites On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as one of his favourite movies, and an astute observer will notice bits of it turning up throughout the celebrated director’s oeuvre. In many respects, it’s the great lost Bond film, the one everybody neglected for generations, but can now go back and revisit through different eyes.

Is it really the best Bond then, as some revisionist critics have characterised it? Not really, no. For all of its admirable qualities, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is far from perfect. The plot’s momentum is killed stone dead during the sequence in which Bond infiltrates Blofeld’s mountain hideaway, disguised as genealogist, Sir Hilary Bray. Facile, interminably dull and largely pointless, it’s one of the worst sequences in any Bond film. The silliness of the sequence is out of tone with the grittier edge of the rest of the movie, yet fails in providing much in the way of comic relief. And it doesn’t do Lazenby’s portrayal as Bond any favours, forcing him to spend a sizable chunk of the movie pretending to be a nerdy academic type in a ridiculous puffy shirt. To add further insult to injury, Lazenby doesn’t even get to recite his own dialogue here; his lines have all been dubbed over by George Baker.

But if you can get past the mountain hideaway sequence, and if you can deal with Lazenby’s frequently wooden delivery, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a Bond to savour. It’s refreshing to see a Bond film place this much emphasis on story and character. It’s daring enough to credit our hero with more emotional range and vulnerability than ever before, and absolutely fearless in its commitment to delivering the most downbeat ending ever to feature in a Bond film. And that ending, by the way, is a great one not just relative to the standards of the franchise, but to movie history in general, packing an emotional wallop that will stay with you for long afterwards. If you previously considered On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to be a black sheep of sorts among the Bond flicks, perhaps it’s time to give it another look.

Rob

Rob

Movie and music obsessive, world traveller and frustrated writer. Rob can speak over 36 languages when drunk and is completely incapable of growing a beard.
Rob
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