On Her Majesty’s secret service is the Bond film with almost everything to offer everybody. All that made the previous instalments successful is here and has been done arguably better than ever. History’s cruel joke, however, is that the one thing OHMSS does not have is Sean Connery.
For many years I’ve tried to imagine what On Her Majesty’s would be like with Sean’s Bond, but the odd thing is that it’s almost impossible. The reason for this, ironically, is the one reason many people don’t like the film. That reason is George Lazenby, who makes this film his own. Of course, depending on your view, this could be the problem. Lazenby was not an actor, he was a model. He looked good in a suit and could handle the fight scenes, but what about the rest? I personally think George handles himself perfectly well throughout the picture and has the makings of a fine Bond. He’s not great, but he has presence. There’s more to him here than just posing with Bond’s Walther PPK gun. While the pre-credits scene on the beach ends with the girl driving off without him, and his quip of “This never happened to the other fella” seems a bit corny, it’s the prefect way to introduce him. It has an irreverent dig at the change of actor, and gets the obvious out of the way. Once it’s been said, we can get on with the story and George’s version of Bond.
Lazenby aside, On her Majesty’s is as epic as any Bond adventure. It has the women, the glamorous locations, the great villain and the thrilling action scenes. But this film has something else entirely. It has a love story, and it’s for that fact (more than just having a new Bond actor) that OHMSS is rather special.
Peter Hunt stepped forward to direct his one and only Bond film, setting out to create the ‘greatest Bond film ever’. He is obviously proud of the film, and I have to admit that he might have succeeded in his aim. The main idea behind the script was to go back to the roots of James Bond, an approach that would be adopted several times in the film series. After the more futuristic exploits in Thunderball and You only live twice, this probably seemed a natural diversion. What OHMSS does is take Fleming’s novel and give it a faithful and reverent film adaptation, while retaining the best elements of the Eon versions. Go and read the book and it’s a perfect companion to the screen action, as well as being one of Fleming’s best novels.
OHMSS deliberately relies upon real life locations where possible, rather than studio sets, to get a sense of reality. This generally works, while retaining the ‘high life’ glamour style that identifies it as a Bond picture. While there’s no doubting the imagination and splendour of Ken Adams’ giant sets, they are not missed here. The setting for Blofeld’s Alpine base is stupendous anyway, and it’s still there today. It’s a mountain top restaurant called “Piz Gloria” (and is named after its title in the film). There are also a lot of flowers in OHMSS, not least at the end of the film, and it’s a nice visual touch. Generally, the direction is very good and the film does come across as more of a ‘labour of love’ than perhaps some Bond films. There are scenes worthy of a Hitchcock picture at some points, and Hunt keeps the suspense intact throughout. With regards to the action, there are some excellent fight scenes, which show Lazenby playing to his strengths. The action scene where Lazenby slides across the ice on his belly, while shooting his rifle, is inspired. It’s a definitive Bond moment. There’s also some astounding ski action, on the icy Alpine slopes. This set the precedent for later Bond adventures like The spy who loved me and The world is not enough. OHMSS did it first, however, and did it better. Ski expert William Bogner and his team are to be praised here, as the film wouldn’t have been the same without them.
Diana Rigg is exceptional as Tracy, the woman who Bond falls in love with and ultimately marries. She is the reason why OHMSS has a heart and is so different to most Bond films. You can totally understand why James Bond falls for a strong and sophisticated woman like her. Telly Savalas is another surprise. Like Rigg he was fairly well known, and his character isn’t new. Blofeld had been the principal villain in the previous film, and had featured in all but two of the films so far. Despite any comparisons, Savalas makes the role his own and offers a tougher Blofeld than previously. In this incarnation, Blofeld is more a man of action who will get the job done himself if necessary. The only time Telly looks a bit uncomfortable in the role is where he has to sit around stroking his white Persian cat. A bit less masculine an activity that he’s used to perhaps! Another newcomer to OHMSS is veteran German actress Ilse Steppatt who plays Blofeld’s henchwoman Irma Brunt, a woman who bears a slight resemblance to Rosa Kleb. She is in charge of Blofeld’s “Angels of death”, a group of ladies who will be used by Blofeld in his dastardly scheme: a germ warfare plot that could kill millions! Interestingly, considering he’s due to get married, Lazenby’s Bond gets to bed a couple of the angels before morning, while in the disguise of Baronet Sir Hilary Bray. Those scenes are hilarious, and show that George could handle the quips and the humour quite well. It’s also worth mentioning the regular cast, who are as reliably good as ever. Bernard Lee displays his usual droll charms as ‘M’, barely batting an eyelid at the change of lead actor, and Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny) and Desmond Llewelyn (‘Q’) also help ease the transition.
The romance between Bond and Tracy is nicely handled; both of them seem reluctant lovers who take time to find their bond. Crime boss Draco is played with a likable charm by Gabrielle Ferzetti. Tracy is his daughter, and the original deal between him and 007 involves a trade of information regarding Blofeld, and an offer of marriage. If 007 does this, he gets paid. The fact that he ends up marrying her anyway, for nothing, communicates his genuine feelings. My favourite scenes in this film involve this couple. Never again would Bond seem as much like a real man with a real heart. He has a dangerous job to do, and does it as well as ever, but how can he let Tracy into this world? But she’s always there for him. Witness the scene where our James has been relentlessly pursued through a Swiss town and eventually sits down near an ice rink, exhausted and almost defeated as the net closes around him. Then Tracy appears on skates, and is ready and able to rescue him in her car and get him out of there. Rarely would 007 be given this kind of vulnerability on screen. There’s also another nice scene where she kisses him goodbye, early in their courtship. Of course, nothing brings a smile like Bond’s proposal in a log cabin. “I know I’ll never find another girl like you”, he says. Years later, I think he was probably right. And the montage of scenes, accompanied by Louis Armstrong’s heartfelt song “All the time in the world”, drive home the fact that this is no ordinary James Bond film. Incidentally, the song takes its title from the novel’s final chapter title, and Bond’s final words to Tracy.
The song doesn’t appear in the opening titles, as that is a showcase for John Barry’s OHMSS theme. And what a theme! His score for this film is possibly his best ever. Maurice Binder’s titles are quite inspiring, featuring a sand timer and images from past Bond adventures. They aren’t his best, but are still very memorable and certainly one of his most original. The homage to past Bond films crops up in this film several times; probably to ease Lazenby into the role and convince audiences he is the same man. We even get to see Bond’s office where he empties his drawers of memorabilia from the earlier films.
Peter Hunt’s original plan with OHMSS was to have the final scene as James and Tracy’s wedding car driving off into the distance as the crowds wave them off. It’s still in the film, and is a great scene, framed by flowers. It was a lavish and colourful Portuguese wedding and it looks so convincing that the locals joined in the ‘celebrations’! In what would have been the pre-titles sequence of Diamonds are forever the scene would have been reprised and continued. In the finished film, we see what would have ended up in the next film, and it’s a shock. Anyone who has read Fleming’s novel, or seen this before, knows what I mean. If not, I could spoil it for you here.
Tracy’s death is one of the most emotional scenes in any of the Bond films. The fact that Lazenby, who was not a trained actor, is perfect in this scene is just one reason why his detractors should think again. “We have all the time in the world”, says the stunned Bond, caressing Tracy’s body, as a police sergeant calls for help. Irma Bunt and Blofeld have killed her in a drive by revenge shooting.
Surprisingly little mention is made of Tracy’s death in later films, although two Roger Moore films mention her and her ghost seems to haunt the Bond of the more emotionally considered Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan films.
So, all things considered, I love this film. The best James Bond may not have been George Lazenby, but the best James Bond is in On Her majesty’s secret service. It’s not a difficult riddle to solve. This is a quality film and one of the best adventure pictures of the 1960s. Perhaps it comes over as an anomaly in the series, because of the style and the lead actor. Some people could argue it’s not quite like a Bond film at all. I’d say it could well be one of the greatest Bond films of them all.
If you’re not convinced, watch it again and consider it on its own merits. You’ll give it all the time in the world.