ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE MOVIE REVIEW
We continue our countdown to this year’s SPECTRE with a weekly fix of 007. This week’s offering (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) coincides nicely with the birthday of Ian Fleming: the man who gave us the literary James Bond. Happy Birthday!
UNIVERSAL EXPORTS FACTFILE: ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE
DIRECTOR: Peter Hunt
STARS: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas
GENRE: Action/Adventure/Spy Thriller
RELEASE YEAR: 1969
James Bond 007 (Lazenby) meets his ideal woman in Tracy /Countess Theresa (Rigg). He saves her from the worst peril of all: herself. They fall in love, despite initially mutual reluctance. Meanwhile, terrorist force SPECTRE appears to have retreated without trace.
Bond enlists Tracy’s Father to locate SPECTRE’S chief, Blofeld. The ‘way in’ to the lair: snobbery and heraldry. The way out: deadly confrontation amidst the icy landscapes of Piz Gloria.
Can 007 discover and foil his enemy’s secret schemes? Will Tracy make an honest man of the world’s most lovably roguish super-spy? The stakes are high. This might not end well.
There has never been a ‘bad’ Bond movie. Each episode has moments of merit. But some stand out as distinguished in every way: story, plot, script, style, substance, set-pieces and symmetry. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS) is one of those films. Fans revere it; casual viewers can appreciate it. The book was one of Fleming’s finest literary efforts and the film is a faithful adaptation that stands the test of time.
It has two unique selling points. First, it’s the one where Bond gets married (spoiler 1: sorry!). Second, it’s the one whereby Bond ends the film at the tragic low point of his entire life (not spoiling that; you probably can guess or know already). The Bond motifs are present (action, adventure, glamour, exoticism, hints of fairy tale for the adult male), alongside tense realism. No Ninjas storming Volcano bases, space lasers or invisible cars.
The hero remains dynamic, masculine and strong; empowered rather than weakened by sensitivity and maturity. Much of that quality can be attributed to George Lazenby in his only performance as Bond. He excels in fight scenes. Think Daniel Craig is good at action? Prepare to watch an even better predecessor. You FEEL every punch Lazenby throws via raw, improvisational fight choreography.
Granted, he is not a natural actor (await Timothy Dalton’s Bond to see that kind of craft). Despite, or perhaps because of that minor deficit, Lazenby’s Bond is a relaxed everyman, with clear determination to succeed (note how he will not let go of the Blofeld case). That’s matched by authoritative competence in sports, spying and seduction.
Ironically Lazenby thereby delivers one of the most faithful depictions of the Fleming 007. The character was never designed to be especially complex. He’s a gentleman cad; ‘blunt instrument’ with refined tastes; a series of composited contradictions.
Momentary reflection or depth is designed as exception rather than rule with Bond; standing out because they are not what the man is ‘about’. Certainly in Lazenby’s day, the plot was the thing; character came from its twists. The Bond of OHMSS is a perfect snapshot of that story-telling model. And If Lazenby’s delivery occasionally goes a bit flat or somewhere between Alan Partridge and Prince Charles: forgive him. That’s probably what a real life Bond would sound like.
If you are after great thespian antics, Diana Rigg is a truly complex Bond girl. One never quite knows which way she’ll turn. We believe her love for James; but never truly trust her to love herself, until the film’s final, fateful moments.
Telly Savalas makes for a menacing Blofeld, posing a physical as well as intellectual threat. He invests the part with hints of gangster (read Fleming: he fears that kind of menace more than any international super-villain; as should readers / viewers).
You still get the civilised banter and petty snobbery. With 007 posing as a scholarly Heraldry expert; Blofeld interrogates him on lineage. As M might say in 2012’s Skyfall ‘It’s like being called into the Headmaster’s study’. Or a WW2 movie, made post war (there is something of the Nazi POW camp about Blofeld’s method and Bond’s inventive escapes).
Note also the dash of Dracula. The villain lives in a mountain-top cabal; weaponising the feminine form to satisfy aristocratic ambitions via vengeance on Britain. But vampirism is replaced by germ warfare and brain washing: a macguffin is as pertinent and terrifying today as in 1969. ‘Foot and Mouth’ also gets mentioned.
Gadgetry is conspicuous by its absence here, but the escapist hedonism is very much present. Bond may get married in the final scenes, but he more than compensates with exploits earlier in the film. There is a pervasive aura of luxury, without compromising suspense.
Lighting, sound and photography are excellent. John Glen showed his genius as editor / second unit Director. Glen would go on to direct five Bond films and is among Cinema’s greatest craftsmen. John Barry’s score is epic and the titles (set to sands of time motif) remain among the series’ best. Director Peter Hunt co-ordinated everything beautifully. Sadly, he never made another Bond film.
Every subsequent era of the franchise doffs an admiring cap to OHMSS. Continuity is never an exact science but Roger Moore’s films treat the film’s events as a painfully poignant moment in Bond’s personal past. Licence to Kill (1989) has Timothy Dalton’s Bond arguably endure a kind of breakdown; his friend Felix Leiter is cruelly widowed by Drug-Lord Sanchez (Robert Davi); evoking painful memories of Bond’s own lost love in OHMSS; so he goes rogue, seeking revenge.
Rumour has it that Pierce Brosnan wanted to remake OHMSS (1999’s World is not Enough makes several nods). As for this year’s SPECTRE: wait and see. But the title and logo alone prove the legacy of OHMSS is alive and well. Will Bond marry again? Lea Seydoux is playing the love interest. I’d marry her.
OHMSS is substantial and stylish. Required viewing; Grade A Classic Bond.