On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) — The most mysterious James Bond ever

“This never happened to the other fella.”

Kyle’s rating: Quite possibly the best Bond film and the best spy film of all-time

Kyle’s review: For a wide variety of reasons, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is an odd anomaly among the rest of the series. Most significantly, it’s the only film to star George Lazenby, a male model who won the role Sean Connery tired of — a role Lazenby left after his one and only performance here as Bond (see: Bad Idea Jeans). In addition, the relationship between Bond and his main Bond girl gets farther than any before or since, Teri Hatcher and Sophie Marceau be damned. And time is spent on actual character development! A lot of time! Wait, is this a James Bond film or what? Crazy!

Rather more important (to me), it’s the sole Bond film that really takes itself seriously. The fight scenes are hard-hitting, and uncompromised by goofy gadgets (whether that’s good or bad is up to you). Lazenby’s Bond is an affable sort on the surface, but when he gets nuts, he gets nuts. He’s great in the role, too. A little stiff, perhaps, but certainly up for the role of good-looking man of honor who uses a mix of skills and luck to overcome any obstacle. Amazing.

Aside from the pre-credits sequence wink at the audience, courtesy of a pleasant Lazenby quip and glance at the camera, OHMSS is that ultimate spy film that everyone seems to want yet doesn’t believe exists. It does exist. And it just so happens to be a James Bond film.

Did I mention the main Bond girl? Tracy is played by Diana Rigg, who is (in my opinion) the most beautiful woman ever born. It’s no wonder Bond falls rather hard, harder than any other girl in the series. How can I tell? Well, when the bells toll for thee, it’s fairly significant…

If not the ultimate spy film, could OHMSS be the ultimate Bond film? Maybe, actually. It’s in the details. The way Bond deals with the Contessa pulling his own gun on him rather perfectly captures the essence of the Bond character. The way he can go, quite believably, from anger to good humor to flirtatious, and back again, in a matter of moments. The actual spying he does, earning that “spy” moniker he carries around.

Best of all is the way you can always tell Bond is thinking about his next few moves. It’s always a mark of distinction in a professional review when they observe that the characters are always thinking, because that can help make a great movie. Half the time, if the characters were to think, the movie would be over in, well, half the time. So giving the characters enough depth that they seem capable of intelligent thought means creating a film that’s smart enough to hold them. OHMSS is a smart movie. Throw in violence, Lazenby’s charm and Rigg’s beauty, and you have one of the greatest films ever made. Yes!

OHMSS does require patience (it’s long!) and an appreciation for how the spy game used to be (see the safe-cracking sequence, where Bond allows the large photocopier-safe-cracker machine to do the bulk of the work while he sits back with a Playboy he finds tucked in a newspaper). It’s slightly dated, in other words, but just as relevant as it ever was. Don’t worry, though: it’s still pretty cool.

I think OHMSS’s albatross is how it’s so unlike the other Bond films. Die-hard Bond fans tend to dislike it because it’s so realistic and genuinely dangerous (where’s Bond’s raised eyebrow and seeming invulnerability to harm/death?), and non-Bond fans avoid it simply because it’s Bond. Such a shame, because a lot of people don’t know what they’re missing out on. If you’re looking for a quality spy film, OHMSS is just your bag. If you’re looking for a fresh take on the Bond formula, as well as the source of some of those darkly-themed lines in other Bond films (such as in The Spy Who Loved Me, when Anya gets under Bond’s skin momentarily with that one little personal tidbit about his past), you should definitely complete the Bond experience and see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. If for nothing else than for the location shooting, too: now that’s some good skiing!

Al’s rating: The film that should have changed everything.

Al’s review: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service nearly killed the James Bond franchise. I tell you this because context is important in a film, and, before I jump into my review, I’d like to provide some.

As with all things Bond, the best place to start this history lesson is with Sean Connery. In 1967, on the heels of the successful You Only Live Twice, Connery announces his departure from the role of 007, complaining that the films had become increasingly about the gadgets and less about the man using them. Two years later, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service opens, starring brand new Bond, George Lazenby (more on him later).

Perhaps heeding Connery’s reprobation, the story is serious and grounded as firmly in reality as Bond films ever get. It also features what is arguably the sharpest right turn that the Bonds have ever taken and contains the only plot point found to be worth carrying from actor to actor by future installments. But, see, George Lazenby isn’t Sean Connery and Telly Savalas isn’t Gerte Frobe, so critics and fans alike cry foul and declare the film a failure.

It actually grosses $87 million worldwide, and, while I’d be perfectly happy taking baths in piles of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck if I ever had that kind of paycheck, it pales in comparison to what was made by the three prior installments (Goldfinger grossed $124 million, Thunderball grossed $141 million, You Only Live Twice grossed $111 million). Compound that with Lazenby’s alleged unhappiness with the studios’ restrictions and it becomes obvious that enough is enough and it is time for a change. Or, rather, a hasty retreat to formula.

Connery, having hit a rough patch in his career, agrees to be paid a disgusting amount of money to suit back up and appear in Diamonds are Forever. Diamonds is goofy and gadget-laden, with cheap laughs and dumb bad guys, but grosses $116 million anyway and proves to the studios that no one is interested in character development so much as they are interested in fiery explosions and rappelling cummerbunds. With Diamonds considered a success, it opens the door for Roger Moore and the era of wacky faces, miracle-working gizmos, and women with names like Octopussy and Dr. Holly Goodhead (not that Pussy Galore was any better, but still…).

After twelve years and seven progressively more painful films (sorry, Kyle!), Moore hands off the tux to Timothy Dalton, who is determined to return the series to it’s literary roots — his Bond never quips, never stumbles, and never misses a shot. He’s also mopey, perpetually irritated and not any fun to watch. In fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t smile for two entire films. Moviegoers agree and Dalton belly flops after the failure of License to Kill. At this point, thankfully, the Broccoli family figures out that their franchise is flatlining and retires it until Remington Steele is available to save the day, circa 1995.

The moral of the story? Audiences of the sixties were stupid — and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a great film. A lot of the studio’s money and my time (especially that spent typing and retyping the last few paragraphs) could have been saved if only they had realized how good O.H.M.S.S. is and kept the Bond films on that track. Sadly, it is the mob that controls Rome. Or maybe it was France. I can’t remember. Anyway, the people spoke, and they were pretty cheesed at Lazenby and his grown-up spy stories. So instead of James Bond the complex, three-dimensional secret agent, we wound up with James Bond the Vaudevillian Goof-off and James Bond the Manic-Depressive.

Now, the success or failure of any Bond film falls naturally on the man in the tux, and, in my estimation, George Lazenby does a more than respectable job of shouldering the burden. He is no Sir Sean, but shows a lot of promise in the trousers of the big B. Admittedly, his “charm” is more Jim Nabors than Cary Grant, but I’m willing to chalk that up to inexperience and write it off, as I feel he succeeds on so many other fronts.

This Bond, for example, is imbued with a toughness that had been lacking in the last few outings. That may seem like a weak rebuttal, but watch him again. In the instances where Lazenby is allowed to drop that dopey Pyle smile and put on his game face, you can see the “blunt instrument” at work that Fleming always envisioned his 007 to be. His punches hurt and the pithy wisecracks that would so often drain the hits of their impact in the future are in short supply here. For the first time since From Russia With Love, and perhaps the last time until Casino Royale, there is appreciable danger in this film’s violence and you can see real exertion on the part of our hero. Certainly, I won’t proclaim Lazenby a perfect fit in this outing, but I do believe he had all the makings of a real successor to the mantle and it’s a shame he did not have the time to become more comfortable in his skin.

In terms of story, O.H.M.S.S. is not quite as solid or interesting as what has come before, but it does it’s job competently enough for my tastes. How many Bond plots to people actually retain, anyway? Remind me again what Aristotle Kristatos was after? Or Dr. Kananga and Baron Samedi? Exactly. Anyway, this time around, Bond is whisked from destination to destination, and, per usual, is conveniently supplied with all the exotic locales, beautiful women, and conveniently dangerous-looking hillocks and mountainsides needed to satisfy the necessary quotient of sex and violence that these films thrive on. The script even manages to leave room for a scene or two that doesn’t exist solely for the purpose of pushing the plot along. Score one for character growth!

The villain, unfortunately, will tend to grind things to a screeching halt from time to time. Telly Savalas’ turn as mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld is, in a word, lacking. The mysterious head of the terrorist organization SPECTRE, Blofeld has had a nasty habit of narrowly escaping Bond’s clutches time and time again while keeping his face hidden behind smoke screens, frosted glass, or well-placed ceiling ornaments. You Only Live Twice finally saw the faceless villain revealed and defeated (though not captured), so in this latest outing, the filmmakers need no longer trouble themselves with that bit of intrigue and can use him a bit more freely.

“Freely,” however, was apparently translated to mean “treat him in the least threatening way possible because the hook that made him interesting for three films is now gone.” Thunderball had him sitting aloof and secluded above his inferiors in a hidden control center with buttons specifically designed to murder his associates should they displease him in the slightest. O.H.M.S.S. has him pursuing Bond on skis wearing a leather cap and bright yellow aviator goggles. Do you know how difficult it is to be intimidated by a man who looks like Snoopy chasing the Red Baron?

Blofeld stupidity aside, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has some kick-ass action, sophisticated characters, Bond actually spying for once in his career, and George Lazenby in a kilt. If that’s not enough to make you want to check this out, it also has love, loss, betrayal, hypnotized supermodels, some short but memorable bits by Q and Moneypenny, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles… wait, I think I got off track, there. Regardless of which of the preceding may or may not actually be present in O.H.M.S.S., it nevertheless remains a great Bond film, a great spy film, a great action film, and one of the best looks you will ever get into the pathos and the logos of 007. In short, go see it.

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