Review: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Welcome to my review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the sixth part of my challenge to review all of the James Bond films. I’m watching each film in turn and trying to figure out which one is my favourite. For more information, see my introduction here. You can read my review of the previous film, You Only Live Twice, here. Spoilers follow.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
(dir. Peter Hunt, 1969)
When you’ve just watched 5 Sean Connery films back-to-back, George Lazenby comes as a bit of a shock to the system. It’s not his performance—that’s completely fine. It’s his looks. It’s his slightly over-large chin, his full head of hair (Connery wore a toupee in every single Bond film he made), the clothes that remind me slightly of old photos of my father (despite the fact that my dad wouldn’t have been seen dead in that ruffled shirt or even the cardigan Bond affects when he’s in disguise as the bookish Sir Hilary Bray).
The change of appearance clearly throws the characters in the film too. Blofeld (this time played by Telly Savalas) doesn’t immediately recognise Bond, which is weird because they came face to face in the previous film. This makes sense in the books (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service comes before You Only Live Twice in the series) and apparently the film makers were going to throw in a line about Bond having plastic surgery as part of his mission, but as it stands this is a bit of a weird oversight in the film.
In fact, the plot of the film starts off making very little sense, relying as it does on either coincidence or a lack of explanation to get going. Bond happens to save the life of Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), whose father, Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a shady construction magnate with competing interests to Blofeld. Tracy is about to commit suicide when Bond happens along, although this swiftly turns into a brawl with Draco’s goons who are there because… well, we’re never actually told. I assume they were following Bond, but there is little by way of exposition in this section of the film, which really serves to introduce us to Lazenby and Rigg.
Then we have Draco capturing Bond at gunpoint only to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage, which is… interesting. Thankfully, both Bond and Tracy are unimpressed with the idea (at first, at least).
After the shaky beginnings, the film picks up mightily. Bond has no gadgets—there’s a scene near the beginning of the film with Q muttering about radioactive pocket lint, but otherwise the quartermaster only catches up with 007 at the very end of the movie. This is a film much more in the more realistic vein of From Russia With Love, and that is a very good thing indeed. Lazenby is more than up to the task of following in Connery’s footsteps; he is physically powerful, simultaneously swarthy and suave, and gives Connery a run for his money when it comes to cold quipping in the heat of battle (“He had a lot of guts!”).
We have a great rapport between Bond and M (Bernard Lee), whose dissatisfaction with Bond’s mission to hunt down Blofeld is brought to a temporary head early in the film. We have some actual detective work from 007 again, which we haven’t seen for a few films now. Blofeld has a typically brash scheme to bring the world to its knees—although even he is made more human and less of a caricature than before. There is action, of course: Bond is as physical in a fight as ever, and this is the first of the films to put him on a ski slope in a prolonged and wonderful chase scene.
Indeed, this film barely puts a foot wrong. There are weaker moments—the cold opening relies on weird coincidence as noted above, while later in the film Blofeld makes a very out-of-character proposal to Tracy that is clearly just meant as a scene to keep her alive long enough for Bond to rescue her. In fact, Diana Rigg’s Tracy doesn’t need much by way of rescuing at all, and spends more of her time saving Bond’s life. She is the strongest and best-presented of the Bond girls so far, and it is for that reason that the end of the film works so well.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is often called underrated, and that might be a fitting word for it. It’s a great Bond film that makes me wish Lazenby had returned; clearly, the studio had worked out what was great about their hero, and it just needed a fresh actor to come in and make the magic happen.
Title song: This is the first film since From Russia With Love to not have a full song over the intro credits, instead playing the excellent On Her Majesty’s Secret Service theme. As with the earlier film, however, there was a song recorded specially for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Louis Armstrong’s seminal We Have All The Time In The World.
Greatest moment: Bond straps on a set of skis and hurls himself down a mountain with Blofeld’s goons in pursuit.
Worst moment: Blofeld proposes to Tracy. Why?
Best gadget: Huh. Does the radioactive pocket lint get this by default? There’s a giant safecracker-slash-photocopier that Bond employs halfway through the film, but otherwise this is pretty much a gadget-free zone.
[I know there’s a suitably famous quote just prior to the opening credits, but it was knocked off the top spot by this mad recording used to brainwash one of Blofeld’s girls]
Ernst Blofeld: I’ve taught you to love chickens, to love their flesh, their voice.
Most obvious product placement: Playboy magazine gets a great spot when Bond steals a copy from a Swiss lawyer’s office. It’s played for laughs and actually doesn’t detract overly from the film.
Verdict: As I said above, I found this film every bit as entertaining and well-thought out as From Russia With Love. I’m putting it in the lead spot on account of the soundtrack being utterly awesome, which is as good a deciding factor as any other.
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (dir. Peter Hunt, 1969)
- From Russia With Love (dir. Terence Young, 1963)
- Goldfinger (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1964)
- Dr No (dir. Terence Young, 1962)
- You Only Live Twice (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1967)
- Thunderball (dir. Terence Young, 1965)
Sean Connery comes back for a swan-song next time in Diamonds Are Forever.