The 007 Collective is a bi-monthly column in which I revisit every official feature in the James Bond franchise and review how they hold up today. Along with a review of each film, each article in this 10-month-long series will dive into the historical place and production of each film in question. It will also feature a dossier i.e. a fact sheet with superlatives, ratings, rankings, best, worsts and other fun stuff in line with the format you’ve seen in my annual Year in Superlatives articles. This project isn’t meant to be the final word on the Bond franchise. It’s merely my take on the series. For previous entries, click here.
After a month-and-a-half hiatus, The 007 Collective returns with the sixth entry in the James Bond franchise, and the only one to star Australian George Lazenby as James Bond… ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE.
Mission Title: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
James Bond: George Lazenby
Release Date: December 18, 1969
Source Material: Based on the novel “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” by Ian Fleming
Tagline: Far up! Far out! Far more! James Bond 007 is back!
James Bond’s hunt for Blofeld leads him to the Swiss Alps where the Nehru Suit-wearing villain, under the moniker of Count De Bleuchamp, has established a top secret high-tech… allergy research institute? Disguising himself as a mild-mannered genealogist named Sir Hilary Bray, rather hilariously, Bond tries to uncover the plot behind the institute and the bevy of beautiful women who are staying there. On the way, he meets and falls in love with the fiercely independent and whip-smart countess Tracy di Vicenzo, a woman who will change the course of his life.
How do you judge the quality of a Bond movie? Do you go by the performance of its star or by how all of the film’s individual elements work in unison to tell a cohesive story? You would think it’d be the latter but it seems like all everyone talks about when it comes to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is how bad one-time-and-done-James-Bond George Lazenby was in the role. And that isn’t fair. Sure, he never truly looked comfortable in the role, and he didn’t have the gravitas, charisma and ruthless devil-may-care screen presence of Connery but he’s far from the “terrible” reputation he’s been saddled with for 45 years. Granted, he was never a great actor (or even a very good one for that matter) but as far as James Bond goes… he’s actually quite good.
Equally adept at physically-demanding action sequences as well as emotionally-driven romantic ones, Lazenby had a little bit of everything that the role demanded – he was suave, sexy, brutish, funny, cheesy and even romantic. He also brandished a gentleness that Connery would never be able to match. On top of it all, the man knew how to wear a suit. And my God, he could rock a kilt! Given some more experience with the role, I’d think he would have grown into a terrific Bond… had he not been such a bone-headed nitwit and thrown it all away.
After the excesses of You Only Live Twice (a movie I enjoy despite its near-barbaric racial and gender stereotypes), Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman decided to dial back the spectacle significantly for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the sixth entry in the franchise. With Sean Connery, their golden goose, having abandoned the nest on not the best of terms, the duo decided that the next film in the franchise would be a reboot of sorts; a return to the novelistic, story-driven narrative of From Russia with Love and Dr. No instead of the cartoonish Goldfinger and Thunderball.
Film editor Peter Hunt, who had set the tone of the series with his ground-breaking work on four of the five previous movies including Goldfinger, was given the director’s seat after promising a movie unlike any of the others. And he sure as hell lived up to that promise. Of all the earlier films in the Bond franchise, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service might be the one that holds up best on multiple viewings. It is expertly paced, muscularly plotted and told with the confidence of a seasoned pro. The acting, from Lazenby to Diana Rigg’s tremendous Bond girl Tracy, arguably the best of the series, to Telly Savales’ devious Blofeld is uniformly fantastic as well.
For the first half of the picture, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is exactly what the producers promised it would be. Action takes a back-seat to espionage work and surprisingly, romance! As previously stated, Lazenby’s Bond wasn’t a mindless thug looking for a quick fuck but someone who actually viewed women as more than just objects. Sure, he still makes a point to get some action from time to time but by the time the film hits its third act, he’s very much in love – a one woman man! Save for the character’s relationship with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, Bond’s relationship with Tracy (wonderfully played by Diana Rigg) may be the best depiction of a romantic relationship in the franchise’s 50-year-old history. There was a humanity to this Bond that was curiously missing in Connery’s iteration, no matter how insanely fun the Scotsman’s work was. This is a Bond who is actually depicted as being terrified during one pivotal moment; a man overcome by paranoia and is afraid of dying in another. And a guy who gets down on one knee and movingly proposes marriage in another. I can’t fathom Connery ever agreeing to performing scenes like that.
Of course, with a new Bond and a drastic tonal shift, Broccoli and Saltzman were clever enough to comfort viewers that while this Bond had a new face and was a romantic, he was still indeed the good ‘ol Bond that they’d grown to love. As such, the film is peppered with callbacks to the previous films. The fantastic opening title sequence, scored to John Barry’s stunning rendition of Monty Norman’s iconic theme, features many iconic scenes from previous movies while our first visit to Bond’s office is filled with cleverly-placed musical cues whenever Bond picks up gadgets used in previous movies. The movie even opens with Lazenby breaking the fourth wall, uttering the now famous line, “This never happened to the other fellow!”
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service may be a romantic drama cum espionage thriller in its first half but once the action moves to the Swiss Alps, and the character beats are all established, it becomes a wall-to-wall action movie with some of the most breathtaking and artfully-shot action sequences of the entire franchise. Like Spielberg’s work in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hunt jumps from one kinetic action set-piece to the next at a breakneck pace, giving viewers just enough time to breath before dovetailing into the next big suspense-fueled action sequence. Of particular note is a ski chase at night, a car chase in the snow, a bobsled chase, and the big finale at Blofeld’s snow-covered headquarters – a sequence that Christopher Nolan paid homage to in Inception. The movie also benefitted from Telly Savalas’ memorable turn as Blofeld. Donald Pleasence’s work in You Only Live Twice may be the actor best associated with the role, what with his iconic facial scar and Nehru Suit but it was Savalas’ iteration of Blofeld as a ruthless, devious and cunning villain, athletic as well as brainy that made him the best match for Bond.
Now, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service isn’t immune to problems. Like many of the other Bond movies of its era, its gender and racial politics are woefully troublesome. It’s also astonishingly sexist – a subplot finds Bond being paid off by Tracy’s “fun-loving yet physically abusive” father Draco, a notorious European gangster, to marry Tracy and show her how to be submissive woman! And as much as like Lazenby, a part of me wished Connery was the guy in this movie – just to see him stretch a little bit after his last two outings. Nevertheless, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a back-t0-basics Bond movie in the vein of Casino Royale. It was the type of film the Bond franchise, which had already begun its slow descent into camp with You Only Live Twice, deserved. Alas, audiences weren’t too keen on accepting Lazenby or the picture with the open arms they welcomed Daniel Craig’s Bond in 2006. Combined with the actor’s pig-headedness and his all-time moronic decision to resign the part even before the film’s release, the film’s never stood a chance. But as they say, time is the only judge of these things.
A bit of trivia: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service marked the debut of Bond series regular (and journeyman) John Glen. Serving as the film’s editor, Glen would go on to edit The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker i.e. Roger Moore’s two most commercially successful outings as Bond before making the leap to Director in For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, and both Timothy Dalton entries – The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill.
Director Peter Hunt spends the majority of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service‘s day-for-night opening sequence establishing George Lazenby’s Bond. The movie opens with M, Q and Moneypenny wondering of his whereabouts before cutting to a seaside resort in Portugal. We first see him from the back seat of his Aston Martin as he drives on a coastal highway at dawn. We’re offered peeks at his jaw as he lights a cigarette. A minute later, we see his silhouette as he spies a distraught-looking Tracy attempting to commit suicide by drowning in the ocean. When the camera finally reveals his face, it’s a smug-looking one that utters “Bond, James Bond.”, Except that moment is ruined by a pair of thugs who hold both of them at gunpoint. After making quick work of the two goons, Bond is surprised to see Tracy actually running away from him instead of falling for his charms. Amused by the situation, he casually looks on and remarks, “This never happened to the other fellow.” Cue the title sequence.
Emblematic of the film that follows it, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s cold open is stylishly-shot, find the right mixture of romance, action and humor and is over before Lazenby can truly make an impact. It’s not as impactful as some of the stunt-heavy sequences that would come to define the Bond cold opens in the 70s, 80s and 90s but as low-key as it is, it’s far from the worst.
Title Designer: Maurice Binder
Title Song: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” by John Barry
Famous Quote: N/A
Aside from Dr. No and From Russia with Love, the first two Bond films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the only Bond movie to feature a wordless theme song during its opening credits sequence. Although Louis Armstrong’s sublime “We Have All the Time in the World” is essentially the film’s main theme song, it only appears later in the movie. Instead, the filmmakers decided to use Barry’s brassy and energetic instrumental theme tune – a track that was famously remixed by the Propellerheads in the 90s and then used in most of the marketing and trailers of The Incredibles in 2004. Series staple Maurice Binder returned to design the title sequence again. Among the motifs featured are clocks, hour glasses, naked women, martini glasses, and the Union Jack – all which are used to highlight sequences from previous films of the series – again reminding viewers that we’re watching a Bond movie.
The Big Bad:
Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) – the egomaniacal sociopath and head of global terrorist organization SPECTRE. This was the second straight movie in the franchise in which Bond faced off against Blofeld after his rather small role in You Only Live Twice. As I previously noted, Donald Pleasence may be the actor most closely associated with the character but Savalas’ version remains my favorite to date. Depicted as a twisted version of Bond – a suave and refined gentleman but one who used his considerable qualities for evil – Savalas’ Blofeld was the only iteration of the character who was Bond’s physical equal.
The ice-cold, sadistic and diminutive Irma Bundt (Ilse Steppat) who functioned as both, Blofeld’s personal assistant and henchwoman. She’s the one responsible for the events during the tragic finale of this film.
World Domination Plan:
Using the Swiss Alps-based allergy clinic as a cover, Blofeld brainwashes a host of gorgeous super models from around the world, who he hopes to control, Mugatu-style into delivering a deadly contagious virus named Omega into the world. His end game is to blackmail the United Nations into offering him an unconditional pardon or else watch in horror as the entire world goes sterile. Not bad, Blofeld, not bad at all.
Primary: Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg)
The unforgettable Tracy di Vicenzo played by the outstanding Diana Rigg. Perhaps the best and most well-written Bond girl of the franchise until Vesper Lynd came along in 2006, Diana Rigg’s Tracy is a careless and care-free heiress who lives on the edge, harboring suicidal tendencies – that is, until she meets Bond. But unlike all the other Bond girls before her, Tracy rarely needed rescuing. In fact, in one of the film’s best sequences, it’s Tracy who saves Bond from certain death. For that, and other reasons she remains the only woman ever worthy of the moniker Mrs. James Bond.
Others: Ruby Bartlett (Angela Scoular), Nancy (Catherine Schell)
European crime lord and father to Tracy, Marc Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) who hires Bond to marry his daughter in exchange for a dowry of 1 million pounds! Bond takes him up on his offer only because Draco has valuable information on the whereabouts of Blofeld.
M (Bernard Lee)
Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), who sheds a tear and shares an unspoken emotional moment with Bond during his marriage ceremony at the end of the movie.
Q (Desmond Llewelyn)
In keeping with the low key theme of the picture, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was rather short on the gadgets. I only caught the following:
Spy camera – used by Bond to take photos of the blueprints of Blofeld’s Swiss Alps hideout.
The rather comical Portable Safe Cracker
ODDS & ENDS
Most Memorable Quote:
When Tracy frantically runs away from Bond after he saves her from drowning and then from a pair of goons.
James Bond: “This never happened to the other fellow.”
Least Memorable Quote:
Bond as Sir Hilary Bray trying to be suave.
James Bond: “My name is Sir Hilary Bray. Call me… Hili!”
Most Memorable Moment:
Of all the memorable scenes in this movie, the best and most powerful sequence is its very last moment. Having stopped on the highway after their wedding, Bond and Tracy are attacked by Blofeld and Irma Bundt. Having escaped the gunfire, Bond proceeds to rush to the driver’s seat of the car, only to realize that Tracy has been fatally shot dead. As a police officer drives to the scene of the assassination, Bond looks up at the officer, inconsolable and in shock, saying, “It’s all right. It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world.” – An iconic moment for the character and the darkest ending of any installment in the series’ 52 years.
Most Cringe-Worthy Moment:
Bond movies have always acted as time capsules – mirrors of the era they’re set in. During the late 60s, when this movie opened, the counter culture (hippie) movement was in full swing. The filmmakers even tip their hats to it in the film’s tagline: Far Up! Far Out! James Bond is back! Looking to capture some of the paranoia among older generations who looked down at the movement, Broccoli and Saltzman add a hilariously bad hypnosis sequence in which Blofeld’s voice is heard through an echo chamber uttering the following words as he hypnotizes the women imprisoned at the retreat. “I’ve taught you to love chickens, to love their flesh, their voice. Chickens!”
After breaking into a locked office during lunch hour, Bond coolly sits around the empty office, idly churning through the centerfolds of a Playboy magazine, all while the obscenely loud and slow portable safe cracking device breaks the code of the safe containing the blueprints of Blofeld’s Swiss Alps headquarters.
Most Touching Moment:
Escaping Irma Blundt and her gang of thugs, Bond and Tracy hide in a snowy barn overnight waiting for a blizzard to pass. After some small talk, Bond finally opens up to Tracy, telling her he loves her, and then shocks single men all around the world by getting down on one knee and asking ask her to marry him.
Most Shocking/Outrageous Moment:
It has to be the ending again. No scene in the series has quite packed a wallop as much as this one.
Best Pun/Double Entendre:
As Ruby writes the name of her room number on Bond’s leg under the table, Bond makes comically awkward facial expression.
Irma Bunt: Is anything ze matter, Sir Hilary?
James Bond: Just a slight stiffness coming on…
Worst Pun/Double Entendre:
A skiing bad guy chasing Bond falls directly into a snow blower which then proceeds to mince him, sending his bloody entrails all over the snow.
James Bond: He had a lot of guts!
Best Stunt/Action Scene:
This is a tie that I just couldn’t find a way to break!
The first sequence is the daring skiing chase in which Bond escapes from Blofeld’s clutches at the Ski Lodge and heads down to the village. On the way, he outwits the majority of Blofeld’s thugs, kills two, all while skiing with a single ski.
The second sequence is the glorious climax on the snowy mountain in which Draco and his team of professionals raid Blofeld’s headquarters. The scene was the obvious influence for the snowy finale in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The raid then leads to a thrilling bobsledding chase between Blofeld and Bond down the mountain as the former tries to make his big escape once again.
Most Dated Reference:
The comically large and outdated photocopier.
Number of Times Bond Has Sex: 4 (twice with Tracy, once with Ruby, once with Nancy)
Number of people Bond kills: 6
Bond’s Best Kill: Throwing a henchman off a cliff at the end of the skiing chase sequence, and watching him fall all the way to the ground to his death.
Locations visited (In order of appearance): Portugal, London, Switzerland, Swiss Alps,
Misogyny Meter: 8/10
Even if Bond himself isn’t much of a misogynistic dinosaur in this one as he was in the Connery movies, the filmmakers one up themselves with Draco – who fares the worst here. From offering Bond a $1 million dowry to marry his daughter in order to get her off his back to making comments like, “What she needs is a man… to dominate her! To make love to her enough to make her love him! A man like you!” to punching out Tracy towards the film’s climax and then excusing his behavior with an inane comment like, “Spare the rod, spoil the child, huh!” to his final line to Tracy in the movie… “Remember, obey your husband in all things.” The kicker here is Tracy’s snarky response: “But of course I will, as I’ve always obeyed you.”
Homophobia Meter: 5/10
Bond pretends to be an ineffectual and mild-mannered homosexual named Sir Hilary Bray.
Racism Rating: 7/10
The beautiful women at Blofeld’s allergy clinic are a who’s who of idiotic stereotypes of people from different countries. An Asian woman is depicted eating sushi while a black woman is shown eating a banana. Wow! Come on, guys!
Box Office: $22.7 million ($130.2 million adjusted for inflation, making it one of the five lowest-grossing entries in the series).
007 Chronological Listing: 6/24
Running time: 142 minutes
Companies: MGM, EON Productions
The 007 Collective will return in:
Previous entries in The 007 Collective:
- A View to a Kill
- Diamonds Are Forever
- The World is Not Enough
- Die Another Day
- Quantum of Solace