Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Imagine if Robert Downey Jr. became so bored with the role of Tony Stark that Disney made him the highest paid actor in the world just to keep him around. Imagine if at the same time Downey Jr. was phoning it in instead of delivering one of the best performances of his entire career as Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Imagine if, forced to replace him, Kevin Feige chose not to hire another acclaimed actor but instead went with an unknown from the other side of the planet who’d only recently been named Top Model of the Year. You now have a little insight into just how crazy the events preceding the sixth canonical James Bond film were. Reviled at the time by fans and critics, OHMSS was a flash in the pan between the Sean Connery and Roger Moore eras. It has since been reevaluated and is widely considered the best Bond film of all time. Perhaps the concern over losing Connery caused everyone involved to work to step up their game. From the music and scenery to the stunts, cars, and women, OHMSS is the quintessential Bond film. There’s nothing quite like it and, best of all, it’s a Christmas movie.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) begins with a bit of meta teasing as all of the series’ stalwart characters like M (Bernard Lee), Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) are all scratching their heads desperately trying to find James Bond and wondering when he’s finally going to show up. James Bond (George Lazenby*) finds himself speeding along the Portuguese coast where he’s cut off by a beautiful woman in a red 1969 Mercury Cougar XR7. Bond follows that car to the beach where he spies its driver, Tracy (Diana Rigg) throwing herself into the ocean. Tossing off his jacket and escaping his own Aston Martin DBS, Bond races down the beach. This is the first clear look the film gives at the latest Bond model and it’s something special. George Lazenby is nearly 10 years younger than Sean Connery and he gallops down the beach with a refreshing spring in his step. Connery is a fantastic actor, and Lazenby, a total unknown, is hardly his head to head match but the younger man brings a thoughtfulness, a humanity, a dashing swashbuckling spirit to the character. As Bond carries Tracy from the waves and tussles in the sand with a pair of large goons, Lazenby manages to uncover the spirit of fellow Australian action star Errol Flynn in the heart of his Agent 007. After the goons are dispatched, as Bond watches Tracy drive away, her kicked-off heels in hand, he wonders aloud, “This never happened to the other fellow” and the credits roll.
Stuck in the paradigm of necessitating the film’s title be part of the song lyrics, the filmmakers faced quite the dilemma in trying to come up with a tune to fit the words “on Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Perhaps in order to avoid the Thunderball (1965) fiasco in which Shirley Bassey’s incredible “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was re-recorded by Dionne Warwick before ultimately being replaced by Tom Jones’ “Thunderball” the titles to OHMSS are entirely instrumental and it is pitch perfect film music. The credits themselves are suitably self aware. Shots from the previous five films pour through a martini glass. The famous Bond girls, iconic villains, and the explosions all displayed, one after another, with equal weight.
After saving the day, Bond pulls into the Palacio Hotel near Lisbon where he enjoys another classic evening game of Baccarat at the Hotel’s casino. His game is interrupted by the woman from the beach, this time introduced as the Contessa Teresa di Vincenzo. She plays a bad hand, but Bond bails her out. He later tries to question her but is again accosted by a goons in another spectacular fight sequence. Back in his own room, Tracy holds Bond at gunpoint and the two spend the evening together. In the morning, she has left behind a red carnation and replaced Bond’s gun with the casino chips she owed him. On his way out of the hotel Bond is finally captured by the goons and driven down to Draco Construcao, a front for the Unione Corse, and brought before their boss Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). His first words, dubbed by someone doing their best Ricardo Montalban impression, are “Do not kill me Mr. Bond, at least not until we’ve had a drink.” Draco reveals that Tracy is his daughter, who has recently become a widow, and he wishes to pay Bond an exorbitant sum to marry his daughter. Bond instead agrees on the condition that Draco provide him with intelligence as to the whereabouts of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), the leader of international terrorist organisation SPECTRE and Bond’s deadly nemesis. Draco agrees and informs Bond that Tracy will be visiting him soon, for his birthday.
Bond returns to London where he flirts with Moneypenny, butts heads with M, and decides to quit over having been removed from the Blofeld case. Reminiscing over his years of service, Bond pulls out keepsakes from his desk drawer while iconic music from those adventures plays. Honey Ryder’s diving knife-belt, Red Grant’s garrote-wire watch, and the rebreather from Thunderball. Instead of writing his letter of resignation, however, Moneypenny saves the day and instead contrived things so that M grants Bond two weeks of leave. After both men privately thank Miss Moneypenny for her efforts, the next shot is Tracy arriving at her father’s estate where the party has gathered by a bullring. There, she’s ambushed by her father, his mistress Olympe (Virginia North), and James Bond. She quickly realizes she’s being manipulated and turns the tables on everyone by demanding Draco tell Bond the information he wants. Along with the whip-smart dialogue of this entire sequence, and the film at large, it’s frankly a relief that this scene exists. While Tracy is hardly a damsel in distress, it’s great to see her buck at the thought of anyone manipulating her life for her. Despite achieving his goal, Bond apparently spends quite a bit of time with Tracy, shown through a montage to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s “All the Time in the World” of them spending time together horseback riding, fooling around on the beach, and shopping in Lisbon. They appear, for all the world, to have genuinely fallen in love by the end of it.
Driven to Switzerland with his future wife and father-in-law in Draco’s two-door Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, Bond infiltrates the offices of Blofeld’s lawyer. Once inside, a fellow delivers to him a case through the use of a nearby construction crane. Bond uses the film’s only super gadget to crack the code on the safe and then photocopies the sought after documents. In this way he learns that Blofeld has changed his name to de Bleuchamp and has been petitioning the College of Arms to declare him the titled heir to the de Bleuchamp name. Bond reads up on heraldry and devises a scheme to impersonate with Sir Hillary Bray (George Baker) the genealogist Blofeld has been communicating with. He briefly returns to M for permission and then cements the scheme with Bray himself, under pretext that Bond is researching his own family history.**
Blofeld agrees to meet and Bond travels to the Swiss alps where Blofeld has built an allergy research and rehabilitation center high atop one of the peaks. Bond’s plan is to get close to Blofeld and convince him to leave his Piz Gloria fortress and travel instead to Augsburg, the ancestral de Bleuchamp home where Blofeld can more easily be captured.
Doing his best impression of Hillary Bray***, Bond is met at the train by Irma Bunt (Ilsa Steppat) a henchwoman in the same mold as Nurse Ratched or Frau Farbissina. Bond is taken up to the mountaintop via helicopter. The cinematography of aerial views of the alps are brief but fantastic. These pre-digital shots without automatic focusing are perhaps less refined than modern mega-budget pictures but they also feel that much more real. Bond arrives at the clinic, a hotel, lab, and restaurant built into rock and ice, where he discovers that the patients are made up entirely of about a dozen stunning beauties from around the world. Bond quickly seduces and is seduced by two of the patients played by Angela Scoular and Catherine Schell. He discovers the girls are being hypnotised for a nefarious purpose by Blofeld. The lightshow, bongs, and cassettes involved in the hypnosis are a little camp, but Telly Savalas’ wonderful voice easily sells it.
Bond is quickly found out and captured so that Blofeld can reveal his entire scheme. It’s a delicious plan which involves devising a virus so potent it renders whatever it infects sterile. Blofeld’s plan is to threaten to wipe out entire strains of domesticated and cultivated plants and animals by providing the girls, who presumably all come from farming families, with hypnotized instructions and spray bottles full of the virus. In exchange for not pulling the trigger on his plan, Blofeld demands the UN provide him with amnesty and accept his claim to the de Bleuchamp nobility.
Naturally, Bond escapes in a blistering sequence where he skis down the mountaintop at night while being pursued by goons wielding machine guns. Exhausted and cornered in the village at the base of the mountain Bond tries to hide amid the merry-making villagers and tourists to the music of “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Made”. He’s luckily discovered by Tracy, who helps him escape in her car. The pair are unfortunately tracked down by Irma Bunt and are prevented from phoning London. Bond and Tracy try to lose their pursuers by ducking into a stock car race and eventually Bunt’s car flips over, catches fire, and explodes while she’s getting out of it. The pair take shelter from a terrible blizzard in a local barn and Bond tells Tracy he loves her, for the first time, and proposes. Bond has been helped out of jams by strong women before, but this is the first time he’s genuinely been rescued. In the morning, the pair continue by ski where they caught in an avalanche deliberately triggered by Blofeld and Tracy is captured.
With M’s hands tied by the UN who has acceded to Blofeld’s demands, Bond goes to Draco for help and mounts a helicopter assault on Blofeld’s compound. Tracy, recognising her father’s voice over the radio masquerading as a Red Cross helicopter pilot, helps orchestrate her own escape and takes down two henchman. The whole place is detonated thanks to Draco’s wired explosives, and Bond and Blofeld barely make it out where they tumble after one another downhill for yet another pulse-pounding wintersport chase. This time Blofeld and Bond each find themselves in a bobsled racing down a course although this time, tellingly, Bond is the pursuer. Blofeld finds himself abruptly taken out of the race by getting his neck caught on a low-hanging branch.
With everything tidied up and the world saved, Bond and Tracy really do get married. Having promised Tracy that he would quit the Secret Service to be with her the pair leave the heavily attended wedding in Bond’s iconic Aston Martin all done up with carnations. Bond tells Tracy they have all the time in the world now and pulls over to take down some of the flowers but his bliss is interrupted by a drive by shooting. Bunt in the backseat shoots up the car with a machine gun and Blofeld, in a neck brace, drives away. Bond is shocked and incensed before realizing Tracy has been killed instantly by a bullet to the head. Taking her into his arms he’s checked on by passing police officer. Bond tells him everything is alright, she’s just resting now, and they have all the time in the world.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is Peter R. Hunt’s directorial debut. He’d previously worked as an editor on the series and it shows brilliantly. Many of the action sequences are enhanced by loads of Hitchcockian insert shots and the whole film displays an amazing familiarity with the franchise. It can be grating to have to color within the lines, but Hunt was intimately familiar with the producers. It’s an honest shame this film wasn’t better received because it has some of the best cinematography and editing of the entire series. Few directors have as mammoth a production as a Bond movie as their first credit. It’s a relief that Hunt remained suitably proud of his work on this terrific movie.
* George Lazenby’s only previous acting credit was a chocolate TV commercial.
** The film and the book use the very real historical Sir Thomas Bond and his coat of arms as Bond’s fictional noble ancestor. His motto “orbis non sufficit” would later become the title of the 1999 Bond film The World is Not Enough.
*** In actuality George Baker dubbed over Geroge Lazenby’s performance for much of the dialogue when Bond is impersonating Bray. Supposedly Baker had been Ian Fleming’s first choice to play Bond before the books were adapted.