Connery had clearly grown weary of playing the role of James Bond. While production of You Only Live Twice was going on, Broccoli and Saltzman were already searching for a replacement. While Connery was ready to be replaced, and the producers were ready to replace him, it would appear audiences weren’t quite ready for a new face yet.
In any case, a new Bond appeared in the form of unknown George Lazenby. Lazenby was a model from Australia. Rumor has it that Lazenby, with no previous acting experience, walked straight into Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman’s office, looked them straight in the eye, and said, “You’ve found your man.” However he got the part, he seemed to impress the film’s director Peter Hunt, who, upon hearing that Lazenby had never acted before, exclaimed, “You tell me you can’t act? You fooled two of the most ruthless guys I’ve ever met in my life. You’re an actor!”
The film debuted on December 18, 1969, at the Odeon Leicester Square in London. Lazenby showed up to the premiere with long hair and a beard, a look which had been disputed by Broccoli and Saltzman who both wanted Lazenby to look more like Bond at the premiere. Lazenby refused, believing Bond to be out of date. He had also opted out of playing Bond in the seventh film during production of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, forcing the producers to scramble for another replacement on fairly short notice.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stood in pretty stark contrast from the films that had preceded it in a number of ways. Of course, there was the actor playing 007, but in addition the film shed much of the gadgetry, humor, and spectacle that had characterized the prior two films (Thunderball and You Only Live Twice) in favor of a more serious tone and a more personal story.
The film starts with several shots of Bond driving a new Aston Martin DBS. His face is mostly in shadow, but we are afforded several glimpses that tell us this is most certainly James Bond. The tuxedo, the cigarette, the suave little mannerisms—this driver is most certainly our man.
Bond follows a car onto a beach and (presumably) rescues the main girl of the film from a watery grave only to find himself caught up in a fight with a couple of thugs who clearly want her (and him by the looks of things) dead.
This opening fight is poorly choreographed and edited, relying on cheap tricks like speeding up the film to hide pacing issues. Lighting seems to be a problem here as well, and it’s pretty clear the scene was shot in daylight with a higher f-stop in order to give the impression of darkness. Not a terrible gag, and it’s fairly commonly used in films of this era, but it’s still a bit annoying.
Bond then breaks the fourth wall and walks away from the character for a moment, and in that brief instant we get to see George Lazenby apart from his James Bond persona. “This never happened to the other fellow,” he states, solidifying for the audience that this was a new Bond. Another cheap trick and a seemingly desperate plea to get audiences to feel okay with the fact that Sean Connery was no longer playing Bond.
What follows is a title sequence that again feels like an attempt to connect this new Bond with the old Bond. The sequence shows a number of scenes from all the previous five films depicting Bond girls and Bond villains of the past. It’s as if the filmmakers are worried that people are going to forget that this is James Bond. I felt like they were constantly trying to remind me that I was watching a 007 movie, despite the absence of Sean Connery.
Now, I harped on the opening sequence quite a bit because it stands out from the rest of the film in a negative way. Because as much as the pre-title and title sequences did a great job at turning me off from this film, I found that I just couldn’t hate it. While Lazenby’s performance is far from excellent, the film as a whole (aside from the opening sequence) stands out as one of the finer moments in the Bond films (and my personal favorite thus far). It’s as if the producers understood that the films were getting a bit out of hand with the campiness and gadgetry and decided to get back to the basics.
Bond himself is treated with much more respect, and while it’s evident that Lazenby is uncomfortable in the role (or at least, not as comfortable as Connery had become by the time he reached Goldfinger), he still comes across as a convincing Bond.
We are soon reintroduced to the woman from the beach, one Contessa Teresa di Vincenzo, or Tracy, for short. Tracy proves to be a point of intrigue for Bond, and after some time we discover that she is the daughter of a man named Marc-Ange Draco—the head of the European crime syndicate Unione Corse. Draco tries to convince Bond to “tame” his daughter, and after an awkward exchange, Bond agrees to pursue the countess as long as Draco helps Bond locate Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
What follows is an often overlooked moment in Bond history: James Bond tenders his resignation. MI6, specifically M himself, has Bond so upset that he decides to give up his job as Agent 007. It wouldn’t be the last time Bond decides to step away from her Majesty’s secret service, but it’s perhaps the most understated as Miss Moneypenny intervenes and prevents 007 from leaving permanently.
After beginning a whirlwind romance with Tracy, Bond follows some information from Draco that leads him to discover that Blofeld has been corresponding with a Sir Hilary Bray, a genealogist at the College of Arms in London. Apparently, Blofeld is trying to secure the title of “Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp.”
This romance isn’t to be missed. It’s the first time we see Bond falling in love with a woman and probably the first time we see a woman truly falling in love with Bond. Their friendship and romance is portrayed in a very convincing manner, and I found myself really rooting for these two. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have believed the auteurs were actually going to domesticate James Bond; the romance was that believable.
Bond meets with Sir Hilary and discusses a charade in which Bond will masquerade as the genealogist during a visit to Blofeld’s lair in the Swiss Alps. But before he heads out, we are given a glimpse at the Bond coat of arms and family motto: “Orbis non sufficit,” translated “The world is not enough,” a phrase which would come into play again in about 30 years from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Several exciting ski chases, car chases, and bobsleigh chases later, Bond and his friends from Draco’s organization storm Blofeld’s lair in the Swiss Alps, rescue the girl, and save the day.
Okay, so perhaps I shouldn’t have glossed over the chase sequences. After all, the ski chases in this movie were the first in the Bond franchises. Actually, the action in this film was so thrilling and the stunt work so awe-inspiring I had to pause for a minute to regain my bearings. Remember, there was no digital work here. Just a guy jumping off a cliff.
The film is perhaps my favorite in the franchise thus far (remember, I’m reviewing them in order of release date, so when I say “favorite thus far,” I’m referring to my retrospective; therefore, “thus far” includes Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). While Lazenby doesn’t deliver the finest performance of Bond so far (I’d reserve that for Connery in Goldfinger), the screenplay is by far the most convincing of the series, and the supporting cast is as excellent as possible. Telly Savalas delivers a marvelous performance as Blofeld (which was a huge relief after the blunderful portrayal of Blofeld in You Only Live Twice), Lois Maxwell is excellent yet again, and Diana Rigg is my favorite Bond girl to date. She’s beautiful, strong, and deliberate. The character of Tracy doesn’t fall for Bond immediately, but unlike other Bond girls who don’t fall for Bond right away, her eventual feelings for him don’t appear suddenly and unnaturally; rather, she grows fond of him through a slowly developing friendship and romance. Stellar performance and fitting for the Bond girl in this storyline.
SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly suggest watching it before continuing on. You’ve been warned.
The end of the movie was one I didn’t see coming the first time I saw On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I also hadn’t yet seen For Your Eyes Only before seeing this film, so the question about Bond’s wife had never crossed my mind. Even in this second viewing I was no less startled by the ending. Every time the two characters were on screen together I kept saying to myself, “I wish they’d keep her alive. I know it’ll ruin Bond, but I can’t watch her die.”
What follows is one of the most shocking and poignant moments in all of Bond history.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a gem in what was quickly becoming a tired franchise. Easily one of the finest Bond films, the movie often gets a bad rap for Lazenby’s awkward performance. The poor reputation extended even to me, and I found myself actually wanting to dislike this film. Which is telling because as the film progressed I found myself enjoying it more and more.
I would’ve loved to see Lazenby return to the series, but history had other plans for James Bond, and in the meantime, audiences were treated to the brief return of the man who first uttered the phrase, “Bond, James Bond,” on the big screen…