On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is my favorite movie. Not just my favorite James Bond movie, but my favorite movie. I watch it at least once a year, and it never fails to thrill me and to move me.
I revel in nearly every moment, from George Lazenby’s daring plunge to one knee during the opening gun barrel sequence to the bullet-shattered windshield in the haunting final image. Both of these scenes are paired with John Barry’s rejuvenated, Moog-enhanced version of the Bond theme, and the fact that the meaning of the famous music changes so drastically over the course of the film — rousing at the beginning, harshly ironic at the end — explains what makes OHMSS special among the Bond films.
OHMSS is unique within the series for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it features Lazenby’s one and only appearance. Less obvious to the casual filmgoer, OHMSS is the only Bond directed by Peter Hunt, the editor of all five previous films who created the muscular pace instrumental to the the series’ early success. Hunt gives OHMSS a vibe and narrative purity none of the other films shares. It is the only time a director had more control over a Bond than producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, and for various reasons we’ll explore in a bit, Saltzman and Broccoli (and later, Broccoli alone) made sure that never happened again.
For many years, OHMSS was the film beloved by Bond fans but ignored by the public. “It doesn’t count,” was the general attitude. “It stars that guy nobody remembers.” Yet the movie’s reputation steadily improved, and by the time it was available on DVD in all its widescreen-glory, even the masses were willing to agree it ranks as one of the very best 007 films. For me it is the best of them all because it most successfully captures the experience of reading an Ian Fleming novel.
This, too, can be attributed to Hunt. When he landed the assignment he knew he would be bringing one of Fleming’s best novels to the screen. He was determined to go back to basics and shed the fantastic that had invaded the films, the extravagant gadgetry of Thunderball and SPECTRE’s volcano lair of You Only Live Twice. In this script Bond would be virtually gadget-free, and production designer Ken Adam, whose futuristic sets made the recent films larger than life, would not participate in OHMSS.
OHMSS was the first Bond movie after Sean Connery’s departure, and Brocolli and Saltzman, along with the executives at United Artists were anxious whether the series could continue without its superstar. Hell, let’s face it, they were terrified. That makes the choice of Lazenby, a model with no acting experience best known to the British public for carrying around a crate of Big Fry chocolates in television commercials, so puzzling. But Lazenby broke stuntman Yuri Borienko’s nose in his action screen test, impressing Hunt with his masculinity. Believing his candidate had some acting in his background (Lazenby lied), Hunt was convinced he could coach a decent performance from the untested leading man. Broccoli and Saltzman backed their director’s choice, one of the many decisions they would later regret. But perhaps Lazenby’s greatest qualification was that he was brash and foolhardy enough to believe he could follow Connery.
After toying with such terrible ideas as subjecting Bond to plastic surgery, the filmmakers decided to address Connery’s absence head-on. Lazenby is introduced in a marvelous pretitle sequence where he is first glimpsed in oblique closeups and the from the back. Lazenby’s face isn’t revealed until he saves Tracy (Diana Rigg) from drowning and announces, “My name’s Bond — James Bond.” Two thugs immediately assault him, and Lazenby gets into an aggressive brawl that shows off the newcomer’s prowess. (Of course, the fact that Bond allows two assailants to sneak up on him on a deserted beach really throws his spying skills into question.)
As the fight winds down, Hunt and screenwriter Richard Maibaum prepare for their coup de grace. While Bond is still occupied with the goons, Tracy steals his Aston Martin, drives as far as her Cougar parked near the road, then peels off (love all those tires squealing on sand!). Watching her drive away, Bond says, “This never happened to the other feller.” Bang into the titles with John Barry’s stirring instrumental march.
Some people hate this scene. They say it goes too far into shattering the fourth wall. I love the moment, and think it is a playful way to say hello to the new Bond and goodbye to the old. If Lazenby were looking into the camera I would agree with the fourth-wall criticism, but he’s not. His eyes are on Tracy’s car. In an earlier draft of the script the line was “This never happened to Sean Connery,” and that really would have been carrying it too far. The existing line has a sly double meaning. Sure, in the exchange between Lazenby and the audience, the other feller is Connery. But we don’t know whom Bond the character is referring to. The other feller might be Bulldog Drummond. Or Simon Templar. Or perhaps someone he knows, the sanctimonious 008.
I believe the line is perfect. Not only does Lazenby get his first signature moment (and he won’t have many), but Hunt signals OHMSS will not be Bond as usual.
This is the story where, while pursuing his nemesis Blofeld into the Swiss alps, Bond falls in love and marries. It is a union that ends tragically. I apologize if I spoiled it for you, but I figure if you read this far you already knew how things turned out.
To compensate for Lazenby’s inexperience, the filmmakers for once hired a classically trained, established actress to play Bond’s intended. Diana Rigg already was popular with spy fans for playing Emma Peel on The Avengers when she was cast as Tracy diVincenzo. Rigg is the best actress ever cast to play Bond’s leading lady, so it is no surprise that Tracy is the best of them all. No other actress would come close until Eva Green appeared as Vesper Lynd in 2006’s Casino Royale, and it amuses me that the two female characters that Ian Fleming seemed to care the least about, Tracy and Vesper, would become the most fully realized on the screen.
Rigg is undeniably beautiful, but once Tracy (improbably) overcomes her suicidal tendencies from the beginning of the film, she displays an independent streak and a fun-loving feistiness new to the series. We have no doubt that Rigg would make James Bond, the world’s most commited bachelor, consider marriage. Like many people I tend to cry at the movie’s ending, but lately I also choke up when Tracy appears at the skating rink. The moment is so beautiful, matching Fleming’s description almost word for word.
OHMSS features one of the series’ stronger casts, with Italy’s Gabrielle Ferzetti as Tracy’s father, Corsican mob boss Marc Ange Draco, and Germany’s Ilse Steppat as Blofeld’s frightful henchwoman Irma Bunt. A pre-Kojak Telly Savalas was cast as SPECTRE boss Blofeld. Blofeld is more of a hands-on leader in OHMSS than in his other appearances, getting out of his chair to lead the ski pursuit of Bond. Savalas is the best of the screen Blofelds, more imposing than Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice and less ridiculous than Charles Gray in Diamonds Are Forever. The sad fact is, though, that Blofeld was a more memorable villain when he was just a torso stroking his white Persian cat and speaking with Eric Pohlmann’s chilling voice.
Maibaum’s script gives two of the series’ stalwarts, Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell, their finest scenes. Lee seldom had the opportunity to really act when playing M, OHMSS allows him a second to contemplate Blofeld’s ransom demands. “Curious thing, snobbery,” he muses. It’s a lovely moment. Maxwell appears to be the one cast member who enjoys her time with Lazenby (the actress admitted as much years later), so the Bond-Moneypenny rapport remains as strong as ever. At his wedding, Lazenby’s Bond says farewell to Moneypenny with a touching gesture, tossing her his hat. She catches it with a tear in her eye. The wedding scene is one of the rare times when Lee, Maxwell and Desmond “Q” Llewellyn appear on screen together. It may be the only time. I’m racking my brain, but I can’t think of any other instance.
Watching OHMSS from the vantage of the present, where most action sequences are assembled with CGI and resemble video games, the film’s technical accomplishments are astounding. The ski and bobsled chases, masterfully edited by future Bond director John Glen, rank with the series’ finest action sequences. Not only was the stuntwork daring, so was the photography. Cameraman Willy Bogner captured much of the action while skiing backward with a camera between his legs. He also did this on the bobsled run, which would inspire a riskier chase in Glen’s first Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only.
Much of OHMSS is simply gorgeous. The movies still had a travelogue appeal at the time, and the helicopter journey to Blofeld’s alpine lair, Piz Gloria (an actual resort still in business today and the first place I will visit should I ever win the lottery) is stirring thanks to Michael Reed’s cinematography and the thrums of John Barry’s finest 007 score (which includes the exquisite love song he composed for Louis Armstrong, “We Have All the Time in the World.”)
I have often heard film critics and fellow Bond fans acknowledge the superior script and technical work in OHMSS, but then say, “It would be the best James Bond movie if only Sean Connery were in it.” I reject that. First of all, there is a litany of conditions that must be fulfilled to place Connery in an OHMSS of the same quality. Foremost is Connery still wanting to play the character. That would not have been the case after 1967, no matter how good the script.
The producers had mooted OHMSS as early as 1964 as a follow-up to Goldfinger, But an OHMSS made at that time would have been as expansive as Thunderball or You Only Live Twice. In one of Maibaum’s early story treatments, when Bond rescues Tracy from drowning, he doesn’t carry her from the sea. Instead, Bond drives his Aston Martin into the water, where it converts into a submersible. Hunt probably would not have been given the chance to direct prior to 1968, and it’s unlikely another director would have been as faithful to Fleming’s text.
But let’s pretend a younger, amenable Connery was cast in an OHMSS directed by Hunt. It’s still a dubious proposition. For the story of OHMSS to work, particularly the ending, Bond must be vulnerable. From Goldfinger onward, Connery’s Bond was invulnerable, Superman in a tuxedo. I’m not saying Connery didn’t have the ability to play Bond as vulnerable, but after Goldfinger I doubt the audience would have accepted it.
For many reasons, OHMSS required a new actor as Bond. And I accept Lazenby as the right actor for the time. Sure, his inexperience shows and his reaction scenes in the first act are awkward. As Lazenby sits opposite Ferzetti and Lee trying to focus on their dialogue, his jaw seems uncomfortable, as if it would rather detach itself from Lazenby’s face and go take a nap somewhere.
Yet Lazenby’s athleticism in the fight scenes cannot be matched, and his acting improves as the film progresses, reaching its fruition in the proposal scene. More than any scene in the entire series, this one puts the greatest demand on the actor playing Bond. Think about it. The actor must convince us that James Bond 007, poster boy of the Playboy Philosophy, wants to settle down with one woman. This could make Daniel Craig’s knees tremble. Diana Rigg’s presence helps Lazenby enormously, but his performance in this scene (which Hunt patterned after the “Walls of Jericho” exchange in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night) is quiet, gentle, thoughtful and utterly convincing.
So if Lazenby was so good in OHMSS, what happened to him? I suspect the average filmgoer still believes Lazenby was fired because the movie flopped. Wrong on both counts. OHMSS was not a blockbuster on the scale as Connery’s previous three films, but it was a solid hit. Box-office returns were no reason to fire Lazenby, and he wasn’t fired.
The story is a bizarre one. By all accounts, including his own, Lazenby’s ego ballooned the moment he was cast as 007. A year before the public would see his film, Lazenby believed the mere fact he was playing James Bond already made him a superstar. His best friend at the time was Ronan O’Rahilly, Britain’s offshore rock ‘n’ roll radio impresario and the inspiration for Richard Curtis’ Pirate Radio. O’Rahilly convinced Lazenby that Bond was a fad of the 1960s that wouldn’t last into the 1970s and that continuing to play Bond would kill his career. And so while OHMSS was still before the cameras, George Lazenby made the worst career decision of the 20th century and announced he would never play James Bond again. Years later Lazenby would acknowledge this was a bone-headed move.
Hunt wasn’t making friends either. OHMSS would go over schedule and over budget and he would continually clash with his producers as well as his star. When OHMSS didn’t prove to be a runaway success, the public would blame Lazenby, but Saltzman and Broccoli and United Artists privately blamed Hunt along with his insistence on creating a tense, serious action film faithful to Fleming.
Perversely, the finest film in Broccoli and Saltzman’s series became the model of everything they wanted to avoid in the future. In their desire to run from all that OHMSS represented, they turned the next film, Diamond Are Forever, into the dumbest, sloppiest mess in the series’ history. But Connery had returned so it was another substantial box-office hit, and the producers felt vindicated in their artistically disastrous decisions.
The success of Diamonds Are Forever dealt a hit to OHMSS‘s reputation. Thankfully, quality cannot go ignored for long and as more people discovered Hunt’s neglected masterpiece, the more admired it has become. I have loved OHMSS since the day I saw an uncut print at a James Bond convention in 1981. From that day it has been my favorite film and the Bond movie I considered the best. I used to say “even with George Lazenby,” but now I say “especially with George Lazenby.”