License to Review #6: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

James Bond will return to cinemas this November with his twenty-fifth adventure, No Time to Die. In preparation, David Alkhed will take a look at all the previous entries in the franchise and see which ones are deserving of praise (shaken) and which ones aren’t (stirred).

Sean Connery had quit the James Bond franchise following You Only Live Twice with no intention to return (a few years and a few million dollars in his pocket would change his mind later on) and the swinging sixties was coming to an end, with Vietnam seemingly looming over everything (bit like the Covid-19, except Vietnam wasn’t as contagious). As Bob Dylan said, the times were a-changing, and the times demanded a new Bond, perhaps a slightly more realistic Bond, or at least as realistic as a Bond in the 1960s could be. Producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman alongside director Peter R. Hunt found their new James Bond in Australian model George Lazenby, who won the part despite having no acting experience (a fact that went over Eon’s head). Although this would end up as his only venture as the iconic British secret agent and the film being considered a failure at the time in comparison to the Connery films, the fact is that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the best films in the franchise and falls just short of legitimate greatness.

Loosely adapted from the Ian Fleming novel of the same name, James Bond goes to investigate Blofeld (played in this iteration by Telly Savalas), who seemingly plans some evil wrongdoings in the Swiss alps involving many beautiful women (because what else?). In the meantime however, Bond finds himself wooing, and believe it or not, falling for the daughter of a European crime syndicate, Countess Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg).

Right from the beginning, we’re told this Bond is going to be different from the previous five films. We start by seeing Bond from behind, presumably to prepare the audience for the fact that the main character is played by a completely different actor. He’s always shot from behind and only revealed when he rescues Tracy from an attempted suicide by walking into the ocean. Then a fight breaks out as he’s forced to fight two goons working for her father. And it must be said the fight scene here is just terrific. I think a lot of it stems from the fact that Peter Hunt had been the editor and later second unit director on the previous films, and he very much directs the way an editor would direct; very calculated camera moves and angles and precision-like editing. Although it contains a lot of cuts and different angles, I was never confused over what was happening, perhaps another attribute to Hunt’s experiences as an editor, knowing exactly for how long to hold a shot before cutting. I’m not lying when I say I was legitimately shocked by how well done and modern it felt, and that stays true for the rest of the fight scenes in the film as well, particularly the climactic fight at Blofeld’s lair with some shots having been taken at dawn with a real sunrise in the background. I’ve never seen any of Hunt’s other directorial efforts, but maybe I should?

What almost kills the moment in the beginning however is Lazenby’s fourth-wall break, which I honestly think could’ve ruined the whole film. It’s just not good at all. I get they wanted to establish this was the same character played by Connery, but why include that line when the opening credits show a montage from the previous films, indicating “it’s the same character just a different actor?” Just completely pointless. Luckily something that tongue-in-cheek never happens for the rest of the movie, so it’s all good.

The main storyline of the film concerns Bond’s attempts to capture and bring down Blofeld, who is wonderfully played by Telly Savalas. Savalas not only has the gentleman-y charm that makes the part compelling but he’s also got enough physicality to actually not only be brains but also legitimately threatening. Maybe that’s not how the character is supposed to be in the books, and indeed all the other iterations have focused on Blofeld being purely the brains, but me personally I prefer this one. But in my opinion, more importantly than the usual Blofeld stuff is the sideplot involving Bond and Tracy, which was probably my favorite aspect of the film. Not only is Diana Rigg stunningly beautiful but she’s also a quality actress who was hired for her genuine acting abilites rather than her looks. And I enjoyed seeing Bond and Tracy getting to know each other and falling in love so much that when Tracy disappears for a large chunk of the movie I was sort of disappointed, because I wished she had more screen time. But she gets to drive James Bond away from the bad guys, and considering it’s usually the other way around, so it’s all worth it in the end.

From this point on I’ll be discussing the films famous ending, so if you wish to avoid spoilers for a 50-year old movie you better stop reading this now. The film ends with Bond and Tracy getting married, but just as they’re driving away from their wedding, Tracy gets killed by Blofeld and his right-hand man (or woman I should say) Irma Blunt, in an attempt to kill Bond I presume. I had heard about this before I saw the movie but I’d presume it would be much earlier in the film so the rest of it could be a revenge film, so it was genuinely surprising to see the filmmakers deciding to end the film on such a dark note. In a way, this is what makes Bond the character he is; because of the nature of his job he can’t afford a serious relationship because not even he can keep the ones he love safe, and is therefore doomed to be lonely. It’s actually quite sad and a really powerful ending, made better by the lack of music.

So On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is surprisingly great, and so far definitely my favorite film in the franchise. It’s well shot, it’s smartly written (despite Tracy’s dad being a bit uncomfortably misogynistic), I like Lazenby’s Bond, John Barry’s score is terrific and the film gets genuinely emotional. Although it’s far from perfect, it’s still the one I’ve enjoyed the most so far and I can honestly see myself revisiting this one in the future. So On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is definitely shaken, highly recommended.

James Bond will return in Diamonds Are Forever. So for now, just cool it.


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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