"This never happened to the other fella," quips George Lazenby near the
beginning of the 1969 James Bond film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service,"
after a woman he's just rescued takes off without letting him work his
usual charms on her. It's a joke devised to get the audience used to the
idea of a new 007, Lazenby, who'd taken over the role from Sean Connery.
Plenty happens in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" that never happened to
the other fella, and by the end of the movie it's anything but a joke.
"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" is the only Bond film that gets beyond
the dirty boy's-book spirit of the series to a core of real emotion. Not
that there's anything wrong with that original spirit. Adult comic books
with a suave, implacable sadist as the hero, the '60s Bond films were witty
and indulgent fantasies of sex, violence and luxurious living. Peter Hunt,
the director of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" doesn't stint on any of
that. The movie has its daydream share of casual, good-natured sex and
gorgeous travel-brochure locales. It also has what are probably the best
action sequences of any 007 adventure.
Hunt had worked in various capacities on all the earlier Bond entries.
Here he unleashes a ski chase that's as fluid as it is exciting. He places
the camera in front of the racing skiers while the crests and peaks of the
snowy Alps drop breathlessly away at the edge of the frame. (By all means,
rent the letterboxed, wide-screen version of the movie.) And he tops all
this with the finale, a bobsled chase in which Bond and his arch enemy
Blofeld (amusingly played by Telly Savalas) are grappling for control of
the sled as it whooshes down an ice flume. The sequences are so expertly
staged and edited that the Bond directors who followed Hunt cribbed freely
from them for years. Seen now, they remind you how special effects have
come to almost obliterate stunt work, which is infinitely more thrilling.
"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" doesn't have the eerie lyricism of the
entry that preceded it, "You Only Live Twice" (for my money, the best
Bond), though if Connery had stuck around for it, it would probably be
regarded as a classic. It's always been seen as the odd man out of the
series, the Bond movie where that guy whose name no one can remember played
007. Lazenby had a thankless task, stepping into a role that was defined by
one of the most charismatic actors in the history of movies. He's not
terrible (especially in light of Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton), just a
little bland. But it makes sense to have a new face here, because the
subject of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" is Bond discovering he no
longer wants to be 007.
The heart of what's different here is Bond's relationship with Tracy (Diana
Rigg), the headstrong young woman he rescues in that opening sequence. She
also happens to be the daughter of the crime boss Draco (the smooth
Gabriele Ferzetti). Draco wants Tracy to settle down and he thinks that
Bond is just the man to "dominate her." And if Bond agrees to marry her, he
promises to hand over information that will lead Bond to Bloefeld. Tracy is
too smart not to suss out that arrangement and too independent to put up
with it. She forces her father to tell Bond what he wants to know, and the
pair fall in love anyway.
Rigg was the first Bond girl who could look Bond in the eye both
figuratively and literally; an actress of her authority and sophisticated
wit couldn't play submissive if she tried. But Rigg's strength doesn't
preclude her from bringing an affecting tremulousness to her performance.
She not only helps smooth out Lazenby's rough spots, her presence enhances
the whole concept of James Bond. For the first time, Bond has to prove
himself worthy of a woman he's attracted to, and the effort humanizes his
charm and brings out his gallantry.
Hunt and screenwriter Richard Maibaum aren't dumb enough to turn Bond
into a choirboy. He still dallies with the girls he encounters when, in
disguise, he infiltrates Bloefeld's mountaintop fortress in the Alps.
(Curly haired, squeaky-voiced Angela Scoular is particularly amusing; Ilse
Steppat as Bloefeld's commandant/den mother is amusing in an entirely
different way.) But Hunt and Maibaum pull a neat switcheroo by having Rigg
re-enter the movie to rescue him. You might find yourself grinning
shamefacedly for enjoying the scene where Bond and Tracy snuggle down for
the night in a handy hayloft while horses nuzzle in the background, but the
sheer movie lavishness of it all really is romantic. And when Bond proposes
to Tracy and she accepts, it doesn't feel like a contradiction or a
From the start of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," with the "other fella"
joke and the clips from previous Bond films that play during the credits,
you can sense the filmmakers' anxious desire to get Bond fans to accept
Lazenby. (They didn't. Connery returned for the next entry, 1971's
"Diamonds are Forever," before relinquishing the role to Roger Moore.) The
resigned tone of the movie is more in keeping with the scene where Bond
clears out his desk. There's a persistent sense here that Bond has reached
the limits of his role as 007. And when Tracy falls into Bloefeld's hands
and M refuses to sanction a rescue, Bond sees his own ruthlessness staring
him back in the face. Even the usual big Bond climax contains something
we've never witnessed: the look on Tracy's face as she watches Bond coldly
kill one of Bloefeld's men and utter one of his trademark dispassionate
sarcasms tells you he can't continue as he is.
Movies, novels and TV shows that get us hooked on a series of continuing
adventures are never more affecting than when they threaten the comforting
conventions they've established. When a series comes to its end, the best
we can hope for is a send-off that's worthy of the affection we've built up
for the characters. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" finishes off the
cycle that began with "Dr. No," ending the whole story of James Bond. It
offers supremely satisfying versions of all the conventions we expect from
the series (when Bernard Lee's M, Desmond Llewelyn's Q and Lois Maxwell's
Miss Moneypenny appear toward the end, they might be taking their bows),
and then it does the one thing you don't expect a James Bond movie to do:
It breaks your heart.