On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: One of the Best Bond Movies

George Lazenby only played James Bond 007 once in the underrated On Her Majesty's Secret Service...

George Lazenby as James Bond

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This one’s considered James Bond royalty and rightly so. One of those rare moments when everything comes together. Brilliant script, wonderful score, memorable characters, and an ending the series has never topped. Great baddies, great ally, great girl. A fan poll once voted On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as the best Bond ever. I wouldn’t quite go that far – the scheme is a little too weird, the pace a little too slow and, well, Lazenby. (Okay, ignore the first two gripes. I was trying to be kind.) But Top 5 contender, absolutely. Possibly Top 3. And it rivals Goldfinger as possibly the most significant film of the series.

Very, very impressive.

The Villain: I’m a big fan of Telly Savalas. It is funny how different the three (visible) Blofelds are: creepy Donald Pleasance, thuggish Savalas, and avuncular Charles Grey. This Blofeld is a gangster. He is a man of action: leading the ski chase after Bond escapes, later brawling with 007 aboard a speeding bobsled. With his solid build and deep sexy voice, Savalas convinces as both a megalomaniac and a leader of men. He causes an avalanche by firing a flare into a mountain – notable as perhaps the only devious action Blofeld ever performs onscreen. Generally, Blofeld keeps his supposed genius well-hidden.

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The Girl: Surely the best Bond girl. Beautiful, reckless, suicidal – how wonderful for Bond to meet a woman more messed up than he is. I imagine having a gangster dad (even one as sophisticated as Draco) imbues a girl with a good deal of kick ass. One of the few women to bed Bond and do a bunk the morning after. And she leaves the 20k she owes him because she’s not that kind of lady! Skis brilliantly, drives like Lewis Hamilton, spikes a henchman to death. Tracy isn’t the woman who tames Bond. He tames her.

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So, George Lazenby. More than any other Bond, the man is synonymous with the film. You can’t judge the latter without opining on the former. But we sure as hell can try! For half the piece, anyway. Depending on your school of thought, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is nearly a great film but for Lazenby, or is a great film despite Lazenby. Nobody argues it is a great film because of Lazenby. I won’t start now. But I do consider On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a great film – one that features a perfectly credible performance by George Lazenby in the lead role.

The pre-credits scene is wonderful. The silhouetted Bond, cigarette between lips as he tails Tracy, is one of the great portrayals of the character. Up with the Dr. No introduction in the ‘Bond As Icon’ chart. Arguably, Lazenby is hamstrung: after so brilliant a tease, surely any actor would be a disappointment? (Anybody thinking ‘Connery’ – keep quiet!)

More dubious is George’s first line: “My name is Bond. James Bond.” Blatantly evoking the iconic introduction of the previous, iconic incarnation? That, frankly, is a suicide pass. The writers should have known better. But then, as the passer, they don’t take the hit.

After Bond rescues Tracy, there is another case of The Gun As Minor Inconvenience (kick it from the hand!). The fight choreography is pretty laughable: so exaggerated are the punches, and reactions, you half expect the whirling placards of Batman: WHACK! POW! KERPLUNK! Strange, given the quality of the later hotel brawl.

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I do like the ‘This never happened to the other fellow’ line. A neat salute to the predecessor, not overly distracting. Nicely done. Unfortunately the film continues to dredge up the recent past; providing some lovely moments but harming Lazenby in the process. We’ll get there in due course.

The first half hour of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is basically Bond bumming around France/stalking Tracy. There is no mission. He checks into a hotel, hits the casino, bails Tracy out after she loses without credit. We can learn much of Lazenby’s Bond at the card table. Unlike the other Bonds, Lazenby isn’t shown winning money; indeed we don’t even see him play a hand. Instead he pays the debts of a woman he barely knows, and presumably leaves the table in the red. It’s an interesting subversion of Bond the all-conquering gambler and a sign we’re heading for uncharted waters.

Big hand for Draco! Remarkably similar to Kerim Bey but nonetheless his own man. Smoother than Marvin Gaye sipping melted chocolate on a velvet sofa, Draco is the head of the Unione Corse: a major international crime syndicate whose presumably grievous violations of humanity are ignored because compared to SPECTRE they’re about as threatening as Little Mix.

He pimps out his only daughter to Bond, literally paying the womanising assassin to marry his little girl. Here Lazenby is an asset: nobody would let Connery anywhere near their loved ones, yet George comes over as an essentially decent chap. I dig Draco’s ‘traditional’ stance on parenting and marriage: “what she needs is a man to dominate her!” Er, don’t they all, Marc-Ange. Don’t they all.

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The M and Bond lovers’ tiff is a highlight and a crucial scene in the pair’s relationship. Heaven knows why M is so randomly harsh on Bond, taking his best agent off the biggest case without explanation. Bond promptly quits the secret service in what definitely isn’t an overreaction. I pack in my job whenever the boss makes a decision I don’t like. M accepts the resignation, resulting in a great ‘oh shit’ moment for Bond who clearly didn’t expect this. Thankfully Moneypenny changes the resignation to a request for two weeks leave. Bond’s gratitude on discovering the edit is sweet, and illustrates the extent to which the arrogant tosser was bluffing. What were you gonna do, James? Open a pub? Take up fishing?

But the best is saved for last, when M intercoms Moneypenny to also thank her for the change. Unlike that other Bond stalwart, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell never played a sizeable role in any film. This might be her finest hour. Mark it.

The international harem on Piz Gloria is one of those ridiculous concepts Bond does so well. Why are all the allergic women ridiculously hot? Fortunate coincidence – or did Blofeld carefully handpick his Angels? From the old devil’s romancing of Tracy I bet the latter. Or perhaps beautiful women are just easier to hypnotise.

The whole ‘brainwash stunners to unknowingly unleash biological warfare on the world’ would be a ridiculous plot in any other series. For a Bond film, it is borderline low-concept. Disappointingly, Blofeld wants a ransom rather than global chaos. A ransom always lowers the stakes; especially as Blofeld only demands amnesty and a title. That’s pretty poor for a man who nearly caused Armageddon last time out. Seems rather a lot of pain for relatively minor gain.

A word on the soundtrack: definitely the best of the series. The main theme is a muscular, throbbing composition that puts a unique stamp on the ski chase. And of course Louis Armstrong’s immortal “We Have All the Time in the World” – the greatest song to feature in any Bond film, or indeed most films. A perfect accompaniment to the Bond-Tracy romance.

And what a romance it is! Tracy steals the film for the first act and then disappears. On her return she promptly wins a demolition derby. She saves Bond’s life, accepts his proposal, and is in the process of out-skiing Blofeld’s henchmen when an avalanche takes her out. Naturally she survives. Rather than get hysterical or stupidly defiant, Tracy has the sense to feign interest in Blofeld to distract him from the approaching rescue mission. She later impales Gunther, the biggest henchman, on a bed of spikes to show you just don’t mess.

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Needless to say Diana Rigg is a perfect Tracy. She’s basically Emma Peel, on drugs, having a breakdown. Sexy, sassy, vulnerability hidden beneath a brittle exterior: if Bond hadn’t married her I certainly would. So why does Tracy lack the renown of Honey Rider or Pussy Galore? Simple: she’s called Tracy. Silliness of name will always be a large factor in determining the place of the Bond heroine in the public consciousness. Just as the baddie is measured by their scheme, their lair and the messiness of their death. Cutouts are lauded above characters (he writes, snobbishly).

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Anyway, it’s a dumb system. Scaramanga had a rubbish scheme, an uninspiring lair and a lettuce-limp death – yet he’s the best villain of the series bar none. Likewise, Tracy shares a name with your Grandma but is still the best Bond girl. And if you don’t trust me, trust Bond: he married the lady.

Blofeld shares Bond’s attraction to Tracy. He slobbers over her like a tipsy older relative at a family reunion. Look out everybody, Uncle Ernst is at the sherry again. I have no problem with this. I like my villains human and nothing is more human than making a fool of yourself over a pretty girl. Sure, you can’t imagine Pleasance craftily unzipping his jacket on the sofa, but then that’s the problem with Pleasance: you can’t imagine him doing anything. As mentioned, I like Savalas. He smokes like a chimney, skis like a pro, and thinks with his dick. That’s my kind of supervillain. Also, look out for the missing finger – lost in a motorbike accident.

And what about that ending! Not until Casino Royale would a Bond film dare to finish on such a downer; and the death of Vesper is followed by Bond’s triumphant capture of Mr White. Not here. No optimism, no ray of light, no promise of better times to come. Just a distraught Bond cradling the body of the woman who he thought would share the rest of his life. Cue the most incongruous blast of Monty Norman in the whole series. Really people? Did nobody think to roll the credits on Louis Armstrong?

And then there’s George.

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Rewatching the film, the early impression of Lazenby was good. Sure, the beach fight is ridiculous, but blame the choreographer. He acquits himself much better in the hotel room tear-up (another scene that’s supposedly a common audition for prospective Bonds). Sure, he lacks the charisma, the inherent cool of Connery, but Lazenby is Bond as a human – less confident, less assured, always a little vulnerable. Quite how much of this is acting, as opposed to the actor, is difficult to judge in a single film. My suspicions shall remain unaired.

Throughout On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, an identical film, the film starring Sean Connery, is unspooling in my head. Maybe this is common, maybe it’s just me – but most scenes I can’t help wondering, ‘how would Sean have played that?’ This is obviously unfair, yet them’s the breaks if you’re sandwiched within the most famous Bond of the lot. 

One advantage Lazenby enjoys is the lurving. You can’t believe Connery’s Bond would fall for anybody – that’s the point of him. Lazenby’s softer 007 is a believable romantic lead and his relationship with Tracy is the strongest (bar perhaps Vesper) of the series. Funny, considering Lazenby’s alleged womanising on set.

And still: if Connery had mustered a committed performance then the softening of the cold brute, already iconic, would have made an extraordinarily powerful narrative. Big if considering Sir Sean’s disillusionment, but the script might have wrung something magical from the old warhorse. An ageing Bond, touched at last by love, setting out for one last mission against his nemesis… Shivers.

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The film is never clear where it stands regarding Connery. Is this same Bond, different face, or new man, same name? The “other fellow” line suggests the latter; the right path to follow, I think, offering Lazenby the best chance to escape the shadow of his predecessor. Yet that sly acknowledgement is immediately followed by the villains and girls of Connery appearing in the title sequence. You can see the logic: reassure the audience “despite the new guy, this remains the series you fell in love with.” And it’s a lovely touch, the spectres of the past flickering over the screen. But rather than embrace the future the film wallows in nostalgia. 

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Ditto with one of my favourite moments of the series. Alone in his office, Bond, having ‘quit’ the secret service, reminisces on past adventures. Mementoes from each – Honey’s knife, Klebb’s shoe – are accompanied by music from the relevant film. Spine-tingling. 

But again, rather than exorcise Connery’s ghost the film seems determined to summon it. And you can only imagine the pathos if the reminiscing Bond had actually experienced his memories. Rather than enjoy another lovely touch, I start envisaging the scene if played by a certain grumpy Scotsman.     

But really blame Sir Hilary Bray. If you want the new guy to convince as the embodiment of masculinity, don’t label the poor sod ‘Hilary’. Indeed avoid female names altogether. Best also give ‘camp’ a wide berth. Bond never really disguises; regardless of alias he is always Bond. So it is particularly unfortunate that, on his sole outing, Lazenby got saddled with the spectacles and kilt. This isn’t his fault. No, blame George for the nasal voice and plummy accent. Those are. 

It isn’t that Lazenby is bad as Bray – quite the opposite. He is all too convincing as the sexless, guileless, upper-class nerd bumbling around Piz Gloria. That is the problem. Lazenby makes a better Bray (essentially the anti-Bond) than a 007. And because this will be his only film, there isn’t enough Lazenby-as-Bond to clearly distinguish between Lazenby-as-Bray. The two portrayals blend into each other. When Lazenby sighs, “Hilly is so sad Ruby is leaving” it doesn’t matter he is speaking as Bray. Imagine Sean Connery or Daniel Craig uttering that line. Hell, even Roger Moore would balk. Third-person pet names, uttered in baby talk, are perhaps the least Bond thing conceivable. The fact somebody wrote that line for Lazenby, the fact he spoke it, is brutally illuminating.

Yet consider the quote from John Barry, discussing the film’s much lauded score: “I have to stick my oar in the musical area double strong to make the audience try and forget they don’t have Sean.” Now I bet the writers, the cinematographers, the director and everyone else felt exactly the same. The departure of Connery forced the rest of the production to raise their game. Connery provided a safety net for a weak script, slack direction, dull chases. See the two, vastly weaker films that bookend On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Connery is the brilliant, fading star player the team hide behind. Remove him and the team grows.

Lazenby proved James Bond wasn’t a one-man gig. The first recast is the hardest. Yes, Lazenby didn’t last, isn’t much rated and Connery came back – but the genie had left the bottle. James Bond wasn’t just Sean Connery anymore. George took one for the team; and every subsequent Bond – and Bond fan – should be grateful.

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Best Bit: That heartbreaking final shot (s).

Worst Bit: Hilly. Oh Hilly.

Final Thought: Shouldn’t Bond and Blofeld recognize each other? They met in You Only Live Twice! This makes no sense…oh wait, it’s a film.

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