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On Her Majesty’s Secret Service celebrates its 50th anniversary and it continues to stand proud as the best James Bond film of all time. Director Peter Hunt bravely chose to treat Bond as a human, with a beating heart rather than a mere catalyst for plot devices to occur.
The plot (which clung tightly to the plot of the Ian Fleming novel – not a necessity by this point in the series) sees Bond still pursuing SPECTRE chief Ernst Stavro Blofeld whilst being drawn into the life of troubled heiress Contessa Tracy di Vicenzo. As Bond’s devotion to Tracy grows, he is forced to consider leaving the service. But only after he stops Blofeld’s latest scheme.
The immediately unique quality of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service can be found in its leading man. With Sean Connery ditching the series for the first (but not the last) time, producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman enlisted the help of car salesman turned model George Lazenby, then just 29 at the time (making him the youngest Bond of the series). Lazenby was presented in such a way as to quietly convince audiences that this was the same fella – his dark hair and striking features weren’t unlike those of Sir Sean and the film was marketed in a way that took the attention away from his face.
The film even reminds you of Bond’s previous adventures in a rare moment of continuity (again suggesting that the Codename Theory – that every Bond actor is playing a different character adopting the codename ‘James Bond’ – is a load of bollocks). Obviously it isn’t Sean Connery though and as undeniably cool as the opening shots of this film are (extreme close-ups of Bond’s face as he trails a mysterious car) they always come tinged with a short sense of disappointment for what could have been. It is to George Lazenby’s well-deserved credit then, that you quickly forget about Sean Connery and buy into this Aussie heartthrob. No, he doesn’t have the superhuman coolness of Connery, but his human vulnerability and tender sense of compassion for Diana Rigg’s Tracy (the best love interest in a James Bond film by a country mile) is palpable. For the first time in the series, you actually care about James Bond the man and not 007 the superspy.
The unfortunate cliché of ‘Bond Girls’ is usually that they’re either completely useless damsels in constant distress or they’re overcompetent to the point of being Bond’s equal in the field. Like so much in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Tracy feels completely real. Unlike the paper-thin facelessness of Tania or Aki, Tracy is a lost soul who hates herself and her criminal father and lives in a listless suicidal daze, even after she meets James Bond. Her father’s awkward attempt to set her up with Bond as a sexist form of “therapy” has dated about as well as Bond’s frilly tuxedo shirt, but Tracy seeing right through it and calling them both out on their bullshit is refreshingly relevant. Don’t be fooled – it’s still a Bond film made in 1969, there is fistfuls of problematic sexism in this movie. But it’s to the filmmakers’ and Diana Rigg’s credit that she rises above the inherent problems of the film and the series. You absolutely believe that Tracy is someone Bond could truly fall in love with, to the point of wanting to leave his life of violence.
Rounding out the main cast is Telly Salavas (TV’s Kojak) playing Blofeld #2 (or #3 if you count his faceless cameos in the earlier films). Savalas’ brutish features belie a chilling sophistication – you believe that he could kill someone with his bare hands and you buy him as someone charismatic enough to run an international criminal empire. The tense animosity between a disguised Bond and Blofeld is so palpable that you forgive the film for not remembering that Bond and Blofeld met in the previous film and that Ernst should recognise his arch foe instantly.
A common problem revisiting the older Bonds is the creaky pacing of adventure films from the era – Goldfinger has what feels like four whole minutes of soldiers pretending to fall asleep from poison gas, the glacial Thunderball has scene after scene of sloooow underwater “action” often with nothing in particular happening. Surprisingly, the pacing in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is almost perfect – action scenes are knitted neatly into the run of the film, with Lazenby getting his hands dirtier than Connery ever did. Bond’s thrilling ski-escape from Piz Gloria began the series’ love affair with the slopes and while the grainy rear projection shots of George skiing are pretty laughable, the very real Luki Leitner/Vic Armstrong skiing stunts are not.
The film’s ending is of course the most poignant and tragic of the series and is the one piece of inescapable legacy that reverberated throughout the rest of the series. Received by an indifferent and confused audience, and shattered by George Lazenby’s weird decision to leave the series after just one film, the filmmakers decided to make a swift return to tradition, aiming squarely for the larger than life madness that made the earlier entries so successful – Connery returns as abruptly as he left in the daft Diamonds are Forever to hunt Blofeld down (although the reason why is annoyingly never explicitly mentioned).
Years later, Roger Moore grimaces when someone mentions his marriage in The Spy Who Loved Me and even visits Tracy’s grave in For Your Eyes Only. Again we’re reminded of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when a newlywed Felix Leiter tells his wife why Bond is unlikely to wed again in Licence to Kill. Bond’s ensuing revenge mission in that film feels like the spiritual sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service we never got. The entire Daniel Craig era of Bond owes almost everything to Majesty – the entire third act of Casino Royale plays like a spiritual remake, while the clumsy misfire of Quantum of Solace once again tried to give Bond the post-Majesty revenge odyssey he was denied in the 70s.
Half a century later, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service remains the high watermark of the Bond series. Combining tense 60’s coolness of the Connery era with the humanity evidenced in the Dalton and Craig eras, it is the beating heart of both the classic series and the modern instalments. While it continues to live in infamy due to Lazenby’s ill-advised choice to abruptly leave the series, new fans continue to reevaluate its quality. As the series continues to grow and expand, long may this lone chapter serve as its finest hour. We have all the time in the world.