BlogalongaBond #6 – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
It’s only been half a year in BlogalongaBond terms, and already it’s our first reboot. Gosh, how time flies.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
(Peter Hunt, GB, 1969)
Things that never happened to the other fella – romance, tragedy and a 40-plus year debate as to whether he’s any good
Not so long ago, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was dismissed as the weak link in the Bond franchise – call it the ‘Lazenby factor,’ or perhaps the relative absence of campness or gadgetry, but it was the one that the wider public tended to steer clear of in favour of a more linear Connery-to-Moore progression. Even usually reliable critics like Time Out‘s Geoff Andrew got particularly snarky about this one.
Recently, though, there’s been a sea change initiated by those into hardcore Bondage. Actually, they insist, this is one of the series’ greatest entries, a moving, ambitious romantic thriller that showcases a tone and class that no other 007 movie would attempt…ooh, at least until the arrival of Timothy Dalton, but not properly until Daniel Craig. Oh, and Lazenby’s not bad either.
There’s a whiff of oneupsmanship in that revisionism – of course, the fans are going to alight on the one the public hates – but they have a point. Unfortunately, so too do the detractors… and for much the same reason. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stands alone, and not only because of the star.
The Connery movies had delivered a steady progression into hugeness, to the point where Bond was but an ant in a volcano base. Ian Fleming had been largely jettisoned as other writers – from Kevin McClory to Roald Dahl – invented material largely original to the big-screen. And Bond was increasingly ripe for piss-takes, notably the all-star disaster that is the 1966 non-canon Casino Royale. As Hollywood would rediscover decades later in its superhero franchises, sometimes too much of a good thing becomes, simply, too much. The answer, for the 007 producers, was the same as it is today: reboot.
So this is the most faithful book to Fleming, a character study about a spy for whom saving the world is no big deal next to meeting the woman of his dreams. Technically, it follows on from You Only Live Twice in Bond’s mission to ‘get Blofeld,’ but when they meet, neither apparently recognises the other. Continuity error, sly in-joke (both actors have changed since the last film), or a slippery piece of Moebius strip postmodern where this can be simultaneous Bond movie #6 and the first in an entirely new series? [Just to complicate things, even its cliffhanger ending is largely ignored in the next movie, Diamonds Are Forever, in favour of reinstating the more frivolous house style.]
“It’s best to view On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as an experiment: a limited edition James Bond movie…”
It’s best to view On Her Majesty’s Secret Service less as an aberration than an experiment: the movie equivalent of a limited edition comic where official chronology gets quietly shelved because the creators fancied doing something different. You can see why mainstream audiences have recoiled against it during the years where it had to fend for itself in the Bank Holiday TV schedules against more crowd-pleasing entries. This – as Bond wryly muses – never happened to the other fella.
It’s a bizarrely structured film, its opening hour barely discernable as a Bond movie at all. No wonder Hunt breaks protocol by opening with a scene of M and Moneypenny (justly wondering where their best agent has got to) and Maurice Binder does “007’s greatest hits” in the credits. Hunt has to drop odd flourishes – like a whistling dwarf sweeping a floor – to place the film in the same story-world where villains have hooks for hands and bowler hats can be weapons. And for an editor-turned-director, who was largely responsible for the zippy, ironic pace of the series to date, Hunt takes his precious time about things.
And then there’s the tone. The film could pass for an international jet-set romance, and we even gets a banal ‘falling in love’ montage that is only bearable because it’s scored to Louis Armstrong’s We Have All The Time In The World: the single greatest song ever recorded in Bond’s name. The attempts at classy art-house drama clash wildly with the silly, speeded-up fight sequences, as if they’d hired Claude Lelouch to guest direct and then snuck Benny Hill into the editing suite. And, sacrilege though this is, I’ve always been agnostic about Diana Rigg’s supercilious grace.
And yet – there’s something so fresh and original about its take on Bond that is undeniably interesting. Officially, Bond is at work, his pursuit of Contessa Teresa and her criminal papa all part of a ploy to find information on Blofeld. But he has gone so deep undercover he’s stopped being a spy and become a man, one who finds unexpected common ground with gentleman thief Drago, and is attracted to a live-wire woman who prefers trusting instinct to her intellect. No wonder Bond lets Operation Bedlam go hang.
For the first time, we’re getting a sense of who James Bond is, especially so when the plot kicks in and he has to impersonate a heraldry expert to infiltrate Blofeld’s lair. Notwithstanding the outrageous daftness of Blofeld faffing around with coats of arms when he’s about to hold the world to ransom, this is heady (if incredibly old-fashioned) thematic stuff. The difference between hero and villain is that where one has nobility, the other has to cheat his way into it (and Telly Savalas’ coarse, brutish performance undoes years of making Blofeld into a mystical mastermind by redefining him as a thug). Somewhere in the middle is Tracy, a criminal’s daughter by birth but proof that if you have what it takes in beauty, attitude and all-round aceness, you can ascend to saintliness.
“Sean Connery’s sardonic humour and brusque physicality were armour enough against playing Bond as folk hero, as George Lazenby does…”
What undoes Bond, of course, is his predilection for pussy, in the film’s only sustained sequence of the smutty comedy that is the stock-in-trade of 007 movies. See, Bond is a man of fallen nobility, flawed because, perhaps, his day job continually sees him flirting with sin. He’s not so different from Blofeld after all. It’ll take an English rose to redeem him, and Tracy appears as if by magic to rescue him.
Given the increasingly pop-tastic direction of the films, this Feudal rewiring of the main character is a medieval throwback. It never, ever would have worked with Connery, whose sardonic humour and brusque physicality were armour enough against playing Bond as folk hero. Counter-intuitively, casting a novice actor like Lazenby makes a huge amount of sense, because the qualities required of a Bond caught off-guard by love (innocence, vulnerability and charm) emerge naturally from his performance. Put it this way: if you’re stepping into the biggest cinematic shoes of the decade, you’re going to be a) eager to please and b) worried you won’t be able to pull it off.
Still with us? Many won’t be: this kind of depth is bromide to those wanting their 007 to be the man of action. Fortunately, the reward for those who stick with Hunt’s long game is an unbroken, extended last act of astonishing flair. The last forty-five minutes are almost wall-to-wall – ski chase, stock car rally, another ski chase, a helicopter assault and a toboggan fight. Christopher Nolan’s love of the film is well-known, but the structural debt to Inception involves more than blowing up an Alpine lair. It runs through the entire film, chiefly that dot, dot, dot… dash, dash, dash transition from elegant world-building to manic excitement.
And all the while Bond and Tracy are falling further in love, setting off the cruellest and most memorable climax of any blockbuster sequel until The Empire Strikes Back. The reverberations of that ending are almost too much to endure (another reason why only die-hards rate the film) and the producers worked quickly to close the blast doors. The collateral damage: Lazenby, obviously, but also any serious aspirations to ‘Quality.’ Yet just as James Bond finds out who he is in this film, Harry Saltzmann and Cubby Broccoli had figured out who they were, and the next film would be their defining statement about Bond’s long-term future.