24 Weeks of Bond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Art by James(?) Talbot

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

THE MOVIE: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, released in 1969 and directed by Peter R. Hunt who had previously served as a film editor and second unit director on the previous five films. His keen eye for camera cuts and stunning visuals helped earn him the directing job for the first Bond film after Sean Connery announced his retirement from the role. With a screenplay written by Richard Maibaum, OHSS endeavored to take a more realistic, less gadget-heavy approach. It also more adheres to the novel source material more closely than the previous adaptations.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of the criminal organization SPECTRE, holds the world captive by threatening to introduce weaponized chemicals to destroy or render impotent major countries’ food supplies. Meanwhile, James Bond meets a beautiful but distressed young woman. In the course of saving her life, he finds himself with leads pointing toward SPECTRE.

This was the longest Bond film until Casino Royale was released thirteen films and 37 years later.

THE BOND: George Lazenby, in his first and only appearance as Agent 007, following Sean Connery’s five turns in the role. Connery announced his intent to retire during the filming of You Only Live Twice, and the studio planned to keep the franchise rolling by casting Roger Moore in an adaptation of a different Fleming novel. However, filming rights fell through with the location they needed and Moore signed on for another season of The Saint. With Moore occupied, they turned to Australian actor Lazenby.

So impressed by Lazenby’s physicality in addition to his look and film presence, the studio offered him a 7 picture deal. Lazenby, dissuaded by his agent, chose to turn the deal down and only do the single film.

Lazenby’s Bond is perfectly serviceable. He plays the agent as determined, stubborn, and cold, all qualities of Bond the way Fleming created him. There is quite a loss of charm from Connery’s portrayal, but it’s made up more in Lazenby’s dangerous aura.

Lazenby is the youngest actor to have played Bond. His “shooting down the barrel” sequence is also the only one where Bond drops to a knee, and the only one where Bond becomes obscured by the falling blood.

THE GIRLS: Blofeld, in an attempt to infiltrate the world’s markets so he can deploy his chemical weapons to their maximum effect, uses hypnotic suggestion to get 12 women, his “Angels of Death”, to do his bidding.

Two of these women have slightly more than nothing to do on screen. Ruby Bartlett (Angela Scoular) and Nancy (Catherine Von Schell) are seduced in rapid order by an undercover Bond who uses the moments of intimacy to try and reveal information about Blofeld’s plan.

Much more important to the plot is Teresa Di Vicenzo (played with tremendous charisma by Diana Rigg, who, at that time, had become well known as the secret agent Emma Peel in Britain’s The Avengers television show; she would go on to play another unforgettable role in Game of Thrones’ Queen of Thorns, Olenna Tyrell). Bond first sees Teresa when she tries to drown herself in the sea. He rescues her, then rescues her again moments later from men trying to kill her, and it isn’t long before he finds out there is much more to her than first appears.

As the daughter of the leader of an European crime syndicate, she is headstrong, deadly, and adventurous, even in the face of danger. She makes a good match for Bond, so much that he may even consider settling down.

THE VILLAINS: Ernst Stavro Blofeld is the major villain, and a tremendously active one, feeling like a culmination of his growing presence to this point. In Dr. No, you only heard of his criminal organization (SPECTRE). In From Russia With Love, you see him dealing with a pair of SPECTRE agents with competing schemes to kill Bond. After a break from him in Goldfinger, you see him addressing a whole room of subordinates in Thunderball. In You Only Live Live Twice, we finally see his face (played by Donald Pleasance at the time), and though he did attempt to kill Bond, most of his screentime was spent in a chair commanding others to do his dirty work.

In OHMSS Blofeld–played by Telly Savalas coming off a fantastic job in The Dirty Dozen– is a proactive, frontline participant in trying to kill Bond. Everything from his imposing physical presence to his dark, casual clothing serves to create a fearsome persona as opposed to the cautious, delegating, hands-free version the previous films seemed to portray. Here, he is fearless, aggressive, ruthless, and unshakeable. Salvalas does a terrific job in portraying a nemesis for Bond who feels like his equal at least in every way.

In smaller roles are Yuri Borienko as Blofeld’s bodyguard Grunther (Lazenby accidentally broke his nose during the audition, which helped Lazenby land the role as Bond), and Ilse Steppat as Blofeld’s henchwoman Irma Bunt. Steppat would unfortunately pass away just days after the film’s release.

Lastly, Gabriele Ferzetti plays Teresa di Vicenzo’s father Marc-Ange Draco, the head of the criminal organization Union Corse. He is undoubtedly a criminal with ulterior motives, but he also has a weird fixation on hooking up Bond with his daughter.

THE LOCATIONS: Portugal bookends the film, with a beautiful and thrilling beach scene at the beginning and a tragic scene in the mountains at the end. The meat of the film takes place in Switzerland, centered around Blofeld’s snowy alpine base. They make the most of the wintry environment with both lingering and sweeping views of Switzerland’s snowy majesty. They also get creative with their action sequences, using terrifying avalanches, prolonged ski chases (a little too long, if we’re being honest), and a genuinely thrilling bobsleigh chase, which sounds ridiculous, but includes a gunfight, crashes, and leaping to and from the sleighs.

THE CARS: There are a number of beautiful cars in this film, including a few different Rolls-Royces. There is a 1954 black Phantom IV, a 1962 Silver Cloud III Standard Steel Saloon, and a 1968 Silver Shadow Drophead Coupe. There’s a blink-and-you’ll miss it 1962 Jaguar Mk X and a 1964 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu Convertible.

Mercedes-Benz has a couple cars in important scenes and chases, and then Bond, of course, has an Aston Martin. This time it’s a 1968 DBS Vantage 5234/R.

You can find a full list of the cars shown in the film here.

THE GADGETS: As I said above, it was the intent for this film to rely less on gadgets than any of the previous films. To that end, the most outrageous piece of equipment might be the radioactive lint that is suggested as a form of tracking device. Other than that there is art only an improvised device Bond makes to open a locked door, and the vanity cases Blofeld hands out to his Angels of Death so he can continue his hypnotic suggestions as he carries out his bioterrorist plot.

THE MUSIC: The soundtrack shows a mixture of old and new from composer John Barry. It is the last of the films to use his classic James Bond theme introduced in Dr. No, for example, and the first that sees an extensive use of synth music and electric guitars, creating a more aggressive sound that has led many to agree is among the best scores in the entire Bond franchise.

Finding it difficult to work the title into the lyrics of a song, Barry instead devised a powerful instrumental for the title sequence, much like the title sequences of the first two films, and then created a separate theme song for the film titled, “We Have All the Time In the World.” The lyrics were written by Hal David (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me”), and sung by Louie Armstrong. It was one of the final recordings Armstrong did before his death.

THE SUPPORT: Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell return as M and Miss Moneypenny respectfully, with the former serving as more of a foil this time around, explicitly refusing to allow Bond to pursue Blofeld, frustrating the agent so much that he even threatens to resign. Desmond Llewelyn makes an appearance as Q as well, though only briefly as his gadgets are kept far away from the film.

Really, Ferzetti’s criminal Draco is the largest support, with the only other solid addition being Bernard Horsfall’s Shaun Campbell, an ill-fated colleague who tries to assist Bond on his Swiss operation.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Because George Lazenby only had one appearance as James Bond, and because it was sandwiched between Connery’s attempted last performance after making the character “his” and Connery’s ACTUAL last performance, OHMSS tends to get overlooked. It’s ironic, because everything about it–its nonreliance on gadgets, its close adherence to the source material, Lazenby’s cold and resourceful 007–makes this the MOST Bond-like film in the entire catalogue. Strong turns from Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas give a chemistry and a credibility both to the “Bond girl” and villain categories, with characters more than a match for Bond. Rigg and Savalas’ acting prowess also helps carry Lazenby’s relative inexperience.

The ski chase is overlong but still exciting, and a shockingly depressing ending provides an unexpected gut punch for those expecting the hero to always eke out a win. This film is exquisitely balanced, and the many fantastic qualities are echoed in several films (Inception, for example), including other Bond films (Spectre in particular pays homage).

Though Lazenby’s Bond might only be a stone in the lake that is the franchise, it was well-sunk.

OTHER BOND BREAKDOWNS:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

Diamonds Are Forever

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