Reel Talk

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the Passing of Torches

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It can be an interesting thing getting into the James Bond franchise, and not quite knowing the order that the movies are supposed to be seen in. I suppose that that’s not really something to worry about anymore, what with the prevalence of the internet, but I can remember being a kid and just trying to get my hands on whatever Bond movie I could, taking what I could get. You slowly start to find favorite actors and piece together the chronology of the franchise. But there was always one movie that seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. Good old On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I remember seeing it for the first time when I was younger, on one of those Spike TV marathons, and just kind of being confused about the whole thing. Not just the fact that we had a one-trick pony of a Bond, or the awkward chronology of it coming between two Sean Connery starring Bonds, there was also the fact that this is just such a strange Bond movie. It has a very different feel most of the rest of the franchise, it’s structured differently, and of course features an ending unlike anything that’s come before it for the franchise. And that certainly rubs people the wrong way. I remember hearing about this movie before I first actually saw it, and most people don’t have really good things to say about it. They seem to think that since it’s such an aberration it’s not good, and I often heard it considered one of the worst films that the franchise put out. Which I personally don’t think could be further from the truth. I know that this film has been reexamined by Bond fans, and has become considered a classic of the series, but I feel like by and large it’s still one of the least-seen of the franchise, which is a real shame, because it’s honestly become one of my personal favorites over the years.

However, much like Thunderball one of the things that his film is probably most known for is the behind the scenes drama. After You Only Live Twice Sean Connery was officially fed up with the franchise, due to both his feelings of mistreatment by the producers and the irritation of dealing with rabid fans. And with no Sean Connery, the producers weren’t sure what to do. He had become the symbol of the franchise, and it wasn’t clear if the series would be viable without it’s leading man. But they decided to give it a shot, and began the hunt for a new James Bond. Which is when George Lazenby came into the picture. Now, I highly recommend watching the documentary Everything or Nothing if you’re at all interested in the Bond movies, and when you watch it you learn a lot about George Lazenby, which can really be fascinating. He was a model with minimal acting experience, and he basically just charmed his way into the part. He impressed the producers with having the right look for the part, and the ability to ride a horse and throw a punch. And I suppose that that was all they thought was necessary for playing James Bond. However, the drama doesn’t stop at the beginning of the production, because in case you didn’t know, it wasn’t the producers idea that George Lazenby only do one Bond movie. They actually were all set to move along with him in Diamonds Are Forever, but during the filming of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Lazenby realized that he was poised to have a huge career, and that James Bond would typecast him in a way that he didn’t want to be thought of. Lazenby figured that he would be more popular if he joined the growing counter-culture movement, and he figured that James Bond was as square as could be. So he bailed on this once in a lifetime opportunity, and sunk into obscurity, being solely remembered as the only actor to only play James Bond once. But hey, at least his once at bat was one of the more fascinating films of the series.

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The film opens up with James Bond, careful not to show his face, following a mysterious woman to a beach, where she appears to attempt suicide. Bond races into the surf and saves the woman, only to be attacked by some thugs. Bond scraps with the goons, and in the process the woman flees. We then get what’s possibly the worst line in the entire franchise, “This never happened to the other fella,” before sliding into the credit-sequence for the movie, which is primarily a clip show of the previous movies, reminding us that this is still the guy we know and love. And once that’s done we see Bond head back to his hotel, where he begins gambling. But that’s stopped when he sees the woman from the beach, and the two start chatting. Her name is Teresa di Vicenzo, or Tracy, who comes off as rather cold, but nevertheless spends the night with Bond. And the next morning when he wakes up he finds Tracy gone, and is quickly abducted by the men who attacked him on the beach. They take him to a mysterious building where he meets with their employer, Marc-Ange Draco, the head of a European criminal organization called the Unione Corse. Oh, and he also happens to be Tracy’s father. He knows that Bond has been good to Tracy, and offers Bond a million pounds for Bond to marry Tracy and help her find meaning to her life. Bond is a little put off by this request, until he starts to consider using Draco to help him find Blofeld, who has been missing since You Only Live Twice. But he still doesn’t like the idea of being bought into marriage, so he still refuses and heads back to England. And things aren’t going well there. M no longer wants Bond to be hunting Blofeld, and ends up taking him off the case. So Bond throws a fit, and ends up getting a couple weeks of leave so that he can try to scrounge up a trace of Blofeld on his own.

However, knowing he can’t do it on his own, Bond returns to Draco, and ends up spending time with Tracy. She quickly realizes that her father was trying to set her up, and insists that he helps Bond without having him marry her. Although, Bond does end up having a great time with Tracy, and the two spend most of his leave together, falling in love. But after a while he does start to use Draco’s leads, and ends up finding proof that Blofeld is in Switzerland, and is attempting to get confirmed as the heir of a French aristocratic family. So Bond returns to M, with the proof, and gets reinstated on the case. They then devise a plan where Bond will pretend to be a genealogist working for the London College of Arms, and infiltrate Blofeld’s organization. Bond then heads to Switzerland, pretending to be a man named Sir Hillary Bray, who comes to meet this mysterious “Count,” at his allergy research facility atop a mountain in the Swiss Alps. And things immediately get weird. Bond meets the Count’s second in command, Irma Bunt, and finds that the facility only works with young beautiful women. Bond continues to pretend to be a genealogist, meeting with the Count and trying to flirt with the women and find out what’s going on. Which he accomplished pretty quickly. He spends the night with one of the patients, and finds that her parents own a massive chicken farm in England, and that she’s being treated for a severe allergy to chicken. He also finds that part of her treatment involves some sort of hypnosis from the Count. It all starts to worry Bond, who is then knocked unconscious and brought before the Count again. But he drops all pretense now, and openly admits to being Blofeld, and explains his plan. Basically he’s going to threaten the UN into giving him immunity for all of his crimes, otherwise his patients will return home to their family farms and act as sleeper agents, releasing viruses that will spread and devastate the world’s agriculture and cattle.

And with that knowledge imparted Blofeld gets ready to dispose of Bond, who escapes and ends up fleeing down the mountain in the middle of the night, skiing away from Blofeld’s goons. He eventually reaches the small village at the foot of the mountain, and starts trying to avoid the villains. Which is when he runs into Tracy, who came to help Bond after she forced her father to tell her James’ whereabouts. Tracy and Bond then manage to escape Blofeld’s goons, and spend the night together, when Bond realizes that he’s in love with Tracy, and asks her to marry him. However, this gets problematic when they’re caught the very next morning, and Tracy is taken captive by Blofeld’s men. Bond then has no choice but to return to England, and request help from MI6 to storm Blofeld’s base and save Tracy. But M isn’t willing to go through with that, so Bond turns to his future father-in-law, and heads back to Switzerland to attack Blofeld’s base with an army of gangsters. They wage war with Blofeld’s men, destroy his plans, rescue Tracy, and Bond seems to finally dispose of Blofeld by snapping his neck on a tree while having a bobsled fight. And with Blofeld seemingly taken care of, Bond and Tracy return to England and get married. They have a lovely ceremony, and drive off to start their lives together. But when Bond stops the car to remove the flowers covering the car, Blofeld and Irma Bunt drive by and shoot up the car, killing Tracy. Bond then sits in the car, holding his dead wife as Blofeld drives off into the distance, and the credits begin to roll.

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I really love this movie. There are some issues with it, namely George Lazenby’s performance, but by and large I think that this is one of the most interesting and effective Bond movies of them all. The fact that Lazenby isn’t a particularly immersive actor certainly is a large hurdle for this movie to jump, but I think the movie has so many strengths that it outweighs that flaw. Aside from From Russia With Love, this is the most realistic and down to earth Bond film of the franchise thus far, and its really unlike any of the other films. The structure of the film is very unique, becoming the first film where Bond had to go rogue to get the job done. He doesn’t get a mission from M, he goes off on his own to stop Blofeld, furious that he wasn’t able to do so in You Only Live Twice. He goes to the ends of the earth to find Blofeld, and finds the love of his life along the way. Which is another strength of the film. Dianna Rigg is a tremendous actress, and her performance of Tracy is one of the best of the series, instantly creating a witty and capable love interest for James who makes it believable that Bond falls in love with her. I’m also a big fan of Telly Sevalas as Blofeld, although there is of course the fact that it makes no sense that he doesn’t seem to recognize Bond. But whatever, that’s a minor issue. The real issues with this movies come from George Lazenby. He’s not a terrible actor, but he’s certainly stiff and awkward, which is a shame since this film probably requires the most acting a James Bond had ever had to do up until this point. Realistically falling in love with Tracy probably required an actor of a higher caliber than George Lazanby, and his performance does hamper the movie a bit. But never enough that I don’t come away from this movie having adored it. It remains one of my absolute favorite Bond movies, and I think everyone should give it a shot.

There is one more issue with this film though, and once that probably encapsulates what this film means for the franchise. The fact that this was the first time that they tried to recast James Bond, and that the producers were terrified of what that would mean. I mentioned earlier that the title-sequence for this film is predominately just clips from previous movies,  but that’s not the only sequence in this film that exists solely for us to remember that this is still the same character. James goes into his office at one point and picks up random props from the previous movies, causing the various theme songs to kick in. It’s just so clear that they were worried people would be too confused to see a different actor playing James Bond, and they were probably right. Previous movies in history had actors play roles that other actors had played, but this appears to be a very early example of a role being recast in the middle of a series. Usually when a different actor picked up a role someone else had done it would be in a remake, or a film unrelated to the previous film. But the casting of George Lazenby was something different, which came to define this franchise. They easily could have just let the James Bond movies die with the departure of Sean Connery. But by recasting Bond with Lazenby they showed the continued viability of this franchise. They showed that they could continue recasting the role and keep making James Bond movies in perpetuity. The success of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service confirmed that the James Bond franchise could exist for decades to come, telling over-arching stories as long as people were willing to buy tickets. And that mentality really came to change blockbuster cinema. It took a while, but we’re at the point where other massive franchises are willing to take a page from James Bond’s book and recast their leads instead of just letting franchises die. These “cinematic universes” that are cropping up will more than likely lend this idea from the Bond franchise, giving themselves precedent to crank out films regardless of the availability or interest of actors. I don’t know if this is necessarily a good thing for cinema as a whole, but it’s done wonders for the James Bond series. Even though it didn’t exactly take, as we’ll see tomorrow, but this film proved that James Bond was a character that could be interpreted many different ways, which eventually gives me the ability to discuss these movies over the course of an entire month.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was written by Richard Maibaum, directed by Peter R Hunt, and released by United Artists, 1969.

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