“The lasting impact of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is that it showed that a James Bond film could be made without Sean Connery in the lead role. The producers maintained that audiences came to the films to see James Bond, not necessarily the actor playing him.” — Bruce Scivally, The Digital Bits.
Unjustly dismissed as a disappointing blip in the annals of James Bond on-screen lore upon initial release, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS) has more recently rightly taken its place in critical opinion as one of the very best of the series. Lauded by many top filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh (“Certainly it’s the only Bond film I look at and think: I’m stealing that shit.”) and Christopher Nolan (“A wonderful balance of action and romanticism”) for its exquisite class and beautiful compositions, it has been slavishly emulated by its director Peter Hunt’s heir apparent, Sam Mendes (Skyfall, SPECTRE), and is frequently touted as a touchstone for modern, “gritty” Bond-ing by EON key-holders Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. Rather than merely being a filler with “the new fella”, it stands proud as a daring new direction in so many ways.
Long-time Bond series editor Peter Hunt, famous for his innovative sped-up, short-cutting fight footage in From Russia With Love’s train carriage in particular, finally got his shot at the big chair to direct his long cherished project, OHMSS in 1969. Richard Maibaum’s script had long been in development too, undergoing several drafts, and being put back as the tone of the series became more playful and gadget-laden. This partly explains why it and You Only Live Twice were filmed out of sequence, EON spokesman Tom Carlisle reasoning that audiences would more readily accept James Bond “out of his mind rather than married.” The fact that Blofeld and Bond had already crossed swords is conveniently glossed over.
After some early unusual drafts (Bond is aided in his Piz Gloria escape by a friendly ape in Blofeld’s mini-zoo!) the script settled down into possibly the most faithful of all the Ian Fleming adaptations. Quite rightly too, as the novel is excellent, easily one of the best of a hit and miss series – after the disappointment of Fleming’s gimmicky female first-person perspective of The Spy Who Loved Me, he got serious. Hunt was also determined to be big and bold, daring in subject, sticking to the bleak ending (at one point the finale was to be shunted to the beginning of the next film), shooting with style and vigour.
The long held bug-bear of the film for many has been its star, former car salesman, model and “Big Fry” chocolate brand mascot, Australian George Lazenby as the new James Bond. Some claim that had Sean Connery remained in the role, the film would have been improved. However, it is difficult to imagine him displaying the vulnerability required for this Bond – on the edge, and falling in love, being devastated by Blofeld’s final revenge. Also, had Connery remained, it is doubtful an actress of Diana Rigg’s calibre would have been cast as Tracy – she was there to bolster the new boy in their scenes together, and provide a strong foil.
The problem with Lazenby’s performance isn’t so much that he “couldn’t act” – despite composer John Barry’s dismissal of that powerful final scene (“With all due respect to Lazenby’s inexperience, he couldn’t have created a boiled egg.“), he delivers – it’s that Hunt reasoned he could get a performance from the edit, and left him with minimal direction. Apparently, Lazenby was asked by the crew to have a word with the director about set visitors getting in the way – turns out a lot of them were Hunt’s friends, and things became slightly frosty afterwards between the two. Nevertheless, Lazenby certainly has presence and style, and up to brawler Daniel Craig, is easily the best Bond for fight scenes.
Lazenby had actually met Broccoli twice at The Dorchester hotel’s famous Kurt’s Barbershop, the second time intentionally in 1968, in pursuit of the role. Kurt let him know when Cubby’s appointment was scheduled. He’d purchased a suit from Sean Connery’s tailor (rumour has it one actually intended for the star until he changed his mind) and had his hair cut in a similar style to make an impression. He then gatecrashed Eon’s Parklane offices, dashing past the secretary to announce dramatically to casting director Dyson Lovell, on the phone to co-producer Harry Saltzmann, “I hear you’re looking for James Bond.” Amongst the many, many auditions he was put through, his final fighting screen test (along with the EON secretaries approval!) finally convinced. Not knowing how to block for screen, he landed one on his stunt opponent Yuri Borionko’s nose (there’s photographic proof of the bloodied pug). “We’re going with you,” Saltzmann nodded approvingly.
In OHMSS, James Bond has been engaged for some time on “Operation Bedlam” – the hunt for SPECTRE mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played this time as a hands-on, dragged-up operator obsessed with status and title, by Telly Savalas. See my feature specifically on his role here.). Ordered to stand down by M after a fruitless search, Bond resigns (actually, canny Moneypenny swings him some leave instead), and pursues a lead through Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), the Unione Corse criminal boss father of the troubled Tracy / Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). In Portugal, Bond had saved a suicidal Tracy’s life from both the waves and some goons he fights off. From this opening, OHMSS is a very different Bond adventure – human, real, and affecting.
Lazenby acquits himself well in their scenes together, displaying both the tough, experienced agent, and the almost vulnerable, new to this game lover, touched by her charm, independence, and spirit. He convincingly tires of her games in his hotel bedroom after he bails her out of a casino card game:
Tracy: Why do you persist in rescuing me, Mr. Bond?
Bond: It’s becoming quite a habit, isn’t it, Contessa Teresa?
Tracy: Teresa was a Saint; I’m known as Tracy.
Bond: Well, Tracy, next time play it safe and stand on 5.
Tracy: People who want to stay *alive* play it safe.
Bond: Please, stay alive! At least for tonight.
Later, after his punishing ski escape from Blofeld’s Piz Gloria alpine “clinic”(actually a brainwashing facility for his “angels of death”, soon to be armed with Virus Omega) he is hunted, alone, exhausted and afraid. Incongruously, a jolly song, Do you Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? plays over his troubles.
At this point, Fleming wrote he is at the end of his tether. Witness his disorientation in the festive crowd and look of real fear and shock as he slams into a man disguised as a bloodied, sharp-toothed polar bear. Editing is fab here, by the way, a camera flash and cackling laughter mixing with Bond’s gasp of shock. Hunched by the ice rink, as Tracy skates up and the camera pulls up to her smiling, then concerned face, their rapprochement is genuine and touching to behold. She literally rejuvenates him.
Also, she doesn’t just make him feel good, she plays an active part in their escape, evading Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) and co. through the chaotic stock car arena to eventual respite in a snowbound barn, where Bond proposes. (Rigg also gets handy with a broken bottle in the alpine assault climax, her background in T.V’s The Avengers not going to waste.) He’s finally met a woman with an adventurous spirit to match his own. “Her price is far above rubies—or even your million dollars,” he tells Draco, refusing his dowry. Long before the sparky but troubled Vesper of Casino Royale, there was Tracy, the first Bond woman.
Charles Helfenstein, the writer of invaluable guide The making Of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, says of Rigg, the film’s secret weapon:
“The typical method of casting Bond girls involved finding unknowns, except for Goldfinger, and they decided to follow that alternate recipe exactly by hiring another Avengers veteran, and thank God they did. The role required a real range of emotions, not just window dressing. Rigg plays Tracy with an incredible mix of sophistication and elegance, emotional vulnerability, and independent spirit… It is difficult to imagine any Bond girl of any era coming close to the full package Rigg brought to OHMSS. There is only one woman on the planet that can get 007 to give up his bachelorhood, and her name is Diana Rigg.”
But…..being a Bond film in the ’60’s, there was a fear of straying too far from formula, so the middle section is taken up with the rather drawn out catting about by Bond after lights out in Piz Gloria, circumventing security to get to the bottom of Blofeld’s scheme by seducing (or being seduced by?) Blofeld’s dolly bird “Angels”. At this point he’s in disguise as Sir Hilary Bray, a fussy, stuffy, supposedly gay genealogist from the College Of Arms, come to validate the villain’s ancestral claim as “Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp”. It’s this section that possibly accounts for the dismissal of both film and star, as Lazenby is dubbed by George Baker, the actor whose character he is impersonating. It’s not altogether convincing, but it does lead up to an amusing moment that in my mind, is as good as Connery’s “I must be dreaming,” as Pussy Galore reveals her name. Believing he’s visiting one of the girls in her room, the “sleeping” figure is revealed to be the hausfrau from hell, Bunt. “Fancy meeting you here Fraulein!” he gets out before a hidden goon coshes him and the room spins into slo-mo oblivion.
Back to that escape from Blofeld’s clutches. After a bit of classic villain monologuing, Bond is locked up in the mechanism for the ski-lift. We’ve been used up to now with Bond using a ridiculous hi-tech gadget from Q-Branch to get his way out of trouble, but here he has to use his wits. Ripping the pockets out of his trousers, he improvises gloves to protect his hands as he inches along the cable, down to the car, and back inside for the next stage. Taking off his steel-banded Rolex, he uses it as a knuckle-duster to wipe out a goon, and don a pair of skis to belt down the mountain. In a deleted scene from Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s Bond uses the same watch trick (actually a rubber replica) during the sinking Venice house fight – more proof of the OHMSS template being a model to work towards.
The skiing scenes are, barring the occasional bad back projection close-up, marvels of widescreen wit and action grandeur. Hunt recruited Olympic skiing champion Willy Bogner to help neophyte second-unit director John Glen film on the alps. Bogner’s 1966 documentary Skifascination had been revolutionary in putting the audience right in the midst of the action.
During the climactic bobsleigh chase between Blofeld and Bond, Bogner skied whilst tethered to the back of a bobsleigh by a 20-foot cable, shooting crouched down with a 40mm lens hand-held camera. For aerial shots, Bond veteran cameraman Johnny Jordan, who had filmed the helicopter / Little Nellie clash of You Only Live Twice, losing a leg in the process, again hung from another special rig beneath a helicopter. Christopher Nolan homaged the ski scenes in one of the dream levels of his mind-snatch thriller, Inception – even down to the alpine layer. In his case, a “hospital” tending the planted memory of the Di Caprio character’s target.
And of course there’s the finale’s dawn-tinged assault on Piz Gloria (actually a real-life alpine restaurant “upgraded” by the production – every interior with a view of the alps is real, not a movie set.). Intercut with Tracy’s “Thy Dawn” decoying recitation by script polisher Simon Raven from James Elroy Flecker’s Hassan, and scored to composer John Barry’s masterfully understated, suspenseful “Over And out“, this whole sequence is a sublime execution of pacing, mood(s), cinematography and menace.
The artistry of the Bond series was taken up a notch by Hunt not just in the action, but in beautiful transitions and wipes, that emulate the likes of British new-wave fare such as Performance and Blow-up. The opening shot of the Brass Universal Exports sign (the series’ MI6 cover) reflects a passing figure – the director himself. As Bond later fumes back in M’s office at the United Nations’ acquiescence to Blofeld’s demands and he ruminates on Tracy’s fate as his captive, we see her pulled from an avalanche aftermath, superimposed over the rainfall on the window Bond broods out of. Bond also toasts Her Maj whilst reflected in the glass covering her portrait in his office, sharing the same shot, both in focus.
My Twitter friend and fellow blogger NUTS4R2 goes into further detail on the film’s bravura technical flourishes in his excellent appreciation.
Married to the superb, sumptuous visuals is composer John Barry’s superlative score – as if to reinforce, “This may be a new boy, but by God, he is James Bond!” Sparingly using the James Bond cue, much use is made of the OHMSS theme itself for the action. He also plays it on the newfangled Moog synthesizer, another sign of Bond moving with the times. The instrumental theme plays cannily over the opening sequence, interspersing scenes from earlier films in the series slipping away like the sands of time.
Hunt was a trained violinist and understood the importance of music and when to use it, which meant he and Barry gelled well. His brief to the composer was “I want the whole film to sound lush, big and beautiful.” Barry’s answer to that was to do “Bondian beyond Bondian.”
The line from the novel, as Bond cradles the dead body of his new bride after Blofeld and Bunt’s roadside revenge, was the inspiration for the romantic aspect’s bittersweet title – We Have All The Time In The World. Hal David, who had just won best song at The Oscars with Burt Bacharach for Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, wrote the lyrics. A frail Louis Armstrong famously sang the touching number, added extra poignancy due to his failing health. “It’s a tragic song, but it’s filled with so much hope because it’s about love, and love surviving even death. To this day I cannot fail to cry when I hear it” – Barabara Broccoli. The song was fittingly played at her father’s memorial service.
OHMSS dragged James Bond back to a plausible reality, with relatable stakes and consequences. James Chapman, author of Licence To Thrill: A Cultural History of The James Bond Films perhaps puts it best, and most succinctly:
“In hindsight, Licence to Kill was the first Daniel Craig Bond movie—albeit without Daniel Craig. But perhaps, I might suggest, OHMSS was the first Daniel Craig Bond movie?”
Over And out…..
ADDENDUM: If you’re a passing Bond fan, obsessive, can’t be arsed, or just like a dryly amusing chat about all things Bond, tune into m’colleague John Rain’s excellent broadcast, SMERSHPOD.