Flickering Myth’s writing team count down to the release of Skyfall by discussing their favourite James Bond films; next up is Jake Wardle with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service…
The more time has passed since the release of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the more its reputation seems to have grown. It’s gone from being the black sheep of the Bond series – a misstep that Connery’s return to the role all but erased – to the instalment frequently cited as the best in the series. There’s a reason for this – it’s really very good, and it’s only taken until now for everyone to realise it.
No James Bond was ever put under the same level of scrutiny put on George Lazenby, and no other James Bond was ever made into a punch line like George Lazenby. When Sean Connery left the series after You Only Live Twice, Eon were petrified. To the public, Connery was Bond. Who could possibly follow him? In a panic, they auditioned hundreds of actors, and were sufficiently charmed by one Australian unknown to hire him. The problem was, he wasn’t an actor, not unless you count adverts for ‘Big Fry chocolate’, But he looked the part, and he claimed he’d acted before in faraway countries, so they risked it. What could possibly go wrong?
That Connery was back in the role only two years later, 41 years old and £1.25 million richer, probably answers that question. Critics lamented Lazenby’s wooden delivery, but for many it seemed his greatest crime was not being Sean Connery.
It’s a real shame, because with OHMSS the world was given a very different kind of James Bond film. Though some early, clunky references to previous instalments attempt to remind us beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is still the same old James Bond, OHMSS is the closest the series ever got to acknowledging the enormous changes in mainstream cinema by the close of the 1960s. Young moviegoers impressed by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Cowboy were less likely to forgive a top secret volcano hideout. This isn’t to say On Her Majesty’s is Midnight Cowboy, because unless Midnight Cowboy had a five minute bobsleigh chase that I somehow missed, it really isn’t. But it’s still a clear attempt to modernise the series, to bring it in line with the introspection and pessimism of the ‘New Hollywood’. Take the ending, for instance. No Bond before or since has dared to end as abruptly and as brutally as this one. Marrying Bond off was already something of a risk– taking a character beloved for his womanizing and effectively neutering him, an implication summed up perfectly by the look he and Moneypenny share as he leaves for his ill-fated honeymoon, but to end the film with Bond holding the murdered Tracy in his arms, reassuring her that they have ‘all the time in the world’ isn’t just a shock, it’s flat-out heart-breaking (and with all the noise about Lazenby’s performance, it’s surprising just how good he is in this scene).
Granted, Lazenby is no Connery, but neither was Roger Moore, and when it comes to action, Lazenby tops both. An early scene on a beach is as artfully choreographed and as stark as anything even Daniel Craig’s Bond has given us. Think back to the monochrome bathroom fight in Casino Royale; it may not be quite as violent, but the effect is the same – this is a very different Bond to what you saw last time. This feeling is only increased a few scenes later, when having been taken off the Blofeld case, Bond resigns, goes back into his office, packs his things and in a nice touch, apologizes to the portrait of the very Queen whose service he has walked away from. The effect of the scene may be somewhat diminished by corny throwbacks and musical cues from the Connery films, but it’s impressive nonetheless to have an iconic character threaten to resign from his equally iconic occupation.
Does the film live up to those early scene’s promise? Perhaps not – scenes at the ski-lodge are fun at first, with Bond going undercover as a gay genealogist in a commune of brainwashed women (it’s better than it sounds), but they’re dragged out for so long that when Tracy reappears some time later you’ve almost forgotten she existed. She’s underused , and it’s a shame, because the screen lights up whenever Diana Rigg appears. She may just be the best Bond girl: complex, troubled, and yet every bit Bond’s equal. It never seems unlikely that he would want to settle down with her. The looks he gives her when they’re together are some of the few moments Lazenby truly nails. There’s a glance shared between them as Bond is dropped off at a potential lead’s office that feels absolutely genuine, and it’s lovely. As great as Honey Ryder was, you never imagined her and James picking out a rug for their marital home. Tracy feels real, and the ending all the more tragic for it. Telly Savalas’ Blofeld has none of the menace of Donald Pleasance, but he has some nice moments, particularly early on – you’re never quite sure if he knows it’s Bond undercover or not. That his presence is somewhat undermined by the aforementioned bobsleigh chase, and his next appearance in a comedy-neck brace, goes without saying. The ‘Angels of Death’ too are a fun addition, however silly the concept may seem.
And that theme! The story goes that Barry could think of no way to fit ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ into a song without writing it as a Gilbert And Sullivan-style operetta (a conundrum similar to that faced by Jack White with Quantum Of Solace, though Barry’s solution was far more memorable) the compromise was to use an instrumental, and include a Bond ‘song’ throughout the film (Louis Armstrong’s bittersweet ‘We Have All The Time In The World’), but what a compromise. It’s menacing, stylish, and absolutely fitting for the darker tone of the film.
Perhaps my affection for OHMSS is a connection to my childhood, having bought it on VHS from Woolworths; it was the first Bond film I’d ever owned. It may be that this is the reason I feel such affection for it – that somehow, more so than any other Bond film, this one is mine. Or perhaps it’s that, too young to really dwell on a weak lead performance (or the inclusion of a bobsleigh chase) I was able to see past them and see the film for what it was: one of the most exciting, entertaining and unique films in a series full of exciting, entertaining films. watching it again over ten years later, it feels like a lost opportunity. A gateway into a darker, more complex Bond that various external forces meant we never saw, at least until a certain Mr Craig came along…
Read Flickering Myth’s ★★★★★ review of Skyfall here.