Bright Lights Film Journal

The Revolutionary James Bond Movie: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

In which Lazenby, like Lazarus, is resurrected, along with the movie

A major difference among people who enjoy the James Bond series revolves around the actor who plays Bond. It has become a generation inclination. I grew up with Sean Connery as Bond, and nobody can convince me that those who followed him are better. One of my fellow teachers, 20 years younger than I, during a discussion of the Bond movies, said that he liked Roger Moore and never could get into Connery. I was astounded and felt compelled to smite this blasphemy, but he persisted. He had grown up during the Roger Moore era, 1973-1985, and Moore’s performance became the standard Bond. While Timothy Dalton was not Bong long enough, “generation next” had to wait for Pierce Brosnan as their Bond. Curiously, the best and, if one can say it, important James Bond movie starred none of the above actors nor even an actor who before or after starred in a major film: Australian male model, George Lazenby, Connery’s ostensible successor after You Only Live Twice (1967). The fact that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) overcame Lazenby’s shortcomings might be the ultimate testament to the Bond series if not the movie itself.

Considering the factors which make On Her Majesty’s the best, we must start with the transition from Sean Connery. In 1995, Pierce Brosnan replaced Timothy Dalton with great media attention. Yes, few tears were shed over Dalton’s departure. The Living Daylights (1987) and License to Kill (1989), in retrospect, were good films but Dalton’s serious and dour Bond, and not poor box office,1 nearly killed the series.2 The relatively recent media frenzy over Brosnan’s saving the series might make us lose sight of the anxiety 35 years ago when Connery announced that he had had enough. Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli created some mystery over the new Bond but, oddly, little fanfare over Lazenby. On the recent DVD, there is a 40-minute “Making of….” documentary which suggests that outside of Peter Hunt, the director, few people had much faith in Lazenby doing even an adequate job. Possibly, upon completion of the filming, Saltzman and Broccoli may have thought they had an albatross on their profitable series. To complicate matters, Lazenby did not want to continue with Bond. Reports, at the time, had it that Lazenby wanted to quit because of the intense media celebrity pressure. In the “Making of….” documentary, Lazenby quit because he did not think the series had a future. If we believe him, it could have been one of the worst decisions ever made. But one also gets the sense from other interviews that the producers were not happy with Lazenby during production, and he may have quit before he could be fired. Connery returned for Diamonds Are Forever (1971), allowing time for worthier successor to be anointed: Roger Moore.3

The worry about Connery’s absence, regardless whether Lazenby would or would not continue as Bond, weighed heavily on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and was apparent in the pre-credits sequence. Initially, we do not have clear shots of the new Bond, only extreme closeups of him lighting a cigarette, taking off sunglasses, and shifting gears in the car. A woman, Tracy (Diana Rigg), zooms by him, and he speeds after her. When he leaves the car to save her from drowning herself, there are split-second frontal shots and extended long shots of him running into the ocean. Only after he carries Tracy onto the beach, do we see Lazenby announce himself with the trademark Bond self-introduction. The opening sequence’s self-consciousness crests after he has fought two killers and the woman flees the scene. Lazenby holds her shoes and delivers the line: “This never happened to the other fellow.”

The credits sequence follows with strictly orchestrated music and no song (imagine a Bond movie without a theme — actually, it will come later!). On the screen we see brief action shots from past Bond movies, primarily the villains and women, starting with Dr. No and Honey Rider. The sequence also shows a clock going backwards and all of the action shots flow down an hourglass. The producers do not want people to forget the past, especially those who made up Bond’s enemy list and harem, as if to tell us that the Bond movies are about the action and sex and not Sean Connery. Then to reinforce the melding of Lazenby and Connery, a half-hour into the film Lazenby considers resigning from Her Majesty’s Service and clears out several items from his desk (this may also be a dig at Connery for resigning from the series). With each item, we hear an appropriate tune from the movie: for example, Honey Rider’s scuba belt to the tune of “Underneath the Mango Tree” and the breathing tube to a theme from Thunderball (1965).

Once the Bond-transition anxiety subsides, the distinct qualities of On Her Majesty’s emerge, most significantly Bond’s courtship and marriage to Tracy. Not a fake marriage, as in You Only Live Twice, but an actual marriage for the quintessential Playboy bachelor type of man best known for his serial lovemaking and rapid disposability of his lovers. This is a revolutionary development. And given that Diana Rigg, most recently Emma Peel of The Avengers television show, comes into the role with a strong personality, Tracy may be wearing the pants in the family, although there is talk of having children. To accomplish Bond’s sincerity in wanting to be married, the movie devotes its first part, the first forty minutes, to his pursuit of her (initiated in the pre-credits sequence). She is the daughter of Draco (Gabrielle Ferzetti), a crime syndicate boss. As an international jetsetter, she has a penchant to displease her father, in other words, she’s a spoiled brat looking for Daddy’s attention. True to the series’ formula, Bond so overwhelms her that she trades in her independent if empty existence and accepts domestication (reminiscent of the time Bond makes love to the lesbian Pussy Galore and turns her against Goldfinger). In honor of this special romance, the movie’s theme song, “We Have All the Time in the World,” is sung by Louis Armstrong when Bond buys courts Tracy.

Once this business is over, Bond acts on information provided by Draco on a connection to Blofeld, and the plot machinations start. Blofeld runs a clinic in the Swiss Alps to cure people (all beautiful women) of allergies. The clinic masks his plot to send these women around the world to spread a virus that will sterilize all plant life. As in Thunderball, Blofeld blackmails the world. To find an actor the size of this plan, the producers cast Telly Savalas. Just as Diana Rigg had a ready-made image as an independent women, pre-Kojac Savalas had played heavies and was coming off his greatest characterization, the dirtiest of The Dirty Dozen (1967), A.J. Maggott. Blofeld’s face had never been shown prior to You Only Live Twice when Donald Pleasance played the pompous villain with the bejeweled Persian cat. Savalas’ Blofeld contained an egotism missing in Pleasance’s performance. On Her Majesty’s madman/genius had an actor who was well measured for the part.

Lazenby infiltrates the clinic by posing as an expert on heraldry.4) Blofeld wants to become a count — this will figure into his blackmail plans. Away from Tracy, Bond is free to revert to his old self and dabble sexually with several women taking the allergy cure. He is discovered but escapes down the mountain in a nighttime ski chase during which Bond rides on one ski half the time while dodging machine gun bullets and grenades.5 Tracy shows up and helps him to get away from Blofeld’s inept henchmen, but after another chase down a mountain she is captured.6 This sets up the final action sequence, a thrilling aerial assault on the mountain fortress. The final fight between Lazenby and Savalas on a bobsled course ranks as one of the great hand-to-hand fisticuffs in any movie.

Overall, On Her Majesty’s had enough action, one-liners, sex, and John Barry theme music to make one forget Sean Connery was not onboard.

* * *

Indeed, the above ingredients should have pushed the movie into top box-office numbers for 1969.7) It relies on action and not action devices to generate excitement. Gone are the Aston-Martin death machine, the miniature helicopters, and the rocket backpack. Also absent is a slow, uninvolving sequence like the underwater battle in Thunderball. The Bond Movie returns to James Bond. The superhero does not need superfluous technology. Alas, the superhero cannot stay married either.

Would Bond be allowed a few years of happiness? Would Tracy, perhaps, die in childbirth? Would she get some fluke cancer? Could she and James be availed a little happiness — at least until the next installment? Might they not spawn a child?8

Tracy would not survive the marriage day. We had mistakenly presumed Blofeld dead or captured after he was caught in a tree branch above the bobsled run. She is killed in a blaze of machinegun fire from Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat), Blofeld’s henchwoman . Bond jumps from the car and sees Tracy slumped over. He holds her. A policeman drives up. Bond looks at him while stroking her hair: “It’s all right. It’s quite all right. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going soon. There’s no hurry. You see — we’ve got all the time in the world.”

More revolutionary than Bond getting married is having a Bond movie end on the bleakest note. THE SUPERHERO IS CRYING. There’s the dread feeling that the villain has triumphed.9 Surprisingly, several of the Ian Fleming novels end this way. In From Russia with Love, Bond is wounded by a poisoned knife and falls unconscious to the floor. You Only Live Twice makes him an amnesiac headed for the Soviet city of Vladivostok.

Speaking of the novels, perhaps On Her Majesty’s Secret Service‘s most revolutionary move not only returned Bond to his own devices but followed Fleming’s novel very closely,10 part of the process mentioned earlier of returning the series to James Bond. Up to the point of killing Tracy. And having Bond break down emotionally.

What may have made sense in a spy genre novel, what may have been gotten away with in the novel, cannot evade the desires and nature of the movie-viewing public. The sense of despair and trauma at having witnessed the ruin of a hero, super or not so super, had sense of finality. In one way, the emotional thud at the end best symbolized the Bond career of George Lazenby. The ending also seemed to demand the resurrection of Bond as Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever. The series could, no, must carry on.

The counter-revolution then commenced and reclaimed the old Bond dominion. Indeed, everything was all right. The Bond series has shown that there was no need to worry, not after Lazenby, not after Dalton. Saltzman and Broccoli, then just Broccoli, then Broccoli’s daughter, have proved they have all the time in the world, 40 years’ worth, and still going. Even a revolution could not stop them from enduring and making more money than ever.

  1. According to Internet Movie Data base, the first made $191 million; the second, $156. Approximately what A View to a Kill (1985) earned. The move to Brosnan, however, doubled these figures. []
  2. The Bond series has been written off several times. Critics believe when they are tired of the formula, everyone else is. In fact, you could probably find several such predictions for every Bond film after Goldfinger (1964). []
  3. According to James Chapman’s License to Thrill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), after the Lazenby disappointment, United Artists desperately wanted Connery back and made him the highest price star in the world (pp. 156-57). []
  4. Since Blofeld and Bond met each other face to face in You Only Live Twice, it would seem the masquerade would work only if the series changed actors! This would have been a postmodern triumph if it were so. Unfortunately, the error stems from the fact that On Her Majesty’s was supposed to have been filmed before You Only Live Twice. It would have taken too many plot contortions to make Bond unrecognizable (plastic surgery); thus, the situation was simply ignored. (License to Thrill, p. 128-29. []
  5. At one point, Savalas utters one of my favorite lines in the Bond series: “Head him off at the precipice.” []
  6. During this chase, one of Blofeld’s skiers falls into a snow blowing vehicle and is chopped up nicely into the air, to which Lazenby cries out to Tracy one of the coldest lines in the series: “He had lots of guts.” []
  7. In fact, the movie was one of the top-grossing films of the year, but in the mind of the public and posterity it was a flop. Perhaps the less than $10 million box office in the United States created this impression. (License to Thrill, p. 147 []
  8. Bond will have no children. His virtual sterility reverberates in Blofeld’s operation to sterilize all plant life with the “virus omega.” The ultimate aesthetic sterility of the series breeds thrills, profits, and stillborn art. []
  9. In fact, director Peter Hunt admits on the DVD “Making of On Her Majesty’s…” that it was probably a mistake to end the film like this and would have made better sense to start Diamonds Are Forever with Tracy’s death. Lazenby’s dropping out sabotaged this idea, if they were indeed serious about it. As it plays out, there is virtually no mention of her death. As if the series was now trying to blot out the unfortunate episode, as well as any remnant of the previous film. []
  10. In a sense, this would be the last time a Fleming novel would guide the film. Although, Roger Moore’s Bond is allowed more freedom from technology in For Your Eyes Only, not coincidentally the best Moore Bond movie. []