James Bond: A history from Ian Fleming to Daniel Craig
On Her Majesty's Secret Service might be the sixth instalment in Eon's James Bond series, but for a long time it had the feel of one of the franchise's rogue entries Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again. Two years after Sean Connery signed off his initial 007 run with You Only Live Twice, producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman undertook an exhaustive casting search with director Peter Hunt to find a replacement. They believed, rightly, that the role of James Bond was bigger than anyone who played him, and in 1968 George Lazenby - an Australian model with no prior acting experience - was unveiled as the new James Bond at the Dorchester Hotel.
Lazenby, of course, would only play Bond once and OHMSS's failure to set the box office alight meant that for years it was seen as the runt of the 007 litter. However, time has been kind to this once forgotten film and after much re-assessment it's slowly creeping into many aficionado's top 5 Bond movie lists.
All this is aided by praise from some of Hollywood's most talented filmmakers - Christopher Nolan cited it as a touchstone for both Batman Begins and Inception, while late last year Steven Soderbergh penned an essay calling it "cinematically the best Bond film and the only one worth watching repeatedly for reasons other than pure entertainment".
So what is it about OHMSS that hooks people in? Why, across 50 years and 23 movies, is this the one Bond that collects more new fans above all the rest? The film features many of the franchise staples we've come to expect - big action set pieces, beautiful women, barnstorming John Barry music - but it manages to claim its own identity by pushing Bond to untapped emotional depths. Sure, Daniel Craig's Casino Royale and Skyfall may have added a layer of complexity to 007's big screen exploits, but you need only rewind to 1969 to see that the franchise had accomplished this all before.
In OHMSS, Bond himself becomes the engine that drives the plot instead of the vessel to take the audience from glamorous location A to glamourous location B. He's in the midst of Operation Bedlam, a globe-spanning search for super-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (a suave Telly Savalas), but we find him on a break in Portugal rescuing a woman from drowning in the sea.
She is Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), the wild child daughter of Corsican mobster Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). This being a 007 movie, naturally she leaps into bed with the spy, but the pair continue seeing each other as Bond believes Draco can help lead him to Blofeld. He even turns down a £1 million dowry from her father, who believes Bond walking her down the aisle will curb her reckless nature.
As the romance plays out and Bond gradually begins to fall for Tracy, he latches onto Blofeld through genealogist Sir Hilary Bray. The villain is hiding out in the Swiss Alps trying to pass himself off as a Count. Bond heads to Blofeld's Piz Gloria posing as Bray and discovers that his nemesis is using hypnosis to treat a bevy of beautiful women (among them Joanna Lumley!) for allergies.
His real plan, though, is to use them in his threat to disperse an infertility virus worldwide - he'll withdraw them in exchange for a full pardon and the noble title he craves. Snobbery, as Bernard Lee's M observes later in the movie, is "a very curious thing". It all climaxes with a breathtaking helicopter raid on Piz Gloria, a Bond vs Blofeld bobsled chase and a moment unlike any other in the franchise - Bond in marital bliss followed by brutal heartbreak.
Tracy's death at the hands of Blofeld and his sadistic sidekick Irma Bunt is arguably the most emotionally devastating moment in the entire series (though the loss of M in Skyfall is up there). OHMSS's Bond isn't the cold, lethal killer of the Sean Connery era - he's vulnerable, somehow more human. And even though Lazenby was perhaps a bit too green as an actor to convey this more complex Bond, it doesn't detract from the absolute shock of the film's final scene. The Australian departed the role and Connery returned for Diamonds are Forever in 1971 (perhaps the franchise's nadir), but given time he almost certainly would've grown into the tuxedo.
Credit should go to director Peter Hunt, an editor and second unit chief on the Connery movies, for putting a stylish imprint on the picture. He and screenwriter Richard Maibaum adhered strictly to Ian Fleming's novel while simultaneously enhancing it with flourishes of cinematic flair. From the martini hour glass imagery of the opening credits (backed by Barry's awesome theme music) to the sweeping snow-covered vistas of the Swiss Alps, this is visually the most eye-catching of all the Bonds.
It'll come as no surprise to learn that he impressed during his fight scene screen test when his stray fist knocked down a stunt man for real.
He even somehow manages not to appear ridiculous wearing a ruffled-front shirt later pilfered by Austin Powers. Looking like the lovechild of Jack Palance and George Clooney, he undoubtedly had the face for the role if not the acting prowess.
What's indisputable about the film is how good Rigg is as the girl who steals Bond's heart. Fresh from playing Emma Peel in The Avengers, she's a match for 007 in wit, charm and intelligence. She handles herself when it comes to the action, too, as evidenced when she's behind the wheel or dispatching one of Blofeld's goons at Piz Gloria. Tracy even manages to save Bond's life after he's escaped from Piz Gloria and getting startled by bears in a Swiss village. As a pair, they both posses the handy ability to save each others' skin.
This is by no means a perfect film, though At times it's a strangely weird and idiosyncratic piece of work. Perhaps Hunt, who only got one shot at directing a Bond, was going for broke and threw in everything and the kitchen sink. The entire undercover Piz Gloria interlude, with George Baker dubbing over Lazenby as he poses as Bray, often dances off into the surreal.
Bond spends an extended amount of time shagging his way through Blofeld's Angels of Death at a time when he's meant to be contemplating proposing to Tracy, plus there's the hypnosis sequences that add some '60s trippiness and some now-dubious racial stereotyping in some of the girls' allergies.
This stretch underlines the major pacing issues that plague the film through its bulky two-and-a-half hour running time. There's an awful lot of Bond cadding around and not much narrative momentum - strange considering Hunt edited From Russia with Love, a tightly-cut thriller that flew along faster than the Orient Express.
James Bond: A history from Ian Fleming to Daniel Craig
OHMSS may have its faults, but it has one of the most memorable Bond girls in Diana Rigg, a host of jaw-dropping skiing action sequences and the best ever John Barry 007 score. It'll also leave you reeling after that ending, perhaps one of the biggest gut-punch finales you're ever likely to see in a studio movie. It felt like a franchise full stop. This was the case for Lazenby, who left the series believing Bond would lose his appeal in the counter-culture era. However, the show would go on with 007 becoming a box office attraction again under the stewardship of Roger Moore.
Broccoli and Saltzman were right, Bond was bigger than the man inside the tux, something Lazenby found out to his cost as his career failed to take off in the '70s. That said, you only need to glance at Daniel Craig's tenure so far - one that's attempted to explore that idea that Bond is more than just an indestructible quip machine - to feel the influence of the magnificent On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
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