Serial, Super Serial: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Secret Service

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

Peter Hunt’s 1969 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starts off routinely enough. We get the circles across the screen, then the famous shot down the gun barrel. Besides a tweak to the Bond theme (with a little synth added in), it all seems familiar. We then see M, Q and Moneypenny, all recognizable faces. Finally, an elaborate staging of a shadowy Bond behind the wheel. A closeup of his cigarette; a cut-in to his hands. Obviously, the film’s avoiding something… and then… wait a second, who the hell is that?!

Yes, that is James Bond, but he’s now played by George Lazenby, an Australian actor and model. The film definitely wants you to understand that this is a new actor — it even has a surprisingly meta moment as, at the end of the first action sequence, Bond looks into the camera and says “This never happened to the other guy.” I’m not sure what to think of this moment; the meta aspect just really doesn’t make sense. With a new tone and some different wrinkles in Bond’s character, OHMSS feels sort of like a fresh start. Still, the film’s also very invested in reminding us that this is a valid part of the series. The opening title sequence even features clips from the first five films, showing the villains and Bond Girls from each (no sightings of Connery’s Bond, though).

For the most part, this is one of the more serious Bond entries. The excessive camp of the past few films has been stripped away, as has much of their charm. The film feels much more British than Hollywood, with its grittiness and dark cinematography. It also seems much more modern in tone and look, as the new Bond films have tried this same approach. Although it certainly isn’t nearly as fun as former entries, it does have an air of importance that fits it into the series well. I was certainly surprised by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And while there are some of the best individual scenes in the series thus far, I can’t say that I love the film, especially in the context of the series.

[Bond, James Bond]

Lazenby looks the part of Bond, but he isn’t Connery. Although the last few films didn’t offer a lot new to the character, you can see how natural Connery was as the spy when you see the alternative. Lazenby isn’t a bad actor by any means, but he is a bit stiff. Especially in the role in this particular film, someone with a few more chops would have helped (and no, I don’t mean karate chops — for Bond, that comes later). I thought there would be a lot of interesting things to say about Lazenby’s take on Bond, but he presents a pretty bland slate — there really isn’t anything interesting about his performance. Connery, though, certainly wouldn’t work in the story that this film tells, not the way he’s portrayed Bond anyway.

There’s more than just a difference in the acting; the character’s written rather strangely as well. Bond isn’t a lackey that blindly follows orders, even when he doesn’t seem to care all that much about his job; instead, he challenges his superiors. Early on, during the obligatory scene where Bond gets his mission briefing from M, they argue to the point where Bond decides that he doesn’t want to deal with being a super-spy any more and actually resigns.

More controversially, yes, this is the movie where Bond gets married. His relationship to Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (played by less exotic-sounding Diana Riggs) is really sweet, but it doesn’t contain any of the mechanics of a Bond romance, which typically is sex only. She’s the first woman he shares any of his feelings with, but because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, it’s sometimes hard to take these scenes seriously. After they’ve begun “dating,” there’s actually a montage of their budding romance. It’s a nice scene, but come on! I haven’t worried about spoiling these films all that much, but I’ll leave the ending up to those who wish to watch this movie. But given the nature of the series, it’s the only way for the film to end, and it’s another really poignant, touching scene.

[The Mission]

Due to the fact that Bond actually quits MI6 near the beginning of the film, there isn’t a defined mission in the normal sense. Instead, Bond has a very personal mission to find Blofeld, who escaped at the end of You Only Live Twice.

This film has been known as the entry where Bond goes skiing. Although the location here in the Swiss Alps is strikingly different from the overly exotic locales we’ve seen Bond’s mission take him, it still provides great opportunity for action and beautiful photography. The major setpiece involves a chase down a mountain and is hands-down the best action scene of the franchise so far; it’s exhilarating and well-edited. At the end of the chase we see a man drop to his death off the face of the mountain in what must be a 500 foot free-fall. We’re obviously watching a dummy, but that doesn’t kill the scene’s effect.

Bond traces Blofeld to the Alps, where he heads a clinical research institute, a cover for a brainwashing ring. Bond quickly learns that the women in the program are being controlled in order to distribute biological warfare agents throughout various parts of the world. Instead of dispatching these women, he uses the threat as leverage to hold the world ransom in exchange for complete amnesty for all his past crimes. This concept is actually pretty clever — typically we see supervillains like this only thirsting after money or world domination.

In order to stop Blofeld, Bond must team up with Marc-Ange Draco, the father of his love Tracy and leader of the second biggest crime syndicate in the world. His involvement with a powerful known criminal isn’t something we would have seen with an earlier Bond and adds complexity to this now rogue agent.

[The Villain]

Much like Bond, Blofeld gets a bit of a redo; here Telly Savalas replaces Donald Pleasence as the super-villain. The change in casting produces a slight shift in tone; Savalas gives us the most metered, clinical portrayal of the character yet. No longer is Blofeld a quick-to-react megalomaniac; he’s now a well-tempered and intelligent man that you could envision rising to be the head of the world’s largest criminal organization. He also comes off as a little sad, which is a surprising touch for a franchise where villains tend to have absolutely no humanity. I don’t want to say Savalas is better in the role than Pleasence, because they really are going after two different things, but he certainly delivers a thoughtful performance. Like I said about Connery’s Bond, over-the-top acting just wouldn’t work in this particular film.

To aid Blofeld in the Alps OHMSS gives us his henchwoman Irma Bunt, who holds the distinction of being the first woman featured in the Bond series who isn’t attractive (one could argue on Rosa Klebb’s behalf, I suppose) — but seriously. Also unlike other women in the series, Bunt holds very masculine duties; she controls the women involved in the brainwashing trials.

[The Bond Girls]

I’ve already mentioned the main Bond Girl of the film, Tracy di Vicenzo. Although she’s a strong, independent woman and an equal to Bond (she is good enough to make him fall in love), she’s also very much a damsel in distress. Because of Bond’s love for her, she has to be put in danger, thus giving Bond something to lose and someone to save. But even when she’s been captured by Blofeld, she’s able to stand up to him intellectually. She may technically be in danger, but she doesn’t show it, making her more than a typical damsel.

The Angels of Death are also interesting cases of Bond Girls. They aren’t exactly evil, but being under the mental control of Blofeld changes them into very dangerous agents. As attractive women have been Bond’s greatest weakness throughout the run of the series, I wonder if this was a conscience decision by Blofeld; I also wonder what effects they may have had once released into the world. I’m not sure if the Angels come back in the series, but I hope so, because they aren’t really given the opportunity to do much here. These characters are certainly well-loved in the lore of Bond, but it seems to me people more enjoy the idea of this group and not what we actually see in the film, where what could have been a brilliant device gets mostly wasted.

[Random Thoughts]

- This film breaks a trend by not having a title song. There are, however, two original songs, including Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World,” which is played during the montage of Bond and Tracey’s budding romance. During the opening credits, there’s an instrumental song.

- It’s really hard to make jokes about a film that actually takes itself pretty seriously.

- The Angels of Death are like the rainbow coalition of attractive killers.

- Bond’s serious relationship with Tracy makes it even more troubling that he continues to be a ladies man. YOU CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS, FELLA!

- In order to start over with Blofeld, they get rid of his scar and his ear lobes.

- Blofeld and Bond have a face-to-face while Bond impersonates a genealogist, and Blofeld doesn’t know, even though they have clearly met before. Apparently Blofeld’s thrown off by the recasting of Bond, as well.

- As we see, the Angels of Death are actually a world-class curling team.

- As a clinic, wouldn’t this facility have to go over some sort of inspection? Or is that only an OSHA thing?

- In all honestly, I think this film would be seen as more successful if it had a different name. Something like Thunderball is equally vague, but it’s catchy and sounds like an action film. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service sounds like a melodrama.

- I’m surprised this film didn’t boost the popularity of recreational bobsledding.

Serial, Super Serial will return in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER.

tags: james bond, on her majesty's secret service, peter hunt, super serial

  • Μακης Λ

    My love and my respect is not enough for Lazenby. Ο.Η.Μ.S.S. is not as
    ”Casino Royale”, where Bond is at the beginning and has no past. Lazenby
    looks more like a young bodyguard – or like Bond in the early years –
    and not with the agent 007 that the movie needed. The movie was a
    success. The success (the smallest in the history of the series) is due
    to the dynamics of the Bond films, in the particularity of the film, in
    the experience of the actors in the other roles, in director and the
    curiosity for the new Bond. Until now the producers did not provide the
    role of Bond in a model that is no actor and is totally inexperienced.
    The film was shot as in the book. Bond is an experienced man in the book
    and movie. Connery is Bond for the audience. So I ended in Stanley
    Baker ( 1928-1976 ). He looks like Connery and play like Bond ( see
    ”Ιnnocent Βystanders” 1972 and secondly ”Last Grenade” 1969 ) and he was
    one of the best actors in his time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8CT-4LvqHc https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vstr-jhCjVY https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hn7ZNjpMwQU

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