On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)


It may come as a surprise that "nerd rage" is not really anything new.  It didn't really get a name until recent years, but it is definitely a thing that has affected film franchises (and definitely book series and comic book franchises) for decades.  One of the worst cases in the past was when Sean Connery decided to call it quits on playing James Bond.

Connery started getting sick of the character while filming Thunderball, and things only got worse with all the publicity surrounding You Only Live TwiceThough offered an outrageous amount of money to return for On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Connery walked, and the search for a new Bond was on.  Eventually that search resulted in casting an Australian car salesman and model named George Lazenby.

Lazenby had absolutely no acting experience, and largely bluffed his way into the audition.  Still, his dedication resulted in him landing the role and a seven-movie deal.  Unfortunately, the nerd rage settled in, with British tabloids doing everything they could to sabotage the new Bond film.  Despite their efforts the movie was still a box office success, particularly in the United States, but Lazenby also ended up taking some bad management advice as well as rubbing producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman the wrong way.

While driving along a beach in Portugal, James Bond sees a woman (Diana Rigg) drive off the road and start heading for the water in an apparent suicide attempt.  He rescues her, but is soon set upon by thugs that try to kill him and kidnap her.  He overcomes them, and she manages to escape.

The woman, whom he soon meets again at a casino, turns out to be a Countess named Theresa (or Tracy, for short), who is dissatisfied with being under the thumb of her shady industrialist father Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Turns out Draco has a history with MI6, but grows to appreciate Bond's attempts to protect his daughter, and offers him a dowry of a million pounds if he will marry her.  Bond negotiates a different deal: Draco may know the whereabouts of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), and Bond is willing to entertain the offer for that information.

However, something different happens, and Bond begins, for the first time, to truly fall in love.  Draco's information does indeed lead to Blofeld, whose Swiss clinic Bond is able to infiltrate by impersonating a heraldry expert.  It turns out that by using methods to cure allergies Blofeld is also implanting hypnotic suggestions in the women he is treating to release a virus that will cause plant and animal life to become sterile.  Despite being told by M (Bernard Lee) to back off, Bond as usual is tasked with saving the word, this time with the help of Tracy and her father.

You Only Live Twice began to turn James Bond into a comic book character, something he would unfortunately become during Roger Moore's time playing him.  In contrast, On Her Majesty's Secret Service pulls back on the gadgets (there is even an early scene of Bond packing them away) and restores Bond to that of a trained field agent, but most importantly a human being.  There is a true romantic story at the core of the movie, and Diana Rigg is not just another disposable prop.  Tracy is a perfect match for Bond in every way, including that she is able to handle herself when needed - something rare for a female character in a major movie from this time.  There are plenty of scenes to get easily offended audiences today rankled, but this time around we are seeing Bond enter the changing world of the late '60s.

George Lazenby had absolutely no acting experience prior to playing one of the most famous roles in the world, and, in all honesty, it probably helped.  Since this isn't the Bond flying around in an ultralight or escaping bad guys with a jetpack, he is under no obligation to go overboard with the character.  Not having baggage with other movies, or an extensive stage repertoire behind him, should have helped as well, and in truth it does.  While he is considered by most to be a footnote in the Bond series, his performance in On Her Majesty's Secret Service is demonstrably better than that of Roger Moore, save The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only.  If he had stayed with the series the following films would have, conceivably, been much better, instead of the lull that started with Diamonds Are Forever.

They would have also continued to have director Peter Hunt, who noticeably makes many changes to the way a Bond film is made.  There are fewer rear projection scenes, favoring fitting the cameras in the cars (or other vehicles) when possible.  While the ski scenes are still obviously done in the old manner, the way in which the stunts are filmed are different and more immediate.  This time around there is a truly European feel that has been missing since From Russia with Love, and it alternates between the shiny, tourist side and the gritty urban centers of the continent.  Both Hunt and Lazenby took the character seriously and, while when I originally saw this movie I didn't care for it, I appreciate it much more 20 years down the line.

The lingering problem, and one of the main reasons I had difficulty with it in the past, is the length.  This one runs close to two and a half hours, and honestly could have been about 45 minutes shorter.  While I appreciate Hunt's intentions at staying as close to the plot of the book as possible, having to sit through even pretend lectures on heraldry is a mind-numbing task.  While there are some humorous payoffs (with numerous women at Blofeld's clinic thinking they were able to turn the handsome, but obviously "uninterested" Sir Hillary Blane), it is a bit of exposition that could have been handled with much more brevity.  It also unfortunately spells trouble for Bond and Tracy in the future, especially since he is giving signals that he is truly ready to settle down.  There is also the continuity issue of Blofeld not recognizing Bond, despite the fact the two came face-to-face in You Only Live Twice.  In that way, this is a bit of a reboot as well as a sequel.

Still, there is much to love as always: a ski slope chase (including Bond skiing on one foot), a car chase that ends up with Bond, Tracy and the bad guys in the middle of a stock car race (with extras who look like they were not expecting some of the action to take place so close to them) and an amazingly filmed helicopter raid on Blofeld's headquarters.  Despite its reputation as being one of the lesser Bond films it has some of the best action sequences.

Though popular, audience reaction to Lazenby was mixed, and Sean Connery was convinced to come back for Diamonds Are Forever.  Also, Lazenby himself was reluctant to return for more films, as his agent convinced him that the Bond franchise was on its last legs as the world, and cinema, were rapidly changing.  It's a shame as he was perfect in the role, from the way his warm, welcoming smile would suddenly turn cold when he was killing someone (as if he became mentally detached from the job at hand) to feeling like a person who had, by that time, lived through some tough situations.  It is definitely one of those films to give a second chance.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Time: 142 minutes
Starring: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti
Director: Peter R. Hunt

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