Background: at long last the way was clear for Eon to tackle one of Fleming’s better written and more important Bond novels: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Broccoli and Saltzman had wanted to bring this tale to the screen for some time, but various elements, mostly time, had conspired against them. Ideally they would have loved Sean Connery to play Bond one more time in this film, but he was adamant that he no longer wanted to play the role and instead pursue other options.
They sought other actors and interviewed a number of candidates. Timothy Dalton (yes, even then!) was too young, Julian Glover was too old and Roger Moore was still doing The Saint.
The eventual choice was a young Australian model by name of George Lazenby. More on him in casting.
This sort of shift; finding a new Bond, and the challenges associated with making a film containing plenty of dangerous and exciting stunts in the Swiss Alps, meant that there was a 3 year gap between You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Story: this is the one where James Bond gets married. If people remember or know nothing else about this film, they know that. To have Bond meet his prospective bride there’s an extended period at the beginning which sees Bond meet Tracy Vincenzo, and be offered her hand in marriage by her concerned and somewhat heavy handed father criminal (head of the Union Corse, a genuine criminal organization, unlike the fictional SPECTRE) Marc Ange Draco. The whole thing is dragged out for far longer than it needs to be, seemingly so that they can have Bond get into a number of fights with Draco’s people (this was the one thing about the role that Lazenby did well, fight).
The scene back in London when Bond is told that he’s off the Blofeld case (code named Bedlam) is also badly handled by all concerned, except maybe Bernard Lee, who plays it with his usual dignity. Bond behaves like a petulant child and tries to quit. I kind of saw M’s point. He’d spent the last two years tracking Blofeld for little return and he seemed to be using company money quite freely if the episode on the French Riviera where he met Tracy was any indication of what his investigation entailed.
The pre credit sequence, the opening credits and then the post ‘resignation’ scene all made audiences recall Connery and compare him unfavourably with Lazenby. Yes, Lazenby couldn’t act, but did they have to keep reminding audiences of his predecessor, who could act? The opening credits featured scenes from the previous 5 adventures, whereas prior to this they generally had scenes from the movie to follow. When Bond cleans out his desk he removes Honey’s belt and knife (not sure how he got these exactly) to the tune of Under the Mango Tree, Grant’s garrotte watch follows to music out of From Russia with Love and finally the rebreather from Thunderball (which I would have expected to be returned to Q division). Fortunately for all concerned, Moneypenny has altered Bond’s resignation to a request for two weeks leave. Lazenby was considerably younger than Sean Connery and it was obvious, he was also a good deal younger than Lois Maxwell, so her flirting wasn’t really funny, it was kind of creepy to be honest.
Bond lobs up at Draco’s Spanish ranch (it was actually filmed in Portugal), but I think it was meant to be Spain and courts Tracy. While neither of them commit to matrimony, and I really think if Tracy had heard exactly what her father said to Bond (he wanted his daughter to be married to someone who could control her) she would have been offended. Tracy, more than any other previous Bond girl, including Honey and Pussy, Aki may be the exception, seems to be able to look after herself. However Tracy insists that her father live up to his end of the deal and help James with his investigations into Blofeld.
Apparently Blofeld is a social climbing snob and is trying to prove that he is the sole heir to a French aristocratic title, and has engaged geneaologist from the college of Heralds to prove it for him. Now Bond finds that out in about a week, which further calls into question what exactly he had been doing for the previous two years other than spending MI6’s money like it was going out of style. He goes to visit M at home (the one and only time we ever saw M’s house, unless you count Daniel Craig’s Bond breaking into Judi Dench’s M’s flat in London in Casino Royale, and she’s clearly a different M) and he is engaged in sticking butterflies onto cards (yes, M is a lepidopterist) and imparts his information. Then he comes up with a plan that was as ridiculous as any of the more preposterous schemes that Fleming occasionally came up with during his days in Naval Intelligence in WW II.
Bond intends to impersonate Hilary Bray and get access to Blofeld’s mountain lair, which he has set up as a research facility to cure allergies. Now Blofeld has met Bond before, surely he’s going to recognize him and a pair of glasses and a dreadful British accent aren’t going to fool him. Of course it does work if someone prescribes to the theory that the reason Bond’s appearance keeps changing is because the name and the number are aliases used by whoever happens to hold the rank at the time, rather like the womanizing Mike Upchat in British comedy The Upchat Line being whoever held the key to the locker in Kensington Station.
Blofeld’s lair is full of beautiful ladies from all over the world, who Blofeld is curing of their allergies free of charge because they’re research. The real reason is that they’re unwittingly part of Blofeld’s latest plan for world domination. The only girl who is given a proper name is a bubbly blonde Lancastrian by the name of Ruby Bartlett, the rest are credited by their supposed nationality. I never heard of most of them again, but ‘English’ was Joanna Lumley, who would find fame as the Bolly swigging Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. ‘Australian’ didn’t have an Australian name, but I heard her refer to the English as ‘Pommies’ and Christmas presents as ‘Pressies’, she was actually played by New Zealand actress Anouska Hempel and the two accents are almost indistinguishable unless you ask a Kiwi to say the number 6. The girls are overseen by the iron hand of Blofeld’s henchwoman Irma Bunt. I’m sure Blofeld was a ginger. Bunt was not as young or as attractive as Fiona or Helga, but she is a redhead.
Hilary Bray (aka James Bond) appears for dinner attired in his hereditary regalia as a Scot (it’s possible that no one told scriptwriter Richard Maibaum that Sean Connery wasn’t appearing in this film, because that could have been written for him and with his accent and Bonds fictional background it fits).
Predictably enough Blofeld does capture Bond because he did see through the glasses and the accent. Blofeld may be insane, but he is not stupid, admittedly he too is played by a different actor who only has baldness in common with Donald Pleasence.
His plan is to brainwash the girls and then send them out into the world to sterilize the population, something only he can prevent or cure. Armed with this knowledge Bond escapes into the nearby village, meets Tracy and goes on the run with her. The stunts performed by skier Willy Bogner and his crew were absolutely breathtaking. They’re only spoiled by some very obvious green screen when they have to show closeups of the actors.
Bond proposes to Tracy in a barn they shelter in for the evening and she accepts, she is then trapped in an avalanche and picked up by Blofeld. In true evil villain style he doesn’t bother to check that Bond is actually dead. Really villains need to treat the heroes like slayers do with vampires and unless you can see the body, drive a stake through it’s heart, cut it’s head off and set the remains on fire then they are probably not dead.
I find it telling that when Bond reports back to MI6 they can’t get the UN to do anything more than give in to Blofeld and won’t assist Bond in getting his fiancée back. If this were Felix he would have had the US Marine Corp, the CIA and probably the American Scout Movement helping him lead the rescue mission and had Blofeld in handcuffs and at Gitmo in double quick time.
Draco leads the rescue mission for his daughter, attacking Blofeld's stronghold with three helicopters full of heavily armed goons. He drops Bond into the place then plans to blow it all up once he’s gotten his daughter out. Both Bond and Blofeld escape the explosion and have a fight on a bobsled chase. Bond then makes the same mistake as his enemy and leaves him for dead without checking. Then goes off to get married.
Everyone is at the wedding: Q telling Bond he likes him really and can always come to him for advice, M compares stories with Draco and Moneypenny cries her way through the whole thing.
The lack of attention to detail (was Blofeld breathing when you last saw him James?) comes back to haunt the happy couple as they pull over to the side of the road to clear the just married paraphernalia from their car, A black car driven by Blofeld in a neck brace barrels past, Bunt leans out the window and sprays the newlywed’s car with bullets. They all miss James, but one hits Tracy, killing her. The final scene is actually quite touching, with Bond holding his dead wife, insisting that she’s just resting to the policeman that stops to check.
Before going onto casting I have to say a few words about two things. One is cars. They abandoned the sporty British cars of the past and went for large powerful American muscle cars, both Tracy and Bond drive them. The other is fashion. I don’t care what the current fashion is. Bond, James Bond DOES NOT wear frilly dress shirts with his tuxedo!
Director: there are two things you absolutely have to get right with a Bond film, especially one that introduces a new Bond. One of them is the director. Peter Hunt had worked as a second unit director and editor on a number, if not all, of the Bond films to date. He was devotee of Terence Young’s style and tried to make his Bond in that mold (no gadgets, plenty of story, gritty two fisted style). It would have worked with Connery, but not the inexperienced Lazenby. The story was good, Lazenby needed something to fall back on like a gadget or twelve, he could fight well (better than Connery. In fact I think a few stuntmen may have complained about how Lazenby tended not to pull his punches), but you can only have so many fist fights in a film. It also seemed to be Hunt’s choice to keep referencing the previous adventures early on, which hurt Lazenby’s efforts to establish himself as the new Bond and get out from under the giant shadow cast by Sean Connery. Many of the fight scenes were badly jump cut and there was this weird artistic attempt at pseudo psychedelia, with shots coming from odd directions for no discernible reason. It was a very poor effort, it is not at all surprising that Peter Hunt only directed one Bond film and there’s definitely a reason behind that.
James Bond: the second thing you have to get right is who you cast as James Bond. When you’re replacing someone who has made the role iconic like Sean Connery, you don’t cast an unknown who has never acted before. Lazenby had no presence whatsoever, he apparently let the role go to his head and was hard to work with. He had no chemistry with Diana Rigg (there were rumours that she loaded up on onions and garlic whenever she had a kissing scene scheduled with him) and yet she was meant to be the love of his life. It was a mercy that he only played the role once, to continue would have been cruel to both the actor and the audience.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld: if Donald Pleasence had not already stamped himself on the role, Telly Savalas would have been a good choice. He was an established actor, a bona fide star who had made a career playing tough guys, usually bad ones, and quite often unhinged, but aside from being bald he didn’t look or act anything like what Pleasence had made Blofeld into. I’m still not sure why Pleasence wasn’t cast again, unless due to losing their star in Connery they wanted another to replace him for box office reasons.
Peripheral roles: there was never any doubt that Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewellyn would return. M was solid and it was nice to see him at home indulging one of his hobbies. If Sean Connery or an older actor had played Bond then Maxwell’s flirty Moneypenny would have been fine, but she simply looked too old to have this play well with Lazenby. Fortunately her appearance is only brief and in part played for laughs. Q was also only in this one briefly, once at the start when he’s trying to interest M in the idea of radioactive lint and at the end as a wedding guest.
Marc Ange Draco: while he was a dreadfully sexist mob boss I kind of liked Gabriele Ferzetti’s performance. He had the right look and played it well. He came across as reasonable and mild, but there was the sense that it was just a veneer and the surface only had to be scratched to reveal the steel underneath, especially if you did something like kidnap his daughter, Liam Neeson’s got nothing on him. He was voiced by David De Keyser. I would have liked for once to hear the European actor use their actual voice.
Irma Bunt: they needed a stern no nonsense German hausfrau and they got her in Ilse Steppat. You could also argue that it was in fact Bunt who killed Tracy and not Blofeld, because she was the one who fired the gun. Steppat so impressed Broccoli and Saltzman that she was due to reprise her role in Diamonds are Forever, but tragically passed away from a heart attack four days after the theatrical release of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Tracy Vincenzo: for the second time in the show’s short history they cast a former Avenger as a Bond girl. Prior to landing the role as Tracy, Diana Rigg had been playing Emma Peel in The Avengers, so by playing a Bond girl she was following the trail that had been blazed by Honor Blackman in Goldfinger. Largely because she was a damn good actress Diana Rigg put her stamp on the role and made her most independent and believable of the lot so far. Interestingly they made her into a redhead, the first Bond girl to be one, when she was normally a brunette and looked excellent in her natural hair colour as Emma Peel. She also had to beat out Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve who were both considered. Unfortunately she had no chemistry with George Lazenby, but that’s more on him than her.
The Curse of the Bond Girl: Diana Rigg is a large part of why I think this is a myth. Following On Her Majesty's Secret Service she went onto great things. She acted mostly in theatre, earned herself a damehood and is highly respected as an actress. She’s experienced a resurgence recently in the hit HBO show Game of Thrones playing Olenna Tyrell The Queen of Thorns.
The pre credit sequence: this is quite an odd one. Most of it concerns Bond seeing an attractive young woman trying to drown herself. He pulls off the road, down onto the beach and tries to drag her out of the surf, he’s set upon by thugs, who he beats off, then the girl drives his car up onto the road, jumps into her own vehicle and races off, leaving a bemused Bond holding her shoes and saying into the camera: ‘This never happened to the other fellow.’
The final line was Hunt’s idea and it’s an epic fail in my opinion. It got a laugh, but it breaks the 4th wall for no reason other than a cheap laugh and it immediately makes people think of Connery, it wouldn’t have happened to him, so they compare Lazenby unfavourably with his predecessor.
Gadgets: this is very easy. There aren’t any. Well, I tell a lie, there are two that I can think of, neither of them are Q’s though. One is a combination mini photocopier and safecracker that Draco lets Bond use to get some information on Blofeld and the other is an atomizer that Blofeld gifts his ‘girls’ so that they can spread his sterilization virus all over the world. I blame Hunt for this as well.
Music: there isn’t an actual title song, writing one called On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was beyond even the talents of John Barry. The song associated with the film is All The Time In Our Lives sung by Louis Armstrong, it was Armstrong’s final recording and was a bit hit at the time. I suspect this is as much because it was the artist’s final song more than it’s inclusion on the film. Armstrong was an excellent musician, but his singing voice sounds like he's gargling with gravel, and I don’t think he suited the song or the film.