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On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Retrospective

Dateline: November 2010

So here we are in the tail end of 2010 and I’m sitting here trying figure out what I want to say about this most interesting of Bond movies.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS from now on) represents a curious ‘blip’ in the EON franchise and for some spoils an otherwise seamless (at least in common perception) transition between Connery’s and Moore’s tenures in the Tux. I myself as a child watching Bond on TV always assumed that OHMSS came sandwiched neatly between Connery’s last movie and Moore’s debut. I was also wrongly of the opinion that Lazenby did just the one movie because he wasn’t very good and the film bombed. To this day we kind of imagine him as just a stop-gap fill in guy, just about holding the fort while the real new guy was found.

Searching out the truth and revisiting the movie; it becomes clear that it’s nothing like as neatly summed up as that. We reveal a much better and more successful movie than some may have given it credit for (it’s actually quite high on the fan favourites list), and a George Lazenby that apparently voluntarily walked away from the role and a multi picture deal for reasons of his own. Connery of course was then lured back one last time with the promise of an extra fat pay cheque (in my opinion slightly phoning in his performance in Diamonds are Forever) before shuffling off to make way for Roger Moore’s comedy eyebrows and safari jackets to finally arrive on the scene and become the longest serving custodian of the role to date.

So let’s talk a little more about George Lazenby, because if anything polarises opinion about this movie it’s the decision to cast him to replace Connery, who had quit after 5 consecutive outings as 007.

I’m not old enough to know what it must have been like to see this square jawed hunkalicious model turned actor from Australia cast as Bond at a time when only Connery owned the role. Nowadays we cannot help but look at it through a different prism; one permanently altered due to the four further actors who have also filled 007′s shoes in the intervening years; making their own indelible marks on the character in the process.

My father always made a big deal about Lazenby being Australian which I can sort of understand particularly when the voice dubbing apparently used in the movie is considered. This never bothered me at all as a kid, although I’m not sure how I’d react now if someone like Hugh Jackman was cast as a new Bond. Probably wouldn’t sit well I guess even if he could do a passable British accent.

I think objectively speaking; it was surely a more serious worry that Lazenby was so inexperienced as a movie actor and somehow ‘looked’ every inch the male model he had so recently been. Undoubtedly macho with a strong physicality but in a more contrived way than Connery’s no nonsense manliness. The production’s decision to considerably ramp up Bond’s fancy couture throughout the movie only added to this impression (I’m thinking the frilly shirt, kilt and doublet ensemble he sports during the visit to Blofeld’s mountain retreat in particular).

So to the film itself. I won’t linger too long on a synopsis of plot or story, as this is a thirty year old movie I'll assume most readers have at least seen it, and know the basics: Bond faces off against SPECTRE again, with Telly Savalas’ Blofeld causing havoc trying to hold the world to ransom using brainwashed super babes (naturally) yada yada yada.

Anyway, in many ways the (by now) ‘classic’ Bond check points are mostly present and correct. The movie does feel like Bond: great locations, Aston Martin, gorgeous women and some choice one liners etc. But it’s not long before we realise this movie is going somewhere new and subverting a few 007 conventions along the way.

It’s an interesting phenomenon within many long running franchises that when it’s time for a shake up, filmmakers seldom change only one thing. OHMSS is a good example of this willingness to take a new tack and change the mixture a little (or quite a lot in this case), in addition to the new leading man. How much of the eventual shift in tone was always on the page I don’t know, but it’s interesting to mentally toss around the elements.

I’m not sure for example what the result of plugging Lazenby into an otherwise ‘by the numbers’ Bond yarn would have been, and we’ll never know. Similarly we can only imagine what Connery’s cock-sure arrogance and chauvanism would have done to the subtlety of OHMSS’s deeper moments. Thankfully on reflection Lazenby’s more fragile, somewhat contemplative and vulnerable Bond is exactly what the dramatic and (in the finale) tragic storyline seems to benefit from or at least be agreeably symbiotic with. In my opinion Lazenby’s performance is not nearly as clunky as history has declared, although a lack of acting chops is apparent. And I don’t agree with the ‘Connery would have been better’ brigade either. You could not plug Connery into this movie without changing it irrevocably to its detriment.

The supporting cast is top notch (although I prefer Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld). Diana Rigg in particular was classy and beautiful, well known and much loved by the British public having been wildly popular as Emma Peel in UK TV’s The Avengers. This lent her character’s fate an added gravitas for many and “They killed Mrs Peel!” was shouted in horror all round the country I'm sure! It’s a highly tragic, emotionally upsetting moment and is so well crafted by the film makers as to be completely unexpected, uncharacteristically brutal and quite the downer.

This is significant too. Lazenby ended his movie sitting in an Aston with a beautiful lady, but again convention is subverted and his fate is to be lovingly cradling his new bride’s dead body, unwilling to let her go, a temporarily lost and perhaps broken man, not an invincible super spy. It’s poignant, powerful, brave and in total contrast to the way so many other Bonds deliver their final scenes. There’s no nod and a wink that all is well, no snogging or bedding of the leading lady to brighten the mood (she’s dead after all!), and no double entendres about attempting re-entry (thanks Moonraker). It’s a dark ending, no doubt about it. And in my opinion all the better for offering such unusual melodrama.

No review would be complete without a mention of the theme song. Louis Armstrong’s ‘We’ve got all the time in the World’ is one of those marvellous songs that many folks don’t even realise is a ‘Bond’ theme at all, and has its own amazing story which I won’t expand upon too much here.

Suffice to say that Armstrong sang those fine words knowing he did NOT have all the time in the world (it would be the last song he ever recorded), and it’s a perfect musical backdrop, exquisitely performed and produced. Loaded with depth and poignancy while also being beautiful and uplifting too.

So where exactly am I on this now? What has the process of creating this retrospective taught me? Well, it has confirmed that I for one am very glad On Her Majesty’s Secret Service exists, and wouldn’t change a damn thing about it (well maybe the frilly shirt). I ‘get’ why the movie has become a popular fan favourite, and I am truly appreciative of George Lazenby’s efforts in bringing something different to the mix even if some of it wasn’t intended.

Yes, his turn as Bond is loaded with examples of what ‘not’ to do, but only in the context perhaps of finding the winning commercial formula for the years that followed.

In the words of Lazenby’s Bond himself “This never happened to the other fellow” – indeed no it didn’t sir, but I’m glad it happened to you and you should be proud of your contribution to a worthy and notable film in the series.

Ben Pegley for Filmwerk - November 2010

Addendum - April 2019

One of the things Filmwerk editor Steven Hurst noted about this review at the time was that I failed to mention the amazing John Barry score. This was indeed a massive omission on my part, as it is one of his best, possibly one of the best of the entire run. The film was notable for not featuring a theme 'song' over the opening credits which had by this time become the norm, so I really should have included some comments about all that at the time. Sorry about that.

The film remains one of my favourite Bond movies, and is still a terrific ride.

Note: Lazenby has recently declared that it was his agent that advised him to walk away from the role after only the first picture. Something about that doesn't quite ring true for me, but I for one lament his doing so. We will never know if his 007 would have been able to grow and build upon such a promising debut. Instead, we got Connery back in for a lazy somewhat reluctant turn in Diamonds Are Forever. A movie which arguably basks in the reflected glow of Connery's previous (better) outings, as well as its famous theme song. It is in fact quite a forgettable Bond movie by comparrison, and it's a very good thing that afterwards EON shook things up once again and brought us possibly the best Roger Moore Bond movie (Live and Let Die). Anyway, time to go.

Ben Pegley - April 2019

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