On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Untitled-1Seldom has a movie split me so precisely down the middle. As I write this review, I am still trying to gather my thoughts and opinions on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Story-wise, it is one of the best. It also has a few great action sequences that are choreographed well, even if they don’t have a reason for happening. It replaces gadgets with ingenuity, and presents Bond as a man, not a hero. He is afraid at times, maybe even unsure. He falls in love and gets married. It is all very refreshing.

My qualms with the movie come from two places: 1) the little intricacies that set up the action, and 2) George Lazenby. I’ll get to him in a moment, and address qualm #1 first. Consider the opening scene. A shady man is following a shady lady in a sort of car chase. We don’t know who either of them are, but we suspect that the man is James Bond. His face is in shadow, and he lights up a cigarette. The movie is introducing him as George Lazenby, not as the James Bond that we know. The lady — later revealed to be a Countess named Tracy (Diana Rigg) — stops on the beach, gets out, treads the sand, removes her shoes, and heads for the waves. Bond spies on her from a distance. Suddenly, he is compelled to rush down the beach slope to stop her from killing herself in the sea. For reasons unknown, she faints in his arms, probably so that he can carry her to safety like they always do in the movies. Before he can revive her, he is assaulted by two thugs.

Now, from my description of this scene, I am assuming everything sounds normal to you. Bond is a knight in shining armour, and he fights off two thugs on the beach. Rather picturesque and heroic. But I cannot tolerate action that has no reason for being action. How does Bond know that Tracy wants to kill herself? Could she not just be enjoying the water and the sounds, admiring the sunset? We get a close up of her face, but she isn’t crying. She doesn’t even look sad. She looks content. Peaceful. The way I would look if I were strolling along the beach in front of such a lovely backdrop. But the movie needs Bond to dive in and rescue her, so he does. No reason, no cause. He just does. And then, like I mentioned earlier, she faints. Why? I don’t know. Why do two random men attack Bond? I don’t know either. Perhaps we need to see if Lazenby can fight well enough before the opening titles come up. Whatever it is, the scene, no matter how exciting and beautiful, has no valid reason for being there.

And it happens throughout the movie. We are expected to ignore the characters making impossible assumptions. When Bond is captured by Blofeld (Telly Savalas) and shoved into a Crystal Maze puzzle, he instinctively knows that the giant cogs in the room turn to operate the ski lift. How does he know this? Is he friends with the complex’s architect? Similarly, think about how the car chase in a later scene begins, and how it restarts after a momentary pause. Think also about how Blofeld and his henchmen manage to find Tracy’s car in an isolated barn house just moments after Bond and Tracy flee. GPS perhaps? The characters move forward by making impossible assumptions, and it makes for rather haphazard scriptwriting.

And then there is the case of George Lazenby, who seems like he doesn’t want to be in the role, yet makes such a fuss when he’s kicked out. He looks uncomfortable, stiff, flat, and just downright disinterested. He is also not a very good looking Bond. I am not remarking on Lazenby’s appearance, just on his appearance as 007. Bond is a secret agent, yes, but he’s also a lady’s man. One would think that physical attraction is the name of his game. Lazenby does not look the part. His hair looks like an awful toupee, and his plastered expressions only weaken the delivery of his already weak lines. He shows no knack for comedic timing, nor does he have the presence that Bond should have. He works well in the action scenes, but then most of the action scenes are superfluous.

Still, I am torn. I enjoy a good story and good conflict. When Bond threatens to leave MI6, that is good conflict. He works outside of his duty. His relationships with M and with Moneypenny are given new and rounded dimensions; they are more interesting. When Bond gets married to Tracy, we can understand why Moneypenny is crying, and we can sympathise with her. When he tosses her his hat, it is a touching moment.

Blofeld using attractive women to destroy the world is also a nice touch. The story takes time to develop and even more time to resolve. It is laid back, easy-going, and intelligent. It makes up for Lazenby’s failures, and manages to keep our attention focused. Usually, this combination would do it for me, but I cannot overlook the ares in which On Her Majesty’s Secret Service falters. It seeks to destroy itself. Whether it has succeeded is a debate that is still ongoing. Some people have named it the best Bond movie of all time. I think that’s quite a stretch. The best Bond movie for me is Casino Royale. Next to that, OHMSS is nowhere close.

Best Moment | Tracy driving Bond’s car up the beach so that she has to run less to get back into her own car. If it were any other movie, she would have run all the way to her car. She’s smarter than usual.

Worst Moment | Some of Lazenby’s lines are so poor, and so poorly delivered, that they could not fall any flatter.

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