Uh … 3 ½? — On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

On Her Majesty's Secret Service 1The Introduction

Among the many gaps in my film knowledge that I’ve feverishly tried to close in the last few years is the longest-running blockbuster franchise in history. When I graduated from college, I had only seen a handful of James Bond movies from start to finish. I had a general awareness of the different incarnations of the character, the mind-tickling titles of the films, the various ripoffs and parodies. But it wasn’t until 2012 that I could say I’d actually seen more than half of these movies. That year I took care of the last few Sean Connery movies as well as the first three Roger Moores. Bingeing on James Bond movies didn’t really work for me; the formula starts to wear thin pretty quickly. Still, in the middle of the binge came a famously singular entry in this series. Its star, first-time actor George Lazenby, played the role only this once and is barely remembered today. The movie itself, on the other hand, is regarded as one of the best in the franchise. I liked it well enough the first time I saw it, but my enthusiasm never boiled over. Having read a little bit more on the film in the intervening years, however, I was more excited to revisit On Her Majesty’s Secret Service than any other “3 ½-star” film that’s been randomly selected for these blog posts. At last, I thought, a movie that might look better to me on a second viewing.

The Revisit

For the last forty-six years, we’ve inhabited a world in which multiple Bonds were the reality. In 1969, it would have been at least as difficult to imagine someone other than Connery in the role as it would be for us to picture another Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker or, I don’t know, Iron Man. (Then again, there was that Casino Royale spoof in 1967.) The Bond franchise has always had a loose sense of continuity at best, but from You Only Live Twice to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to Diamonds Are Forever, Bond is on the trail of a single supervillain, Ernst Blofeld. So it makes sense that this film would open with a meta joke comparing the new 007 to “the other fellow.” The pre-credits sequence establishes what this Bond is like: he may be as competent and unflappable as ever, but things don’t seem to fall into place for him like they did for Connery. The film requires George Lazenby to explore the more vulnerable side of Bond in a way that doesn’t contradict his status as the masculine ideal. It’s a lot to ask of an inexperienced performer, but Lazenby pulls it off better than most people seem to remember. He executes the patented 007 moves with style and has great rapport with Diana Rigg, who plays Tracy di Vicenzo — Bond’s nominal, and then actual, fiancée. Honestly, a second film that built off the events of this one might have been enough to turn Lazenby’s fortunes around. Of course, it wasn’t to be. Nobody wanted the kind of brooding hero that Daniel Craig would later embody, so the ending of this film sticks out as an unfulfilled promise, an injection of real drama amidst all the wish fulfillment.

The movie is quite intriguing for its first hour or so. The suicidal Tracy, thanks to Rigg’s magnetism, always comes across as eminently worthy of Bond’s attention. She tips the gender scales in her favor by being the first to leave the bed in the morning. She also figures out Bond’s intentions before he can draw any kind of bead on her. Indeed, for a franchise filled with disposable female characters, it was remarkable enough to have a woman appear in both the first and last scenes. That this woman would also convincingly make the case for Bond settling down and giving up his license to kill is rather wonderful. Here was a character who seemed fully capable of continuing in his job until the end of time — traveling the world, enjoying sex, drinks and state-of-the-art equipment for as long as evildoers challenged him. Maybe that kind of life just doesn’t fascinate me like it does a Bond fan, but for me the movie is noticeably less interesting whenever Tracy is absent. Bond tracks Blofeld down to a mountain hideout, catching the SPECTRE mastermind in the middle of a peculiar retirement plan that will, naturally, threaten the world. It’s enough to know that Blofeld is evil and must be stopped, but the movie gradually lays out the particulars of his scheme. They are as far-fetched as they are meaningless.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service 2None of this is to say that the movie only works as a romance. There’s plenty of traditional spy movie excitement. Action scenes are briskly edited by future franchise helmer John Glen. The energy of the cuts is quite modern, but the choreography is never incoherent. One trademark of the Bond movies, over-the-top gadgetry, is mostly eschewed. Bond uses a machine to open a safe, but he simply sits, in visible boredom, waiting for it to work (luckily, there’s a Playboy handy). Beyond that, he relies on his wits. He even has to jury-rig a device to open a locked door at Blofeld’s hide-out. In another film, Q might have outfitted him with special cufflinks to get that job done. This movie also boasts the most memorable of John Barry’s scores for the franchise, with a theme so good it plays over the opening credits instead of the usual torch song.

The Verdict

Bond movies don’t get much better than this. I wish they did. Ultimately, Bond is a shallow character. His iconography doesn’t speak to me. Plus, I’ve been watching some of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies lately, so at this moment I have a pretty low opinion of characters who make puns before or after killing someone. I do appreciate the efforts to tweak the character. The addition of a woman who can keep up with Bond is great. Each time she slips through his fingers, the movie continues on its downward trajectory, hinting at the brutally abrupt ending without giving anything away. That ending is as cold as anything I’ve ever seen in mainstream entertainment. This man may be the Platonic macho fantasy, but his one chance at true happiness will be snuffed out right in front of him. He can’t quit now. MI6 will always need him.

The movie’s rating will remain unchanged.

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