My re-examination of the James Bond film series rolls on this week. Today, I’m looking at 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — the first Bond flick without Sean Connery as 007. As usual, there are spoilers, so be advised if you haven’t seen it.
James Bond has spent the last two years searching for Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E who escaped at the end of You Only Live Twice. When the film opens, Bond is in Southern France. He encounters a beautiful woman in a Mercury Cougar, who roars by him on the road, but then stops at a beach and attempts to drown herself in the ocean.
Bond rescues her but is assaulted by two armed men after getting her ashore. He defeats them in one of the best fistfights in the entire series, but while he’s doing that, the woman steals his car to get up the beach, gets into her own car, and drives off without even saying thank you.
When Bond gets to his hotel, he meets the woman again while playing chemin de fer. She bancos, loses, and then tells the croupier she doesn’t have any money. Bond rescues her again, this time by paying her debt.
Her name is Countess Teresa di Vincenzo, and she gives Bond the key to her suite to repay him for his kindness. When he shows up, though, Tracy, as she is known, is not there. Instead, there is a man who attempts to kill Bond.
After defeating him, Bond returns to his own suite, where Tracy surprises him, threatening to kill him with his own gun. After he disarms her, he tries to help her, telling her he thinks she’s in trouble. But Tracy is evasive, won’t answer any questions, and makes love to him to change the subject.
When he wakes the next morning, she’s gone. On his way out to play golf, Bond is kidnapped by thugs, including the man he fought in Tracy’s suite the night before, and driven to Italy, where he meets Marc-Ange Draco, head of the Union Corse and Tracy’s father.
Draco has an unusual proposal for Bond. Tracy is widowed, rebellious, and self-destructive. But Draco has been informed of how Bond has protected her, so he suggests that Bond should woo and marry her. He believes what Tracy needs is a man to tame her headstrong ways. He offers a million-pound dowry.
Bond declines at first, but it occurs to him that Draco might have leads on where to find Blofeld, so he agrees to see Tracy in exchange for any information Draco can dig up.
Afterwards, he returns to London, where M informs him the mission to find Blofeld is dead and that Bond will be reassigned. Furious, Bond resigns from Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But Miss Moneypenny saves the day by changing 007’s letter of resignation to a request for two weeks’ leave.
Bond uses the opportunity to meet with Draco to get a lead on Blofeld and to date Tracy. She quickly falls in love with him, and Draco uses his operation to help Bond discover that Blofeld is posing as Count Balthazar de Bleauchamp. He has written to the College of Heraldry in London asking to have his claim to the title of Count recognized.
Bond recognizes “Bleauchamp” as the French form of “Blofeld.” He reads up on heraldry and asks M to reassign him to the case. Bleauchamp agrees to a meeting with the college’s Sir Hilary Bray, and Bray agrees to have Bond impersonate him, so they may discover if his alleged Count de Bleauchamp is in fact Blofeld.
Posing as Sir Hilary, Bond flies to Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps, where Count de Bleauchamp has established an allergy research institution. There, he takes on beautiful female patients from all over the world, curing them for free in exchange for their participating in his experimental tactics.
Being the womanizer he is, Bond sleeps with several of the clinic’s patients while conducting his investigation. But this proves fruitful as he discovers Count de Bleauchamp’s cure includes post-hypnotic suggestion and that some rather strange instructions are being implanted in the women’s subconsciouses.
He gets caught, though, when he attempts to lure the count away from the clinic by bringing him to the ancestral home of the Bleauchamps for research. Bond gets some of the details wrong, and Blofeld takes him into custody.
With Bond in his power, Blofeld reveals his master scheme. Not only has he developed a psychological cure to most allergies, he’s also perfected a virus that will induce total infertility in a species. Via post-hynoptic suggestion, he plans to use his patients as “angels of death,” dispensing his deadly agent unless his price is met — a full pardon for all his past crimes and his title as Count de Bleauchamp recognized.
The patients are sent home on Christmas Eve, and Bond manages to escape. But he is hounded by Blofeld’s sinister minions in the village below and can’t find a way out until Tracy shows up. She asked her father where Bond was and went to Piz Gloria to wait for him.
The two are pursued out of town by Blofeld’s people, and eventually escape temporarily. But they are forced to take shelter in a barn when a blizzard makes travel impossible.
There, Bond realizes he’ll never meet another girl like Tracy and asks her to marry him. She agrees.
The next morning, though, Blofeld catches up to them. He and his men pursue the couple on skis, and Blofeld starts an avalanche to bury them. He can see Tracy unconscious in a pile of snow, so he orders his men to grab her and bring her back with them.
Bond emerges a minute later, but it’s too late. Blofeld and Tracy are gone.
In London, M tells Bond that the Western governments have agreed to pay Blofeld’s ransom. Bond suggests they can get to Piz Gloria ahead of the deadline and take him out, but M rejects the plan, saying it is too risky.
So Bond turns to his future father-in-law for help again. Masquerading as a Red Cross mercy flight, Draco, Bond, and the Union Corse raid Blofeld’s facility, rescue Tracy, and destroy the operation. Bond pursues Blofeld in a bobsled chase that results in Blofeld getting clothes-lined by a forked tree branch that seemingly kills him.
In the film’s epilogue, Bond marries Tracy and the two drive off for a honeymoon. But when they stop on the side of the road to remove the flowers from the car, Blofeld, who isn’t dead after all, drives by and tries to shoot Bond. He misses and kills Tracy instead. The picture ends with a weeping Bond holding Tracy and saying, “We have all the time in the world.”
As you can see from the overly long plot synopsis, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a deeply complex film with multiple plot threads running through it. There hasn’t been a Bond movie this complicated since 1963’s From Russia With Love, and none of the previous five films are this emotionally intricate. From a story perspective alone, this is a very satisfying film.
It’s not possible to discuss the picture in any context without addressing the fact that this is George Lazenby’s one and only turn as Bond. Continuing a film series with a new actor in an iconic role was something of a new idea at the time, and the producers go out of their way to establish that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is indeed the sequel to You Only Live Twice, even though there’s a new guy in the part.
The opening title sequence is a collage of scenes from the first five movies in the series. When Bond resigns from MI6, he starts cleaning out his desk and comes across artifacts from previous adventures — Honey Ryder’s knife, Red Grant’s garotte wristwatch, and his own portable rebreather from Thunderball.
The producers even have a sense of humor about the change. After Tracy deserts him on the beach following Bond rescuing her in the pre-title sequence, Lazenby looks straight into the camera and says, “This never happened to the other fella.”
As much as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service attempts to establish itself as part of the same milieu as the Connery films, Lazenby’s take on the character is very different than his predecessor’s. He’s a much more lighthearted Bond. He quips more. He emphasizes Bond’s playboy attitude more than his coldblooded killer aspect.
Connery’s Bond was a killer masquerading as a socialite. Lazenby’s is a dandy, who kills when necessary. They both have a good understanding of Bond’s character, but they emphasize completely different traits.
But despite Lazenby’s lighter approach, he’s also a lot more two-fisted than Connery. His thrilling battle with Red Grant on the train in From Russia With Love notwithstanding, most of Connery’s fistfights were short and slow.
Lazenby throws a lot of punches in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Director Peter Hunt uses lots of cuts to speed up the action as well. Lazenby’s fights are frequent and breathless.
In the same vein, Telly Savalas’s Blofeld is a physical match for Bond. In every other movie Blofeld has appeared in, he has been withdrawn, unreachable, a genius who pets his cat while ordering the deaths of others.
Savalas does all that, but he is also a formidable physical presence. Donald Pleasance takes a single shot at Bond in You Only Live Twice, and is foiled by a well-placed shuriken from Tiger Tanaka. Savalas, wrestles with Bond as the two scream down a mountain in a bobsled. He is strong enough to hold Bond’s head against the side of the chute and has the upper hand in their fight until he is fortuitously disabled by a tree branch. Much like with Largo in Thunderball, Bond is overmatched until he gets some unexpected help.
Finally, the stunts are a lot more dramatic. Aside from the scuba-diving he does in Thunderball, the ski chase down the Swiss Alps is the first time we’ve seen Bond engage in really vigorous physical activity. But skiing is faster and more dramatic than simming. Much of the action is filmed with real skiers instead of in a studio with a blue screen.
Likewise, while there is some studio work in the car chase where Tracy rescues Bond, there is a lot of live action, particularly the sequence where our heroes and the villains pursuing them interrupt a stock car race on an icy track.
This is a high-octane picture, and Hunt doesn’t take his foot off the gas for very long, particularly as the film enters its third act.
Where It Fits
Sadly, George Lazenby got a lot of bad advice about acting. He was a model before landing the role of Bond, and he frequently showed up late and acted like an idiot, because his friends told him that’s what star actors were supposed to do. Consequently, he got fired after only one film.
It’s too bad on several fronts. First, he was really good as Bond. Though his take on the character is different than Connery’s, it’s fun, authentic, and entertaining. Lazenby wasn’t as handsome as Connery, but he was every bit as charming, if not more so. His athletic, two-fisted style would have been very appealing in future films. Indeed, Bond doesn’t engage in this level of athleticism again until Daniel Craig takes over the role in 2006’s Casino Royale.
Additionally, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service often gets overlooked as a truly fine Bond film. As I mention above, few of the movies in the franchise have as complex and emotionally rich a plot as OHMSS. Lazenby has real chemistry with Diana Rigg as Tracy, and strong, smoldering spite with Telly Savalas’s Blofeld. His performance drives the picture, and he would have made a terrific Bond had he continued in the role.
It would have been interesting to see how the series developed with Lazenby as Bond through four or five more films. One can imagine Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me being very different movies if the actor who had played the part in the film where Bond’s wife is assassinated were reprising it in those stories, where she is directly mentioned.
Instead, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a blip on the radar of the Bond franchise. It is one of the very best films in the series, but it is often forgotten, along with the actor who briefly played the world’s most famous spy.