“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is one of, if not, the best James Bond films ever.
That it’s even in the conversation despite the absence of the definitive Bond, Sean Connery, is a testament to its superior quality.
George Lazenby has the unenviable role of being the first man asked to replace Connery, which seems to be the biggest complaint of critics of the film. In fairness, Lazenby is no Sean Connery (who is?).
It’s asking a lot of Lazenby, making his film debut, to make anyone forget Connery’s Bond. Lazenby lacked the devastatingly dashing charm Connery had to spare, but he looked the part and carried himself like James Bond instead of Connery. Plus, he could deliver a quip with the best of them.
Director Peter R. Hunt aided his star by not having Lazenby do a cut-rate Connery impression and focuses more on Bond the lover and fighter than the suave smooth spy. If Lazenby has any advantage over Connery, it’s he looks more natural in the action sequences, a number of which he did himself as opposed to having a stunt double.
That experience paid off as Hunt didn’t have to stumble around to get the tone right of a Bond film. Hunt and series producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman decided to make the film more faithful to the Ian Fleming novel meaning Q (Desmond Llewelyn) doesn’t get to show off any new gadgets for Bond and the plot is far more grounded than some of the more fantastic previous outings.
In his ongoing pursuit of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), Bond has run out of leads when Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), leader of a crime syndicate second only to Blofeld’s Spectre, summons Bond for a unique proposition.
Draco presumes his daughter, Tracy (Diana Rigg, “Game of Thrones“), needs a strong male influence that can love her passionately and tame her wild spirit and thinks Bond can be that man. In exchange, Draco pledges to aid Bond against Blofeld.
Tracy has no interest in being controlled by any man, yet she soon develops real feelings for Bond and vice versa. We’ve seen Bond “fall” for his leading lady in each film, but with the exception of “Casino Royale‘s” Vesper Lynd, he’s never had a relationship that felt more genuine.
Of the numerous Bond Babes that preceded and followed her, Rigg is easily one of the best. Per the norm, Tracy was stunning, but she was neither damsel in distress or femme fatale and her world didn’t revolve around Bond.
Bond’s investigation takes him to the Swiss Alps where Blofeld is performing allergy research. Going undercover as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, Bond meets Blofeld and his hench-woman Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) and dozens of beautiful women from around the world looking to get undercover with 007.
For the sake of this film, a monogamist Bond would have made the ending even more of a gut punch.
Savalas’ Blofeld is second only to “You Only Live Twice‘s” Donald Pleasence, but is a far more physical threat capable of going to go toe to toe with Bond. Blofeld’s master plan this outing of using his allergy patients as carriers for an effort to sterilize the global food supply is pretty ingenious.
Beyond a few catchy titular songs most Bond films lack a great score beyond the trademark opening theme. John Barry’s score is consistently terrific throughout. The lone exception being the heavy synthesizers used for the Bond theme, which is pretty much the only unchangeable element in the franchise.
While it shows its age with some dated effects and the occasional herky-jerky editing, for a film in 1969, the movie holds up.
That’s in no small part due to the amazing action sequences. Hunt goes all-out with them from a creatively staged battle on the beach and the ocean in the opening act to a thrilling ski and bobsleigh chase scene.
The climactic battle atop Blofeld’s mountaintop lair is one of the series’ best final acts complete with Bond gliding on an icy walkway to shoot down a few goons. Christopher Nolan has said this is his favorite movie, which is clearly the basis for the action packed snow scene in “Inception.”
And that devastating final act? There hasn’t been a more shocking and surprising ending in the Bond franchise. I’m in the minority, but I came away from the film wanting more Lazenby Bond adventures. Shame he got some terrible career advice that the spy genre was about to tank and he reneged on his seven-picture Bond deal.
If you started getting into the series late and are only familiar with Brosnan and Craig, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is essential Bond viewing. It should definitely be among the five Bond films to make someone a fan of the series.