BOND, JAMES BOND: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Directed by Peter Hunt
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum
Additional Dialogue by Simon Raven
Release Date: 19th December 1969 (U.K, U.S)

‘This never happened to the other fella’, says a deadpan James Bond at the start of his sixth big screen adventure. It’s a fourth wall breaking moment that alerts the audience to the joke that ‘yes, we know he’s not Connery’ and that this is indeed a different fella.

The biggest hurdle facing Eon going into On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the absence of Connery. Truthfully, Connery didn’t have the best of times making You Only Live Twice in Japan and with the attention he was receiving reaching a demented peak (being followed into the bathroom for instance), it made sense that he felt like he had done his time in the role.

When we think of the character of 007 now, the role regenerating (to use a Doctor Who term) into a different face and a different interpretation has become part and parcel of the franchise. Anytime an actor leaves or is on cusp of exiting, talk immediately turns to who could potentially take over. For the last couple of years, Idris Elba has constantly been linked to taking over from Daniel Craig, while not a week goes by where the red-top tabloids or click-bait driven websites run stories about whatever big name they can think of as being most likely to be the next 007.

The emergence of a new Bond might have become a large factor in the series, but in 1968 when Broccoli and Saltzman were looking to replace Connery, it seemed somewhat of a risky proposition. The posters for You Only Live Twice cried out from the movie heavens that ‘Sean Connery IS James Bond’, and he was indelibly linked to the series in a way that almost made it impossible for 60s audiences to think that anyone else could walk in 007’s tailored suits, brandishing his Walther PPK.

Yet, that was what George Lazenby did when OHMSS made its way to cinemas in Christmas of 1969.

There are myriad stories about how Lazenby got the role. A model famous for starring in a series of commercials for Fry’s Chocolate, Lazenby, a wonderful raconteur on many documentaries and DVD extras that accompany the movie, talks enthusiastically about getting an unused Connery suit from his Saville Row tailor, while legend had it that he was spotted by Broccoli having his hair cut at the same hairdressers and remarked upon Lazenby exiting that he would be a wonderful 007.

The best of them all, told by Lazenby himself in always entertaining fashion, is how he ran past the receptionist at Eon’s offices in London to talk to Harry Saltzman, which almost seems Bond-like in itself.

Right from its pre-title sequence, Lazenby’s Bond invokes the famous saying; the same, but different. Everything about OHMSS manages to have the feel of a 007 film, but director Peter Hunt, making the move from editing and second unit direction to the main director’s chair itself, give the film a fresh, yet elegant vibe that marks the film as something of a departure to how Terrence Young, Guy Hamilton and Lewis Gilbert crafted their own Bond productions.

The face and actor might be different, but the film goes to sometimes extreme lengths to let the audience know that ‘yes, this is the James Bond you know and love’.

One of the most popular theories that has emerged in recent years about the series is that James Bond is a name and a code number and that each Bond is different, but OHMSS is clearly telling the audience that Lazenby and Connery are the same; one of the cutest moments of the film is Bond clearing out his office drawer which contains bits and pieces from his previous adventures such as Honey Rider’s knife from Dr. No, the rebreather from Thunderball and Red Grant’s deadly watch, sending a clear message to the audience that this is business as usual, the same continuity and universe and that there is no cause for alarm.

Yet, there are continuity issues, and some which would reverberate into the film after and the one immediately before.

Hunt’s approach to adapting OHMSS was the complete opposite to what everyone did with You Only Live Twice. The last Bond film took the series completely away from Fleming and right into the realm of an epic spy-fy movie, an excessive ‘more is more’ production with which to prove to any other wannabe spy films out there trying to emulate Bond that nobody does it better (yes, I’m aware of what I did there).

Lazenby’s one and only time in the gun barrel, the character getting down on one knee was a foreshadowing of the film’s later plot developments.

Using the title and nothing else was not what Hunt had in mind, who instead wanted to bring the novel to the screen intact as much as he could, and it is a very faithful adaptation of Fleming’s narrative, so much so that in the Bond movie series, this film and You Only Live Twice end up showing our hero and his arch nemesis meeting for the first time twice.

The previous run of Bond films kept hinting at Blofeld in the background to most of the schemes and plots that were keeping Bond busy, but the previous film finally got the two in the same room together.

It would become a recurring thing with the series, and you can see it being applied here for the first time, but whenever the Bond series had reached a peak of creative excess, the next film would usually bring things back down to reality and very much embrace the spirit of Fleming; You Only Live Twice gives way to OHMSS; Moonraker to For Your Eyes Only; the Moore-era to the Dalton-era and Die Another Day giving way to a complete tonal reboot with 2006’s Casino Royale starring Daniel Craig.

The continuity issue that comes up here is that audiences are left confused as to how Blofeld doesn’t recognise Bond, despite having met him in the previous film. Taking its cue from Fleming, the novel, which was written and set before You Only Live Twice, marked the first meeting between protagonist and antagonist, but Hunt and Maibaum have seemingly decided, in their quest for a complete respect of tone towards the book and the story, to ignore the last movie altogether in regards to Blofeld and Bond meeting for the first time and just have it happen again.

You could make the argument that Bond is disguised (their first encounter happens whenever Bond is pretending to be Sir Hillary Bray), but Bond’s idea of a disguise is straight out of the Clark Kent School of Disguises, wearing a pair of glasses and hoping nobody notices. The film has gone to such great lengths to tell the audience that we’re watching the same character from the previous five films that it’s strange to see the film then kind of pretend that the previous meeting never happened. Ironically, the next film would treat this film the same way.

Of course, it was the late 60s and continuity such as that was maybe not considered of highest importance, but the approach of Eon to adapt the books out of sequence, not to mention ignore any pieces of continuity, is an approach that would never in a million years be utilised today given how much movie franchises depend on continuity and shared universe storytelling, not to mention audiences crying foul on social media platforms whenever the merest hint of a mistake is made.

It really should be something that takes you out of the movie, but honestly it never does because OHMSS is a legitimately terrific, which is pretty much what many think nowadays, but that wasn’t the case when it first premiered at the tail end of 1969.

Even more remarkably, the film doesn’t try to outdo the previous entry in the scale and stakes of the story. Blofeld’s plan has a sense of verisimilitude to it in that it amounts to biological warfare. The fact that he plans to spread it using his  ‘Angels of Death’ as he calls them, a group of very attractive women from all over the world, plays in the Bond and Playboy aesthetic that was very much part and parcel of the series, but in opting to try and strip away the increasingly elaborate Ken Adam sets and world threatening schemes, the film manages to have a taste of the plausible to it.

Blofeld’s scheme is still elaborate, but for the first time since From Russia with Love, events have a plausibility to them, while even Blofeld, who has frequently been portrayed as broad villain, is brought down to reality thanks to a laid back and charmingly antagonistic portrayal from Telly Savalas who brings a taste of magnetism to a character who has been played archly before or, as we’ll see in the next film, increasingly camp.

The gadgets are dialled back, and Bond must resort to his own smarts and physical prowess. Many of the action sequences of the film are the most physical in the series since From Russia with Love, with Lazenby fully capable of throwing a punch, making for an intensely physical Bond that was also a preview of how the series would utilise Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig; it’s definitely something that seems to go hand-in-hand when the series veers back to a style more reflective of Fleming, along with narratives with a more grounded, emotionally complex flavour.

The box office, however, was another drop on the previous film, not even cracking $100 million worldwide, although at $80 million it was still respectable by 1969 standards, while reviews were somewhat mixed, both regarding the film itself and its leading man.

The film had a lot to prove to critics and audiences, but Bond was also facing competition, although not from other films in his own genre this time. Filmmaking styles were changing, inching away from worlds of fantasy and escapism towards something substantially grittier, with a touch of the bitter and cynical.

Marking the second time that Blofed and Bond meet for the first time it seemed, it doesn’t detract from the fact that Telly Savalas made for a magnetic depiction of Bond’s arch nemesis.

1969 was a watershed year for cinema with Easy Rider, a film that was effectively taking the film industry and the type of stories they would tell into a darker and considerably more hardened style that would define the early to mid-70s. The decade would eventually find itself inching its way back to a more fantastic style of film towards the end of the decade which Bond would be more than ready for, but with the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 (the same year as You Only Live Twice) and subsequently Easy Rider in 1969, it appeared that grit, cynicism and a more graphic style of violence were the order of the day.

Certainly, audiences were shocked when James Bond cold-bloodedly murdered Professor Dent in Dr. No, itself an indication of how less clean cut movie heroes could be, and while the Bond series itself appeared to lead the way in a style of filmmaking, setting in motion a formula that many other film studios around the world had tried to emulate, one could argue that it was starting to look old fashioned compared to the anti-heroic, glamourous portrayal of Bonnie and Clyde and the counter culture attitudes that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had brought to their own work.

When OHMSS had its premiere, Lazenby sported longer hair and a beard, and had already told anyone that would listen that he wouldn’t be returning to the role. The advice Lazenby had been given by his manager Ronan O’Rahilly was that Bond was on his way out and that Easy Rider was ‘in’ might appear foolish and silly in hindsight (the fact the series is still going in 2020 being clear evidence of that), but in 1969 it didn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

It might have been easy to look at Thunderball as a peak for the series, although the takings for YOLT and OHMSS were still more than respectable, with Lazenby’s film actually breaking some house records for many cinemas, but the initial reaction to the film was almost as if it had been some sort of strange anomaly in the Bond movie canon and when a deal was made to bring Connery back for Diamonds are Forever, the general feeling seemed to be that business was going to return to normal.

Time can be wonderful to movies, however. Diamonds are Forever is generally considered something of a low point in the franchise while OHMSS is now generally considered by many to be one of the very best films in the series, with some arguing that it’s the best one overall.

Initially regarded as an anomaly in the series, Lazenby may be best known as the one time 007, but the work here delivered by himself, Hunt and Maibaum’s screenplay makes it a genuinely superb piece of work that, like so many films of the series produced in the 60s, would inspire not only future instalments of its own franchise, but other works in the action genre.

If Thunderball set a tone for underwater scenes in the series, You Only Live Twice a narrative structure and style for the more grandiose instalments, and Goldfinger a standard for so many of the tropes and clichés that we think of when we think of a Bond film, then OHMSS set a style for the use of skiing sequences in future Bond films (as well as non-Bond films such Inception) but it also showed that it could wear deeper, more emotive clothing.

While the first four films of the series did bring Fleming’s novels to the screens with much of the books translated to live action, they did so with their own deviations from the source. OHMSS was the first to not only bring the structure and story to the screen almost intact, but it also had a taste of the more emotionally complex nature of the character as depicted on the page.

The film series had fashioned 007 as a man of action and heroism, and while many detractors made the argument that OHMSS would have been better if Connery had been the star, it’s sometimes hard to imagine if Eon would have taken the approach to the story that they did here if Connery stayed with the series.

Lazenby’s performance as 007 has a rawness to it that actually allows the emotional moments with Tracy to carry weight, and while many of the tabloids tried to sell the idea of Lazenby and leading lady Diana Rigg as having not been on friendly terms, truthfully, the relationship between the two on screen makes it the most believable relationship of the series so far.

There is genuine emotional weight to their scenes, and it allows that ending to hit hard.

If there was one thing about the film that was representative of where cinematic story telling was going at this time, it was Hunt not shying away from the downbeat nature of the conclusion to Fleming’s novel; Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider both ended with the violent deaths of their protagonists, and while OHMSS doesn’t kill Bond, it does end with the character happy and finally settling down with Tracy who is then killed minutes after the ceremony by a vengeful Blofeld and right hand woman Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat).

It’s a genuinely shocking end to the film, that doesn’t even try to give the audience some sort closure by having Bond give chase for revenge, instead opting to close on a distraught 007 filled with grief and sadness, where even the inclusion of John Barry’s orchestra performing the James Bond theme cannot offer a sense of hope, the last image of the film being the bullet shattered glass of Bond’s Aston Martin.

It might have seemed unthinkable for Bond to get married, but his relationship with Tracy was one of the most genuinely romantic of the series up to this point and was gifted a truly great performance from Diana Rigg.

Barry’s score is one of his very best and the inclusion of ‘We Have all the Time in the World’ by Louis Armstrong is one of the very best Bond songs, and it equates the film’s sense of romance, love and loss beautifully. This being a Bond film, the character still shags his way through Blofeld’s facility and his Angels of Death, so it still has time for that old trope, which cannot help but make one roll their eyes given that this is the Bond who opts to settle down.

When it comes to the pantheon of great Bond Women, Diana Rigg is high up there. While the films frequently portrayed women through a male gaze (these are very much male driven films through the amount of men who have creatively contributed to them), Tracy is the first that feels like a genuine three dimensional character. The second time the series cast its leading lady by turning to the television series The Avengers, Rigg brings a beautiful regal quality to Tracy, but she never falls into the trap of a one-dimensional character who Bond has to save and then be rewarded with a shag for his efforts.

Admittedly, she is kidnapped in time for the third act and its big set-piece finish, but she is also someone who can go toe-to-to verbally with Bond and in fact is the one to initiate a sexual tryst with him in the early stages of the movie. The character does fall into the problematic trope of ‘woman in refrigerator’ in that she is a love interest for the male lead and is killed to further his own story (or that would be the case if Diamonds are Forever was a more thorough continuation of events here, but we’ll deal with that when we get to it), but it says a lot about how wonderful she is that the final moments are like a punch to the gut.

In many respects the film is a progenitor for a type of Bond film that the series would turn to at various points in its fifty year run, but it wouldn’t be until 2006 when audiences would be more willing to embrace a truly Fleming-style approach to the movies when Craig wore the tuxedo.

There are so many ‘what ifs’ attached to OHMSS and the subsequent films that it’s hard to form an opinion on what might have happened if any of them had been applied. What if Connery had starred in the movie? What if Lazenby returned for the next one? What if Diamonds are Forever truly followed through on this movie? What if Peter Hunt elected, as he considered, not to end the film with Tracy’s death and leave us on the happy note of Bond and his new bride driving off into the sunset, the tragic ending to their story opening the next film?

If that had been the case, it was likely we might have gotten a revenge fuelled storyline the likes of which were about to become a mini-genre in their own during the 70s, a decade that would give us films such as the controversial vigilante depictions of Death Wish and fascistic renegade cop figures such as Dirty Harry.

When James Bond did indeed return in 1971, the box office would be boosted by the return of Connery, but in being influenced by the initial negative reception afforded to this film, it meant the series was about to allow itself to swing itself towards a lighter tone, but it would also find itself no longer being the influential series it once was, despite managing to maintain, for the most part, high box-office returns. Going into the 70s, the series was about to find itself being influenced by other filmmaking styles of the era, but it would also be paving a way towards its remaining existence for a long time to come.

As for Lazenby, while he might forever be known to some as the one-time Bond, it’s still one hell of a Bond film to have been the star of.

Bond, James Bond will return with…Diamonds are Forever.

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