First off, let me offer a wonderful Christmas message to all via the tinsel strewn landscape from the James Bond world! Either through completely dumb luck or fortuitous planning or both or neither, I’ve managed to bring the only Christmas-themed James Bond film in at number two on today of all days! Gosh, are we really at 24 movies? Joy To The World indeed!
After the space rocket-volcanic lair-gyrocopter flight across Japan-escapade that You Only Live Twice was, Connery had enough of James Bond. He left the role that made him and James Bond a worldwide name. Creatively he felt stunted and socially he couldn’t stand the teeming hordes of fans surrounding him whenever a new Bond was in theaters. Japan proved to be the limit of his patience. Oddly enough he didn’t adapt the clever Japanese disguise he had in the movie to mix and mingle unnoticed amongst the populace of Japan. It’s almost as if making a big Scotsman look like a local was completely stupid…but nah!
So the hunt was on to find a new James Bond. The producers asked Timothy Dalton but he declined, as he felt he was too young for the role of Bond. Roger Moore was considered but he felt that he still looked too young and not withered enough. Meanwhile names such as Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Oliver Reed, and Dick Van Dyke (?!) were thrown about. Out of desperation, even Sean Connery was accidentally approached for the role. Connery reminded the producers he had already done five James Bond movies and they needed to get out of his golf cart now.
The gent who ended up being the final candidate went to Sean Connery’s tailor and had a suit made. He also went to Connery’s barber and despite the barber being stunned at having so much real hair to work with, he gave the new man a Connery-like haircut. George Lazenby had arrived.
Lazenby, an Australian and a former model, was 29 years old when cast as Bond. He had limited acting experience, but working with director Peter Hunt, he managed to come along quickly. He had some extremely huge shoes to fill with Sean Connery leaving. (Obviously they should have toyed with the idea of Lazenby doing a Scot accent to hopefully distract the audience, but as my suggestion was made rather late in the game, it went unacknowledged.) The odds were against him from the start. The producers were worried, so they decided to stack the deck with the rest of the cast, surrounding Lazenby with seasoned veterans of the screen.
Blofeld this time around was played by Telly Savalas. I’m sure they just wanted someone bald already who could act and Savalas absolutely fits that bill. He falls into the middle of a weird trinity of Blofelds, sandwiched between the whiny Donald Pleasance and the effete Charles Gray. Savalas was more of a rough and tumble actor, so it is rather refreshing seeing him play a cultivated Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Savalas also holds his own when opposite Diana Rigg which says quite a bit.
Speaking of the late Dame Rigg, she was brought on to play Tracy Draco. Rigg was well known for playing Mrs. Emma Peel on The Avengers. (No, not that Avengers. I mean the better British TV show not that colorful noise from MarveDisneCo.) Rigg is a strong presence in the movie and her acting is second to none. During the course of the plot Bond gets married to Tracy. Only a Bond girl that could rise above all the previous ones would do. Diana Rigg certainly fit the bill and then some.
Playing Tracy’s father Marc-Ange Draco is Italian actor Gabriele Ferzetti. Ferzetti is very good as the rather laid back head of a crime syndicate that assists his future son-in-law Bond in the movie. He is also quite good in his scenes with Rigg, bringing an element of sophistication with ease in the film. Sergio Leone fans will recognize Ferzetti from being in Once Upon A Time in the West the year before this film. Ferzetti was the one that wasn’t Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, or Henry Fonda. He wasn’t Claudia Cardinale either. But Cardinale would have been a fabulous Bond girl too… Very lovely. And beautiful… It is getting warm in here, isn’t it? And…where was I?
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, or OHMSS because I don’t want to type the whole thing more than I have to, was the first Bond novel that Ian Fleming published after the film series began. Fleming enjoyed Connery so much in the role, he even made sure to make mention in the book that Bond’s background is half Scottish. OHMSS was planned to follow Goldfinger in the movie series, even being originally mentioned during the end credits of that film as the next Bond.
However, the rights to Thunderball were ironed out, so that got the green light instead. OHMSS was then going to follow Thunderball. Yet not only was there was a problem finding snowy locations, but Sean also said, “No, I am not freezing my Scot arse off, figure out a warmer locale! What’s wrong with going to Jamaica again?” So the volcanic You Only Live Twice was chosen. Now after finding the ideal location in Switzerland, OHMSS was set to go ahead.
Out of all the Bond movies, you’d be hard pressed to find one that follows Fleming’s novels as closely as OHMSS does. You Only Live Twice deviated so much from the source material that for OHMSS, the director wanted Fleming’s novel to speak for itself. So essentially, the novel was filmed retaining all major elements from the book. This would also explain why for many years OHMSS had the longest runtime of all the Bond movies because it was so rich and deep with the story. (Skyfall and Spectre are now the longest Bonds, Yet their relative lack of richness and depth in comparison does not explain why they took forever on the screen. They could have shaved off close to 30 minutes each and if nothing else, they’d end sooner. Maybe if Daniel Craig drove instead of running everywhere, the movies would have been done in 45 minutes.)
Peter Hunt was an editor in some way on the first five Bond movies and lobbied for the directing job for OHMSS. The producers agreed and gave him his turn at the wheel. His quick cutting techniques were landmark in the Bonds he edited, so this led to a refreshing directing style that is unique among the 007 series to that point. After OHMSS, the films became rather routine in their style for the next 20 years in my humble and correct opinion.
The photography is excellent throughout as well. Normally I don’t mention cinematography when it comes to Bond, but this is a beautifully shot movie. The aerial winter camerawork was amazing. Even more amazing is how they did it. The cameraman was suspended below a flying helicopter in a special harness, which gave him a complete 360 ̊ view. The mountain views and the shots of the many skiing scenes were astonishing. They even caused an avalanche and filmed it. Only Bond can cause a natural disaster for a shot and be praised for it!
Blofeld’s main plot is also timeless. He wants to introduce germ warfare, destroying certain strains of the world’s agriculture if payments are not made. Quite prescient in its approach to terrorism, the stakes are real, coming across as such in the movie. Of course Blofeld is going to distribute these germs via a gaggle of beautiful brainwashed women that he is sending throughout the world. Among those in the group that Lazenby certainly didn’t mind being in scenes with, were Joanna Lumley, Catherina von Schell, and Julie Ege. All these lovely ladies were in many British films from Hammer Studios as well as the Pink Panther series and in posters on my walls. Uh, I mean…moving on!
All these shenanigans manage to happen over the Christmas holidays to boot! The girls are leaving Blofeld’s place under the cover of going home for Christmas. So yes, dear Bond fans, you have a reason to watch this Christmas movie over the holidays! It falls neatly into that Die Hard–Die Hard 2–Batman Returns–Lethal Weapon category of Christmas action movies. I’ve been getting away with it for years! Besides, you can only stand to see so much of James Stewart running around Bedford Falls before you want to see James Bond shooting at someone on a bobsled run.
The score by John Barry was one of his best for the entire series. He manages to blend old Bond themes with synthesizers, ending up with a soundtrack that introduces a brand new Bond as well. Barry decided to use an instrumental instead of a typical intro theme song and it is one of the best. (True, there are no lyrics, but you can sing the words “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” to the tune with some effect. Try it, you’ll be embarrassed about halfway through when doing so!) Anyway, Barry also wrote a perfectly lovely song called “We Have All the Time in the World” for the film and the legendary Louis Armstrong sang it. Armstrong’s gentle vocals make this one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
The stunt work is great as well and the skiing scenes are incredible. Every other ski scene in the Bonds that follow pale in comparison. (Yes, I’m confidently including every single time that Roger donned a pair of skis in front a bluescreen in that statement.) The final assault on Blofeld’s headquarters and the abovementioned bobsled chase are top notch.
Following the novel as closely as they did meant that the film could only have one end: the sudden shooting death of Tracy right after Bond had married her. The movie followed the story exactly and this is the ending we are left with, one that marked this film as being once again unique in the series. Lazenby plays the scene so well, you get caught up in the moment and everything starts getting dusty.
That being said, there was a missed opportunity with this scene. The end of the movie could have instead been the pre-credits teaser of the follow-up to OHMSS. This would give motivation for Bond in the next movie to hunt down Blofeld. Instead the story was kept together in one movie, which does work, but it also means there’s less of a connection with what ended up being the next movie, Diamonds Are Forever. (Then again, upon seeing the tone that was set from being in Circus Circus casino combined with Plenty O’Toole (ahem), maybe it is good that there is some distance between OHMSS and the next one.)
There is also a large inconsistency that pops up but that was because of the chronology of the film series. OHMSS was written by Fleming before You Only Live Twice, but OHMSS ended up being filmed after You Only Live Twice. Bond first meets Blofeld in the OHMSS book. However, it is in the movie version of You Only Live Twice where Bond first meets Blofeld face to face. This means that in the film OHMSS, it does seem rather odd that Blofeld doesn’t first recognize Bond, who is simply wearing a pair of fake glasses as a disguise when they meet, from You Only Live Twice.
Originally they were going to explain this away in the movie by having Bond undergo plastic surgery and emerge as George Lazenby, but this was thankfully viewed as ridiculous and was dropped quickly. (Someone also suggested that Lazenby should be in a Japanese disguise for cover but that person was summarily shot and killed as a precautionary measure.)
While Lazenby was inexperienced, he does an admirable job in this movie. Unfortunately, he declined a contract to appear in further Bond movies and quit after this one under the advisement of his agent. How this agent ever expected a commission is beyond me given the advice he gave. Also since OHMSS made only about $4.91 less than other Bonds, it was viewed as a failure, even though it made huge money relatively speaking. There was also no massive collapse of the Bond series despite introducing a new not-Connery Bond. Lazenby unfairly became a bit of a punchline in the following years. He was rumored to be up for being in Never Say Never Again as Bond but those producers got…Sean Connery.
In the end, time has thankfully been most kind to George Lazenby and OHMSS. Fans often wonder what would have happened if he stayed with the series. Roger was 58 when he left the role and looked it. Lazenby was 29 at the time of filming OHMSS. By the time he would have been 58, he would have conceivably starred in every Bond movie all the way through to 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. True, he probably would have stepped down before getting that far along and we never would have necessarily gotten Roger Moore or possibly Timothy Dalton, but OHMSS is a reminder as to what could have been. We can also look at what is, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a fantastic overall film and great entry in the Bond series.
On a personal note, George Lazenby was the first James Bond autograph that I sought out and got. It hangs proudly on my wall. Lazenby has also been remarkably kind to fans on social media. To that end, out of all the Bond movies, there’s only one whose poster I’ve had professionally framed so I could hang it in my house. That would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I shared an image of that framed poster on George’s Facebook page and received a love notification from the man. That right: James Bond himself knows his poster is smack dab on my living room wall.
And that is an awesome thought that warms my little 007 fanboy heart to no end on a blustery Christmas Eve!