On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) Director: Peter R. Hunt
“We have all the time in the world…”
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the first James Bond film not to feature Sean Connery as James Bond. After his decision to retire from the role (at the time Connery was not on speaking terms with producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli), Eon replaced him with an unknown Australian male model, George Lazenby. He was the only non-European actor to portray James Bond (as of 2020). However, Lazenby greatly disliked playing the role and decided against reprising it after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Apparently Lazenby was not well-liked by the crew or his co-stars and the mood of the production was tense. Lazenby’s ego got the best of him and when he showed up to promotional sporting a full beard in a nod to the era’s counter-culture, the production staff was not happy. The role of James Bond was his most notable acting job and after he departed the franchise he focused on several forgettable vanity projects. Amusingly, Timothy Dalton was initially offered the role of Bond in this film but he turned it down, believing himself too young for the part. Connery did eventually return to reprise the role of James Bond after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service though by now he was aging out of the role. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is mainly remembered for its tragic ending in which Bond falls in love, gets married, and his wife is unceremoniously assassinated.
Unlike the previous Bond film, You Only Live Twice, the producers (Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli) decided to produce a Bond film that closely follows the plot of the Ian Fleming novel. The film opens with Bond rescuing a suicidal woman on a beach in Portugal. The two of them play cards at the casino and she invites Bond back to her room, but he is attacked by an assailant, but when he finally returns to his room the girl he rescued is waiting for him. Her name is Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (played by Diana Rigg). The next morning, Bond is kidnapped and taken to a leading European criminal gangster named Marc-Ange Draco who reveals to Bond that Tracy is his fragile, suicidal daughter. He offers money to Bond if he marries Tracy, but Bond prefers a bargain if Draco can help him discover the whereabouts of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The two strike up a deal.
Bond begins a romance with Tracy and he tracks down a law firm with whom Blofeld has been in correspondence via a scientific research institute in the alps. Bond poses as a posh English scientist and he travels to the scientific research institute high up in the Swiss alps (focused on “allergy research”). It is run by Blofeld and, predictably, it is filled with twelve young, beautiful women studying various “allergies” (I recognized Catherine Schell from her role with Peter Sellers’s The Return of the Pink Panther). In reality, the women are being brainwashed to distribute bacteria for chemical warfare on behalf of SPECTRE. Blofeld wants to hold the world ransom by using the brainwashed women to threaten global agriculture. Bond is eventually outed as a spy and he skis down the mountain to escape, when Tracy suddenly shows up. Then a blizzard comes and traps Tracy and Bond together. He proposes marriage to her (an unusual move for Bond’s character though he is obligated to do so per his agreement with her father) and the chase continues the following day. Tracy is captured, and Bond escapes from an avalanche to rescue her. Bond and Draco (Tracy’s father) destroy the facility but Blofeld escapes. Bond and Tracy are married and drive off along the coast. The film ends with a surprisingly tragic twist in which Tracy is killed in a drive-by shooting initiated by Blofeld. Despite the rule that James Bond never cries, we see a fragile, emotional, tearful James Bond at the end of this picture.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the sixth Bond film in the series. Yet another unique aspect of this film is that the theme song is not sung by anyone, but rather it is a composition of John Barry (the soundtrack is notably terrific in this film).
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is another forgettable and, at times, painfully awkward James Bond film. The only memorable, or perhaps unique part of the film, is Bond’s surprising marriage followed by his new bride’s sudden and tragic death. It is certainly a stand-out Bond film for portraying a less hokey and more “human” Bond character, and the film is even widely celebrated among Bond fans, but ultimately it is nothing spectacular for me. However, I will say the cinematography is remarkably sharp and crisp, with beautiful backdrops of snowy mountains. Notably directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino love this installment. Admittedly On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a welcome return to basics for the Bond franchise, however the pacing is odd and also the larger goal of Blofeld in this film is questionable albeit amusing – why destroy global agriculture or cause widespread infertility? Why is this worth ransom money to Blofeld? One of the better parts of the film occurs when Bond is fleeing down a snowy mountainside on a single ski (I believe this scene was actually performed by an Olympic skier). The vast shots of snow-filled mountains are beautiful and the idea of a remote immunology clinic is compelling -thankfully it is still a far cry from the cohort of ninjas inside a volcano in You Only Live Twice. Perhaps one day I will rewatch this installment and change my perspective on its merits.
Christopher Nolan has a higher view of the film.