Christmas With James Bond, or, On Her Majesty’s Secret Santa

It’s been a slightly irritating week here at Chez Trumbull. I’ve been fighting off a cold for the last few days, working, finishing up an article for BACK ISSUE, paying bills, and taking care of a bunch of odds and ends before my flight to visit my mother for Christmas tomorrow. At stressful times like this, it’s nice to have what my AJS colleague Greg Hatcher calls cinematic comfort food, so this week I thought I’d talk about my favorite Christmas movie: 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Skiing, bobsleds, gunfire, exploding headquarters, you know… typical Christmas movie stuff.

It’s the odd man out when you’re talking about the James Bond movies, mainly because it’s the only movie where George Lazenby played Bond. It’s also the first film in the series to break with the highly successful Bond formula, so it tends to be unfairly overlooked when considering the series as a whole. And that’s a shame, because it’s one of the better Bond films. And Lazenby is a big part of why it works.

First, a little history is in order. The Bond movies were HUGE in the 1960s. They were the blockbusters of the pre-Star Wars world. And after five films in the part, Connery had become identified as Bond like no actor before or since. Hell, the entire campaign of You Only Live Twice was based around the tagline “Sean Connery IS James Bond!”

But after five films and five years in the part, Connery was sick of it. It took the better part of a year to make a Bond film, and the longer the stayed in the role, the greater the chance that he would be typecast for the rest of his life. So Connery let it be known that You Only Live Twice would be his last Bond film. Since producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman weren’t going to let a little thing like not having a James Bond get in the way of making a Bond film, they started up the biggest casting search since Scarlett O’Hara. At the same time, they decided to let longtime Bond editor Peter Hunt finally get a shot at the director’s chair.

If you look at the history of the Bond movies, you’ll see that they fall into a pattern: They get bigger & more outlandish in scope until they finally go too far and become unbelievable. The next film then scales things back, and the cycle starts all over again. The “Bond-in-space” Moonraker was followed by the more down to earth For Your Eyes Only. The excesses of Moore’s last film, A View To A Kill, were dialed back for Dalton’s debut in The Living Daylights. Brosnan’s last film, Die Another Day, with its windsurfing on tidal waves and invisible cars, was followed by Casino Royale, the gritty reboot with Daniel Craig. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the first time that the Bond creators decided to bring things back to basics like this, and it was a good call. You can’t really go any bigger than space capsules getting hijacked in orbit and a villain headquarters inside a hollowed-out volcano.

So this was the world that George Lazenby stepped into. As an unknown, untested actor, this Australian model beat out hundreds of other candidates to win the part of James Bond. It’s the sort of rags-to-riches story that Hollywood loves. But this one had a sadder ending than most. Lazenby let his newfound fame go to his head, and started acting like a demanding star before he had the clout to back it up. On bad advice from his manager Ronan O’Rahilly, Lazenby became convinced that the conservative character of James Bond wouldn’t last into the hippified 1970s. He announced that OHMSS would be his one and only Bond film before it even premiered.

Which gave the studio an interesting problem when it came time to promote the film.

It’s one of those moves that looks spectacularly stupid in retrospect, but looking at it in the context of the times, you can kind of see where Lazenby was coming from. The other top films of 1969 were things like Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Who could have guessed that old-fashioned James Bond had so much life left in him? And so George Lazenby became a footnote in film history, one of those people like Pete Best who became more famous for something he didn’t do than something he did.

Thankfully, the film is really good.

The plot concerns Bond trying to track down S.P.E.C.T.R.E. head Ernst Stavro Blofeld after the events of You Only Live Twice (this was in the reverse order of the books, where YOLT served as a sequel to the events of OHMSS). Along the way, Bond rescues and romances Tracy di Vicenzo, the suicidal daughter of an international crime boss, Marc-Ange Draco. Draco offers to help Bond track down Blofeld in exchange for his courting his daughter. Bond accepts, but soon finds himself falling in love with Tracy for real. Bond eventually locates Blofeld at Piz Gloria, a chalet in the Swiss Alps, where Blofeld is threatening the world with bacteriological warfare unless he’s recognized as nobility. As Bond stories go, it’s one of the stronger ones.

Oh — and I almost forgot — The film takes place at Christmas. Blofeld plans to release his bacteria through the twelve beautiful women who are at his Swiss clinic to cure their allergies. And beautiful snow-capped mountains in Switzerland and winter sports glimpsed throughout the film really enhance the holiday feel.

Bond even wears a Bing Crosby sweater and joins Blofeld in a smashing duet of “Little Drummer Boy.”

Lazenby’s performance isn’t perfect. He’s terrific in the fight scenes, but his inexperience shines through at times, particularly when he has to make the sort of double entendres that Connery tossed off with aplomb. But Lazenby also had to deal with handicaps no other Bond actor did. He not only had to replace the franchise’s most popular actor at the height of its success, he had to do it while learning the craft of screen acting.

It also doesn’t help that the film sometimes feels like it’s sabotaging its own leading man. Right after Lazenby playfully acknowledges the switch in actors (“This never happened to the other fellow”), the opening credits show several clips from the previous Bond films — with Connery notably absent. Later on, Lazenby has to perform several of Connery’s trademarks, like ordering a vodka martini shaken not stirred, or throwing his hat on to a rack at MI6 headquarters. While these constant callbacks to the Connery Bond remind you that you’re dealing with the same character, they also invite an unfair comparison between the two actors. The producers were much smarter about this when Roger Moore took over the role later by having him avoid the big Bond tropes in his first movie and let him define 007 on his own terms.

The place where OHMSS really does Lazenby a disservice, however, is during the scenes where Bond goes undercover at Piz Gloria as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray. The filmmakers made the unfortunate decision to have Lazenby dubbed over with the voice of George Baker, who played Bray. While looping wasn’t uncommon in the early Bond films, it was usually done when a foreign actor’s accent was too thick to be understood. I doubt that they ever would have redubbed Sean Connery with another actor. It’s a clear sign of lack of confidence in Lazenby, and you wonder if the producers decided to do this before or after he announced that he wouldn’t be returning to the role.

Who, disguised as Sir Hilary Bray, mild-mannered genealogist for a great metropolitan College of Arms…

OHMSS really works best when it forgets the Connery comparisons and lets Lazenby be his own man. While both Connery and Lazenby play Bond as cocky, it comes off as more of an act with Lazenby, probably because he reads younger onscreen (he was only 29 during filming). Where Connery came off as experienced and self-assured at all times, Lazenby has a vulnerability that really works for the story.

About midway through the film, Bond has barely escaped from Piz Gloria with his life. He’s skied down a mountain and spent the better part of the night being chased by Blofeld’s men. He’s utterly spent, exhausted, and even a little frightened. He tries to disguise himself and lose the henchmen in a crowd at a winter festival, but they keep closing in. Finally, Bond just sits down at a bench, trying his best to seem inconspicuous, but almost resigned to being caught.

It’s a moment that really works, and it’s a moment that works because Lazenby’s Bond is different from Connery’s Bond. It’s the type of thing that makes you wonder what he would have been like in the part with a few more films under his belt and the writers tailoring the role to his strengths.

And Lazenby utterly nails the final scene of the film, where Bond deals with something that never happened to Connery’s Bond. If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene I’m talking about. If you haven’t, it’s best experienced firsthand rather than just reading about it. It’s a scene that calls for real emotion, and Lazenby hits just the right note.

But almost everything in OHMSS hits the right note. I don’t know if the Bond team was trying to overcompensate for the perceived shortcomings of their new leading man, but man, everyone brought their “A” game on this one. Screenwriter Richard Maibaum sticks closely to Ian Fleming’s original novel, but just as he did with Goldfinger, he subtly improves the plot without bending it out of shape. Whereas in the book Bond is on the verge of quitting the secret service out of frustration with the monotony of tracking Blofeld across the globe, in the movie he prepares to resign when M threatens to take him off the assignment. Maibaum also has Blofeld kidnap Tracy towards the end of the film, which not only gives Rigg and Savalas a chance to play a scene together, it also provides Tracy’s father Draco with greater motivation to raid Piz Gloria with Bond.

Diana Rigg is spectacular as Tracy. She’s sexy, intelligent, forceful, and, as you might expect from Emma Peel, right at home in the action scenes. You totally believe that this is a woman that Bond would fall in love with. And she’s utterly radiant onscreen. You fall in love with her just as Bond does.

Telly Savalas proves to be an inspired choice as Blofeld. Realizing that You Only Live Twice‘s Donald Pleasence would not be believable in the action scenes of OHMSS, Hunt and the producers wisely recast. Salavas’ Blofeld is both a physical and an intellectual threat to Bond. This is a Blofeld who doesn’t just order his henchmen to kill Bond as he’s escaping from his mountaintop chalet, he slaps on a pair of skis and leads the chase himself. At the climax of the film, Blofeld is trading blows with Bond during a thrilling bobsled chase. Savalas also gives Blofeld a nice air of European sophistication, making his plan to be accepted as a Count all the more convincing.

Even Lois Maxwell gets a great acting moment as Moneypenny, looking utterly heartbroken at Bond’s wedding to Tracy. You know what she’s feeling without even a word being spoken.

007 composer John Barry turned in his best-ever score for a Bond film, and the song he co-wrote with Hal David for Louis Armstrong, “We Have All the Time in the World,” is a very affecting piece of work.

Director Peter Hunt, who edited the first five Bond movies, brings a new energy to the proceedings. The fights scenes in particular are cut like a whip crack, but they’re never tough to follow. The aforementioned ski and bobsled chases are standout action sequences, and a sequence where Bond sneaks into a lawyer’s office to crack his safe is suspenseful enough to be from a Hitchcock movie. Hunt’s decision to play down the gadgets from Q branch is a good one, as it forces our hero to rely more on his wits for things like escaping Blofeld’s hideout.

Hunt’s editor and second unit director, John Glen, would go on to direct five Bond films himself, but it’s a crying shame that Hunt never returned to the series after this. It’s one of the best-looking Bond films by far. Cinematographer Michael Reed’s work in OHMSS is absolutely gorgeous. Check out these shots:

So if you’re tired of annual screenings of Die Hard or Lethal Weapon and are looking for a new action-adventure film to add to your Christmas movie list, do yourself a favor and give On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a try. You won’t be sorry.

See you next week!

10 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    Or you could just watch Die Hard 2, Batman 2, Iron Man 3, Lethal Weapon (really any Shane Black movie), Rocky IV, Gremilins….Trading Places? I’m sure there are multitudes of websites with lists of them. But none would be better than this.

    I think this whole era of Bond movies was stopped at great from true greatness because they mixed up the order of the films from the books. The earlier ones don’t hurt as much, but putting YOLT in front of OHMSS causes all sorts of problems not only narratively, but in production too. Because if you get a Connery at the height of his popularity, and instead of making things “bigger” by going the YOLT route, and instead reign it in a little with this film, because beyond money, typecast, and all, he also has a concern that it was becoming all about the gadgets, that maybe you get a reinvigorated Connery to do the role. And while I agree the vulnerability Lazenby has works, if Connery had been allowed to act (as he could actually do) and they allowed him to be vulnerable, even if just at the end, it would have had more impact because it was SEAN CONNERY IS JAMES BOND showing those weaknesses. But then they might not have strayed as far if he had stayed, or he might have still been grumpy, and all sorts of What If factors we’ll never know.

    Having said that, the movie is one of the best Bonds. It just could have been THE best if that part was solidified. It was one of the probably top 3 books too, and they stuck close enough to the source material it worked. (It’s funny how both Bond and other movies still seem to have the problem of sticking to the source material and getting their best results when they do). But the order didn’t help Lazenby at all either. The rightly pointed out horrible overdub sequence might have just been done to make his voice different enough to somehow make it seem plausible that Blofeld wouldn’t recognize him (or call it on him immediately, because he does seem to act like he recognizes him later). You can say Blofeld is getting plastic surgery the World’s Most Wanted #1 (though no hair transplant). But Bond in the movies not so much. In the book they don’t see each other till OHMSS (which actually sets up a great sequence because Bond notices how different this guy looks from his description…he never actually saw him with his eyes…in Thunderball. So Fleming had a broad description of him in TB that was never actually “seen.” And again different in YOLT). So yeah, it didn’t help the guy. But given a series of movies he could have been a perfectly good Bond.

    But yes, it’s the movie around him that makes it one of the best. The Fleming plot, maybe his best love interest (I wasn’t the only one to fall in love with Tracy? Thems fighting words!). The best face-on-screen Blofeld of any of the movies (although Max Von Sydow was good in the showed his face but didn’t need to). The only one who seemed a match for Bond, and the only one who seemed anything like Blofeld. Part of Blofeld is the xenophobia of the Bond books and the otherness of the East. And Ernst Stavros Blofeld was Polish-Greek, born under German occupation. And while Savalas was American, he was all Greek. So he at least had that European air about him you mention, rather than seeming very English. (I guess the latest was Eastern European…but the less said about that the better).

    Lots of other great character moments. You mention Moneypenny, but that scene also allows a great bit of character for M and Q, with her, and with Bond. And Draco is one of the series best lovable rogues. And to top it all off, as you said, one of the best soundtracks. The Bond theme without lyrics, but still one of the ones you’re most likely to find yourself humming. Barry’s best worked as a title song and as background music during the movie. Though in an out of character/one of the all time great love songs too? Man, this movie is good.

  2. Le Messor

    This movie, and Lazenby in particular, are more than just a footnote to me; they’re famous for the uniqueness. Not only because it’s the only Lazenby Bond, but because it’s the only time he got married for love.

    Then again, maybe it’s because I live in the next town over from Lazenby’s home town.

      1. M-Wolverine

        Hmmm, throw in FRWL, and you’d have my top 4 in some order.

        I can’t say I pull any one off the shelf more, because I watch them all over again before the next Bond comes out. (OK, sometimes I skip Die Another Day).

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    Loved this film from the moment I first saw it on ABC, way back when. Best story out of all of them, in my opinion, and I think Lazenby is better than credited in most of the film. However, the scenes you cite are his strongest, plus the assault on Piz Gloria and bobsled run. Lazenby is great in those. I buy him as a tough military man, someone who trains with the Royal Marines and the SAS. He’s great in the love scenes, with Diana Rigg helping him. heck, who wouldn’t be enchanted by her?

    Greg H has posed the alternative history of imagining this with Timothy Dalton, as he was offered the role and turned it down, feeling he was too young. Imagine his acting chops with that story….

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