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Once Upon 1969: ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ is Bond at his best

Bond
MGM/United Artists via MoviestillsDB
 

To celebrate the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, all this week we’ll be running pieces about the films of 1969 — the good, the bad, and the ugly, much like you’d find at the multiplex or at your local arthouse if you were going to the movies alongside Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. You can find all of these pieces here, alongside our forthcoming review of Tarantino’s latest.

In the same way that, say, The Wizard of Oz embodied depression-era fantasy, or Douglas Sirk’s melodramas represent the ’50s as they were felt, the James Bond films are inextricably tied to the ‘60s in a way that continues to define them to this day.

They rose to prominence when the recently-elected John F. Kennedy listed Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love as one of his very favorite books, which helped to bring Fleming’s writing and the character to the forefront of pop culture. In a way, 007 was present at nearly every single major event of his presidency: The first Bond film, the Sean Connery-starring Dr. No, was released during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as a respite from the Cold War nearly turning hot, Kennedy had a private screening of the film organized at the time. Given that From Russia With Love was so close to Kennedy’s heart, the series’ producers, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, decided to adapt that novel next. It would be the last film Kennedy would ever watch at the White House, having a screening just before he embarked on what was to be a routine fundraiser in Dallas at the end of 1963.  

 

Bond would survive the man who made him famous, and Connery would go on to be one of the biggest stars of that era, working with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Vittorio de Sica and Sidney Lumet in between each of his outings as 007. The franchise ballooned in value, with each successive installment raking in dough at the box office. But the actor soon grew tired of the role, and after the production of You Only Live Twice, Connery decided he was done. So, when ’68 rolled around, and Connery announced his decision to step down from the part, Broccoli and Saltzman announced that his replacement would be a man named George Lazenby, in a film titled On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

It would be directed by Peter R. Hunt, and it’d hit theaters at the end of ’69. The producers were taking a big risk — who knew if anybody would accept a substitute Bond? — but, even though it might not have paid off at the time in critical esteem, with the benefit of hindsight, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ranks as one of, if not the, best James Bond films, despite its reputation. 

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Lazenby wasn’t anybody’s first choice for the role — that honor would go to Roger Moore, who was originally slated to star in an adaptation of The Man with the Golden Gun that year until international troubles derailed the production before it could start, and he went back to portraying The Saint. But, in an ever-shifting story with only a few concrete details, the Aussie actor, a former used-car salesman turned male model in swingin’ ‘60s London, found himself in front of Saltzman and Broccoli, auditioning for the role. Some say it was because of his television advertising work — he’d been a famous face for Fry’s Chocolate, after all — and the producers thought he was the right man for the job based solely on his look; Lazenby claims that he got the information about the casting session in the aftermath of a threesome he’d had. Either way, he wasn’t a traditional choice: He had no acting experience whatsoever, but continuously impressed the people involved with the production. According to Lazenby, he confessed his greenness to Hunt, who burst out laughing, saying ‘You’ve fooled two of the most ruthless men I’ve met in my life! They made me come back from Switzerland to see you! Stick to your story and I’ll make you the next James Bond!’ Then came the time he was set up with a Russian wrestler for fighting screen-tests by Broccoli, who was astonished when the non-actor accidentally knocked the strongman out.

Surrounding the neophyte secret agent were Connery’s stalwarts: Bernard Lee as M, the head of MI6 whom Lazenby’s Bond would come into conflict with over the course of the film; Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, who would see the potential end of her six-film flirtation with 007 at the conclusion of the film; and Desmond Llewelyn as Q, whose role would be reduced as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wouldn’t nearly be as gadget-heavy as the previous Bonds. The new faces, on the other hand, would be among the series’ greatest additions. The role of SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld, previously played by Donald Pleasence, had been recast with Telly Savalas in the part, and thanks to the lack of chaos surrounding the role this time around, Savalas was able to make the role his own, offering a further showcase for his particular evil charms beyond what audiences had seen in The Dirty Dozen a year prior.

He’s given a few fascinating new characterization details, as well: He’s petty enough to try and claim a Countship that isn’t his, and committed enough to chop his own earlobes off in order to fool the London College of Arms into granting him it. His evil plot — one of the series’ broadest and most endearingly ridiculous — is to brainwash a number of young women (called his “angels of death,” lured to his mountain compound under the guise of having their allergies cured) in order to spread crop-destroying chemical weapons around the world. The Austin Powers comparison is one that many writers have touched on, but I’d suggest the contemporaneous James Coburn-led Flint series as a better counterpoint: It’s knowingly silly, and of its time in a way that a 30 years-removed parody could only dream of properly echoing.

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By far the greatest addition to the cast would be Diana Rigg, playing Teresa “Tracy” di Vecenzo, an Italian-English countess who is also the daughter of the head of a Corsican crime syndicate. She was also a first for the Bond franchise, in that she was a significantly more recognizable and popular public figure than the actor portraying the lead role. Rigg was familiar to both audiences in the U.K. and U.S. due to her time on alongside Patrick Macnee on The Avengers, the BBC spy show that had been given primetime positioning by ABC in the mid-’60s. Rigg was an international icon at that point for her moxie and daring-do as well as her incredibly forward-thinking and gender-bending costuming, and her transition to the Bond franchise already had a blueprint in the success of her Avengers predecessor, Honor Blackmon, who portrayed Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

She’s the most well-defined female character in the Bond franchise up to that point, and her romance with Lazenby feels both weighty and meaningful. Her wistfulness intoxicatingly melds with her courage, and it’s hard not to fall hard for her much in the same way that Bond does. It’s here that Lazenby’s true success in the role reveals itself: He, much like all of us, forgets his suave self-assuredness when confronted with the possibility of true, life-altering love, and it’s his softness that ultimately makes Bond’s transition from gruff, swinging man-of-action to monogamous romantic believable. It’s one of several rebukes to the meat at the heart of the Bond fantasy, and it’s understandable that a number of audience members would reject it outright.

Yet, behind the characters and story lies an action movie so forward-thinking in its construction that it’s amazing to me that it’s not cited more as one of the most influential movies of that particular year, alongside films like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Most of the thanks here can be laid at the feet of Hunt, the long-time editor and second-unit director of the franchise (he began as editor on Dr. No, and did second-unit starting with Goldfinger), who seized upon the opportunity to make his first proper outing as director as memorable as possible. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is, at its heart, an editor’s film, and its insanely memorable action sequences are revolutionary for their time. Consider how Hunt and editor John Glen cut for pace during the climactic encounter between 007 and Blofeld, where the two, on bobsleds, hurtle down a mountain pass, struggling and fighting with one another.

Glen constantly emphasizes the speed of bobsled, cutting to a front-mounted view of the track much in the same way that William Friedkin would do in The French Connection’s crazy car chase a mere two years later, and it’s an exhilarating ride. The fighting itself is brutal throughout, almost in the tradition of Bond’s struggle with Robert Shaw’s Red Grant aboard the Orient Express in From Russia With Love a few films earlier, and its quick-cut style, when paired with Hunt’s prior experience in crafting physical action on screen, makes it incredibly intense. One can see the film’s influence on films like Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, of which both directors are members of the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service cult. 

 
 

But the true accomplishment of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is its crushing, tremendously sad ending, which, had the film been stripped of every other aspect that makes it so pulse-pounding and memorable, would still place it in the upper echelon of Bond films in terms of its effect on the viewer. I’m referring to Bond and Tracy’s marriage, where the famously single and promiscuous secret agent has finally decided to settle down and renounce his life in espionage. It’s almost a fitting conclusion to the Bond series itself — SPECTRE having been defeated, once and for all, Bond is finally able to leave behind his work and settle down — but, as Village Voice critic Molly Haskell put it in her review back in ’69, “their love, being too real, is put down by the conventions that it defied.”

While the Bonds drive away from their ceremony, dreaming of adventures to come, a wounded Blofeld and his second-in-command, Irma Blunt, pull up alongside them and fire a barrage of shots into the newlyweds’ car. James survives unscathed, but Tracy’s struck and killed by one of the villain’s bullets. Bond cradles her close and sheds tears, telling her that they have “all the time in the world,” a call-back to the gorgeous Louis Armstrong-sung theme that played over a montage of their romance earlier in the film (indeed, if there is a misstep in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s that the film ends with the classic Bond theme instead of a reprise of Armstrong’s heartbreaker). It was originally meant to be the beginning of Lazenby’s second Bond film, Diamonds are Forever, but at that point, the actor had already decided not to reprise the role again, going as far as to infuriate Broccoli by having long hair and a beard at the film’s premiere, a decidedly modern and non-debonair look. He’d “play” the role one more time in a goofy cameo in the television film The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E, but his time in the sun was up, and Connery would return to the part a mere two years later, with no acknowledgement of Tracy’s death.

Those final images of Bond cradling his dead lover’s head in his lap, weeping over the life that had been ripped from her by an assassin’s bullet, feels about as pointed a summation of the end of the ‘60s as one can possibly get through populist entertainments. It recalls a number of images of real-world turmoil, as the illusory good-natured idealism gave way to a decade defined by violence and the culture-wide reactions to it. Above all, it reminds one of the fate that the man who brought Bond to a state of prominence suffered at the hands of a gunman in Dallas in 1963, unknowingly echoing through its blocking the moments, as captured by Abraham Zapruder on his 8mm camera, after the second shot altered American history for decades to come, but before a shocked Jacqueline Kennedy climbed onto the trunk of the Lincoln she was riding in.

No wonder audiences didn’t respond to it well when it premiered in December of 1969: The masculinist fantasy of Cold-War heroism had been undercut by the very horrors that awaited theater-goers when they left the theater and switched on the television when they returned home. If James Bond and his rise to pop culture dominance defined the look and feel of the ‘60s, then On Her Majesty’s Secret Service followed in those footsteps by portraying the sadness and powerlessness felt by all at the sweeping, changing tides of history.