On Her Majesty's Secret Service (United Kingdom, 1969)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
On Her Majesty's Secret Service Poster

With the exception of one production aspect, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is by far the best entry of the long-running James Bond series. The film contains some of the most exhilarating action sequences ever to reach the screen, a touching love story, and a nice subplot that has agent 007 crossing (and even threatening to resign from) Her Majesty's Secret Service. The problem is with Bond himself. Following Sean Connery's departure after You Only Live Twice, the film makers had to come up with a replacement. The man they chose, a model named George Lazenby, is boring, and his ineffectualness lowers the picture's quality.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service plays with Lazenby's introduction. At first, we don't see his face -- just the back of his head in an over-the-shoulder shot. The "James Bond Theme" is playing, however, so there's no doubt who's supposed to be on screen. Then, after the beach fight where Lazenby's features are revealed, Bond makes an oblique reference to the actor switch: "This never happened to the other fellow." Later, Moneypenny remarks that Bond is "still the same James."

Lazenby can handle the action sequences, but that's about all he masters. For most of the film, he's stiff and uncharismatic, exhibiting little of the style and charm that marked Sean Connery's interpretation. Worse, Lazenby seems to be intentionally imitating his predecessor (a mistake that Roger Moore did not make in Live and Let Die), which only reminds us what we're missing.

Even considering the leading man's limitations, however, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is still a fine motion picture. It's the only Bond film where 007 genuinely falls in love. The object of his affection, Tracy (Diana Rigg), is the troubled daughter of a European crime boss, Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). After Bond saves Tracy's life and pays off a 20,000-franc debt, Draco becomes interested in acquiring the British agent as a son-in-law. Bond declines his offer of one million pounds to marry Tracy, then proceeds to fall in love with her anyway.

The romance comprises most of the film's first forty-five minutes, as well as the final fifteen. For a series known for its action, the sensitivity of the James/Tracy pairing is surprising. Rigg does a marvelous job holding up her side, and, after viewing her performance, it's not hard to understand how Bond could fall for the headstrong Tracy. Lazenby, on the other hand, manages to be merely adequate -- this is the only occasion when a Bond woman upstages 007. On Her Majesty's Secret Service contains three of the most tender moments ever to appear in any Bond film: James wiping away Tracy's tears at her father's birthday party, the marriage proposal, and the final, heartbreaking scene.

The movie isn't all love-and-kisses, however. The main storyline involves the return of Blofeld (Telly Savalas in this incarnation). This time, he plans a campaign of biological warfare to be waged from a "research clinic" high in the Alps. Posing as a genealogist (Blofeld wants to legitimatize his claim as Count de Blochamp), Bond visits the place. Despite their face-to-face meeting in You Only Live Twice, Blofeld doesn't recognize his adversary (maybe the change to Lazenby confused him), but a minor mistake blows 007's cover, and he's soon running for his life, with Blofeld and his imposing assistant, Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat), right behind him.

The climactic half-hour of On Her Majesty's Secret Service is almost non-stop action. There's a stunning night ski sequence, a car chase down icy streets and through the heart of a stock car race, an avalanche, a helicopter raid on Blofeld's clinic, and fisticuffs on a speeding bobsled. Director Peter Hunt has a flair for these kinds of scenes, and he keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.

Of the eleven Bond films scored by John Barry, the composer's work for On Her Majesty's Secret Service is his best. Despite the absence of title song lyrics, the opening number is rousing (it was later used as incidental music during the teaser of A View to a Kill). The love song, "We Have All the Time in the World", sung by Louis Armstrong, provides a perfect accompaniment to James and Tracy's growing attachment. And the placement of the "James Bond Theme" is without flaw.

After the relative commercial failure of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Lazenby thankfully retired from the role, and Connery returned for one more go-around. It's sad to consider what this film could have been with the original lead, but encouraging that it's so good without him. Even featuring an inferior 007, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a landmark change-of-pace, and an exhilarating and affecting piece of entertainment.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (United Kingdom, 1969)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1