It seems difficult to review a James Bond movie in a vacuum. There always have to be comparisons to previous and future installments. What does it do differently? What’s the same? How’s this Bond actor compared to the others? As such, it seems relevant to point out that I’m not overly familiar with the franchise. I watched some Bond films back when I was younger, but I don’t remember much of them, save for GoldenEye though admittedly more due to the Nintendo 64 game than the film itself. Since my cinematic awakening a few years ago, I have revisited GoldenEye and seen Casino Royale (the recent one), Octopussy and Live and Let Die for (I think) the first time. Casino Royale is my favorite of these, in large parts due to its effort to humanize Bond. I have little love for the Moore films and their focus on comedy. I have little memory of seeing any of the Sean Connery films. There. That’s my prior experience with Bond.
In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond (George Lazenby) isn’t immediately tasked with saving the world. Instead, the plot focuses on his relationship with Tracy (Diana Rigg), a rebellious woman whom Bond saves from a suicide attempt in the opening scene of the film. After a few more encounters with her, he is contacted by her father Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), head of a Corsican crime syndicate. Draco wants Bond to keep romancing Tracy in order to provide stability and control to her tumultuous life. Reluctant at first, Bond eventually agrees when he in exchange is promised information that might lead him to the whereabouts of his arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas). Blofeld is eventually revealed to have another sinister plan in the making, this time determined to blackmail the world with the threat of a sterility virus that could knock out entire species of plants and animals.
Barring the non-canon Casino Royale from 1967, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the first James Bond film not to have Sean Connery in the role of 007. Reviews at the time generally weren’t kind to Lazenby’s effort here compared to the original Bond. I’m coming from the opposite direction and have recently watched Roger Moore in the role, and I think Lazenby does an acceptable job. His Bond is not quite as charming as other portrayals of the character, but he brings an effective vulnerability to the part. He’s not infallible. Lazenby handles the action scenes particularly well. It’s fun to watch him fight, while he also makes sure to convey a sense of danger to the proceedings. Lazenby originally signed on for seven films, but following the advice of his agent, he announced during shooting that this would be his only Bond movie. A shame, as while there is some stiffness to his acting, there’s enough promise here to make me believe he would have grown into the role with time.
The brunt of the movie is set in and near a ski resort in the Swiss Alps, where 007 infiltrates Blofeld’s secret base. This setting allows for a number of exciting action scenes. Skis, avalanches, cable cars and bob sleighs all come into play, and there’s also a pretty great chase sequence at a stock car race. The director, Peter Hunt, had worked as editor on the previous five Bond films, and this experience pays off here as the action is fast, impactful and exciting to behold. Rather than relying on gadgets and trickery, Bond here has to use his physicality instead. Barring some obvious bluescreen work at times, most of the action scenes stuff would hold up well in modern films.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is noteworthy for having a Bond girl that Bond actually falls in love with, to the point where he’s prepared to abandon his life as a secret agent for her. This romance is perhaps not handled as well as it could have been. We get a montage as he and Tracy start dating, but there’s not much real spark there. Bond is back to his womanizing ways soon after. Eventually there is realization and declaration of love, and while this works nicely, it would have been better had there been a bit more groundwork laid. Just a shot of Bond’s troubled face after one of his conquests to show the effect that Tracy has had on him would have gone a long way. No matter. I bought into the relationship as the film reached its climax, and the emotional payoff is certainly there at the teriffic ending.
I really enjoyed this movie. Much like Casino Royale, it manages to make James Bond a real human character rather than just an invincible super agent. The villains are effective and memorable, both Savalas’ Blofeld and his henchwoman Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat). I was entertained throughout, and the ending really made me want to find out what would happen to 007 next. This is something neither of the Roger Moore films I’ve seen recently has managed. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ranks among my favorite Bond movies seen so far.