On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) Review

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" Japanese Theatrical Poster

“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” Japanese Theatrical Poster

Director: Peter Hunt
Writer: Richard Maibaum
Producer: Harry Saltzman, Albert R. Broccoli
Cast: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Bernard Lee, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat, Lois Maxwell, George Baker, Yuri Borienko, Bernard Horsfall, Desmond Llewelyn
Running Time: 140 min.

By Paul Bramhall

Ask any James Bond fan which entry in the series has the ‘Asian connection’, and many will likely say 1967’s You Only Live Twice, which has Sean Connery gallivanting around Japan while taking on ninjas and training in the bushido arts. But I’ll beg to differ and present the case for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, not so much for the content of the movie itself, but for the actor playing 007 – George Lazenby. The sixth entry in the series, and the one that closed out the 60’s, OHMSS (as I’ll refer to it from here on it) would be the first and last time Lazenby would take on the role of Bond in the official franchise.

The reasons behind Lazenby’s one-off tenure as the famous British agent are well documented – a mix of his own arrogance (which was what arguably got him the role in the first place), and his declaration that Bond was an obsolete character during its release, saw him quickly branded as being difficult to work with. These days he’s a much more affable fellow, and openly admits that he made mistakes during the initial years he spent in the film industry, but back then it was a different story. By 1973 he recalls being completely broke, and headed for Hong Kong to meet with Raymond Chow and Bruce Lee to discuss a role in Game of Death. Lazenby was booked to meet Lee for lunch on the day of the Little Dragons untimely passing, resulting in the collaboration never coming to pass, however Chow did sign Lazenby up for a 3 picture deal.

The result saw the one-time James Bond starring alongside the likes of Angela Mao and Hwang In-sik in Stoner (not to mention a sex scene with the actress whose bedroom Bruce Lee was found dead in – Betty Ting Pei), throwing down against Jimmy Wang Yu in The Man from Hong Kong, and mingling amongst such names as Dean Shek and Bolo in A Queen’s Ransom (which ironically saw him involved in a plot to kidnap the queen, rather than serving her). Quite the unusual career path for the Australian born actor, however maybe not completely unexpected. Members of the production on OHMSS recall Lazenby’s insistence to do all of his own fights and stunts, and he also contributed his own ideas for the action, suggesting the inclusion of a scene in which Bond would ski off the edge of a cliff with a parachute. Due to time constraints and resources the idea wasn’t feasible, however it was used 8 years later in the opening of The Spy Who Loved Me.

Watching OHMSS now, over 45 years since it was first released, it’s easy to appreciate just how ahead of its time it really was. Not only was it Lazenby’s acting debut, but it was also director Peter Hunt’s first time at helming a full length feature as well. Having worked as an editor on the first three entries in the 007 series, the producers believed he’d be up to the task of moving the franchise into a new and exciting direction. The case for them being right is a strong one, as in many ways OHMSS bears several similarities to the 007 reboot which would start with Casino Royale, a whole 37 years later. Hunt portrays Lazenby’s Bond as much more physical than Connery’s incarnation, gone is the focus on cars and gadgets, and in the first third there’s hardly a single gunshot fired, as Lazenby instead get involved in numerous fight scenes.

The way the fights are shot foreshadows the quick cut editing technique that Paul Greengrass would use in the Matt Damon starring Bourne sequels over three decades on, and delivers an effective sense of urgency and impact to the scenes. One particular fight that takes place within the confines of a hotel room is satisfyingly chaotic, with the whole room getting completely trashed in the process. It’s a template which would be used for many years to come, from Gina Carano vs Michael Fassbender in Haywire to Michelle Rodriguez vs Ronda Rousey in Furious 7. The fights are visibly undercranked, but for a 1969 British production, there’s a raw physicality to them that still feels fresh and immediate even now.

Also drawing on the similarities to Casino Royale, OHMSS flirts with shifting Bond into a darker direction. The opening sequence has Lazenby observing Avengers actress Diana Rigg from a distance, as she staggers around on a deserted beach. When it becomes evident that she is in fact trying to take her own life, he rushes out to save her. This opening pre-credit scene, as compact as it is, accurately represents all that’s good and bad with OHMSS. The dark undertones of a mob bosses daughter having no will to live is instantly engaging, and we’re drawn into Lazenby’s bold move to rescue her. However then he opens his mouth. Immediately introducing himself as “Bond, James Bond”, his delivery is a little too energetic and excited. Bond should be smooth and suave, however Lazenby’s line delivery is anything but. However no sooner has he spoken, than he’s involved in a fight against two assailants, which is satisfyingly intense and chaotic.

The elephant in the room in any discussion of OHMSS is, of course, how the opening pre-credit sequence ends. Having dispatched of the two assailants, and then come to the realisation that Rigg has driven off while he was fighting, leaving him alone on the beach, Lazenby breaks the fourth wall, momentarily glancing at the camera before stating, “This never happened to the other fellow.” So in just a few short minutes, the sequence acts as a micro-nutshell as to what can be expected from Lazenby’s outing – it’s intense, dark, physical, and also pretty goofy, not always in equal proportions.

For those that classify Lazenby’s outing as Stoner to be a heap of goofy psychedelic trash, the plot device is basically the same as OHMSS. Whereas Stoner revolves around Lazenby’s attempts to track down the creator of ‘the happy pill’, an addictive drug that acts as a hallucinogenic aphrodisiac (seemingly only on well-endowed naked females), OHMSS revolves around an infertility drug which will put an end to the world population. It’s revealed that Blofeld, played by Telly Savalas (replacing Donald Pleasence’s memorable turn as the villain), is operating under the cover of running an allergy research program. Up in the Swiss mountains, a bevy of women (later revealed by Savalas to be his “angels of death”) believe they’re undergoing a treatment of hypnotism for their allergies. We get to see the treatment in action with one particular patient, played by Angela Scoular, who has an allergy to chickens (which when she explains it is actually more of a phobia). As she lays down in bed, a series of psychedelic flashing lights fill the room, and Savalas comes on over the room speaker – “I’ve taught you to love chickens, love their flesh, their voice.” Seriously.

All of these bizarre shenanigans are completely at odds with Lazenby’s budding romance with Diana Rigg. Although at first he insists that she’s mentally unstable and needs a psychiatrist, as the plot progresses these interesting elements are largely cast aside. This is forgivable though, as the decision to introduce a female character that Bond actually falls in love with, and ultimately ends up marrying, is a worthy and bold move for the character. I don’t think it would class as a spoiler to reveal the ending of OHMSS, but just in case I’ll spare the details and simply say that the final minute remains as the single most emotionally poignant scene in the whole franchise to date. Lazenby performs the scene so well that it’s enough to forget about some of his less than stellar line deliveries in the rest of the movie, and make you wish he’d stayed as the character longer. As it stands though, the events that close out OHMSS act as little more than a footnote in the pre-credit sequence of For Your Eyes Only in 1981, over a decade later.

While the middle section of OHMSS is undeniably goofy, director Hunt reigns things in for an entertaining action finale. Consisting of an exciting downhill chase on ski’s, during which Lazenby broke his arm practicing for, it made enough of an impression that Christopher Nolan cited it as an influence on a similar scene in Inception. Lazenby amusingly slips out of his British delivery during this scene, at one point yelling to Rigg, “Keep going!” in a distinctly Australian accent, however considering he has enough to concentrate on, the small slip is excusable. There’s also a nice John Woo style moment, as he slides horizontally across the ice-covered ground while firing a machine gun at the bad guys. It’s a scene which is immediately reminiscent of the finale in Tsui Hark’s Knock Off, which has Van Damme horizontally sliding between containers while also shooting at the enemy.

The bobsleigh finale also earns its action merits, partly thanks to it being re-written to include the footage of stunts gone wrong while practicing the scene. Because of this decision, there’s a great shot of Bond crashing out of the bobsleigh and into the snow, great of course, because that’s what actually happened to the poor stuntman involved. Re-using stunt footage gone wrong was remarkably ahead of its time, and became a practice widely used in Hong Kong action cinema in the 80’s and 90’s (Conan Lee’s failed street light jump from Tiger on the Beat 2 springs to mind). This, along with other more subtle references, indicate that OHMSS is probably more highly regarded than many care to recognize. One of the more subtle examples come in a scene which has Bond make a fake coat of family arms, and it’s explained that the Latin on the coat is translated as The World is Not Enough, which of course would become the title of Pierce Brosnan’s 3rd outing as the character in 1999.

While the path of playing the revered secret agent wasn’t to be travelled by Lazenby, OHMSS deserves to be recognised as a worthwhile entry into the franchise, with action scenes that were well ahead of their time, and a plot which wasn’t afraid to imbue the character with a sense of loss. The closing credits of OHMSS proudly declare that ‘JAMES BOND WILL RETURN IN DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER’, and indeed he did, but it was Sean Connery who stepped back in the shoes of 007, or as Lazenby would say, “the other fellow”. As James Bond he may have been replaced, but thankfully, we’ll always have Joseph Stoner and Jack Wilton, so regardless of whether you have a chicken allergy or not, next time you need a 007 fix, consider OHMSS as your Bond of choice.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on TumblrEmail this to someoneShare on Google+

This entry was posted in All, Asian Related, Cults & Classics, News, Reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) Review

  1. Mike Leeder says:

    such a good movie, and such an impressive and under-rated turn by Lazenby…. was very impressed by his openness during the EVERYTHING OR NOTHING documentary where he was very honest that yes he had been given some very bad advice, but even worse he’d taken it! Do love his JB inspired turns in everything from THE MASTER to RETURN OF THE MAN FROM UNCLE: THE 15 YEAR LATE AFFAIR where he’s a tuxedo clad fella driving a custom Aston Martin DB6 with the JB number plates who lends a hand…..

    OHMS is so good, wish Lazenby had done more and always wish that Lewis Collins had got to replace Moore, he would had that Lazenby edge to it but his auditions were considered too violent

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *