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When Daniel Craig assumed the mantle as the sixth “official” James Bond in Casino Royale, critics fell all over themselves in offering up praise. The movie was “gritty,” “lethal,” “serious” — something that its predecessors had seemingly been lacking for decades. Except one. You can’t fault the reviewers for their naiveté; most of them had not been born when the franchise delivered its sixth installment, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The new Bond harked back to the worldly ruthlessness of 007 in a way that none of his pre-Craig successors would
OHMSS put aside most of the gadgeteering, wisecracks, and sneering that had begun to characterize the Bond series by the mid-Sixties (and would pick up again not long thereafter). When Sean Connery retired from the role, it was an opportunity for producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to hit the reset button and bring the series back in line with author Ian Fleming’s original character. The new Bond, played by Australian actor George Lazenby, harked back to the worldly ruthlessness of 007 in a way that none of his pre-Craig successors would. And hewing closely to the original novel’s plot, the movie brought an emotional complexity to the character largely missing from most spy movies.
The movie’s first challenge was formidable: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service needed to thread the needle between the old and the new Bonds cautiously, reminding audiences of the series’ previous triumphs without also reminding them of the series’ past star. The title sequence, which commences about seven minutes into the movie (after Bond both saved his co-star’s life and dispatched a couple of baddies) accomplished its task absolutely flawlessly.
Savalas packed the the role of Blofeld with a Walter White sense of over-the-top menace
Not only did On Her Majesty’s Secret Service sport a new Bond, but Telly Savalas debuted as the latest incarnation of arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the cat-petting, bald-pated, ransom-demanding megalomaniac that inspired the character of Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films. Like Lazenby, Savalas would play his character on film only once, but he made it count, packing the role with a Walter White sense of over-the-top menace: A hyper-intelligent, rational man driven round the twist into a very dark place. Pretty much every Bond plot deals with some megalomaniac trying to take over the world, but Savalas-as-Blofeld was just sane enough to make his character that much more intimidating.
And then there was the elegant Diana Rigg, the film’s star-crossed Bond girl, Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo. If ever an actress deserved the title “the thinking man’s sex-symbol,” Rigg most certainly filled the bill. [Even if there had been a somewhat unlikely contender to the throne, the former Mrs. Peel (the role on The Avengers that brought her stardom) could have – and would have – kicked her ass without spilling a drop of her ’59 Dom Pérignon.] From her attempted suicide at the movie’s opening to her later exploits in Bond’s presence, she was the anti-typical Bond girl – his equal in intelligence and perhaps his superior in intuition, especially when it came to expressing her feelings and understanding his.
OHMSS was a decade or three ahead of its time, a Daniel-Craig-style reboot of the series shot the very year Daniel Craig was born
But the magnetic attraction to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — and the reason it’s held up so well — arises from far more than the sum of its estimable parts. In many ways, OHMSS was a decade or three ahead of its time, a Daniel-Craig-style reboot of the series shot the very year Daniel Craig was born. It boasts an emotional complexity rarely seen in the series’ history, and one gets the sense that it’s Bond’s intelligence, stamina, and wiles – rather than his gadgets – that will pull him through. Both supermobster Marc-Ange Draco (portrayed magnificently by Gabriele Ferzetti) and his daughter, Tracy, come across as people rather than props. And when Bond’s in danger, whether in Blofeld’s alpine HQ, on a bobsled course pursuing the villain at breakneck velocity, or negotiating his ever-mutating relationship with the Contessa, the hazards seem perilously real. Part of the credit for that tautness goes to director Peter Hunt, who oversaw the action as the editor of all the previous Bond films.
And there’s one more thing worth mentioning, which probably has more to do with why so many people haven’t watched this movie than why you should: George Lazenby played Bond but once, and was immediately replaced by his predecessor, Connery. The general sentiment was that if he’d done a good job, he would have been asked back. Fact is, he was, but the 30 year old didn’t cope well with the demands of instant worldwide stardom, and wound up in a fight with the producers that pushed him out of the role for good. As the only official one-shot Bond, he became something of a punchline, up to and including a September 2006 episode of The Daily Show, in which comedian John Oliver suggested that Pope Benedict XVI is “the George Lazenby of the papacy,” in comparison to “John Paul II’s Sean Connery.” It’s a rap that, after seeing the movie, you’ll know he certainly didn’t deserve.
After all, in the end, what all do we want from Bond, James Bond, and the movies of his fictional exploits? A sense of adventure. A soupçon of derring-do. Some British-style élan. An insane villain. A great automobile. A woman of extraordinary charisma. A few explosions. Some puns that make us groan. A car chase or two. And the reassurance that good — even against the odds — triumphs over bad. This film gave us all of that, plus a conclusion with an emotional gravitas that only Casino Royale has approached in the decades since. In its own understated, inimitable way, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service pulled it all off in a way that no one could have predicted . . . and far too few have recognized.
Bonus Cut: Good lord, even the soundtrack to this movie is underrated. Following a string of hit Bond songs sung by Nancy Sinatra, Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, composer John Barry dared to go with an instrumental. And it’s a killer. A frenzy of fuzzed-out guitars and frantic hooks, it’s as explosive as any action sequence and sticks in your head like a slug between the eyes. The vocal performance comes in the form of the movie’s heartbreaking love theme, “We Have All The Time In The World.” Barry chose an ailing Louis Armstrong as the vocalist because he felt the legend’s frail voice would give depth and irony to the song. After watching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, you’ll understand why that was a masterful choice.