Robin’s Underrated Gems: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Everyone who knows me well knows how much of a James Bond fanatic I am, so you knew that “Robin’s Underrated Gems” would get to 007 eventually. This franchise has been running for nearly fifty years now and has produced over twenty movies, but I’d wager that most 007 fans would be in complete agreement when selecting their choice for the most underrated film in the series. It would be the one that’s generally regarded as a great Bond movie, but has the misfortune of starring the least popular version of 007. As a Bond fanatic, I’m very easily pleased by most of their films and am more than willing to defend many of the entries that are not very well-liked, such as A View to a Kill. However, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is something of a unique enigma because it is well-liked by virtually EVERYONE who’s seen it, but if you took a poll to determine what the least watched Bond film of all time is, I’m willing to bet that this one would be the winner. As pretty much everyone knows, this is the film where George Lazenby stepped into Sean Connery’s shoes and took over the role of 007 and the change went over so well that Connery immediately wound up stepping back into his old shoes for the next Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. Compared to its predecessors, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was something of a box office disappointment when it was originally released and the presence of Lazenby has always ensured that interest in it has remained fairly lukewarm over the years. However, as an overall film, I consider On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to be one of the two or three best entries in the entire Bond franchise.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is considered to be the second part of the “Blofeld trilogy” in the Bond series. After being kept hidden off-camera for several movies, the ultimate Bond supervillain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, finally had his first official face-to-face confrontation with 007 in You Only Live Twice. In OHMSS, Bond (George Lazenby) is trying to find him, but gets sidetracked after an encounter with a troubled, out-of-control Contessa named Tracy (Diana Rigg). She happens to be the daughter of Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), the head of a large European crime syndicate and, in an effort to tame Tracy’s lifestyle and keep her under control, he tries to convince Bond to marry her in exchange for information about how to find Blofeld (Telly Savalas). Bond goes for the deal, but actually finds himself genuinely falling in love with Tracy. Their romance is temporarily put on hold when Bond goes on an undercover mission by posing as a genealogist in order to infiltrate Blofeld’s organization. Of course, Blofeld is hidden away in an impregnable fortress on top of a mountain in the Swiss Alps, and has masterminded a typically evil plan involving a group of hypnotized girls unleashing deadly germs that will destroy the world’s agriculture. Now, I think it’s only appropriate that I immediately tackle the big white elephant that’s always surrounded this film: George Lazenby. I will be the first to admit that he’s easily the weakest of the actors to ever play James Bond, but he still does a perfectly decent job. He’s a little wooden and stiff during some of his acting scenes, but aside from Daniel Craig, I happen to think Lazenby is probably the most effective Bond actor at performing action scenes. The movie gives the actor a very effective introduction into the series by letting him demonstrate his convincing physicality during this fight scene on the beach.

What many people don’t seem to realize is that the Sean Connery version of Bond probably wouldn’t have been the right fit for this film because On Her Majesty’s Secret Service chose to tell its story in a very different fashion than the previous entries in the series. The Bond films have never been known for being particularly faithful adaptations of the original Ian Fleming novels, but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service actually sticks to the novel’s narrative very closely. Aside from a safecracking device in one scene, there are no gadgets to be found here at all and the story moves at a more deliberate pace than usual, confining most of its action sequences to the last third of the film. And, of course, the whole movie ends on a surprisingly downbeat note. None of the subsequent Bond films would come close to resembling this one at all until the series decided to completely reboot itself in 2006 with Casino Royale. Lazenby often plays Bond as a less assured, more vulnerable character than Connery ever did, and while that might have been a detriment to some of the other entries in the Bond franchise, it actually suits this particular Bond story just fine. Diana Rigg, who was hugely popular at the time because of her role on The Avengers, is definitely one of the all-time greatest Bond girls and her charisma helps make up for some of Lazenby’s deficiencies. This is one of the only Bond films that allows 007 to have a fully fleshed-out relationship with a woman and you would never see a romantic montage like this in any of the other films in the series.

Now, I also think it would be interesting to examine On Her Majesty’s Secret Service from the perspective of a Cracked article titled “6 Insane Fan Theories That Actually Make Great Movies Better”. It poses the very interesting theory that “James Bond” is not an actual person, but a code name that’s passed on from person to person throughout the years. This idea would help provide some actual continuity for the 50-year series and explain the character’s change in appearance and personality whenever a new actor steps into the role. You can just assume that the new actor is simply a different secret agent who has been assigned the “James Bond” code name. This theory adds an extra element of interest to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the opening scene of the film, when George Lazenby says the line “This never happened to the other fellow”, you can simply take it as a tongue-in-cheek reference to him replacing Sean Connery in the role, or you can ponder the idea that the “other fellow” is actually the secret agent who had the “James Bond” persona before him. This idea would help cover up a rather sizable plot hole in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. When Bond goes undercover in Blofeld’s organization, it makes no sense that Blofeld wouldn’t recognize him since the two of them interacted in You Only Live Twice and Bond’s only disguise here is a pair of glasses. However, if you consider that the Connery version of Bond and the Lazenby version of Bond are two entirely different people using the “James Bond” code name, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. It’s also worth noting that when Connery returned to play Bond in Diamonds Are Forever, no mention was ever made about events that happened in the previous film. After watching this ending to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, you can come to the conclusion that the Lazenby version of “James Bond” decided to retire and that the Connery version came back again and took his place, which would explain why Bond doesn’t make any reference to his wife at all in the next film.

Anyway, whether you believe that unique fan theory or not, that doesn’t change the fact that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is not just a terrific Bond film, but a terrific film, period! Even though its story structure is much different than usual for a Bond flick, OHMSS still delivers some of the kick-ass action sequences in the entire series. This is the only Bond film to be directed by Peter Hunt, who was the editor on all the previous Bond films, and he knows how to stage the action in a very exciting, energetic, high impact fashion. Even though most of the action is confined to the last third of the film, it’s almost wall-to-wall action, delivering some amazing ski chases, a fun car chase sequence, and an exciting climactic bobsled chase. Huge praise should also be given for John Barry’s music. While this is one of the only Bond films not to have its own title song, Barry’s score here is arguably the best in the entire series. I think it’s a testament to the overall quality of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that in spite of their less-than-stellar opinions about George Lazenby, devout 007 fans still consider this to be one of the best entries in the series. That said, it still remains the most underrated Bond film of all time and deserves a lot more love. It’s time that people stop referring to this as the Bond film they “just never got around to seeing”.

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