On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
(Rewatched 22 July 2012.)
The first time I saw most of the Bond films was when ITV showed all of them over consecutive weeks in 1999, in the run up to the release if The World is Not Enough. However, even though I videotaped OHMSS at that time, it went unwatched for several years. I really regretted that, because when it was finally viewed, it turned out to be one of my favourite of all the 007 movies.
If there are three things that most people remember about OHMSS, it’s that it was George Lazenby’s one and only portrayal of James Bond, that it features one of the only instances of fourth wall-breaking in the entire series (“This never happened to the other fellow!”), and that it concludes with THAT ending. However, the movie has a lot more to recommend it than just those three things.
George Lazenby has come in for a lot of stick for his Bond performance, although both he and the film as a whole seem to be better-regarded now than when it was first released, when there was no-one but Connery to compare him to. I don’t claim to be the world’s best judge of good and bad acting, so I won’t call him “flat” – I’d say “deadpan”, I suppose. I like him in the role – particularly in his scene with Miss Moneypenny, and also in the movie’s final scene. I think that at least part of the negative reaction to him is that he spends a good proportion of the movie dubbed, which is extremely distracting and means that for that period of the film we can’t tell how Lazenby himself is delivering the lines.
There are two elements of the movie which take a backward look at all the Bond movies so far: the hourglass-themed title credits, and a scene in which Bond (in his office at MI6!!!) browses through mementos of previous cases (with accompanying musical stings). They prefigure the nostalgia-fest of Die Another Day, and seem to be included to say to viewers: “We know you don’t like losing Sean, but this guy’s still the same character – honest!” There are Bond fans who absolutely hate that cute souvenir scene, but I quite enjoy it.
Even if Lazenby himself didn’t re-invigorate the series, the screenplay (one of the closest to Fleming’s original novels) and the direction certainly did. The film is home to some of the 007 films’ best action sequences, several of which (as well as Bond’s run-in with a polar bear!) are shot in an unusual way for the series: lots of quick close-up shots of flailing limbs, each of which zoom into even closer close-ups. It’s a distinctive, energetic and exciting approach to fight scenes, even if it’s not the clearest for seeing exactly what’s going on. In addition, the climactic bobsleigh action scene is excellent, with rear-projection shots that look much less silly than the ridiculous speeded-up hydrofoil scene at the end of Thunderball.
Ski chases are a recurring breed of action sequence in the Bond series, and in this film we get not one, but two of them, both of which are brilliant. In the second of them, Blofeld brings down a flippin’ avalanche on not just our fleeing heroes, but three of his disposable underlings as well! Speaking of villains: although Irma Bunt comes across as Rosa Klebb-lite, Telly Savalas is probably the best of the Blofelds (or at least the best of the fully-seen ones; I have to admit that my primary image of the character is still that of the unseen, Dr Claw-esque, cat stroking SPECTRE Number One).
The scheme that Blofeld uses to hold the world to ransom is reminscent of the use of hypnosis in The Ipcress File, and is a lot more creative than a standard “hijacked nuke” or “space-based weapon” plot. The fact that Bond has been on the trail of Blofeld ever since the previous movie’s events, and yet Blofeld does not recognise Bond upon their meeting here, is a good example of the Bond series’ fast and loose approach to continuity – and is also a relic of the reversed order of OHMSS and YOLT when compared to the novels.
One of the unusual things about this Bond movie is that it’s the only one other than Dr No to feature an instrumental theme tune. It’s a fantastic track – good enough to be rearranged by the Propellerheads and then used by Pixar in their teaser for The Incredibles. As an action accompaniment, it’s at least as exciting as “The James Bond Theme” itself or John Barry’s “007” theme. (However, I always find it a shame that in these early Bond movies, the original recording of “The James Bond Theme” is simply overlayed onto the action. I would have liked to have heard more of John Barry incorporating tweaked rearrangements of the theme into new, bespoke scores for each action scene, as subsequent composers did.) The film also has a second theme song: Louis Armstrong’s classic “We Have All the Time in the World” was written for this movie.
And then of course, we have the tragic, inevitable ending. It’s extremely effective (especially thanks to the preceding scene, which includes some great little moments from Q, M and Moneypenny), and is easily Lazenby’s most noteworthy moment; he plays Bond’s devastated reaction well. Unfortunately I can’t help but feel that the sombre tone is undermined by that triumphant blast of the Bond theme over the “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN” message.
There are some mis-steps – the aforementioned dubbing, a couple of the one-liners (like the one Lazenby dubs in after the bobsleigh fight with Blofeld), and several plot holes (which are analysed to death here, if you don’t mind a bit of excessive bold and italics usage).
But for the most part the movie is excellent fun that occupies a solid position near the very top of my Bond rankings. Incidentally, when it comes to Christmas action movies, I’d say that this one is second only to Die Hard! (Do you know how Christmas trees are grown?)
[4.5 out of 5]