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On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969)

Starring: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Frezetti, Ilse Steppat, Lois Maxwell

Written By: Richard Maibaum, Ian Fleming (novel) Directed By: Peter Hunt

The Short Version

One of Ian Fleming’s best novels dies in translation to the big screen.

Casting George Lazenby and Telly Savalas is an abominable blunder.

Diana Rigg, on the other hand, is phenomenal.

When a Bond film has you checking your watch, it’s not a good sign.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the definition of “wasted potential.”


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CO-JACK.

Or do I mean Kojak?


Pairs Well With...

RUMPLE MINZE.

Should you ever feel the urge to drink an Alp, here you go.

“She likes you.  I can see it.”

“You must give me the name of your oculist.”


Sometime during the four decades plus that have passed since the release of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s become a fad for revisionist hipsters (and some critics who emulate them, big names included) to look back and claim that not only is the movie “not bad,” but that it is indeed “great” or – in the case of a bizarre poll taken by “007 Magazine” – “the best.”

However, to all of the “real” people I have ever known (and to the vast global majority for the first few decades of the movie’s existence), it is generally agreed that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is in fact one of the worst films in the James Bond franchise, if not the worst.  (That’s where I’d have put it myself before the abomination known as Die Another Day came along.)  Despite being based on one of the best of Ian Fleming’s novels (and being reasonably faithful to its plot to boot), this movie manages to find new ways to be awful at nearly every turn.

How so, you ask?


George Lazenby as James Bond, 007.  Even to many of this film’s apologists, the selection of Australian model and Fry’s Chocolate pitchman George Lazenby to play James Bond ranks as one of the single worst casting decisions in the history of big budget motion pictures.  Never for a single moment is he convincing as any sort of spy, much less the world’s best; instead, he chooses to approach Bond as a foppish playboy who doesn’t really give a damn about anything else but getting on to the next party.  Much more than a trick of lightened-up writing, this is an acting decision that is a reflection of Lazenby’s own flippant and even disrespectful attitude toward the character, whom he openly considered to be obsolete in light of the rise of art house/character driven cinema.  (This despite the fact that he had lobbied heavily for the role after the first man chosen – Timothy Dalton – turned it down.  Yes; that Timothy Dalton.)  This attitude did him no favors on the set, and when Lazenby declared even before the release of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that he had no intention of playing the role again despite agreeing to a seven-picture deal, the world of Eon Productions – and much of the world as a whole – breathed a sigh of relief.

George Lazenby as James Bond, 007.  This mistake is so abominable that it needs to be mentioned twice.  There’s a reason that the film’s pre-release marketing did everything possible to de-emphasize the “fella” playing 007, to the point of putting out pre-release posters that didn’t even show his face.

Telly Savalas as Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Not only is our hero miscast, but so is his archnemesis.  Instead of channeling the evil European genius of Fleming’s imagination or even the sinister schemer portrayed by Donald Pleasance in the previous film (hold that thought), Savalas plays Blofeld like an obnoxious American gangster straight out of Vegas who is so cocky that there’s simply no room at all for a real character to show up.  (Honestly, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is “big swinging dick.”)  As a back alley tough or a pool shark, what Savalas brings to the table here would be perfect, but as the world’s most dangerous master criminal?  Eh. 

Continuity?  What’s that?  Eon Productions had gotten into the practice of filming Ian Fleming’s stories in no particular order, with the result being that the climax of his “Blofeld series” – You Only Live Twice – came out before the film based on the book in which Bond comes face-to-face with Blofeld for the first time, which is to say this one.  This fact is cheerfully ignored by everybody, so when Bond meets up with Blofeld in the Alps, the scene plays as though the two have never met face-to-face before.  For any fan of the franchise up to this point, the situation can only be described as absurd.  (Translating this to more modern terms: Imagine watching Return of the Jedi and having Luke Skywalker act like he’s never met Darth Vader before and vice versa.  Yeah; it’s like that.)

Books and Movies Are Different Things.  As noted before, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was one of Ian Fleming’s best novels, and the film’s screenplay goes to unusual lengths (for an Eon flick) to stay faithful to it.  And while it’s true that having such horribly miscast actors as Lazenby and Savalas blathering and blustering the dialogue isn’t doing the script any favors, the fact is that the multilayered plot and overall construction of this story make for much better reading than viewing.  There are really two tales at play here: the courtship of James Bond, and the pursuit of Blofeld, and there is very little mixture between the two for the majority of the movie.  Oddly, it’s the courtship of James Bond – which serves as our initial story – that turns out to be the more exciting adventure and, if taken separately, the better film overall.  Meanwhile, the pursuit of Blofeld – you know, the thing that pits the world’s greatest super spy against his dastardly nemesis – comes across as a slow, tedious yawn (with precious little screen time being given to the villain, I might add).  By the time the two pieces come together again, it’s all gotten to feel rather aimless and tiresome, with really only one thing to hold back a viewer’s urge to just say “to hell with it.”  (Hold that thought.)  It all worked wonderfully in the book, but on screen?  What a mess.

Dubbing.  Bad Dubbing.  Fans of the 007 films prior to the 1980s are used to regular and sometimes awful overdubbing, but this film is the worst by far on that score, thanks to the fact that it’s James Bond himself being overdubbed.  For scenes wherein Bond is impersonating someone else – in other words, for a large part of the movie – it was decided that George Lazenby didn’t disguise his voice enough, so he was simply overdubbed by the actor who played the man he was supposedly impersonating.  It’s obvious, it’s appalling to listen to, and it’s just plain disgraceful.

Jump Cuts Do Not Equal Fist Fights.  I am always perplexed when I read/hear people complimenting the George Lazenby’s action scenes in this movie.  While the chases are interesting – the racetrack chase and Bond’s first ever run on skis (using Olympic athletes for doubles), specifically – when it gets down to the close combat, a case could be made that no actual hand fighting ever takes place.  The previous Bond films had all made use of camera tricks during fights, of course; indeed, Peter Hunt’s editing of those scenes were a large reason he finally won the director’s chair for On her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Here, however, it’s not simply a matter of increasing the film speed.  Instead, someone will get ready to throw a punch, and then there’s a jump cut to the other guy hitting the floor, punctuated by a loud noise.  This is especially apparent on modern hi-def transfers.  A jump cut does not count as combat, people!


So with all of these things and so many more going wrong, why would anyone still want to watch On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?


The Courtship of James Bond.  Yeah, it’s the wrong guy playing Bond, but this is still one of Ian Fleming’s most intriguing stories, and of the two separate tales that make up On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s the one that’s better filmed.

Diana Rigg as Tracy.  Hands down, Diana Rigg is the single best Bond girl of the entire classic series.  Period.  (The only lady to challenge her at all is Eva Green from the modern reboot era’s Casino Royale.)  While the male leads in this film are abominably miscast, the selection of former “Avengers” star Rigg to play the role of the one woman who could make James Bond consider jewelry is absolutely perfect.  As an actress, she nails the part, and gives it even more life than Fleming allowed for the first time around.  And yes, since this is a Bond movie, one must point out that she’s also stunningly gorgeous, despite the often ill-cut costumes (which she herself complained about).  When the rest of the movie falls apart around her, it’s Diana Rigg who keeps it watchable.

John Barry’s Score, and Satchmo.  John Barry is the definitive master composer for the James Bond franchise, and his work on this film is some of his best.  When the idea of an opening theme with lyrics was rejected (no one could imagine the title being sung as anything but a Gilbert & Sullivan type number, and I think they’re right), Barry put his best riff on what’s become known as his “007” theme, and it works very well indeed.  His work is complimented by a secondary theme to accompany the courtship sequences: the very last song ever recording by the great Louis Armstrong, “We Have All the Time In the World.”  Beautiful.  Perfect.

The Hat Toss.  Again, the wrong man is playing Bond – indeed, Lazenby very nearly ruins things – but the last time he tosses his hat to Moneypenny is one of the classiest moments in the entire series.  If you can make it through the whole movie, you’ll understand.


With that said, I only expect you to make it through the movie once.  There’s more than enough important stuff going on here to call On Her Majesty’s Secret Service compulsory viewing for any Bond fan, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be much fun to watch again without at least a few years in between.

Bottom line, the George Lazenby experiment failed, and the almost-as-bad casting of Telly Savalas as Blofeld simply adds to the failure, with an end result that ranks as one of the two worst films in the entire 007 series.  But thanks to Diana Rigg and a secondary story that is much more compelling than what should be the main one, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is still worth one peek.  Just one, though.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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