Film Review: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Release Date: December 18th, 1969 (London premiere)
Directed by: Peter R. Hunt
Written by: Richard Maibaum
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: John Barry
Cast: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Ilse Steppat, Gabriele Ferzetti, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn

Eon Productions, United Artists, 140 Minutes

Review:

“Merry Christmas, 007.” – Ernst Stavro Blofeld

Is it weird that my favorite James Bond film of all-time stars my least favorite James Bond actor? Granted, he only did this one picture so there isn’t much to judge George Lazenby on but this was the finest picture in the franchise. But the reasons for that are many and Lazenby’s version of Bond was just sort of there for the ride.

To put it bluntly, this is the perfect James Bond movie. Now it isn’t a perfect film but it is as close as a 007 adventure has gotten. It has everything you want in a Bond film or at least, everything I want. It is less gadgety than other films in the franchise but I quite enjoyed that about this one. It was also the most serious film of its era. The stuff before it was getting a bit hokey and after it was Diamonds Are Forever, which is cheesy, albeit not in a bad way. Following that, we got the Roger Moore era, which was awesome but was also the most lighthearted and goofy string of films in the long franchise’s history. We actually wouldn’t get another serious feeling Bond film until twenty years later with the Timothy Dalton flick Licence to Kill, another one of my all-time favorites.

The thing that makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service so unique is the fact that it does have some hokey moments but the serious tone of the picture balances things out. It is a best of both worlds scenario in regards to marrying the serious Bond and the lighthearted Bond.

Lazenby did a good job with the material but I think Sean Connery would have brought this script to a whole different level with added gravitas. I also feel that Lazenby was often times carried in scenes by the veteran Telly Savalas and Ilse Steppat. Also, Diana Rigg was the one that shined in her scenes together with Lazenby. Although, Lazenby could have probably been a fine Bond had he stuck around. Timothy Dalton didn’t nail the role in his first film but he became a really good Bond in his second.

Telly Savalas was the real star of the film though and for good reason. He took the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a guy who we had already seen in a half dozen different incarnations up to this point, and made him an exceptional villain.

While I love the work that Donald Pleasence did in the previous film, You Only Live Twice, it was this Blofeld that became the real foil in Bond’s life. Savalas played the roll more seriously and wasn’t just a villainous caricature. Also, he is the first villain to severely hurt 007, adding a level of hatred towards the character that had never been there previously. Unfortunately, he and Lazenby never returned and we never got to see justice served in a satisfying manner following this film’s ending.

The Bond Girls have always been an important part of this franchise and this film features the most ladies, by far. Granted, James Bond still only sleeps with two of them but he had a huge group of women to explore in this chapter in the series. Also, he does end up in bed with the evil Irma Bunt but it’s a trap.

The Swiss location was another element of this film that made it great. While Bond seems to do less traveling in this picture and spends the majority of his time in the Swiss Alps, it actually keeps the picture really grounded. The geography is amazing and the tone of the film is enhanced by the cold surroundings. I feel that revisiting this area in Daniel Craig’s most recent Bond outing, Spectre, was an homage to this picture and tried to tap into the magic it bestowed on the franchise.

The icy stock car race is also one of the best action sequences in the entire Bond franchise. It was well shot, the action well handled and it made a Bond Girl come off as bad ass and not just some damsel in distress like most of them are. There is a reason why Bond wants to marry this particular girl and it is because she saves his ass and can hold her own alongside him.

The fight choreography was a bit different in this chapter. In fact, it was heavily edited with quick cuts and fast movement. It made these scenes feel more gritty and realistic. I liked the director’s approach to these moments but the series would revert back to a more traditional style of shooting these sequences, after this picture.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the finest film in the James Bond oeuvre. While many will probably disagree with me, I think it is because a lot of people just aren’t as interested in a film with a James Bond actor that isn’t as established as Sean Connery or Roger Moore. It is a weird film wedged between two Connery chapters and then the Moore era starts just after that. I think that a lot of fans just sort of forget about this movie. It certainly doesn’t get the play on cable television whenever networks do their big week long Bond marathons. At least when compared to the amount of play of those Connery and Moore films get.

This is an odd installment for the film series that kind of exists on its own and unfortunately, never got a proper followup. It was the one film that needed a proper followup, though. Get to that ending and you’ll see why. I’m still kind of pissed at Telly Savalas and Ilse Steppat.

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