On Her Majesty's Secret Service could have changed the Bond franchise forever
Oh what could have been. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is outlier of the Bond franchise, but if it had been given more credit then we would have a very different 007 now.
With James Bond’s long history of replacing, recasting, and evolving to suit the times, it’s easy to forget the franchise’s first-ever reboot – mainly, because it was shortly after un-rebooted.
The more sophisticated Bond nerds among you, however, will remember that it was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS), the film that famously reduced Sean Connery to “the other fella” and found a new lead in Australian model George Lazenby.
Very much the ugly duckling of the Bond franchise, OHMSS has gone from pariah to tolerated to under-appreciated classic, to the extent that the most recent film (No Time to Die) paid tribute to it in a big way – but I’ll come back to that.
Released in 1969, OHMSS follows a new, younger Bond as he discovers Ernst Blofeld’s plans to hypnotise women in the Swiss alps and have them distribute dangerous bacteria across the world.
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Out of all the early Bond movies, this one sticks closest to Ian Fleming’s original novel and even includes the tragic storyline of Bond and Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (played by Dame Diana Rigg). Moving away from the traditional Bond-girl formula, 007 and Tracy fall in love throughout the movie and wind up getting married, but just as they head out on their honeymoon, the pair are caught in a drive-by shooting and Tracy is killed – quickly ending the superspy’s first and only real relationship with the heart-breaking line “we have all the time in the world”.
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This ending is definitely part of what makes this film so different, but more so is the fact that Bond falls in love in the first place. During the film, Lazenby brings forward a much softer and wide-eyed Bond, closer to his book counterpart. Where Connery was the stereotypical cocky spy who couldn’t be tied down, this version has emotion and moments of vulnerability throughout.
In one scene, Bond flees from the villains, and actually cowers until he’s brought back to himself and saved by Tracy. In another, he tells his soon-to-be-bride he’d rather quit being an agent than go back to “only caring about himself”.
When reflecting on the film, Lazenby said: “Being in the '60s, it was love, not war. You know, hippy time. And I bought into that.” He also added in another interview: “It’s a good story – it’s got a lot of things in it that people can relate to in life, like marriage and love, which Bond doesn’t usually have, generally speaking.”
Don’t get me wrong, he still sleeps with a dozen women in the film. Plus, even in the scene where Tracy dies, director Peter Hunt said: “Cut – James Bond doesn’t cry. Get rid of the tears.” But there’s something so much rawer about this version that we never got to see before.
Unfortunately, that didn’t go down too well. Some reviews, like the LA Times were accepting, saying: “It is also the first of the films in which Bond is allowed any genuine claims to humanity, real feeling and sentiment [...] Humanity was the only course left for the Bond series, since the reliance on mechanical gadgetry had about run its course.”
While others wrote: "I ... fervently trust (OHMSS) will be the last of the James Bond films. All the pleasing oddities and eccentricities and gadgets of the earlier films have somehow been lost, leaving a routine trail through which the new James Bond strides without noticeable signs of animation."
And: "Devotees will note that Sean Connery, the virile, suave conqueror of all those dastards and dames in the five previous capers, has given up his 007 Bond credentials to George Lazenby [who is] merely a casual, pleasant, satisfactory replacement.”
Plenty of critics also picked up on Lazenby’s acting, which he admitted himself could have been better. The New York Post wrote: “[His] acting is noncommittal to the point of being minus.”
The movie made $82 million at the box office but was still considered a big failure as it seems that the 1960s weren’t ready for Bond, James Bond, to show his inner self. As such, when George Lazenby left the series and Connery returned for Diamonds Are Forever, everything was as it once was.
In reality, I think they even made Bond worse after this. Roger Moore’s slightly more comedic version doubled down on the jokes but left out any hint of Bond being human. When he wasn’t cocking his eyebrow, he was, well...
Timothy Dalton might also have saved things with his gritty attitude and revenge-rage in Licence to Kill, but once again, the world wasn’t ready for a three-dimensional Bond and he was axed by the '90s.
But, finally in Daniel Craig’s era, OHMSS gets the justice it deserves. Not only is Craig a real, sensitive Bond who carries the death of his love Vesper with him throughout the five-movie series, but his last film makes several direct references to the 1969 film.
In No Time to Die, the music of OHMSS (by Louis Armstrong) is played over the scene where Craig’s Bond and Madeleine drive over the clifftops of Italy. The title sequence then features a ton of imagery from the 1969 movie, including tridents, hourglasses, and clock faces. As the film goes on and Bond finally considers settling down, the tragedy of OHMSS is a constant presence, until Bond’s final scene, where he tells Madeleine “you have all the time in the world”.
For me, that last line was the franchise asking OHMSS for forgiveness, and praising the late great Diana Rigg for her work in that film. It acknowledged that Bond should have been a rounded figure from the start and that emotion has a place in the life of an international man of mystery. It said, ‘why didn’t we do this sooner?’
To be clear, I know OHMSS isn’t perfect, just as I know that George Lazenby was not the man to lead Bond into a new era. But what I also know is that, had the film been given a bit more credit, it wouldn’t have taken another 37 years to give Bond the sort of emotional depth we see from the character.
In fact, Bond could have spent years as a layered and relatable hero, rather than a pun-toting womaniser; storylines like Vesper’s in Casino Royale, would feel less like a shock to the franchise and perhaps we could have seen how each and every Bond girl had an impact on his life.
But at least I can safely say that we’ve got there now. Plus, it doesn’t seem like Bond’s going anywhere, so, when it comes to developing a softer, more emotional 007 – my dear, we have all the time in the world.
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