Musings on Bond at 50: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Posted: 27 August 2012 in entertainment, film
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On Her Majesty's Secret ServiceLong deprived of just praise and plaudits the sixth James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is an overlooked classic entry in the series. 

The decades long dismissive attitude of Eon Productions and the general public towards George Lazenby and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is best summarised by the virtual absence of the actor and film from the trailer for the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray box set. The trailer lasts for 1’ 52” and Lazenby is featured for roughly 1 second! Right at the beginning as part of the gun barrel compilation.

Together with From Russia With Love, Lazenby’s single outing as 007 is the most faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming’s writings to have made the transition to the big screen and would mark the final time the true character of James Bond would be seen until the arrival of Timothy Dalton nearly 20 years later.

This never happened to the other fella.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Bond 3Despite numerous overtures from EON Productions and United Artists, including the offer of a $1 million fee, Sean Connery remained adamant about his resignation from the role as James Bond following the completion of You Only Live Twice. Following the breakdown of negotiations with Connery producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman found themselves faced with the seemingly impossible task of casting a new 007 for the sixth film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The resulting short list of potentials included a mix of plausible and wildly implausible names, including Hans De Vries, Robert Campbell, John Richardson, Adam West (of Batman fame), Anthony Rogers and Roy Thinnes.

Two actors who would later assume the mantle of the third and fourth 007s respectively were also on the list: Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton. Aged just 22 Dalton turned down the offer of an audition as he considered himself too young and too inexperienced for the role at that time. Moore was committed to the hugely successful television series The Saint and therefore unavailable. Mused upon but never formally approached was Oliver Reed, whose non-casting was subsequently classed as “one of the great missed opportunities of post-war British movie history”.

In October 1968 the new James Bond was announced as Australian actor and model George Lazenby. Best known for his appearance in a Fry’s Chocolate Cream advertisement, Lazenby had encountered Broccoli at a barbers where both men were having their hair cut. Broccoli spied potential in Lazenby and offered him an audition – during the course of which Lazenby accidentally broke the nose of former wrestler Yuri Borienko. United Artists were not entirely sold on the choice of Lazenby but acquiesced to the decision of the producers and director who were impressed with Lazenby’s presence and physical strength.

In a few hours, the United Nations will receive our yuletide greetings – the information that I now possess the scientific means to control, or to destroy, the economy of the whole word.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - BlofeldAssigned to the director’s chair for Lazenby’s debut as 007 was long-time Bond series player Peter Hunt who had worked on earlier Bonds as editor and been the originator of the fast cutting style for which the series had become acclaimed. His duties as second unit director on You Only Live Twice had earned him the promise of being at the helm of the next film. Hunt took the opportunity presented by the arrival of a new leading man to instigate a swath of changes. Gone was the over-reliance on gadgets and grandiose sets that had crept in since Goldfinger. Ken Adam’s increasingly lavish sets were forsaken in favour of a From Russia With Love-style realism with Syd Cain returning as production designer after his work on the Connery classic.

After being absent for You Only Live Twice scriptwriter Richard Maibum, who had worked on the first four films in the series, returned and delivered a faithful and highly-regarded adaptation of Fleming’s novel. Maibum’s script even ups the ante of the novel’s finale by making Tracy a captive of Blofeld and therefore the final assault not only a desperate mission to defeat the villain but a quest by to rescue his future wife, the Countess Teresa di Vicenzo as played by Diana Rigg.

Acclaimed for her role as Emma Peel in The Avengers, Rigg was cast to offset the concerns about Lazenby’s inexperience. Rigg accepted the role as not only was it very different to the usual Bond girls in that she was central to the plot and not just a piece of fluff for 007 to save and seduce. she also viewed the film as an opportunity to raise her profile with American audiences. From her confrontations with him at the casino, their battles with SPECTRE and her teasing of him in association with Q at the wedding, Tracy was the perfect foil for Bond and gives Tania Romanova from From Russia With Love a run for her money for the title of the best Bond Girl of them all. No other decade produced such strong female characters.

In place of Donald Pleasence American actor Telly Savalas assumed the role of SPECTRE chief Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Distant from the literary character Savalas is undoubtedly the most successful of the Blofelds used by EON. He is genuinely villainous, yet charming when called upon to be so. Even the usual villain-tells-Bond-his-entire-scheme scene works thanks to the performances of Savalas and Lazenby. An obvious continuity error occurs with the failure of Blofeld to recognise Bond from their previous encounter in You Only Live Twice – a result of the out of sequence film adaptations compared to their literary counterparts. Bond and Blofeld battle each other without meeting in Thunderball, confront each other face-to-face for the first time in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and their second and final meeting in You Only Live Twice.

EON never allowed themselves to be too bothered by film-to-film continuity in the 60s, 70s and 80s as ever-changing Blofelds and Felix Leiters demonstrated. In the case of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service the continuity card was played strongly in many areas in order to reassure the audience that this was the same 007 as had first appeared in 1962. Clips from all five previous films appeared during the opening credits, the AR7 rifle from From Russia With Love is housed in the glove compartment of the Aston Martin DBS, and props from Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball make fleeting appearances when Bond clears his desk. In the midst of all the seriousness director Peter Hunt allowed himself one tongue-in-cheek moment, a shared joke with the audience over the change of actor – and the only time in the series that the “fourth wall” has been broken. Just before the opening credits roll, after Tracy flees away from him, Lazenby’s Bond turns to the camera and remarks ruefully, “This never happened to the other fella”. A sly reference to the fact that Connery’s Bond always got the girl.

Regulars Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn and Lois Maxwell clicked well with the new 007, with Lee in particular getting his best scenes since Goldfinger. With the excising of gadgetry from the proceedings Q does not contribute much but he does have a touching scene with Bond at the wedding and shows hitherto hidden friendship, calling 007 “James” for the one and only time. Maxwell beautifully conveyed the joy and loss of Moneypenny at attending Bond’s wedding. Amazingly the wedding in Portugal was the only occasion on which Lee, Llewelyn and Maxwell all appeared in the same scene together. M discussing a bullion heist with Bond’s new father-in-law Mac-Ange Draco (portrayed by Gabriele Ferzetti) is akin to two directors discussing business rather than the head of a government intelligence unit consorting with the head of a major crime syndicate. Scenes such as this and Bond’s visit to M’s home Quaterdeck, including the use of an old ship’s bell as a door bell, all contributed to the construction of a rich realistic universe for Lazenby’s 007 to operate within. Like his mentor Terence Young before him, Peter Hunt constructed a world where the characters are real people with personalities and lives that existed before the events of each film.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Piz GloriaBlofeld’s mountain lair of Piz Gloria was provided by a restaurant perched atop the Schilthorn Mountain in the Bernese Oberlands in Switzerland – almost 10,000 feet above sea level. A perfect representation of the location detailed in Fleming’s novel and accessible only by cable car, EON secured filming permission by agreeing to pay $125,000 to refit the interior of the partially constructed building and construct a helicopter pad. When the restaurant opened following completion of the film the owners retained the name Piz Gloria and so it remains to this day. The stunning location is the best villain’s lair of any Bond film to date as the backdrop is one of astonishing natural beauty and not dependent upon elaborate special effects or set constructions. Hunt captures the beauty of the location perfectly in vistas of sweeping splendour during Bond’s helicopter flight to Piz Gloria.

One of the new hands involved with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was cameraman Willy Bogner Jr, a former Olympic downhill racer. Bogner’s role was to coordinate and filmed Bond’s escape from Piz Gloria and in the process he created the best ski chase of any Bond film, possibly all films. Though Bogner would return to direct snow sequences for The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only and A View To A Kill his masterpiece remains Bond’s flight from Blofeld’s lair. Bogner achieved his remarkable footage, including 007 fleeing on a single ski, by travelling backwards on special skis whilst filming.

The film was 56 days over schedule when completed and more problems lay ahead for the director when the first cut of the film came in at an epic 170 minutes, a vastly unacceptable length for Broccoli, Saltzman and United Artists. Eventually Peter Hunt and editor John Glen achieved a 140 minute version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but the producers remained uncertain at distributing a film over 2 hours in length. In the end the decision was left to the manager of the Leicester Square Odeon cinema in London. After viewing the film the manager told Broccoli and Saltzman that the film was perfect and should not be cut further.

To accompany Hunt’s vision composer John Barry delivered what has been cited as the best score of any James Bond film and used more electrical instruments than ever before and produced an aggressive sound for Lanzenby’s 007 unlike anything heard before or since. The theme tune is one of the very few to forgo lyrics (due to the near-impossible nature of including the film’s title) and served as an alternate action track throughout proceedings. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the film’s secondary theme We Have All the Time World, which takes its title from Bond’s final words in both the film and book. It was the final song recorded by Louis Armstrong and although very ill at the time he recorded it in one take. John Barry considered We Have All the Time World to be the finest piece of music he wrote for any Bond film.

It’s all right. It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Commander and Mrs James BondCinema goers in 1969 were stunned by the conclusion of the new James Bond film. After five films of casual liaisons with various ladies not only did On Her Majesty’s Secret Service conclude with Bond driving off into the sunset with his wife but he was a widower within hours of the ceremony! Upon reflection it is astonishing that Peter Hunt convinced the producers to retain the novel’s tragic finale. But without it the unique love story of Commander and Mrs James Bond could not have driven the film in the way that it did. Until they met both Bond and Tracy had differing styles of death wish but in each other they found the reason for continued existence. Their love story unfolds in a natural and believable manner and Bond’s sense of lose upon discovering his future has been snatched away from him in the blink of an eye is heartbreaking to watch. Allegedly Lazenby was kept awake all night by the director and then kept hanging around on set all day before filming the “we have all the time in the world” scene in order to motivate him with frustration and tiredness. On the first take Lazenby actually burst into tears, but Peter Hunt decided to use the more restrained second take as his view was “Bond does not cry” whatever the circumstances. Whatever the varying views on Lazenby’s performance it cannot be argued that he imbued Bond with the most human and tragic moment the character ever experienced. Up until the reboot of the series in 2006, each subsequent Bond would be touched and saddened by a reference to his tragic status as a widower.

Sir, I have the honor to request that you will accept my resignation effective forthwith.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Bond 1The original intention was to close On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with the Bonds’ Aston Martin driving off into the distance following the wedding. A seemingly happy ending. The pre-credit sequence of Lazenby’s second 007 film Diamonds Are Forever (at one stage Moonraker was mooted) would have featured the tragic death of Mrs James Bond, with the rest of the film presumably a Licence To Kill-style revenge outing. However the plans were derailed by Lazenby. Prior to filming the actor was offered a seven film contract by United Artists and as production neared conclusion he found himself under increasing pressure to sign on the dotted line. Filming had been extremely stressful for Lazenby with all the attention of the world press upon him and the shadow of Sean Connery looming large upon him. His inexperience had led to much friction on the set with Diana Rigg and Peter Hunt. Although Rigg has acknowledged that Lazenby was difficult off-camera and “the architect of his own destruction” she has also stated that he handled the acting requirements of the material exceptionally well for a neophyte.

Following discussions with Ronan O’Reilly, a some time film producer and head of Radio Caroline, Lazenby concluded that not only was Bond “Connery’s gig” the character would be an anachronism in the more liberated 1970s. Even additional financial inducements from Broccoli and Saltzman failed sway him and Lazenby stunned everyone with the announcement that his first James Bond film would also be his last. In recent years Lazenby has conceded that he listened to poor advice and should have made at least one more film, if not more.

The general consensus amongst fans is that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been the best film in the series had Sean Connery played 007. It has been argued that his larger-than-life Bond would have been ill at ease with the romantic aspects but such arguments are without foundation for those who glimpsed the softer side of that 007 in From Russia With Love. Harkening after Connery should not eclipse the sterling work that George Lazenby and Peter Hunt achieved despite all the odds.

The 1960s saw the zenith of the James Bond films. With its rich evocation of location and character On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is arguably the last great James Bond film. All the best Fleming material was utilised in that first decade and subsequently the filmmakers were left with the lesser novels and short stories for inspiration. Whenever a creative impasse is upon them Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli acknowledge that they invariably turn to Fleming’s original works for inspiration. The fact that 2006’s Casino Royale was the best film since the 1960s can hardly be a coincidence given its adherence to the novel. On numerous occasions since 1970 critics have sought to label On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as a financial failure for EON Productions and United Artists. Granted it did not make as much money as You Only Live Twice, most critically in the all-important North American market, but any film that returns $82 million on a $7 million budget can not be classed as a flop.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service marks the point where the series could have gone in a vastly different creative direction. In a parallel universe somewhere there exists a cycle of Lazenby/Hunt Bond films with a darker tone and stricter adherence to Ian Fleming than the fluffy, humour-infected, crash-bang-wallop opuses that eventually emerged in the 1970s. Oh to be in that universe instead of the one containing the creative lows of the next three films in the series: Diamonds Are Forever, Live And Let Die, and The Man with the Golden Gun

1 From Russia With Love
2 Goldfinger
3 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
4 Thunderball
5 Dr. No
6 You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - death of Tracy

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