Light Bondage: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

A long time ago, back when I didn’t know that much about Bond other than some of them were cool and some of them weren’t, a friend told me about George Lazenby’s single outing as James Bond after Connery decided to bow out. Obviously, I thought to myself, if he only did one he must not have been very good, because they only dump them when they get old or start to suck. I was a very naive child, glad to have the opportunity to correct my mistakes.

I imagine it must have been a difficult thing, to replace Bond the first time. Reboots are becoming a pretty regular thing these days, especially with comic book franchises, but reintroducing the still wildly popular Bond with a new lead must have been a nightmare. The movie tries its best, making an opening joke about ‘This never happened to the other guy’ and including props from past movies in the background, but the truth is this is not Connery’s Bond. How you feel about that depends, probably, on how willing you are to approach this as something that’s trying for something different, because boy is it ever.

Lazenby’s Bond is a rougher Bond. We meet him trying to rescue a woman who tries to kill herself, only to watch him get jumped by goons and have a fairly rough time fighting them off. Connery’s Bond was all smooth, invincible confidence until it was plot convenient to lose it, but Lazenby plays a man who knows all too well the risks of his profession. He is scared, he fights for his life, and the few quips he does make seem to be more coping mechanism than runaway ego.

This is one of only two Bonds that bothers to have a good, believable romance. The other one doesn't show up for decades.

The story itself bears this same harshening up, as Bond has spent two years now unsuccessfully hunting down Blofeld and SPECTRE. Just as he stumbles across a lead through his chance meeting with this suicidal woman (more on her during the Bond Girl section, to be sure!) he’s taken off the case by M, who frankly doesn’t think he has what it takes in an age that’s increasingly relying more on computers and data than action and wooing. It gets to the point where Bond nearly resigns from MI6 to continue his quest to track down his nemesis, spared only through the intervention of Moneypenny, giving him leave time to strike out on his own without the consent of his government.

Bond, now operating mostly through favors and flying blind, manages to track Blofeld to a remote mountain compound in the Swiss Alps, infiltrating it by posing as a government operator to get the cooperation of the British College of Arms to go undercover as a geneologist summoned by Blofeld who is trying to stake a claim of nobility. The compound is at the top of the mountain, locked down by Blofeld’s private army, being used for some unknown research under the claim that it’s a state of the art allergen research laboratory.

Here Bond meets Blofeld again, also played by a new actor (Telly Savalas) who doesn’t recognize Bond mostly through narrative necessity. This Blofeld is much different than Donald Pleasence’s madman portrayal in You Only Live Twice. This Blofeld looks powerful, easily Bond’s physical match, but with the quiet, assured charm that the character hadn’t seen before. He is positioned strongly as the opposite number of Bond, and I was reminded much more of Lex Luthor (the good one, from the animated Superman and Justice League) than I was Dr. Evil.

Blofeld is never as cool as he is in this movie.

Bond learns of Blofeld’s elaborate plan to cause a worldwide epidemic and Blofeld learns that he’s currently housing his nemesis and the two come to a predictable action climax. But what a climax it is. Bond, held prisoner, carefully manages an escape by crawling along the wires of a cable car until he can get skiis to head down the mountain. Spotted at dawn, he’s pursued by Blofeld himself and his private army, a lengthy day-long chase down the mountain, through a Swiss town bustling with Christmas celebration, through a lengthy icy car chase, and finally Bond and Blofeld square off man to man while hurtling down the mountain in bobsleds.

It’s vast and ambitious, filled with great stunt work and what could only be endless amounts of location shooting, taking up much of the last 40 minutes of the movie with a series of escalations that drive the film up in not only a thrilling way, but a believable one. There isn’t much cartoon here, the action happily settling for being plausible. And after a movie that had spent much of its run time being a slow build, it feels explosive. It is incredibly smart plotting. A piece of tangential trivia, the entire sequence was cited as Christopher Nolan’s inspiration for the final action set piece of Inception, which still doesn’t manage to quite hit the same highs despite all its advances in technology and budget.

And yet, despite all of this, it isn’t the action scenes that make the film but the story being told, one that holds within it much bigger shades of gray and nuance than any of the Bond films previously have had and probably won’t have until we reach the Daniel Craig era. Most of them revolve around Bond’s relationship with the Tracy, AKA the best female role in all of classic Bond, so I’m moving them to the Bond Girl section where they make the most sense.

Just know that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is unlike any of the Bond films before and maybe since. It is the rare movie that doesn’t quite rely on Bond being Bond to sell itself, an attempt to add something more to what has been a pretty straight-forward archetype of a hero. It’s maybe not for everyone, and lord knows that it’s a big long movie (nearly two and a half hours) that luxuriates in paying off a number of slowly-developed plot threads. But for those of you who can take it, it is my new favorite Bond movie. The bar has been set.

The potential for a happy ending. One of the best scenes with the home base group in the series.

The Theme Song/Opening Title:
There really isn’t a theme song of such for this movie. Opting for an instrumental score more reminiscent of the first two movies, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has what might be the best score in the series, with an amazing electronic-heavy, brassy theme that doubles in the film as a secondary action theme. In a film willed with good things, it is maybe the best part. It’s so great.

The opening titles themselves aren’t much of a slouch either, continuing with the more elaborate constructions seen in You Only Live Twice. The one downside is, in a continuing effort to enforce continuity with a new actor, they loaded it with clips from the first few movies. It makes it feel less unique, which is a damn shame when everything else is so great.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
This is actually a very gadget light film. I can’t think of anything I looked at and went ‘that’s the one, for sure!’ Bond has a ridiculous safe-cracking machine/scanner, but honestly it’s plot convenient and not wildly ridiculous. It also given any of the intro/fanfare that most of the really dumb gadgets are. Nope, this movie’s happy to rely on its story.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
I don’t know how many chances I’ll get to do this, so listen up: not only is there a great Bond Girl in this movie, there is a female role that absolutely elevates the film into something special. Nearly as early as we’re introduced to Bond we’re introduced to Countess Teresa di Vicenzo, known as “Tracy” and played by Diana Rigg.

We meet her in a moment of despair. She’s run into a bad crowd, owes people some money, and fears for her life. Bond bails her out with his usual charm but she is more upset about owing him and being pitied than she was the danger she was in and quickly leaves him right when Bond thinks he has her pegged.

By chance, her father is the head of a criminal organization who has the only information Bond can dig up about where Blofeld might be. Her father, more concerned about the wellfare of his daughter, decides to set Bond and her up as his price for Blofeld’s location. Bond agrees, but when Tracy browbeats her father into giving Bond the information for free in order to not feel like a charity case, Bond decides to stick around.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is in many ways a movie about equals to Bond, and Tracy is almost the anti-Bond Girl. She’s strong, but her strength comes from the same place of self-respect and quiet resolution that this particular Bond’s seems to. She wants to thrive on her own terms, and nothing else will do. And as much of the first half of the movie is devoted to their developing relationship, the two of them together manage to pull each other out of their respective states of hopelessness. By the time Bond is forced to go after Blofeld, you get the sense that he’d rather not do so anymore.

As Bond is fleeing in terror, pursued into the Swiss village by Blofeld’s troops, he has what is maybe the darkest moment in the series. He knows he’s lost, sitting trying to look inconspicuous near an ice-skating rink, watching the rows of skaters drift past him, waiting for the boots and guns he knows are coming. He’s surrounded, there’s nothing left to do but wait for the hammer to fall. Which is when Tracy is reintroduced after nearly an hour without her, sliding into Bond’s view of everyone’s legs and stopping. She saves him, in every way possible, and as the two of them flee Bond asks her in a quiet moment if she’ll marry him.

The film ends with everyone supposedly defeated and fled and Bond finally marrying the woman he both deserves and the film makes us so want to root for. It’s a touching moment, with every recurring character getting a beat, and feels in many ways like an ending to the entire series. But as the two of them are driving away to their honeymoon, Bond stops the car to give her a wedding present he supposedly was saving until they were alone, and in that moment Blofeld drives by and sprays the car with machine gun fire.

The film ends with a cop driving up to check on them, and Bond sitting in the car holding onto Tracy, who has been shot in the head. There’s a single bullethole in the windshield hiding the wound, but you can see the blood running down her face as Bond takes her in his arms and cradles her, telling the policeman “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.”

The End

And that’s the ending of the movie, as the camera focuses on the bullethole and the credits play over this scene of hopes completely dashed. It’s amazing, and quite out of character for the series. It’s a move that seems more in keeping with the approaching sensibilities of the nihilistic, challenging cinema of the 70s than the excesses of Bond in the 60s (which it goes back to, spoilers I guess). For this one brief moment, it went out on a limb to do something ballsy. I can’t imagine it went over well with the general public, but it seems in keeping with this strange, beautiful black sheep of a film.

I can’t imagine the otherwise marginalized role of Bond’s love interest ever getting better than it is here.

Best Bondickery:
I actually thought we’d escape this movie without any Bondickery, but towards the end of the movie there is one of the most gruesome kills to date for the series, when Bond and Tracy are escaping on skiis and jump over a giant road-scraper/grinder machine. One of the henchmen doesn’t make the jump and lands in the spinning blades, the giant spray of snow turning bright red as he’s immediately minced. Bond, pausing for a moment as Tracy cringes in horror, manages a deadpan “He had a lot of guts” before skiing off. Yes, Bond, he did. I’m amazed none of them are on you because they sure are everywhere else.

JAMES BOND will return in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER


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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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