A repost, with some revisions and additions throughout, to accompany my review of NO TIME TO DIE, which is coming tomorrow. I wrote this more than ten years ago, and if anything, my esteem for ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE has only increased since then. I rewatched the film on one leg of our recent journey from Buffalo to Honolulu, and the film still holds up.
Here we go. Additions to the post’s original text will be in blockquoted offsets. Far up! Far out! Far more!!!
Sometimes I change my mind about movies. Sometimes I don’t. Some movies meant a lot to me, years ago, but have dropped away to the point that I’ve forgotten about them. Other movies, though, have stayed with me forever. One of those is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the sixth James Bond film, which I have regarded since I was a teenager as the best Bond film ever made. In fact, I consider it one of my favorite films of all time, in any genre.
OK, a story here: I cut my teeth as a Bond fan in the era when the films’ teevee rights were owned by the ABC network, in the early 80s. This was before home video was much of a thing–we didn’t even own a VCR until 1985, I think–so the only way to catch up on the Bond films was to catch them on ABC, which would run one every few months. Now, at the time I was aware that Sean Connery had played Bond in the first five or six films, while Roger Moore had taken over the role (and was still active at the time). However, when perusing Bond soundtracks at a record store in a mall one day, I found the soundtrack album for a flick called ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, with “George Lazenby” as Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007. What was this? A parody? A one-off by some other studio? No, it said “Albert R. Broccoli presents” and “EON Productions” and the like, so it had to be official. I asked my mother, who knew about Bond and was guiding me through the movies as they came up, and she wrinkled her nose and said something like, “Oh, that one. There was a guy who did one Bond movie but apparently he was really bad and the movie bombed so they fired him.” Now, that’s not entirely accurate, but it sums it up, for the most part.
But within a year or two, ABC televised OHMSS, and we watched it. I wasn’t terribly excited, because I expected it to suck, but I remember getting into it more than I expected…and then, during a commercial break around the halfway mark, my mother observed, “You know, he’s really not bad as James Bond!”
When we got our VCR a few years later, I’d start recording the Bond movies when they aired, which is how I watched them obsessively for years. That’s how my appreciation for OHMSS started, and how it deepened. By the time I went to college in 1989, I already considered OHMSS the best Bond film.
Released in 1969, OHMSS came out when the Bond-mania of the 1960s was starting to wane. Films like Goldfinger and Thunderball had been enormous hits, but now, Sean Connery had left the role of Bond and a complete unknown named George Lazenby was cast as his replacement. All this is well known, and over the years, Lazenby’s performance in OHMSS has been reliably controversial. To this day, there are Bond fans who loathe his performance, and to this day, there are fans who not only think he did a fine job, but that he really doesn’t stand in Sean Connery’s shadow at all. (I am in the latter camp.)
Narratively speaking, OHMSS is one of the strongest films in the series. Its script, by Richard Maibaum, is outstanding, with lots of wit and fine dialogue that rarely seems as far-fetched as Bond dialogue can sometimes get. The story, though, does present problems for people who are interested in continuity.
The problem comes from the fact that Eon Productions (the producers of the Bond series) did not adapt the Ian Fleming novels to the screen in the order that they were written. The first Bond film is Dr. No; the first novel is Casino Royale. The Bond films of the 1960s, excepting Goldfinger, all feature Bond squaring off against the minions of SPECTRE, culminating in You Only Live Twice when he finally meets Ernst Stavro Blofeld face to face. However, in the novels, it’s in OHMSS that Bond meets Blofeld. The problem then is why Bond and Blofeld don’t recognize each other in the OHMSS film when they come face to face. There are lots of possible fictional explanations for this, and the original idea was to have Bond undergoing plastic surgery to explain his new resemblance to George Lazenby. The producers chose not to do this…and yet, in the next film, Diamonds are Forever, they would use the plastic surgery idea to explain why Blofeld in that film now looks like Charles Gray. (Without, of course, explaining why it is that Bond now no longer looks like George Lazenby but like Sean Connery again.)
(Having read recently a book about the history of the Bond movies, it turns out that Eon was going to make these movies in their correct order, with OHMSS coming before YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, but it turned out that there was insufficient snow in the Alps when they would have been shooting OHMSS, so they did YOLT first.)
In watching OHMSS recently, I came to realize that the Bond films that are the best tend to be the ones that most deviate from the standard Bond “formula”. That certainly holds true with OHMSS. The film starts with Bond, already on assignment in Portugal. But, as M notes in the film’s very first scene, no one with MI6 has any idea where Bond is, and his current assignment is becoming politically problematic: “Number 10 is making ugly noises about Operation Bedlam.” Operation Bedlam, we later learn, is the search for Blofeld, who is presumably on the run following his failed scheme in You Only Live Twice. So already Bond is on thin ice with his superiors; he is failing at an assignment; he’s been on a single assignment for two years.
That last is important, because time is a recurring motif all through the film. Bond’s relationship with time is a constant underlying theme, made explicit in Maurice Binder’s typically-brilliant opening titles sequence. Clocks and hourglasses figure prominently in the title sequence. Now, timers and clocks are a constant trope of spy fiction and thriller films, what with heroes defusing bombs or whatnot as the digital timer ticks off the last few seconds before disaster is to strike. But there is something different about time in OHMSS: even as Bond is up against the same kinds of time constraints that he’s always faced before, we get a real sense that he’s weary of the whole thing and desires a different kind of relationship with time.
So Bond is in Portugal, driving along, when a woman in a red car passes him on a lonely seaside road. Bond, of course, gives chase, and comes to a beach where the woman parks her car and goes down to the water, where she starts to wade out. Bond spies her through the telescopic sight of his rifle, and it’s thus that we get our first close-up of Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, better known as Tracy.
Anyhow, Bond dispatches the goons, but the girl has already fled, jumping back in her car and driving away. Bond is left alone on the beach, holding her shoe, whereupon he breaks the fourth wall to tell us, “This never happened to the other fellow.” Cut to opening title sequence.
There appear to be two schools of thought as regards the breaking of the fourth wall here with the “This never happened to the other fellow” line. It doesn’t bother me. I like strategic breakings of the fourth wall, on occasion. This one seems to me a signal: “Yeah, it’s a new guy. Get over it.”
When we return, Bond is still in Portugal, and checks into a hotel, where he notices a red Cougar parked outside that he is informed belongs to a lady. He takes his room, and looks down on the pool, whereupon there’s a wonderful transition shot from day to night as this shot…
By the way, that jazz flute piece I mention there? On the score album this track is called “Try”, and it’s a very subtle and cool bit of subdued jazz. I really like its general feel, with brushes on the drums and the melody carried by vibraphone before the solo flute plays. There’s a world-weariness to the track that works well to set Bond’s mood.
Over the next twenty minutes or so, the film’s story continues to unfold slowly, and in a way that seemingly has absolutely nothing to do with spy intrigue. Bond goes to the casino to play baccarat (the traditional card game of the Bond films, until Casino Royale replaced it with poker). An elegantly-dressed woman enters the game, places a huge bet, and promptly loses – but she has no money. Bond recognizes her: she is the woman whom he saved on the beach the night before. Detecting her streak of self-destructive behavior, Bond bails her out for twenty thousand francs and then has a brief conversation with her over champagne, where she is quite blunt about how she is to repay her debt to him: she gives him her room number and says, “I hope it’ll be worth it.” She is cool and businesslike; when Bond calls her “Contessa Teresa”, she replies, “Teresa was a saint. I’m known as Tracy.”
OK, two notes here. First, about Lazenby himself: Since the precredit sequence is primarily mood and action, this is where we first get a sense of Lazenby ACTING as Bond, and aside from a few weird line readings–more on that in a minute–I honestly don’t see the problem people have with him. His entry into the casino is pretty Bondian, the way he casually glances at passing women and walks through the place with a laconic ease, like he’s totally in his element. He has more than enough physical presence, and for the most part his tone is excellent when he speaks.
But there are a couple of weird notes, one of which comes after Bond bails Tracy out at the chemin de fer table. He tells her to play it safe and stay with the cards she has (chemin is sort of like Blackjack, in that you are trying to not go over a certain number with your cards), and Tracy says, “People who want to stay alive play it safe.” Bond gives her a half-smile and says, “Please stay alive…at least for tonight.” But here’s the thing: the film cuts that line together out of two very obviously different takes, so Lazenby’s tone changes. He says “Please stay alive” just fine, but then there’s an odd cut to an admittedly very awkward take of “at least for tonight”. I have to assume this would have been very easily fixed in post, so I’ve always wondered why the weird reading was left in there.
A similar thing happens later when Bond is interrogating Tracy about who the man was who attacked him in her hotel room. He’s got her by the wrist, and she says, “You’re hurting me,” to which he responds, “I thought that was the idea tonight.” And then, in the same breath–very awkwardly–“Now, WHO WAS HE?” And again it sounds…weird, and again, I wonder why they just didn’t have Lazenby re-record the line and dub in a better version.
My other note? I point out above that in this scene we first hear the film’s love theme, a melody that will later be given a title and lyrics. Our first hearing is by the same solo flute we just heard minutes before in the bit of late-night soft-jazz, and then John Barry brings in the strings. But it’s not just a love theme, as Barry recasts it. We actually hear it twice: first as Bond is talking to Tracy, actually talking to her, before their extracurricular activities take place; and then we hear it again, in an almost jaunty arrangement, as Bond is very politely abducted by Draco’s men. (Seriously, what a polite abduction!) Barry’s use of this theme in different circumstances, with different arrangements, accentuates the film’s theme of time and Bond struggling against it. This is quite simply the best score John Barry ever wrote for a Bond film, and he brings the goods from the get go.
Here, Bond is again greeted by the goons following Tracy, who have him at gunpoint (with his own gun – Bond was a bit careless in not noticing that it was missing).
Another aside: Bond lost track of his gun twice! Tracy got a hold of it first, playfully pointing it at Bond, before Draco’s men got it. There’s something to be said for the fact that this movie gives us a James Bond who is not always firing on all cylinders.
The goons take him on a long drive to a shipping company headquarters, where Bond meets the man behind these guys. Is he a villain? Maybe, at first glance – he is Marc-Ange Draco, the head of a crime syndicate called the Union Corse – but more relevant, he is Tracy’s father. It is he who fills in some of the blanks, telling the story of Tracy’s birth and her sad life which has led her to behave self-destructively. Draco’s big idea, though, is that Tracy’s need can be filled by…a man. A man like Bond. This, too, is eerily sexist, and Bond seems to see through this whole notion, refusing Draco’s offer of a dowry of one million pounds in gold.
M takes Bond off the case without even hearing his new lead. “You’ve had two years to run him down,” M points out. “The license to kill is useless unless one can set up a target.”
Bond has been chasing Blofeld for two years, and the little bit we’ve seen of that chase has taken its time unfolding – but M has just decided that Bond is out of time, and Bond angrily decides that he’s had enough of the whole thing and decides to resign. He dictates his resignation letter to Moneypenny and goes to clean out his desk (allowing a few brief glimpses of gadgets from Bond-films past), before M calls him back to accept his request. Bond thinks he’s out of a job, but Moneypenny has changed the letter to a request for two weeks’ leave, so Bond heads out again…this time to return to Draco to get his information. Bond has been freed of his time constraint for finding Blofeld, since there really can’t be any doubt that he intends to continue the chase.
(In a charming bit, M expresses his gratitude to Moneypenny for changing Bond’s resignation letter as well, saying “What would I do without you, Miss Moneypenny? Thank you!”)
In previous films to this point, M has always been shown as Bond’s stern boss. In OHMSS we get a different sense of their relationship. M is frustrated with Bond’s lack of results, and Bond chafes at M’s direct criticism of that lack of results. Lazenby and Bernard Lee have several wonderful scenes together in this movie. Also of note is Lois Maxwell, who is allowed to give us a Miss Moneypenny who is more than just an occasional office flirt. This is a great sequence.
The film’s relaxed pace continues, as Bond returns to Portugal to meet with Draco at his country estate. Tracy is there as well, and is disgusted to find Bond there; she clearly regards him as just another in a long line of men who have come along who were interested in one thing alone from her. Funny thing is, we know Bond’s history, and this might well not be off the mark – only Tracy is, for the first time, different for Bond. Tracy susses out the crappy deal between Draco and Bond (“No woman would waste this excellent champagne discussing a business deal unless she herself happened to be part of the arrangement”), and basically forces her father to give Bond the information he wants without going through with the whole marriage idea. Draco relents, telling Bond that there may be a connection between Blofeld and a lawyer in Bern, Switzerland; then Tracy gets up from the table and storms away after saying, “And now Mr. Bond need have no further interest in me.”
Bond, however, disagrees, and goes after her. Meeting her by her car, he finds that Tracy is in tears. Why? I suppose it’s because she’s sick of this kind of thing. She doesn’t want to be someone’s prize or payment, and she doesn’t want to pay her own debts anymore, either. When Bond catches up to her, though, he does something interesting: he doesn’t crack wise, or make it obvious that his next goal is to make love to her. In the first real gesture of intimacy we have ever really seen from James Bond, he brushes the tears from her cheeks, and then takes Tracy into his arms.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is entirely about time. It’s evident right from the credits sequence, with its clocks and hourglass imagery. George Lazenby’s performance fits in with the film’s theme perfectly: his portrayal of Bond really does seem to convey a certain feeling of weariness about the whole business. Lazenby’s Bond is competent, skilled, brave, and witty – but he also seems just a bit tired of it all. It’s in little touches, really – would a Bond who is really invested in things fail to notice that his gun wasn’t where he’d left it? If he’s on assignment, would he really be heading out for a round of golf? It’s not that Bond is “phoning it in”, not at all, but it’s as if the thought is starting to form in the back of his mind that maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t want to be 007 for his entire life.
Also, is this the first Bond film that actually has a theme underlying all of its action? OHMSS is saying something about time and how Bond has to relate to it. In general, James Bond movies aren’t your prime destination if subtle subtext is your thing, but this one’s got it.
As the montage ends, though, Bond is back in the world of spying and being up against time. He has to infiltrate the office of a lawyer named Gumbold and search for any connection he can find to Blofeld, while Gumbold is off at lunch. For a simple office break-in, this scene is surprisingly tense, because of the time limit. (Again with time!) Gumbold emerges from his office and walks down the hall, curtly informing the desk attendant that “I’ll be back in an hour.” Gumbold’s shoes click on the marble floor of the office building with such precision (we’re in Switzerland, after all) that it sounds like the ticking of a clock. Bond arrives, and goes to work, using the only real gadget in the movie: a safe-cracker that also comes with a built-in photocopier. This is hoisted up to the balcony of Gumbold’s office from the construction site next door – Bond has a man there – and then Bond has to simply wait for the machine to do its job. Meanwhile, John Barry’s suspenseful music churns in the background, first slowly and then picking up steam as the hour ticks past. Here’s the scene; it’s like a thriller-within-a-thriller. I love the bit where Bond settles in, looking bored while he waits for the safe cracker to do its thing; it’s also hilarious the way Bond finds Gumbold’s issue of Playboy, tucked into a newspaper.
Only on my most recent rewatch did I notice that the crane from the construction site next door, which hoists the safecracker-photocopier machine up to Bond in Gumbold’s office, is owned by Draco Construction!
Of course, Bond finds something: letters from a “Count de Bleuchamp”, who is apparently seeking to establish himself as reigning Count of the Bleuchamp family. Bond takes this information to M – visiting him at his home – and indicates that “Bleuchamp” is the French form of “Blofeld”. The reversal here is interesting: Bond is briefing M, not the other way around.
Another lovely scene with Lazenby and Bernard Lee, starting with Bond’s smirk as he shows off his knowledge of butterflies, of all things. I love Lee’s shift in tone when Bond reveals what he’s discovered: a real clue as to where Blofeld is. Lee sighs and reminds Bond that he was relieved of that assignment, and Bond casually says, “I assumed you’d reassign me, sir,” and keeps right on talking.
The next scene, when Bond discusses the heraldry matter with Sir Hilary Bray, sets the stage for Lazenby’s voice being dubbed by George Baker for a lengthy sequence to come minutes later. This dubbing gets a lot of heat from fans, which is an objection that I’ve never understood, and I like the smirk Lazenby gives when Bond shows off his ability to mimic Sir Hilary. Also, there’s a really nice line delivery by Lazenby about Blofeld’s problematic location: “Yes, if he IS our man, I’d like to get him away from Switzerland.”
What unfolds next is more in traditional keeping with Bond films, as the intrigue takes over as Bond, posing as an expert in heraldry and genealogy, heads to Switzerland to find out if this “Bleuchamp” is Blofeld or not.
The Switzerland sequence is gorgeous, with sweeping panoramic shots of the Alpine landscape as Bond (masquerading as heraldry expert Sir Hilary Bray) is escorted by a woman named Irma Bunt up into the mountains. John Barry’s score soars here, and we even get some visual foreshadowing as Bunt points out avalanche damage to a forest and as the helicopter flies over a bobsled run. I’m glad OHMSS returned to Switzerland and really put some effort into showing off that land’s beauty, because GOLDFINGER really didn’t do much for Switzerland at all when it went there.
Of course, he is, with the whole works: a new scheme involving his posing as a doctor who cures allergies, the young women who are his patients (but who are really unwitting pawns of his, via mind control), and a fortress perched atop a Swiss Alp.
A few things about the whole Piz Gloria sequence: First, even though Blofeld does have a Big Bond Villain Scheme, the movie doesn’t really make THAT big a deal about it. It’s there, it has to be stopped, but as far as what the movie gives us goes, it’s pretty bare-bones, a “just enough to get us by” kind of thing.
Second: Telly Savalas IS Blofeld. There’s a competent and cold malice to his performance that was absent from Donald Pleasance’s in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, and Charles Gray’s Blofeld in the next film, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, is its own thing entirely. (I like Gray enormously in that film, but as a topic for another day, that movie so downplays the notion of Blofeld as Bond’s ultimate enemy that he might as well be named something else entirely.)
Third: Yes, Bond’s cheerful seduction of Blofeld’s “Angels of Death” is (a) part of what he needs to do to figure out what’s going on, and (b) really kind of creepy. Especially the second night of it, when we have to wonder, What’s he hoping to get out of this? The reveal of Irma Bunt in the bed, instead of Ruby, is a pretty effective jump-scare, though.
Fourth: OHMSS gives us several scenes of Bond trying to figure things out and solve specific problems, like how to get out of his quarters and how to escape the cable-car engine room. Lazenby does very well with these rather physical scenes; he is able to convey Bond thinking things through as well as moving around with a casual economy of movement.
Fifth: the musical build-up to Bond’s escape is masterful stuff, especially when Bond has broken free, gotten out of the cable-car engine room, listened in on Blofeld’s hypnotic instructions to the Angels, and then taken out a guard or two on his way to the ski room. John Barry provides some suspense music with appropriate “stingers” through all this, but then, as Bond is putting on skis and preparing to get the hell out of Dodge, Barry gets down to serious business as we hear, for the first time since the opening credits, that descending line that leads us into the OHMSS main theme. This whole sequence ALWAYS gets my blood pumping.
Sixth: Any other Bond film would have sent Bond to Q to get outfitted with some useful gadgetry before setting out to potentially infiltrate the villain’s HQ. It’s interesting that this film does not.
Now, Bond is up against the clock, and makes his escape from Piz Gloria (the mountain hideaway), on skis. It’s surprising to note that, aside from a couple of brief fistfights, this is the first action set piece since the teaser sequence, and it comes well over an hour into what was for years the longest of all the Bond films. (Casino Royale was actually longer.) The ski chase in OHMSS is, for me, still the best ski chase ever filmed for a Bond movie (subsequent skiing scenes would appear in The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, A View to a Kill, and The World Is Not Enough). It relies fairly heavily on rear projection during the closeups, but the entire sequence is edited together wonderfully, with the main theme from the film making its first reappearance since the title sequence.
OK, this ski chase is one of the best of all James Bond action sequences. It is almost perfectly edited, the way the tension builds from Bond putting on the skis to the guards realizing that he’s escaping, to Blofeld getting notified (his expression doesn’t even change as he picks up the phone, hears the report, and puts the cat aside to go give chase–though the cat protests!). The whole sequence marries together perfectly with the music, and at times the ski action times to the music, with the guards shifting almost in unison, as if we’re watching an action ballet.
Bond makes it down the mountain, to the charming Swiss village in the valley where there’s all manner of Christmas celebration and ice skating and happy people all over the place…and yet, the bad guys are there too, and Bond can’t get away. This is all pretty fascinating: many times in the series, we see Bond evade pursuers by putting a big crowd of people between them and himself. Here, though, it doesn’t work, and we become aware, through a series of quick cuts from the crowd to the pursuers to Bond back to the crowd and back again, that Bond is really, genuinely afraid. It’s not often at all in the 007 movies that we get to see Bond feel fear.
And, in keeping with the film’s reversal of quite a few formulas, Bond doesn’t escape on his own. He is rescued, by an unlikely heroine:
This scene is the scene in the film; if this scene doesn’t work, pretty much the entire film is sunk, because the entire subtext of the film is that James Bond is tired, he’s vulnerable, and he wants to do something else. Lazenby sells this scene so well that it’s almost heartbreaking, and as I’ve said for years, I defy any of Lazenby’s detractors to claim in seriousness that Sean Connery would have done this scene any better. (Frankly, as much as I love Sean Connery, I’m not sure he wouldn’t have done this seen worse. In his Bond films, he never presents a single hint of genuine vulnerability in his portrayal of 007. Which isn’t to say that Connery couldn’t do “vulnerable”, because clearly in his acting career we see that he could, but in playing Bond, he didn’t, and I’m not sure he would have done so here.)
Aside: again, no disrespect to Sean Connery is intended here at all. The man was a great actor, an Oscar-winner, who could do a lot of things. But the fact is that his boredom with James Bond was becoming obvious in THUNDERBALL and it stands out like a sore thumb in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. Maybe–maybe!–if they’d done OHMSS after GOLDFINGER he would have come invested in the project…but then, I’m not sure if Connery had been along for the ride that the entire rest of the production would have leveled up the way it did. Diana Rigg’s casting was partly because the lead was a total novice: they needed an experienced actress to draw out the performance they needed, which wouldn’t have been the case with Connery.
Ultimately, though, I find the whole wishful-thinking “If only Sean could have done this!” thinking not terribly useful. It’s the James Bond version of a Buffalo Bills fan imagining if Norwood hadn’t missed that kick. I also note that it’s always Connery who is mentally recast into this film; nobody ever wonders what if they’d brought in Roger Moore two films earlier than they did. And come to that, no one ever really wonders what if they’d brought Timothy Dalton in earlier–for A VIEW TO A KILL, say–or maybe kept Pierce Brosnan around for CASINO ROYALE. In the end, I honestly don’t see what it is that people see in Connery’s Bond that they want it here, or what they see in Lazenby’s Bond that they DON’T want. And I guess that’s all fine, “eye of the beholder” and all that, but it does vex me when I see or hear things in film or music that so many others do not.
The next morning, Blofeld and lackeys arrive at the barn, only to find that Bond and Tracy have already left, and are skiing away. There’s another ski chase – this one taking place by day instead of night – and again, it’s a close affair that ends when Blofeld uses a flare to set off an avalanche. Thus he captures Tracy, but assumes that Bond is dead (“A grave deep enough to prevent even 007 from escaping!”). Of course, Bond isn’t dead, but he is despondent that he has failed: Blofeld’s plan is alive, and the woman he loves is now his prisoner.
Again, Lazenby and Bernard Lee play brilliantly–yes, brilliantly–off one another. Lazenby’s angry, frustrated pacing; Lee’s quiet resignation and almost acceptance that they’ve lost. Returning to Connery versus Lazenby, I think it actually helps to have a different Bond in this film, to sell us on this very different relationship between M and James Bond.
This brings us to the film’s final action setpiece, the aerial attack led by Bond and Draco in helicopters against Blofeld’s headquarters. As the choppers approach, Draco has to convince the Swiss authorities that they are a Red Cross flight. As Blofeld and his men listen in on the radio transmissions, Tracy recognizes her father’s voice, realizes that the game is afoot, and starts using her feminine whiles to appeal to Blofeld, thus keeping him distracted and not realizing that he’s about to be attacked until the guns start shooting.
Seriously, does Tracy Bond get credit for being as smart as she is? Earlier in the film she sees right through her father’s creepy scheming, and here she recognizes his voice and puts together what’s happening, and then immediately shifts into distracting Blofeld just enough to keep him from putting his men on full alert until the gunships are upon them.
From here out, it’s pretty standard Bond film set-piece fare: explosions and gunfire, close fights, and so on. Bond slides on his stomach across the ice of a curling board, dispatching lots of bad guys in the process; meanwhile, Tracy has to fend off several goons on her own, further establishing her credentials as Bond’s genuine equal. At no point in the film, really, is Tracy ever a helpless damsel in distress, screaming “James!” as Bond tries to rescue her; instead, a number of times she rescues him. Anyhow, Draco’s men rout Blofeld’s, and plant explosives to destroy Piz Gloria. Bond manages to find Blofeld’s map of where his “angels of death” are all located, and is taking photos of the locations when Blofeld fires on him and then runs away. Bond gives chase, leading to a bobsled chase with Bond trying to catch Blofeld as Piz Gloria explodes behind him.
The chase ends with Blofeld being snagged by the neck in a tree; apparently Bond assumes that Blofeld is dead, which is ironic because that is the same mistake that Blofeld (and others) are always making about Bond, and this time it will have disastrous consequences.
If OHMSS had been somehow inserted into the timeline of Daniel Craig’s Bond, with the continuity between the films actually acknowledged rather than ignored, I have to assume that we would have eventually seen James Bond having to grapple with a bit of guilt on this particular point. Bond clearly assumes that Blofeld is dead, as do we, if we don’t know what is to come; no, we don’t see the body, but that shot of two feet swinging like that is a long-established cinematic way of depicting the result of a hanging.
Meanwhile, Bond goes off to live happily ever after: we see him purchasing Tracy’s wedding ring, and then putting it on her finger and wiping away her tears of happiness in a reprise of his gesture from the bullfight. Bond says his goodbyes to M and Q; he gives Draco back the one million pound dowry (“Her price is above rubies…or even, your million pounds!”, and then, after tossing his hat one last time to a crying Moneypenny, drives off into his new life with his bride.
It’s about here that I usually start to lose it, when watching this movie. There are lots of movies with sad endings, and I count among them many of my favorite movies. This one, as well. But when I stop and think on it a moment, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is unique among movies with sad endings in that every time I watch the film, I desperately want the ending to not be sad. Just…this…once.
What happens is this: Bond pulls over on the side of a road that’s overlooking the sea, so he can pull some of the flowers off the car. He and Tracy enjoy some playful newlywed banter. Another car comes along…and it’s driven by Blofeld. In the backseat is Irma Bunt, his chief lackey; and in her hands is a machine gun. She sprays Bond’s car with bullets as he speeds past.
“It’s Blofeld!” Bond shouts, as he jumps back into the car. “It’s Blo–” he starts to say to Tracy, when he looks at her…and sees the single bullet wound in her forehead. Tracy is dead. Her body slumps into his lap as a policeman pulls up alongside on a motorcycle. Bond looks up at the policeman, and with the dazed calm of a person whose brain hasn’t yet caught up to what’s just happened, he says, “It’s all right, really, she’s just having a rest. We’ll be moving on soon…there’s no hurry, you see, we have all the time in the world.” Here Lazenby’s voice cracks as he leans down over her, kisses her forehead, and then buries his head as he begins to sob. John Barry’s instrumental arrangement of “We Have All the Time in the World” plays through these last few seconds. The music is heartbreaking, and reaches its final chord as we fade to the film’s final shot: the bullet hole in the windshield of James Bond’s Aston Martin.
Then, as the credits roll, the “James Bond Theme” smashes in, obliterating the mood from the beautiful melody of “We Have All…”. I’ve heard film music fans over the years argue that this is a mistake on the part of the filmmakers, and that the film should have used “We Have All…” as the end title, but I don’t agree – because it fits perfectly with the themes of the film. Time, Bond’s weariness as a secret agent, all of it is brutally illustrated by the drastic musical switch in moods at the end of OHMSS. As soon as the Bond theme starts, it is as if Bond is being told, “No, you don’t have all the time in the world. That was it. That was all the time you had.” Time is the relentless enemy of us all, and not even James Bond can stand in its way. No one has all the time in the world.
Even the arrangement of the Bond theme–using early synthesizers instead of the iconic guitar–lends to this movie’s cold, almost drone-like, rendition of the James Bond theme. There’s no other time in the entire series of Bond films where that theme sounds so bitter, so cold. The Bond Theme is a cultural icon, after nearly fifty years of these movies, that musically symbolizes thrills and coolness, but at the end of OHMSS, it’s anything but cool or thrilling. It’s angry, it’s sullen, and it’s unwelcome. We don’t want to hear it…and yet, the film forces it upon us, as it has forced cold, unblinking loneliness upon James Bond, at the moment when he thought himself to be free of it all.
I’ve occasionally wondered what might have been, had George Lazenby stuck around as Bond. I’m genuinely unsure, really. I think his performance in OHMSS is terribly underrated, and that he would have been just fine had he continued in the role. But also, the Bond films were about to undergo a significant transition into campy scripts and gonzo plots. Connery returned for the next one, Diamonds are Forever, in which Blofeld is again the villain – but that film doesn’t make a single mention of the fact that Blofeld killed Bond’s wife, and Bond never even seems angry with Blofeld, just mildly disgusted as he is with any other villain. And then Connery would leave, to have the role go to Roger Moore, who would then be saddled with the silliest scripts of all the Bonds (and yet, Moore, too, had his moments when he made Bond cold and ruthless, moments that are often forgotten or overlooked by people who tar the Moore era with the cloth of camp). It’s interesting, though, that Moore’s best Bond film, For Your Eyes Only, opens with Bond visiting Tracy’s grave.
Daniel Craig has just completed his run as James Bond, finally giving us a second version of James Bond who isn’t just a superspy but is also a human being who experiences genuine human emotions in addition to his normal duties of thwarting supervillains. It’s fitting that his final film bookends this one and takes it as inspiration. I’m glad to see the Bond series fully acknowledge On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as the great work that it is, and I’m also gratified to know that more and more Bond fans are seeing it that way, too.
We may not have all the time in the world, but we do have On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.