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On Her Majesty's Secret Service  

Review: written 28th August 2007

Girls, Swiss scenery, Diana Rigg, Action - the perfect Bond mix?

court jester

There is much to like and much to dislike about this generally underrated flick. Vilified for having the first actor to play Bond who was NOT Sean Connery (and have him be Australian, to boot), this movie was a relatively big success for its time, but remains the black sheep of the Bond movie family. At the very least, it generates polarised opinion.

Plotwise, it stays closer to the Ian Fleming source novel than ever before, and veers away from gadgets and highly stylised sets in favour of trying to progress the characters. However, in doing so it ventures into new territory - Bond in love. How much you accept the movie will likely hinge on how much you buy into this concept, and perhaps in tackling this along with introducing a new actor playing Bond - they bit off a bit more than they could chew ( and all the more kudos to the makers of Casino Royale for essentially achieving the same feat without too much egg on their face).

Let's start off by saying - George Lazenby is by no means the disaster he is often portrayed as. His arrogance in real life helps his on screen character, and physically he certainly moves well, looks the part, and is more believable in the action scenes than any actor to follow (bar Daniel Craig). At the very least, he proved that the character was bigger than the actor, and paved the way for all the other Bonds to follow.

The effect of the casting on the final outcome can not be underestimated - Diana Rigg perfectly cast as Bond's love interest, and Telly Savalas surprisingly and undeniably the best actor to play Blofeld.

Peter Hunt directed with a sure hand, having been editor or second unit director on all the Bond movies to date. However, another love or hate aspect of the film is its style. In the previous outing, Lewis Gilbert directed the fantastic with standard routine direction. Here, Hunt chooses to direct the down to earth, with a surreal touch. Sound effects are exaggerated, visual cues are stylised. This works for the most part, but dates the film somewhat to its '69 / 70 timeframe, when cinema was moving into a period of heightened senses and cinema as symbolism rather than naturalism. That said, there are some of the most striking cinematographic scenes on display - the first use of flashback in a Bond movie (in the window of Bond's office, seeing Tracy dragged away from the avalanche), the spectacular skiing shots, including spectacular aerial shots, arguably the best in the whole series. The only drawback to these scenes are the inserted back projection shots establishing the actors in the frame.

John Barry had arguably his finest score here, aided by the last recorded song from Louis Armstrong, ironically `We have all the time in the world'. The Bond theme is sparingly used, but to all the greater effect when we do hear it. One highlight is the scene in Bonds office as he goes through the items in his desk and we hear the themes from previous movies.

All told, the ingredients are present and correct - Ian Fleming's source novel, John Barry score, beautiful girls, great action scenes and stunts, the best portrayal of Blofeld in the Bond series (just compare to Charles Gray in the next movie if you disagree!), and a capable Bond. It's the new ingredients which will have you choosing to love or hate - Bond gets married, and in particular that downbeat ending.

Like I said, it's a love or hate thing - and maybe this isn't a 5 star classic movie - but I'm giving it a few extra points, because there's just so much that's interesting about it, despite its flaws.

Preview: written April 2013

When someone talks to you about the re-invention of the Bond franchise, with a movie emphasising the British roots, and emphasising links to the past, getting into the psychology of who Bond is using Fleming’s source material – you might be forgiven for assuming it is Skyfall they are talking about – but in fact, long before Skyfall, Bond had been reinvented, and explored psychologically, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS). Connery had quit, and the times they were-a-changin. The positive vibes of the 60’s were winding down, and movies which were the new cutting edge of what was acceptable were coming in, which focussed not on escapism but amplified the discontent of the era. Bonnie and Clyde, Point Blank, The Dirty Dozen, Easy Rider – all created a different definition of cutting edge – and made You Only Live Twice look already outmoded. So the question was not only who would the Bond actor be – the question is who would Bond himself be… and the answer was, a return to Fleming’s Bond.

Between ‘62 and ‘67, there had been 5 Bond movies, averaging one a year.. however the departure of the lead actor meant a necessary delay before the promised next movie – the oft delayed and much anticipated big screen adaptation of the 1963 novel OHMSS, which was released in 1969. Peter Hunt, the editor and then Second Unit director on the previous movies, was finally promoted to director, following a stint on another Broccoli production of a Fleming novel – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a novel written for his kids. Hunt brought on board many of the crew from that movie, including the the director of photography Michael Reed, and returning screenwriter Richard Maibaum. The goal for Hunt was to downplay gadgets – the book was acknowledged as Fleming’s best – so why not film the novel? Lavish Ken Adams style sets went out the window, and the high key photography was downplayed in favour of a more down to earth style. For inspiration, Hunt rewatched the earlier Bond movies directed by Terence Young, who defined the Bond style. Another key addition was John Glen, who was brought on to act as second unit director – and would go on to become a director of several subsequent Bond movies. With a crew and tone decided, the real challenge was – who would play Bond. Hundreds of actors were tested and considered, and different styles were entertained, but the consensus was, what they needed was someone like Sean Connery. George Lazenby was spotted on a Fry chocolate commercial, and encouraged to apply for the role. Since he didn’t have an actor’s union membership, he had to bluff his way into the casting director’s office, and he did so in a suit he found at Connery’s tailor which Connery had never collected since he gave up the role of Bond. The director and crew were convinced he had the action chops and the looks for the part, but the studio was nervous. It was in the screen test for an action scene that the decision was made – since he didn’t know how to hold his punches, when he started the fight scene with a Russian wrestler, he gave him a right hook and smashed his nose. Walking over the bloodied man on the floor Salzman walked up to Lazenby and said.. “we’re going with you..”. Lazenby’s lack of acting experience was offset by hiring experienced co-stars – Diana Rigg, hot off ‘The Avengers’, and Telly Savalas as Blofeld, as well as the usual EON productions stock company. Although Lazenby had extensive voice coaching, in the scenes where he is undercover on Piz Gloria, he is dubbed by George Baker, a neighbour of Hunt, who at one point had been considered for the role of Bond himself, and would return to Bond in “The Spy Who Loved Me”. Olympe was also dubbed, by long time Bond voice actress Nicki van Zyl, who had dubbed Ursula Andress and Claudine Auger as well as many others in the previous movies.

In 1968, shooting started. George Lazenby soon started to show that although he acknowledged his lack of expertise in acting, he was willing to do the work to make it work.. but at the same time his cockiness started to rub people up the wrong way – not least the producers. When he strutted around describing himself as the star, Cubby was quick to correct him – “You’re not a star because you say you’re a star. You’re not a star because I say you’re a star. You’re a star when the public say you’re a star, and we’re yet to see that.” On the location front though, a significant find was Schilthorn, which was just finishing building of the worlds first rotating restaurant.. it perfectly matched Fleming’s description, as the mountain top location of Blofeld’s lair . The producers had to build a helipad and a generator, and agreed to contribute some of the cost, but otherwise it was ready to go, and they could film freely before it ever opened. If you visit now, which I strongly recommend, the restaurant is now named Piz Gloria after the novel / movie to cash in on the link. Another ace up the production’s sleeve was Willy Bogner – an Olympic skier who came on board to supervise the skiing shots – to get some of the spectacular shots, he would ski down the hill, backwards, with a camera in Hasselblad case so that he could look down into it and see through the viewer hanging between his legs – all this as fast as the other skiers could ski forwards! In addition, he would use one ski to flick up snow to enhance the impression of speed and drama. From the air, Johnny Jordan returned, and was hung by a parachute type harness below a helicopter to give him an uninterrupted 360 degree view to capture the most spectacular skiing shots filmed to that point in time. Sadly, after the crew had left to go back to Pinewood, they heard the tragic news he had perished on his next movie, Catch 22, when he fell out of the helicopter he was in. For the final action scene, John Glen reopened the bobsleigh run in the town of Muerren which had been closed down after the death of several Lords from the UK when it was decided it was too dangerous. He cleverly used actual accidents that occurred during filming and changed the storyboards so that they could be incorporated into the action, such as when Bond is thrown out of the bobsleigh.

The (Spoiler alert!) wedding scene was shot so that it could be the end of the movie, and the scene that follows be the start of the next movie. Lazenby’s departure, and the death of actress Ilse Steppard who played Irma Bund meant that the novel was shown as is, with exactly the ending in the book. The stories vary as to why Lazenby left. He started telling people that he thought the series was no longer viable in an age of hippy movies and discontent, and turned up to the premiere with a beard, against producers wishes. Stories abounded of the friction between him and the producers – but the crew who worked with him closest were left convinced if he had carried on he would have been a most credible Bond – and who knows how many of the dafter elements of the Moore movies might not have happened if this more serious and character driven Bond had been accepted then, in the same way it has been with Skyfall. You’ll gather I have a particular interest in and fondness for this movie, and I’ve not even mentioned yet the music by John Barry which I believe was possibly the best Bond score, creating new music and sound for Bond– while still being very much Bond. And the titles by Maurice Binder which clearly emphasises the Britishness of the movie – the link to Monarchy and heraldry, and the passing of time, in both the silhouettes and the scenes from previous movies. It’s a genius way to preserve the link to the past and introduce someone new.

At the time, the movie was not a flop at all, making a healthy profit and was the highest grossing movie of 1970, though it fell well short of the incredible highs of the previous two movies. Producers though felt stung by the intense criticism of Lazenby and his untidy departure. Around the world the movie was generally well reviewed, many calling it the best movie yet but with most panning Lazenby – “Big Movie, Small Fry”, was one of my favourites, riffing on his previous role in the Fry Chocolate advert. Over time though, the movie has developed a cult status with many calling it the best movie. So, was the combination of first time director, first time star and departure of Connery the death knell for this movie, leaving it an unfortunate anomaly, or does it deserve a status among the best of the Bond movies, praised for its fidelity to the book, terrific photography and great story? The truth for most is somewhere in the middle, so try watching it yourself and make up your own mind on where you stand..

p.s. this movie has one of my all time favourite Bond shots – the shot of Sten gun held up against the dawn sky as the helicopters approach…

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