On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Ultimate Edition) Review
Bond suddenly thought, Hell! I’ll never find another girl like this one. She’s got everything I’ve ever looked for in a woman. She’s beautiful, in bed and out. She’s adventurous, brave, resourceful. She’s exciting always. She seems to love me. She’d let me go on with my life. She’s a lone girl, not cluttered up with friends, relations, belongings. Above all, she needs me. It’ll be someone for me to look after. I’m fed up with all these untidy, casual affairs that leave me with a bad conscience. I wouldn’t mind having children. I’ve got no social background into which she would or wouldn’t fit. We’re two of a pair, really. Why not make it for always.
Bond found his voice saying those words that he had never said in his life before, never expected to say.
“Tracy, I love you. Will you marry me?”
With those words Ian Fleming completed his masterpiece. Up until the time On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was published in 1963 the Bond novels had been acclaimed for many reasons - their gritty brutality, their evocations of foreign climes and cultures, their witty plots, their attractively terse, journalistic style - but the character of Bond was not among them. Although not a blank cipher in the way many archetypal spies are in popular literature neither was he a fully realised creation, a living breathing man. He was a fantasy figure, one with many stylish tics and opinions to be sure, but still ultimately a function of his plot, no more than that. By having him fall in love and then disposing of his wife Fleming raised the stakes, and put the cap on Bond, giving him that extra dimension he needed to make him the complete, iconic figure we think of today. Just as Conan Doyle had done when he killed Holmes off, Fleming had finally provided the tragic central point around which his literary character's legend would revolve, the defining event in his life which colours every adventure he will ever have, a gravity which was hitherto missing. When Bond marries Tracy he feels, finally, a complete man - ironically it’s only when Blofeld slays her that he is a truly complete literary figure.
Six years later this most defining of Bond novels was finally brought to the big screen. Like the book it is similarly remarkable and noteworthy, but in a completely different way. It’s the Bond film most dissected by fans with the great question mark of George Lazenby hanging over it, a movie that will be discussed and debated by Bond enthusiasts and the wider cinema-going public from now until that fateful day when 007 finally fades from memory. As an entry into the Bond film franchise it is utterly atypical but as an adaptation of the Fleming source material it is second to none. In its approach it most resembles From Russia With Love, fittingly considering that that was the film released the same year the novel of OHMSS was published, but it is also its own creation, a blip on the radar that enthrals.
When Sean Connery made it quite clear he would not be appearing in another Bond following 1967’s You Only Live Twice it wouldn't have surprised anyone if that had been the end of the franchise. After all, it had spawned five extremely successful movies and even an unofficial spoof, not a bad tally for a single character in those days. However, there was never any serious possibility it would be curtains for onscreen Bond, and producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, soon after production on YOLT ended, set out to find their new leading man. An extensive search ended up with the Australian newcomer Lazenby who it was announced would star as agent 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service due for release in December 1969, keeping up the pattern of a biennial Bond. To counter concerns over the fact there was a new guy in town, more familiar names were cast in the other two pivotal roles, namely ex-Avengers girl Diana Rigg as leading lady (the second Avenger to swap Steed for Bond, following Honor Blackman; a future Avenger, Joanna Lumley, has a very small role in the film too) and hip cat Telly Savalas, fresh from battling with The Dirty Dozen, became the second unmasked Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
In addition it was decided to tone Bond’s adventures down a notch or two - although not a flop. YOLT had seen a noticeable decline in box office takings (although, to be fair, that could also be due to the fact Thunderball’s were so strong) and it was deemed fitting that Bond should operate in a more likely world akin to his early cinematic exploits. OHMSS had been a title under consideration for some time, back to the time of Thunderball but now was deemed a fitting time to realise it, most notably because its setting in the Swiss Alps would allow for lots of action to be set there. This presented a major continuity problem: in the book Bond and Blofeld have never met before, whereas the cinematic Bond obviously encountered him in the preceding film, but this discrepancy was ignored (beginning a tradition of very haphazard continuity in the Bond films that has continued, essentially, ever since). The plot sees Bond falling in love with the Contessa Teresa Di Vicenzo (Rigg), or Tracy as she prefers to be known, the daughter of Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) the genial head of Union Corse, a Mafia-like organisation based in Corsica. In return for Tracy’s hand, Marc-Ange gives Bond a tip-off as to the whereabouts of Blofeld, one which leads the agent to discovering the SPECTRE boss on the top of a Swiss Alp running a private ski resort, the Piz Gloria, while apparently helping a group of young women get over their phobias to such every day items as chicken and rice. Eventually it transpires that Baldy is in fact planning to blackmail the world using the girls to unleash deadly bacteria on key crops which would eventually wipe out the entire species. Bond manages to stop his evil scheme but at a very personal cost.
As mentioned, this is a very atypical Bond film. You won’t find many which include one of those romantic montages of a couple falling in love, or Bond getting married, or even with one with a dour ending (although I guess the picture still ends with the girl in Bond’s arms). There are far fewer locations than usual, with Draco’s villa and the ski resort the only two significant settings in the entire picture, and only one gadget (and no traditional Q scene, although the opening does have Q trying to persuade M of the uses of his latest discovery). We see M at home, indulging in his hobby of lepidoptery (changed from painting in the book) and there’s no title song, with instead an instrumental from John Barry, while Syd Hunt’s sets are much more low key than Ken Adam’s customary extravaganzas. It was a brave move for Broccoli and Saltzman to make given they were launching a new Bond, and it’s little surprising that in other myriad ways the movie spends its time trying to convince us that it’s business as usual. Some of these are very blunt, such as the use of clips from past Bonds playing in Maurice Binder’s titles sequence, a janitor whistling the tune of Goldfinger or a sequence in which Bond pulls out a number of mementos from his past adventures, but some are more subtle, and I'm not talking about his famous "This never happened to the other fellow," amusing as that is. When reviewing Goldeneye I’d forgotten how similar its opening twenty minutes are to OHMSS, with virtually identical scenarios: Bond encounters a mysterious woman in a red car and then meets up with her in a casino (although only in OHMSS does he get to bed her). Both films are showing us typical Bondian moments to let us know things are they always have been: 007 might look different, but he stills drives round in fast cars, has lots of fights, gambles in glamorous locations and beds beautiful women.
And, despite the fact it has a different approach to the material, this is still very recognisably a Bond film, and not even a relaunch. There are few concessions to people coming to the party late, with no explanation of who M or Q are, who Blofeld is or why Bond in particular is so keen to give to chase to him, although already by 1969 those characters were pretty well known by most of the cinema-going public. Although at first glance the screenplay appears to divert from accepted Bond norms, a closer inspection finds that in its way it’s just as formulaic as the previous three Connerys, complete with the requisite number of Bond girls, fights, extravagant set pieces and explosions. It’s got the usual one-liners, which at this period of the franchise’s life still feel fresh and not forced, and develops in the same way, with the main villain first putting in an appearance roughly half way through the picture. Indeed, if one was campaigning for an appearance in Pseud’s Corner, one could speculate that the reason the film doesn’t end in the way a Bond film “should” is because the agent breaks one of the cardinal rules of the Formula, namely that he mustn’t get to have his way with his leading lady until the closing moments. Fortunately I’m not, so won’t go that far, but it is interesting that the one way in which the film does deviate from the norm is the one that ultimately affects its outcome.
It’s as much because it adheres to the formula for much of its time that makes the film such a well-regarded entry. Ultimately, it succeeds simply because it has a very, very good screenplay, one that follows the rules but manages to tell a new and interesting story within them. By this time Richard Maibaum was an old hand at writing Bond pictures, having sole or joint credit on all but one of the previous five films (YOLT being the credit he missed out on) but here turns in one of his best, mainly because it adheres so closely to the Fleming novel. Although the first four films are, to a larger or small degree, faithful to the books, it is OHMSS that is closest to its literary progenitor, being essentially a literary adaptation of the same, with hardly anything changed. As a fan of Fleming it’s a very satisfying film for this reason alone (for the purposes of this review I re-read the book and was surprised all over again at just how close the film is to the book) but on its own that wouldn’t be enough to guarantee its success as a narrative; OHMSS the book, while in the top tier of Flemings, isn’t the best Bond novel (its central flaw being that the two plot strands, Bond’s wooing of Tracy and his pursuit of Blofeld, are almost entirely unconnected until the final page) and in other cases a literal adaptation of the novels would result in a rotten film (thinking, especially, of the lopsided The Spy Who Loved Me and the flat The Man With The Golden Gun.) What Maibaum does is take the best of the Fleming book and work it into the format a Bond film needs. His additions are always for the better, whether it be the kidnapping of Tracy to make the climaxes more entwined, or the addition of a sequence in which Bond is captured by Blofeld and has to escape his prison before absconding from the Piz Gloria (in the book he sneaks away before he’s caught). It’s a beautifully worked piece, although it does struggle slightly with making the idea of Bond falling in love with Tracy entirely believable - unable to come up with anything better, we get a montage of the two doing such romantic things as frolicking in the garden and riding ponies, a sequence which, while probably the best thing that could be done, still feels a bit of a cop out and far less in character than the enjoyable sparring they conduct a few minutes earlier in an amusing scene at a lunch table. Besides the two main characters, there are also a few very nice character moments necessary to the film, such as Miss Moneypenny’s refusing to hand in Bond’s letter of resignation, and M’s response to same (“What would I do without you, Miss Moneypenny?”) while even Q gets quite teary-eyed and paternal at the wedding.
There are also a number of tense set pieces. Uniquely for a Bond, from the halfway mark they all revolve around the same motif, a chase in the snow, but work nonetheless. The first half sees a few tough but generic fist fights and one sequence, in which Bond breaks into the offices of a lawyer with connections to Blofeld, which should be far more tense than it is - a mistake by director Peter Hunt rather than the screenplay. The second half is far more fun in that regard, however, with chases down the ski slopes (complete with baddies flying off the edge of abysses), a thrilling avalanche, a just-as-good car chase which ends up in a stock car rally (another difference from the book), an escape via cable car cable and a final shoot out that satisfies more than most as, given the length of time that is set in the place, we’ve come to know the Piz Gloria interior far more than most and thus relish seeing it invaded by the good guys. The final chase on the slalom is good fun too, although does raise one question: why doesn’t Bond go back and check that Blofeld is dead afterwards (a moment that annoyed me a fair bit on watching it this time)? Indeed, as far as the construction of the piece is concerned, there’s everything you could want from a Bond.
But, of course, no matter how good its construction, for many that will never be the major issue of the film; it’s the new leading man. At the centre of OHMSS is the big What If? of the franchise: What if Sean Connery had been persuaded to return to the role, would the film have been even greater than it already is? As a debate it’s actually a non-starter; given how bored Connery was during the making of You Only Live Twice it would have been a disaster if he had starred in this one as well. Unlike YOLT, which gets away with its tepid leading performance by distracting audiences with its immense spectacle, OHMSS is a more intimate affair, relying far more on the portrayal of its leading man than any Bond since From Russia With Love. In his dismissive mood, Connery would have ruined the film completely. The real question to be answered is what would the film have been like had it been made a few years earlier, when the actor was still interested in the part? That’s a far more interesting question but it’s still far from certain that he would have improved the film much. Connery’s Bond was always a mixture of hard-nosed cynicism with a dash of insincerity, and it’s hard to imagine how he would have played the more emotionally open moments, especially the proposal scene and the last one in the picture. Indeed, if one wishes to play an extended game of What If, for my money it would have been Dalton, the most convincingly human of the Bonds, who would have been the most convincing in the role, especially as he’s the actor who comes the closest to Fleming's own characterisation. Indeed, a young Dalton was considered for the part but counted himself out as too young - a close thing indeed. Such debate, however, is in the nature of a parlour game, one which will never be resolved satisfactorily to all those interested in such things, and one best left to forum chatter.
Instead, what we did get was George Lazenby. Accounts of where he came from have differed over the years, from a chance meeting between himself and Broccoli in a barber shop through to the actor actively pursuing the part. He had no previous acting experience and at the time was making his living as a model, his only onscreen appearances being a handful of commercials, most infamously as the "Big Fry Man" (and why wasn't an example of those included on this DVD, hmmm?) Despite that, he impressed Broccoli and Saltzman during his screen-tests, with his toughness during a fight scene being cited as particularly good. He was soon cast, but the experience of making the film was not a happy one for the actor, and he declared before the film came out that he would not be making a second Bond, something that hardly endeared him to the producers.
But just what kind of Bond is he? Far better than most critics will have you believe. He has a firm handle on what this character is, a Bond that can be both ruthlessly tough and extremely sentimental which, combined with the required look of mischief in his eye, combine to make him what initially appears to be the ideal casting choice for this particular film. He’s especially good in the emotional moments, such as the point when he follows Tracy after she storms out of her father’s birthday gathering and the scene in the barn, and leaves the best for last. The final moments of the film are heartbreaking, not just because of what’s happened but because of Lazenby’s playing of it. It’s usually nigh on impossible to feel any sort of human connection when one is watching a Bond, far less so actually getting teary, but the actor’s playing of his initial grief and shock is perfect, a man who unexpectedly had everything he could ever want and just as unexpectedly had it ripped away from him in moments. It’s an awful scene to close on and nearly all of its power is down to the novice actor, which is most impressive. It also helps that he has a nice, banterish chemistry with Diana Rigg, making their early courtship scenes far more likely than might otherwise have been the case.
He’s also good with the more traditional Bond attributes. He’s brutal when needs be - watch how he slaps Tracy around in frustration in an early scene, exasperated that she’s not letting him in on what’s happening to her - and the fisticuffs in the film are some of the most convincingly heavy of the entire franchise. Just as important, he’s also got a sense of humour about him. One thing screen Bonds have had from the beginning is an impishness, that twinkle that helps 007 get through his hardest assignments, and Lazenby has this too. The showcase for this side of his Bond are the early scenes in Piz Gloria in which he’s masquerading as a fusty English genealogist, Sir Hilary Bray, one with various ailments ranging for air sickness through to stiffness in the shoulder and whose idea of physical exertion is a particularly lengthy session at the desk pouring over old heraldry tomes. Bond - and the actor playing him - is evidently having great fun playing him, especially when the various girls at Piz Gloria decide to open his eyes to the wonders of life beyond Twelfth Century coats-of-arms, with the naughty agent even repeating word for word his responses from one encounter to the next. These are marvellously entertaining scenes, perfect Bond, and Lazenby rises to the challenge (pun slightly intended) admirably, the only pity being his voice is unnecessarily dubbed in those scenes by George Baker, the man playing the real Bray.
He has two problems. The main, and unfortunately, almost fatal, one is that he has very little charisma about him. It’s unnecessary to expound just how important it is for a 007 to have screen presence and Lazenby just doesn’t have that. When he enters a room attention is not immediately drawn to him as it should be, and in the relatively few scenes in which he is in the background it is very easy for him to fade away, just another face in the crowd. It’s difficult to say exactly why this is, as screen chemistry is often difficult to quantify in words, but it’s certainly the reason the critics at the time - and plenty since - have labelled him a failed Bond. His other problem is that in a few scenes his acting isn’t of a calibre as high as you would wish it, but in the end one can forgive him for that and it’s interesting to wonder what a future franchise with him would have been like. It’s easy to imagine he’d have grown into the role more completely given time and maybe even acquired that elusive It factor, and it’s entirely possible had he been more of a success we’d have got more films along the lines of OHMSS and less like Diamonds are Forever and its followers. But for this film, despite being generally very good, his lack of presence does let him, and the film, down ever so slightly.
Fortunately, the two other major roles in the film have fewer question marks hung over them. Diana Rigg has a natural charm about her that comes with a knowledge of just what is wanted in a role like this - years of answering to Mother coming in handy. She has a haughty elegance about her, befitting her character, and gives Tracy a complete personality, from the brash but scared character at the beginning of the film right through to her bliss during her wedding day. She makes a fitting match for James Bond, even holding her own during the climactic shootout, and is a memorable Bond girl. Meanwhile, after the disaster that was Donald Pleasance in YOLT Telly Savalas returns to the character a level of gravitas and menace that was sorely needed. He’s a calm, collected villain, and it’s easy to see in him the calculating mastermind responsible for SPECTRE’s many schemes. The one thing to regret in the film is that we don’t get to see his more overtly evil side as he never gets a chance to truly flex his baddy muscles (aside from the very end of course). It’s also incongruous that he would join in the ski chase against Bond, rather than just let his minions carry on but that’s hardly Savalas’ fault. His sidekick, Ilse Steppat, is good too as the acid-faced Irma Bunt but is hampered by the fact the character comes across as a less effectual version of FRWL’s Rosa Klebb. The final member of the principal cast is Ferzetti as Draco, who has less to do but gives a genial warm performance which speaks of his love and concern for his daughter while simultaneously suggesting a side of him that has risen to become one of the predominant crime figures of the area.
The film marks Peter Hunt’s directorial debut. Hunt had been editor on all the previous Bonds, and had originally been pencilled in to direct YOLT, only to be superseded when Lewis Gilbert became available. Instead he became Second-Unit Director for that film, and finally received the top job on this. And a very good job he makes of it too. He handles the introduction of Lazenby in a way not dissimilar to Connery’s in Dr No, teasing us with glimpses before revealing the full man when he introduces himself to Tracy - “I’m Bond, James Bond.” He provides some lovely shots and captures the atmosphere of his two locations well. That said, he does as mentioned above slightly drag out the safe-breaking scene and, while equally a problem with the screenplay, I always feel that the section of the film between Bond’s arrival at Piz Gloria and subsequent unmasking is not quite long enough to build up enough tension. A minor quibble, though, especially considering that even with that swiftness this is still the longest running Bond picture. (Originally it would have been even longer, with a scene in which Bond chases someone spying on him at the Royal College of Arms cut for time). Another Bond luminary made his debut here too; John Glen, who would one day become the most prolific of all Bond directors, started his association with the series here as Second-Unit Director. The two men divided up the action sequences roughly fifty-fifty and both do a terrific job; the various chases are paced and shot close to perfection (as long as one ignores the occasional back projection shot that is) making for one of the most satisfyingly constructed Bond films in terms of thrills.
Indeed, it’s a most satisfactory Bond film all round. Crucially, one feels like one’s watching a proper narrative, rather than a bunch of set pieces and nice-looking scenes strung together with the feeblest of reasons. At virtually every level this is a Bond that takes some beating, from script to direction to John Barry’s gorgeous music - the second Bond in a row where he’s hit a home run - and if it wasn’t for George Lazenby this is a film that would be regarded with as much affection by the general public as the best of the Connerys. As I’ve expounded at some length Lazenby’s only crime is not to have that charisma that all the other Bonds have had in spades, but aside from that he’s far better, given his inexperience at the time, than he had any right to be. That events turned out as acrimoniously as they did between him and the producers is a shame, but nowadays he should be thankful that the only Bond he ever did hit the jackpot as much as it did. A large share of the film’s success is down to him, not least in that final memorable scene. For that alone he should be proud of his role in this brilliant film, one with that most poignant of all endings…
Bond turned towards Tracy. She was lying forward with her face buried in the ruins of the steering-wheel. Her pink handkerchief had come off and the bell of golden hair hung down and hid her face. Bond put his arm round her shoulders, across which the dark patches had begun to flower.
He pressed her against him. He looked up at the young man and smiled his assurance.
“It’s alright,” he said in a clear voice as if explaining something to a child. “It’s quite alright. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry. You see - “ Bond’s head sank down against hers and he whispered into her hair - “you see, we’ve got all the time in the world.”
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 ratio and is completely uncut. This is important as OHMSS is one of the Bond films most messed around with over the years, often with odd cuts (such as the excising of a shot of a cable car shadow against the mountain). Thankfully all is restored here.
The main menus are the same as in all previous UEs, with a stylised background into which slots clips from the film. Very atmospheric, and very Bondian. All the extras bar the Commentary are to be found on Disk Two.
For a look at more of the menus, click here. The film itself and commentary are subtitled.
Pretty good, but there are still some notable compression artefacts in scenes with plenty of white snow or blue sky, and colours seem a little off in places. Faces blur a little more than one would like at distance, too, but overall this is on a par with the other Sixties films, and certainly looks better than I recall seeing it before.
Not the strongest part of the disk. There’s no original mono soundtrack and of the new mixes there have been some questionable decisions made. The most notable of these is the toning down of Barry’s music across quite a lot of the movie, noticeable especially in the scene when Bond breaks into the office. In the past the music has enlivened a scene which, as the main review notes, isn’t as tense as it should be otherwise. Gunshots also sound odd and I also have the problem I had with YOLT in that the clarity of dialogue now somehow underlines the dubbing. That said, in other aspects the remix is really nice, especially in setting up atmosphere and immersing one in the mayhem resulting in a transfer that is at times excellent and other times clueless.
As with several of the other early Bond UEs, DVD Times only received the first disk of OHMSS and, as nearly all the extras are to be found on the second, can only provide a brief précis of the one extra on Disk One, namely the Audio Commentary. This is the usual collection of interviews with people involved in the film’s production cut’n’pasted together, presented by John Cork of the Ian Fleming Foundation who fills in the gaps with various pieces of trivia. As with all similar commentaries this is worth a listen, especially with Peter Hunt’s contributions.
An easy contender for best Bond of all, the presentation of this film is a bit hit and miss. There’s nothing that make the disk a huge disappointment, but enough niggles to suggest that its title of Ultimate Edition is a little optimistic.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:51:48