Bruce Scivally: Why is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service worthy of celebration? Because it is a James Bond film like no other. It has an emotional resonance lacking in the earlier films, innovative editing, less reliance on gadgetry than almost any other film in the series, top-flight action scenes, an epic scope, beautiful cinematography, and one of the best scores in the series. It’s the bridge between the “classic” Bond of Sean Connery and the lighter, breezier Bond films of the 1970s. It was an attempt to return Bond away from the cartoon extravagance of You Only Live Twice and back to the Bond of Ian Fleming. It has the best screenplay of the series. And the biggest reason it’s worth of celebrating: Diana Rigg.
Coate: When did you first see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and what was your reaction?
Burlingame: OHMSS was the first Bond I actually saw in a movie theater during its initial run, just after Christmas 1969 in upstate New York. I was “wowed” and it hooked me not only on Ian Fleming’s hero but on all things Bond, from novels to films to (of course) soundtrack albums.
Caplen: I recall watching OHMSS for the first time as a teenager and thought it was unique among the Bond films. The Louis Armstrong-crooning love scenes and the concept of a brainwashing a group of women as Blofeld’s angels of death were striking. The humor peppered throughout the film contrasted the final scene, which I thought was jarring and unsettling. Ultimately, I think that George Lazenby’s 007, despite all the negative criticism, fits the part in OHMSS quite well, and I view the film as a perfect bridge as the franchise moved into the 1970s.
Chapman: It would have been the occasion of its first TV screening on ITV (around about 1979 or 1980?). I have to confess that at the time I was rather underwhelmed. I was disappointed that it wasn’t the same as Goldfinger or You Only Live Twice and that it didn’t have Sean Connery in it. I’ve changed my mind since!
Cork: I first saw OHMSS at the Martin Twin theaters in Montgomery, Alabama, on its original release. I was just barely eight years old, and frankly, I had few concrete memories. My favorite moment was the snow plow, of course. And in a brutally honest confession, I didn’t understand Tracy’s fate at the end until my grandfather explained it to me.
Folks talk about the “downer ending,” but this was the era of Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Planet of the Apes, all huge hits, all with downer endings, and three of them involved key characters dying in a hail of bullets. Regardless, eight-year-old me thought Tracy just might have been taking a rest. I mean, that’s what James Bond was telling me.
Desowitz: I saw it first run at a new theater [in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles] called the Valley Circle across from the Motion Picture Retirement Home. I saw it two weeks in a row because I enjoyed it so much. It had such rare emotional impact for a Bond movie. I missed Connery, but this was the most exciting and riveting for me.
Helfenstein: I first saw it on TV in the late 70s, and although it was a butchered, pan-and-scan version courtesy of ABC, Majesty’s is so brilliant that those presentation flaws didn’t matter—I was blown away. The hyper-kinetic fight scenes, Diana Rigg’s breath-taking beauty, the gorgeous cinematography, John Barry’s score, the final assault on Piz Gloria—it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Pfeiffer: I don’t know why, but men always seem to remember exactly where they saw virtually every movie they’ve ever experienced. I saw OHMSS at the State Theater in my home town of Jersey City, New Jersey. The fact that the studio didn’t have much confidence in it was illustrated by the fact that it was the first Bond movie in years to open with a second feature attached (Guns of the Magnificent Seven). Ordinarily, Bond films never played on double features because the theaters could make far more money by simply playing the latest 007 flick back-to-back. I recall being optimistic but wary. I was 13 years old and my mom and dad accompanied me. My mom was hooked on Connery and she hated the film. She thought Lazenby was a poor successor to him. She also said the film was far too loud and seemed endless.
Scivally: I first saw On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when it was broadcast on ABC-TV on February 16 and February 23, 1976. In that notorious broadcast, the film had been chopped in half to accommodate two 90-minute time slots over two evenings, and to pad it out to the requisite length, the ski chase scene was put at the beginning, with an actor who sounded nothing like George Lazenby doing a lame voice-over as 007. It then “flash-backed” to the actual beginning of the film...for a bit. Then it was the car rally scene. Then Bond’s meeting with Draco. In short, the re-edit bowdlerized the film, making it incomprehensible. After about half an hour of this travesty, I turned it off. When ABC ran the film again sometime later, I was a more dedicated James Bond fan, and determined that I would watch the film all the way to the end, no matter how horrible, so I could truthfully say I’d seen all the films in the series. This time, the network ran the film in a 3-hour slot (with commercials), and without any goofy re-editing. It was a revelation. By the time it was over, I was sure I’d seen one of the very best films of the series; it was as though the Connery films were the “Hollywood version” of the exploits of the “real” James Bond presented in Majesty’s.
Coate: Where do you think On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ranks among the James Bond movie series?
Burlingame: Within the top five, unquestionably. I’d place one or two of the Connery films ahead of it and maybe the Daniel Craig Casino Royale. But it’s near the top, for sure. One of the reasons it’s so great is John Barry’s extraordinary score. Barry knew going in that the music, as much as any element of OHMSS, would have to reinforce the idea that this new fellow was 007 just as much as his predecessor. So the score is strong and memorable at every turn: the stylish main theme, the beautiful love theme (We Have All the Time in the World, sung so memorably by Louis Armstrong), the cutting-edge use of the Moog synthesizer, and thrilling music for the action sequences, all contributing to one of the greatest Bond scores of all time.
Caplen: I struggle ranking the films as I enjoy them all for different reasons. For me, OHMSS deserves its own category because it has a different feel than the other films. Given my focus on the franchise’s portrayal of women, I cannot say that OHMSS departs in any meaningful way from the films immediately preceding and postdating it. As I have written, OHMSS perpetuates the Bond Girl archetype by introducing a harem theme and the easy manipulation of women for pecuniary or other gain.
Chapman: For me it’s in the top three along with From Russia with Love and The Spy Who Loved Me. (My Bond tastes encompass both the traditional spy-type Bond pictures and the big spectacular action-adventure Bond pictures!)
Cork: This really depends. For me—and some folks will hate me for this—it personally ranks in the middle. There is so much I love about the film, but I think Michael Reed and Peter Hunt played with the look of the 60s Bond films a bit too much. I think it could be shorter. I wish some of the editing was bit less abstract. The scene where Draco talks about Tracy after kidnapping Bond seems to go on for weeks. Norman Wanstall’s sound editing is sorely missed, and the sub-standard sound effects and looping in places are a real distraction for me. Ultimately, the lack of on-screen chemistry between Tracy and Bond hobbles the film for me.
On the other hand, there is so much going for it, so much of the mood of Fleming’s writing, so much spectacle that is mind-blowingly wonderful. Barry’s score is among the best of his career. I think one of the things that I find frustrating about the film is just how close it came to being the movie that truly re-defined Bond for audiences when it came out. But it didn’t. It would take filmmakers who so loved Majesty’s to find a way to do that with Casino Royale and Skyfall.
Finally, in many ways, I can judge the film differently. Not by how successful it was at doing what it set out to do, but by what it aimed for, by travelling the path less taken, by aspiring to give Bond back his soul.
Desowitz: In the Top 10. For me it’s my personal favorite. It’s a meta-Bond; unappreciated in its day but beloved by many fans today. It has stood the test of time really well and served as the template for Casino Royale in many ways. Chris Nolan even paid homage to it in Inception.
Helfenstein: Artistically it is the best film in the series. It excels in four key areas. (1) The script. It is hands-down the most faithful adaptation of an Ian Fleming novel. (2) The visuals. Director Peter Hunt’s vision, cinematographer Michael Reed’s lighting and camera work, combined with the lush, dense sets created by production designer Syd Cain make a striking cinematic environment that simply hasn’t been topped since. To quote director Steven Soderbergh: “Shot to shot, this movie is beautiful in a way none of the other Bond films are—the anamorphic compositions are relentlessly arresting.” (3) The action. While Bond films are always on the cutting edge in the action department, stunt personnel that I’ve interviewed said OHMSS was about a decade ahead of its time with the fight scenes and stunts. (4) The love story. Hunt was astonishingly able to combine a technically brilliant action film with a heart-tugging, tragic love story.
Pfeiffer: I would rank the film alongside Goldfinger as my favorites of the series. It has aged very well, unlike some of the Bond flicks of the 1970s. It’s got a strong script and the type of exotic production values we’ve come to associate with the series. If I have any gripe about the films made since For Your Eyes Only, it’s that they lack the kind of spectacular endings that the Bond films were once known for. It seems like every film has Bond and the villain going mano-a-mano at the end. I’m second to none in my admiration for Daniel Craig and the great work he’s done in revitalizing the franchise. However, I would like to see something like the finale of OHMSS, with Bond leading an assault force against the bad guys.
Scivally: When I went to Los Angeles to go to USC, I would go to James Bond double- and triple-features at the “revival house” movie theaters, and it was there that I saw the film on the big screen, in wide-screen, sans commercials. After seeing all the other Bond films at the revival houses, I decided that the best of all of them was From Russia with Love, and the next best was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, followed by Goldfinger. Those films remain my top three favorites. The thing I find most appealing about From Russia and Majesty’s is that both of those films present 007 as a character who must use his brains to get out of dangerous situations, rather than, say, pushing a button on his wristwatch. There’s a very good example in Majesty’s, where Bond is imprisoned in the wheelhouse of the cable car, and with no gadgets, and no winter gear, he rips the pockets out of his slacks to use as makeshift gloves. That shows Bond to be clever, to be a little smarter than the average bear. Pressing a button on a gadget to get out of a bad situation—heck, I could do that.
Coate: Charles, what was the objective with your On Her Majesty’s Secret Service making-of book?
Helfenstein: My primary goal was to document not only the technical details (exact dates and times, locations, finances, challenges overcome, equipment used, etc.) but to uncover the influences of the key personnel. Not just the “how” it was filmed, but “why” the creative decisions were made. I started at the beginning, with the source material for the novel, in author Ian Fleming’s archives. Then I plumbed the depths of screenwriter Richard Maibaum’s archives, for the fascinating five years of work he did on the screenplay, including alternate drafts when Connery was still attached to the project, as well as ones with strange tangents including plastic surgery, and ones where Bond befriends a chimpanzee!
Film fans aren’t just interested in what made it to the screen, they want to know about what didn’t, so not only did I uncover the unused material from the early drafts, I also acquired storyboards from scenes cut including a large chase sequence through London and in the postal subway system, as well as a strange scene with a train full of corpses.
A large number of the call sheets, production memos, correspondence and 600-plus photographs in the book came directly from the OHMSS production archive of director Peter Hunt, which I acquired after he passed away in 2002. All told, the book took me about 10 years to put together, and judging from the tremendous response of both James Bond fans and the OHMSS cast and crew, my efforts paid off.
Coate: Compare and contrast George Lazenby’s turn as Agent 007….
Burlingame: Coming after Connery’s five films, it was impossible for Lazenby to measure up. I sometimes wonder whether we would have thought him more “acceptable” had there not been a Connery before him. Every actor has made his own mark on 007, from the more lighthearted Moore to the more serious Dalton, the somewhere-in-between Brosnan and now the modern-day Craig. But Lazenby did a creditable job. Had he stayed around to do Diamonds Are Forever, would he have grown into the role and be less “dismissed” today? One wonders.
Caplen: George Lazenby was tasked with the unenviable role of replacing Sean Connery as James Bond. Of course, no one can truly replace an original, so Lazenby was severely handicapped. To add insult to injury, Lazenby never seemed to win the full support of the producers, who continued to search for a replacement even after he was cast. Film reviews were particularly unforgiving. I recall one likened Lazenby to exuding the expressiveness of an Easter Island statue. Each time I watch the film, though, I am reminded that ”the other fellow” arguably would not have been able to deliver the James Bond required for OHMSS. It’s difficult to analyze Lazenby in the one-film vacuum, but I find that his portrayal of 007 has an energy and pace that is missing from Connery’s return in Diamonds Are Forever.
Chapman: Lazenby gets better in my eyes every time I watch the film. First—he looks good and moves well, nearly as well as Connery and Craig. Second—he’s superb in the action scenes. I think that of all the Bonds, Lazenby was the best at staging the fisticuffs. And the action scenes in OHMSS are some of the best in the whole series. And third—he proves himself a perfectly competent actor. Granted, he doesn’t have Connery’s confidence, and there are one or two scenes where he doesn’t get it right, notably the meeting with Draco. But I think he nails the final scene pretty well. In a sense, the fact that Lazenby wasn’t an experienced actor works in the film’s favor. His Bond reveals a degree of vulnerability, that’s there in the novel but not in the other films, at least until Casino Royale. For me Lazenby’s best scene is at the ice rink where he’s being hunted by Blofeld’s men after the ski chase. He looks frightened—note his reaction when he knocks into the person in the giant bear costume. This is psychologically plausible: he’s just skied down the mountain and fought off the two heavies in the bell-room so he must be exhausted. In the book Fleming writes that Bond was at the end of his tether and there wasn’t any stuffing left in him for another fight. The scene in the film has the same feeling.
Again, when I read the contemporary reviews, I found that the response to Lazenby was mixed. About half the reviews I read compared him unfavorably with Connery, but the other half thought he brought a freshness and new vitality to a series that some thought was starting to become stale after five movies. And, to be fair, the critical response to Connery in Dr. No was also mixed—some critics thought he was too thuggish and brutal (compare to the reaction to Daniel Craig), while others thought he fitted the role like a Savile Row suit. Connery’s performance in Dr. No is edgy: he really came into his own in From Russia with Love and Goldfinger. I do think that he was sleep-walking through the part by the time of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, and in that sense it was time for a change.
Cork: It is almost unfair to talk about Lazenby. He is so honest when he talks about his own turn in the role. There is that great Sondre Lerche song, Like Lazenby, which was inspired by Lazenby’s interviews on the special features I helped produce for the DVD / Blu-ray releases of the film. The opening line is, “It’s a travesty, where do I begin…” That says a lot. George Lazenby is a fantastic guy. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a bit of time with him, and had lunch with him earlier this year. He’s a great person, owns the room when he enters. But Bond was not kind to him. Peter Hunt believed he could edit a great performance out of him. Harry Saltzman advised him to act like a star and let no one push him around. And the press was brutal to him long before the film came out. It was a very harsh spotlight. For audiences, there was a real problem with what happened with Lazenby. For a significant portion of the film, he is impersonating someone else, a reasonably openly gay man. That was a tough burden for your typical James Bond audiences to stay within 1969/70. It wasn’t that they were offended, but one of the great appeals of Bond was his overt heterosexuality. But even worse, Lazenby is dubbed during this section of the film, robbing audiences of a key part of his performance. But, ultimately, he needed a stronger director, one that really knew how to draw a performance out of an actor rather than one who believed he could edit that performance into being. The result are some key scenes where Lazenby looks slightly lost. He is too often looking around like, “What the hell is going on?” There is a YouTube video intercutting the Bond casino scenes to make it appear that all the Bonds are playing against one another. In it, you can see how lost Lazenby looks compared to the others. It is a director’s job to make sure that Bond’s inner confidence can be seen throughout. I was friends with Peter Hunt. I think in so many ways he was vital to the success of Bond, a brilliant editor, but not an actor’s director. He did Lazenby no favors by under-directing him.
Desowitz: By all logic, Lazenby should’ve been a total disaster. And yet he was wonderful. He was handsome and had raw power and handled the action well. He was too young for this movie and had never acted before and it showed dramatically. Yet he was like a cipher without any previous baggage and I accepted him from the outset. (I think the opening line about “This never happened to the other fella” was a great icebreaker.) He was physically capable and unafraid of being vulnerable. We believed he was devastated at the end. He was a new kind of Bond, and it’s a shame he couldn’t be even more of himself instead of being directed in the mold of Connery.
Helfenstein: His massive physicality is evident from the pre-credits sequence onwards. The viewer has no trouble believing that this man is paid to kill people. Lazenby is without a doubt the Bond with the greatest amount of swagger. Those are his two greatest strengths. He’s certainly believable in the love scenes. Where he falls flat is the expository dialog scenes, especially the ones as Sir Hilary Bray, where he was dubbed. Those were the first scenes shot, and rather than bog down with getting the accent right, Hunt built Lazenby’s confidence by accepting takes he knew he would fix later in post-production. I think Lazenby’s overall confidence and happiness work very well in the film, and that positive outlook makes the gut-punch ending that much more powerful. Is George Lazenby the greatest “Actor” with a capital A to ever play James Bond? Of course not. But is he absolutely perfect for the part in OHMSS? Indubitably!
Pfeiffer: Lazenby was wise not to take the obvious route by trying to blatantly imitate Connery. Whether you like his interpretation of Bond or not, he did play the role in his own unique style and brought his own unique qualities to the role.
Scivally: George Lazenby is the weakest link in the cast of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He lacks the sheer animal charisma and seductive voice of Sean Connery, but he has a great physique, is classically handsome, and performs most of his scenes with assuredness; his initial encounter with Marc-Ange Draco (Gabrielle Ferzetti) is his least accomplished bit, but he’s quite good in his scenes with Telly Savalas’s Blofeld, and shows real tenderness and sincerity in his scenes with Diana Rigg. He manages to invest Bond with an air of vulnerability missing in Sean Connery’s portrayal, and his worst moments are no worse than some of the leaden scenes played by Connery in You Only Live Twice. By the end of the film, when he seems more polished, it’s easy to buy him as James Bond. It has always seemed to me that with every actor who played the role, it takes three films for them to fully grow into it. I think it’s a shame that Lazenby didn’t get three chances to perfect his Bond persona. It would have been interesting to see him in Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die.
Coate: In what way was Telly Savalas’s Blofeld a memorable villain?
Burlingame: Savalas might just be the best of the Blofelds. (It’s either him or Pleasence.) He’s not at all to be taken lightly, and he and Ilse Steppat as Irma Bunt make a formidable duo. He was so good that I had a lot of trouble thinking of him as a good guy when he took the Kojak role a few years later.
Caplen: The Blofeld we see in OHMSS is devious, maniacal, and cunning. But he is also somewhat more plausible than his prior iteration on You Only Live Twice. His facial scar replaced with no earlobes, the OHMSS Blofeld is a character that is more amenable to anonymity and disappearing without much fanfare. He can also be taken seriously, which cannot describe his campy successor in Diamonds Are Forever. Casting Telly Savalas (and Diana Rigg) around newcomer George Lazenby undoubtedly strengthened the film’s acting credentials.
Chapman: “Okay, we’ll head them off at the precipice!” The first time I saw the film, I was surprised to see Blofeld taking such an active role in the ski chase, as in the other films he’s presented as a hands-off supremo who leaves the physical work to his henchmen. But in YOLT (novel) he has a sword fight with Bond. So in that sense Savalas’s more active Blofeld is consistent with the books. I like it when the villain represents a physical threat to Bond regardless of whether he has a big henchman, so for that reason I prefer Savalas to the other Blofelds. Donald Pleasence with his scarred eye looks great in YOLT but his stature and delivery are nothing like the silhouetted Blofeld we’ve seen in previous films. And while I think Charles Gray is a marvelous actor, the less said about his Noel Coward turn as Blofeld in DAF the better.
Cork: Savalas was this great figure. I encountered him twice, and each time he had that same easy Greek smile that confounded you as to whether he was about to invite you to have dinner or simply slice off your head and show it to his friends. That is a great quality, and Savalas was a very skilled actor. Savalas dominates virtually every scene he’s in, but I do wonder what his performance could have been with just a bit more direction. During the ski chase and the final chase, where so much could have been done with his close-ups and his lines, so little is. In particular, I think of his reaction shot to Piz Gloria blowing up or him dropping the grenade in the bobsled or the shot of him driving at the very end of the film. He seems weak. Those are moments where a director and actor can lift something up, infuse a standard reaction with something that brings the character into focus. Think of Goldfinger’s little glance around when he’s briefly in the vault in Fort Knox. You just know this guy wants to have sex with that gold. Or think of Rosa Klebb’s reactions in From Russia with Love. Savalas is also saddled with the scene where he’s smitten with Tracy and trying to convince her to become his mistress, and that scene works for her, but not for him. He seems smarmy, clownish and awkward. Again, a strong director working with an actor of his caliber could have made that scene work, built up a real dangerous sense of sexual tension, and had the audience in the palm of their hand.
Yet, all my nitpicking aside, Savalas is always fun to watch, and one of the things he does best is chew up the scenery. He knows how to speak with this marvelous imperious tone. But those who know his body of work also know what he was capable of doing.
Desowitz: Savalas, like Lazenby, was miscast on the surface but was the best Blofeld: urbane, physically fit, witty, serious, pretentious—not at all like the thugs he usually played. In fact, The Assassination Bureau (which co-starred both Rigg and Savalas) was like a warm up for him. You almost felt sorry for him when he witnesses Piz Gloria going to pieces at the end. The bobsled climax was thrilling too.
Helfenstein: When Salavas was first interviewed in 1968 about what sets Blofeld apart from other Bond villains, he answered “Flair,” and I think that answer can apply to Savalas himself. While some people complain that Savalas seems a bit thuggish to be a criminal mastermind, I think he fits the part like a glove. Hunt did not want to re-hire the previous Blofeld, Donald Pleasance, because he was simply too slight, and he “waddled rather than walked.” He would not have worked with such a physical movie like OHMSS. Savalas has a commanding presence, an authoritarian voice, and he’s quite believable as the head of SPECTRE. You can picture him working his way up the ladder, taking out rivals with his bare hands if need be. My favorite Savalas moment is the demented cackle he makes after his grenade explodes—sending Bond hurdling out of the bobsleigh. You can tell this guy enjoys being evil!
Pfeiffer: There are plenty of fans who think that Savalas was poorly cast as Blofeld. It’s true that Savalas was primarily known for playing earthy tough guys and had recently come off playing two such characters in The Dirty Dozen and The Scalphunters. The main complaint against him is that he was out of place playing an aristocratic villain and intellectual. There is some validity in this. He lacks the sophistication that someone like George Sanders would have brought to the role, and certainly Donald Pleasence cast a larger shadow as Blofeld, bringing nuance and mystery to the character. However, there is no way Pleasence could have played Blofeld in OHMSS, given the requirements of the script which mandated that this time around, Blofeld had to pose a physical challenge to Bond. It wouldn’t have thrilled audiences very much to see George Lazenby tossing around a slightly built, much older man like Pleasence. So count me among those who feel that Savalas acquitted himself quite well in the role, not only in terms of the physical demands, but also in terms of interpreting the character. What he may have lacked in sophistication, he made up for in the area of wit and humor.
Scivally: Telly Savalas is a menacing presence, and is believable as an athletic, physically capable adversary of Bond. One can’t easily imagine Donald Pleasance or Charles Gray in the ski chase. But while Pleasance gave Blofeld a slightly Germanic accent, Savalas plays it with his own Garden City, New York, American accent, making his more of a Bronx Blofeld. With Savalas, the polished veneer of civility really does seem like just a veneer—you sense that he’s a tough SOB underneath, whom you don’t want to cross. Charles Gray, by comparison, is so charming and civilized that it’s difficult to believe he would do the nasty things Blofeld is supposed to do. And while Pleasance has an oily, evil presence, he lacked the physical stature to make a credible physical adversary to Bond; he would never have seemed like a threat in the hand-to-hand fighting of the bobsled scene. With Savalas, you can believe that he might just get the best of 007.
Coate: In what way was Tracy (Diana Rigg) a memorable Bond Girl?
Burlingame: Really, do you even have to ask? Diana Rigg is one of the great actresses of our time, from Shakespeare to The Avengers, and coming off the role of Emma Peel, she was simply ideal casting. If there is a problem with Lazenby in the role, it’s simply the fact that he just couldn’t match Rigg as Tracy and they had very little chemistry together. It was such a great part—the woman who finally won James Bond’s heart—and she still melts mine. I think Diana Rigg may just be the greatest “Bond girl” of all.
Caplen: I discuss Tracy di Vicenzo at length in Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond. She is a significant female character in the franchise. Flawed, rebellious, and “untamed,” she must be repositioned by James Bond, the man who saves her from suicide at the beginning of the film but cannot shield her from Blofeld’s bullets at its conclusion. OHMSS shows the audience, through Tracy, what befalls a woman who challenges the role reserved for her in a patriarchal society.
Chapman: “Her price is far above rubies—or even your million dollars.” I’m biased because I’ve had a major crush on Diana Rigg ever since I first saw The Avengers! But I think she was the first of the Bond “girls” with any real depth of characterization—partly due to the writing and partly to the performance. Most of the early Bond women are beautiful to look at but at best are two-dimensional characters. Even Pussy Galore isn’t all that well fleshed out, though Honor Blackman is superb in the role. But Pussy, having been set up as an independent woman resistant to Bond’s charms, succumbs pretty easily in the end. Tracy is different. I think Diana Rigg captures both the vulnerability and the bravado of the character. And for once the woman is seen acting independently—she saves Bond when she turns up at the ice rink. In fact I’d say she’s my favorite heroine in the whole series. A shame that she had to be killed off at the end, but there again, that’s what makes this film distinctive and provides a degree of emotional investment that we don’t really get in the other films.
Cork: Diana Rigg is beyond a doubt the greatest thing in the film. She owns the screen. The character of Tracy is, internally, the most complex Bond woman. Sure, Vesper is tormented, but more because of external factors. Tracy is a troubled mess who doesn’t know if life is worth living, and it is the loss of her life that becomes one of the most powerful moments in any Bond film. Bond saves her as a stranger, and loses her as the love of his life. I get great joy from the action and many other things about OHMSS, but it is Tracy’s story and Rigg’s performance that makes the film one I can watch over and over.
Desowitz: Tracy is the best Bond Girl because she’s the first that won his heart. Rigg evoked Emma Peel with her spunk and sense of fun and adventure. Tracy is such a sad soul who has nothing to live for in the beginning but is given a new lease on life after the wedding, only to have it taken away from her. She could hold her own in a fight and could match wits with 007. The proposal scene is touching and romantic, the car rally is good fun, and the closing sight of her corpse is unforgettable.
Helfenstein: The typical method of casting Bond girls involved finding unknowns, except for Goldfinger, and they decided to follow that alternate recipe exactly by hiring another Avengers veteran, and thank God they did. The role required a real range of emotions, not just window dressing. Rigg plays Tracy with an incredible mix of sophistication and elegance, emotional vulnerability, and independent spirit. Her physical abilities, honed by her years on The Avengers, caused the filmmakers to rewrite the climax so she would have a fight scene to show off her talents. It is difficult to imagine any Bond girl of any era coming close to the full package Rigg brought to OHMSS. There is only one woman on the planet that can get 007 to give up his bachelorhood, and her name is Diana Rigg.
Pfeiffer: Until Diana Rigg appeared in OHMSS, most Bond women were (unjustifiably) written off as beautiful airheads. That really isn’t true. Most of the airhead characters came after this film (those played by Jill St. John, Britt Ekland and Tanya Roberts being the most egregious examples). It can be said that Bond women represented liberated female characters. Sure, they may have swooned in Bond’s presence, but they were generally courageous, self-reliant women who were getting along just fine before Bond entered their lives. With the character of Tracy in OHMSS, there was much more of an overt attempt to present her as a modern, liberated woman. This was, after all, a film made in the burgeoning days of the Women’s Lib movement. Tracy was also Bond’s intellectual equal and was presented as a daring risk-taker. It didn’t hurt that she was portrayed by an actress of exceptional skill. This seemed to be the first time critics gave some grudging respect to a leading female character in a Bond film.
Scivally: Long before I saw On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I was in love with Diana Rigg. She was my idea of the ideal woman—beautiful, brainy and able to kick butt. I was a big fan of The Avengers, and wanted to grow up to be Mr. Steed so I could run around with Emma Peel. So, I was already pre-disposed to like Rigg before I saw the film. But her portrayal of Tracy di Vicenzo differs from her role of Mrs. Peel. Tracy has an inner melancholy that, when we first see her, is driving her to attempt suicide, and afterwards seems to be just under the surface. When she helps Bond escape from Mürren, the excitement of the situation—and his proposal—lifts her spirits and brings her to life; for the first time in her life, she’s really happy, and that makes her untimely death all the more tragic. Rigg, being an immensely skilled actress, makes us feel for Tracy from the first frame she’s in to the last.
Coate: What is the legacy of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?
Burlingame: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service demonstrated (conclusively, even at the time) that a tight, Fleming-based script; direction by the guy who had so brilliantly edited the previous five films; a genuinely inspired music score; great actors including Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas; superb production design; well-chosen locations and eye-popping action sequences; could ensure that a top-notch Bond film was possible even without Sean Connery. To this day OHMSS ranks as one of the finest 007 films ever made.
Caplen: OHMSS serves as proof that the character of James Bond transcends the actor cast for the role. Sean Connery’s departure ultimately had little impact on the franchise and paved the way for continuity with different actors portraying our favorite protagonist. Whatever your opinion of George Lazenby may be, he served a greater function than merely portraying James Bond in one film, and that aspect is often overlooked.
Chapman: I think there are both short-term and longer-term legacies. Its perceived “failure” at the box-office meant that the producers changed direction for the next film. So in the short term the legacy of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was Diamonds Are Forever: Connery back, gadgets back, more or less a remake of Goldfinger but even more excessive in its bizarre situations and visuals. I know that some fans maintain that the Roger Moore films ruined the Bond series. I don’t. And the style of the 1970s Bonds was set by Diamonds, which has more silliness and more camp than any of Roger’s films. Blofeld was never meant to be a realistic character, but the moment he appeared in drag ruined him as a plausible villain for me. Diamonds was back up at the box-office, though, suggesting that’s the style that audiences at the time preferred. But it meant the Bond movies steered away from any attempt at psychological or emotional realism, and instead embraced spectacle, visual excess and campy humor.
In the longer term, though, I think the influence of OHMSS can be seen in the modern Bond movies. With Casino Royale we had a vulnerable Bond again, grieving over the death of a woman he has fallen in love with. And with Daniel Craig, the Bond films have again explored Bond’s sense of duty and loyalty, most obviously in Skyfall, but it’s also there in the other two. The action set pieces in the recent films are also influenced by Majesty’s, I think: big and spectacular—and in the case of the pre-title sequence of Skyfall extended like the ski chase in OHMSS—but not silly or entirely impossible. I’ve been used to saying in recent times that I thought, in hindsight, Licence to Kill was the first Daniel Craig Bond movie—albeit without Daniel Craig. But perhaps, I might suggest, OHMSS was the first Daniel Craig Bond movie?
Cork: I answered this one way back in the first question. I’ll answer a different way now. I’ve talked about how Majesty’s influenced Bond films that echo its tone and style, but there is a counterpoint to that. When Majesty’s came out and did not become a breakout success on the scale UA hoped for, it changed the Bond films. UA made it very clear to Cubby and Harry that there were no more blank checks, that the studio would be heavily involved in the future Bonds, and David Picker personally became a major influence on Diamonds Are Forever. He got Connery back. He selected Tom Mankiewicz to do re-writes on the script. He almost succeeded in getting the film made in Hollywood where studio supervision would have been even more apparent. Most of all, Picker declared that what he wanted, and what he believed audiences wanted, was more Goldfinger and more humor. Until the end of the Brosnan era (with the exception of Licence to Kill), we are looking at a tone for Bond that is very heavily influenced by Picker’s creative input on Diamonds Are Forever. That’s an unexpected legacy, but it comes straight from OHMSS’s lack of box-office success.
Another legacy has to do with the way the producers and studios approached the job of directing Bond. I can’t speak for them, but we can look at their actions. Cubby’s big advice to Michael and Barbara was always not to let others screw up Bond. When you hire a director, it is a big leap of faith. Although Cubby later approached Peter Hunt for For Your Eyes Only, he was not pleased with Majesty’s. Peter was not someone he could relate to on a personal level. Terence Young, Guy Hamilton and Lewis Gilbert were directors who were brilliant, but never pulled the “artiste” card. John Glen was a craftsman. And Cubby saw them all as problem-solvers. Peter as a director on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was not seen as a problem solver. He was seen as a bit of an artiste. It would be twenty-five years before the filmmakers would hire a director with whom they did not already have a working relationship. Now, with Mendes—who was brought in at Daniel Craig’s suggestion—there is again the kind of creative trust with a director that Peter Hunt was given because of his history with the series.
There is one last legacy I want to mention that Majesty’s instilled in the series. For many years, the legacy was “stick to the formula, and don’t go stray or the audience will punish you.” But you can read in the interviews with Michael and Barbara that the films in the series that they keep talking about are Goldfinger and Majesty’s. They keep coming back to Majesty’s. Like me, I believe that they felt in a way that it was so close, so wonderful, but it wasn’t quite there. With the casting of Daniel Craig, it is clear they finally felt they had the right actor to take the kinds of creative chances that Majesty’s took, and to learn from the places where Majesty’s didn’t win over audiences. Bond films used to be very safe creatively. Now, they aren’t. Now they are taking chances like they did in 1969 with Majesty’s. But no longer is it one first-time director trying to steer the Bond juggernaut back to Fleming with the producers and the studio simply believing that Bond would never slide at the box-office. Now, it is the entire creative team encouraged by Michael and Barbara to take risks, to dig into the character of Bond, to challenge our expectations. And, in that sense, the legacy of Majesty’s is the continued success of the Bond films today.
Desowitz: The legacy is that it gave the franchise permission to be dark and tragic, and every now and then the franchise returns to the tone of this special movie, most recently with Craig’s trio of films. It also proved that the franchise could last without Connery, even though it would’ve been great to see Connery make this tender story as his Bond finale.
Helfenstein: It’s a legacy of risk-taking and a legacy of influence. While producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were known gamblers, both in casinos and in the movie business, they gambled to the extreme with OHMSS. Peter Hunt was a first time director. George Lazenby had never acted before. Think about that. They were replacing the world’s best known movie star with an absolute novice. They also took a risk by keeping Fleming’s tragic ending, and keeping the lengthy run time.
From an artistic standpoint the gamble paid off beautifully, with a masterpiece of a film. Financially however, the film did not make as much as some of its predecessors, and so it caused the pendulum to swing away from serious films to more light hearted ones.
The legacy of OHMSS influence has been demonstrated by nods and homages in every subsequent Bond actor era from Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig. The most prolific James Bond film director, with five entries under his belt, John Glen, is a huge fan of OHMSS, and that love for the film is seen throughout his work.
Marc Forster, the director of Daniel Craig’s second Bond film, states that his favorite Bond film is OHMSS, and when asked about his favorite Bond girl, Craig answers that it is Diana Rigg. Forty-five years later, Craig is currently filming SPECTRE, where he will face a villain named Blofeld, and a henchwoman named Irma.
But OHMSS’s influence reaches far outside the Bond series as well. A-list directors like Christopher Nolan and Steven Soderbergh profess their love for the film, and the climax of Nolan’s Inception is a direct nod to OHMSS. OHMSS’s influence isn’t limited to just cinematic film makers. The plot of the second season premiere of the BBC’s wildly successful Sherlock TV series, A Scandal in Belgravia, was influenced by the unused “death train” scene from OHMSS. Series co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss discuss the influence of OHMSS, as well as my making-of book, in the audio commentary of the episode.
Forty-five years later, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is no longer seen as the failed experiment, but as the cinematic triumph it truly is.
Pfeiffer: The legacy of OHMSS is that the Bond producers are generally rewarded, at least in the artistic sense, when they are willing to take risks. They did so with Roger Moore, who was the antithesis of Connery but was undeniably the popular choice during the years he played 007. The Dalton films could have been a major turning point in the series but only half-measures were taken and he never really got the opportunity he deserved to introduce an entirely new incarnation of Bond. They got it right with Brosnan, who was pivotal in bringing the series back from a six-year hiatus and proved Bond was relevant in the post-Cold War period. The producers’ big gamble with Daniel Craig has also paid off big time, and it illustrates the most daring gamble they ever took in terms of rebooting the entire series. But we shouldn’t forget that the first ballsy move in that regard occurred with OHMSS. The film was a painful experience for most of those involved due to infighting and bad press, but its legacy is that it holds up as being far superior to most of the CGI-filled monstrosities that pass for thrillers in the modern cinema.
Scivally: After the gadgetry of Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice threatened to make technology the real star of the 007 films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service returned the focus to James Bond, making him a more human character. For many years after its release, pundits said it was a shame that it did not star Sean Connery, salivating over the prospects of a Connery-Diana Rigg pairing when both were at the height of their sex appeal. But had Connery agreed to make the film, it would have been a very different movie. First of all, there would have been no need to have a stronger actress be the “Bond woman,” since Rigg was hired precisely because Lazenby was an inexperienced unknown. Secondly, Connery’s 007 was a much more callous lady-killer; Lazenby’s Bond showed more sensitivity. One can believe that Lazenby’s Bond would fall in love, and be shattered when his wife is murdered. In the prior film, You Only Live Twice, Bond seems to be falling for Aki, yet when she is killed, he immediately begins speaking to Tanaka about the mission, as if Aki’s death is merely a nuisance, like, say, a hangnail. Furthermore, it was because a new actor was taking on the role that director Peter Hunt felt emboldened to reinvent the series by taking it back to a tone closer to Ian Fleming’s source material and away from the jokey gadget-fests the Bond movies had become. Sadly, the film stumbled at the box-office (though its reputation has grown over the years), and the subsequent 007 films veered away from the more reality-based spy thriller mold of Majesty’s and back to the fun-filled romp model, beginning with Connery’s return in Diamonds Are Forever. James Bond would never be so serious again until Casino Royale. Lastly, the lasting impact of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is that it showed that a James Bond film could be made without Sean Connery in the lead role. The producers maintained that audiences came to the films to see James Bond, not necessarily the actor playing him. Majesty’s helped prove that point.
Coate: Thank you, everyone, for participating and for sharing your thoughts about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on the occasion of its 45th anniversary.
The James Bond roundtable discussion will return in Remembering A View to a Kill on its 30th Anniversary.
- Michael Coate