MI6 trawls the archives to see how critics of the day received George Lazenby's one and only outing as James Bond in the 1969 film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"...
Time Tunnel: Review Rewind
7th December 2009
New York Times - December, 19th 1969
A bare fact must be faced. The superheated screen activities of Ian Fleming's supersleuth and sex symbol, James Bond, are as inevitable as sex or crime or "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," the sixth steaming annal in the sock 'em and spoof 'em spy series that crashed into the DeMille and other local theaters yesterday.
Serious criticism of such an esteemed institution would be tantamount to throwing rocks at Buckingham Palace, but it does call for a handful of pebbles. Devotees will note that Sean Connery, the virile, suave conqueror of all those dastards and dames in the five previous capers, has given up his 007 Bond credentials to George Lazenby, a 30-year-old Australian newcomer to films. He's tall, dark, handsome and has a dimpled chin. But Mr. Lazenby, if not a spurious Bond, is merely a casual, pleasant, satisfactory replacement.
For the record, he plays a decidedly second fiddle to an overabundance of continuous action, a soundtrack as explosive as the London Blitz, and flip dialogue and characterizations set against some authentic, truly spectacular Portuguese and Swiss scenic backgrounds, caught in eyecatching colors.
What are Bond's problems now? They're too numerous, as usual, to hold the constant attention of anyone other than a charter member of Her Majesty's Secret Service. What sets our bully boy off and fighting, running, shooting and loving this time is a lissome, leggy lass mysteriously bent on drowning herself in the waves thunderously crashing on a lonely Portuguese beach.
Above: Diana Rigg as the doomed Mrs. Bond...
First thing you know he's involved in a battle with two toughs that is as full of karate chops and belts in the belly as a brawl in a Singapore alley. To the credit of Richard Maibaum, the scenarist, the film's tongue-in-cheek attitude is set right at the outset. Once our new Bond emerges triumphant, he turns to the audience and says, somewhat plaintively: "This never happened to the other fellow."
But it does. The lady of his life, the svelte Diana Rigg, who learned her karate chops from the British TV "Avenger" series, is the daughter of the blandly effete Gabriele Ferzetti, Mafioso-like tycoon, who likes Bond and wants to destroy that Spectre chief, Telly Savalas, his competition in world crime. That suits Bond too, and practically right off he's in Switzerland, where our villain maintains an eyrie atop an Alp.
It's an inaccessible retreat, supposedly an institute for allergy research complete with hired guns, scientific gimmicks and an international conclave of allegedly allergic beauties who are really being brainwashed by the oily, bald-domed Mr. Savalas to spread his biological destruction of the world's food supply. Get it?
Above: Telly Savalas - the second man to play Bond's arch-villain, Blofeld...
Bond dallies with the dolls, of course, but the heart of the matter is a series of chases shot by the 41-year-old Peter Hunt, second unit director of the previous adventures, who's making his directorial debut with this one. The chases are breakneck, devastating affairs.
A viewer must remember what seems to be the longest ski chase and bobsled run ever, full of gunfire and spills, that even includes an avalanche. There also is a decibel-filled fight amid clanging Swiss cow bells, the jarring bombing of that eyrie by helicopter-borne rescuers and the inadvertent clashes of the escaping Bond and Miss Rigg in a slithering, bang-up stock car race. One must say amen to a colleague's observation:
"I never expected to see Switzerland defoliated like "this."
It should be reported that the producers and distributors already have rung up a reported $82,200,000 on their first five Bond issues. It is not ungallant to report that Bond marries Miss Rigg, who is gunned down and killed by Savalas on their honeymoon. So it is reasonable to expect that Bond inevitably will be loving, shooting and running again.
Los Angeles Times - December, 18th 1969
"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" is by a long shot the very best of the James Bond epics. For those who vastly admired those which went before, this is high praise indeed. (Agent 007-haters are free to retreat, muttering, into the other room.) Its is long - well over two hours - and ablaze with action all the way. But it is also the first of the films in which Bond is allowed any genuine claims to humanity, real feeling and sentiment.
Above: George Lazenby comes face to face with Draco and (below) M agrees that Bond continue to investigate Blofeld...
Admittedly he has probably only graduated to a more cerebral form of comic strip or a higher grade of cardboard. But in his own terms he's oddly touching and, in the end, a figure of considerable sympathy. (It's a jolt, the ending.)
It's ironic that Sean Connery, having seen James Bond through the thinly two-dimensional days, should not be around for the new, higher-interest Bond. But George Lazenby handles it very nicely, although at his first meeting he's a good deal less vivid than Connery was.
Humanity was the only course left for the Bond series, since the reliance on mechanical gadgetry had about run its course. This time, although the dread Ernst Blofeld (Telly Savalas) intends to dominate the world via post-hypnotic suggestion to platoons of pulchritudinous pretties, the action is largely mundane: car chases, ski races, your everyday avalanche, helicoptering, fist fights.
But the action is beautifully paced and describes a rising series of highs, interspaced by Bond's blooming romance with a gangster's dazzling and high-spirited daughter (Diana Rigg). Bond in kilts and horn rims as a visiting expert on heraldry is a creature of great and owlish fun.
There is much violence but it is extravagantly make believe, even at the outrageous moment when one of the bad chaps falls before a rotary snow plow and soon begins to... ah... drift.
The previous Bonds are evoked in the titles and elsewhere; Lois Maxwell is around as Miss Moneypenny and Bernard Lee as "M" (for whom I have wanted to supply an assistant, to be called "m").
Above: Bond rescues Tracy for the second time...
Sets, special effects, action sequences are extensive and admirable, in the Bond tradition. John Barry's music is always intelligent and this time has a chance to be extensively lyrical as well as adventurous.
It is a first time effort for Peter Hunt as director and he's turned the splendid trick of creating impressions of depth without jeopardizing the gorgeous escapist nonsense which the 007 enterprises are.
As followers of the Avengers TV series know, Diana Rigg is a fine actress and delicious lady. She is enchanting here as the love of James' life.
The film is one of the more welcome Christmas presents, to say the least.
Washington Post - December, 23rd 1969
The most amusing thing about "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," now at Keith's, is its breezy self-confidant attitude. The movie is blessedly free of anxiety: no worries about the two-year gap between Bond pictures or the necessity of introducing a new actor as Bond himself or the reaction of the audience.
The opening sequence quickly introduced the romantic leads, hurls us into the action and cracks a joke about the changing of the guard. Our sophistication is taken for granted: The filmmakers assume that we're all regular customers and know exactly what we want. In case there are a few newcomers in the house, Maurice Binder's titles supply a witty resume of the first five films and everyone is off and running.
Right: Director Peter Hunt at Piz Gloria, Switzerland...
This carefree approach is sensible as well as refreshing. At this moment, very few packagers of mass-entertainment seem to be capable of it, and perhaps the Bond movies are, indeed, the only ones left where you can count on the good will and knowledgeability of nearly every member of the audience. Although it's become rare, a feeling of implicit trust - even of cynical complicity - between filmmaker and viewer is absolutely necessary in escapist entertainment. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" restores that feeling, effortlessly picking up the series where it left off, and what a relief it is.
The first few reels are so fast-moving that we anticipate a better movie than we actually get. Peter Hunt, who directed, was an editor and second unit director on the earlier Bond vehicles, and he really does cut on a dime. The action bits and the early plot exposition are polished off in record time, and with attackers coming at us from all directions and Hunt always a jump cut or two ahead, we're hard pressed to keep up.
Above: Mr and Mrs Bond drive off into the sunset...
Our familiarity with with the Bond genre and its artifices permits Hunt to cut corners. We want him to floor the accelerator and most of the time he obliges. At the same time, the viewers tend become connoisseurs, noting that none of the fights is quite so rousing as the showdown between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in "From Russia With Love" and none of the scenic designs quite so spacious and pleasing as those of Ken Adam in "Goldfinger" or "You Only Live Twice".
By bringing the villain (Telly Savalas as Spectre chief Ernst Blofeld) back to life at the fadeout instead of waiting to revive him in the next Bond film, the screenplay makes us wonder if we'll also have to resolve the film's predicament - how to prevent Blofeld from using dozens of girls as biological time bombs - at a later date.
The ending has a deliberate cliffhanger note that wasn't used before. Worst of all, there's a sentimental catch that tends to send us out on a downbeat note - the killing of Bond's bride (Diana Rigg). The death of Mrs. Bond could easily begin the next picture in the series ("Diamonds Are Forever") and one tends to suspect that it will.
In the person of George Lazenby, Bond seems younger, callower, perhaps more of a functionary. It's as if the plot mechanism in the film version of "Casino Royale" were really true: Bond has retired, and the Service has given his name to several new agents. Physically Lazenby is built like James Coburn and moves like him but his relaxed manner hasn't hardened into a conceit and should wear rather well.
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