After having played the role five times in the space of six years, Sean Connery had decided to stop playing James Bond, and to move on to something else. The producers were faced with the difficult task of finding an actor who could perfectly embody the characteristics of a character that Connery had pretty much made his own. It was also a chance to finally adapt Ian Fleming’s book; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, one of the most popular and daring in the series as Bond would finally make the decision to settle in a relationship and get married. All of this, in addition to giving Peter Hunt his first directorial gig, after successfully been editing and working second unit for all the previous entries, would combine to bring to the big screen the most unusual of 007 movies to date.
Finding a new actor to play the role came down to fate more than anything else. When George Lazenby, a young Australian publicity model learned that the producers were looking for a replacement for Connery, he immediately went down to London, went to the same tailor who’d made the suits for Sean Connery, got one of his unused ones, got a haircut in the same barbershop Connery went to, and barged into Albert Broccoli’s office and introduced himself as James Bond. That pushy, self assured attitude; along with a screentest in which Lazenby had to fight a Russian stuntman, made him come out on top of the list. First time director Hunt also took a liking to the model/actor and the ”go ahead” was given for the movie to start pre-production. For the role of Teresa, Bond’s love interest and wife to-be, actress Diana Rigg was chosen. She’d been a regular at the Avengers TV show alongside Patrick McNee, after taking over from Honor Blackman, who’d played the role of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964), Terrence Young. For the role of Bloefeld this time around, they went for a well known TV and Big Screen American actor, Telly Savallas. He was to take over the role of Ernst Stavro Bloefeld from actor Donald Pleasance, who’d played him in You Only Live Twice. For the part of Tracy’s father, Marc Ange Draco; Hunt settled on a well known Italian actor, Gabrielle Ferzetti after he saw some footage of one of the actor’s previous movies. As for the part of Bloefeld’s assistant and henchwoman Irma Bunt, German Actress Ilse Steppat was chosen. Another important bit of casting was that of the so called Bloefeld’sAngels of Death; 12 beautiful actresses from all over the world who were to portray the roles of all the ”patients”, suffering from a wide variety of allergies and phobias, who under the pretext of being cured, they are injected with a virus and brainwashed into delivering said virus into the world, rendering all living organisms sterile. As for the rest of the cast, the usual players like Bernard Lee as M, Desmond Llewellyn as Q, and Lois Maxwell reprising her role, once again as Miss Moneypenny came back. One bit of casting that would end up having an overall influence in the final outlook of the movie was the casting of British actor George Baker, who plays the role of the British College of Arms professor, Sir Hillary Bray, whose identity Bond has to assume in order to get the necessary cover up to get close to Bloefeld, as he wishes that his Royal ancestry be officially confirmed by said College. Baker was considered by Fleming to play the role of 007 in the early days before Broccoli and Saltzman came on board, but ultimately rejected it on the basis of not feeling sufficiently qualified to fill the role. His contribution to OHMSS was important in that he would end up dubbing Lazenby for those scenes in which Bond had to imitate the professor. Even though Lazenby worked extremely hard at it, he was never able to convincingly do it on his own. The script was penned once again by Richard Maibaum, after a short hiatus in which Roahl Dahl took over screenwriting duties for You Only Live Twice (1967), Lewis Gilbert. British novelist and TV scriptwriter, Simon Raven also contributed with some extra dialogue. For the role of Cinematographer, Hunt turned to a trusted ally with whom he’d previously worked in Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang (1968), Ken Hughes; Michael Reed. Other trusted recurring members of the crew came back, as was the case with Special Effects Supervisor John Stears, Production Designer Syd Cain and Set Decorator Peter Lamont.
Back to basics
For the next entry, and trying to be as faithful as he could to the source material, director Peter Hunt wanted to go back to basics and take a more grounded and realistic approach. This time around Bond would be relying on his wits to overcome the numerous difficulties that he’d be facing. Even though the events in the book take place right before You Only Live Twice, due to scheduling conflicts, the producers and filmmakers were forced to change things around a bit to accommodate the new storyline. This new realistic approach also translated into the numerous daring and nail-biting action set pieces; of which the skiing sequences would take central stage. For these the producers recruited the services of former Olympic Skiing champion, Willy Bogner; a job he’d be asked to reprise in subsequent Bond entries due to his ability to get the most amazing footage while going down a ski slope at 60 mph. That and the help of aerial footage shot by Cameraman John Jordan, who came up with a specialized rig to shoot footage fairly close to the ground while being suspended from a helicopter. Other action sequences included the car chase sequence through a snow bound race track which was achieved using a combination of rear proyection plates and in location, very dangerous stunt driving. Another faithful decision was that of giving editor John Glenn the chance of heading second unit direction for some of the most complex action sequences. Glenn would go on to direct all the Bond movies from Four Your Eyes Only (1981), to Licence to Kill (1989). The movie was fairly low key in its approach to the action, relying mostly on amazing stunt work, the use of miniatures and rear proyection to deliver such incredible action set pieces as the snow avalanche; which was achieved making use of footage from a real avalanche, miniature sets and rear proyection for the close-ups with the principal actors. A model set replica of Bloefeld’s Alpine hideout on top of Pitz Glory was also built to be blown up. The dangerous final confrontation between Bond and Bloefeld chasing each other aboard two Bobsleighs was done mainly using stunt doubles and process stage work for the close-ups. Bloefeld’s mesmerising Alpine clinic was not easy to find, and after numerous failed scoutings to find something that would come close to what Fleming had described in his book; the producers settled on a real location in Mount Schilthorn, Kanton Bern, Switzerland. The chosen location was a secluded, yet-unfinished rotating restaurant atop the mountain with only a cable car as a means of access, and which would also feature one of the most dangerous stunts performed in the movie; Bond trying to escape imprisonment from the cable car engine room climbing atop the cable and slowly making his way to a fast incoming cable car. This stunt was performed a few feet off the ground, but the below freezing conditions and the slippery nature of the ice accumulated on the cable to which the stuntman was strapped, made it one nerve-wracking bit of business for all those involved. In order to get the shooting equipment to the top, the crew had to build a Helipad next to the mountaintop rotating restaurant, and also to shoot all the sequences of Bond arriving at the Alpine clinic disguised as Sir Hillary Bray. Other locations in the movie were Portugal and England where, once again, Pinewood Studios were extensively used to recreate some of the location interiors to have a better control of the ever changing weather conditions.
The Heart of the Story
But what really drives this story, and makes it stand apart from all the other Bond movies is the love story between Tracy Draco and James Bond. This would be the one and only time that Bond would commit himself to a serious relationship and be willing to give up his profession and womanizing ways. Their relationship is the most beautiful and heartfelt in the entire saga, helped in great part by a wonderful performance by Diana Rigg. Lazenby tries to follow suit, but being as inexperienced as he was back then, it is very difficult for him to keep up on an acting level. He does try his best though, and he was given some very nice pointers by Hunt; especially during the last scene of the movie. Going the way Hunt suggested proved to be a more effective way of tackling such an emotionally charged scene. One of the things that better help sell the lyrical nature of their romance is the use of John Barry’s romantic theme composed for the movie, which derives from the song, ”We Have All The Time In The World”, composed by both Barry and Hal David, and wonderfully sang by Louis Armstrong. The song conveys a wonderful sense of melancholy that helps highlight their relationship, and it’s one of the standouts of not only the movie, but of the entire saga as a whole, and probably Barry’s best composition for the series. His dramatically charged tracks for the suspenseful and action packed set pieces are also notable; especially those for the safe-cracking scene (which has Bernard Hermann/Alfred Hitchcock vibes all over it), and the numerous fight and skiing sequences.
Critical and financial success.
Even though the movie was acclaimed for its realistic and grounded take on the character, and it’s very solid script, it didn’t resonate with audiences quite in the same way the previous movies had, due mostly to Lazenby not being universally accepted as the new Bond. Something that it’s not to be laid at the actor’s feet; given how inexperienced he was, it was a wonder that he could pull it off at all. He doesn’t convey the same mix of masculinity and elegance that Connery had mastered, but to be fair; he was given only the one chance. Had he been allowed to come back, things might have turned out differently. All in all, the movie made money, nonetheless. Not to the extent the producers had anticipated, though. Box office gains for subsequent movies after Thunderball had been slightly decreasing anyway. Be it Lazenby’s fault or not; it was decided afterwards that he wouldn’t be counted on to reprise his role, and the race was on to try and get Connery to come back for one more outing.
Overtime, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has been given the proper respect it deserves. It’s great script, groundbreaking skiing action set pieces, and a romantic story, puts it up there with some of the best entries in the series. Lazenby does a decent job with the character considering, Diana Rigg is outstanding as Tracy Draco, one of the best actresses to portray a Bond Girl hands down, and the epitome of elegance and beauty to boot. Telly Savallas gives his usual solid performance, but to me; both him and Donald Pleasance before him, are quite underwhelming as Bond villains; due mostly to a lack of sufficient screen time. But what really makes this one stand out from the rest is its gritty, realistic tone. Gone are the gadgets and outlandish world domination plot lines. Lazenby’s Bond is stripped down to the bare minimum. He’s left to fend for himself using his wits and whatever resources he can find at hand to escape from the stickiest spots. His outlook on life changes quite a lot too, once he gets to know and fall in love with Tracy. Lazenby’s exploration of the character, lack of experience notwithstanding, is one of a human being who feels his life could be something quite different. It’s not something unlike what Daniel Craig would do decades later in his first outing as the dashing British spy, Casino Royale (2006). Lazenby doesn’t reach the same levels of grittiness that Craig did, but his Bond has a human component that Connery’s one, with all his wit and dashing looks, was lacking. Lazenby also doesn’t have the same dry wit and humour that made Connery’s Bond so recognizable. There are some great one liners throughout, but they don’t hit the mark quite the same way they did with Connery. Playing the comparison game is a tricky and unfair business, as one actor’s portrayal of a specific character doesn’t have to hit the same marks, or be equal to another actor’s. I think that Lazenby did the best he could, considering the circumstances, and what he had to live up to. OHMSS is a great entry in the series. It’s got a compelling story, a beautiful love story punctuated by a wonderful score by John Barry and song by Louis Armstrong, strong and suspenseful action sequences, and one of the most devastating and heartbreaking endings in the whole series. Don’t be put off by the change of actors. This just so happens to be one of the best entries in the series. And Peter Hunt finally got his wish of directing a Bond movie, and knocked it out of the park the first time around.
Thanks for reading.