In the opening of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a newcomer playing James Bond, George Lazenby, fights off would-be kidnappers and saves a suicidal heiress, the Countess Tracy (Dianna Rigg) from drowning herself in the ocean. She steals Bond's car and drives off the beach, and a perturbed Bond almost winks at the camera, "This never happened to the other fellow."
And thus with this scene begins one of the all-time classic Bond films, Her Majesty's Secret Service, which is somehow forgotten because it is the only movie of the franchise to star Lazenby as Agent 007. And it's likely because its ending turned off fans for multiple different reasons, among them toxic masculinity.
James Bond, Blofeld, and Countess Tracy
But otherwise, it has everything. In it, James Bond once again comes face to face with his greatest enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played in this movie by Telly Savalas. Last we saw Blofeld, he was escaping his volcano lair, and by this film, they've explained his change in appearance due to plastic surgery (a narrative trick they will employ again in Diamonds Are Forever). Bond is set on Blofeld's trail when they find he is attempting to trace his lineage to European royalty, so he goes undercover as a genealogist and infiltrates the villain's mountain retreat. Blofeld will once again try to hold the world hostage by destroying its food supply (and humanity) by ending our ability to reproduce. Holy Children of Men!
Bond is aided in his escape and an eventual aerial assault on the compound by Countess Tracy, and this is where the film really makes its mark. Diana Rigg outshines nearly every other Bond Girl in almost every way. She is James Bond's equal in pretty much every department, even driving her iconic Ford Mustang in a breakneck winter downhill chase that culminates with them and bad guys breaking into a road rally race. She is a very good driver. This is no embellishment, as you can even clearly see Rigg behind the wheel in many of the road race scenes. Diana Rigg is just that great.
Lazenby is no slouch himself. Also, performing many of his own stunts in the movie (the producers were paying him so little for the film, they felt it was just as easy to replace him if he was injured as it would be another stuntman), Lazenby throws a meaner haymaker than any other James Bond. Yes, even Daniel Craig. He's as charming and brutal as Connery and as quick with the quips and one-liners as Roger Moore. So why is Lazenby, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, forgotten?
Well, Lazenby is unconventional. Before this movie, he'd never acted on screen before. He'd been a model and commercial tv actor, but that was it. Only a few years prior to winning the role of James Bond, he'd been a mechanic, then a used car salesman, in Australia. But he's incredibly charming. It's sad fans never quite gave him a chance.
However, the shadow and influence of the film loom large, as it remains a favorite among Bond aficionados and cinephiles. Among those is Christopher Nolan, who calls this his favorite Bond film and who based much of the mountaintop assault in Inception on Bond's assault on Blofeld's mountaintop lair in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
That ending, tho
If you've never seen On Her Majesty's Secret Service, don't read any further and go watch it now. Because the ending will absolutely wreck you, and it is cinematic malpractice not to let you experience it for yourself. Watched it? Good.
It's also no doubt this Bond movie remains controversial because of his ending. It is the only film where James Bond seems like an actual human being, truly seems in love with his on-screen partner, and they end up getting married. There's a tearful, beautiful wedding as James's poor work-wife Moneypenny has to stand by and watch her unrequited love marry another. But James and Tracey are a perfect couple, and the wedding is beautiful.
And as they drive away, the newlyweds are tragically gunned down by Blofeld. Bond, injured, but able to jump to the drivers' seat, is about to give chase, until he sees his new bride did not survive. He holds her and weeps, saying, "It's ok, we have all the time in the world," echoing the love theme by Louis Armstrong from earlier in the film.
And this is probably where we lose a lot of people. While this works incredibly well for modern audiences, for 1969, this was absolutely verboten. Director Peter Hunt reportedly told Lazenby, "James Bond doesn't cry!" And yet, that's how we end the film. Inasmuch as Bond, and especially Sean Connery, had been a scion of masculinity– and especially that kind of "alpha male" masculinity — to see someone show his emotions like this was simply inconceivable, especially in the '60s.
And so the franchise would swing back, backing up several armored cars' worth of money to lure Sean Connery back for one more round as Bond, making him the highest-paid actor of all time for 1971. The studio and producers also reportedly had trouble corralling Lazenby, who refused to shave his beard and cut his hair for publicity for the film, showing up looking more like George Harrison than James Bond.
But the story of Lazenby is well worth looking into even further. It is worth your time to check out the documentary Becoming Bond on Hulu, which pairs Lazenby's personal recounting of his story with re-enactments featuring people like Geoff Garlin, Jane Seymour, and Jake Johnson. It's like Drunk History, but sober, and just about George Lazenby. And it's worth noting the documentary is rated R for lots of sex and nudity, even though On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a respectable PG.
But here's to one of the best early Bond films, a hidden gem from the snobs who only think about Connery and Craig as the best James Bonds. And here's one especially to Diana Rigg, who brought a huge light and life to this part, who remains the only person who ever really had James Bond's heart. And it's why she is the greatest.
For the previous 007 Bond binges check out the box below.
This post is part of a multi-part series: 007 Bond Binge.
- 007 Bond Binge: You Only Live Twice aka Ninjas in Volcanoes
- 007 Bond Binge: Thunderball: Sharks, Femme Fatales, and Lawsuits?
- 007 Bond Binge: Goldfinger Sets Up the Good & Bad Classic Bond Tropes
- 007 Bond Binge: "From Russia With Love"
- 007 Bond Binge: Dr. No
- 007 Bond Binge: On Her Majesty's Secret Service is Bond's Hidden Gem