To mark the 50th Anniversary of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time and as James Bond prepares for his 23rd official outing in Skyfall later this year, I have been tasked with taking a retrospective look at the films that turned author Ian Fleming’s creation into one of the most recognised and iconic characters in film history.
The sixth film in the series was to be inspired by Fleming’s 11th novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS). Following the excesses of You Only Live Twice, the decision was made to take Bond back to his roots and make a faithful adaptation of Fleming’s original story with less reliance on gadgets and an emphasis on the love story at the heart of the novel.
Peter Hunt, who had already made his mark on the series by serving as editor for the previous films, was invited to take the reins and step up to the director’s chair bringing with him many of the long serving Bond alumni and a number of crew members from another EON production, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
After Sean Connery had announced his retirement from the lead role during the making of You Only Live Twice, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were left looking for a new Bond. With the Bond phenomenon in full swing they were reluctant to make any radical changes to the role so the search began to find someone who could pass as an acceptable replacement for Connery.
The producers’ first choice was 24 year old Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, however he felt he was too young to take on the role and declined. A number of actors were considered including John Richardson who had starred in One Million Years B.C. and Anthony Rogers who had appeared in a number of early episodes of Dr. Who but it was after seeing a commercial for Fry’s Chocolate Cream that their attention was drawn to Australian male model, George Lazenby.
To prepare for the audition, Lazenby visited Sean Connery’s Saville Row tailor where he procured an unworn suit belonging to Connery before going to the previous Bond’s barber at the Dorchester Hotel to give him the right look for the role. Despite the fact that Lazenby had no acting experience the producers felt that he possessed the right combination of style and brawn for the role with the added benefit that as an unknown, the audience would have no preconceptions.
Lazenby certainly looks the part during a stylish opening that slowly reveals the actor through a series of close-ups ending with the immortal lines “My name’s Bond, James Bond”, but much like Connery’s debut he is very much finding his feet in the role. He has the twinkle in his eye that was missing from Connery’s last outing and the one-liners and quips generally hit the mark even if they are on the cheesy side. The one thing he does lack however is the charisma and likeability required for the role but I’m sure given more opportunity to grow into the role I think he would have developed in to the part and made it his own after three or four films.
One area where he does excel is in convincing that Bond could actually fall in love and get married. This marks a complete change in character but it really works thanks to Lazenby’s underplaying of the situation. Where Connery was all about the quantity when it came to the women, Lazenby, the odd indiscretion aside while working undercover, proves that Bond could become a one woman man.
Pre-Credits & Theme Song
The pre-credits scene is a great introduction to the two main characters. Bond, driving along a coastal road in his new Aston Martin DBS is overtaken by a redheaded woman driving a Mercury Cougar towards the nearby beach. The woman heads into the surf in an apparent suicide attempt only to be pulled from the waters by Bond. A few moments later Bond is attacked by a number of men trying to kill him. After taking out the hit men the mysterious woman makes a swift exit speeding off in her car leaving Bond on the beach.
The scene is beautifully shot with a series of close-ups before revealing the key players. The fight scene at the waters edge suffers from the same under-cranked speeded up footage that marred some of the action sequences in Thunderball however the effect works better here. The introduction to Tracy’s character reveals a deeply troubled, vulnerable woman setting up the love story that is to follow. Lazenby proves his worth in the lead role immediately with a cocky confidence that quickly defines his approach to the part.
James Bond: This never happened to the other fella.
The opening titles, once again designed by Maurice Binder feature scenes from the previous films projected into the silhouetted women of the credit sequence. By recalling Bond’s previous adventures it invokes a familiar feel to the film making the statement that the Bond might have changed but it is still business as usual.
Composer John Barry’s score for OHMSS is without a doubt one of his best and the opening title music features a really strong theme that is recalled throughout the film particularly in the action scenes. Unusually the theme music is an instrumental piece of music recalling Connery’s debut in Dr. No however the use of Louis Armstrong’s We Have All The Time In The World as a the film’s love theme is also extremely effective and used throughout Barry’s score.
After rescuing Tracy di Vicenzo, daughter of Marc-Ange Draco head of a crime syndicate, British secret service agent James Bond reaches an agreement with Draco to take care of Tracy in return for information on the whereabouts of the head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
As Bond romances Tracy he discovers Blofeld has established a clinical research institute in the mountaintop Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps. Posing as genealogist Sir Hillary Bray, Bond visits the institute and uncovers Blofeld’s plot to brainwash the Angels of Death, twelve women from different countries in a bid to distribute bacterial warfare agents around the globe.
For the first hour, this film is unlike any other Bond film bringing a whole new dimension to the character. It is quite unexpected that Bond would ever appear in a romantic montage featuring horse riding and shopping to the strains of Louis Armstrong’s We Have All The Time In The World, however it all somehow works. While not quite reinventing the character we do see a number of aspects of his personal life that have until now remained secret. There is a nice scene in Bond’s office as he goes through some of his personal belongings including gadgets from previous films highlighted by a few brief bars of the score from each film and the whole idea that Bond could fall in love and settle down was hinted at in the first two films with his relationship with Sylvia Trench.
While the first half of the film is mostly devoted to the love story it does still find time for some espionage along the way. A great scene which sees Bond slip into a Swiss law office to obtain information from a locked safe is an exercise in pure tension expertly edited to wring every ounce of drama from the situation. Taking place during the middle of the day Bond has to rely on a huge safe cracking gadget that has to be delivered by crane to the office. The clock is literally ticking as the machine slowly deciphers the code for the safe with the constant threat of discovery as people come and go from the offices however instead fretting Bond chooses to coolly read a copy of Playboy as he waits for the safe to open.
The second half of the film cannot be accused of lacking in the action stakes, it is pretty much all action from the moment Bond escapes Piz Gloria on skis as the film becomes one long pursuit. The skiing sequences in the film are brilliantly shot by expert skier and action cameraman Willy Bogner Jr. The former Olympic skier was able to ski to such a high standard that he could ski backwards down the mountains while holding a bulky film camera capturing the action up close and conveying a real sense of speed. The scenes were further enhanced by aerial photographer Johnny Jordan, who had shot the Little Nellie scenes in You Only Live Twice. Filming the action while suspended in a parachute harness below a helicopter, Jordan was able to shoot smooth sweeping footage of the mountains providing superb wide shots of the action.
(One of Blofeld’s men chasing Bond skis into a snow blower turning the snow red.)
James Bond: He had a lot of guts.
OHMSS also features a particularly memorable car chase sequence where Tracy and Bond in a red Mercury Cougar are pursued by Blofeld’s henchmen in a Mercedes Benz. Beginning in the narrow, snow covered streets of a small Swiss town, as the chase escalates they become involved in a frantically paced stock car race on ice which sees both cars being assaulted from all sides not just by each other but by the other cars in the race. The whole scene is really well shot placing the camera right in the heart of the action and much of the driving was done by the actors themselves. Making his debut Bond film, second unit director John Glen more than proves his ability to construct standout set pieces and it is no surprise he would go on to become a major contributor to the series as it developed going on to direct a number of future Bond films.
The climax of the film features an assault on Piz Gloria, with agents dropping onto the building from helicopters for a large scale gun battle with the film clearly providing inspiration for the climactic segment of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The battle leads into another spectacular skiing sequence culminating in a thrilling chase scene between Bond and Blofeld travelling at high speed in a couple of bobsleds. This set piece features some of the best stunt work of the series so far and is a fitting close to the film’s action.
The final fifteen minutes of the film are what set OHMSS apart from all other Bond films. After defeating Blofeld, Bond and Tracy return to Portugal to marry in a lavish ceremony attended by M, Q and Miss Moneypenny. As the newlyweds leave the wedding party to begin their honeymoon Bond stops the car on a coastal road to remove the flowers from the roof. At that same moment a familiar black Mercedes Benz pulls alongside to reveal Blofeld as the driver and Irma Bunt in the rear seat with a machine gun. As she peppers Bond’s car with bullets the car speeds off into the distance. When Bond returns to the car interior it is revealed that Tracy has been killed.
The power of this scene is down to a combination of Hunt’s directorial style and Lazenby’s handling of the role. Hunt made Lazenby repeatedly rehearse the scene from 8 o’clock in the morning to 5 o’clock in the afternoon when the scene was eventually shot with Lazenby drained and exhausted. It is a rare thing to see Bond broken but Lazenby makes the scene all the more convincing in probably his strongest scene of the whole movie. The veneer of cool is stripped away and we see Bond as a mortal man with an ordinary heart and soul. Originally the scene was supposed to be split into two with the film ending at the close of the wedding as Bond and Tracy drive away then the next film would begin withTracy’s death as the opening pre-credit scene. It is an extremely brave ending to the film and I imagine closing the film on such a downer must have left audiences speechless at the time of release.
(Tracy has just been shot and killed)
James Bond: It’s all right. It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world.
OHMSS is a Bond film like no other. It greatly develops the story of the world’s most famous spy and shows sides of the character that had never been seen before or since. While Lazenby makes for a decent Bond, he never quite matches Connery at his peak and one can only wonder how much greater the film would have been had Connery not become disillusioned with the role.
The Bond Villain
Initially it had been expected that Donald Pleasance would return as Blofeld after he escaped the destruction of his volcano lair at the end of You Only Live Twice but for OHMSS, Blofeld was to be a much more physical role than before so the decision was made to recast. Broccoli’s first choice for the part was the famously bald actor Telly Savalas who had made a lasting impression as the detestable Archer Maggott in The Dirty Dozen.
Savalas brings a much needed gravitas to the role that was sadly lacking in Pleasance’s portrayal. He is a much more suitable opponent for Bond matching him not just in size but in intellect as well. Savalas seems to be relishing the bad guy role giving the impression he poses a much larger threat than before even if his world domination plan is on a smaller scale to one posed in You Only Live Twice.
Blofeld’s main henchman in OHMSS is clearly influenced by From Russia With Love’s knife footed Rosa Klebb. Irma Bunt, played by German actress Ilse Steppat, follows the standard set by the more well known henchmen in the series. While Tracy’s death is often attributed to Blofeld it is in fact Bunt who fires the fatal bullet. The role proved to be Steppat’s first and last English speaking part, she sadly died four days after the premiere of the film.
The Bond Girl
Following the successful casting of Honor Blackman in Goldfinger, the producers once again looked to the popular cult TV series The Avengers for their leading lady. Diana Rigg, who had played Emma Peel opposite Patrick McNee from 1965 to 1968, was chosen for the role after initial plans to hire Brigitte Bardot fell through when she signed to play opposite Sean Connery in Shalako.
During filming, a number of press reported that the relationship between Rigg and Lazenby was far removed from their onscreen pairing going so far as to suggest that Rigg would eat garlic before having to kiss Lazenby. Whether these reports were true is unclear but the relationship in the film shows no signs of any obvious animosity towards each other. The idea that this is the woman Bond would want to spend the rest of his life with is perfectly believable and as a result makes the conclusion all the more shattering.
(On Bond’s wedding day)
Q: Look, James, I know that we haven’t always seen… well, anyway, don’t forget, if there’s anything you ever need…
James Bond: Thank you, Q, but this time I’ve got the gadgets and I know how to use them.
During Bond’s stay ay Piz Gloria he is briefly involved with one of Blofeld’s Angels of Death, Ruby Bartlett played by Angela Scoular. Scoular had previously appeared in the unofficial spoof Bond film Casino Royale in 1967 opposite David Niven. In OHMSS, despite her role being a purely expositional part her bubbly personality shines through giving the character a fun edge outshining the other Angels including a pre-fame Joanna Lumley in an early role.
James Bond Will Return…..
OHMSS was the first film since Goldfinger not to take over $100 million at the worldwide box-office however over $87 million from a budget of $7 million was still a pretty respectable haul. The producers were suitably impressed with Lazenby’s performance that he was offered a seven picture deal which he initially accepted but even before the film was released he went on record saying that he Bond’s days were numbered in an age when films such as Easy Rider and The Graduate were beginning to emerge. Despite having been paid an advance for the next film Diamonds Are Forever, Lazenby made the decision that he would not be returning to the role leaving the producers once again looking for a replacement but was the sparkle beginning to fade and were the public unwilling to accept anyone but Connery in the lead role?..…
To catch up on previous installments of the James Bond Retrospective click below: