All the Time in the World: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
All things considered, the sixth James Bond film should have failed. The five leading up to it, Dr. No in 1962 through You Only Live Twice in 1967, took Ian Fleming’s tool of a character to new heights, allowing him to single-handedly save the world in every movie where the books only required him to act as a piece of a much smaller puzzle. Where the novels were hard-boiled crime noirs, the movies became enormous action adventures–equipping the titular character with fancy gadgets and subtle charm that would make the character unrecognizable to fans of the source material. Much of the series’ success came from the star-making performance from Sean Connery, who remains the poster-child of the character decades later.
What a risk it was for the sixth entry to introduce not only a new face as Bond, but to choose a twenty-nine year old model with no prior movie experience and a talent for television commercials, to play one of cinema’s most popular roles. It’s certainly clear that George Lazenby was no Connery in terms of dominating screen presence, and yet On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has stood the test of time as one of the absolute best Bond films, and it’s all the more impressive that it’s remembered as such without its star being one of its more impressive elements in a franchise that tends to show its pride in that single respect.
It is clear from the beginning that screenwriter Richard Maibuam wanted Lazenby’s Bond to feel different, act different, yet still keep his classic quips and traits in tact. In the film’s opening scene, Bond tries to woo a girl on a beach after saving her from committing suicide, only to be interrupted by being held at gunpoint. “This never happened to the other fella,” Bond says, almost looking into the camera. This brings a familiar sense of camp to the role, but it doesn’t last. The first time we see Bond, even before this scene, he’s driving near the beach, only a silhouette visible, director Peter R. Hunt telling us through the music that this is our Bond, while the camera suggests that this might be a new Bond.
And a new Bond this certainly is in regard to action. Hunt, who edited the first three Bond films and did second unit work on four and five, makes the most of Lazenby’s physical build to present more brute force onscreen, which wasn’t possible until he took over as director. Lazenby is tough, the violence is brutal for its time, the edits are quicker, and the tone is bleaker, suiting this new force of nature with an ability to turn the franchise to something more than mindless fun and big action set pieces; two traits the franchise immediately returned to and maintained until the Daniel Craig years.
But Connery he isn’t, and Lazenby struggles to maintain a consistency in his performance. This was no doubt thanks to his lack of prior experience and his outright disdain for the role, which he made clear after filming when he vowed to never play the character again (he acted very little at all from that moment forward). His accent changes, his screen presence just isn’t as charismatic or captivating as Connery (or most of the other Bonds, really), and the choice to have his voice dubbed when he does undercover as “Sir Hillary” is just plain weird. But none of this is to say that Lazenby is a bad Bond. Much like the others, there are ways in which he shines, and ways in which he simply does not.
Similarly, Bond villains exist by this same motto. As Roger Ebert said, “Bond films are only as good as their villains.” Here, franchise veteran Ernst Stavro Blofeld (this particular one seems to be the direct influence on Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil) has an insanely silly scheme to make the world pay a ransom or else suffer at the hands of his virus which will destroy all crops, thanks to the support of his twelve beautiful ladies called (obviously) his “Angels of Death.”
It’s all typical Bond nonsense, but what’s surrounding it is mostly pretty great, especially the introduction of Tracy–one of the best supporting Bond characters–played marvelously by Dianna Rigg. Consequently, this character also leads the film to have one of the best endings of any Bond film, a completely heartbreaking rug-pull of a scene which transcends expectations of a popcorn action movie and led the way for many movies like it to take such risks.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service might not be a fan favorite, but it’s one of the ultimate 007 pictures. Taking enough cues from the previous movies to feel like Bond and enough from the books to feel like noir, this is a great standalone feature that not only remains one of the best James Bond movies, but one of the very best movies of 1969.