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Revisiting 1969’s ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’

50 Years of James Bond

If there’s one Bond movie I could take back — as in, undo and make like it never happened — it would be “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Is it an awful movie? Objectively speaking, no (although it does feature one of the worst endings ever inflicted on an audience). But as a Bond movie, it’s an abomination.

I knew this as a child, and I still feel that way now, revisiting it a quarter-century later. There’s a reason I only saw “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” once when I devoured the others multiple times, watching and re-watching them over the years. Simply put, George Lazenby is not 007. He’s a ponce. He’s a light-footed, dandy-acting pretty boy who stepped into Sean Connery’s role uninvited and demonstrated what Bond could have been had everything gone wrong: a snide, unappealing, upper-class twit who thinks he’s better than everybody else. The man wears his tuxedo with ruffles, for crying out loud!

For all I know, Lazenby is closer to the Bond of Fleming’s imagination, but coming on the heels of Connery’s magnetically appealing blue-collar Bond, he was something of a disaster. Of course, it was a daunting task to begin with. Whoever followed Connery would have the impossible challenge of either trying to match his appeal or somehow alter it in such a way that we wouldn’t always be comparing them in our minds.

But how can you help it when the opening sequence goes wrong, the girl gets away and Lazenby turns directly into camera and says, “This never happened to the other fella”? Bond was hardly the only hero who’d been played by multiple actors. Tarzan and Superman, to name just two, had changed hands plenty. And yet, the casting of Lazenby revealed a certain weakness in the character itself, suggesting that rather than being an inherently compelling persona, Bond is only as interesting as the actor who plays him.

Now, let’s breeze past nearly all the other elements that drive me crazy about this film (casting Telly Savalas as Blofeld, pretending an arranged marriage to Diana Rigg amounts to true love and sending Bond in undercover as a gay Scotsman) and get to that awful ending. You can’t wrap a formula action movie with the assassination of the hero’s wife. “OHMSS” presents Bond’s honeymoon as its happy ending, then kills the bride in a drive-by shooting, only to linger on the bullet hole in the windshield like it’s some sort of poetic statement. That simply isn’t done.

A stunt like that might work in a European art film, or even at the beginning of a Bond movie, potentially inspiring a “this time it’s personal” mission (a la “License to Kill,” when 007 sets out to avenge the murder of Felix Leiter’s wife), but to end on such a note is a violation of everything the fantasy-laced spy series has sworn to deliver — requiring none of the nerve it took to freeze Han Solo in carbonite at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Don’t give me the “but that’s how it happened in the novel” excuse either, since producers Saltzman and Broccoli hardly swore to literary fidelity when they started telling these films out of order, changing details and inventing storylines at whim. And if they were so faithful to Fleming’s vision of the British spy, they would never have cast an Australian male model (Lazenby) to replace a Scottish Mr. Universe contestant (Connery). So there.

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Revisiting 1969's 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'

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