Of all the many ways that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the weirdest of 23 James Bond films, its Christmas setting is maybe near the bottom of the list. But that makes it a perfect fit for this week’s theme of Incidental Christmas - movies set during Christmas for no discernible reason.
There are, of course, other reasons this week to be looking back at the oddest duck of the 007 franchise, but guess what? It's always a good time to check out this 1969 gem. Editor Peter Hunt, the secret weapon of the franchise’s Sean Connery years, emerges from the cutting room and directs the hell out of the movie. Hunt's action sequences are packed with weird jump cuts, slow-motion, echo effects. He’s pulling out all the stops, set loose off his leash and really having fun. Sure, the film's ski sequences have some crusty rear-projection moments, but they’re also filled with some seriously innovative aerial photography and flat-out AMAZING stunt work. Production designer Syd Cain, stepping in for the great Ken Adam, gives the film a distinctive look that only adds to this movie’s vibe as a weird outlier. Blofeld’s mountaintop laboratory, its floor a bed of dry ice, looks less like a Bond villain's lair and more like something out of a Hammer film.
The cast is a cut above here as well. Diana Rigg is stellar in the film - perhaps faint praise, given how many Bond Girls have been played by beauty pageant queens, models and other non-actors. But Rigg is genuinely great, bringing both personality and movie star polish to the role of Tracy. And Telly Savalas is the best Blofeld we’ve had. Oozing real menace and easily the most credible of Eon’s multiple iterations of Blofeld, his plot is both outrageous and believable, and never particularly cartoonish. And I love how they've retained Blofeld's snobbery from Ian Fleming's novel - the villain's vain desire to be legally declared the rightful holder of a royal title is a fatal flaw which allows Bond to uncover his plot. So very Fleming.
Speaking of which, this is also the last time for decades a Bond novel would be really faithfully adapted by Eon Productions, using little more than Fleming’s titles until 2006’s Casino Royale. Bits of Fleming would turn up here and there - the sniper scene setup of The Living Daylights, the avenging daughter from For Your Eyes Only - but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service represents the last true Bond adaptation for many years. (Incidentally, the film's primary action taking place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is faithfully ported over from the novel, ending on Bond's wedding day on January 1st.) In terms of scope, plot and myriad franchise milestones, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is in every way imaginable a genuine event, what should have been the biggest James Bond film of the 1960s.
Unfortunately, it stars George Lazenby as James Bond.
Let’s be honest: Lazenby was never going to succeed, at least not in the public's mind. Sean Connery owned the role, becoming a household name over the course of five Bond films between 1962 and 1967. The franchise made him a star, but he had grown bored of the part and resentful of the piles of money he was making the producers. When he split, Eon Productions forged ahead, convinced that the franchise was bigger than just one actor. They weren't wrong, but this kind of seismic shift couldn't help but have casualties, and George Lazenby was on the front line. Lazenby's one-and-done turn awoke audiences to the idea that the role could and would be recast, opening the door for Roger Moore and the others. But someone had to go through that door first (well, second?), and that person was always going to take the bullet. Saint George of Lazenby laid down his life as Bond, so that the series might live.
Lazenby's DOA status in the role is such a forgone conclusion that people are fond of saying On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been perfect with Sean Connery in the lead. But I look at Lazenby’s 007 pretending to be a milquetoast genealogist, wearing a kilt, falling in love and getting married, and I really have trouble picturing Connery working in that capacity. I won’t pretend Lazenby is a triumph in the role, but I think we should acknowledge that ol’ George threw himself onto more than one grenade here. Now that six other fellas have played the role, George can be looked at a little more objectively. While he’s not bringing anything particularly remarkable to the table, he’s serviceable (especially for a first-time actor), and he’s forever got exclusive bragging rights as the lead of this epic, distinctive, weirdly singular Bond film.
Given that the original marketing downplayed Lazenby’s casting, what’s surprising about this trailer is how much they’re really embracing the new leading man, desperately trying to sell you on the idea that the recast is a plus. On the other hand, do a shot every time they say the word “different.” Then call the undertaker, because you’ve died of alcohol poisoning. Happy Christmas.