On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, from 1969, is one of the best films in the James Bond franchise, in large part because it tells the most interesting story.
It’s most commonly known as the sole film in the series starring Australian model George Lazenby, a no-name replacement for Sean Connery, and was often overlooked in the years after its release. But the unique plot – not to mention the superbly tight set-piece direction by Peter Hunt – make the movie worth revisiting.
The movie opens with Bond in Europe, encountering a mysterious woman named Tracy (Diana Rigg) who drives a red 1969 Mercury Cougar convertible. With Bond in his Aston Martin DBS, they race to the beach, where she wades into the waves in an apparent suicide attempt. After leaping into the water to save her, he’s assaulted by some ruffians, and she drives off. That night Bond runs into her again at a casino and they sleep together, although she disappears once more in the morning.
Soon after this, Bond is approached by Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), the head of a massive European crime syndicate, who tells 007 that Tracy is his deeply troubled daughter. Believing that falling in love with the right man might save her, he offers Bond £1 million to woo her. Bond turns down the money, but says that he will agree to meet Tracy again if Draco helps him discover the location of Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), the head of the international terror group SPECTRE.
With Draco’s help, Bond traces Blofeld to a mountaintop hideout in Switzerland, which Bond infiltrates disguised as a nerdy genealogist. There, he discovers that Blofeld is brainwashing 12 beautiful young women and plans to use them to disseminate biological agents that will destroy food crops, livestock and perhaps even wipe out all human life unless world leaders pay him off. After being captured, Bond escapes with the help of Tracy (still driving the Mercury) and they realize that they’ve fallen in love.
But before they can manage to stop Blofeld, he captures Tracy and takes her to the mountaintop hideout, prompting an all-out assault by Bond and Draco, aided by a number of Draco’s men. In the course of this, Bond rescues Tracy and believes that he kills Blofeld.
The film closes with Bond and Tracy getting married, and 007 leaving MI-6 behind. But in what is perhaps the most shocking scene in the James Bond canon, Blofeld and his second-in-command Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) drive by and spray Bond’s Aston Martin with bullets, killing Tracy. The final sequence in the film shows Bond heartbroken, weeping over her body.
In many respects, this strange plot elements are wrapped around a standard Bond film. Blofeld’s scheme is fairly run-of-the-mill, without the menace or originality of something like Goldfinger’s plan to cripple the world economy by irradiating all of the gold in Fort Knox in 1964’s Goldfinger. Nor does it have the threat of an evil henchman, like Goldfinger’s Oddjob, From Russia With Love‘s Red Grant or Jaws, from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.
But what On Her Majesty’s Secret Service does well, it does very well. Director Peter Hunt’s background as an editor enhances the superb action sequences. There are a number of skiing chase scenes in the Alps (and one battle on a bobsled), which are all beautifully choreographed and cut together, and in another bang-bang sequence Bond and Tracy escape by driving into the middle of a Swiss stock-car race. But Hunt’s strengths stand out most vividly in the hand-to-hand fight scenes. They are kinetic, realistic and edited in a way that looks far more contemporary than others from the ’60s, featuring dropped frames, extremely short cuts and great stunt work.
Combined with an absolute lack of the traditional gadgets, this all makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service one of the most realistic Bond films, which is to say not all that realistic, but more so than one that involves a deadly yo-yo made out of circular saw blades or a man with teeth strong enough to bite through steel.
Mostly, the uniqueness of the plot makes the movie so emotionally affecting. In this way it is superior to most of the other early Bond films, and perhaps even to the more recent Daniel Craig vehicles, which often end up veering into bathos.
Bond teams up with Draco at the beginning because he’s about to be taken off the SPECTRE case by his superiors after failing to locate Blofeld. There is a desperation here, and a sense of personal urgency often lacking in the series. And unlike virtually all of the other films in the franchise, Bond actually falls in love. This is aided by the chemistry between Lazenby and Rigg, and by the way both of them managed to portray characters moving from rather cynical isolation into a believable relationship. When they get married in the closing and Bond quits, we get the feeling it’s a genuine attempt on his part, rather than a plot contrivance.
All of this makes Tracy’s death in the end genuinely shocking. It also does a great deal to explain Bond’s character elsewhere in the series, casting him as something more than simply a lovable rogue who is incapable of real emotional commitment. This depth of character would, of course, wax and wane through the succeeding films, from the ridiculously campy (Octopussy) to the archly serious (Skyfall). But no matter how silly or melodramatic, after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service every film in the franchise bears the stamp of the time James Bond truly had his heart broken.