The times were a’ changing and Sean Connery, whose smirking visage had impishly eyed many women from his vantage point of being swaddled in a lush tuxedo since 1963, had handed in his licence to kill and vacated the designation known the world over as 007. The producers wondered what to do next, after all Connery now was a huge mega star thanks to the role, so how on earth do you follow that? Nowadays this isn’t a massive problem as recasting is part and parcel of continuing franchises and the announcement of a new Batman, Spider-Man or Jack Ryan seems to be almost a daily occurrence, but the recasting of Bond in 1969 would have had all the seismic ramifications of recasting Iron Man after Avengers: Age Of Ultron.
So how do you solve a problem like this? Well, money men Broccoli and Saltzman admirably chose to go different – not just with their lead actor, but with the whole tone of the film, giving On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a tinge of the experimental and even a hint of art house in it’s rich visuals. But did it work?
After randomly coming across a suicidal woman on a drive by the beach, a disillusioned James Bond gets ensnared in the tumultuous life of Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, the tormented wild child daughter of a crime boss. Her father makes James a deal; tame his child through marriage and he’ll give up the whereabouts of the mysterious head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Needless to say, after a whirlwind romance which stirs genuine emotion for each other, Tracy forces her father to give up the information and free James from his promise. 007 subsequently tracks his nemesis to Switzerland and disguised under a mountain of frilly shirts as a genealogist (no, not a gynacologist – look it up) infiltrates a bizarre plan involving brain washing pretty young women in order to distribute bacteriological warfare agents throughout the world. In a freak occurrence that only happens in movies, Bond runs into Tracy after fleeing Blofeld’s mountaintop institute and the two go on the run, igniting their mutual respect into a full blown marriage proposal. Can Bond once again stop Blofeld’s wildly over complicated caper and can he keep his new love alive in a franchice where the life of a regular woman can be measured in minutes?
The first thing that stands out about OHMSS is that it’s a noticeable dry run for the sort of Bond that was attempted by Timothy Dalton (Dalton’s Bond was always threatening to resign) and that was finally accomplished by Daniel Craig. This is a Bond who has actual days off and who has grown discontent with his employers, a Bond who – while still flirting – actually treats Moneypenny somewhere close to something approaching an actual human being. This is a Bond who has more relaxed and natural conversations with his cronies at MI6 that adds to a vague feeling of a family unit (expanded greatly since all his work mates show up for his wedding). This is Bond who cries. This is a Bond who loves. This is a Bond you can relate to.
Needless to say, audiences at the time didn’t take to this upstart Australian claiming to be cinema’s greatest spy, not to mention a more caring Bond who finally has had his fill with protecting the world and is toying with settling down.
It’s hefty run time didn’t help matters much either, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours with the actual mission not starting until about halfway through.
But as the years went by and the thought of someone other than Connery playing the character wasn’t instantly denounced as outright heresy, people started to eventually warm to this oddity of an entry, focusing on it’s more nuanced story and character work that aimed to do more than just have Bond save the day and vomit up random quips. George Lazenby may not have been quite the actor that Connery was(incessant looping and dubbing makes his delivery very stilted) but given that he never had a chance to settle in the role, actually has more to do with the character than his predecessor. The previous Bond seduced more than his fair share of women but he was never seduced himself, Lazenby gets to show a vunerable Bond opening up to a woman who is more than a match for him and I literally can’t imagine Sean pulling off the heartbreaking twist at the end.
The real talent here is undoubtedly former Emma Peel and future Queen Of Thorns, Diana Rigg as the wilfully independent Tracy who proves to be a fine, equal footed, romantic foil for the womanizing secret agent.
Helmed by former series editor Peter Hunt (who unfortunately never got to make another Bond), this movie has more of a deliberate tone than the more breakneck plotting that the franchise is better known for and the cinematography is frankly gorgeous and crisp (the snowy mountains especially pop off the screen with a stunning vibrancy) and the action, when it happens, does wonders with that now overdone trope: Bond on skis. Add to this a deliriously irresponsible looking toboggan chase/fight and you have all the elements of an establish franchise daring to trend new ground but some of the complaints leveled at the film on release is still somewhat relevant now.
Firstly the heavy handed attempt at meta-humor is frustrating and horribly unsubtle with the opening sequence having Bond actually turn to the camera and actually say “This never happened to the other fella!” no doubt giving rise to that irritating fan theory that Bond is just a name and is actually portrayed by different agents (ludicrous considering we see Lazenby remembering past Connery adventure with a wistful look). It’s also never fully explained how, despite the fact they met face to face exactly one film ago, that Bond and Blofeld don’t recognize each other instantly when they meet. Maybe it’s because Lazenby is being unnecessarily and excessively dubbed over for a third of the film by the actor playing the man Bond is pretending to portray or maybe it’s because the villain is now played by the very un-Donald Pleasance-like Telly Savalas who portrays the bald psycho as a much more booming presence than before. Are we to think that Blofeld’s personality also subtly changes with every actor shift?
Despite these semi-frequent lapses in logic, OHMSS should be embraced for doing something slightly radical with a franchise not exactly known for it’s depth and trying to add some genuine soul to a character renowed for his coldness to others. Failing that, it should be lauded for just looking fucking stunning but for whatever reason you need to give it a reassessment, take it. After all, as Louis Armstrong seductively rumbles in the theme song – We have all the time in the world.