Blake Backlash on the Bond film that’s better suited to Boxing Day than a Bank Holiday.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is Die Hard but with the scruffy white vest swapped for an elegant orange polo-neck. Well, maybe not quite. But next time you want to watch the film about a man trying to save his wife from a group of European terrorists at Christmas and delivering one-liners while narrowly avoiding plummeting to his death, consider ditching John McClane in favour of James Bond. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has everything Die Hard has plus hypnotism and a kilt.
I’m teasing you a little because, of course, I love Die Hard. But given that the consensus on it has moved from ‘Die Hard is a Christmas film’ through ‘Yes of course Die Hard is a Christmas film but you’re not special for thinking that’ to ‘Would everyone shut-the-fuck-up about whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas film’ you may fancy a change.
The critical consensus of OHMSS has shifted as well. When I was growing up it was, literally, the Bond film my mother warned me about (‘You wont like it, the man they got to play James Bond was awful so they went back to Sean Connery’). Leslie Halliwell and Leonard Maltin, as far as I can remember, agreed with my mother. And since George Lazenby was a punchline, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had to be a joke, not just a bad Bond film but one of the worst films of all time.
I remember being aware of that changing around the mid 90s. I suspect that the film has always had fierce defenders but box-set releases, the internet and eventually, a boost from Steven Soderbergh, all helped shifted its reputation from fan favourite to neglected classic.
It is the only Bond film that is not just good-looking but beautiful. The film was directed by Peter Hunt, who edited the first four Bond films. Hunt had wanted to direct You Only Live Twice but Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman gave that gig to Lewis Gilbert. Hunt fell out with them and so he went off on a trip round the world (that Broccoli and Saltzman paid for, and my wish for you for 2018 is that all your arguments with your boss end in such an agreeable fashion). Hunt says he ‘ran into’ Broccoli and Gilbert in Tokyo and they promised him that if he directed the second-unit on You Only Live Twice he could direct the one after that. You can see Hunt in the opening-shot of the film, reflected in the polished brass of the Universal Exports sign.
Maybe Hunt wanted to show Broccoli and Saltzman why he should have been promoted earlier. In any case, Hunt’s long apprenticeship as an editor seems to have left him with a desire to bring a distinctive style to the picture, as well honing the skills he needed to do that. I’ll mention one moment to look out for. There’s a transition from day to night, done using two shots a swimming pool: we move from sunlit pool, all brilliant blue splashes to the empty pool, where the now dark water has the crimson-coloured word ‘Casino’ reflected upon it. And just as we’re registering this instantaneous nightfall, we hear the chatter of a roulette-ball slowing and stopping in perfect, synesthetic alignment with a ripple spreading across water like a shudder of anticipation.
The way Hunt puts a fight together is also unique and may be an acquired taste. I love it now but I was a little disconcerted the first time I saw it. The film’s champions will tell you it anticipates the rapid-cutting of post-Bourne action scenes. It doesn’t quite look like that to me, it’s odder and more stylish and the nearest comparison I can think of is Jean-Luc Godard’s high-energy deconstruction of B-movie fight scenes in Alphaville. Sometimes, though, the fights seem more Alpha Papa than Alphaville, as George Lazenby can grimace and groan in a manner unfortunately similar to Alan Partridge in moments of distress. You can see all of this, good and bad, in this scene:
(By the way, I think you can spot a number of echoes of that scene in this one from Qauntum of Solace).
And we need to talk about George Lazenby who, for a long-time, seemed to shoulder the blame for this film being a failure. Soderbergh suggests that the filmmakers didn’t give him enough help. It’s hard to tell at this distance but the interviews I’ve heard with the cast and crew suggest there was a genuine desire for George to do well. But Soderbergh is right when he says that someone should have noticed the ways he was different to Connery (although the notion that he should play it like Connery seems to have come from George as much as everybody else). If you watched the clip, you’ll have heard the caviar remark and know he can’t deliver a throwaway line to save his life. Towards the end of the film, remarking on the hubris and bloody death of a henchman, Bond says ‘He had a lot of guts!’ and Lazenby delivers the line like a man totally unaware that there is a double-meaning to these words, as if Bond was pedantically pointing-out to his wife the sheer volume of expelled viscera.
What Lazenby’s Bond is good at though, is having a wife. This is Bond film where Bond falls in love and gets married and Lazenby is able to be vulnerable in a way Connery was never capable of (at least not when he was Bond). And Lazenby is part of the reason we get Diana Rigg as Tracy Di Vicenzo, the woman Bond asks to marry him: Hunt wanted to cast an established actress if he was going to be introducing audiences to a new Bond. Lazenby is surrounded by good performances (Telly Savalas makes a good Blofeld, thuggish steel behind his genteel affectations) but Rigg makes Fleming’s cliche of a troubled Contessa into a real-woman, one whose self-destructiveness and resourcefulness seem to be given life by the same fire.
There’s a moment when the strengths of the two lead-performers work perfectly together. Bond thinks he is going to die at some alpine-village festival. Not spectacularly, he’s going to be knifed or shot by lackeys. He stumbles blindly through the giddy crowds, at one point yelping embarrassingly when spooked by a bloke in a bear costume. Eventually exhaustion seems to get the better of him, and he sits down in warm coat, with a glass of warm booze, and watches skaters while he waits to die. If you’ve had to schlep round a busy Christmas Market in the last week you probably have an idea how he feels. Lazenby’s face here is quite something, he looks like a man who is scared to die and does not know what to do. The chilly air around him is filled with a lovely, cheesy, eerie song about Christmas trees and Santa Claus – this one by John Barry and Hal David, and you should listen to it as read this next part. Then, one of the skaters stops in front of him, just as the song gets to the line ‘and most of all… he needs love’. And it’s Diana Rigg! And she saves him. You believe Lazenby’s Bond could be scared and brave enough to allow himself to be saved by the person he loves. And for all the life-and-death stakes, it’s a moment that evokes that miraculous elation you get when see someone you care about waiting for you in a place you did not expect to find them.
That moment is part of what makes this a Christmas film. If it is the only beautiful James Bond film, that beauty isn’t just in the visuals. It’s about things that matter, like love and, well, loss. The film starts with Tracy attempting suicide. Bond rescues her but still loses her right at the end of the film. That opening sequence ends with Bond running after Tracy, clutching her shoes, like a prince from a fairy-tale and this image takes us into what might be the greatest Bond-film credit sequence. Maurice Binder’s visuals are full of clocks, hourglasses and images from previous Bond films. Seven years of memories, disappearing as John Barry’s score is an insistent and looming reminder. Time always runs out. All things come to an end.