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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Fan favorite On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the dark horse of the Bond franchise

Illustration for article titled Fan favorite On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the dark horse of the Bond franchise
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: No Time To Die won’t be hitting theaters, but you can still enjoy some vintage 007 action. 


On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

The last James Bond film of the ’60s would turn out to be the definitive Bond fan’s Bond film: romantic, unusually invested in Bond as a character, and about as beautiful as these movies would ever get, but still overflowing with those cheesy pleasures innate to the series. Not that it was widely loved at the time, or for many years after. But the decades have been kind to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a “serious” and gadget-free Bond that gives depth to 007 while delivering all of the classic super-spy movie’s goofy appeal without ever going full Roger Moore slide whistle—the glowering henchpeople, the travel porn, the sadism, the horrendous rear projection effects. (Turns out there’s something that looks even phonier than actors pretending to drive in front of a rear projection screen: actors pretending to ski.)

In many respects, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is probably the most significant outlier in the series. It’s the only Bond film that’s a faithful adaption of an Ian Fleming novel, and the only one to star the Australian model George Lazenby in the leading role. It’s also the only Bond movie that works chiefly as a love story, with a Bond girl who completely transcends the label, and the only one before the Daniel Craig era that appears to have been directed with pure aesthetics in mind—the best score in the series (and maybe one of the greatest ever) playing over gorgeous, snow-covered vistas that give way to eye-catching helicopter shots framed around lens flares and a secret lab lit like a Mario Bava movie.

Those pesky rear projection effects aside, there’s a kind of harmony between action and theme, the spectacular chases correlating with romantic pursuits, the bedroom eyes matched with some of the most wonderfully bizarre editing to grace a blockbuster of this period. Peter R. Hunt, who edited the first five movies in the series, directs the sequence where Bond meets Tracy (Diana Rigg) in a casino in extremely fast and agitated cycles of angles—in other words, like an action scene. Though a lot of Bond films tend to look flat and stolid (often in direct contrast to their sets, stunts, and exotic locales), On Her Majesty’s is populated with eccentric visual ideas—like the background of a wide shot coming into focus as a character puts on his glasses to glance over and going back out of focus when he takes them off.

This probably explains why the movie has developed a notable cult following among directors: Steven Soderbergh and Christopher Nolan both swear by it, and when Quentin Tarantino offered to direct Casino Royale, it was as a ’60s period piece and direct sequel to this film. Which is not to suggest that On Her Majesty’s is a film without flaws. In fact, it has many—some that it can be loved for, and some that it might be loved despite. Though intended as a reboot avant la lettre, On Her Majesty’s continually throws Lazenby into his predecessor’s shadow, usually by making him deliver Connery-esque one-liners, which he mumbles. He has obvious shortcoming as a 007: He isn’t suave, his accent wavers all over the place, and from certain angles, he looks like the B-movie heavy Henry Silva.

Then there are the technical quibbles: awkward cutting between angles that were obviously shot at different times of day, an ugly opening credits sequence that is rescued by the absolutely irresistible instrumental theme. Some parts of it are silly even by Bond standards—namely, the stretch of the movie that finds 007 posing as a bespectacled, pipe-smoking genealogist to infiltrate an allergy clinic in the Alps, building to a quasi-psychedelic post-coital scene in which a recording of Blofeld (Telly Savalas) talking about chickens plays a major role.


And yet there isn’t another film in this nearly 60-year-old series in which Bond seems more human or vulnerable, and just uncomfortable enough to lend some credence to the fan theory that “James Bond” is actually a shared identity passed from agent to agent. Lazenby’s Bond is the one who actually seems like he’d prefer to be done with the spy stuff (possibly because Lazenby himself hated the role), which makes his relationship with Tracy believable and gives the finale a truly tragic dimension. On Her Majesty’s does this without sacrificing the glamour or the comic book elements of Bond, or making everything look like it’s taking place inside of a coffin—a lesson that would be lost on future generations.

Availability: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is available to stream on Hulu. It can also be rented or purchased from Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and VUDU.