On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is not one of the non-canonical entries in the James Bond franchise, but I sometimes get the impression that fans wish it were. Part of it may be that this is the first canonical James Bond film that doesn’t star Sean Connery. Part of it is certainly that it’s the first — and only — film with George Lazenby as 007. But it’s not all bad, and not all of the bad is Lazenby’s fault. Some of it is, though.
OK, a lot of it is.
The film opens with Lazenby’s Bond having a moderate amount of trouble rescuing a young woman from a pair of attackers, and then the woman runs off on him, prompting the response “This never happened to the other guy”. It’s meant to be a cutesy little acknowledgement that this isn’t the same actor who has always played Bond, but by drawing attention to the fact that it’s a different actor, it also draws attention to the fact that it’s an actor who isn’t fully comfortable in the role yet. Lazenby feels awkward, not just in that scene, but throughout most of the film. He isn’t a bad actor. He just doesn’t feel like he thinks he’s James Bond. He seems uncomfortable with the role, and it makes it more difficult for the audience to buy into it.
He’s not helped by the script. A lot of the dialogue is stilted, and the plot is… rough, to say the least. Unlike a lot of “love ’em and leave ’em” subplots in the series, in this film the “Bond Girl” is an actual romantic interest from Bond’s point of view and not just her own; in fact, Bond is interested to her long before she’s interested in him. A bit of genuine romance isn’t necessarily a bad idea in an entry in the franchise, though anybody who has watched half-a-dozen films in the series knows how it’ll all end anyway. But it does run the risk of feeling awkward and contrived, and having what is essentially a “meet cute” beginning brings that risk to fruition. The saving grace is that although the romance subplot is awkward, the actual “Bond Girl” — played by Diana Rigg — is a solid addition to the film, at least once the awkward courtship is over. Here’s a woman who isn’t a helpless girl in a Bond film, one who takes proactive steps towards her own rescue when she needs it, and who actually rescues James Bond at one point. If we’re going to watch “James Bond in love”, at least we get to see somebody who looks like a good match.
Heading up the opposition is Telly Savalas as recurring character Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of SPECTRE. Playing Blofeld in this film is a thankless task if ever there was one. Savalas is a good actor, and he makes for quite a good villain… but he has the unfortunate position of playing the role immediately after Donald Pleasance, who did a great job (in a film that wasn’t all that great itself). Again, the script isn’t doing anyone any favors here. Savalas is good, but his character is written sufficiently differently that he doesn’t quite seem like he’s meant to be the same character. And this criminal mastermind’s plot is simply inane, and no I didn’t leave out a letter there. The writers and actors try to sell it as a scheme of global importance, but when one looks at the scale of the operation, it’s rather unconvincing.
If my plan works, I shall have endangered the livelihoods of dozens! Dozens, I say! And mildly inconvenienced hundreds more!
Still, the film has its good points. Savalas is at least entertaining, even if he doesn’t quite seem as threatening or as clever as he should. And any Bond film lives or dies based on its action sequences; while On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a bit light on that front, what sequences it does have work quite well.
I didn’t hate the film. But I wouldn’t make it a priority to watch it again.