Posted by: Ben | February 21, 2009

100 Movies: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

(Film. Hunt. UK, 1969)

Like St. Paul, when I was a child, I thought and behaved as a child, and it seemed to me that if the TV guide was going to go to the trouble of giving every film on that week a star rating, they must necessarily have a person, or possibly two people, on the staff whose job it was to watch all of these films and pseudoscientifically assign them a number of stars proportionate to their quality. But as the number of channels increased, so did the number of films being shown, and it became evident that the magazine publishers were simply looking up the films in whatever film guide they had to hand. Leading to spectacular inconsistencies like this edition of TV & Satellite Week that I have here in my hands. On this page: The Spy Who Loved Me, which came out before I was born and which captivated and enthralled millions of fat and lazy families who had already seen it at least twenty times between them, including my own, when screened in the ITV after-dinner slot on New Years Day 2009. Three stars. Now on this page here: Casino Royale, the muddled and overlong 2006 entry noted for playing havoc with the continuity (here, have this reboot-the-series cake – no, wait, you’ve gone and retained-Dench-as-M eaten it!) and taking the traditional casual violence and playful misogyny of the Bond franchise to hitherto unimaginable extremes. Five stars. Wrong wrong wrong wrong, and who’ll be watching Casino Royale in 2038? Bond completists, that’s who. Basically, Ian Fleming is dead and it’s time the film producers let him lie and made some proper Bond films instead. But I come here not to bury Casino Royale, or even to praise The Spy Who Loved Me, but to raise an eyebrow at the Bond debut and swansong of Lazenby, on the strength of which according to Wikipedia he was offered a contract that would have seen him through to Octopussy. Warning: This piece contains 40 year-old spoilers.


Willie Thorne squares up to Doug Mountjoy in the final of the 1979 Mercantile Credit Classic

Like Casino Royale, there’s something a little different about OHMSS, something out of the ordinary. The film opens with Bond loitering on the Portugese coast, where he spots a woman who appears to be trying to kill herself by walking into the sea. He runs after her and pulls her out, when two burly minders appear, delaying him for just long enough for the woman to drive off like a maniac, leaving her shoes behind on the beach. Bond turns to camera – and it’s the first close-up we get of his face, perhaps because the director wants you to admire Lazenby’s ass-kicking prowess before you can be repulsed by his looks, which must have appalled 60’s filmgoers used to Connery’s ferocious unremitting sexuality – and says “This never happened to the other feller,” thereby breaking the fourth wall (which would not be rebuilt until the Dalton era) and generating decades of speculation that James Bond was actually a coded identity used by a number of different agents (for the sake of argument let’s assume that actually he had plastic surgery to alter his appearance after You Only Live Twice, then again after OHMSS (perhaps reverting to his original appearance out of grief), and three times more for the Moore, Dalton and Brosnan incarnations, but the Craig one really is a new agent adopting the original Bond’s identity. Got that?)

Then we get the introductory sequence which is also something new – gone are the exotic dancers with guns coming out of their quims, to be replaced by cars and explosions, and gone is the lustily sung theme tune with the title slipped in, to be replaced by a Barry instrumental. The effect is exactly the same as the opening to Casino Royale – it says “This Is Not Your Dad’s Bond.” Technically, it could well be your dad’s Bond, of course.

Okay, so he follows the girl to a hotel so upmarket it actually has its own casino. In the world of Bond, casinos are of course the most glamorous places in the world, filled with glistening white teeth, suave international criminals and of course money. Any resemblance to an actual casino, with its stained carpets, one-armed bandits that stand forlornly alongside high-commission ATMs and desperate people nursing expensive, futile debts is entirely coincidental. (This is also another big reason why Casino Royale is stupid, of course.) Anyway, there’s a bit of flirting, a bit of pointing guns at each other, a bit of fighting with the two minders again, then in a somewhat unexpected twist, the minders kidnap Bond and take him to the girl’s father, Draco, who offers Bond a million dollars to marry her. Bond says he wouldn’t marry her for a million dollars, but would do it for information about the location of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (remember him?). “I expect he’s established some kind of secret base in a mountain somewhere,” Draco might say, thereby shaving half an hour from the film’s running time.

Then, for the first and last time, we see Bond’s office at MI6, which is tiny, decidedly unplush, full of memorabilia from previous films which Bond strokes lovingly (different agent theory wholly discredited) and generally more befitting Harry Palmer than 007. Not your Dad’s Bond, remember.

Right, so up the mountain he goes. See how long it takes him to get up the mountain. If you thought that was hard work wait until you see him try to get down. At the top he finds a genuinely exclusive and glamorous location – a revolving restaurant – where it doesn’t take him long to suss out Blofeld’s evil plan, which is to take supermodels from all over the world, cure their imaginary food allergies and fattenthem up, thereby destroying the self respect of the entire human race and ultimately rendering us all sterile. The bastard. Blofeld doesn’t initially recogise Bond (because he’s had plastic surgery, not because Fleming wrote the novels in the wrong order), and Blofeld himself has had a makeover, the iconic Pleasance being replaced with the less iconic but considerably more butch Savalas, who presumably would take a bit more of an interest in the supermodels. “You’ve cut off your earlobes,” says Bond, inexplicably. And pausing only to bed two of the girls in a sequence that looks like it was borrowed from a Carry On film, Bond flees the base and heads down the mountain. Which in film time takes quite literally two full days of ski-chases, beatings and sex. This is what the film’s been building towards – the screenwriters have said “Sod the plot, let’s just put Bond at the top of a really big mountain and see how long it takes him to get to the bottom, using every winter-sports technique known to man. You can see him beginning to wonder if he’ll ever get down from that bloody mountain.

But get down it he does, although he leaves the fiancé in Blofeld’s custody. At the bottom, in London, M tells him he’s paying Blofeld’s ransom. So Bond heads back in a helicopter with a team of trained gunmen and the father-in-law. Bond and the gunmen trash the place, while Draco punches his daughter in the face and knocks her unconscious. Then one of the screenwriters remembers that while we’ve had chases on ice-skates, cable cars, skis and slippery slidy cars, the film has yet to see a bobsleigh chase, so Bond pursues Blofeld downhill in a bobsleigh.

And the conclusion. Bond hands in his resignation from the Secret Service for the second time in the film but not for the last time in his career (but the last time anyone will care). He marries Tracy, and turns down Draco’s million pound dowry. And they live happily ever after, until she gets shot dead not five minutes later and everyone forgets how much they were enjoying the film and just feels depressed instead.

Lazenby: all right. State of Bond franchise in 1969: a low point, but nowhere near as low as Connery-obsessed historians will insist on trying to make out.

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