While the majority of Cinematical's "Shelf Life" columns thus far have targeted specific releases that relate to new films, the truth is that we came up with this series so that we could go back and watch movies we wanted to see, whether it was to experience them for the first time after an eon of reactions and expectations, or just to see whether we were the same people we were when we first saw them, or just maybe, to champion an overlooked gem that disappeared into the ether after its initial release. This week's selection, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, falls into the third category, and we're happy to revisit it instead of some completely random movie that most folks already know they like.
The Facts: Directed by Peter Hunt, who previously edited three of the earlier films in the series, On Her Majesty's Secret Service marked the arrival of actor George Lazenby in the already-iconic role of James Bond. Lazenby notably only played the character one time, refunding money he was paid to appear in the next installment, Diamonds Are Forever, and according to the actor, declining to reprise the role because he thought the character was out of touch with modern audiences by the start of the 1970s. Meanwhile, other rumors swirled around his departure, including friction with the producers, but the film nevertheless ranked as another hit for the franchise, pulling in some $87 million worldwide.
Subsequently the film has largely been forgotten by non-Bond fans, one assumes primarily because of Lazenby's single-serving contribution to the franchise. That said, the film currently enjoys an 81 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and Lazenby was nominated for Most Promising Newcomer – Male at the 1970 Golden Globes.
What Still Works: What's really most remarkable about On Her Majesty's Secret Service is how the film sets a stylistic and thematic precedent that would later be the basis for Casino Royale, which was itself a relaunch of the series. While the action scenes were always aggressive and rough-hewn, the ones in this film are particularly violent, showing Bond getting deeper into trouble as often as he gets out of it. Further, while the film is in a way a celebration and a cementing of virtually all of the aspects of the character's mystique – the girls, the gadgets, the action, the intrigue – it shows his vulnerability in a way that few other Bond movies ever has. This is not merely shown by Bond's marriage to Tracy Draco (Diana Rigg), but in the massive chase sequence where Bond is literally cornered with no place to go and no one to help him – until of course his future wife prevails and help him make a speedy escape.
Remarkably, as much as the film completely encapsulates the Bond mythology in one story, it also presages an era in which Bond becomes an antiquated misogynist, his charms fail him, and quite frankly, he proves to just be a mortal man. In one sequence, he tries to escape the machinery room where a giant winch raises and lowers a cable car, and he actually fails the first time he tries, which has got to be a first (and maybe a last) for the ever-unflappable Bond. And finally, the story adapts Ian Fleming's work most completely of almost any film in the series, although it expands the narrative to include several developments that augment the emotional core of the story.
What Doesn't Work: At 140 minutes – just four shorter than Casino Royale, the longest in the series' history – the film's dramatic momentum is uneven at best. That's not to say it isn't compelling viewing throughout, but there are a lot of digressions from the central plot, owing largely to its faithfulness to Fleming's novel, where such developments can more easily be expanded and explored. And while the shifting tone of the film seems purposeful, the lightness of the first half of the film (especially John Barry's score) gives the story a superficial quality that only deepens later.
What's The Verdict: On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of the best Bond movies in the entire series, and it holds up a lot better than many of the franchise's supposedly bona fide "classics." Whether or not Lazenby would have made a serviceable Bond over the course of many more movies is obviously unknown, but in his first and only performance in the role, he both nails the heroism and the humanity of the character, and could have helped usher the series towards something grittier and more substantive in the 1970s if he'd stayed on. As connective tissue between the golden age of James Bond and his more recent renaissance, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a terrific, action-packed and highly evocative film.