Peter R Hunt, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969)
Fifty years after its cinematic release, this James Bond film may look dated but its plot and themes may still be relevant to modern audiences. Apart from its apocalyptic sub-plot of an evil mastermind threatening to unleash worldwide chaos using innocent and unwilling brainwashed agents to scatter bacteriological weapons among their nations, the film also has something to say about how one cannot escape one’s fate and the consequences of one’s actions, and how those consequences affect others’ lives, especially if one works as an undercover intelligence agent.
In this movie episode of the series of James Bond films that began in 1961 with “Dr No” and still continues, the spy is played by the then inexperienced Australian actor George Lazenby who might lack the suave confident charisma of his predecessor Sean Connery and the wit and humour of the actors who followed him but presents a more human, vulnerable and even sometimes thuggish Bond. Bond has been on the trail of sinister villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played by Telly Savalas) for some time when he stumbles across the beautiful but wilful and possibly disturbed Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) on a beach and then driving her red coupe. He is intrigued by this woman who seems not to care whether she lives or dies, or wins or loses at the casino. He later discovers that she is the daughter of underworld crime boss Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) who implores Bond to strike up a relationship with her to keep her sane and stable after a series of personal disasters including marriage to an unsuitable Italian count and the loss of an infant child. Bond will only do so if Draco can reveal what he knows of Blofeld. Draco later directs Bond to the offices of a law firm in Bern in Switzerland, where Bond discovers that Blofeld has been corresponding with famed genealogist Sir Hillary Bray in order to claim the title and inheritance of one Count Balthazar de Bleuchamp. Somewhere along the way, Bond argues with his superior M (Bernard Lee) and resigns from MI6.
Posing as Bray, Bond insinuates himself into Blofeld’s mountain-top resort Piz Gloria to discover that he and assistant Irma Bunt run a health resort for a bevy of beauteous demoiselles from all over the planet who suffer from various food allergies and need therapy. Through a secret bedroom liaison with one of the girls, Bond discovers what that therapy is: hypnosis that impresses instructions into the girls’ unconscious minds that will be later turned on through stimuli to direct the girls to release dangerous bacteria embedded in toiletries given them at Blofeld’s whim. Blofeld and Bunt quickly uncover Bond’s identity and Bond himself barely manages to escape Blofeld and Bunt’s goons in a series of hair-raising incidents in which he nearly loses his fingers to a cable car lift and his life racing down a mountainous ski slope. Bumping into Tracy in a village, Bond further evades his pursuers with Tracy’s help. After spending the night together in a hayloft, the couple race for their lives again down a ski slope but Blofeld sets off an avalanche which overwhelms the couple. The villain captures Tracy and leaves Bond for dead. Bond anyway makes his way back to London where he learns of Blofeld’s intent to blackmail governments into declaring an amnesty for his crimes and allowing him to inherit the title and fortune he wants, or risk the destruction of the world through his brainwashed agents. MI6 intends to pay the ransom to Blofeld but Bond has another idea that not only will destroy Blofeld’s plans but rescue Tracy.
The film follows the original novel’s plot closely up to just over the halfway mark where Tracy rescues Bond from Blofeld and Bunt’s fury. This first half of the film can be quite slow for most audiences expecting fast and furious action but it establishes the film’s plot and sub-plots, and more importantly describes the motivations and personalities of the film’s most significant characters – Bond, Tracy, Blofeld and to some extent Draco – even if those motivations might seem bizarre and sexist to modern audiences. One might see Tracy’s past behaviour as typical of an intelligent, headstrong and resourceful woman whose only fault is to have been born female to a crime boss who wanted a son to take over his business. Draco’s solution to his problem is to ship his daughter off to a finishing school to take care of her emotional needs – which of course it fails to do. In Bond, Draco sees another solution to his succession problem and which will also provide Tracy with the stability she needs. Interestingly, in the second shorter half of the film, where the screenplay becomes original if rather more stereotyped, what with another ski chase and an operation to destroy Piz Gloria and Blofeld’s scheme, Blofeld becomes smitten with Tracy and offers her riches and status if she will marry him – which she refuses. From then on, Blofeld nurses vengeance against Tracy when he discovers that she and Bond, who defeats Blofeld in a fight on a racing bobsled, become engaged and marry.
The film’s style is plain and straightforward, with few quips and puns, and runs at a brisk pace. Blofeld’s numerous henchmen fall afoul of various disasters during the film’s two ski chases including one man’s unfortunate encounter with a snow plough. The film’s winter setting gives it a particular ambience, in contrast to other James Bond films where the action takes place in tropical environments or glamorous cities around the planet. The quality of acting varies throughout the film – Lazenby’s inexperience is obvious though he acquits himself very well in the tough fight scenes (and performed most of his stunts as well) – while Rigg and Savalas, who had previously worked together on another film “The Assassination Bureau”, do good work as their respective characters, Savalas in particular playing a vicious and vindictive Blofeld.
After the action of the ski chases, the rally car championship in which Tracy and Blofeld bump off all their competitors, and the action thriller invasion that destroys Piz Gloria, the film has two endings, one happy, one unhappy in which Lazenby finally redeems himself as an actor when Bond is forced to confront what Blofeld and Bunt have done to Tracy and their future life together. Bond is forced to admit that he can never really leave MI6 and the life of an undercover agent, because in carrying out his assignments for MI6, he has made numerous enemies and set off in motion a series of actions that come back to bite him, no matter that his actions originally saved the world, or at least Britain’s political establishment on which his salary and life-style depend. After “OHMSS”, subsequent James Bond films for the next three decades portray the spy following a devil-may-care and rather dissolute life bedding women and discarding them as he carries out his assignments with brutal efficiency, as though embodying something of Tracy’s former unstable life and Blofeld’s psychopathic nature, for the benefit of his employer which has Bond firmly back in the fold.
In an age where chemical and biological weapons are now looming large in global popular culture – particularly at this time of review, with a virulent coronavirus strain wreaking havoc and devastation through Europe and North America, destroying the European Union and all it supposedly stood for, and threatening perhaps also to finish off NATO and the global financial industry – this film regains a sharp relevance for current Western audiences. The hypnosis of unwitting young women to act as agents, perhaps to assassinate world leaders, in an age of CIA-sponsored mind manipulation and torture, followed by rumours of current terrorist organisations such as ISIS using drugs such as Captagon to modify jihadists’ behaviour and turn them into brutal killing machines, should also be significant to modern audiences.
A straightforward filming approach, a good cast playing complex characters with complicated motivations, sub-plots that still have the potential to surprise modern audiences … “OHMSS” turns out to be an excellent sleeper in the James Bond movie series.