Favorite Xmas Scene Theatre: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

It wouldn’t be Christmas without bringing up my favorite James Bond film. As THE FUTURIST! reminds us, December 18 marked the 40th anniversary of the release of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, everybody’s beloved oddjob-man out of the series, featuring the sole appearance of George Lazenby as 007. I’ve gone on record here before about this singular entry in the Bond series, coming at the tail end of the 1960’s, reflecting that year’s darker tinge to the fading psychedelic glow from the Summer Of Love. From my previous OHMSS post:

Major kudos must go to Peter Hunt for sticking close to the novel, yet giving the film all the exotic glamour the series was known for. His handling of the obligatory “M” and Moneypenny scenes is terrific, with Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell getting a chance to flesh out their usual stock parts. I also love the introductory conversation between Bond and the gangster Draco (straight from the book and well-played by Gabrielle Ferzetti), with even Lazenby pulling his weight. Richard Maibum’s script is smart and solid, sticking close to Fleming’s narrative. I also dig the most risque line of the series up to that point: “Just a slight stiffness coming on.” OHMSS is also the most seasonal Bond outing, with a palatable Christmas ambiance that gives the movie a wintery texture missing from the others. Aptly, this is the last time that the films would have that defining 1960’s Panavision style courtesy of cinematographer Michael Reed.

Next to Peter Hunt’s audacious direction, the most original of the series, the key ingredient to OHMSS is John Barry. Unarguably his finest Bond score, Barry outdoes even himself with an epic soundtrack filled with lyrical melodies and rousing action cues, utilizing disparate sonics from Louis Armstrong to Moog synthesizers (even the opening gunbarrel theme is performed on a synth). There’s even a wonderfully cheesy children’s song, “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Born?” that’s a yuletide favorite of mine and Craig Kennedy…And for the first time, Maurice Binder’s famous main titles would play without a pop vocal as the producers wisely let Barry come up with a magnificent instrumental theme driven by fuzz guitars and brassy horns. Preceded by George Lazenby’s great ice-breaking line, “This never happened to the other fella,” the credit sequence is a perfect example of the brave experimentation that characterized the film. The theme is also perfectly used in the “Escape From Piz Gloria” ski chase that IMHO is still the greatest shot and edited action sequence in the series.

And I stand by that claim. Even Pauline Kael was bowled over by this kinetic ski chase that stands as the action peak of OHMSS, especially since the film keeps Bond trapped and disguised in Piz Gloria for a long section. So the escape acts as a cathartic release for 007 and the audience. Despite some obvious process shots, it’s a thrilling sequence with audacious ski stunts and of course, John Barry’s best James Bond soundtrack.

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33 Responses to “Favorite Xmas Scene Theatre: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)”

  1. I can use “Do you know how Christmas trees are grown?” to get Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” out of my noggin.

    Process shots, shmocess shots! This just proves that you don’t need game-changing special effects and 3D if you are simply awesome.

    Love that theme.

    And you know, Lazenby gets a bad rap. He’s a bit clunky, but he’s better than lazy Roger Moore and I think he could’ve grown into the role.

  2. HUUUUGE Bond fan(atic), bordering on practically obsessive, but, you are right. I’ll give ANY Bond a full four stars and will watch ’em each and every time, but OHMSS is the masterpiece of the series. It’s so surreal, epic, emotional, beautiful, classically paced and shot, and brilliantly scored, it’s on a whole other plane from all the other entries. Even the best Connerys, whether the lean and mean early ones or the epics like YOLT, don’t have the otherworldly transcendent quality MAJESTY has. So much of its time, and yet so epic and ageless.

    It’s like for one entry they had turned the reins over to some world-class artist or spaghetti Western maniac… and yet Hunt was simply a beloved regular part of the Bond crew, and almost all the usual suspects are behind the scenes… So it’s hard to say just WHAT was the distinguishing factor that made OHMSS so Mod yet so classical, so surreal but so lush, all at the same time.

    It’s actually one of my 15 or 20 favorite films of all time. I think it’s just PERFECT, and Lazenby is excellent in it. Say what you will about his occasional awkward moment or two, but damn does he NAIL *the* scene at the end.

  3. Lex, that post might just be your masterpiece. Merry Christmas.

  4. Love this one too, and agree that Lazenby is better than Moore, who was self-satisfied even by the standards of Bond (and I still like him, in the better Moore Bonds anyway).

  5. Lazenby was a lesser actor than Moore (get it?) but twice the Bond. He looked like he could kick ass. I think part of what makes OHMSS so elegiac is that you know it’s Lazenby’s one outing as 007. And that’s how it captured the tone of Fleming’s novel more than any other of the series.

  6. my fav bond ever, the more seminal one i guess…. the colors, the soundtrack, the non-linear theme, diana rigg….

    there is this strange thing about ski chase in the bond movies. none of them are quite bad, even in “lesser” bond movies. point blank : ohmss, for your eyes only, the spy who loved me, a view to a kill, the world is not enough…. i kind of remember fondly each one of them, for me, it always was what bond was all about, ski chases. bond is a master skier. that must really say something about the character, right ?

    merry xmas !

    • You’re right about the ski chases. They all work well with varying degrees. Something inherently cinematic and Bondian about skiing from bad guys.

  7. There’s one movie I watch every Christmas Eve and this is it. My opinion of OHMSS only increases as the years go on and I find myself genuinely looking forward to yet another viewing. Lex put it best, but something very special was captured when this film was made.

    • Yep, a xmas eve must every year. Must watch the blu-ray this year.

      And I particularly love the opening insert shots of 007 lightiing his cigarette. The first time the series tried for an iconic reveal since DR. NO.

  8. OHMSS is easily one of the two or three best Bond movies. It’s daring in a way that very few Bonds are–especially the Moore ones which became really routine later on.

    I’d rather watch this than any Moore Bond movie.

    I love the banner photo, by the way!

    • Blofeld thanks you.

      And if you peruse the web on OHMSS info, most sites will write something like, “a critical and commercial failure” — which is a complete lie. OHMSS was the second biggest hit of 1969, and did almost as well as YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. It’s too bad Lazenby cocked it all up by going on Johny Carson with a hippie beard and announced he was done with Bond. Where’s that clip?

  9. Wonderful words, Christian. THE FUTURIST!, also, loves Lex G.’s concise sum-up of the film. It is so hard to truly define what makes it so special. It seems so separate from the rest of the series and the most true. The idea of having most of the action take place in one locale is fantastic. The Blofeld character, as performed, by Telly Savalas is so different from any other actor’s take on the character. He seems more physically dangerous and THE FUTURIST! loves his athletic pursuits of Bond. Lazenby is striking, too … very physically intimidating and never acting, like Moore did, that he is jut experiencing a bit of a lark. As stated in his own small post, THE FUTURIST! loves that soundtrack and the way it slaloms in seamlessly to start the snowy chases. Ah, what a picture! A Bond that has never been surpassed.

    • I think Savalas is easily the best Blofeld, and though he plays him more like a colorful gangster rather than Fleming’s dry creation, I love his energy and that great Savalas Euro-trash style of holding his cigarettes.

      Lazenby is excellent in all the action scenes, especially that all too brief moment when Bond slides down the ice at Piz Gloria blasting away with his machine gun. I wonder if the film was edited to subdue Lazenby’s effect? Such as having his voice dubbed during the Piz Gloria section; somehow it works.

      Wish Peter Hunt had been able to direct the next.

  10. And as a special Christmas present to the United Nations, here’s the opening to ABC’s crazed 1976 television debut version of OHMSS (my first viewing) with Bond narrating (not Lazenby) over re-edited scenes, such as the opening:

  11. Aussie Boy Says:

    For me the film’s transcendent moment occurs just after the wonderfully stirring ski chase. Bond is hiding from Blofeld’s henchmen at the edge of a crowded ski rink. The killers are closing in and it appears 007’s goose is cooked. He sits hunched forward, cold and alone. All of a sudden a skater skids to a halt three feet away. Camera tilts up. It’s Tracey — the last person in the world he expected to see.

    “James,” she says.

    She can tell something is wrong.

    “There are people after me,” he explains.

    And that is how Tracey comes to save James Bond’s life.

    I have never seen a James Bond so vulnerable, so human, as he is in this film. This is indeed the greatest of Bond films, and effectively the end of the series, for there has never be a good James Bond film made since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

  12. Aussie Boy Says:

    “I also dig the most risque line of the series up to that point: ‘Just a slight stiffness coming on.'”

    You’re forgetting Connery in “Goldfinger”: “Something big just came up.”

  13. I just watched it again. I love how it takes 40 minutes before it even gets into the main plot.

    Up next: Bad Santa

  14. bad santa is a hoot. it poops out at the end with those bloody stuffed elephants but prior to the last few minutes it’s just deliciously deranged foul-mouthed cringe-inducing hilarity

    (‘trading places’ with ‘die hard’ is my usual xmas double feature but i couldn’t find ‘trading places’ this year, which is odd)

    i totally dig OHMSS, it’s really the odd one out of the bond series (bond should be in the old folks home by now; someone should do a ‘bubba-ho-tep-esque’ bond treatment with him in the rest home as an old fart getting up to some spirited hijinx)

    • BAD SANTA funny. “Are you fucking with me or what?”

      TRADING PLACES is another xmas gem. Forgot about that.

      • Trading Places is a special flick for me. Favorite scene: Beeks requesting a little privacy during his phone call:

        • i’ll rip out your eyes and piss on your brain!

          ‘trading places’ is an all-time classic in my book, landis had such a great run there

          (and crisis averted, i found my ‘trading places’ dvd in with my son’s dvd’s, yay! what a relief, christmas wouldn’t have been the same without it)

  15. And I love Savalas’s “We’ll head him off at the precipice.”

  16. Leah, I even love the blood covered Elephants. It just… fits. Plus I’m still laughing from the thought of an unarmed Santa getting gunned down in a Phoenix suburb in front of innocent children.

    There are a couple of quips in OHMSS that fall terribly flat…flatter than most of the others…but of course I can’t think of examples at the moment. It was just a passing thought as I was watching the film this last time.

    I’ve also always disliked the little moment near the beginning after he resigns and he’s going through his desk pulling out artifacts from the previous films complete with musical accompaniment. Kind of a cheesy way of trying to establish him as the same character…or something.

    I agree that the character should consider retirement, though I think they did a good job of dusting him off with Casino Royale….not so much with the second one. I’d like to see the Theresa storyline worked into future films. Maybe even have it play out over a couple of films.

    • The bad lines in OHMSS tend to be the badly looped ones, clearly added after to give a typical bonD mot to the scenes. But it gets better.

      Yeah, the desk flashback is a little too much, but I see why they were trying to connect the Bonds. And it’s part of a great M/Bond/Pennymoney scene.

      Bond retire? Bezants!

    • maybe i’m being too hard on those little elephants, i’ll have to give them another chance!

      john ritter is so perfect in it, i guess a nice little middle-aged character actor career in the movies just wasn’t meant to be for him, and now bernie mac is gone, too. how sad :-(

  17. And if you made it this far, here’s some amazing unpublished screen test shots of various Bond potentials for OHMSS:

    http://www.life.com/image/ugc1023022/in-gallery/37692/unpublished-james-bond-auditions

  18. I don’t know if anyone mentioned it, but “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?”, credited on the soundtrack to “Nina,” was sung by Nina Baroness van Pallandt. She was part of the singing duo Nina & Frederik (her husband, Frederik, Baron van Pallandt), but may be better known for her roles in a few Robert Altman films. She was the woman in the motel room with Jeff Bridges in Ivan Passer’s “Cutter’s Way”, if anyone’s seen that. After she split from the Baron, she hooked up with hoax author Clifford Irving, and was involved with his bogus autobiography of Howard Hughes. She’s mentioned in Orson Welles’ film “F for Fake”, a pseudo-documentary about art forger Elmyr deHory, a neighbor and friend of Irving’s.

    • christian Says:

      Thank you for that great bit of cultural trivia. I had no idea! She was also in THE LONG GOODBYE as well. What a very small Bond world…

  19. […] Getting to the Aero undercover without alerting hidden enemies was standard procedure for Agents Kennedy and Divine, but that didn’t stop them from enjoying a light dinner of grilled sole, salad, brie cheese washed down with a full bottle White Bordeaux 69 (in honor of the film’s release year) and then topped with six espressos and 16 cigarettes between them. Suitably fortified, the team made their way without violence into the comfortable confines of the Aero Theatre. Eventually the audience arrived in force, and the agents were pleased to see that their brethren had filled the house. OHMSS and Lazenby deserved this 40th anniversary tribute. In fact, the film had become his favorite James Bond in the series, primarily because the screenplay was the most faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming’s most powerful novel, and also due to the agent’s bent on the most outre entry of the series (in the same way GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER was one of his favored Toho epics). You can click on this dossier for more on the pleasures of OHMSS. […]

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