On Her Majesty's Secret Service is 50 years old and my favorite James Bond film

I’m a few days late but last week the NY Times pointed out that it has been 50 years since the release of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. As it happens, this is my favorite James Bond film though I’m a bit surprised to find that there are apparently a lot of fans who agree:

What’s the best James Bond film?

The odds are on “Goldfinger,” the 1964 entry that set the big-screen 007 pattern for outsize plots, lavish sets, beautiful women, clever gadgets and frequent laughs.

But among Bond purists, the winner is the often overlooked “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” released 50 years ago this month…

Not widely appreciated at first, “OHMSS” has won increasing respect over five decades. Devotees hail its deft, action-packed direction (by Peter Hunt), smart script (by Richard Maibaum), music both dynamic and romantic (by John Barry) and mastermind criminal scheme (brainwashed young women unwittingly conducting germ warfare).

“Shot to shot, this movie is beautiful in a way none of the other Bond films are,” the director Steven Soderbergh blogged in 2013. Moreover, it is “the only Bond film with a female character that isn’t a cartoon.”

Soderbergh isn’t alone. Director Christopher Nolan told interviewers in 2010 that Inception was partly inspired by OHMSS:

Judging by Inception’s heist-style theme (albeit a mind-heist) and white-knuckle action sequences, he also likes a James Bond film. ‘That’s true,’ he smiles, ‘especially On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is a wonderful balance of action and romanticism. I guess this is my 007 film.’

OHMSS is the only Bond film that features George Lazenby in the starring role. Looking back, Lazenby had impossible shoes to fill after Sean Connery had made the character his own in a series of films which hold up well today. Dr. No (1962) does feel a bit dated to me but it’s still enjoyable. The next film, From Russia With Love, is a big improvement in my view and has some of the most tense action in any of the early films. Goldfinger (1964) had everything going for it and is probably my runner up as personal favorite thanks to the humor and the unforgettable Oddjob. I’ve never been a fan of Thunderball, the 4th film, but I know a lot of people love it.

When I was younger, the next film in the series, You Only Live Twice, was my favorite. We owned a CED of that movie and I must have watched it half a dozen times in the course of a few years. I still love the score but I don’t think some elements of the film hold up as well today as the earlier entries.

Getting back to OHMSS, the basic plot motivating all of the action is pretty silly (biological warfare via brainwashed beauties). This makes Goldfinger’s plan seem perfectly rational by comparison. Still, the film mostly overcomes that.

Lazenby may not be as charming as Connery but he acquits himself pretty well, especially with regard to the love story. Bond doesn’t get a love story this good again until Casino Royale almost 40 years later. As much as I like Eva Green, she can’t compare to Diana Rigg, who had just left one of my favorite TV shows, The Avengers. The tragic end of the film in which she is shot while driving away on a honeymoon with Lazenby is one of the most memorable moments in any Bond film.

Telly Savalas was the best Blofeld. The versions of the character by other actors have their strengths but Telly Savalas seemed more physical and believable. Granted he was still just a madman in a remote penthouse of sorts, but you could sort of envision him doing real things where all the other versions of Blofeld felt like they would be badly out of place doing much beside sitting in a chair monologing while stroking a cat.

I also love the action in OHMSS. Plenty of it feels a bit over the top, especially the ski chase at night and the final scenes in the Bobsled, but other parts including the helicopter assault at the end feel a lot more realistic and almost gritty. It’s a fire fight in which it’s not always clear the good guys are going to survive or prevail.

Probably my favorite scene in the film is the one where Bond has to escape from the mountain fortress through the cable car mechanical room. I love this scene because the writers could easily have skipped over this or made it a simple situation where Bond performs some incredible stunt or introduces some gadget. Instead, Bond has to solve it like a puzzle. In a film with so many incredible elements, the scene grounds Bond as someone who is not immune to gravity. Those moments make the whole thing better and more believable. The closest I can think of a similar scene is the learning-to-fly sequence from the first Iron Man. Here again, the hero struggles and is clumsy and then almost falls to his death before pulling it together. Too few action movies, and too few Bond movies, contain scenes like this where the hero is closer to dying than to looking effortlessly cool.

Lazenby wasn’t exactly fired from the role. He was young and a bit of a hippie in real life. He became convinced that Bond was a throwback character that couldn’t survive for long in the modern world. It’s too bad because I think he could have made quite a few more good entries if he’d stuck around and improved his acting chops. Then again, I suspect if Connery had stuck it out for this entry many would agree it was the best film in the series.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen OHMSS in a while, I highly recommend it. It’s not a perfect film of course and at 50 years old it’s occasionally a bit dated, but a lot of it is still great and the love story, especially the bits when the leads are forced to hide out in a barn overnight, still work. I watched it with one of my good friends last year. He hadn’t seen it in a while but after watching it he agreed it it’s one of the best in the series.