You Only Live Once

Would you believe me if I told you Casino Royale was made long before 2006?

Wait. Would you believe me if I told you Casino Royale was made twice before 2006?

I’ve got little desire to add another Bond film to my queue — much less one starring Woody Allen as ‘Jimmy Bond’  — but 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service always had a peripheral importance in the 007 canon for me. I was aware of it, but I also knew nobody ever mentioned it in any ‘Best Bond’ debates. Granted, George Lazenby would have needed to put on one heck of a show to make that distinction with his only official Bond role, but I’d always considered this entry more of a ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’ than essential viewing.

Well, this is no Life Day.

Sean Connery initially announced his (first) departure from the franchise midway through production on You Only Live Twice, but even though knew it would be different, George Lazenby as Bond 2.0 is still awkward to get around. Thankfully, director Peter Hunt felt the same, at first only teasing bits and pieces of his introduction via beach rescue:

‘This never happened to the other fellow.’ A little levity is always welcome, too, and the film’s self-awareness wouldn’t stop at its introduction. What’s instantly remarkable is how fantastic foley sound effects can make a fight sequence. The ‘crunch’ factor has never been better, and this opening is as rough and tumble of a fight Bond had ever given in 1969.

From there we get the obligatory credit sequence, and more importantly some of the best work John Barry has ever done. Its title track is both pessimistic and triumphant with a pretty damn modern synth line to boot, and one can never go wrong with straight eighths. Her Majesty’s main theme sits right up there with the immortal “Goldfinger” and Tina Turner’s addicting “GoldenEye” slow burn as an all-time classic Bond theme. And I will fight any dissenters. On a beach:

Quickly, almost too quickly, Her Majesty’s self awareness picks right up with M’s questioning of 007 and his ability to get the job done — “the job” here referring to Bond’s failed attempts to nab Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the previous film. So Bond calls the MI6 Director’s bluff and resigns, only to have his overreaction polished by Miss Moneypenny, who smooths things over with the change to a more reasonable two week vacation. And who could use a break more than Bond, considering everything he’s been through? No worries forgetting any events past from installments one through five, because Bond’s desk drawer of keepsakes includes a reference to each and every film, complete with their own musical callbacks. The effect is once again a knowing wink at the franchise if maybe a slightly masturbatory one.

With his temporary leave in place, Bond heads straight to the card tables where he runs into Tracy, that woman from the beach. Of course. A little wooing is obviously in order, and here’s where the other shoe drops. It’s one thing for a film to question 007’s effectiveness; it’s quite another to suggest he should go ‘full-time lover’ altogether. Then again, maybe all Bond really is good for is a good dicking, as Tracy’s crime syndicate father Draco creepily proposes to Bond. After all, if we’re drawing our inspiration from The Taming of the Shrew, who better as Petruchio than Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang? It’s a crude question but a valid one methinks. 

Tracy is a problem, though. I don’t mean her cavalier attitude, the attitude Papa Draco expressly enlists Bond to sedate in the first place; and never mind the awkward daughter-bartering in the first place (reading Bond through a feminist lens will only yield headaches and nausea). No, Tracy’s initial promise of a Bond Girl who actually sees through the magic penis and bullshit charm disappears in minutes. Diana Rigg makes the most of awkwardly juggling Honey Ryder and Pussy Galore personalities, but it’s a damn shame she submits to the same fate as her predecessors. As mentioned, the “taming” is an expected trope of this series, but there’s no development of Tracy and James’ relationship from cat-and-mouse to Mike and Carol Brady. Unless we count Louie Armstrong’s “We Have All The Time in The World” as development. All that excitement about probing the Bond franchise with a girl who doesn’t take shit is flushed with a single three minute montage of walks in the park and horse back rides. I don’t know what I was expecting, I guess.

Unfortunately, Her Majesty’s begins to crumble at the halfway mark of a whopping 2 hour 20 minute Bond film. The precise point isn’t as clear as the numerous individual failures, particularly in any action sequences with chases, crowds, or really, more than three actors. A sloppily-constructed derby chase disorients the viewer, a fact all the more confusing when one consider’s Hunt’s previous experience with the Bond franchise: he served as editor on the first three. Even the return of Ernst Stavro Blofeld is unforgettable, with vague allusions to the SPECTRE herald’s plans to turn allergy research into biological weapons. Couple what might be more a comical scheme than ‘Preparation H’ with Telly Savalas’ humpty dumpty gait, and it’s plain to see what Mike Myers took notes on.

And let’s tarry in Myers territory for a bit longer, too since we’ve got all the puns here. George Lazenby makes a plenty okay Bond, but his skill isn’t in bringing anything new to the role so much as capably spewing one-liners, and awful ones at that: “He’s branched off,” immediately after a henchman hits a tree branch. “He had a lot of guts,” immediately after a henchman is chopped to bits. The script barely gives him a fair shot to begin with.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is nothing more than a noble failure, but in a series that’s become so easily lampooned, its efforts are laudable. An initial promise of a different kind of Bond story — an espionage-free love story or even a dissection of Bond’s ahem… work ethic — falls to the same expected mastermind plot, one with hypnosis and naive bachelorettes. Still, the popularity of Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd shouldn’t be seen as the only attempt by Fleming to turn his special agent into a family man. And if it’s any consolation, both Campbell and Hunt’s films tease but ultimately abandon a retired Bond possibility. Try as we might, perhaps there’s just no divorcing Bond from his true talents, none of which seem to include marriage. Pun intended.

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