On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the sixth Bond film in the franchise and the first to star someone other than Sean Connery - namely, George Lazenby, who makes his feature film debut here. I'm hard-pressed to think of another situation where a freshman thespian was asked to assume the lead in a franchise as important as this one, even after only five films.
It's said that producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had originally sought Cary Grant for the role of Bond in the first film, Dr. No. They didn't get him (of course), but they certainly tried to capture his essence in the sixth film. Lazenby had a much rounder and softer face than Connery, which, along with the dimpled chin, was not quite a Cary twin but more like a close cousin. Plus, Lazenby's Bond has something of a more charming disposition (compared to Connery's cool), which is also reminiscent - albeit distantly so - of Grant.
And despite the fact that this is still my favorite of the Bond films, the pseudo-Grant nature of Lazenby is only a symptom of the film's greater problem: it tries too hard. More on this shortly.
SPOILER ALERT. The ending is eventually revealed here, so proceed at your own risk.
As Bond films go, the good vs. evil plot is fairly straightforward. Bond is removed from Operation Bedlam, a two-year effort to find his nemesis, Bloefeld. He resigns from HMSS, but Moneypenny (the always delightful Lois Maxwell) changes his resignation letter to a vacation request. With his vacation time, though, Bond manages to track down Bloefeld.
The villain (here played by Telly Savalas) is bent on world domination, this time via bacterial warfare. In his Swiss lair, he is treating women who are suffering various food allergies, but in addition to the treatment, he is hypnotizing them. His plan is to use subliminal suggestion to direct the ladies to act as his global attack mechanism, releasing bacteria via perfume atomizers.
Did I mention that they are all gorgeous women? Did I have to?
Bond infiltrates the lair in the guise of performing ancestral research about Bloefeld. Of course, he beds patients while there. He is eventually caught, escapes, and faces Bloefled in a very long showdown that includes skiing and car chases, and eventually culminates with a fistfight on a bobsled (referred to in the film as a bobsleigh). Bloefeld appears to die, but resurfaces in the final minutes of the film.
This is the portion of the film that tries too hard.
Not only do we have an actor who is out of his league in this film, clearly chosen because of his resemblance to the actor the producers wanted in the first place, we are then reminded of his predecessor, Sean Connery, through several moments in the film.
The first is in the opening gambit, when, after Bond saves a woman's life, gets roughed up by some henchman, only to beat them just in time to see the woman speed off, the spy says, "This never happened to the other fella."
Ok. An acknowledgement is made - a tip o' the hat, if you will, as a show of respect for Connery. That alone would have been fine. But it's the blatant, subsequent reminders of the Connery era that undermine Lazenby - from a cleaning person whistling the title song from Goldfinger to the montage where Bond starts packing gadgets that were used in previous films, while the scores from those films play as he looks longingly over each gadget. It's as if the filmmakers are saying, "See! This guy is the same character as the other guy! He has those old gadgets and he knows the old songs!"
The other piece I struggle with is Bond's encyclopedic knowledge of things like champagne and caviar. I understand that he is suave and sophisticated, and educated in such matters, but the spots in which Lazenby-as-Bond can identify life's finer things - as well as things as obscure as M's butterfly collection - makes it look as if the producers are telling the audience, "Hey! This Bond is even Bond-er than the last Bond!" It all sounds forced.
But the other plot of the film is what makes it my favorite: it's Shakespearean levels of relationships and tragedy.
This isn't simply Bond looking for Bloefeld. This is Bond becoming involved with Tracy (the gorgeous Diana Rigg and the girl on the beach at the beginning of the film). Tracy is the daughter of a mobster, Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). Draco happens to be the Number 2 crime lord in the world behind...? You guessed it - Bloefeld. Draco offers to help Bond track down Bloefeld's location if Bond is willing to make Tracy fall in love with him, as the father would like the daughter to settle down.
With the deal, Bond gets to eliminate Bloefeld and bed Tracy, while Draco gets his nemesis out of the way and his daughter out of his hair. Bond and Draco become the textbook example of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." But something goes wrong.
Even though Bond is having his way with the patients at Bloefeld's lair, he falls in love with Tracy (as illustrated by a trying-too-hard romantic montage that clearly panders to the ladies in the audience), and with a few small words, the enemy of Bond's enemy becomes Bond's father-in-law. With his retirement from HMSS planned, Bond and Tracy head off on their honeymoon, with plans to have many, many children until Bloefeld shows up and, with his henchwoman, Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat), drives by Bond and Tracy with guns blazing, killing the beautiful bride and leaving the secret agent a widower on his wedding day.
With one lucky bullet, Bloefeld shatters the lives of the two men who trouble him most - Draco and Bond.
Take that, Shakespeare.
This is why I have always loved On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and why I think that, despite the fact that everything else was shakily constructed and crumbles down around the film, it's the best of the series - pathos.
As for Lazenby's place in Bond history, to me Connery is the definitive Bond, Lazenby is that awkward transitional boyfriend who you think is the next big thing but only hurts you before you flee back to your old beau for one last fling (Diamonds Are Forever), after which you finally move on to the next long-term relationship (Roger Moore). And we all know how that worked out.
Operation: BOND returns with Diamonds Are Forever.