Flash back to week four of quarantine; after wasting an hour scrolling through streaming services, I press play on DR. NO (1962). I do this having seen plenty of clips from old Bond films that indicated they’d be cheesy and fun – Roger Moore flipping a car to the sound of a slide whistle in LIVE AND LET DIE (1973), Sean Connery training as a ninja in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) – and it’s the beginning of a marathon. One week and several films later, I’m blindsided by the reaction I’ve had to ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969).
As the sixth film in the series, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE saw the first of several Bond re-castings in George Lazenby. Producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had drafted a list of nearly 100 actors for the part, but Lazenby – a 28-year-old Australian model with little to no acting background – lied and charmed his way into what would be the biggest role of his career. Eventually, Lazenby’s opposite emerged – Diana Rigg, a trained thespian who had just left the British TV series THE AVENGERS (1961-1969) and brought her wealth of experience along with her. The film’s production was notoriously rocky: Unflattering tabloid rumors, stuntmen injured in bobsled accidents, budget limitations and contract disputes – issue after issue.
Despite all of this, Lazenby and Rigg introduced a genuine head-over-heels romanticism to the Bond series that had never been seen before – but audiences weren’t buying it. Most critics in 1969 lobbed Lazenby’s casual attitude and boyish appearance right back at him as insults, and if they discussed Rigg at all, it was only to contrast her performance with Lazenby’s; not to mention, the film itself took its own beating for lacking in the “pleasing oddities, eccentricities and gadgets of the older films.” Few critics chose kindness, like Molly Haskell of The Village Voice, who opened her review with this line: “It is nothing short of miraculous to see a movie which dares to go backward, a technological artefact which has nobly deteriorated into a human being.” Haskell’s words, now echoed by modern re-assessments of the film, struck me when I read them for the first time. Despite all of that mob-mentality backlash in ‘69, she was still “shattered” by it the same way I was – the same way a lot of us were.
It all opens on Lazenby’s notably-younger Bond saving Tracy (Rigg), a young stranger who’s walked into the ocean to drown herself. The scene is set at sunrise. Bond carries her limp body in the foreground, waves crash in the background. The film’s already setting us up for its distinctly sensitive touch – visually, for now. Later on, Bond and Tracy have another chance encounter – this time at a casino. They end up spending the night together – but come morning, Bond is abducted and taken to meet Tracy’s father, a European millionaire and crime boss. This is the scene I look to when I need to go over the film’s emotional praxis; Tracy’s father means no harm, and instead vents about her loneliness: “Behind the bravado, something was eating away at her soul. This can happen to men and women – they burn the heart out of themselves by living too greedily.” Bond looks down for a moment, as if afraid of the sentence. Tracy’s father adds that he’s seen what Bond has done for her – the beach rescue, the companionship – and believes it could be “the beginning of some kind of therapy.” Bond agrees to see her again, but only in exchange for intel on Blofeld (his nemesis, and the head of criminal organization SPECTRE). An unbelievably beautiful montage of Bond and Tracy on vacation follows, but business is as usual – we know it’ll end in a minute or two.
Flash forward to about halfway through the film – we find Bond traveling to the Swiss Alps in disguise as a genealogist. He’s been invited to Blofeld’s latest hideout (a mountaintop therapy clinic and retreat) under the false pretense of business. Within minutes of his arrival, Bond schmoozes with several women who are all receiving treatment. He joins them for a communal dinner, where increasingly more obvious double entendres get passed around like drinks. Bond is actively being touched – calling to mind how Connery’s Bond made his sexual advances. It’s not until he’s brought back to a patient’s room when he learns what’s really going on at the clinic – Blofeld has brainwashed all of the women into serving his agenda. Their orders are to deliver deadly bacterial weapons to major countries around the world, and it’s all under the shroud of therapy. Therapy. Blofeld’s voice booms over speakers: “I’ve cured you.” This is Bond being shown a mirror. Sans suit, stripped of all noble pretenses, this is the way he uses women.
Bond flees the clinic, pursued by Blofeld’s henchmen, and runs into Tracy amid a crowded winter festival in the village below. Now she has a target on her back – and Bond won’t let any of Blofeld’s men take her. They fight their way out, hijack a car, and drive until a blizzard covers their windshield – forcing them to take refuge in an abandoned barn. The two kids finally have a moment to breathe. Bond feels something he’s felt before – something that he’s ignored ever since he first met Tracy. He seizes the moment: “I love you, and I know I’ll never meet another girl like you.” He proposes. In Tracy’s (Rigg’s) eyes, you see her inner monologue freeze and give way to shock. You watch as that shock is slowly overtaken by euphoria – and also as she hesitates, reminding herself what pain is. She asks, “do you mean it?” Without missing a beat, Bond whispers, “I mean it.” He doesn’t say it with an agenda. There’s no put-on charm to his delivery, no doubt or fear – we just hear a boy cutting the cord to his old life. He’s in love.
Flash forward to the film’s epilogue; we’re at Bond and Tracy’s wedding. The third act has come and gone – Tracy has already been kidnapped and rescued, Blofeld has already fled his exploded compound and gotten away. None of that matters anymore – Bond’s new life is about to begin. Familiar faces – M, Q, Moneypenny – finally break their scripts and allow themselves to become emotional. Bond tenderly tosses his hat to Moneypenny, who breaks down in tears. It’s a farewell. He and Tracy drive off in their flower-laden car. They discuss having kids, and Bond smiles: “Darling, we have all the time in the world.”
On a cliff side road, Bond pulls over to give Tracy a flower through her window – it’s an excuse for some cutesy jokes and a kiss. Before either of them can react, their car is riddled with bullets. A second car speeds away – it’s Blofeld. Bond gets back inside and stares straight ahead, certain that none of those bullets hit Tracy – it doesn’t seem plausible for his new life to be extinguished so quickly. Then he looks to his left. Silence. He holds Tracy’s limp body in his arms, just as he did in the opening scene. A cop pulls up, and Bond’s voice is already breaking: “It’s alright. It’s quite alright, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see – we have all the time in the world. All the time in the world.”
In a way, this has all served as a final chance for Bond – to be a kid again, to choose a better life, to love and be loved. The entirety of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE carries that weight, but Tracy’s death is the moment it’s thrown at your chest.. It shattered me, just like it did Molly Haskell. And whenever this film crosses my mind, it’s the first image I see: James Bond, young and broken, crying in a car with the dreams he lost.