Strap on your skis as we slalom into On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with a bellyful of Swiss cuisine and one too many Black Velvets.
Welcome back to Bond Night as we ski into dangerous, uncharted territory with 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service! Is James Bond more than any one actor, or would an untested, untrained George Lazenby sink the franchise’s fortunes? Is this the greatest James Bond film of all time or an unusual outlier best ignored? And what’s with that romantic montage with the Louis Armstrong song? We’ll deliberate over all things On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as we dine on Swiss cuisine and sip on Black Velvets.
Producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were in a tight spot. They’d taken a few bumps with their last Bond film, You Only Live Twice, but the inferior film released to audiences was only half the story. Drama behind the scenes with actor Sean Connery had turned toxic, and there was “no way” he’d return for another Bond film. Faced with the unenviable task of replacing the popular actor, they settled on Australian male model George Lazenby.
The story of how Lazenby got the role probably deserves its own movie, but let’s just cover the highlights. According to the actor, when he heard about the search for a new 007, he went to Connery’s barber for a similar haircut, bought a suit from Connery’s tailor, and then snuck into the producers’ offices when the secretary wasn’t looking. Lazenby lied about his acting credits and bluffed his way to a screen test. He famously got Broccoli and Saltzman’s attention when in a staged fight, he actually connected with the stuntman and knocked him out with a single punch.
Convinced he could fight, the producers looked to the other qualifying attribute for the next James Bond. To settle any doubts, they hired a female prostitute and sent her to his hotel room. The next morning, they called to tell him he had the job.
To their credit, the producers surrounded the unknown actor with a more seasoned cast including Diana Rigg as Tracy and Telly Savalas as Blofeld. For a director, they turned to Bond editor Peter Hunt and promoted him to be in charge of the production; with so many of the talented Bond cast and crew returning to support them, they successfully hedged their bets against the risky new acquisition.
For a script, veteran Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum returned after sitting out You Only Live Twice. Sensibly, he returned to the Fleming source material as he had done before, but this time it would be the most loyal script to the novel yet. Like the book it was based on, the film abandoned flashy gadgets and campy absurdist moments to deliver a more grounded story and a more vulnerable Bond.
The crew, reenergized by the challenge of introducing a new James Bond, lent their considerable talents to delivering a 007 film that looked, sounded, and felt almost completely different from everything that had come before.
Time and critical reevaluation have looked favorably upon this film and their efforts, but unfortunately, the audience of the time was not ready for that new direction. While the film didn’t outright bomb, it was certainly less successful than prior Bond films and would wallow in obscurity for decades after its release, a curious footnote and odd outlier to the otherwise successful franchise.
To be sure, it stands out. But is that a good thing or a bad thing, and how will it fare with your friends who are already so accustomed to Connery’s swagger? Let’s sit down for dinner and a drink and then we’ll return to pass judgment on Lazenby’s solo outing.
Switzerland is to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service what Jamaica is to Dr. No. From the isolated fortress Piz Gloria atop a peak in the Swiss Alps to the busy villages at its base, the pristine farming country and its winding roads, and the incredible skiing scenes down its icy, dangerous mountains, it remains one of the most iconic locations of the Bond franchise. You may start shivering just watching this movie, which is why you’ll want to indulge in a generous portion of warming, hearty Swiss cuisine for your next Bond Night meal.
Cheese fondue and decadent chocolates are probably the first (and possibly the only) foods that come to mind, but keep in mind that Swiss cuisine shares several dishes in common with the Germans and Austrians. If you know a good place for schnitzel or wurst sausages, you’re in business; our Bond Night group was extra fortunate. We happen to have a Swiss restaurant in town that was willing to accommodate our region-specific appetites.
In addition to the aforementioned dishes, we greatly enjoyed “emince zurichoise”. A Zurich staple, it contains mushrooms, creamy gravy and thinly cut pork or veal medallions. Pair a steaming plate of that with a side of “rosti,” or Swiss-style hashbrowns, and you’ve got a savory, hearty meal that will keep your belly warm amidst even the most wintry moments. Tarts and quiches are also excellent options for filling up and are regularly available at many good local bakeries or specialty cafes.
Of all the drinks I’ve ever offered at Bond Night, the one I’m most proud of pairing with a particular film is the Black Velvet. As legend goes, this drink was created to mourn the death of Prince Albert of England back in 1861, but for our purposes it’s a perfect way to simultaneously celebrate and mourn a key moment in the Bond franchise.
A combination of champagne and dry Irish stout, the Black Velvet embodies a celebration in a glass cut short by an unexpected moment of darkness. For anyone who has seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to; for the rest of you, I’d hate to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say, by the time you hit the end credits and look down at your finished glass, you’ll have a better understanding of why you’ve been imbibing this strange drink.
Of course, all that’s for naught if it tastes as disgusting as it sounds. Fortunately, the Black Velvet is a revelation in a glass. The beer’s roasted character cuts the wine’s sweetness, while the latter’s gentle fruits mellow the stout’s harsher edges. You’ll note that there’s a hint of tanginess and acidity wrapped around the notes of chocolate and coffee. And the effervescence of the bubbly champagne melds beautifully with the creaminess of the stout.
- 1/2 champagne flute of Brut Champagne or Sparkling Wine
- 1/2 champagne flute of Guinness Extra Stout
It doesn’t get any simpler than this. In a champagne flute, fill the glass halfway with champagne or sparkling wine. Pour slowly and give it a moment to settle if the bubbles start to take over. Then slowly pour the Guinness, filling the other half of the glass. Done!
Keep in mind when purchasing your Guinness you’ll want a sixer of the Extra Stout, not the nitrogenated Draught. For a sparkling wine, don’t feel pressured into shelling out for expensive champagne. A solid $10-$15 bottle of your favorite local Extra Dry or Brut should do the trick nicely. If you’re looking for a recommendation, try Domaine St. Michelle Brut; we thought it was a great pairing with the Guinness.
Take a short break after Bond says “Fancy meeting you here, Fräulein,” around the 1:18:38 mark. Then it’s time for another round of Black Velvets. And maybe a quick chat about the psychedelic 60s, Lazenby’s pirate shirt and kilt, and Piz Gloria’s bevy of babes.
My friends got very nervous when a romantic montage broke out to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in The World.”
Was this a Bond film? Had somebody just pulled a bait-and-switch on the Blu-ray player?
I assured them they had nothing to worry about,. But secretly, I was intrigued how my friends would ultimately respond. The Bond films up to this point had fallen into a certain rhythm and style. While some of these had proven popular and others decidedly less so, the Bond Night crew had become accustomed to seeing interesting variations on a formula anchored by the commanding presence of actor Sean Connery.
But On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is an altogether different beast. The earlier Bond films had been a slow evolution (or devolution) into the realm of camp; this film was not only a hard swerve back to the tone and realism of From Russia With Love, but also a complete reinterpretation of James Bond’s character. Although there are numerous winks to connect it with previous films, OHMSS plays more like a reboot than a continuation. Especially that scene where Blofeld doesn’t recognize Bond. Does that mean we can forget You Only Live Twice ever happened?
The biggest question mark, of course, was George Lazenby. With only this one Bond film to his resume, my friends were intrigued and a bit wary. As it turns out, there wasn’t any need to fear. Although my friends weren’t unanimously in favor of Lazenby, they were more in favor than disfavor. Two of my friends who had tired of Connery’s schtick embraced Lazenby’s performance wholeheartedly; my other friend who was a much bigger Connery fan and enjoyed Thunderball and You Only Live Twice found Lazenby to be a bit dull in comparison.
Personally, I’d argue George Lazenby may be the closest to the literary incarnation of the character; that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Fleming’s Bond is often misunderstood as an amoral assassin; the truth is he’s far more heroic and noble than is often recognized. He would certainly engage in brutal revenge missions after being wronged or attacked, but he wasn’t fond of killing a man if it wasn’t necessary. And he had genuine affection and respect for the women he encountered during his missions.
Similarly, the literary Bond was never the witty, sardonic, calculating character that Connery portrayed. Rather, he was vulnerable and brash and often no match for his foes. We see shades of this vulnerability and restlessness in Lazenby. It’s a rare glimpse beneath the cinematic Bond’s usually suave facade. Lazenby’s Bond is genial and heroic, honorably attempting to help the distressed Tracy.
Now imagine Connery playing these scenes and I think you’ll come to the same conclusion: it would ring false. Connery’s sexual predator would see Tracy’s vulnerability as an opportunity to get between the sheets and then abandon her.
That said, Lazenby lacks the masculine charisma of Connery and his comic timing pales next to future Bond Roger Moore. In the annals of Bond-dom, he looks almost milquetoast in comparison to other actors’ more extreme interpretations. But I happen to feel that he may be the most humanistic and realistic of the bunch. Of course, “humanistic and realistic” are not necessarily what an audience looks for in their male power fantasy film series.
If Lazenby was a source for debate among the Bond Night crew, Telly Savalas certainly wasn’t. Exuding menace and physical superiority, this Blofeld wasn’t the serpentine troll Pleasance depicted in YOLT. Rather, he was a megalomaniacal man of action who could take a punch as well as he could throw one. The thrilling bobsled chase at the end is a highlight, but Savalas similarly shines when monologuing to Bond or quoting poetry with Tracy. Dude even makes holding a cigarette look badass!
Similarly, in a franchise commonly bereft of substantial, well-written female roles, Rigg’s Tracy is a diamond in the rough. There were plenty of ditzy Bond Girl roles preceding her and there would be plenty to follow; but here we’re treated to a fully realized character with an actual story arc. Tracy stands out as being capable and tough while still emanating grace and femininity. At times she’s vulnerable, haunted, humorous, passionate, intelligent and fearless. She sets herself apart from the airheads at Piz Gloria and proves herself worthy of Bond’s love.
Overall, my friends loved On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In fact, they were so enamored with the skillful editing and construction of sequences by director and former Bond editor Peter Hunt they were crestfallen to learn Hunt’s career would dwindle after this film. Even though OHMSS is one of the longest Bond films, the film’s pacing never seemed to lag behind my friends’ interest. Whether it was the amusing “food porn” scene as the Piz Gloria girls sit down to eat their dinners, the creepy psychedelic brainwashing sequences, or the stirring fast-paced action moments, this film felt like a far more modern Bond movie than its nearly fifty years of age would imply.
And that ending? Poignant, powerful, and it left my friends speechless for minutes.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service may represent the best example of filmmaking in the entire Bond series. When you consider how directors no less esteemed than Steven Soderbergh and Christopher Nolan have embraced this film’s bonafides, it’s hard to argue that front to back, inside and out, this is a stunning achievement for franchise filmmaking.
That said, as a piece of franchise filmmaking, it arguably has certain obligations to fulfill particular expectations. Or to phrase it differently, if you had to pick one James Bond film to introduce a neophyte, would you choose OHMSS?
Quality aside, it’s a strange outlier in the franchise. Even Daniel Craig’s Bond is not this vulnerable or this human. Audiences expect a certain escapist quality to the Bond films and a nigh-invulnerability to the character. That doesn’t exactly match up with the novels, but it’s a key attraction of the film series. That said, it’s certainly a crucial Bond film and highly recommended. But in my personal ranking, it doesn’t quite reach the summit.
Alas, for fellow fans of Ian Fleming’s influence on the Bond franchise, you’d better strap on your skis. It’s pretty much all downhill from here.
- From Russia With Love
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
- Dr. No
- You Only Live Twice
Bond Night Will Return with Diamonds Are Forever…
About Bond Night
Bond Night is a tradition started between myself, a bonafide Bondian, and friends whose exposure to the James Bond film franchise was limited. One film a month is paired with a region-appropriate cuisine and cocktail, and spirited discourse about each film’s merits and shortcomings. The goal of this column is to translate that experience here, walking newbies and Bond-experts alike through fifty years of the British super-spy’s cinematic history (from Dr. No through today) and declassifying all the secret intel necessary for you to host your own Bond Night with friends and family.
Michael O’Connor is a writer, filmmaker, and designer with a deep affection for film, literature, comic books… and craft beer. You can read his musings, check out his stories and watch his films at OCONNOBLOG. You can also check out his apparel company, George Shot First, and pick up a one-of-a-kind t-shirt or hat in honor of Star Wars creator George Lucas! Follow him on Twitter and Facebook at the links below.