Sunday, 5 June 2011

BlogalongaBond #6 - On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

(Here is a link to a revised version of my IMDb review of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, May 2003)

The key to the success of On Her Majesty's Secret Service may well be buried in the plain sight of that most archaic British obsession, heraldry (certainly the publisher of Fleming's 1963 novel thought so, right). The College Of Arms plot device is, on the face of it, a ruse to ensnare the elusive but vain Blofeld. However, in undertaking his cover as Sir Hilary Bray, Bond also uncovers his own coat of arms (that of the motto Orbis Non Sufficit) and immediately opens a substantive genealogical dimension to his character. The spook unearths roots. In tandem with this is the parallel plot thread of his involvment with the impetuous Tracey with whom Bond is not only to fall in love, but - in a genealogically formal move - to marry.

With epic vision, director Peter Hunt sees something yet further. There is a second love affair in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, once again hidden in plain sight, but this time in the title. Bond is, after all, not just a man but an idea (this is clear enough in the simple act of substituting the actor playing the character. The role is the character, not the face). Bond's other formal allegiance is to the Crown - and in 1969 that meant the easily borne fealty to a young and attractive Queen Elizabeth II. Bond salutes her picture on his office wall on two occasions. The first is an ironic apology for having attempted to resign. The second is an altogether more serious exchange in which he recognises the gravity and permanence of his connection to the monarch. He does a deal over M's head with Tracey's kingpin father to finish Blofeld, rescue Tracey and fulfil his less professional, more mystical relationship to his Queen. The act not only draws the metaphor but also ties his most profound allegiances together at a stroke. Hunt adds one final brilliant flourish to this, by casting Moneypenny as the selfless go-between, changing Bond's dictated resignation memo to a leave request and in so doing renouncing all hope of a claim to him for herself. It is the perigee of Lois Maxwell's long orbit around Bond's dark star.

Through this delicate manipulation, the character of Bond takes on a timeless character. Like that touching, symbolic and deeply English masterpiece of the aesthetic movement (a Victorian school of art concerning Medieval subjects) Lord Leighton's God Speed (right), Bond is suddenly seen at a different level, heroic, principled - and, remarkably, chaste, after the Arthurian model of the figures therein. Immediately one recalls the cold, sour line delivered to the conquered Volpe in Thunderball after he is exposed as a spy:
My dear girl, don't flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for Queen and country. You don't think it gave me any pleasure, do you?
Indeed, in the more explicit personal paradigm-shift of the Sir Hilary Bray disguise, Bond goes on to settle himself inamongst a flower garden of young women in pursuit of Blofeld. His congress with two of them is a surreal, technicolour affair (literally in the case of the first, Ruby). The humour and cultural awareness of the Indian summer of the 1960s is duly assimilated in these cute moments with the girls but remains a trifle compared to the grand romance at large. Indeed the central Act is in fact the most consistently Arthurian, borrowing heavily from Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal: the castle populated with maidens; the accursed harpie (Irma Bundt); and the evil overlord (Blofeld) - a eunuch in Wagner's later operatic adaptation, missing earlobes in the film.

This romance is not just the content of On Her Majesty's Secret Service but also its very son et lumiere. Michael Reed creates a spectacular dreamscape in capturing the light of both dawn rescue sequences (the pre-title beach scene and the assault on Blofeld's Alpine lair), and unrepentant romanticist John Barry ropes in Satchmo to croon a now-celebrated swansong to love, a populist Liebestod: 'We have all the time in the world'. Diana Rigg's casting as Tracey is an inspired decision, giving us a woman at once English and passionate, but independent. It's just a shame that for all Lazenby is the ideal action hero, his dramatic acting is insufficient for the extended dramatic complexities of the story or the greater canvas of Bond himself.


Anonymous said...

Really refreshing way to look at this; enjoyable and thought provoking. Final summary of Lazenby spot on too.

Framescourer said...

Thanks T