Why On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is My Favourite Australian Christmas movie

December 27, 2019
It’s become a trend in recent years to declare not-obviously-Christmas-movies as Christmas movies – Die Hard, the works of Shane Black, Eyes Wide Shut, Home Alone and so on. Stephen Vagg jumped on the bandwagon to stake a claim for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, his favourite Australian Christmas film.

Australian? Christmas?

Hear me out.

First off, let’s get the “favourite” bit out of the way – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is awesome.

Well, awesome if you love James Bond films and I’m guessing you do if you’ve read this far.

It’s based on the best Bond novel (an excellent, faithful adaptation from screenwriter Richard Maibaum).

It has the best Bond villain (the white-cat-stroking Ernst Stavro Blofeld, here superbly played by Telly Savalas), the best Bond villain henchman (henchperson, really – the formidable Irma Blunt played by Ilse Steppat), one of the best Bond villain plans (hold the world to ransom via threatening food supplies), the best Bond ally (Gabriele Ferzetti as crime boss-with-a-conscience Marc-Ange Draco), one of the best Bond girls (Diana Rigg as Tracy), the best Bond villain lair (alpine retreat on top of Piz Gloria), the best scenery and the best in-joke (“this never happened to the other fellow”)…

…It has the best collection of Bond beauties (Blofeld’s “Angels of Death” who include Julie Edge, Catherine Schell and Joanna Lumley)…

…It has the best romance…

…One of the best Bond credit sequences…

..One of the best Bond scores, some of the best Bond action sequences, and the most emotionally devastating end of a Bond film.

It was also the most visually bold Bond, with a treatment that is almost French New Wave – intense sound, jump cut editing, sped-up fight scenes.

The film has a rhythm and pace all of its own – only Casino Royale (2006) came close. It starts off as a thriller romance, with Bond wooing Tracey to get secret information, then genuinely falling for her, and going undercover on Piz Gloria as a nerdy professor…

…but still sleeping with an impressive array of women…

…Then, when Bond’s cover is blown…

…the movie flicks a switch and turns into a late ‘60s action masterpiece with stunning sequence after stunning sequence (cable car fight, night ski chase…

…fight in a bell shop, car chase, day ski chase, helicopter attack…

…raid on Piz Gloria…

…bobsled chase).

Then there’s the emotional double whammy at the end of Bond’s wedding and Tracy’s death.

Diana Rigg’s Tracy is a Bond girl worthy of the (admittedly dubious) honour of being Mrs Bond: beautiful, spirited, a fast driver and top skier, who genuinely loves James and actually has a decent back story – a wild child desperate for love – but never becomes a door mat. She’s sexy, brave, smart and classy, plus dramatically interesting. Also, because she dies she’s kind of perfect for him.

Gabriele Ferzetti’s Draco is firm, sexist, loving, in over his head. A dream father in law, who asks you to root his hot daughter, will pay you a million bucks to marry her, and can organise a helicopter raid on an alpine hideaway at a moment’s notice. I try to forget he’s a member of the Mafia. Still, he’s a professional (I love the moment in the attack on Piz Gloria when Draco’s henchman is setting the explosives and asks his boss about the Englishman; Draco simply replies that he knows the schedule. What a cool dude!)

Many actors have played Blofeld but Telly Savalas’ performance is the most virile and tough of them all – he gets out there on his skis himself, not just sitting on a chair patting a cat, and he is also oddly human (he wants amnesty and recognition rather than money; he’s a snob who is attracted to Tracy’s title as much as her looks).

I love the care chosen in casting the smaller parts: the sandy haired agent who is killed on the mountain; the pocked-marked guy who seems to be Draco’s main henchman; Blofeld’s agents; Draco’s young lover.

John Barry’s music was never better, with wonderful lush scores to go with the alps and the romance. There’s a moving theme song, ‘We’ve Got all the Time in the World’ which is re-used well. Louis Armstrong helped, too (even if it’s used in a falling in love montage that feels very late ‘60s).

Lazenby isn’t in Sean Connery’s class, it’s true, but he’s got looks, charm and swagger, and is terrific in the action sequences. He also gets to perform most of his scenes against really good actors like Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, and Gabriele Ferzett. He’s not as good as Connery was in the first five Bonds but he’s much better than Connery’s return to the role in Diamonds Are Forever. The only time Lazenby hurts the movie I feel is in the scenes with Bernard Miles (M) and Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny) – these would have meant more with Connery who had the history with them.

So, it’s settled then – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is awesome.

Is it a Christmas movie?

Absolutely. It’s set during Christmas season, there are Christmas decorations all over the place,  and part of the plot involves Blofeld giving a Christmas present to his “patients” (the Angels of Death) which they think is allergy treatment but are actually transmitters to enable them to execute his order to wipe out the world’s food supply.

Most of all the soundtrack includes a song by Nina called “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?”, which is played over one of the greatest moments in Bond history – when Bond is freaking out in the township being followed by Blofeld’s men, hides at an ice rink not knowing what to do, and then Tracey skates up at his feet.

Here’s a clip of Nina performing the song on TV.

Is it an Australian movie?

Well, it was primarily a British film, made with European finance. But there were three key Australian contributions. First of all, of course, was George Lazenby, the former car salesman and male model from Queanbeyan who brought an Aussie swagger, cockiness and physicality to the part.

He also had a sensitivity and insecurity that adds to the tension – as pointed out by Danny Peary in his “Cult Movies” piece on the movie; there are times here you really worry for Bond’s safety because you’re not sure of his capabilities as played by Lazenby. For all the difficulties Lazenby caused the producers on this one, they gave serious thought to casting other Australians as Bond over the years – leading candidates for the role included Sam Neill, Anthony Hamilton, Andrew Clarke, Finlay Light, Hugh Jackman, Alex O’Loughlin and Julian McMahon.

Secondly, the cast included Anouska Hempel, a model who was born in New Zealand and grew up in Australia; she plays an Australian Angel of Death – to my knowledge the only Australian character to appear in the film series (though in the original novel of You Only Live Twice the character of intelligence chief Henderson – played in the film as British by Charles Grey – is Australian). Hempel later went on to star in Russ Meyer’s Blacksnake (1973) and become a leading hotelier and interior designer in London.

Thirdly, the editor was John Glen who later directed several Bond movies – and married an Australian, which as far as I’m concerned is enough for us to claim him.

Yes, all this is extremely tenuous but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is easily the most Australian Bond movie until they make one in Australia.

And definitely the most Christmas-y.

Merry Christmas, Bond!


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