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Bond at his best in the best of the Ultimate Editions
on 3 November 2008
No Bond film has suffered as much historical and critical revisionism as On Her Majesty's Secret Service. A huge hit on its first release and no better or worse reviewed than any of the preceding Bonds, George Lazenby's decision to leave the series before the film was released led to a tidal wave of attacks from the press and spurned co-producer Albert R. Broccoli (who even removed Lazenby's face from the original US poster!) that cast such a dark shadow over the film that the fact it's one of the highpoints of the series slipped from the public consciousness. Instead it became the Bond that flopped (if taking more than ten times its cost can be called flopping), the Bond that everybody hated (there were plenty of rave reviews to prove otherwise) with the Bond so bad he had to be fired (the producers tried to sign him up for several more pictures but, foolishly he admits, their new star thought the series was on the way out). It didn't help that the film was subsequently heavily cut for reissues and TV, and it's only with the Ultimate Edition DVD that the film is finally available in its absolutely uncut version (even the previous DVD was missing a few shots). Over the years its reputation has gradually grown, although EON clearly still regard it as the black sheep of the series: where the producers proudly boasted in 1970 that it was the fastest Bond to recoup its cost, for the documentary here they maintain it was the slowest. It's tempting to imagine whether 2006's Casino Royale would have met with similar treatment had Daniel Craig decided to call it a day before it opened...
It's all the more mystifying considering how fresh and genuinely exciting much of the film still is today. With many of the series' regulars off making Shalako with Sean Connery (as was intended leading lady Brigitte Bardot), the film benefits greatly from new blood and new ideas while debuting director Peter Hunt's long experience as the series editor keeps it recognisably a Bond film. George Leech's stuntwork is much better than anything Bob Simmonds ever came up with, while cinematographer Michael Reed's superb work in the Swiss locations makes it one of the most visually memorable of the series. The ski chases still amaze, with Willi Bogner and Johnny Jordan going to ridiculously dangerous lengths to secure shots no-one had ever attempted before or equalled since (Bogner skiing backwards with a camera for the ground shots while Jordan was suspended from a helicopter for the aerial shots!), made all the more vivid by John Barry's superb score with its most exciting main title theme of the entire series.
Blessed with one of the strongest and certainly the most emotional of Fleming's plots, followed much more closely than the norm for the films, it also has a healthy contempt for the gadgets that keeps Bond, not the hardware centre stage: he may use a hefty gizmo to crack a safe, but he's more interested in leafing through Playboy while waiting for it to do its job. Elsewhere, he uses his wits and what's available. It's particularly gratifying to see him tear out his pockets and use them as makeshift gloves in one scene
There are odd moments of awkwardness to Lazenby's performance, but nothing truly fatal, and he grows into the role as it progresses. Indeed, as the first Bond to be asked to show real fear (in the ice rink sequence) and despair (the ending), at his best he's far more natural than his detractors give him credit and despite being intended as a Connery imitator there are plenty of moments where he makes the part his own. He's certainly the most physical Bond, not least because of Peter Hunt's determination to put him in harm's way so the camera can come in close in the vicious fight sequences. As for whether Connery would have made the film better still, it's doubtful. Had it originally followed Goldfinger as was originally planned, it's possible, but by the time the oft-rescheduled picture finally went before the camera he'd lost all interest in the part and it's hard to imagine him putting any more effort into it than he did in Diamonds Are Forever. It's certainly impossible to imagine him pulling off the film's devastating final scene by that point.
On the debit side, the pacing is slightly problematic, not least due to the deletion of an uncompleted chase through the London Underground that leaves the film with a slight sag in the middle. That continuity problem with Blofeld not recognising Bond IS irritating (OHMSS was intended to be their first meeting), the romantic montage feels like a jewellers commercial and at times Hunt's cut-to-the-bone editing style is overdone. None of which stop this being very nearly the best Bond of them all, and the one the series wouldn't come close to matching for another 37 years.
For Bond fans, this repackaged two-disc Ultimate Edition is like a brightly lit Christmas Tree on Christmas morning, with plenty of new extras to make it worth an upgrade to the two-disc edition if you already have the previous DVD. Of these, the most interesting are the interviews with Lazenby from the time of the film's release. Much criticised for his arrogance and ego in an era when stars were kept on a tight leash, now he simply seems honest and sincere and considerably more positive about the film than many of today's stars on modern press junkets. Unfortunately, while all three original 1969 making-of featurettes have been included on this issue, Shot On Ice, about the filming of the stock car sequence, has been clumsily tampered with, the extracts from the film taken from the remastered print in widescreen in away that will annoy the purists. It's also missing the alternate theatrical trailers that have appeared on the laserdisc and video releases in the past. But to go some way to compensating, the disc also includes new featurettes on casting the film and a staged press day during shooting as well as all the extras from the original release - plus that tidied up uncut version. Highly recommended, this is Bond at his best.