On Her Majesty's Secret Service ‘67

By Matthew Kresal


In 1967, Sean Connery departed the role of James Bond following a souring relationship with the franchise's producers, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, as well as experiences at the center of paparazzi attention in Japan during the filming of the fifth Bond film You Only Live Twice. Two years later, George Lazenby stepped into the role of 007 for the only time in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (OHMSS). OHMSS was a film that, while a faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming's 1963 novel, proved controversial at the time and would be seen as an outlier in the film series, sandwiched between the Connery and Roger Moore eras, until finding a new appreciation in the 1990s, becoming seen as a classic Bond film.


It's perhaps no wonder, then, that Bond fans and film buffs have spent decades wondering what might have happened if Connery had played Bond in a version of OHMSS made in place of You Only Live Twice. Would it have made one of the best Bond films better?


To try and answer that question, we have first to acknowledge two things. The first is that Eon Productions (Broccoli and Saltzman's company) had attempted to make OHMSS throughout the decade. Indeed, early prints of 1964's Goldfinger carried the now-familiar "James Bond Will Return" title card proclaiming it to be so. Those plans fell by the wayside thanks to the need to strike a deal with Kevin McClory, who had ended up with the film rights to Fleming's Thunderball via a court cast thanks to the failed film project that spawned that novel. OHMSS was next slatted to follow Thunderball, as it had in publication order, with a slew of casting begun before a lack of necessary winter locations sent Eon to the Far East instead. OHMSS could have taken the place of either film, but Thunderball's success at the box-office and as a phenomenon in its own right often leads to the lesser-regarded You Only Live Twice being targeted instead.


The other thing to remember is that a 1967 OHMSS was liable to be as unfaithful to its source novel as You Only Live Twice was. As noted by Bill Koenig in a 2017 article for The Spy Command, author Charles Helfenstein examined the various drafts from this period for his 2009 book The Making of on Her Majesty's Secret Service. Helfenstein detailed how scripts penned in this period by regular Bond scriptwriter Richard Maibaum included an Aston Martin that traveled underwater (a decade before Roger Moore's Lotus in The Spy Who Loved Me). Or how a 1966 draft where Blofeld became Goldfinger's half-brother (pre-echoing Blofeld becoming Bond's step-brother in the Craig era's Spectre). It's easy to forget that it was eventual OHMSS director Peter Hunt, the editor of those early sixties Bond films, who pushed for the faithful adaptation released in 1969. As a result, an OHMSS released in 1967 might, like You Only Live Twice, have taken the same approach in its "adaptation." Namely, dumping the novel's plot, taking a few character names, and grafting in SPECTRE trying to start World War III by stealing American and Soviet spacecraft out of orbit.


Supposing that it hadn't, what might the film have been?


Despite becoming known for directing three of the most extravagant Bond outings (1967’s You Only Twice, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, and 1979’s Moonraker), Lewis Gilbert was an on-paper solid choice for OHMSS. He was, outside of the Bond films, by and large, a drama director who in 1966 was fresh off the making of Alfie with Michael Caine. Yet Gilbert also had a track record for action and films with some scope, including the 1960 film Sink The Bismarck! and 1962's Damn the Defiant!. Might Gilbert, with his background in drama, have been able to steer a middle-ground with Brocolli and Saltzman? One that allowed him to keep at least some of the character moments while also reeling in some of the excesses of the eventually made You Only Live Twice? One that might have played up the germ warfare element earlier in film, perhaps using it to bring Bond into contact with Tracy and her father, and eventually to Blofeld atop Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps? It's also tempting to wonder what a Piz Gloria designed by Ken Adam in place of the iconic volcano lair might have looked like or what a John Barry score for an earlier OHMSS might have sounded with the now-iconic synthesizer influences on it heard two years later. An OHMSS made by the same production team who made You Only Live Twice is intriguing to contemplate.


There's also the question of the cast. Making OHMSS for a 1967 release date would have seen it lose Diana Rigg as Tracy, who was still appearing as Emma Peel in The Avengers, meaning another of the 1969's film's strong points would have been missing. Other actresses considered for the role and Domino in Thunderball before it suggests a wide gambit of potential Tracy's, including Brigitte Bardot (who starred with Connery in the 1968 western Shalako), Julie Christie, Raquel Welch, and Faye Dunaway. Of them, Christie seems the most intriguing choice, given her star is on the rise at the time, thanks to Dr. Zhivago and her being a close match for Fleming's description of Tracy from the novel. What her screen chemistry with Connery might have been like, and if the pair of them could have pulled off the romantic angle more successfully than Lazenby and Rigg, are questions without easy answers.


The other big question in terms of casting is who might have played Ernst Stavro Blofeld. A version of OHMSS akin to the novel would have required a more physical-menacing Blofeld than the one audiences saw played by Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice (or Jan Werich, who Pleasence replaced partway into filming). Looking at his film and TV credits, it's unclear if 1969 Blofeld Telly Savalas would have been available or even considered for the role by Gilbert. Given that Pleasance established the idea of the bald-eyed SPECTRE chief, OHMSS could have gone in a very different direction with an earlier production (as the cast of Werich proves). For example, Maibaum wrote scripts with Max von Sydow in mind, an ironic fact given Sydow would play the role for the non-Eon Never Say Never Again in 1983. A 1967 OHMSS Blofeld might have resembled Adolfo Celi's Largo which, combined with casting in the more "traditional" Blofeld mold, suggests names such as Yul Brynner or Rod Steiger, which might have cost the latter his Oscar for his role as Southern police chief Bill Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night.


Last but not least, there's the question of the film's ending. OHMSS became infamous in 1969 for its ending, drawn from Fleming's novel, featuring Bond not only marrying Tracy but then having her killed by Blofeld and henchwoman Irma Bunt in the final scene, leaving a teary-eyed Bond to mourn her. It's an ending that has aged better with time, but the perceived weaknesses of Lazenby's performance as Bond have led some to suggest the choice might have gone down better with Connery in the role. It's certainly plausible, but reactions to the ending of this year's No Time To Die suggest otherwise, with even a well-established Bond not being able to forestall the criticism of a downbeat ending.


What would all this have meant for the future of the Bond franchise? Connery's relationship with the producers was already fraught, as Gilbert noted in interviews for the 2012 documentary Everything or Nothing, and it seems likely Connery might well have walked away from the part after OHMSS. Would having to follow that ending have made it easier or harder to bring in a new Bond? It's worth remembering that there were, in fact, two different Bond films playing in cinemas in 1967, the other being the comedic spoof Casino Royale, whose reputation hasn't fared well over the decades. Might an earlier OHMSS have affected its reputation and box office? Might we have gotten the Roger Moore era of increased humor and over-the-top elements sooner than we did or, worse, an end to the Bond films in the sixties?


What becomes clear in looking at the possibility of a 1967 OHMSS is that things are rarely as simple as they seem. Writing in 2017, Koenig noted that Bond fans "treat the object of their affection like LEGO blocks. You can just move a few blocks from here to there without any other differences." In alternate history circles, we would use the term "trinketization" to describe such attitudes. A 1967 OHMSS would not have simply been the 1969 film with Sean Connery in place of George Lazenby, but a very different beast, indeed. And, perhaps, one that wouldn't hold a candle to the film we did receive.

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Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has a (Sidewise Nominated) story in the Alternate Australias Anthology by Sea Lion Press, and has also written a Sea Lion Press novel about Joe McCarthy.