Merry Christmas, 007: Remembering the Great Yuletide Action & Romance of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’
A NOTE BEFORE YOU READ: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” AND OTHER JAMES BOND MOVIES
While a number of James Bond movies have been released around Christmastime, not too many of them have featured the Yuletide season as a significant setting for their stories.
There was the ending scene of 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, in which Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) celebrate Christmas in Turkey after thwarting the villains, but that scene (as well as the name of Richards’ Bond girl character) only seems to exist to set up a groaningly bad holiday-themed sex joke.
Thirty years before that, though, there was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a relatively faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming‘s novel that opened on Dec. 19, 1969, introduced audiences to George Lazenby in his one and only stint as 007 and had much of its latter portion set on and around Christmas in the snowy and picturesque Swiss Alps.
A supposedly undercover 007 can’t help celebrating Christmas in Blofeld’s alpine lair with the SPECTRE leader’s lovely and unwittingly brainwashed “angels of death”
Christmas plays such a big role in this movie, in fact, that it features a lovely holiday song composed by John Barry, the great musical architect of the Bond franchise, with lyrics by Hal David: “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” performed by Nina.
Here is Nina performing it in full on a British Christmas special in 1969, and it is really a nice song that I am surprised has never become more of a Yuletide staple, even in Europe.
Of course, it does tend to be overshadowed by the film’s other great music: Barry’s exciting instrumental title theme …
… and the classic song “We Have All the Time in the World,” another Barry/David collaboration, performed by the legendary Louis Armstrong. This beautiful love theme perfectly exemplifies the beautiful yet ultimately tragic romance between Bond and Countess Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) to the point that the theme was reprised a bit within the most recent, and final, Daniel Craig Bond movie, No Time to Die, which features a similar, but reversed, heartbreaking ending.
But “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” should still have more love as an addition to people’s holiday playlists.
We hear a bit of this song in OHMSS itself during a thrilling scene when Bond, having just escaped from the alpine hideout of SPECTRE leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played here by Telly Savalas) via a terrific ski chase (the first time skiing was featured in a Bond movie action sequence), is hunted by Blofeld’s henchwoman Irma Bunt (German actress Ilse Steppat, who sadly passed away just a few days after this movie’s release) and her goons through a Christmas festival in a small Swiss village, the type of celebration you might see featured in a Rick Steves “Christmas in Europe” travel special:
The lovely nature of the song and the cozy holiday setting are nicely juxtaposed with the suspense and fear in the scene, and I think this is one example of where having a new actor as Bond worked well for this story, and part of why OHMSS may have gotten a new respect over the past few decades (now that we are long past the days of the “He’s no Sean Connery!” reactions).
As good an actor as Connery was, I think by the time of this movie’s release people had become so accustomed to his 007 being a nearly infallible, gadget-using super-spy that they might not have accepted his Bond appearing to be actually be scared and wondering what to do as his pursuers close in (if Connery had returned for OHMSS, I have to think it would have been radically different in tone, at least, likely less serious and dramatic (despite how wild the movie poster above makes OHMSS seem).
This first of Fleming's 12 novels featuring 007 was originally published in the U.K. April 13, 1953; its U.S. publication followed in March 1954.
In the Christmas festival sequence, just as Bond seems to be at his wit’s end, he looks up to see the radiant figure of Rigg’s Tracy appear before him in a chic ‘60s skating outfit. Thanks to her and her car, and her driving skills, they escape, losing the goons via an impromptu entry into a stock car race over ice in one of the most exciting car chases in the franchise’s history.
After that, Bond and Tracy spend a cozy and romantic night in a barn that they happen upon, where Bond proposes to her as a blizzard rages outside. This is one of the most romantic scenes in a movie that generally has more genuine romance and love than most Bond films, and Rigg’s Tracy remains at or near the top of “Bond girls,” with the character probably even deserving of a better moniker than that.
That’s not to say, though, that Bond doesn’t enjoy the company of other ladies prior to his proposal. He had been at Blofeld’s clinic high in the Swiss Alps posing as a genealogist. There, he learned of the supervillain’s plot to send several lovely young women — who were at the clinic believing they were being cured of allergies — back to their home countries after being unwittingly brainwashed with the means to launch biological agents at Blofeld’s command that would wipe out crops and livestock (among these “angels of death” are actresses Catherine Schell and Joanna Lumley in early roles).
Blofeld is alerted to Bond’s actual identity after the horny agent can’t stop from sneaking into two of the women’s bedrooms one night. After being knocked out, 007 awakens on Christmas morning (like many of us might during the holiday season after overindulging in some spirits, with the room kind of blurred and spinning) to find Blofeld trimming his tree and getting ready to announce his Yuletide blackmail demand to the world.
Eventually, after escaping Blofeld’s agents and after pursuing the criminal mastermind during an intense bobsled chase, James Bond saves not only Christmas, but the world, once again (with the aid of Tracy and her father, a crime lord with some heavy artillery at his disposal).
But it comes at great personal expense to himself in the end when Blofeld and Bunt enact their deadly revenge and kill Tracy moments after she becomes Mrs. James Bond.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a fun outlier in the Bond franchise. Despite some weak acting moments from Lazenby, he really is not bad, and as implied earlier, I think he especially works for the way this story is told, and it anticipates some of the series’ more serious moments that came later in the Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig eras. Rigg is fantastic, and so is Savalas, as one of the more actively involved Blofelds when it comes to actually fighting Bond.
The film is a great watch anytime, and especially around the holidays, when the movie’s wonderful scenery of the Swiss Alps at Yuletide enhance Christmastime action that rivals even that found in Die Hard and includes plenty of winter sports like skiing, bobsledding, ice car racing and even curling …
… and Christmas romance that is more impactful and endearing than anything you’ll see on the Hallmark Channel.
What more could you ask for in a holiday movie?