Friday, December 06, 2019

40 Years Ago: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

"Why is any object we don't understand always called a thing?"

- Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The Star Trek franchise has re-invented itself on more than one occasion.  J.J. Abram's Star Trek (2009) wasn't the first instance of it. Indeed, the expensive and highly-profitable film that first did so arrived in American movie theaters forty years ago today, on December 7, 1979, and was titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Directed by Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still [1951]), Run Silent, Run Deep [1958], The Haunting [1963], Audrey Rose [1977]) and produced by TV series creator and "Great Bird of the Galaxy" Gene Roddenberry, this forty-five million dollar voyage of the starship Enterprise launched a film series that has endured a whopping four decades.

Despite proving a box-office bonanza and the father to ten cinematic successors of varying quality, Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains today one of the most polarizing of the film series entries.

The received wisdom on the Robert Wise film is that it is dull, over-long, and entirely lacking in the sparkling character relationships and dimensions that made the 1960's series such a beloved success with fans worldwide.

It is likely you've heard all the derogatory titles for the film too, from The Motionless Picture, to Spockalypse Now, to Where Nomad Has Gone Before (a reference to the episode "The Changeling.")

Conventional wisdom, however, isn't always right. Among its many fine and enduring qualities, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is undeniably the most cinematic of the Trek movie series in scope and visualization.

And, on closer examination, the films features two very important elements that many critics insist it lacks: a deliberate, symbolic character arc (particularly in the case of Mr. Spock) and a valuable commentary on the co-existence/symbiosis of man with his technology.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture also re-invents the visual texture of the franchise, fully and authoritatively, transforming what Roddenberry himself once derided as "the Des Moines Holiday Inn" look of the sixties TV series for a post-Space:1999, post-Star Wars world.

The central narrative of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is clever and fascinating (and, as some may rightly insist, highly reminiscent of various episodes of the TV series). Sometime in the 23rd century, a massive, mysterious space cloud passes through the boundaries of Klingon territory and destroys three battle-cruisers while assuming a direct heading to Earth.

The only starship within interception range is the U.S.S. Enterprise, a Constitution class starship just completing an eighteen month re-fit and re-design. Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Chief of Starfleet Operations, pulls strings and calls in favors to be re-assigned as captain of the Enterprise, arrogantly displacing the young, "untried" Captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins).

After departure from dry dock, the Enterprise faces severe engine design difficulties of near-catastrophic proportion, but the timely arrival of the half-Vulcan/half-human science officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) resolves the problem. In the intervening years since the series, however, the inscrutable Spock has become even more stoic and unemotional, having attempted to purge all his remaining emotions in the Vulcan ritual called Kolinahr.

Upon intercepting the vast space cloud, known also as "the intruder," the Enterprise crew learns, following a series of clues, that the colossal space vessel sheathed within the cloud/power-field is actually an artificial intelligence, a living machine called V'ger. And at the "heart" of V'Ger is a NASA Voyager probe from the 20th century -- re-purposed by an advanced society of living machines on the other side of the galaxy -- sent back to Earth to find God, it's "Creator." In V'ger's quest to touch the Divine, Kirk, Spock and Decker each find personal enlightenment, resolving their personal dilemmas and also saving Earth from destruction.

All Our Scans Are Being Reflected Back...

The creative team of producer Gene Roddenberry (1921 - 1991) and director Robert Wise (1914 - 2005) consisted of two individuals who had very distinct philosophical views about technology, and the destination technology was driving mankind.

In Roddenberry's case, we must countenance his progressive concept of "Technology Unchained," the notion of technology becoming both beautiful (rather than clunky and mechanical...) and benign.

Man's machines, Roddenberry believed, would come to serve all the needs of the species, thus freeing humanity from the age-old dilemmas of poverty, dwindling resources, racial prejudice, hunger, territorial gain and war. This was an optimistic vision of man and machine in harmony, one given even fuller voice almost a decade later in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994).

By contrast, Robert Wise directed the technological thriller, The Andromeda Strain (1971), based on the best-selling Michael Crichton (1942-2008) novel about an alien organism (or germ...) threatening all human life on Earth. Wise once stated that The Andromeda Strain concerned "the first crisis of the space age," a descriptor which permits us to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a further meditation on a similar theme, only representing a (much) later planetary crisis, only in the 23rd century.

Wise also stated that technology, particularly that on hand in the subterranean Wildfire Laboratory, was the "star" of The Andromeda Strain.

In keeping with that motif, The Andromeda Strain's opening credits consisted of a space-age montage of technological symbols, from blueprints to graphs, to top secret communiques. Think of it as Dot Matrix as Jackson Pollock.

In the same vein, the characters in the film spoke in protean techno-babble on arcane subjects such as "Nutrient 24-5," "Red Kappa Phoenix Status," the "Odd Man Hypothesis," "Sterile Conveyor Systems" and the like. In all, Wise's 1970s sci-fi film represented a dedicated documentary-style approach, one that never easily accommodated a "lay" audience. Instead, you felt you were actually inside that underground complex alongside the Wildfire team.

Most uniquely, however, the The Andromeda Strain's climax concerned the pitfalls of technology: a teletype/printer experienced an unnoticed paper jam at a very inopportune moment. Some critics and film scholars have interpreted this malfunction as Wise's explicit warning about relying too heavily on technology, but the opposite was true. Had the printer worked as planned, one of the scientists would have transmitted orders for a nuclear bomb detonation at an infected site, a course of action that would have catalyzed and spread the Andromeda germ.

The machine's paper jam gave the flawed human being time to learn more, and re-consider the course of action. Given this analysis, one can detect that Wise was, perhaps, agnostic on the subject of man and technology, seeing both how it could prove a great tool, but also a great danger.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture serves, in several ways, as an unofficial "sequel" or heir to Wise's Andromeda Strain in terms of both approach and philosophy. Of all the Star Trek films, The Motion Picture is the only series installment to feature so many lingering insert shots of technological read-outs and schematics. For example we see a medical visualization of the Ilia Probe's physiology, a representation of "a simple binary code" (radio waves), "photic-sonar readings"(!) and several tacticals revealing Enterprise's approach and entrance into the cloud.

These multitudinous close-ups of computer graphics and read-outs not only enhance the notion of Enterprise as working starship -- with several interfaces directly at our disposal (fostering the documentary feel), -- but go a long way towards establishing the vital link between technology and crew, a symbiosis, if you will.

A great deal of time is spent in the Motion Picture on views of the crew gazing through the Enterprise's "technological" eye or window on the universe, the view screen. In a film about the combining of man and machine into a "new life-form," these moments carry resonance and significance: they reveal man already traveling down that road to symbiosis, relying on technology as his eyes, ears and (in the case of the ship's computer...) key interpreter of data or external stimuli.

In Star Trek, the TV series, Spock often gazed into a hooded library computer and we were denied access to what data he saw recorded inside (save for the reflected blue illumination on his face). In later Treks, stellar cartography played a role, but the high-tech, colorful displays it produced for crew members were not filmed as inserts. In other words, we saw Picard and Data interpreting the data, and the data itself. It's important, I believe, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that the data read-outs and view screen images are primarily brought directly to our eyes without dramatis personae coming between projector and percipient. For one thing, we feel as though we're actually aboard a ship in space. For another, we're taking part in that symbiosis of man and machine, we're interpreting the runes ourselves.

The underlying philosophy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture seems to consist of an admonition that man and machine work best together integrated, not when separated. V'Ger is a living machine who has "amassed" all the knowledge of the universe, but is without the human capacity of "faith," to "leap beyond logic," The machine (without human input or touch...) is cold, and barren, and incapable of believing in other realities (like the after-life) or other dimensions. Thus it is incomplete. Only by joining with a human (Commander Decker), does V'Ger find a sense of wholeness, of completion.

Kirk's journey is not entirely different. He views the Enterprise -- a machine itself -- as almost a physical lover in this film. When Scotty takes Admiral Kirk via a shuttle pod to inspect the Enterprise's re-designed exterior, Kirk has the unmistakable look of a man sizing up a sexual conquest, not a starship captain merely reporting to his new assignment. He avariciously sizes up the "woman" in his life (and ships are always "she" aren't they?). Like V'Ger after the union with Decker, Kirk ultimately finds a sense of completion once he has "joined" with the starship Enterprise, both metaphorically and literally. Once he is her captain again, Kirk is complete.

Consider for a moment just how many times Star Trek: The Motion Picture lingers upon the important act of a man entering -- or connecting to -- a machine. We watch Kirk's shuttle pod "dock" with Enterprise after a long, lingering examination of the ship. We see Spock, in a thruster suit, "penetrate" -- in his words, "the orifice" leading to the next interior "chamber" of V'Ger. This terminology sounds very biological, doesn't it? Consider that Spock next mentally-joins with V'Ger, utilizing a Vulcan mind-meld, yet another form of symbiosis.

And finally, we see Decker and Ilia physically join with the V'ger Entity during the film's climax. And make no mistake, that final act is equated with physical reproduction explicitly in the film's text. "Well, it's been a long time since I delivered a baby," McCoy notes happily in the film's epilogue, and Kirk remarks on "the birth" of a new life-form. They're talking about sex, about the union of two-life forms creating a third, unique life form.

Similarly, the journey of the Enterprise inside the giant V'Ger cloud replicates the details of the human reproductive process, with the final result proving identical: the birth of new life. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, man and machine mate. They join in symbiosis to create something new, perhaps even as Spock notes, "the next step in our own evolution."

While Star Trek films have traded explicitly in both allegory (particularly The Undiscovered Country and the Cold War "bringing down the Berlin Wall in Space" idea) and social commentary (consider the environmental message of The Voyage Home), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is decidedly symbolic. That's an important distinction.

The central images in the film all symbolize the reproductive, joining process. Spock penetrates the V'Ger "orifice," to mentally join with a living machine. Decker and Ilia (V'ger's surrogate) are mated in a light show that some Paramount studio executives allegedly termed a "40 million dollar fuck." And even the journey of the Enterprise (essentially the male "sperm") through the fallopian tube-type interior of V'Ger -- carrying its creative material (the human spirit in this case) to the V'ger complex (ovum) -- reflects the overriding theme of mating/joining/symbiosis.

So is technology a help or a hindrance? For the Klingons, destroyed in the film's first act, technology doesn't seem to help much. All their elaborate technical read-outs and tracking sensors (again, shown in dramatic insert shots) only permit them to watch the progress of their annihilation down to the last detail; down to the last second.

On the Enterprise, technological attempts to understand V'ger are constantly stymied by the living machine. "All scans are being reflected back," Uhura notes in the film on more than one occasion, meaning that V'Ger is re-directing the Enterprise's investigative entreaties back at itself. This is a subtle indicator that the answers Kirk and the others seek are held within themselves; in the gifts, contradictions and essential nature of "carbon based life forms." They begin to key in on this fact when Kirk and Spock assign Decker to awaken the human (er, Deltan...) memory patterns of the Ilia Probe (a mechanism). The answer, they come to understand, rests in the human equation, not in a technological assessment of V'ger.

It's interesting to tally the scoreboard here. V'Ger (a machine) finds "God" and evolves with the help of a human (Decker). Kirk finds his peace with a machine (The Enterprise). Spock finds his answer from a machine, and that answer is an acceptance of humanity. Even Decker finds his "peace" with a machine that replicates (down to the last detail) the memory patterns of his lost beloved. Each of these main characters (Kirk, Spock, V'Ger and Decker) are intricately involved with the story's main conceit: the mating of man and machine; of "cold" knowledge and "warm" human emotions.

Our Own Human Weaknesses...and the Drive That Compels Us to Overcome Them...

Despite protestations to the contrary, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a movie intrinsically,  organically, about character, and character development. In simple terms, the film's main characters (Kirk, Spock and Decker) serve as the deliverer of human ideals to the cold, empty V'Ger child so that it may "evolve." But in doing so, they also bring along a lot of "foolish human emotions," as Dr. McCoy asserts at the film's conclusion.

Captain Kirk begins the film, for instance, as a ruthless, single-minded "my way or the highway" obsessive. We see his determination to reclaim the "center seat" when he tells Commander Sonak at a space port that he intends to be aboard the Enterprise following a meeting with Admiral Nogura, Starfleet's top brass. We see it again when he rationalizes displacing Decker, off-handedly noting that his "experience...five years out there, facing unknowns like this one," make him the superior commanding officer. The contradiction in that argument should be obvious. Are different "unknowns" actually capable of being categorized? How does Kirk know that Decker's history and experience won't prove superior in dealing with this threat, the alien cloud? He doesn't: he just wants what he wants.

And to some extent, the Enterprise (Kirk's other half, or perhaps a representation of his id...) rebels against this egomaniac version of Kirk. Consider how much goes wrong on Enterprise when Kirk is acting in this selfish mode. The transporters break down, killing two new crewmembers. Kirk gets lost on his own ship and is discovered (in an embarrassing moment) by Decker, the very man he replaced. Kirk "pushes" his people too hard, forcing the Enterprise into warp speed before it is ready, and in the process nearly destroys the ship in a wormhole. He does so over the objections of Mr. Scott, Captain Decker and even Dr. McCoy. This Kirk is all ego and selfishness, until he remembers the key to commanding the Enterprise: listening to all viewpoints and making informed decisions. This also happens to be the key in any male/female relationship. Just treat her like a lady, Jim, and she'll always bring you home. This first Kirk is too hungry, too grasping, too desperate to "re-connect" with the Enterprise in anything but a physical way. Bones puts Kirk in his place, but all the malfunctions of the Enterprise subtly (and symbolically) perform the same function.

About half-way through the film, Kirk is still learning this lesson in humility, as Decker notes that as the vessel's executive officer, it's his responsibility to "provide alternative" view points. Kirk accepts that argument, but hasn't internalized it. By the end of the film, he is actively listening to others again, heeding Decker's request to join a landing party, and allowing Spock to proceed when the curious half-Vulcan overrides his orders and steals a thruster suit.

The familiar Kirk of Star Trek lore, the one who develops a strategy based on hearing all viewpoints, slowly re-asserts itself over the selfish one who wanted command and conquest of the Enterprise, and nothing else. A journey that began in selfishness, ends in his "unity" with the crew and ship, his acceptance and sense of joining with those around him, a reflection of V'Ger's joining with the human race. Kirk has, as he states, overcome human weakness.

Although Spock is half-human, he undertakes much the same journey as Kirk in the film. He returns to Starfleet because he has failed to purge himself of human emotion and believes that an understanding of V'Ger will lead him to that destination. McCoy fears that Spock -- like Kirk -- will put his own personal interests ahead of the ship's. What Spock ultimately learns from his encounter (mind-meld) with V'Ger is life changing for him. He discovers that V'Ger has achieved what he seeks, "total logic." But damningly, "total logic" doesn't make V'Ger happy. Thought patterns of "exactingly perfect order" don't leave room for belief (in the afterlife...), for the "simple feeling" of friendship Spock feels towards Kirk, or much else.

For all V'Ger's knowledge, Spock realizes that the alien is "barren" and "empty." Were Spock to pursue Kolinahr, he would end up the same way. Spock's "human flaw," if we can call it that, is also one of ego, his obsession with becoming the "perfect" Vulcan. In embracing friendship with Kirk, in feeling his emotions (and even weeping, in the film's extended version), Spock begins to embrace the emotions he has long denied...and provides Kirk with the key to understanding V'Ger's psychology. He would never have come to this epiphany had Spock not "joined" with V'Ger in a mind-meld. And that puts us right back at the theme of symbiosis.

Decker (Stephen Collins) undergoes an interesting character arc too. He is a young man who fears commitment and the responsibilities it brings. He left Delta IV, Ilia's home wold without even saying goodbye to the woman he loved, which is a pretty sleazy and avoidant thing to do. It might even be termed "cowardice." In the end, Decker overcomes this "human weakness" and joins with Ilia and V'Ger, saving the Earth, repairing his relationship with Ilia, and adding the human component to V'Ger that the machine life-form requires to "evolve."

When Kirk, Spock and McCoy return to the Enterprise, Kirk explicitly asks if they have just witnessed the "birth of a new life form." As I noted bove, Spock's answer is that perhaps they have seen "the next step" in their "own evolution." This is a statement that is linked to the characters themselves. Though Decker has physically evolved to another (higher...) dimension or plane of existence, Kirk and Spock have evolved too. Kirk is suddenly gracious and comfortable in his skin again instead of imperious and dictatorial. And Spock, for the first time in his life, understands that that his human emotions carry value, and augment his "whole" personhood.

To claim that there is little or no character development in Star Trek: the Motion Picture is wrong-headed in the extreme. In some fashion, this is surely the most important story of Mr. Spock's "life," his final recognition of his "human" half and the gifts it offers. When we cavalierly write off Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we are also writing off Spock's new enlightenment.

This is An Almost Totally New Enterprise...

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is often termed the film that saved Star Trek, and there may indeed be truth to that argument. Certainly, I love and admire that Nicholas Meyer film. However, consider just how much material present in later Star Trek originates directly from the re-invention of the franchise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Most notably, the Enterprise re-design and update -- featured in the first six feature films -- is introduced in this Robert Wise film (exteriors and interiors). This was also the first Star Trek production to feature a "warp" distortion effect around the ship when it went beyond light speed.

Also, the modern iteration of Klingons -- so beloved by Trek fans today -- is introduced here, in The Motion Picture. Before the Wise film, Klingons were swarthy guys with beards who talked about Klingonese (in "The Trouble with Tribbles") but didn't actually speak it. After Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Klingons were menacing aliens with ridges on their foreheads (and boy would Next Gen go to town with THAT idea...), wearing convincing armor and speaking their own language.

We can't forget, either that Star Trek: The Next Generation's very theme song, as well as the Klingon theme featured in First Contact and elsewhere -- were re-purposed from Jerry Goldsmith's brilliant soundtrack for
Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

There seems to be this weird belief among many fans that Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn't represent the best of Star Trek. While it is easy to see that the film doesn't accent the humorous side of the Star Trek equation, The Wise film does get so many things right. Most importantly, it captures the Kirk/Spock friendship in simple, poignant terms (in a scene set in sickbay). Imagine how easy it would have been for Gene Roddenberry -- just two years after Star Wars -- to cowtow to public opinion and make a huge, empty action film with laser blasts and spaceships performing barrel rolls. No one would have blamed him. I'll bet you a lot of fans would have liked that story better.

Instead, Roddenberry took a much more difficult route. He maintained the integrity of Star Trek and dramatized a story about mankind's future, and the direction we could be heading (with man and machine joined together, balancing weaknesses and sharing strengths). Some might declare that the film actually attempts and fails to reach the profound quality of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly, I would agree The Motion Picture is not an equal to that film. However, here's another point of view: in Roddenberry's vision of man's evolution, it isn't some mysterious, unknown alien who transforms us for the better. No, in the universe of Star Trek, it's mankind playing a critical part in his own evolution, taking the reigns of his own destiny himself. We aren't victims of an alien agenda unknown to us. We're standing tall, ready to face what the universe throws at us. Somehow, this is more...noble.

In considering (or perhaps, re-considering....) Star Trek: The Motion Picture, our mission ought to be the same as the Enterprise's: to "intercept" and "investigate" this fascinating movie and judge for ourselves if it is just the cosmic bore critics complained of, or perhaps something a bit deeper. Of all the Star Trek movies, this is the one that shows us the most of the universe at large (Klingon territory, Federation spaceships, Vulcan, Earth...), most closely follows the creed of "discovering new life forms" from the series, and most makes us feel like we're actually passengers aboard the Enterprise. Perhaps we wouldn't want Star Trek to exist on this elevated, cerebral plateau for long, since humor and action are indeed shorted. Yet there's something intensely admirable about the fact that this careful, somber, thematically-consistent, intelligent effort was Star Trek's opening salvo in the blockbuster sweepstakes of the post-Star Wars age. While others sought to imitate, Star Trek chose its own path.

And that's how a movie franchise was born.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

50 Years Ago: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

In terms of James Bond, the big question of the year 1969 was this:  Can the popular film series survive without Sean Connery starring as Agent 007?

Ironically, in 2019 -- fifty years later -- we all take the answer for granted. 

The film series has endured quite nicely, in fact, with Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig each in the lead role.  We now understand that the popular character is bigger than any particular actor’s portrayal of him.

But on December 18, 1969 -- with an Australian model named George Lazenby playing James Bond for the first and only time in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service -- the answer seemed far less certain.

That terrible lack of certainty is actually expressed a bit in the text of the film itself.  For starters, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s opening credits feature clips from Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. 

And during one crucial scene involving his resignation from MI6, Bond cleans out his office desk and looks nostalgically at trinkets including Honey Ryder’s knife belt, Grant’s watch-garrot, and Bond’s underwater breather from Thunderball.

Then there’s the moment outside Draco’s office, wherein a janitor whistles the theme from Goldfinger (or is it Moon River?).  

Finally, there’s the controversial and valedictory moment in the terrific pre-title sequence during which Bond breaks the fourth wall and quips, “This never happened to the other fellow…”

In short, existential uncertainty and diffidence are injected right into the DNA of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  All these moments veritably scream out to the audience that the James Bond films boast a history and legacy, and this new film is the next legitimate part of that history and legacy.

Remembering past adventures.

And remembering them again.

In retrospect the filmmakers needn’t have bothered with such an orgy of self-justification.  It’s unnecessary because the movie stands up brilliantly on its own, and also, perhaps, as the most important chapter in the entire James Bond story.

Some critics of the day clearly viewed it as a vital and vibrant installment too.  Writing for The Village Voice, critic Molly Haskell called On Her Majesty’s Secret Servicethe most engaging and exciting James Bond film” and noted that “the action scenes, particularly the ski chase, winter carnival, and stock car racing episodes are breathtaking.”

Directed by former second unit director and editor Peter Hunt, this 1969 Bond film crackles with energy and high-intensity action, and much more importantly, conveys brilliantly the human tragedy of James Bond, the tale of a man who finds -- and then abruptly loses -- his true love and soul mate.  In some twisted way, the whole affair plays like a dark, anxious fairy tale.

Clocking at nearly two-and-a-half hours, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the kind of rich, nuanced Bond film one can get truly lost in.  It takes its time.  It doesn't rush.  In a sense, it’s almost better to approach this particular Bond epic on its own, rather than as part of an on-going series because it diverges so much, and so delightfully, from expectations and tradition.   If one can set aside expectations and preconceived notions, there are great pleasures to be found here, and great artistry as well.

Buttressed by a charismatic performance from Diana Rigg as Tracy Draco, highlighting action scenes that remain “breakneck, devastating affairs” (per Vincent Canby) and featuring an utterly devastating finale, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, like the later effort, Licence to Kill (1989) showcases Bond at his most vulnerable and most human.

“I hope I can live up to your high standards.”

A vacationing James Bond (George Lazenby) rescues the beautiful Tracy Draco (Diana Rigg) when she attempts to commit suicide on a beach.  Later the same night, he bails her out again at a casino when she loses an expensive wager.

Bond’s protection doesn’t go unnoticed by Tracy’s wealthy father, Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), leader of a vast international crime syndicate.  He abducts Bond from his hotel, and tells the agent that he would like the spy to marry Tracy, in an effort to keep her in line and “dominate” her.

Intrigued by the offer, Bond agrees, but only on the condition that Draco share with him everything he knows regarding the location of the missing fugitive from justice, SPECTRE’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas).

Draco acquiesces, and Bond and Tracy soon fall deeply, madly in love.  At the same time, Bond traces Blofeld’s location to the Swiss Alps, and to an allergy clinic on an isolated mountaintop.  Disguising himself as an (effete) expert in heraldry -- Sir Hillary Bray -- Bond infiltrates the stronghold and learns that Blofeld is attempting to engineer a pardon for himself by unleashing a deadly, infertility-spawning virus.  He is brainwashing his patients -- all females -- and during the Christmas holiday plans to return them to their homes to release the toxin.

Bond escapes from the clinic, but with Blofeld’s minions in close pursuit, and Tracy unexpectedly shows up to aid 007.  When she is captured by Blofeld following an avalanche, Bond urges M to act on her behalf.  When M can’t do so, Bond teams with Draco to launch a devastating helicopter assault on Blofeld’s mountaintop fortress.

After Tracy is rescued, Bond and the love of his life are married in a romantic and beautiful ceremony.  There, Bond says his goodbyes to the secret service, and to Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell).

 But the newlyweds have not heard the last from Blofeld…

“We have all the time in the world.”

In some very perverse and tricky way, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service excels as a Cinderella-type fairy tale, albeit one turned on its head. 

The Cinderella figure in the drama is clearly Tracy, and as in the storied fairy tale, her father, Draco, is a lonely, heart-broken widower.  And in both the fairy tale and the film version of the story, this widower isn’t able to provide his daughter the family upbringing she needs.  Accordingly, she faces strife and upset in her life.  She seems lost.

Into this unfortunate dynamic arrives the dashing, outside savior, a Prince Charming figure.  Or in the case of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, James Bond, himself.

Although James routinely romances glamorous women, he soon falls hopelessly in love with Tracy, realizing that she is his soul-mate and, in a very real sense, a mirror-image of himself.  She is as physically capable, verbally witty, and sexually carnivorous as he is.  In other words…a perfect match. 

In the film’s first scene -- set on a picturesque beach at dusk -- Bond even stops at one point to retrieve Tracy’s slippers immediately after she runs away from him and disappears over the horizon.  At this point, he is unaware of the true identity of this princess (or contessa), as is also the case in the fairy tale. 

Finally, before the credits roll, Bond notes that “this never happened to the other fellow.” 

But, of course, the very same thing happened to Prince Charming. 

Now Bond must find the mysterious woman who has enchanted him and win her heart.

Even the Cinderella-like notion of “happily ever after” is acknowledged and strategically re-parsed in this Bond film, specifically in the turn of phrase “we have all the time in the world.” 

Both phrases imply simply, a long future of happiness and shared time.  And immediately preceding her death, Tracy even comments to Bond that the wedding gift he gave her is "a future.”  “Happily ever after” thus seems within real reach, not merely the romantic fantasy of some childhood story.

Sadly, however, that future is not to be.

Tracy is killed in the film’s final scene by a vengeful Blofeld.   Thus On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the Cinderella story as seen through a cracked mirror, or a cracked windshield as the case may be; the film's final, haunting image.

The slippers of the princess...

and the Prince Charming who finds them.

The Fairy Tale Wedding.

A Fairy Tale shattered: Unhappily Ever After.

Although few Bond fans would probably select Cinderella as an inspiration for a franchise film entry, in this case, the selection proves illuminating because it lands the primary focus on the female character.   That’s a rarity in Bond movies, which, of course, usually focus almost solely on Bond’s exploits.

Already at this point in the Bond series, we had seen a number of great female characters, from Honey Ryder to Pussy Galore and beyond.  But for this movie to work as an emotional, human experience, viewers had to understand the depth of Bond’s connection to Tracy.  And to do that, she had to be established as something special: a woman above all others (just as Bond is a man above all others).

In other words, the film had to answer a critical answer.  Why would Bond choose Tracy?   After all the beautiful and feisty women he has romanced and bedded, what makes this individual so special that he can’t just walk away, essentially, as he’s clearly walked away from so many other beauties?

The movie more than provides answers to that question.  First, Tracy is a princess, like Cinderella, but one with problems.   Like Bond, Tracy is broken inside.  They are both lonely and isolated individuals living among the “international jet set,” an outwardly glamorous and fast-paced world, but alienating, apparently, on a personal, individual level.   They both seem to have had their fill of hotels, casinos, aristocrats and empty, shallow assignations.  This lifestyle no longer holds allure for either of them, and so Bond finds himself in a profession where death is a constant companion, and Tracy contemplates suicide.  Each has made a self-destructive decision, in a way, about their futures.

As I describe above, the film also great lengths to reveal Tracy’s family heritage.  Draco describes how he and her mother fell in love, and how she died tragically when Tracy was young.  We thus come to understand where Tracy comes from, and again, this is background information we don’t’ necessarily get on all the other Bond girls.

This background information arrives (in a beautifully-written and performed scene in Draco's office), and it adds to our understanding of the Cinderella figure, of Tracy.  By telling us of Tracy’s life we start to understand her journey, and why that journey dovetails with Bond.  There is hope for a happy ending, at least for a time.

In action and deed, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service also reveals Tracy’s penchant for gambling, her athletic prowess (skiing and horseback riding), and her verbal aplomb, matching Bond witticism for witticism. 

Finally, Tracy even proves herself eminently capable in physical combat.  Importantly, her final battle with one of Blofeld’s hulking guards is scored to the James Bond, 007 theme.   Intriguingly, Bond is virtually a non-presence in this particular scene.  He’s still on the helicopter, outside, at some distance.  Yet Tracy fights to that well-established, even iconic theme, and the suggestion is, of course, that she is worthy of it.  That she is a Bond-ian reflection, and therefore 007’s soul mate.

In conjunction with the Cinderella-type leitmotif, these character aspects of On Her in Majesty’s Secret Service make us understand the human and romantic aspect of the tragedy.  I’ve made no secret of my selection of Tracy (and Rigg) as the greatest Bond Woman in the film series’ history.  Where many Bond Girls (especially in the 1960s and 1970s) were relatively one-dimensional, Tracy is not.  She is a fully-developed and intriguing person who seems every bit the equal to Bond.  

But the Cinderella approach to the story helps to remind us of what is at stake here.  It isn’t, actually, the end of the world, as Blofeld plans it.  No, the danger in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is two-fold: failing to recognize true love, and secondly losing that love once it’s been identified and acknowledged.

“Life’s too short for 'someday,'” states the film’s dialogue about falling in love, and so Bond makes the most dangerous decision of his life (and the film series).  He commits himself to the love of one very special person.  There is much less at stake, for instance, when you don’t really love someone, when it’s just a fling or casual sex.  But by falling in love with Tracy, Bond puts himself in the terrible and vulnerable position where Blofeld can really, truly hurt him.  For once, James Bond really knows what it means to love, and to put his heart on the line.  And just look at what happens to him. 

Once you've known love, the world is not enough.  Especially for a Bond.

That is why, of course, the James Bond story qualifies as tragedy.  A man who has hidden from love finally lets it into his life, only to lose it. 

Beyond the twisted Cinderella/fairy tale leitmotif, this Bond film plays uneasily with franchise traditions.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is certainly a (dangerous) love story as much as a spectacular adventure, for instance, and yet that's not the only shift in accent.  Additioinally, this Bond film also eschews the series’ trademark and widely-beloved gadgets.  In fact, the film even goes so far as to mock those gadgets by suggesting that the wave of the future is not such obsolete trinkets, but things like “radioactive lint.”    How exciting is that possibility?

At one point -- when Bond deploys a safe-cracker device -- he just sits back and reads Playboy Magazine while the machine does the hard work.  The implication, of course, is that such gadgetry (like the mini-copy machine) is now an accepted part of everyday life, not cutting-edge, life-saving devices.  The thrill of technology is gone.  Gadgets are just workaday things.

I suspect that some critics and viewers will always criticize Lazenby’s performance as James Bond in OHMSS.  But facts are facts: he certainly looks good and moves well.  Lazenby is a real presence in the fight scenes, for example. Perhaps his biggest deficit, performance-wise, is his voice. The Australian accent doesn’t seem right for Bond, and something about the very cadence or tenor of Lazenby’s voice is unappealing.   I have some support for this opinion, I hope.  My wife watched the film with me the other night, and said that she liked Lazenby best when he was in the Alpine Room at Piz Gloria.  Of course, in that particular scene he was dubbed by the actor playing Bray, but my wife didn’t know that.  She just picked up on a quality of the vocal performance that worked.

Some critics have also described Lazenby’s Bond as less self-confident than Connery’s incarnation, and this might also be true.  But I would submit this quality works in regards to the particularities of this story. 

I rather like that Bond isn’t certain that Tracy is love with him (a feeling she also shares about him).  And I like that when Bond gets lost in the winter carnival -- pursued by Blofeld’s goons -- he appears absolutely terrified.  The sense of danger to Bond is palpable in this film.  He’s not the suave, unflappable guy in a white dinner jacket.  This Bond seems more jittery, more uncomfortable, more ill-at-ease than Connery, and I feel that if Lazenby had returned to the role for a second outings, these qualities might have been marshaled to even greater effect.  

We have seen, today, how Dalton and Craig excel by playing a human, not superman James Bond, and one gets the feeling that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was designed to provide a vehicle for just that kind of portrayal.  It’s a shame that Lazenby isn’t quite good enough to carry the picture.  And yet, I don’t feel -- as I did some years back -- that he is a huge impediment to the film’s success, either.

Bond, certain in deed.

Bond, uncertain in life.

Bond, shattered by death.

In terms of the things one expects from a Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is absolutely superb.  The fight scenes are brutal, brilliantly-edited affairs.  The ski and bobsled chases are suspenseful and escalate to sheer mayhem and exhilaration, marred only by rear projection photography in some shots.  And the stock-car race scene -- so battering and bruising -- is immersing.  In the absence of gadgets, focus here falls on romance and Hunt’s apparent obsession with man-against-man, fist-against-fist conflicts.  It’s not a bad template for a 1970s Bond, but of course, the series doubled-down instead on spectacular set pieces, gadgets, and increased humor.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service may just be the most important Bond film ever made, if not the best one.  One thing is for certain: the series has by now acknowledged its importance time and time again.  This story, and Bond’s marriage to Tracy, have been mentioned or noted on-screen in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), For Your Eyes Only (1981), and Licence to Kill (1989). Interestingly, no other Bond film has been referred to with such frequency. 

And secondly, it’s hard not to view the re-boot Casino Royale (2006) as an unofficial remake of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, since it concerns such plot elements as the love of Bond’s life, the death of that love, and even Bond’s brief resignation.  Vesper is very…Tracy-like.

Whenever I watch the film, I find myself dreading the ending, dreading that final, unforgettable shot of a shattered windshield and by extension, a shattered Bond.  It’s a haunting finale to a great and generally underrated entry in the Bond catalog.  There isn’t one other Bond film that ends on such a tragic, emotional note, or leaves the audience with a lump in its collective throat.

I’m glad that today we “have all the time in the world” to consider On Her Majesty’s Secret Services’  merits. It deserves a second look.

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