Every year, the same old arguments break out over what is and what isn’t a Christmas movie. Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are usually the films that find themselves in the crossfire, but today, I’d like to talk about a surefire Christmas classic. It’s a film that is, without question, a seasonal delight, as it explicitly invokes the holiday we’re currently celebrating, and it even fits the holiday better than Bruce Willis’ questionable addition to the canon of holly jolly throw-downs. Forget Die Hard, folks, James Bond’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the real action movie for the Christmas season.
Those of you who have been following me on the 007 beat probably thought it was weird that I left out 1969’s underrated Bond film out of my revisitations of the other entries in the franchise. But I did it on purpose for two huge reasons, the first being that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is, in fact, a Christmas movie. The second and greater reason is that George Lazenby’s only outing as James Bond, between Sean Connery’s appearances in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever, is the most underrated entry in the series.
Let’s back up for a moment and discuss where On Her Majesty’s Secret Service fits in the Bond canon. Sean Connery had left, as he was afraid of type casting and wanted to move on; so the hunt for a new 007 was crucial to the booming franchise. To put this into modern perspective, imagine if Robert Downey Jr. left the role of Iron Man just as Marvel’s The Avengers was getting into production. That’s the sort of spot Harry Saltzman and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli were in when they took a chance on an Australian model with no acting experience.
Despite their gamble, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a box office disappointment, as its $82 million gross compared to 1967’s You Only Live Twice’s showing of $111 million saw a dip in the fortunes of Bond, James Bond. Lazenby left the role, though he’d later regret it, because he was also afraid of type casting, and embraced the “hippy time” that was the ‘60s. His departure already made the film a rarity, but looking at the ingredients that went into it, the Christmas gem that is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service shines even brighter.
Being released around the holidays, on December 18, 1969, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service already has ties to the season merely by being released around that time. Future generations would even experience movie marathons of not only George Lazenby’s solo outing, but also the entire James Bond canon being shown around Christmas and Thanksgiving, only further engraining the Bond saga into the holidays. It’s a strong foundation, but it’s the same rationale that’s seen Die Hard and Lethal Weapon canonized as Christmas movies, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service actually goes one step further.
There’s a ton of Christmas imagery and iconography in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with the entire middle act of the film taking place at a gigantic Christmas party held by one Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Played by Telly Savalas this time around, Blofeld’s new evil scheme is pretty far in the works by time Bond discovers it, and the holiday season is crucial to its execution. Known as “Blofeld’s Angels of Death,” a group of 12 women from around the world are visiting what they think is an allergy clinic, but is really a sinister laboratory where the legendary baddie is hatching a germ warfare plot. Oddly enough, this is an amount of agents that allocates one for each day of Christmas.
Naturally, Bond is investigating this caper, and it leads him to being captured by Blofeld himself. While the idyllic Swiss ski lodge of Piz Gloria is far from a lair in a hollowed-out volcano, the danger is just as fatal, as instead of hijacking the space program, Ernst Stavro Blofeld wants to ravage the world with his designer illness. Coming out of a rather knocked-out state, 007 awakens to the image of a Christmas tree and this festive, but haunting greeting from his nemesis:
Right there, you have an admission that the action of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service takes place during the season in question. So put that together with the film’s association by release and replay, and you have a pretty solid case for Christmas canonization. The icing on top is the fact that the biggest action beats take place in the Swiss Alps, where plenty a winter sport becomes part of the stunning set pieces that director Peter Hunt’s film includes.
Ice skating, the luge and a ton of skiing are all shown in beautiful detail through On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and some of those events even take place during a Christmas celebration in a small Swiss village. A particularly daring escape from his captive state leads James Bond to reconnect with his love interest, and eventual wife, Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo. Together with this iconic Bond woman played by the iconic Dame Diana Rigg, George Lazenby’s Bond goes on a bit of a holiday rampage, which ends in one of the sweetest marriage proposals to be captured on screen.
A final case can be made that when it comes to the James Bond franchise, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the ultimate Christmas present to those who wanted to see the series endure. While it was a contemporary disappointment in the shadow of the rest of the 007 series, the ingredients that helped keep Bond alive throughout the decades were all present and accounted for. A story that saw the legendary womanizer settling down, and in turn exposing a more tender side of himself in the face of loss, is the bedrock that helped Daniel Craig’s reinvention of the role in Casino Royale work so well.
Even before Daniel Craig’s time as Bond, references to Tracy’s unfortunate death at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would pop up in future installments, like For Your Eyes Only and License To Kill. Just when the character of James Bond threatened to be too over the top, an adventure of revenge and the memory of Tracy would be brought back to weigh things down to great effect. Without this film in existence, one has to wonder how long the James Bond franchise would have kept itself in action.
Christmas is a time of giving, with images of snow-filled delight being invoked in many a carol or story celebrating the season. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service not only gives its audience the thrill of a lifetime, it throws in its own original carol, snow and ice driven thrills, and an adventure that sees 007 deck Blofeld’s halls in a luge race to the supposed death. Plus, it’s a story about family, protecting the ones we love and mourning those we’ve lost, making it a bittersweet Christmas tragedy when you really get down to it.
While Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s claim to be of royal blood may be more than questionable, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s credentials as a Christmas movie are undeniable, and always will be. See for yourself, as the film is now available on YouTube for free with ads, as well as across other subscription services. Merry Christmas, Bond fans; and here’s to more celebrations of the 007 legacy in 2021!