The first passing of the Bond baton was between Sean Connery and then relatively unknown actor George Lazenby, who auditioned for the role by dressing up in Connery’s classic suit from Goldfinger and charging into the audition unannounced. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a film much maligned for many years as it failed at the box office and Lazenby left the role after just one turn. Still, in recent years it has regained much of its credibility and is now heralded as one of the better Bond films.
Xander and I definitely agree with that last statement, though our opinion of Lazenby as an actor is a bit different. As the first Bond film with a new actor and the most emotionally wrought Bond film until Casino Royale, OHMSS holds a special spot in the Bond canon.
For Bond fans On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is probably the most underrated film in the series. Routinely ignored in the past because everyone just assumed George Lazenby sucked and thus only made one, it’s actually easily one of the bestBonds. OHMSS is the first example of what Cubby Broccoli (and eventually his daughter) did repeatedly throughout the franchise. Any time things started getting too big (hallowed out volcano, space stations, giant laser satellites) they’d follow it up with an entirely grounded Bond adventure. OHMSS is seriously grounded, and yet still one of the most Bond films in the franchise. What else do you expect when you put James Bond in a secluded hideout in the alps with a bunch of gorgeous women.
Though I adore many of the Moore films I often wish Lazenby had stuck around, and not just because he rocks a kilt like no man I’ve ever seen. While his first outing is decidedly amateurish in terms of performance and the man couldn’t time a one-liner to save his life, he definitely had the looks and physical prowess to pull off Bond if he had stuck around for a bit more practice. OHMSS features some of the series’ best action, from close quarter fist fights with some devilshy clever sound design to a ski chase that still rivals those found in modern films to a effing bobsled chase. Seriously, the bobsled chase is quite intense and somehow avoids being ridiculously despite the fact that THEY’RE IN BOBSLEDS. There’s no way Connery could have pulled off some of these fights at the age he was at. Even if he did it would have looked somewhat campy to have his Bond in some of these situations while Lazenby looks natural in them. With a bit more experience I think he could have really come into the role. Of course then you get to the parts of the film where some solid acting would have really helped, and it’s almost impossible not to picture a young Connery in the role absolutely knocking it out of the park. I don’t agree with Xander that Connery couldn’t pull this interpretations of the character off… or at least Connery from From Russia With Love or even Goldfinger.
What really helps Lazenby in the film, aside from his physical presence, is that he’s surrounded by one of the strongest casts in any Bond film. Diana Rigg is not your normal Bond girl, and practically steals every scene she comes into. More important, however, is Telly Savalas’s Blofeld. Ditching the now cliche cat and the over-the-top performances of all the other Blofeld’s Savalas creates a character you’re actually afraid of. He’s a megalomaniac without the evil laughter or deformed features. When he and Bond face off there’s a real threat there, and the subtle ways he nudges the character towards insanity are truly fantastic. There are few other actors who have taken a Bond villain and turned them into Bond‘s equal but Savalas nails it and delivers one of Bond‘s best.
OHMSS does have its flaws. It’s a bit long for its own good since it basically has to establish two plots from the get go. At the time it was also a drastic shift in pace for the series with a brand new actor, and it did not jive well with audiences. It’s easy to see why as this wasn’t the Bond that people had fallen in love with, but the Bond that Flemming had written. In many ways OHMSS was the first film to try to give Bond a harder edge, and it happened long before Dalton entered the scene. Sadly, people really weren’t ready for a harder Bond for a very, very long time.
I don’t for a second buy into the idea that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been a better film had Sean Connery been involved. I can’t imagine his Bond having any interest in settling down, and the thought of him proposing just seems weird. He was charismatic and dangerous, but there wasn’t any emotional depth to the character he was playing, partly because there never needed to be any: his Bond is a killer with expensive tastes and a sardonic sense of humour, whom audiences could immediately get a handle on. The character got some lovely grace notes reflecting his attitude and how he went about his job – see the Dr No article – but in terms of interest in forming human connections, not a trace. Lazenby, in an underrated performance, played Bond with a little more openness, perhaps an ironic consequence of his being Australian rather than full of British reserve. Connery’s Bond was too hard-edged to ask Tracy what was wrong when she turned up in his hotel room. Lazenby’s Bond beds her almost immediately, of course, and doesn’t hold back on the domestic violence either, but surrenders just a glimmer of concern for this girl who has clearly gone off the rails. He’s still a cold bastard – after all, despite his intention to marry Tracy, he still bonks his way through an entire clinic of women at Piz Gloria – but a more noticeably human one. Lazenby may struggle with his accent, at least for the parts of the movie where he isn’t distractingly dubbed over, but leaves his mark on the character with excellent work with some potentially difficult scenes, and is an outstanding fighter to boot.
He’s helped by co-star Diana Rigg, a wonderful and generous actress who fully conveys the tragic longing for intimacy behind Tracy’s reckless wilfulness. Rigg came to the part from The Avengers, a classic British spy-fi series (and my all-time favourite television programme), where she played the martial artist, journalist, scientist and all ’round superwoman, Emma Peel. Though the two characters are very different, it’s clear the intention was to cast someone who could be legitimately accepted as Bond‘s equal. Tracy may not karate chop as enthusiastically as Emma, but is able to stand up for herself and connects with Bond on the level of two fractured souls healing each other’s wounds. Their romance has a beautifully balanced arc across the movie, which gives so much weight to its sudden, cruel ending. For a few minutes, the pair discover the happiness which has eluded them their entire lives, only to have it snatched away because, well, Bond is Bond. The wound inflicted on him is deeper than any gunshot, and should anyone ever moan about Lazenby being substandard, the sight of him mourning him cradling his slaughtered wife in his arms, not quite able to believe what has happened, emphatically proves otherwise. The movie is the most faithful adaptation of any Bond novel, but one of the series’ biggest oversights is that subsequent movies made no effort to emulate the suffering the literary character goes through as a result.
(Another nice touch in the book, absent for obvious reason from the movie, is that Bond pays a visit to Vesper Lynd’s grave, giving context to the emotional damage Tracy begins to repair in him).
There are things I could complain about, notably the slightly messy storytelling and inconsistent pacing, but the Bond-Tracy relationship works so well that none are anything but minor concerns. OHMSS is one of the richest Bond movies, packed with fully rounded characters. Marc-Ange Draco is devilishly gregarious on the outside, but inwardly despairing over what to do about his wayward daughter. (His conversation with M at the wedding, where they casually exchange pleasantries over the times their organisations came into conflict over the years, is a funny, giddy treat). Blofeld is not the one-dimensional megalomaniac from You Only Live Twice, but a secret snob longing for recognition from the establishment he purports to be ready to destroy. The movie is so character-driven that its first half contains barely any action at all, at least between the beach fight – which feels weirdly random, seeming nothing more than a chance encounter – and Bond‘s escape from Piz Gloria, one of the series’ greatest prolonged action sequences. The movie preys on Bond‘s vulnerability throughout, and his stress is clear as Blofeld’s men relentlessly hunt him down. The fight in the bell hut, in addition to its fantastic sound design, is a great example of a situation going horribly, desperately wrong for Bond, who is trying to slip by unnoticed before getting in the loudest fight imaginable. Between its fantastic performances, possibly John Barry’s greatest score (the credits track distills Bond into two minutes of instrumental perfection, and Louis Armstrong’s song captures the movie’s heart in the way only Satchmo could) and deep character work bolstering the action, OHMSS is unique in the Bond canon for being as moving as it is thrilling.