Amid all the praise for the Daniel Craig era of Bond films, it’s time for all patriotic Aussies to understand the case for the only home-grown James Bond, George Lazenby. I am not especially a Bond fan, but I’ve long maintained that his sole Bond film, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS), was at once the series’ best and its most innovative – yes, including Skyfall. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments, with the urbane violence appropriate to the subject.
For most of the past 30 years, OHMSS has been a minority taste: it was usually referred as “the forgotten Bond film”, if it was referred to at all. But recent years have rehabilitated it to the point where it now sits with From Russia With Love and Casino Royale atop most lists of best-ever Bond films. Inception director Nolan ranks it number one, calling it “a wonderful balance of action and romanticism”. Steven Soderbergh agrees: “For me there’s no question that cinematically OHMSS is the best Bond film and the only one worth watching repeatedly for reasons other than pure entertainment.”
And Lazenby is being re-assessed too.
(Above, some highlights from the final half-hour of OHMSS)
OHMSS began, in 1967, with a problem: Sean Connery was Bond, and he was heartily sick of it. When he turned down a sixth tour of duty, Bond producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman began looking for a remarkable replacement. Their search for the perfect Bond discovered no-one very impressive; both Richard Burton and a 22-year-old Timothy Dalton turned them down.
Enter George Lazenby – initially, through the door of the barber shop where Cubby Broccoli was having his hair cut. Lazenby, a Queanbeyan-raised former car salesman, ski champion and Army martial arts instructor, had made the trip to London and quickly become a highly-paid male model. When Broccoli saw Lazenby in a chocolate commercial he remembered their barber-shop encounter and called him in for auditions. He stood out from the uninspiring alternatives. He first turned up in a suit he had bought from a Saville Row tailor that had actually been made for Connery but never collected. He looked like Bond should look. In a later audition, he brawled like Bond too: one of his punches allegedly broke stuntman Yuri Borienko’s nose. That seemed to seal the deal. He was quickly signed. Unbeknownst to Broccoli, it was Lazenby’s very first acting role.
While Broccoli was searching for a Bond actor, veteran Bond scriptwriter Richard Maibaum was writing an unusual Bond script. Stripped of most of Bond’s gadgetry, it focused instead on Bond as an actual human being and professional spy, reflecting the Bond of Fleming’s novels. The main Bond woman was a character, not a caricature – no Pussy Galores here – who would eventually be played by the RADA-trained Diana Rigg. Even M and Moneypenny were, for once, people rather than types.
Telly Savalas replaced Donald Pleasance as the villain Blofeld, debonair Italian actor Gabrielle Ferzetti (of L’Avventura fame) took the role as the Rigg character’s father and peculiarly sympathetic Mafia boss Draco, Ilse Steppat signed on for creepy henchwoman duty – and Yuri Borienko, nose healed, got every stuntman’s secret dream, a speaking role.
First-time director Peter Hunt had already defined the Bond style with editing work such as the iconic From Russia With Love train fight and a last-minute rescue cut of You Only Live Twice. He was determined to make his directing debut both an epic and a more visually realistic film than its predecessors, using real locations wherever possible. His dream leapt closer when he found an almost-finished Swiss mountaintop restaurant, Piz Gloria, which actually matched Fleming’s description of Blofeld’s spectacular but imaginary lair. Shooting in and around the restaurant, he could integrate indoor and outdoor action with a minimum of effects – though only after he built the restaurant a helipad.
His base set up, Hunt proceeded to assemble a squadron of the best action sequences in the franchise’s history. The evening fight in the surf and another in a shed full of bells, the bull-ring shots and a sinister pursuit through an amusement-park crowd are all nicely handled. More significantly, the alpine scenes at and around Piz Gloria (without a Ken Adam model in sight) have rarely been bettered, referenced since in films as recent as Nolan’s Inception. Cinematographer Michael Reed took every opportunity to backlight shots with low morning and evening sun. German Olympic skier Willy Bogner filmed the snowfield action skiing backwards much of the time, and cameraman Johnny Jordan built a rig to let him hang six metres below a helicopter and bring a wide grandeur to the alpine sequences. The bobsled chase finale, lifted by more helicopter shots, feels dangerous and was: the script was tweaked to feature an accident that befell one stuntman. The Mafia assault on Blofeld’s fortress starts with Jordan’s glorious shots of a helicopter fleet at sunrise and turns into a pair of ski chases made genuinely breathtaking by Bogner and Jordan’s innovative camerawork. It’s glorious even now. In 1969, nothing quite like it had ever been committed to celluloid. No wonder that Soderbergh reflected, 46 years later, that OHMSS was “the only Bond film I look at and think: I’m stealing that shit”.
And Bond composer John Barry, attempting to compensate for Connery’s absence, devised what he would later describe as “the most Bondian score ever”. It’s all that and more. The title sequence introduces a horn-heavy, orchestral-only theme with Barry’s trademark four descending notes. Barry tops than with another tune that starts as an upbeat British military piece and then morphs into a love song, We Have All The Time In The World, sung by none other than Louis Armstrong and all the more touching because Armstrong himself had little time left. Released as a single into charts suddenly dominated by psychedelic pop, All The Time In The World barely registered. Twenty-four years later it eventually reached Number 3 on the British charts after featuring in a beer ad. It’s since been covered by Iggy Pop and My Bloody Valentine, among others, and it may be the best thing Barry ever wrote.
Oh, and Diana Rigg, required to portray the only woman Bond would actually marry, is sexy, emotionally complex, smart, witty, never a victim, and easily the best Bond woman in the entire series.
There are, it has to be said, a few jarring moments. Not all of the (many) overdubs work, and some of the cuts are odd. Bond crassly ogles a Playboy centrefold in public. The pre-assault girl-hunting at Piz Gloria veers from amusing to goofy and takes too much screen time. The ski scene close-ups almost inevitably feature some typical 1960s rear-projections that contrast with the realism of the surrounding shots. (The cheesiness is all the more tragic because Lazenby the former ski instructor could have done his own skiing if not for insurance issues.) Hunt bleeds more realism out of his fight scenes with undercranking, which speeds up the action unconvincingly and unnecessarily. And the film is too damn long.
Yet for all that, it’s a landmark: a character-driven genre piece that also helped define the modern action movie.
Come release date, everything seemed set for another Bond hit.
(The trailer above is from OHMSS’s 40th anniversary release.)
Yet OHMSS copped a mixed reception in 1969. Bond was at that time still a series of movies rather than today’s movie-industry historic monument, and many reviewers understandably disliked its untrendy admiration of masculinity, violence and sexual conquest. Most missed Connery. Some called Lazenby’s delivery flat. The New York Times described him unenthusiastically as “merely a casual, pleasant, satisfactory replacement”. The stunning photography was only sporadically applauded. Rigg’s performance alone gained universal admiration. The film’s uncertain marketing displayed the producers’ anxiety about a Connery-less Bond. OHMSS made plenty of money (the equivalent of over $500 million today) but fell well short of its predecessors’ box office.
And despite being offered a seven-picture deal, Lazenby fell to hubris. He wanted more than the million dollars a movie Broccoli and Saltzman were offering, and he disliked the constraints (no beard!) demanded by the producers. He also felt Bond wouldn’t thrive in the post-1960s world. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that by first replacing Connery and then alienating most of his natural allies, Lazenby left himself wide open for attack. The studio had no further interest in pumping him up. During filming he had been by his own admission obnoxious and arrogant. He fell into believing his own pre-publicity, horsed around too much, took offense too easily, suggested unwanted ideas and wouldn’t always listen to advice when he obviously needed to learn. He may have annoyed co-star Rigg by sleeping with every attractive on-set female he could persuade (and he was apparently highly persuasive). He had too much too soon. Lazenby’s agent advised him Bond was yesterday’s man, and foolishly announced his departure even before OHMSS’s premiere. So Lazenby was an easy target with no motivated defenders.
Yet in 1969 Lazenby’s performance also attracted positive reviews at the time on both sides of the Atlantic. He scored a Golden Globe nomination as most promising newcomer. And over the years the ranks of his supporters have swelled. It’s not hard to see why. Lazenby’s Bond is serious when needed but attractively laid-back, merely harsh where Connery’s is sadistic, and realistic where Connery’s is ever so slightly stagey. Lazenby is, in fact, recognisably Australian in his portrayal, of a type with Errol Flynn and Hugh Jackman. Lazenby claimed to be aiming to copy as much of Connery as he could, but in fact his personality, his approach and the OHMSS script creates a different Bond.
Importantly, Lazenby shares Connery’s unusual physical grace, a quality given to very few 189-centimeter men. Connery studied how to walk well on film, to great effect, but Lazenby does it naturally. Yes, he’s a model, and he looks wonderful in a three-piece or a tux and even better, astonishingly, in a kilt and lace cravat. But watch him move. Opening the mandatory early head-office scene he casually tosses his hat across the room onto a hat-rack even as he strides over to embrace Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny, and it all looks the most natural thing in the world. At the same time he makes a credible action hero, throwing knives and punches and in one memorable shot throwing himself into a belly-down slide along an icy walkway toward the camera while firing a machine-gun. Connery was fine in in fight scenes, but Lazenby truly looks like he’s fighting. More than almost any role in movies, Bond demands an easy physicality, and Lazenby delivers.
Many 1969 reviewers spotted Lazenby’s ease with action scenes. Some also saw that his extra vulnerability worked with Maibaum’s script: in one scene Bond seems genuinely scared before – a breakthrough moment – Rigg’s Bond girl character Tracy rescues him. But few at the time picked up on Lazenby’s ability to play the tender moments with Rigg. He’s quietly convincing in a short but pivotal scene where he wipes away Tracy’s tears and in another where he proposes to her. The movie’s final scene, with a devastated Bond cradling her dead body, remains one of the best in the series. Lazenby’s unshowy delivery is remarkably affecting.
It’s not a perfect performance. Lazenby could do a capable British accent, but its Australian remnants may have sounded odd to some British and US viewers. And Lazenby could not reproduce the snooty tones required for his Hilary Bray impersonation; that had to be dubbed. (The final result is thankfully well enough done to contribute to the overall effect of Bond as, for once, a credible spy.)
Lazenby also seems uncomfortable with a few of the Bondian one-liners, notably a lame piece of writing where he despatches a henchman into the blades of a snow-making machine and is then made to remark: “He had lots of guts”. Soderbergh argues that the filmmakers simply failed to understand that this sort of glibness was wrong for Lazenby’s Bond, that he had a gravitas that needed to be catered to and amplified.
On the other hand, there’s a charm about the one line of dialogue Lazenby appears to have contributed to himself, the new Bond’s subversive pre-credit complaint direct to the audience: “This never happened to the other fella”.
The understatement in his acting might have been ahead of its time. Perhaps surrendering to the more critical reviews, even Lazenby claimed later that he couldn’t, at the time, act. He shouldn’t talk his work down. The same performance that was called flat and wooden in 1969 now comes across as unusually believable, subtle and well-suited to its script. As a first Bond outing it’s pretty damn good. As a first film performance, it’s remarkable.
At one point Draco’s requisite beautiful female assistant delivers the movie’s best one-liner: “There are many things about Mr Bond one does not know. It would be interesting to attend night school, perhaps.” It would be interesting, too, to know how Lazenby would have evolved through years of Bond. Instead, he bailed.
In the years that followed, OHMSS seemed to bring ill-fortune to most of its key figures. Lazenby’s first leading role in a major motion picture was also his last; he fell a long way, never really came back, and spent years pondering what might have been. Peter Hunt never directed a Bond film again, forced to settle for television work and B-movies. Michael Reed lensed only the little-known Shout At The Devil after OHMSS. And helicopter-hanging cameraman Johnny Jordan fared worst of all, sucked out of a plane to his death while filming Catch-22 the next year.
Broccoli and Saltzman prospered, though. They paid Sean Connery a record $2 million to come back and meander through the next Bond film, the semi-comic Diamonds Are Forever. They then cast Roger Moore for the part, and finally proved to themselves that the franchise could withstand a change of leading man.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is probably the first Bond episode I saw, and it may be that our first Bond is always our reference for the others. It was and remains a film untethered from its time and from the series, the first modern Bond and the only Bond which still works as a movie when you take away the Bond razzamatazz. For years I wondered if anyone else admired it. But for more than a decade its reputation has been steadily rising. “It does the one thing you don’t expect a James Bond movie to do,” wrote Salon’s Charles Taylor in his 1998 re-assessment. “It breaks your heart.” In a 007 Magazine poll this year, it finally came out on top. Justice for George, at last.
(Cross-posted at shorewalker.com)