In defence of Lazenby, the Aussie Bond

With a few days to the local release of the James Bond movie Skyfall, it’s time for all patriotic Aussies to understand the case for the only home-grown James Bond, George Lazenby. I am not 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 among its most innovative. 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. And Lazenby is being re-assessed too.

(Above, some highlights from the final half-hour of OHMSS)

OHMSS began 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 was a Queanbeyan-raised former car salesman, ski champion and Army martial arts instructor who 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 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, echoing in films as recent as Christopher 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. At the time, nothing quite like this had ever been committed to celluloid.

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. Hunt bleeds more realism out of his fight scenes with undercranking, which speeds up the action unconvincingly and unnecessarily.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”. On the other hand, there’s a charm about the one line of dialogue he 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 most of its key figures ill-fortune. 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.” Inception director Nolan ranks it number one, calling it “a wonderful balance of action and romanticism”. In a 007 Magazine poll this year, it finally came out on top. Justice for George, at last.

(Cross-posted at shorewalker.com)

This entry was posted in Films and TV by David Walker. Bookmark the permalink.

About David Walker

David Walker is the principal of publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net) where his current projects include editing Public Accountant magazine for the Institute of Public Accountants. David has previously been chief operating officer of publishing firm WorkDay Media, director of communications and advocacy for the Business Council of Australia, director of policy and communications for the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, site director for online finance start-up eChoice and an editor and columnist at The Age. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery. Contact him on 03 8899 7790 or email [email protected]

11 thoughts on “In defence of Lazenby, the Aussie Bond

  1. Clearly one of the best Bonds. Also the Bond with the cheekiest humour. “This never happened to the other guy.” For the best review read Danny Peary’s Cult Movies 3 – “It is rarely screened in repertory houses and rarely written about in Bond overviews although it’s the film that reveals an added dimension to the hero. And if it plays on television, it’s usually a ridiculous jumbled version, with Bond serving as a narrator. As it’s many defenders attest, a film of its quality deserves much better.”

  2. Thankfully Australia seems to have been spared the infamous 1976 American Broadcasting Corporation TV recut. Although that version seems to have been little shown after about 1981, it may well have further damaged the film’s reputation.

    According to Peter Hunt, “this never happened to the other fella” was a spur-of-the-moment suggestion inspired by Lazenby’s queries about whether he was getting the same treatment as Connery.

  3. Thanks for the post David.

    I always enjoyed Bond for the pure entertainment. And I like the idea of their being formulaic – with the question being then whether you’re enjoying the formula, whether it’s been well done in the particular movie you’re watching.

    My faves, for slightly different reasons are Goldfinger, Thunderball and Diamonds are forever – in reverse order – in other words the last is easily my fave.

    You’ve been rude about Diamonds, which is fair enough. It’s obviously schlock, but I loved it because it represents the switch towards comedy that was so overdone with Roger Moore. I thought it really worked with the established, incomparable Connery in the role and some very funny scenes – coming out of a man-hole in the gas pipeline asking directions to Las Vegas and wandering around in the moon simulation both in full tux tickled my fancy.

    I rather liked its pacing and the fun it took in its baddies. Willard Whyte, and Blofeld is terrific – stroking his pussy (as it were) I liked Goldfinger and Thunderball (the films) because they represented ‘the formula’ in its first full form with the best Bond there ever was – the definitive Bond. They’re an artifact of the mid 1960s – like Carnaby St. I certainly enjoyed the schlock special effects in both – the crappy model airplane in Goldfinger and the ridiculous rerun chase seascapes in the final sea chase. I guess one isn’t supposed to like those things but I did.

    Thunderball has a better plot – it’s actually kind of believable and it would work – but Goldfinger had the better villain.

    As for the other Bond movies, I couldn’t stand Lazenby’s woodenness but you’ve given me some reasons to go and have another look. It’s growing popularity is certainly intriguing. With the other Connery movies, I figure that without the formula, and without the tongue in cheek, it’s hard to enjoy them as much. So Dr No, Russia and You Only Live Twice are not faves for me. I looked forward to Octopussy, but alas, it was poor.

    I thought Roger Moore was awful – too corny, so lacking in edge that the comedy became dumb) and Pierce Brosnan was pretty up to the challenge – a great looker and very British cool. Likewise, though not quite as much, Timothy Dalton. Daniel Craig is interesting I guess, but I’m afraid all the action puts me off. Makes it too like all the American Terminator style movies which are just one damn stunt, one damn explosion after another.

    One of the things I really like in the post Connery movies (this tradition started with in Connery’s time but became more and more Wagnerian as time wore on) is the way Bond movies start with an absolute mega stunt that blows you away – my fave being free falling from a cliff into a plane!! Now that’s what the Bond franchise is for me – not endless high voltage action which I can see in some American franchise if I want (though I don’t).

    Anyway, I’m just recording these things as my preferences – not because I think there’s any particular merit in them.

  4. Awesome post, great research – thank you.

    Skyfall? Meh. Better than Quantum of Soulless – what wasn’t? – and looked pretty but otherwise more than usually ridiculous. Casino Royale now looms as a terrifying hurdle for every new Bond iteration.

  5. Wow. There’s almost more in that post than I thought it was possible to know about OHMSS.

    I believe I have only ever seen it once – in the cinema with my Dad as a 9 year old. I remember finding the ending sad and moving: it was almost certainly the first movie I saw which went out on grief and tragedy. Still, I think I found the action and the sets pretty impressive. In fact, in umpteen later Bond movies, the ski chase scenes always just look like repeats of what was first done in Lazenby’s outing.

    It was not my first Bond. I had seen You Only Live Twice at the drive in (those were the days), and as a kid with a keen interest in the Apollo program, it deeply impressed me. In fact, despite the extreme silliness of Connery disguising himself as Japanese with some eyeliner, I still find it one of the most enjoyable of the series. I like the Japanese-dreamy theme song; the fake death; the gyrocopter fitted out with missiles; the fantastic villain’s lair. Let’s just say I like everything except the eyeliner. I was also given an Airfix model of the gyrocopter to put together, so that kept the memories going.

    Despite this, the best Connery Bond I would say has to be Goldfinger.

    Yes, Roger Moore was too jokey, but there is quite a lot to like about The Spy Who Loved Me. (Moore considers it his best.)

    Dalton’s movies (I have written elsewhere on the net) were competent and good at the time of viewing, but somehow instantly forgettable in terms of plot within an hour of leaving the cinema. I’ve watched a couple again on TV in the last year, and that remains my impression. Or lack of impression, to be precise.

    Brosnan’s were somewhat more distinctive in plot, although I have never forgiven Goldeneye for the stupidest Bond science idea ever: that you have to have a dish the size of football field to communicate with satellite. This is even worse than stupid gadgets like supermagnetic watches, if you ask me.

    And finally – Quantum of Solace, which I watched again on the weekend, is not a bad movie. In fact, I like it. Sure, the editing is too fast, but as a stunt movie there is still a hell of a lot on the screen to admire; it looks gorgeous (when the camera stops moving so much); and it is a very decent script about letting go of past loss. It’s also a bit blackly funny, the way he keeps killing people wanted for questioning, to M’s dismay.

    I am looking forward to Skyfall.

  6. great post david : )
    as a brit and a bond fan i have to say this movie is the best bond for me.
    i came to it very late as it was not shown much on uk tv when it was the dreaded pan and scan destroyed the image .
    when i saw a reprint at the cinema a few years ago i was very impressed.
    cinematography,locations,ski work and the bad guy bloefeld and the humanity and wit of bond.
    yes he is a killer but this guy is good the physicality of the man in fight sequences sheer class.
    diana rigg is fantastic it is full of great mise en scene the anamorphic cinematography is sublime.
    in these rotten empty shallow post modern times where everything is the best ever as many twatters have been saying about skyfall you can keep it.
    stick the digital hd plastic.
    give me the romance and movies on analogue film.
    this movie is the benchmark for a bond for me nothing comes close.
    daniel craig looks like the son of carry on actor sid james.
    shame that great aussie mr lazenby never got to have another crack at giving her majesty’s killer elite a more human face.

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