Number 7 in my series of looking deeper into the James Bond movie series
It has been said “only Nixon could go to China” and I’m going to paraphrase that by saying “only Lazenby could be in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.
I was once of the popular opinion that if only Sean Connery had been in OHMSS it would clearly have been better and perhaps it would have been the greatest Bond movie of them all. For years I thought Lazenby was alright and I didn’t think he was awful as James Bond, which contrasted with a lot of other opinions that have become mainstream over the years. I remember at school there was a boy in my class who would get angry at the mere mention of George Lazenby’s name: “THAT AUSTRALIAN!” He would yell, baring his teeth (no joke!) “HE RUINED IT! RUINED IT!” And he wasn’t the only one who felt that. Even though I wasn’t that down on the guy, I still had numerous misgivings about his performance and bought into the “wooden actor” idea that was the norm.
But I had a change of mind and heart some years ago when I watched OHMSS for about the 12th time: I don’t think Sean would have been as good as George had he stayed on to do a 6th Bond movie in succession. There. I’ve said it. My reason for thinking this is because of something I mentioned in my review of You Only Live Twice; that Connery’s Bond had now become iconic and OHMSS would see the first attempt to de-construct Bond and examine him from a different perspective.
By the time Ian Fleming had written OHMSS he had built up a backstory for the character that went beyond the snippets of information that had been parsimoniously given to the readers in previous stories. He had fleshed out the Bond character, going beyond the internal thoughts, tastes and judgmental views he had (making him less of the ‘cardboard booby’ he feared the character had become) into someone with motives and reasons that lay deep in his past. However, by the time You Only Live Twice hit the cinemas in 1967, the movie Bond had solidified into a superspy and icon where Connery’s ability to give something new to the part had run dry. Had OHMSS been made after Goldfinger, as originally intended by EON, then he might have pulled it off but by the time Bondmania had peaked and then almost gone into space on YOLT it would have been too much of a lurch for a 39 year old, five Bond movie veteran like Sean Connery to pull off a love story and show Bond to be vulnerable. However, a 29 year old newcomer to the role might just manage it.
Lazenby’s path to playing James Bond has been retold many times, mainly by the man himself, and you’d be forgiven for thinking he won the role by just being brazen, walking into the production office and blagging the role despite his lack of acting experience. The reality is he only blagged himself a screen test: There were other actors up for the part. Broccoli and Saltzman had arranged for a lengthy series of screen tests of 5 actors in late 1967 and early 1968. This shortlist is quite unusual for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the lack of any real star names among the hopefuls. About the best known and most experienced of the bunch was John Richardson; who had gained some fame in leading roles in Hammer films (“She” and “1 Million Years B.C.”). The others were all unknowns who had yet to land a big role. Looking at the photos of all of them during their screen tests (sadly, the filmed footage of these auditions hasn’t found its way into the public domain yet), it is Lazenby who shines through. Even from looking at the still photos from his audition, there’s a star quality, poise and confidence about him that the others seem to lack.
On screen, Lazenby’s male model physique and willingness to throw himself into the action makes him one of the best physical Bonds. Coupled with the bold and dramatic editing of the action scenes by editor John Glen and director Peter Hunt (the editor of the first 5 Bond movies) Lazenby is one of the best “fighters” in the series. He also has a gift for dominating a scene just by walking into a room; whether it’s coming down the stairs to the Casino in Portugal or entering the lounge of Piz Gloria wearing a kilt.
But what about the drama and dialogue? Here I think he does very well indeed. He’s been written off by many as being wooden but for someone with no acting experience he does very well with the dramatic scenes….in fact, the more serious the scene, the better he is. His interactions with Draco are crucial for them to develop a trust and relationship and we believe these men as allies. But it’s Lazenby’s scenes with Tracy, played impeccably by Diana Rigg, which stand out. Despite all the on set rumours of them hating each other, Lazenby and Rigg absolutely sell the idea that their characters become lovers and, eventually, husband and wife. Whether it is Rigg’s ability and professionalism as an actress carrying Lazenby or the guy could genuinely get to that level of performance on his own ability or a combination of the two, we can’t say but on screen it absolutely works and there’s palpable chemistry between them. For me, Lazenby’s best performance moment in the movie takes place early on, in his hotel room in Portugal, when he finds Tracy in a robe pointing a gun at him. At this point Bond is getting frustrated with her attitude and he quickly snatches the gun away from her and tells her bluntly that he’s tired of her games. Lazenby absolutely nails it. By way of contrast in tone his scene in the barn with Tracy, where they openly declare their love for each other, shows another side of Bond we haven’t seen before and I don’t think Connery could have done it as well as Lazenby did, with the openness and delicacy of the line delivery.
Where Lazenby is less polished as an actor comes during the more comic moments. Lazenby can’t manage the asides, the throwaway wit and droll humour that other Bond actors could. Instead of being droll, he seems flippant. He doesn’t manage to diffuse the pomposity of the villains or undercut the threat with an aside like Sean, Roger or Pierce could (Timothy never bothered to do that and Daniel uses that ability very sparingly by the way) and it’s telling that the best pun of the movie, “I feel a little stiffness coming on”, is actually spoken by George Baker dubbing George Lazenby.
In order to get to the core of the movie and appreciate its qualities we have to strip away the myths that have surrounded it since its release in 1969. The first myth is that the movie was a flop: It was not as no Bond movie has ever lost money. Financially it was a success, particularly on the global market but it is true that it underperformed for United Artists and because it fell short of expectations, it was seen to be a flop by some. The alleged animosity between Lazenby and Rigg is irrelevant to the movie itself, as it never shows on screen and is, at best, just salacious gossip that both actors have played down over the years. The choice of Peter Hunt as director for the movie was not a risk that went wrong; Hunt gives the movie a visual style that is quite distinct from any other Bond director but is entirely in tune with the world of Bond. Hunt had shaped the look of the Bond movies with his editing style, which paid little heed to continuity in an action scene but instead cut it to create a rhythm. For example, in the beach fight at the start of OHMSS, there is little continuity. The fight begins at the edge of the water and then, instantly, Bond and one of the thugs are waist deep in the sea. The position of the anchor likewise shifts from the water’s edge to further inland. Bond knocks the thug over and in the next shot kicks his knife away which would be impossible at the speed the fight is portrayed. Yet none of this matters; the fight is considered one of the best in the series because it is cut to its own rhythm and the jump cuts heighten the violence, which is underscored superbly by John Barry.
The film is refreshing the Bond series and after You Only Live Twice, it needed a freshening up. It’s not just in the casting of a new James Bond where this happens; it’s also the idea of returning Bond to a less outlandish story where he genuinely falls in love to the point where he gets married. Let’s deal with the love aspect first.
The movie gives us a trajectory of Bond’s relationship with Tracy that starts with Bond’s weakness for women who are emotionally hurt. We’ve seen this in the way he takes an interest in Honey Ryder’s backstory but it’s spelled out in more detail in Thunderball, particularly in the novel. Speaking of the novels, Vesper Lynd and Vivienne Michel are two other hurt women “birds with broken wings” that Bond feels instinctively protective of more than usual. Tracy is the epitome of the archetype. He sees her for the first time attempting suicide and subsequently getting herself into more trouble at the casino in Estoril. He also knows she has powerful protection in the form of thugs who want to keep him away from her, in a rather brutal manner. Bond is intrigued, but also takes control and lets her know what kind of man he is: A white knight (of sorts) but also a man who doesn’t like mind games. He also shows a gentlemanly side of his nature to her at this stage: There are no debts to pay and she is under no obligation to him just because he’s helped her out. He hasn’t exploited her as a sexual conquest but their intercourse flowed naturally from a chain of events that was mutual. That she expected to “pay him off” just shows how much she’s been used and the kinds of men she’s used to (Draco explains this a bit more during his first meeting with Bond).
Once Bond has freed her from the mental captivity she’s been living in, illustrated by the “We Have All The Time In The World” montage, she can blossom. She falls for him, but he’s now become the captive. He’s obsessed with finding Blofeld and now he’s in debt to Draco by agreeing on a marriage to Tracy that is one of convenience for him. Bond loves her, but we see he’s not ready to “forsake all others”. Draco knows this and, interestingly, Tracy does as well as evidenced by the brief exchange in Draco’s Rolls Royce where he is worried about her falling so much in love with Bond.
So Bond heads to Piz Gloria for an encounter with Blofeld and with the appearance of “The Angels of Death”, he forgets about Tracy and reverts to type. With Lazenby, Bond is a slightly naughty schoolboy who’s just been handed the keys to a sweet shop. But this is deliberate as Bond has not forsaken all others….still, his night-time dalliances do have some relevance to his mission as he’s able to find out more about what Blofeld’s up to. This is a neat moment in the film as it gives us some key exposition but also foreshadows a moment later on in the movie…which I’ll refer back to when we get there.
It all goes wrong for Bond after this. Blofeld turns the tables on Bond and he’s soon a captive. Bond escapes using borrowed ski equipment and is chased into the local town. Here we see him isolated, lost, watching over his shoulder all the time. He has no weapons, no gadgets and the enemy are hot on his tail. And, yes, he’s scared by a man in a bear costume who takes a flash photograph of him. This is another reason Connery wouldn’t have been as good; his depiction of Bond was too omni-competent by this stage in the series whereas we can see a more vulnerable and understandably frightened Lazenby version.
But now comes the clincher on the romance sub-plot. Bond is cowed and who shows up? Tracy. She has risked her life to find him. Of all the Bond girls in the entire series, she’s the one who rescues him. And it’s fitting she’s the one whose driving gets them out of trouble. He’s the passenger making goo-goo eyes at her, not the other way around. When they get to the isolated barn, he turns around to look at her and BAM! That’s the moment he truly falls in love with her. That’s when he decides to forsake all others. Of all the women in the series Tracy is Bond’s equal not just in skill (such as Holly Goodhead or Wai Lin) but in terms of courage, resourcefulness and character. He realises he needs her. What follows makes sense, bearing in mind the trajectory of the story and the romance so far: After this mission he must resign from the Secret Service. The information he has about Blofeld’s plan came, in part, from seducing the women at Piz Gloria but now Tracy is the one true love he won’t be able to act with the complete freedom and impunity he’s used to working for MI6.
The depiction of Tracy from this point on mirrors Bond. She’s as capable as he is as a driver and skier. When she’s captured by Blofeld, she can be as flippant and charming as Bond when in the presence of the villain; she teases Blofeld and he takes it! The only person she can’t overpower is her father.
However, Tracy has to die. Bond is still a captive at the end of the story…and we’re his captors. We, the audience, the reader, demand he keeps having adventures for our enjoyment. The love between Bond and Tracy is so secure that it can resist outsiders within the story, but it can’t resist the demands of the Bond audience so she must die. Perhaps the sense of sadness felt at her death stirs the viewer because we’re complicit in it. If that sounds like pretentious psycho-babble then bear in mind Ian Fleming felt the same way. He killed her off because the Bond saga had to continue and, in the end, it killed Fleming as well.
In the end we have a most unusual Bond movie, with the one time Bond, the one true love, a freewheeling first time director and a love song in a Bond epic. It’s a quality movie which has improved with time and has come for the reappraisal it deserves. Even if fans are still divided over Lazenby, it’s one of the most admired films in the series.
At the time, however, it was not so admired. A section of the movie going public couldn’t accept anyone other than Connery in the role and that extended to the studio bosses. The negative press and rumours, coupled with Lazenby’s bizarre off camera antics, led to the movie underperforming at the box office; especially in the United States. Broccoli’s and Saltzman’s empire showed cracks and now they were to be subjected to more scrutiny by United Artists. They issued a diktat to EON productions: Lazenby had to go (he actually quit first), Bond doesn’t cry, no first time directors (even though Hunt did a sterling job) and Connery had to come back. UA weren’t interested in the long term fix for the Bond series; they wanted a big box office Bond epic. What they got was….well, they got Connery back.
BLOGGERS ARE FOREVER