Tomorrow October 5th is “James Bond Day”, a new international holiday that also happens to occur just before the release of the new Bond film Skyfall (wow, what a coincidence). To celebrate Bond day I rewatched one of my favorite Bond films, the underrated and under-appreciated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
OHMSS, as I will call it for the rest of this article because I’m lazy, was the first Bond film that didn’t star Sean Connery, and the idea that anyone else could play Bond was a pretty crazy idea at the time. The type of cast changes and “reboots” that are now common place just didn’t exist back then, and for many moviegoers Connery and Bond were, basically, the same man… As if “Sean Connery” was some alias Bond used when he wasn’t on assignment as 007.
But Connery was done with the character (at the time), and so Australian actor George Lazenby was hired based on his good looks and an impressive fight-scene audition (the story publicized at the time was that he accidentally knocked out a stuntman he was fighting with – apocryphal or not, who knows?). There was only one problem… he wasn’t really an actor, he was a model. More on that later.
The film was a bold move on the part of the filmmakers. After the bombastic, special-effects filled You Only Live Twice, they decided to keep the story – and the budget – low-key. For that, they did what they had rarely done before and since – they went back to the book and (gasp!) actually ADAPTED it. OHMSS, like From Russia with Love before it, is one of the closest adaptations to the original Fleming ever filmed. Fleming was not easy to adapt – much of the famous “Fleming effect” was in the way he described the details of things and people, making the reader feel that what he was reading was grounded and real. You can’t do that in a film, which relies on visuals instead of descriptive paragraphs. But with OHMSS they capture the spirit of Fleming, and the melancholy tone that started to soak through his work around the time the original book was written.
Like the book, it’s a grounded film, and Bond is more a real person here than he is in most of the rest of the series. Not the Superman parody that Roger Moore would eventually play, Lazenby played the part as tough but sensitive, a man who could fall in love and open himself up – in this case, to a Contessa… Tracy. It’s a tough balance for any actor to play, and to be frank Lazenby doesn’t quite carry it off. He’s not bad… except he’s also not very great, either. He tries, bless him, but he benefits greatly from some great performances around him – Diana Rigg is especially good as Tracy, and you can see her giving her all to try and help Lazenby in many scenes.
In the past many Bond fans have stated their opinion that if Connery, instead of George Lazenby, had played Bond. this would have been the Best. Bond. Ever. As much as I appreciate the film, I have to disagree. There is a substantial section of the movie that has a glacial pace (and that’s not an unintentional pun, even though the majority of the film is set in Switzerland). It also has a rushed third act and an invasion/battle sequence that isn’t nearly as effective as it could have been (and its nowhere near as good as my personal favorite, from the aforementioned You Only Live Twice). Besides, Connery had already starred in the Best Bond Ever, a movie named Goldfinger.
Three final thoughts: First, the score by John Barry is one of my personal favorites, rivaling Goldfinger as the best Bond score ever composed. Second, the filmmakers are to be commended by following the original novel all the way to the (very) unhappy ending… an ending that was absolutely appropriate but probably didn’t help the film at the box office.
Finally, as you may know this was Lazenby’s only Bond performance (Connery returned one more time for Diamonds are Forever, and then Moore took over the role). He went on to other acting, but never found another part as big as Bond again. I wonder if he stayed if he would have “stepped up his game” to become a great Bond. As it is, and as I noted… he was good, not great.
But then again, how many actors can say they once played James Bond?