A Bond Retrospective: George Lazenby

Why On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of the very best Bond films

George Lazenby is the odd Bond out. An Australian car salesman who became a model. A model who became an actor in TV adverts. A TV actor who became the world’s most iconic film character. And then gave it all up after just one appearance as James Bond, refusing a contract for six more films and moving into the real estate business not soon after. It’s a great story but not only is Lazenby the odd Bond out, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the odd Bond film out. A film that is the closest adaptation of one of Ian Fleming’s books we’ve ever gotten, with a more textured version of Bond that we’ve yet to see again, arguably even in the Daniel Craig years. So, was it a match made in heaven? Usually in my ‘Bond Retrospective’ series I’d give short insights into my thoughts and feelings on the Bond films of a specific actor, whether it be Connery’s six films or Moore’s seven, but this article will be a little different. Because Lazenby only did the one, I’ll be doing a much deeper exploration of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and its legacy in the Bond canon.

There’s a conflict of opinions when it comes to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Many find it to be overlong and boring while others, such as the filmmaker Christopher Nolan, believe it to be one of the franchise’s very best with a deeper tale than most other Bond films. When I was younger I was very much a proponent of the former argument, finding it tedious and hard to get through with an unfamiliar Bond and little action. However, upon this rewatch and having not seen the film in about a decade, I’ve had a monumental shift in opinion. I found things in the film I never knew were there, came to love Lazenby’s version of Bond and I now rank it very highly out of a list of all 24 films.

The plot sees Bond get approached by Draco, the leader of the world’s second largest criminal organisation after SPECTRE, who wants him to romance his depressed daughter Tracy after Bond has a chance encounter with her in the film’s opening scene, where he stops her from committing suicide. Bond accepts, initially begrudgingly, and soon the couple fall in love before Bond is sent on a mission to infiltrate Blofeld’s new base of operations in the Alps where he is once again plotting world domination. After discovering Blofeld’s plan, and being found out himself, Bond escapes with the aid of Tracy who comes to his rescue but gets captured soon after. When M and MI6 refuse to help, Bond turns to Draco and the two men raid the alpine base, defeat Blofeld and rescue Tracy. In the film’s final moments Bond and Tracy get married and drive off into the Portuguese countryside, only for Blofeld and his second-in-command to drive past and shoot Tracy dead. The film ends with Bond crying and holding Tracy’s lifeless body.

Just that brief synopsis shows how different the film is to the others of the era. It’s not just some action spectacular but a character-driven drama. It was the first film to delve into Bond’s character and the repercussions of the life he lives, which wouldn’t return to the franchise until over 35 years later with the rebooted Casino Royale. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is often more interested with themes and character than the usual Bond tropes and is therefore a much slower experience. I will admit that at times the film is far too slow, particularly when all character work is dropped for around 30 minutes in the film’s second act to follow the more stereotypical Bond plot. Bond’s infiltration mission at Blofeld’s base feels like its own film and Tracy and her storyline disappears entirely as Bond wanders around and pretends to be Sir Hilary Bray, a genealogist, helping Blofeld with his family tree. Despite being the one part of the film that feels more like a conventional Bond mission, it makes for dull viewing but the movie soon picks up again when Tracy returns to aid Bond in his escape.

Draco wants to pay Bond to fall in love with his daughter but in the end Bond refuses, having found genuine love for Tracy. It’s an incredibly unique relationship for Bond as we see his more gentle and tender side. I totally buy the love between the two of them and that this is Bond’s first true relationship. This isn’t Bond threatening a woman with unemployment if she doesn’t immediately sleep with him like in Thunderball or some brief fling with a woman with a ridiculously euphemistic name like in every other Bond film, but actual love and the montage set to “We Have All the Time in the World”, performed by Louis Armstrong and composed by John Barry, wonderfully shows this.  It’s a truly important relationship between two complex and tragic characters. The film begins with Bond only just managing to stop Tracy, superbly played by Diana Rigg, from killing herself. Bond gives her a new zest for life and James realizes he can have something in his life other than his job and the murderous deeds it demands. Bond saves Tracy but she ultimately dies because of him and his work. Just seconds before she is killed, Tracy comments, “Anyway, you have given me a wedding present. The best I could have. A future”. It’s a wonderfully emotional moment.

The actual wedding is one of my favourite scenes in any Bond film. It’s a brief flash of happiness for James before the eventual tragedy and it’s full of great little moments. M, Q and Moneypenny are all there and seeing them out of the rigid confines of MI6 is fantastic. I love Bond throwing his hat to a teary-eyed Moneypenny and it’s fascinating to see M, the head of MI6 and Bond’s father figure, meet Bond’s new father-in-law and criminal mastermind Draco.

I feel that most of people’s criticisms of Lazenby as Bond are more criticisms of the film than the performance. Some people want to see Bond be the unshakable hero and not fall in love, let alone cry over a woman. For his first film I feel Lazenby did a fantastic job in capturing all parts of Bond’s character; from being the suave charmer during the card game to the serious spy mowing down goons with a machine gun. It’s a shame his relationship with the producers and director wasn’t better because I would have loved to see him return as Bond. I feel he would become more appreciated if he just did one more. I’m sure it’s difficult being the first Bond post-Connery and I would much rather have seen Lazenby return for Diamonds are Forever than have the tired performance Connery gave when he returned for one final time as Bond (in an official film). While I enjoy Lazenby’s Bond I’m not much of a fan of Telly Savalas as Blofeld. He’s perfectly fine in the role, but when compared to Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld in the previous film, the performance is lacking some quirk and weirdness.

On her Majesty’s Secret Service is also one of the best-looking Bond films with Michael Reed’s phenomenal cinematography and Peter Hunt’s direction. Hunt is more well known as an editor and even edited Dr No, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger where he tried out some of his techniques that he’d later use on his directing duties including speeding up the film during action scenes. This editor-to-director ‘promotion’ is something that will stay with the Bond franchise for the next few decades with John Glen, who edited this film, going on to direct all five Bond films released in the 1980’s. Not only does On Her Majesty’s Secret Service look fantastic but I’d say it’s one of the best sounding films of all time. John Barry returns to score the film and I’d argue it’s his best soundtrack, from “We Have All the Time in the World” to the opening theme, which you can listen to below.

“Same old James. Only more so”. That’s how Moneypenny describes Bond at the beginning of the film and it starts the convoluted mess that is the James Bond continuity. Bond himself comments “this never happened to the other fella” at the end of the pre-credits sequence, poking fun at the change in actor, but in-universe this implies that this is a different James than the one portrayed by Connery. This acknowledgement seemingly gives credit to the fan theory that, just like the number 007, James Bond is also just a code name that’s passed down from agent to agent when the previous one retires, or more likely dies. Then there’s the fact that despite coming face-to-face in You Only Live Twice, Blofeld fails to recognise Bond when he is undercover as Sir Hilary Bray. However, this theory, and all the legwork put in to implying that Lazenby’s Bond is a different character to Connery’s, is thrown out of the window when Bond sits in his office and looks at mementos from his previous adventures. We get brief blasts of the score of each film when the accompanying objects is looked at by Bond. “Underneath the Mango Tree” when he looks at Honey’s knife from Dr No, Thunderball from the film of the same name when he looks at his re-breather etc. And so begins the baffling canon of the Bond series where Bond inexplicably gets younger every decade or so and works as MI6’s greatest agent for about 50 years. The Bond series didn’t know the meaning of the word continuity until the Daniel Craig era and it’ll be interesting to see how it’s dealt with when a new actor replaces Craig in the coming years.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was decades ahead of its time. It started doing what the Daniel Craig films now continue: delving into Bond’s character, his romantic tragedies and with him even going rogue which Bond now does in every single movie. I’m glad that the film and Lazenby’s portrayal are now being looked on more favourably and I hope its legacy grows as more people re-evaluate it. When watching the Bond films of the 60’s and 70’s in order, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service feels like a “and now we take a break in our usual programming to bring you…” before quickly going back to the way they were before but looking back on the whole franchise its brilliance is undeniable. I only wish the film wasn’t George Lazenby’s ingress and egress to the franchise and that he continued on. I feel he could have been just as well regarded as Sean Connery but now he’s too often the butt of a joke for being the odd Bond out.

What are your feelings towards Lazenby as Bond? Where does On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stand in ranking of the franchise? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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