On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: George Lazenby’s sole outing as James Bond resulted in the most romantic Bond film

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service(1969) was the sixth James Bond film. It introduced a new James Bond and it was very different from any Bond film that came before or after it.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service(OHMSS), the sixth James Bond film from Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions, started off with a big handicap. Sean Connery, the actor who originated the role of Bond on screen and who was “James Bond” for the  Bond fanatics and the general public, left the series after his fifth outing as 007 in You Only Live Twice. The shocked producers frantically searched for a replacement and auditioned more than two thousand actors for the role. They finally zeroed in on George Lazenby- An Australian model- to play Bond. It goes without saying that no actor who played James Bond has ever faced as much scrutiny (and criticism) as George Lazenby; Not only because he was starting his career in the shadow of the first and best Bond, Sean Connery, but Lazenby, by his own admission, was a total unknown and a  complete novice at acting – unless one take it into account adverts for ‘Big Fry chocolate.  To make things worse, Lazenby was quite immature, egotistical and hotheaded to deal with his new found fame and fortune. His relationship with his producers was strained; his director stopped talking to him; and he alienated the majority of the cast and crew with his self-obsessed behavior.  What happened next is Bond history. OHMSS (and Lazenby) was received coldly by both Bond fans and critics. Connery was back in the role for the next installment in the franchise, Diamonds are forever, just two years later, and for which he was paid an astronomical salary of  £1.25 million; Lazenby never made another Bond (Or for that matter any other decent) movie in his life. Lazenby himself compounded his problems by announcing that he would not be returning as Bond. He felt that in the age of Easy Riders, Midnight Cowboys and spaghetti westerns, Bond has lost his relevance and the iconic character won’t last much longer. He was, of course, dead wrong and Bond would endure well into the next century.

But what got buried underneath all the controversies, bad press, change of actors and the perception of poor box office – the film was actually a solid money maker and was among the top ten earners of the year – was a very well conceived and crafted film which deviated considerably from the formulaic- Guns, Gadgets and Girls- Bond films that had followed the blockbuster success of Goldfinger(1964). The film also  considerably adhered to the existing Zeitgeist by crafting a more realistic and pessimistic James Bond and Bond film. Of course, the film is no Bonnie and Clyde; it’s still a glossy, larger than life escapist adventure, but remaining within those confines, the filmmakers have given a gritty feel to the film and a surprisingly downbeat ending  that definitely did damage its prospects at the Box office, but made it a fully rounded, long lasting movie. A glance at the story of the film would give us an indication as to how different the film (and Bond) was from the Bonds that came before and after it. The story evolves thus: While off in Portugal, James Bond (George Lazenby) encounters a beautiful woman (Diana Rigg) on a beach who may be trying to kill herself. He prevents this but, out of nowhere several men attack him. He defeats them. but in the melee the girl gets away. Bond soon encounters her again, where he comes to know that she is the notorious Countess Teresa di Vicenzo, or simply Tracy (as she likes to be called). After spending the night with her, Bond is abducted by Tracy’s father, crime-lord Marc Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), who offers Bond a dowry of one million pounds if he will marry his daughter and take care of her. But, Bond is more interested in the whereabouts of SPECTRE boss, “Ernst Stavro Blofeld”  and Draco seems willing to help him with certain conditions. When Bond returns to London he is informed by “M” that he is being removed from the case. Bond makes a stab at resigning but the interference of “Miss Moneypenny” turns it into a leave of absence. Bond travels to Draco’s place, mainly because he wants to know what Draco can tell him about Blofeld, but once reaching there his relationship with Tracy begins to deepen and they end up becoming lovers and soulmates. He makes his way back into active duty with information on a mysterious individual (Telly Savalas) attempting to claim the title ‘Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp‘ from the College of Arms. Suspecting this may be none other than Blofeld himself, Bond arranges to impersonate one of their genealogists- a Sir Hillary- in the guise of investigating his claim but, as Bond travels to meet this Bleuchamp at an allergy research clinic high up in the Alps and starts getting closer to the truth, he places himself in greater danger. In one of the great role reversals in Bond films, Bond-girl, Tracy lands up in Switzerland to save Bond. Tracy sacrifices herself – she’s captured by Blofeld and brought to his lair and kept as hostage – so that Bond can get out alive. To save Tracy and capture Blofeld, Bond join forces with Draco and mount an all out helicopter assault on Blofeld’s lair . They succeed in rescuing Tracy and, on their return, Bond and Tracy are married in a grand ceremony. But, on their way to their honeymoon, Blofeld, who had escaped from Bond’s clutches , attack their car and kills Tracy. The film ends with Bond holding the lifeless body of Tracy in his arms. 

As it is obvious from the story line, this Bond  has the kind of emotional graph, intensity, romanticism and vulnerability that we wouldn’t see until Daniel Craig’s turn as Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale. And it required a really good actor to pull this off. Unfortunately, Lazenby, with his very limited acting skills, is not that guy. Not that he is a total loss; he plays the more vulnerable and emotional aspects of the character well , but he just doesn’t have the suave coolness and authority of Connery. And, for a Bond who is supposed to be the most romantic of them all, he manages to whip up zero chemistry with Diane Rigg. Compare that with the terrific chemistry that Craig shared with Eva Green in Casino Royale and you’ll see the difference. There are several scenes in the film that are severely let down by Lazenby’s lack of acting skill as well as his wooden dialogue delivery; most prominently the  first meeting between Bond and Draco . Rigg, on the other hand, is the heart and soul of the film and remains the best bond girl\performance of all time, maybe topped by a thin margin by Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. The entire middle portion; when Bond is impersonating Sir Hillary (where Tracy is not present,) is a real slog. Scenes at the ski-lodge are dragged out for so long that when Tracy reappears some time later you’ve almost forgotten she existed. But, the film springs back to life when she returns to screen. Now this impersonating business is again a big downer. The great thing about Bond, and what has always made him different from other super spies, is that he does not use different get ups or masquerades for accomplishing his mission. He always remains Bond and goes by the name of James Bond. And here, You have a totally novice actor who is trying hard to tackle one of the most iconic roles and to add to his discomfort you get him to do some ‘character acting‘ where he has to mimic the voice and mannerisms of another character in the film. What a dumb idea is that?. And you make it worse by having his voice- in these impersonation scenes- dubbed over by the other actor, thus exposing his limitations, Phew!. And you give him the most atrocious costumes. It goes without saying that Lazenby(and the film) is embarrassingly bad in these portions.  What also doesn’t work is the fourth wall braking gimmick ;like  Lazenby looking into the camera briefly, immediately after his line “This never happened to the other fella“. Though it seems to be a self referential remark (Lazenby replaced Sir Sean Connery as Bond)   it just doesn’t work in the context of this film; as it is very different from the tongue-in-cheek Connery movies, so is the scene where we see Bond playing with the gadgets from the previous movies; obviously done to remind the audience that it’s the same James Bond, only played by a different actor. The resolution of Blofeld’s character also left me scratching my head; Bond has been chasing him so hard, so at least he would make sure that Blofeld is dead or captured after his final mission, instead, we have Blofeld left comically hanging on a tree at the end of a frenetic sled-chase, thus , conveniently allowing him to return at the very end and kill Tracy. Of course, i understand that Blofeld has to be kept alive for the series to continue forward, but one wishes more care and thought was put into Blofeld’s escape.

On the plus side – and the film does have a lot of pluses –  the film provides  a fully formed Bond with quite a bit of family history thrown in; such as learning how the motto on the Bond family crest is indeed “Orbis non sufficit” translated as  “The World Is Not Enough”, which was used as a Bond movie title in 1999. And again the graph of the character : where Bond goes from a suave, cool playboy and hotheaded agent to being a level-headed , focused professional and one-woman man: the lover, the husband and the widower at the end, is yet to be topped by any subsequent film in the franchise. The film-making is also of a high quality. The film benefits immensely from having a master technician like Peter Hunt as the director. Hunt was an editor on all previous Bond films and his pacey editing had a lot to do with the success of those films. OHMSS is one of the best looking James Bond films of all time. Not just the action scenes – which are all superbly staged – But, also in the more intimate , dialogue scenes; Hunt’s camera placements and editing cuts are bang on and he assembles some terrific set pieces; like the sequence where Bond breaks into lawyer Gumbold’s office, which is on par with any great set piece from a Hitchcock film- for the manner in which the suspense is built up through silences and music. Also, the climactic helicopter raid on Blofeld’s lair is also spectacular. John Barry’s score  is extraordinary as usual and, of course, the song, “We Have All The Time in The World” is breathtakingly beautiful. Its a pity that Peter Hunt never made another Bond film. Guess the making of the film and its aftermath soured the producers (or maybe Hunt himself) from ever employing him again. Hunt did not want the film to end on a tragic note, his original ending had Bond and Tracy driving off after their marriage; the killing of Tracy was supposed to be the opening scene of the next Bond film, perhaps the current ending was retained at the producers’ bidding. The ending definitely cost the film commercially. There was also the issue that Hunt and Lazenby didn’t get along during the shoot. Lazenby has claimed in interviews that Hunt didn’t give him any direction, leaving to find the character on his own; a charge Hunt had strongly, countered saying that no director in his right mind would leave a debutant actor without directions. Supposedly, the final shot of the film, where Lazenby is mourning over Tracy’s death, was shot after rehearsing for a whole day; According to Hunt, he had meticulously prepared Lazenby for the scene, and when he realized that Lazenby was fully exhausted, he printed the take, which gave real truth to Bond’s sorrow at losing his wife. Whatever the process, this is one of the moments where Lazenby appears totally convincing in his performance.

Though OHMSS was quickly forgotten after its release, Today, it is considered one of the best Bond films ever made – perhaps even the best. But i look at it as a film that did not live up to its potential; a lost opportunity at making a darker, complex and a human Bond keeping with the changing times. The Sean Connery Bonds had reached a saturation point – as it was obvious from You only live twice and would be perfectly clear from Diamonds are Forever – and they  could not  have gone any further with it. The producers had a great opportunity to start the Bond franchise afresh with a new actor and it appeared that they were going to do just that. The film had a great story, rich characterization and a director with great technical expertise. But they bungled with the casting of Bond and later, they just didn’t take the original concept to its logical conclusion. The second act of the film is a terrible watch and i am glad that ,today, while watching the film on Blu-Ray, i can just skip those portions. OHMSS proved to be a watershed in other ways too. All the earlier Bond films , including OHMSS.  had a kind of soft, glossy , technicolor look; reminiscent of those classic color movies from Thirties and forties. But that look went out with this film. If one watches OHMSS  and Diamonds are Forever back to back, it is very hard to believe that the latter was the immediate follow-up to the former. The film also marked the end of the absolute power that Saltzman and Broccoli enjoyed as Bond producers. From then on, the studio, United Artists would be keenly involved in the development of these films. It was at studio-head David Picker’s insistence that Sean Connery was brought back for Diamonds at an astronomical price. And after the release (and the lukewarm response ) of The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974, Harry Saltzman, taking the same line as Lazenby that Bond Franchise has no future ,  would sell of his shares in the Bond Franchise , leaving Cubby Broccoli as the sole owner. Under Broccoli’s (and his family’s) stewardship , the Bond franchise would continue to prosper into the new millennium and, today, remains the most successful and long-lasting movie franchise of all time.

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