I couldn’t dub this the George Lazenby era. He was only in one film, after all. But he does have the honour of playing Bond in one of the best in the canon — all quite separate from the issue of casting.
And what of that casting? In a franchise where EON producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman made so many good choices, maybe hiring this Australian model with no acting experience as Bond wasn’t one of them. If you think back to 1969, what a risk it must have been at the time. Who knew if audiences would accept anyone but Connery as Bond?
As it happened, the movie did OK at the box office, and Connery returned for one more movie before they rebooted again with Moore. Lazenby has a certain goofy charm, but he’s serviceable at best. Fortunately, the movie around him is solid.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) | Directed by Peter R. Hunt | written by Richard Maibaum with Simon Raven | 142 min
The story has Bond meeting a troubled woman on the beach in the pre-credit sequence, one Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, or Tracy, played by the wonderful Diana Rigg. The introduction of the new Bond is coy, but effective. We see him lighting a cigarette whole behind the wheel of his new (at the time) Aston Martin, but it isn’t until he gets out of the car and races down the beach to keep Tracy from wandering into the sea — that she wants to commit suicide is already a bleak start for the picture. Then we see his face. He fights off some attackers, she drives away, and we get that breaking-the-fourth-wall bit of dialogue, which many have ambivalent feelings about: “This never happened to the other fellow.”
Lazenby has the size and physicality required of the role, but is a bit of a zero, with a single expression — bemusement. Rigg, however, may be the best actor to ever have been a “Bond Girl,” and every time she’s on screen her presence lights up the movie.
She plays a daughter of a Portuguese crime lord who has ties to SPECTRE. And, sure enough, Blofeld (this time essayed by famous baldy Telly Savalas) has a new extortion plan, involving bacterial agents and brainwashed young women. The plan is typically insane and leads Bond all over Europe, from England to Portugal and the Swiss Alps. (Check out the mountaintop headquarters and tell me it wasn’t an influence on Christopher Nolan and the third level of dreaming in Inception.)
As this goes on, Bond genuinely falls for Tracy and, amazingly, wants to marry the woman and leave the employ of the British government. I won’t tell you how it ends, but the emotional fall-out presages the Daniel Craig era of Bond — as well as a melancholy moment during the pre-credit sequence of Roger Moore’s Bond entry For Your Eyes Only — perhaps explaining the chill in his relationships with women. (If he puts them in danger, how can he really love them?) Maybe that’s reading too much into it, but for once it’s refreshing to see Bond an a man exhibiting some genuine emotion.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was for years overshadowed by the limitations of its one-time Bond and judged pretty harshly, but through the years the film’s reputation has really improved.
Especially worth mentioning about OHMSS is the music. The official theme is Louis Armstrong’s final recording, the bittersweet We Have All The Time In The World, written by John Barry, and a new instrumental Barry-penned theme is added to the host of great music associated with Bond, a great up-tempo action-style piece that made periodic appearances in successive movies. I wish they still used it on the regular in the films.
Other random thoughts:
When Bond wanders into the hotel casino in Portugal at the beginning, two women are giggling and talking at a table. It’s hard to tell, but does one of them mention “Le Chiffre,” the Casino Royale villain?
Bond’s frilly shirt is ridiculous.
Tracy’s crime-lord’s father suggestion that what his daughter needs is “a man to dominate her — to make love to her enough to make her love him,” is especially twisted, compounded when he tries to sell her to Bond.
When Bond offers his resignation and cleans out his desk, the mementos of previous films — Honey Ryder’s knife, the wire watch, and the rebreather, mused over with appropriate musical cues — are delightful, if a little obvious.
Sable-Basilisk is a damn fine handle.
Bond in a kilt is also ridiculous
“I have taught you to love chickens.” This is startlingly silly. It’s funny how the movie manages to balance the silly and the suicidal.
The hand-to-hand combat scenes are terribly edited.
The ending is truly the saddest of all Bond movies. And probably the best.