‘It’s all right. It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world.’
On her Majesty’s Secret Service is an oddity in the Bond franchise. It almost bisects the Connery and Moore eras (’almost’ because Connery had another turn - or even two - as 007 left in him), and it plays like a return to the early days with its lack of gadgetry and spectacle. Then there’s its star. George Lazenby. The Australian model who just wasn’t Sean Connery, no matter how good the performance or material he was working with. OHMSS enjoyed respectable box office yet didn’t make the kind of fortune of the previous outings, which did for Lazenby whose ‘fall’ has attached a stigma to the movie ever since.
Over the years, Lazenby has become a byword for bad casting. So rubbished is his reputation that I expected to watch OHMSS and find myself cringing at his hamminess, wondering if my dining table was more or less wooden than his acting. Maybe directors warn their young actors to watch out or they’ll end up like George Lazenby. And so it came as some surprise that he wasn’t terrible at all. He could act. He had range, and most importantly for this role he had some degree of presence. In fact, he was pretty good, all told. His take on the part certainly demanded something different than what Connery had tackled previously.
In the film, Bond is expected to reveal his vulnerability more than once. There’s a scene where he is being pursued by Blofeld’s stooges through a Swiss village. He’s spent a good while eluding and tussling with them all the way down from SPECTRE’s mountaintop retreat and they’re closing in. Utterly drained, Bond has little left in him other than to pull his collars up, sit on a bench and look anonymous. Lazenby portrays the defeat and fear coursing through his body really well. It’s hard to imagine Connery pulling it off so convincingly. Even when his Bond was chased through a street carnival in Thunderball, Connery never looked as though he was in any real danger. But then, that was 007 as superhero. Lazenby’s brief is to play him as a human being and he’s up to the challenge. Sure, he was no Connery, but then imagine how everyone’s favourite Bond might have rough-housed his way through the climactic scene in OHMSS and be thankful that he didn’t. In Lazenby’s hands, Bond has to despair, and he does. More than once. And maybe it was this that sealed his fate; after all, the franchise became the juggernaut it did on the back of its star winking cheekily at death. Did punters queue up at the theatres to see 007 cry?
All that’s in the past, and the exploration of those complex emotions turning Daniel’s Craig blunt weapon into the cold-hearted killer he is in Casino Royale has lent a degree of revision to Lazenby’s turn. It’s after the depthless Roger Moore years that we can feel a sense of regret that the one-off didn’t get more chances to get to grips with his character, exposing the vulnerability of 007 yet further within a world that expects him to show little remorse. We got hints of his Bond in the character played by Timothy Dalton, and it’s little surprise that the complicated agent from The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill has turned out to be an artistic high point for the franchise, albeit one that didn’t mix too well with the public and forced it to revert to type with the safe Pierce Brosnan.
In the meantime, this one’s well worth another look. Diana Rigg, her career at its zenith, had the privilege of featuring throughout the film. The leading lady’s early appearance and co-starring role offered Rigg a rare opportunity to give her character - the Countessa Terasa Di Vincenzo, or just Tracy - almost as much depth as Lazenby’s 007, and she didn’t waste it. The pair have great chemistry, making their mutual attraction on the screen and subsequent engagement quite believable. Indeed, the only negative in her performance is the moment when she lulls Blofeld (Telly Savalas) into a false sense of security by reciting poetry to him as Bond and her father’s men close in on the villain’s headquarters. It’s a scene that just doesn’t work, suggesting Blofeld is a poor sucker for womanly wiles after he has spent the majority of the picture manipulating innocent females.
Elsewhere, Savalas adds a triumphant edge to the part of the main baddie. If Donald Pleasance suggested Blofeld as a twisted, deformed gnome, here he’s an action man, as prone to ski chases and bobsled pursuits as he is hatching fresh plans for world domination. As it is, Pleasance might sound closer to the mark, yet Savalas pulls it off through sheer charisma. His meetings with Bond - following those involving Pleasance and Connery in You Only Live Twice - provide an early instance of the Bond adventures not following a linear path. If the pair crossed paths previously, then why doesn’t Blofeld recognise 007 instantly, instead just about falling for his disguise as heraldry expert, Sir Hilary Bray?
Throw in a dramatic location at the very peak of the Alps, a favouring of brains over Q’s toys, and one of the best John Barry scores ever linked with a Bond film (it’s certainly on a par with You Only Live Twice), and you have the makings of an instant classic. But OHMSS has more up its perfectly tailored sleeve than that. The first half of the story tracks Bond’s attempts to discover and infiltrate Blofeld’s headquarters. This he does via Tracy, whose father (Gabrielle Ferzetti) has information that leads to where the evildoer is hiding. Along the way, he falls for the frosty girl, and the feelings become mutual as she succumbs to his lengthy courtship, sheer tenacity and charm. Once Blofeld imprisons Bond, the movie takes a turn for the exciting. The fun begins with a pursuit down a seemingly endless mountainside on skis. It’s a thrilling ride, made sublime by the work of Willy Bogner Jr, the former Alpine ski racer who shot reams of footage with the camera strapped to his chest, offering a skier’s eye view of the action. John Jordan filmed further scenes whilst sitting in a cradle that was suspended from a helicopter, allowing him to get unique shots of the stuntwork. Ever committed to carrying out the camera duties that others wouldn’t dare take on, Jordan had already lost a leg after an accident during the shooting of You Only Live Twice, and was to die a year later when another mishap whilst filming from a helicopter caused him to be sucked out and sent plummeting to his death. Scenes like those shot here are a testament to his amazing craft and single-minded commitment to getting the best footage possible. Added to the riveting ski scenes are a stock car race on ice, an avalanche that was provoked by planting strategically placed bombs in the snow, and a bobsled chase down Piz Gloria. It’s exhilerating stuff, never letting up, and only the most emotionally devastating pay-off could ever top it.
This we get with the last few minutes of the film. Having left Blofeld hanging from a tree trunk by his neck, seemingly paralysed, Bond marries Tracy, inviting all his Secret Service mates and even listening to some friendly advice from Q. As James and Tracy drive off in the flower-lined car, everything feels too perfect, and of course it is. The couple indulge in some verbal foreplay as they drive along mountain roads, and then stop to remove the flowers from their car. Blofeld and hench(wo)man Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) drive past and abruptly shower them with bullets. Bond survives, hurling himself behind the car, but as he’s about to set off in pursuit, he realises with a start that Tracy has been shot, point blank, in the head. Stunned, he cradles her body, tells a passing policeman not to hurry with help because there’s all the time in the world, and drops his head into hers with a lasting sob. The moment, shocking in its quiet tragedy after all the prior action, is weighted sublimely. Lazenby nails it, coming across as neither too bluff or hysterical. It’s something Connery simply couldn’t - or wouldn’t - have managed as well. Perhaps this is because, as film critic Danny Peary noted, the original Bond was more self-assured and virile. He commanded any scene in which he appeared, whilst Lazenby was not so confident and on occasion more vulnerable. Connery’s agent would never have allowed himself to fall in love with one woman, maybe aware that life was too short and easily lost to make it work. In Lazenby’s hands, Bond dares to lose his heart, gets married and pays the ultimate price.
The frequent mentions of Connery in this piece gives a good impression of why the Australian had just one Bond film in him. Knowing Broccoli and Saltzman were casting for a new 007, Lazenby went to Connery’s barber and asked for a similar haircut, and then solicited his tailor for an identical suit. Thus armed, he hung around outside Saltzman’s offices until his secretary was distracted, and then promptly introduced himself to the producer as the new Bond. The stunt worked, but in the end Lazenby didn’t. Rumours that he was difficult to work with slipped from the production to the press, and it seems he struggled to identify with the newfound attention he was enjoying. Yet what really made his stay a short one was the unavoidable crime of not being Sean Connery. When the film didn’t enjoy the box office success of its predecessors (though it went on to be the biggest grossing movie of 1969), something had to change, and Lazenby became the scapegoat. Director Peter Hunt saw this as a pity, and perhaps it was. It’s left On her Majesty’s Secret Service as the franchise’s curiousity piece, an experiment in staying closer to Ian Fleming’s novel than in previous pictures, introducing a softer-edged Bond and trying a different actor in the role. There’s very little that’s wrong with it, including the magnificent credits sequence, one of Maurice Binder’s finest with its montage of previous 007 adventures and thumping John Barry theme tune. Soon enough however, Connery was back on board and returned to the larger than life antics reminiscent of his former outings in Diamonds are Forever. It was business as usual, with no mention of Tracy, as though this entry had never happened at all, and it was no better for that omission.