George Lazenby, the second actor ever to play James Bond, has gone on record endorsing the “controversial” idea of casting of Idris Elba as the first black actor to play 007. While Lazenby’s casting, back in the day, was not a challenging of stereotypes in way that Elba’s would be, he did have to contend with public opinion when attempting to fill Sean Connery’s shoes.
Here’s a look back at Lazenby’s casting and our love letter to his first and only Bond film, Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
James Bond Rebooted
The 1960s were a decade of crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Race riots across the US. The beginning of the quagmire in Vietnam and, of course, Sean Connery decided to quit his role as British secret agent, James Bond. After five outings as the super spy starting with Dr. No and ending with You Only Live Twice, Connery decided to simply let the movie franchise Live and Let Die and move on. Sure, women wanted him and men wanted to be him, but poor old Sean was tired of being typecast and wanted out of the role of a lifetime – “the big girl’s blouse”.
So an international search for the “Next Bond” was begun in 1967. Connery was gone, off to star in The Red Tent and the world needed somebody new to don the tuxedo and strap on the Walther PPK. Who they found was an Australian model called George Lazenby with zero acting experience, but who was at the time, one of the highest paid models working in London. He was the Gisele Bundchen of his day.
Lazenby had the perfect look for Bond in the late 1960s. He was tall, dark and handsome, undeniably suave with an athletic build that looked good exposed to the sun or in a tailored jacket. Legend has it that Cubby Broccoli met Lazenby while getting a hair cut and instantly believed he had found the next James Bond. Of course, Lazenby’s acting resume consisted only of being known as the “Big Fry” guy – known for delivering Fry’s Turkish Delight – a fairly disgusting UK candy if you haven’t grown up with a taste for it.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS) is honestly one of the best Bond novels Ian Fleming ever wrote. It’s also arguably, one of the best Bond films with great set pieces, an awesome soundtrack and highly stylized cinematography and editing (John Glen, the editor would later go on to direct many subsequent Bonds). The movie departs from many of the conventional Bond outings by actually showing us a more humanized Bond, not a walking sex magnet in a tuxedo. This is a Bond who can fall in love and eventually even marries.
What follows is my personal argument for why On Her Majesty’s Secret Service deserves to be ranked as one of the best James Bond movies ever made. You can check out the trailer below.
Fast Cars, Fast Women & Fast Fights
Before the years of Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, before a time where every Jame Bond movie had to open with a bigger spectacle than the last movie – the films’ openings were set to intrigue, not to stun.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starts with a very effective car racing scene. Bond sees a beautiful woman, played by Diana Rigg (Tracy), driving on a winding road through the mountains in the Mediterranean. She’s driving a fabulous red 1969 Mercury Cougar XR-7 picture below.
Bond and Tracy race each other, taking turns pulling ahead, their speeding cars locked in automotive foreplay as they exchange glances and devil-may-care laughs. Tracy eventually speeds ahead and loses Bond, much to his amusement and chagrin. Some minutes later, Bond sees the red Mercury Cougar parked on the beach. He begins to spy on her with the telescopic sight from a gun. The female driver is walking towards the waves of the sea, seemingly determined to commit suicide.
Bond speeds down to the beach and leaps out his Aston Martin DBS. He runs into the water and pulls Tracy out of the surf, laying her on the beach to resuscitate her. As she recovers, Bond and Tracy are attacked and a fast-paced, laboriously edited fight scene follows. At the time of the movie, the fight was quite novel in its use of quick cuts, ahead of its time in many ways. The fight is also notable for the fact that Lazenby performed a lot of his own stunts. Female viewers from the period may have noted Lazenby’s toned muscles under his wet ruffled shirt. Oh my!
Bond ruthlessly seems to kill one of the thugs by drowning him. This scene seems to have been paid some homage in the opening of Daniel Craig’s Bond in Casino Royale, where he eliminates his first target in a very personal kill by drowning him in a sink. Both scenes communicate that the tone of this Bond is a bit more serious than the slapstick kills of Connery and Moore (“He got the point”). More unarmed fighting follows until both thugs are beaten down, but by now, Tracy has run off back to her Mercury Cougar. (Incidentally, neither thug is killed, but I don’t really believe it).
The scene ends with an unusual break in the fourth wall for a Bond movie, where Lazenby casually remarks, “This never happened to the other guy” and looks into the camera. It’s unique and knowing moment for an audience that had, hitherto, only known Sean Connery as James Bond.
(Technically, Connery actually breaks the fourth wall in the film Never Say Never Again, but seeing as this isn’t an official James Bond movie, I can claim this is the only time Bond ever does this … officially).
Unusual Yet Great Soundtrack
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service departs from the typical Bond movie in many ways and this includes the soundtrack. While some may miss the vocalizations of Shirley Bassey singing about Goldfinger or Tom Jones and his Thunderball, and it’s an undeniable Bondian truth that these are great songs in the Bond soundtrack canon, OHMSS manages to get away without any singer at all. OHMSS is purely instrumental.
John Barry was the driving force behind the “James Bond sound” – those big lush orchestral scores that are full of emotion and meaning. His compositions have made many a film better for their inclusion. This was Barry’s 5th Bond soundtrack, although it wouldn’t be his last by a long shot. He’d go on to score eleven James Bond movies in total, the last being The Living Daylights in 1987.
Barry felt that the title On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, didn’t really lend well itself to lyrics. The director, Peter R. Hunt, allowed Barry to use an instrumental soundtrack instead, something which had occurred with Dr. No when Monty Norman composed the famous Bond theme and From Russia With Love (to avoid confusion, it should be noted FRWL features the famous song by Matt Munro at the end of the movie).
The opening soundtrack is a blast of sound, marked by a Moog Synthesizer, which is essentially an analog version of the later digital synthesizers which would become mainstream in the 1980s. It’s still very much John Barry and his orchestra, only this time, he’s come packing a different kind of Bond sound. This sound would become very popular in the 1970s, in large part, thanks to OHMSS.
The title sequence which accompanies the OHMSS theme does a brilliant job of paying homage to the previous five Connery Bond films, tying those films to the current one as it opens on a luxurious hotel in the Mediterranean.
Minimal Focus on Gadgets
Fans will disagree. Many people LOVE the Bond gadgets, and while they’re often a fun inclusion, they also function as a deus ex machina in some instances that detract from the fact that James Bond is a formidable character naked and unarmed. Bond is a capable killing machine regardless of circumstance. (“That’s because you know what I can do with my little finger”). He’s mastered unarmed combat, is proficient with any weapon, can drive or fly any vehicle and is a top notch skier. He’s like Batman without the mask or millions.
OHMSS really kept the gadgets out of Bond’s hands. There are a few key scenes where he uses technology, such as when he has to decipher a bank vault’s lock, but the equipment is so analog and so large, it actually seems very realistic for the time, not something pulled from 40 years hence like an Apple smart watch.
Lazenby’s Bond wins through his driving skills, his fighting, his skiing and frankly, his ability to seduce women. Not bad skills and maybe worth a trade-in for some gadget that really only has a single use. Magnetic watch? F**k off. Submersible Lotus Esprit? OK, you’ve got me there.
Genuine Love Interest
Bond rarely has any connection with the women in his movies, except maybe to their untimely deaths, but in OHMSS, there’s a real chemistry between the characters of Bond and Tracy. In many ways, Tracy is this Bond’s equal and her motives are almost as mysterious as his. Love begins to foment after initially being forced together and soon the two are young lovers rather than spy and spy who loved me.
This point is really driven home after Bond escapes the bad guys at one point in the story and Tracy appears out of thin air to rescue him. Bond is the reduced to the role of damsel in distress and its Tracy come to his rescue. The couple’s escape and subsequent bedding down for the night in a little log cabin is actually rather touching.
Later in the movie, the film does get a little bit all Peter Parker with Raindrops Kepp Falling on (His) Head a la Spider-Man 2 when Louis Armstrong starts singing, “We’ve Got All The Time In The World” to a montage of the young lovers playing around like there isn’t an threat of global domination imminent. But then, if I remember correctly when you’re in love, the world pretty much does seem to come to a standstill. Regardless, the song works its magic and although it comes out of nowhere and certainly wouldn’t fit into any other Bond franchise film, it plays perfectly here.
It’s no small irony that for all the chemistry on the screen, Diana Rigg apparently hated George Lazenby for his insufferable, gloating and growing ego. Becoming Bond had quickly gone to the young Australian model’s head, and this fact more than any other, would play a contributing part to why he’d only ever be the one actor to play Bond once and be done.
Two of the Best Ski Scenes Ever
Bond has enjoyed some pretty great moments on the piste. After making his way up to the evil hideout to investigate the goings on there high up on a mountain, Bond clips on his skis and begins his descent off the mountain. The bad guys in the yellow jackets follow on their skis armed to the teeth with machine guns.
Sure, the blue screen close ups of Lazenby are ropey and haven’t aged very well, but the stunt work in OHMSS is excellent. When Bond loses a ski, he’s forced to continue on one leg, the music helping him along down the mountainside. The bad guys try to do what Bond does and end up in the pine trees. Idiots!
When Bond kills one of the henchman by flipping him of the side of the mountain and the sound goes all quiet, the movie makes us feel it.
Another skiing scene later in the movie is also pretty terrific. There’s one part where one of the cronies ends up in an automated snow blower, turned into red mist and splattering the white packed landscape. As a kid, my friend Henry and I used to watch that clip over and over again on his Betamax. Good times.
Demolition Derby Bond
One of the absolute highlights of the movie occurs after Bond has escaped the mountain on his one ski and enters the quaint little ski town of “whatever the hell this place is called-berg”. Excitement’s in the air because there’s a demolition derby going on in the town center. Did this happen a lot in European ski towns in the 1960s? No idea, but it should have based on how much fun we have watching the scene.
Bond is still being chased by henchmen in the town when Tracy appears, still driving her 1969 red Mercury Cougar, to save her knight in shining armor. Bond jumps in the car and they try to escape. Bond directs them into a demolition derby race and they suddenly become part of the attraction. Their pursuers join them and soon they are racing around amongst ten or so other cars, smashing into each other in a race for their life, not just a trophy, although as they leave Tracy quips, “We didn’t even stop for the prize”
Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Who wants to kill you baby?
Ernst Stavro Blofeld has been played by four different actors now (five if you include Mike Meyers as Dr. Evil), and while the then popular Telly Savalas isn’t my favorite (Donald Pleasance anybody?), he brings a menace closer to Daredevil’s Kingpin rather than the faintly Nazi Germanic versions from the Connery movies. Savalas benefits in real life and in the movie from his physical size. He’s intimidating. This is a Blofeld capable of handing out some whoop-ass. “Here, hold my pussy.”
This version of Blofeld also reveals his all too human narcissism, convinced that he is part of a long line of royalty called the de Bleuchamps, he embarks to have his claim ratified by the English College of Arms. It’s hinted at in the movie that he may even have had his ear lobes surgically remove to mimic a common hereditary trait of that family. There’s no ulterior motive here to rule the world via global terrorism or global domination or anything – Blofeld just really wants to cheat his way into respected High Society and be recognized as a somebody. Sad, really. This proves to be the entry point for Bond’s clandestine insertion and Blofeld’s ultimate undoing.
The final attack by Bond and Tracy’s organized crime father, Draco, is as climatic as you might expect. Two small armies converge via helicopter with Bond fighting his way through to get to Blofeld. This time it’s personal! It’s all classic Bond-by-numbers directing and action at this point.
Then Blofeld escapes on a Bobsled and the finale really kicks into high gear. There’s a fantastic bobsled versus bobsled match that plays out, ending with a game of hide the grenade which doesn’t go so well for Bond. Still, Lazenby’s Bond is one-third Indiana Jones and won’t stop pursuing his target. He runs to the next curve in the bobsled run and leaps onto Blofeld’s sled. It’s all fun and games and terrible blue screen until Blofeld gets caught in a tree branch, presumably breaking his neck. “Just hanging out at the blobsled run, mom”. Cue the St. Bernard with brandy gag and scene.
Tracy’s Death (Spoiler)
If you haven’t seen this 1969 film yet, you’ve only yourself to blame for this spoiler. There’s a moratorium on spoilers and I think 47 years is long enough.
It’s the end of the movie. Blofeld is still hanging out on the slopes as far as we know. It’s time for James Bond to finally settle down and get married. Maybe he’ll have a family of little spies, each with a novelty license to kill. We’ll never know. As soon as Bond says, “But darling, now we have all the time in the world,” we know the marriage is doomed. On their way leaving their wedding, Bond decides to pull the Aston Martin DBS over to the side of the road for a second to remove the “Just Married” paraphernalia decorating his car.
Just then another car literally shoots by them, peppering their car with bullets in a driveby. Bond sees it’s Blofeld and jumps in the car ready to pursue and stop them, but then he realizes Tracy has been hit. There’s no last moment. No fake out death rattle. No milking the scene. She’s just gone.
In a powerful piece of film making, a police officer on his motorcycle stops and investigates the scene, seeing Bond cradling his wife’s head in his lap. “It’s alright,” Bond croaks, “It’s quite all right really. She’s just having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry you see. We’ve got all the time in the world”.
The camera pans out. There’s no music.
BEST BOND EVER.
Correction: 5/5/2016 – Thanks to a couple of Reddit readers who pointed out I originally quoted the included Louis Armstrong song as ‘What a Wonderful World’ when, of course, it’s ‘We’ve Got All The Time In The World’. Both songs are beautiful, stirring ballads, and Armstrong is known more for the former, which is probably why it popped out of my brain stem onto the page. Nevertheless, corrected and thanks for catching that.
For other Fandom Bond articles, see the excellent:
Weird Watch: Casino Royale (1967) by Erich Fuchs