To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen (and the release of Skyfall), we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.
George Lazenby stands out as perhaps the strangest on-screen Bond. He only appeared in a single film before retiring from the role, shortly before the premiere, causing such a crisis that the studio paying a huge amount of money to re-hire Sean Connery for Diamonds Are Forever. His one film, however, stands out as one of the very few movies in the series to give the character Bond a logical character arc, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service remains one of the most polarising films in the series. I actually think that Lazenby’s tenure is perhaps the one that lends itself best to the “multiple Bonds” theory, as he plays the version of the character harder to reconcile with the other portrayals.
And not just because of that awkward line that closes the opening sequence. There’s a lot here that never happened to the other fellas.
After all, Diamonds Are Forever demonstrated that Connery’s approach to the character could easily lend itself to the camp humour of the Roger Moore era. It’s easy to imagine Roger Moore’s serious disgust towards Max Zorin in A View to a Kill leading to the more serious Dalton Bond. Pierce Brosnan feels like an older and more cynical take on the already jaded Dalton character, while Daniel Craig could easily be playing an origin story for Sean Connery or Timothy Dalton. Of all these, George Lazenby’s take on the character stands out, because it doesn’t really fit.
In fact, Lazenby’s Bond supports that “James Bond is just a code name given to different agents” theory so well that it actually makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service seem like an entirely different film. If Sean Connery and Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan and different characters operating under the same alias, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service becomes more than “the one where Bond marries a girl who is never mentioned again.”Instead, it evolves to something of a cautionary tale, an example that not every secret agent is up to the task of being James Bond.
Almost immediately, it seems like George Lazenby’s character is a bit of a wash-out. M confirms that this version of Bond has failed to track down Blofeld, following on from the villain’s appearance in You Only Live Twice. It seems like a strange failure for Bond, given how quickly Sean Connery’s character ferrets him out (repeatedly) at the start of the next film in the series. M seems almost disappointed in Bond’s performance, “I’m well aware of your talents, but a license to kill is useless unless one can set up the target.”
Perhaps it’s a testament to Connery’s performance in the role, but it’s almost hard to separate the character in the script from the performance. It’s unclear whether it’s Richard Malibaum’s script or Lazenby’s performance that separates Bond from the version we’ve seen previously. I suspect that it’s both. Lazenby’s Bond seems more sincere, more emotionally vulnerable, than Connery’s ever did. He’s immediately attracted to the Contessa, and Lazenby convinces us that the character is genuinely bowled over by her.
He’s so infatuated, his wits aren’t even about him when she needs to rescued. “Forgive me,” he confesses, ready to jump to her defence if he could regain his composure, “my mind was elsewhere.” Later on, he seems entirely genuine as he lies with her in bed and directly asks, “I think you’re in some sort of trouble. Do you want to talk about it?” Lazenby, despite an admittedly wooden performance, seems to have a rare empathy that was somewhat lacking in Connery’s performance, but would also be present in Moore’s to a certain extent.
It’s very clear, for example, that Lazenby’s Bond is genuinely concerned and feels guilty about Tracy’s sense of obligation to hima fter he bails her out of trouble on the casino floor. Compare the reaction of Connery’s Bond to the panicking nurse in Thunderball. Worried that she might lose her job after an assassin attempts to murder Bond at the health spa, Connery’s Bond is less than forgiving – very overtly blackmailing her in return for his silence.
Similarly, Live and Let Die sees Moore’s Bond effectively tricking young Solitaire into bed with him, by stacking her deck of tarot cards. In the following film, The Man With The Golden Gun, Moore threatens to break a woman’s arm for information, before suggesting how they could kill a few hours before meeting with Scaramanga. The threat, again, is implicit. It’s hard to imagine Lazenby’s Bond engaging in any of these actions, seeming far too sensitive and vulnerable. In fact, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service arguably portrays the least sexist Bond of the era.
Tracy’s father is still around to provide the requisite dose of old-fashioned unsettling misogyny, but Lazenby’s Bond seems a lot less of a throwback. Later on, Draco admits to Bond, “What you did, the way you behaved, might be the beginning of some kind of therapy.” It’s hard to imagine any father trusting his daughter to Bond in any other incarnation. When Draco offers him information in return for courting his daughter, Bond refuses. It’s easy to imagine Connery’s more cynical Bond exploiting that, creating a sense of ambiguity about the time he spends with the Contessa. Instead, this version of Bond doesn’t have that sense of ambiguity. Lazenby’s Bond is – befitting his awkward performance – an iteration of the character who wears his heart on his sleeve.
As you can imagine, that makes for a pretty ineffective secret agent. Even in his flirtations with Moneypenny, a rite of passage for any new Bond, Lazenby seems to be constantly on the back-foot. “Cocktails at my place, eightish, just the two of us,” he offers, rather directly. Interestingly, in a reversal of their usual dynamic, Moneypenny shoots him down, “Oh, I’d adore that, if only I could trust myself.” It seems like Moneypenny knows she needs to be careful around this version of the character.
Throughout the film, it seems like this version of the character is ill-suited to the life he’s found himself in. It lends itself an air of tragedy that just isn’t there if this the same Bond who has blown up volcano lairs, and shrugged off the death of his Japanese wife. Lazenby’s Bond has it what it takes to be a decent secret agent, but not what he needs to be James Bond. He can single-handedly escape Blofeld’s mountain-top retreat, but he can’t break back in and rescue the girl without an army.
During the attack on Piz Gloria, the Contessa arguably makes a far better showing than Bond. She’s also the one driving for the movie’s superb car chase scene. In contrast, Lazenby’s Bond gets himself caught by Blofeld by making an amateur mistake, and seems to struggle to make love to two women in the same night. That’s the sort of stuff that Bond really shouldn’t sweat, being an international man of mystery, even if it transcends the physical limitations of most men. Bond is, after all, supposed to be a fantasy figure. Lazenby’s Bond is the most human.
His chat-up lines are terrible, and his cover as Sir Hillary seems more than a little awkward. He can’t even pull off the rugged and masculine seduction techniques that the other iterations of the character take for granted. As such, he seems like a very different character from the iterations that arrived before or afterwards. He seems more genuine and less cynical than any other Bond. Despite Lazenby’s dire delivery of the closing dialogue, it lends the inevitable death of the Contessa as a truly tragic moment.
The idea that Lazenby’s Bond is a different version of the character also helps explain the complete lack of follow-through on the climax of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We feel that Bond really loved the Contessa. Lazenby isn’t up to that final scene, but Diana Rigg manages to convince us of the mutual affection and co-dependence between the pair.
As such, Diamonds are Forever never really deals with the consequences of the loss. Sean Connery’s James Bond goes on a rampage of revenge that leads into the credit sequence, and the issue is never broached again, even though the character winds up facing Blofeld again an hour or so into the movie. The next reference to Tracy is a fleeting shot of her grave at the start of For Your Eyes Only when Blofeld makes another strike.
Neither of these scenes have any emotional resonance. Sean Connery seems more angry than sad as he brutally murders his way through Blofeld copies. Roger Moore never seems especially upset that Blofeld would defile his wife’s grave. It makes sense if these are two later Bonds “paying tribute” to a colleague who carried their name and number. After Lazenby’s Bond washes out at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, M pulls Connery’s character out of retirement to sort the mess out and fill a void until a new Bond can be found.
That could be why Connery is so angry at the start (he’s sending a message not to mess with the people who carry the name James Bond) and why he’s so tired for the rest of the film (he’s only there as a favour). Roger Moore’s Bond could be visiting the grave as a show of respect for all the women that the various “James Bond” agents have failed. The Contessa is perhaps the most obvious example, and the one who hurt her version of James Bond the deepest.
Connery’s Bond or Moore’s Bond could take the loss, because they’d never become that close. Lazenby’s Bond did, because he made a mistake. This makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service something of a grand tragedy, the story of a man doing a job that he’s not really up to. Ironically, despite Lazenby’s wooden performance, he’s too human to be the womanising secret agent James Bond. He’s the inevitable example who simply doesn’t have it in him to be James Bond.
This gives the subplot involving Blofeld’s attempts to claim the name “de Bleauchamp”a bit more thematic relevance. After all, it seems a little appropriate if both Lazenby’s character and Blofeld are both claiming a name that neither of them has earned. Like Blofeld, Lazenby’s Bond is a pretender. However, his failure is due to the presence of his humanity and compassion, virtues that become vices within his line of work.
Of course, that’s not going to be an interpretation shared by a lot of fans and critics, but it’s one that I am quite fond of, and it’s how I personally make sense of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The six faces of 007: