In defence of George Lazenby, the Aussie James Bond
By David Walker (Google profile)
With a few days to the local release of the James Bond movie Skyfall, it’s time for all patriotic Aussies to understand the case for the only home-grown James Bond, George Lazenby. I am not a Bond fan, but I’ve long maintained that his one Bond film, 1969′s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS), was at once the series’ best and its most innovative.
For most of the past 30 years, this has been a fringe view: OHMSS was referred as “the forgotten Bond film”, if it was referred to at all. But recent years have rehabilitated it to the point where it now sits with From Russia With Love and Casino Royale atop most lists of best-ever Bond films. And Lazenby is being re-assessed too.
OHMSS began with a problem: Sean Connery was jack of playing Bond. Since Connery was completely identified with the Bond character, Bond producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman wanted a remarkable replacement. A new search for the perfect Bond discovered no-one very impressive; both Richard Burton and a 22-year-old Timothy Dalton turned them down.
Enter George Lazenby – initially, through the door of the barber shop where Cubby Broccoli was having his hair cut. Lazenby was a Queanbeyan-raised former car salesman, ski champion and Army martial arts instructor who had made the trip to London and quickly become a highly-paid male model. When Broccoli saw Lazenby in a chocolate commercial he remembered their barber-shop encounter and called him in for auditions. He stood out from the uninspiring alternatives. He first turned up in a suit he had bought from a Saville Row tailor that had actually been made for Connery but never collected. He just looked like Bond. In an later audition, he brawled like Bond too: one of his punches allegedly broke a stuntman’s nose. That seemed to seal the deal. He was quickly signed. Unknown to Broccoli, it was his very first acting role.
Meanwhile, veteran Bond scriptwriter Richard Maibaum was outlining a rather unusual Bond film. Stripped of most of Bond’s gadgetry, it would focus instead on Bond as an actual human being and professional spy, reflecting the Bond of Fleming’s novels. The main Bond girl would be a character, not a caricature – no more Pussy Galores – and she would be played by the RADA-trained Diana Rigg.
Telly Savalas replaced Donald Pleasance as Blofeld, veteran Italian actor Gabrielle Ferzetti played the Rigg character’s father and sympathetic Mafia boss (!) Draco, and Ilse Steppat did creepy henchwoman duty.
First-time director Peter Hunt had already defined the Bond style with editing work such as the From Russia With Love train fight. He was determined to make his first directing effort both an epic and a more visually realistic film than its predecessors, using real location wherever possible. His dream leapt closer when he found an almost-finished Swiss mountaintop resort, Piz Gloria, which fortuitously matched Fleming’s description of the villain Blofeld’s lair. Shooting in and around the resort, he could integrate indoor and outdoor action with a minimum of effects.
Hunt proceeded to build some of the best action sequences in the franchise’s history. The evening fight in the surf and another in a shed full of bells, the bull-ring shots and a sinister pursuit through an amusement-park crowd are all nicely handled. More significantly, the alpine scenes at and around Piz Gloria (without a Ken Adam model in sight) have rarely been bettered. German Olympic skier Willy Bogner filmed the snowfield action skiing backwards most of the time, and one-legged cameraman Johnny Jordan built a rig to let him hang six metres below a helicopter to film alpine sequences. A bobsled chase feels dangerous and was: the script was altered to feature the accidents that befell the stuntmen. The Mafia assault on Blofeld’s fortress starts with glorious shots of a helicopter fleet at sunrise and turns into a series of ski chases made genuinely breathtaking by the innovative camera work of the backward-skiing Bogner and the helicopter-hanging Jordan. At the time, nothing quite like it had ever been filmed.
And Bond composer John Barry, attempting to compensate for Connery’s absence, devised what he would later describe as “the most Bondian score ever”. It’s all that and more. The title sequence has a terrific, horn-heavy, orchestral-only theme. Barry tops than with another tune that starts as an upbeat British military piece and then morphs into a love song, We Have All The Time In The World, sung by none other than Louis Armstrong and all the more touching because Armstrong himself had little time left. Released as a single into charts suddenly dominated by psychedelic pop, it barely registered. Twenty-four years later it eventually reached Number 3 on the British charts after featuring in a beer ad. It’s since been covered by Iggy Pop and My Bloody Valentine, among others, and it may be the best thing Barry ever wrote.
Oh, and Diana Rigg, required to portray the only woman Bond would actually marry, is sexy, emotionally complex, smart, witty, and easily the best Bond woman in the entire series.
There are, it has to be said, a few jarring moments. Hunt mars his fight scenes with undercranking, which speeds up the action unconvincingly and probably unnecessarily. Bond crassly ogles a Playboy centrefold in public. The pre-assault girl-hunting at Piz Gloria veers from amusing to goofy and takes too much screen time. The ski scene close-ups almost inevitably feature some typical 1960s rear-projections that contrast with the realism of the surrounding shots. A few lines are clumsily overdubbed. For all that, it’s an achievement: a character-driven genre piece that permanently upped the ante for action films.
Come release date, everything seemed set for another Bond hit.
(The trailer above is from OHMSS's 40th anniversary release.)
Yet OHMSS copped a mixed reception in 1969. Bond was at that time still a series of movies rather than today’s movie-industry historic monument, and many reviewers understandably disliked its untrendy admiration of masculinity, violence and sexual conquest. Most missed Connery. Some called Lazenby’s delivery flat. The New York Times described him unenthusiastically as “merely a casual, pleasant, satisfactory replacement”. The editing was also widely criticised as too frenetic, though to post-MTV eyes it seems skilfull, tight and modern. Rigg’s performance was the film’s only universally-admired aspect. Its uncertain marketing displayed the producers’ anxiety about a Connery-less Bond. The film made plenty of money (the equivalent of over $500 million today) but fell well short of its predecessors’ box office.
And despite being offered a seven-picture deal, Lazenby fell to hubris. He wanted more than the million dollars a movie Broccoli and Saltzman were offering, and he disliked the constraints (no beard!) demanded by the producers. He also felt Bond wouldn’t thrive in the post-1960s world. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that by first replacing Connery and then alienating most of his natural allies, Lazenby left himself wide open for attack. The studio had no further interest in pumping him up. During filming he had been by his own admission obnoxious and arrogant. He fell into believing his own pre-publicity, horsed around too much, took offense too easily, and wouldn’t always listen to advice when he obviously needed to learn. He may have annoyed co-star Rigg by sleeping with every attractive female he could find on the set (and he could find a lot). He had too much too soon. Lazenby’s agent advised him Bond was yesterday’s man, and foolishly announced his departure even before OHMSS’s premiere. So Lazenby was an easy target with no motivated defenders.
Yet in 1969 Lazenby’s performance also attracted positive reviews at the time on both sides of the Atlantic. He scored a Golden Globe nomination as most promising newcomer. And over the years the ranks of his supporters have swelled. It’s not hard to see why. Lazenby’s Bond is laid-back where Connery’s is threatening, light-hearted where Connery’s is more intense, harsh where Connery’s is sadistic, realistic where Connery’s is ever so slightly stagey. Lazenby is, in fact, recognisably Australian in his portrayal, of a type with Errol Flynn and Hugh Jackman.. Lazenby claimed to be aiming to copy as much of Connery as he could, but in fact his personality, his approach and the OHMSS script creates a somewhat different Bond.
Importantly, Lazenby shares Connery’s unusual physical grace, a quality given to very few 189-centimeter men. Connery studied how to walk well on film; Lazenby does it naturally. Yes, he’s a model, and he looks wonderful in a three-piece or a tux and even better, astonishingly, in a kilt and lace cravat. But watch him move. Opening the mandatory early head-office scene he casually throws his hat across the room onto a hat-rack even as he strides over to embrace Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny, and it all looks the most natural thing in the world. At the same time he makes a credible action hero, throwing knives and punches and in one memorable shot sliding belly-down along an icy walkway toward the camera while firing a machine-gun. Connery was fine in in fight scenes, but Lazenby truly looks like he’s fighting. More than almost any role in movies, Bond demands an easy physicality, and Lazenby delivers.
Many 1969 reviewers spotted Lazenby’s ease with action scenes. Some also saw that his extra vulnerability worked with Maibaum’s script: in one scene Bond seems genuinely scared before – a breakthrough moment – Rigg’s Bond girl character Tracy rescues him. But few at the time picked up on Lazenby’s ability to play the tender moments with Rigg. He’s quietly convincing in a short but pivotal scene where he wipes away Tracy’s tears and in another where he proposes to her. The movie’s final scene, with a devastated Bond cradling her dead body, remains one of the best in the series. Lazenby’s unshowy delivery is remarkably affecting.
It’s not a perfect performance. Lazenby could do a smooth British accent but not the snooty one required for his Hilary Bray character, so it had to be dubbed. (The final result is thankfully well enough done to contribute to the overall effect of Bond as, for once, a credible spy.) Lazenby also seems uncomfortable with some of the Bondian one-liners, notably a lame piece of writing where he despatches a henchman into the blades of a snow-making machine and is then made to remark: “He had a lot of guts”. On the other hand, there’s a charm about the one line of dialogue he appears to have contributed to himself, the new Bond’s subversive pre-credit complaint direct to the audience: “This never happened to the other fella”.
The understatement in his acting might have been ahead of its time. Perhaps surrendering to the more critical reviews, even Lazenby claimed later that he couldn’t, at the time, act. He shouldn’t talk his work down. The same performance that was called flat and wooden in 1969 now comes across as unusually believable, subtle and well-suited to its script. As a first outing, let alone a first film performance, it’s pretty damn good.
At one point Draco’s requisite beautiful female assistant delivers the movie’s best one-liner: “”There are many things about Mr Bond one does not know. It would be interesting to attend night school, perhaps.” It would be interesting to know how Lazenby would have evolved through years of Bond, too. Instead, he bailed.
OHMSS brought no-one luck in the years that followed. Lazenby’s first leading role in a major motion picture was also his last; he fell a long way, never really came back, and spent years pondering what might have been. Peter Hunt never directed a Bond film again, and his career faded away. And helicopter-hanging cameraman Johnny Jordan fared worst of all, sucked out of a plane to his death while filming Catch-22 a few years later. Broccoli and Saltzman paid Sean Connery a record $2 million to come back and meander through the next Bond film – the lazy, semi-comic Diamonds Are Forever – and then cast Roger Moore for the part.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service may have been the first Bond episode I fully saw, and it may be the case that our first Bond is always our reference for the others. It was and remains a film untethered from its time. For years I wondered if anyone else admired it. But for more than a decade its reputation has been steadily rising. “It does the one thing you don’t expect a James Bond movie to do,” wrote Salon’s Charles Taylor in his 1998 re-assessment. “It breaks your heart.” In a 007 Magazine poll this year, it finally came out on top. Justice for George, at last.