For one night only, George Lazenby is James Bond, but he’s far from the only aspect that makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a true one-off.

This feature contains major spoilers for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the odd vague allusion to No Time To Die as well.

“This never happened to the other fellow.”

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So ends the infamous pre-title sequence of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, giving the film one of its two most memorable lines. Though series regulars M (Bernard Lee), Moneypenny, (Lois Maxwell) and Q (Desmond Llewelyn) all provide some familiarity, much of 007’s daring rescue of Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) on a Portuguese beach is deliberately shot to obscure his features, QOS-style (that’s A Question Of Sport, not Quantum Of Solace) until he introduces himself as “Bond, James Bond.”

At this relatively early point in the series, Sean Connery has left the building, and James Bond returns in the shape of 30-year-old Australian model and Fry’s Chocolate Cream ad star, George Lazenby. He’ll never be held up as one of the great leading men, but his performance is the spearhead of the series’ very first soft reboot.

Thrice deferred in the order of Ian Fleming adaptations because of the need to shoot the story in the Swiss Alps, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starts with Bond being taken off Operation Bedlam, which entails finding and killing SPECTRE’s head honcho, Blofeld. Granted a fortnight’s leave from MI6, he pursues his own leads, which leads to a passionate romance with the aforementioned Tracy (“Teresa was a saint”) and a showdown with the mysterious figure in charge of a mountain-top allergy research clinic.

Beyond the change of leading man, there was much change behind the scenes too – the elevation of Peter R. Hunt from editing and second-unit work to directing brings a marked change in style, but so do various other elements of the film. The tightrope that the filmmakers walk is in reassuring us that they’re still making James Bond, without directly inviting comparisons between Connery and Lazenby if they can help it.

Excepting the direct references that make up a lot of 2021’s No Time To Die, there’s nothing else quite like it in the series before or after. Met by a round of negative contemporary reviews upon release in December 1969, the film is often described as “divisive” or “polarising” but has been duly reassessed in recent years.

In any binge watch, it’s a refreshing contrast with the complacency of You Only Live Twice, shaking up the cast, crew, and formula from its tongue-in-cheek opening to its devastating downer ending – that’ll be your last warning for SPOILERS from this point by the way…

“Far Up! Far Out! Far More!”

Reportedly, more than 400 actors were considered to replace Connery. Unlike “the other fellow”, this Bond was being cast when the franchise was a massive worldwide hit rather than an unproven quantity. Among the names who were either considered or screen-tested were Oliver Reed, Terence Stamp, John Richardson, Hans De Vries, Timothy Dalton, (we’ll come back to him) and Roger Moore, (him too!).

Although his Fry’s ad was his only major acting work at the time, Lazenby was inspired by his agent to put himself forward for the role. He went so far as to stop by Sean Connery’s tailor and barber and ask to be groomed and dressed like Bond before he turned up at Eon for a screen test. Like Connery before him, the cheeky, handsome model impressed producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli with his confident swagger.

The key difference is that when it came to acting experience, Lazenby was blagging it every step of the way. He falsified his biography and only came clean to Hunt that he wasn’t an actor when he became a serious contender. The bemused director told him he’d done well enough to fool Saltzman and Broccoli, and he could make a James Bond out of him yet.

After a stray punch connected with a stunt coordinator during one screen-test, the producers were satisfied that Lazenby had the right stuff to play 007. He would make his big-screen debut as the lead of the biggest movie franchise in the world, at exactly the point where it needed more than just a man who looks good in a suit.

The 1960s Bond movies may have been made against the backdrop of social and pop cultural change, but frankly, the older men making the films presumed more than they grasped – that Connery line about “listening to the Beatles without earmuffs” in Goldfinger aged well, didn’t it?

Accidentally casting an amateur actor as James Bond almost feels like the logical conclusion. Even the film’s tagline (“Far Up! Far Out! Far More!”) feels cut from the Ted Raimi marketing presentation in Spider-Man 3 (George Lazenby – he’s hip, he’s now, he’s wow, and how!) in its bid to distinguish this new version of the state-sanctioned globe-trotting killer as one that peace-seeking, free-loving young people will find cool. Look, he’s got a frilly shirt and a cravat!

As it transpired, Lazenby wasn’t locked in to the planned seven-picture contract that Saltzman and Broccoli presumed he would sign, even when filming was complete. And worse yet for the producers, a little persuasion from Lazenby’s close friend and manager, Ronan O’Rahilly, was enough to make him turn down any offer that Eon threw at him for the sequels. This is much scoffed at nowadays, but at the time, it could feasibly have seemed that the Bond franchise didn’t have the legs to carry it into the next decade.

For his part, Lazenby isn’t terrible. Of the Bonds to date, he’s the closest to Alan Partridge in screen presence, whether Alan means to come off like this or not, but considering how out of his depth he was, he does pull some good moments out of the bag.

His performance is singular in all senses of the word – whatever untrained quality he has makes Bond more vulnerable and less sure of winning the day than Connery. The final sequence of the film, going from the joy at marrying Tracy to the overpowering grief at her murder right afterwards, is phenomenal work. It might not be what you love about the character, but it’s distinctive as a take.

Lazenby’s Bond alternates between what the kids are calling “himbo” and “fuckboy” – on the latter score, his cheesy repetition of chat-up lines on the ladies at Piz Gloria is yet more superficial than any of 007’s other seductions, while the former is entirely unparalleled in the rest of the series. Whatever you think, it’s a fair call to say that Lazenby the model always looks the part, but Lazenby the actor is at his best in his least Bond-like moments, which largely revolve around one of his co-stars.

The curious thing is that everyone involved seems to have been aware that they didn’t have the next Sean Connery on their hands. And quite aside from the fact that no one set out to make a sub-par Bond film anyway, everyone else involved in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service raises his game.

One and done

Aside from Lazenby, there are many other ways in which this is a one-off. For starters, it’s the only instalment to be directed by Hunt, who had been with the series since Dr No. His intention was to maximise location shooting and cut back on the elaborate sets, lending some verisimilitude after the large scale of the most recent outings.

Accordingly, this is the Bond movie you’d make if you’d spent the better part of a decade polishing these movies in the editing room – it’s the most handsomely assembled instalment of the 1960s, where everything from Michael Reed’s cinematography to John Glen’s editing shows the benefit of Hunt’s experience of making these films and exactly what he’d do differently.

Moving on from all the false starts for this story, returning screenwriter Richard Maibaum turns in a more-faithful-than-usual adaptation of Fleming’s source novel, with most of the plot from the page making it into the screen version.

What’s more, Maibaum tones down the gadgetry of the previous films – pleasingly, there’s a combined photocopier and safe-cracking machine in this, and it takes a crane to lift it in and out of the villains’ headquarters so that 007 can do his thing. Shedding this and other tropes only adds to the grounding of Bond in a romantic sub-plot that makes him more emotionally vulnerable.

When the time came to shoot the film, Hunt wasn’t hugely impressed by Lazenby’s acting, but he does make the most of what the star can do. By his own admission, the director employed a few tricks to get a good performance out of his star, even if insisting that he only talk to him via his assistant were as much because the pair didn’t get on as they were for creative reasons.

Wherever you stand on Lazenby, the late, great Diana Rigg is absolutely the making of this as Tracy. Bringing some much-needed class, she’s the first woman in the franchise who feels like a complex character and not so much set dressing for the unsexy “three-girl formula” we discussed last week. The idea Tracy would fall for James Bond is as preposterous as it is for any of them, but there’s due consideration of her point of view, which is a baby step in the right direction.

Rigg didn’t get on with Lazenby either, criticising his unprofessional conduct and performance, but she absolutely does what she’s there to do and raises the standard for the film she’s in. The writing helps, (including the punched-up additional dialogue that writer Simon Raven provides for her brush with Blofeld), but combined with that performance, she’s the best leading lady the franchise has had, bar none.

Speaking of Blofeld, Hunt didn’t ask Donald Pleasence back to reprise his role, instead foreshadowing more recent casting practices by calling on then-recent Oscar nominee Telly Savalas. It’s not said enough, but he’s probably the best of the three Blofelds in the loose trilogy comprising this and the two films either side of it. He’s closer to the imposing stature and cold, polite manner described by Fleming than Pleasence, Charles Gray, or (much later) Christoph Waltz.

This leads to the surreal case of two different actors playing Bond and Blofeld than the last time they met, but neither apparently recognising each other when they have a scene together. It’s one of the things that sticks out like a sore thumb in a film that walks that aforementioned tightrope, even going so far as to insert Easter-egg gadgets from previous films and show clips of Connery’s adventures (sans Connery) in Maurice Binder’s opening titles.

Speaking of the opening titles, the other unique thing this does is have the theme song in the middle of the film, with a new instrumental by composer John Barry playing over the titles. Barry didn’t take to Lazenby either and he and Hunt agreed that he’d need to score the heck out of it to compensate, and so he did.

Meanwhile, as lyricists, Barry and Hal David both balked at the scansion of a song called “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, so they came up with “We Have All The Time In The World”, a love theme for the film’s tragic romance, that’s named for the final line of Fleming’s novel. Wonderfully performed by Louis Armstrong, this theme appears a little way into the film, underscoring the romance and foreshadowing its tragic end over the montage of Bond and Tracy’s whirlwind courtship.

In other films, maybe it wouldn’t work, but it sure is music to fall in love to.

Nothing more, nothing less

There’s a real case for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service being the first soft reboot of the series, not only for the change of leading man but also in style, formula, and delivery. It’s far from perfect – at 142 minutes, it’s slower paced than we expect a Bond film to be, but the bagginess is all in the section where 007 goes undercover and on top of the covers with Blofeld’s attractive “Angels of Death”, the kind of stuff that also comes as expected.

Would it have been a better film with Connery? We’re inclined to say no, not at the point he would have been making it. As seen in lots of his post-Bond projects, he’s capable of much more as an actor, but he simply didn’t find this character challenging and it’s hard to imagine him toning it down to have the lovestruck dynamic that Lazenby’s Bond just fits.

We’ll get to the following film next week, but suffice to say, there’s no mention of the shattering finale of this one in Bond’s vendetta against Blofeld – it’s like it was another life. It’s once removed again by the preposterous pre-title scene of For Your Eyes Only. On the other hand, there are precise references back to Bond being a widower in The Spy Who Loved Me and Licence To Kill, both of which just happen to be favourites of mine.

The lack of follow-through only cements On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as a one-off – the only film with this Bond, this director, this love story, and this downer ending. The film made less at the global box office than its predecessor, bringing in a still-respectable $82m on a smaller $7m budget, but it was often unfairly undervalued in the consensus until more recently.

Nowadays, it has its fans among general audiences, as well as filmmakers ranging from Steven Soderbergh and Christopher Nolan, the latter of whom paid homage to it with the snowy third act of his 2010 film Inception. Maybe On Her Majesty’s Secret Service isn’t your idea of a comfort-watch Bond movie, but love it or loathe it, this is a fascinating rejig so early in the series.

A couple more rejigs would follow this one in quick succession, but coming after You Only Live Twice, it’s got more in common with later, more insistent reboots like GoldenEye and Casino Royale than it does with, say, For Your Eyes Only after Moonraker. It’s not a rejection of the formula, but it’s a necessary kick in the seat, sped up at Hunt’s whim.

And while he’s decried in some quarters as boring or uncharismatic, George Lazenby has two iconic moments in the role that are complete opposites both in tone and their placement in the film, which must speak to some kind of range. As mentioned, there’s that infamous opening shot across the fourth wall, but at last, there’s that emotionally devastating final line:

“We have all the time in the world.”

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is now streaming on Prime Video and will also screen in select VUE and Odeon cinemas nationwide from Friday 20th May.

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