On Her Majesty’s Secret Service:
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a movie which manages to achieve the impossible: it makes James Bond likeable. But of course, it’s more famous for being the first time someone other than Sean Connery played 007.
It’s weird how jarring the recast it. I had naively expected that every time the lead changed it would mean a soft reboot, with the character being given a different spin and a new supporting cast. But this doesn’t happen: instead, the story is a Sean Connery film in every significant sense apart from the fact that Edinburgh’s most famous milkman isn’t actually in it.
So let’s compare recasting done badly to recasting done well. Is this an excuse to talk about Doctor Who? You betcha.
(Incidentally, there’s also an appearance from Bernard Horsfall in one scene, who plays Chancellor Goth in The War Games and The Deadly Assassin and nobody gives a toss so I’ll shut up now.)
So when the Doctor regenerates, the next actor playing the new Doctor will get a new costume, new console room, new sonic screwdriver, and new catchphrase. There might also be a new companion, or a change in showrunner or production team. They’ll be distinct in some way from their predecessor, and in that way the character can be continually reinterpreted so the new persona keeps the format fresh.
Similarly, we usually get a grand finale for that particular incarnation, where the Nth Doctor goes out in a blaze of glory (unless you’re poor Colin Baker, and you just trip over and bump your head) to reminds us all of how much we’ll miss them. “Oh what a shame that that nice old Mr Hartnell is dead. But look, this chap with the Beatles haircut and the recorder is really quite fun isn’t he?” It’s almost like a well-rehearsed grieving process, a farewell and a hello in one go.
But with James Bond they didn’t bother doing any of that shit. Instead, the producers cast George Lazenby because they thought he looked a bit like Sean Connery (and he does …after a few drinks … in the dark … if you squint at him) and hoped no-one would notice. It’s hard to get across just how uncomfortable this is: it’s almost like some weird fanboy of Bond is pulling a Talented Mr Ripley, wearing Connery’s clothes and doing a bad impression, instead of finding his own way to be Bond. Imagine if Russel T Davies had brought back Doctor Who by casting people who looked good in a long scarf; it would have been a disaster.
But all this wouldn’t be so weird if the rest of the cast weren’t all the same people. We still get Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, we still get Desmond Llewellyn as Q and Bernard Lee as M. Nobody goes: “alright Bond, is that a new haircut?” The audience has had no chance to say goodbye to Connery, so they’re not perpared to welcome the new boy.
It’s a shame, because Lazenby is trying his best and you can tell he wants to make it work. But imagine if someone forced you to break up with your girlfriend and then introduced you to your future wife. She could be the nicest woman in the world, but I’d still be asking: “What the fuck have you done with Natalie?”
However, Lazenby is able to unintentionally make the part his own in some ways. A lot of this comes down to Bond’s character. Instead of a sleazy thug in a well-cut suit, Lazenby’s Bond is a lot more heroic and earnest, although I’m sure a lot of that is due to him not being a great actor and smiling at people lot. He doesn’t leer at women, or make pathetic innuendos, or manipulate people into sleeping with him. He’s definitely the Bond you’d let meet your mum, as opposed to the one who gave you the clap on a hen night in Malia.
I’ll give you an example. The plot is kicked off when Bond is driving past a beach and sees a woman (Diana Rigg of all people) attempt suicide. He gallantly rescues her and takes her to a hotel. He’s kidnapped by her creepy dad, who turns out to be a gangster, who can’t cope with his daughter Tracy’s mental illness. Dad says, and I quote: “What she needs is a man… to dominate her! To make love to her enough to make her love him!” and he offers Bond a million quid to fuck her depression away. So far, so typical.
Then I just about choked on my lager. Bond politely declines and says that paying men to sleep with Tracy is an irresponsible idea. He then claims he doesn’t want or need the money, but is concerned about her wellbeing and thinks she should seek professional psychiatric help.
Remember, this is the bloke who broke into a woman’s hotel room, got her fired from her card-counting gig, fucked her, and let her be killed. The man who blackmailed a nurse into sex and leads on a besotted Moneypenny on for shits and giggles. If EON wants to convince me that this is the same character, then they’re not going a very good job.
The plot is also weird. Blofeld (sadly not played by Donald Pleasance this time) has secretly established an evil bachelor pad/ski resort in the Swiss Alps, where he’s pretending to work on a cure for allergies, but is actually brainwashing a group of ditzy supermodels into distributing a deadly virus. This leads to a scene where Bond pretends to be an aristocrat, and gets half a dozen horny ladies to himself after he’s met the love of his life, like some weird live-action harem anime.
Lazenby also wears a kilt, which clearly suggests the film was written with Connery in mind, and I’m gutted we didn’t get to see that (although that weird ruff/cravat around his neck is minging). His voice is dubbed over by George Baker (Tiberius in I, Claudius) which improves his performance somewhat.
Bond manages to gather intel and escape the facility, and a very long chase ensues, with skiing (there is SO MUCH bloody skiing in James Bond because of this movie, and I hate it) drag cars, and a weird sequence in a funfair where Lazenby bumps into a dude in a bear costume and screams like a startled housewife. Eventually, he meets Tracy and they profess their love for each other in an empty barn. Bond asks her to marry him.
It should be cringeworthy, but it’s actually kind of sweet. It’s the first time in the franchise that I got any sense at all that James Bond had an inner life: that he had any goals beyond ejaculating or desires other than the next martini. Suddenly the film is more tense, because Bond actually appears to care about something.
Tracy is then kidnapped, and M refuses to grant Bond permission for a rescue. Again, just by the simple act of making Bond experience an emotion other than ‘thirsty’ or ‘horny’, the movie becomes far more engaging (pun unintended). Bond is now in conflict with the British government. M and Q and all the rest aren’t just exposition dispensers, but forces of antagonism in their own right. Bond has to choose between his job and the woman he loves, and in doing so reveal his true character.
So he and Tracy’s dad storm the lair, there’s a big shootout, and Bond rescues her. Blofeld escapes, but Bond is too happy to care. He whisks his fiancé back to England and they get married. At his nuptials, all the old faces are there to wish the newlyweds well. Q congratulates Bond and M apologises and gives him his blessing.
Then we get the best James Bond moment ever, bar none. A tearful Moneypenny sees Bond, and he smiles winningly at her and tosses her his hat, and she catches it like a bouquet. I will admit, I got emotional.
And then, when the hero and his lover drive off into the sunset, something terrible happens. Blofeld speeds past them, and his henchman sprays their car with bullets. Bond is unharmed, but Tracy is butchered. There’s no parting word, no quip or gadget. Bond doesn’t foil the baddies this time. He can’t save her. His poor innocent wife, who finally wants to live again, is murdered. They’ve come full circle. It’s cruel, and futile, and abrupt, and even though Lazenby doesn’t quite emote the right way, you actually feel for the guy.
For the first time ever, stripped of his tawdry quirks and mugged of his charisma, James Bond becomes an actual character; a miserable, lonely person whose job has destroyed him. Hey, it can’t all be cars, cocktails, and casinos. There are always consequences.
Regardless of the casting change and the foolish attempts to have Lazenby masquerade as his forerunner, this film is an enjoyable one. If Connery had stayed for it (and maybe Pleasance as well, although it’s hard to imagine him chasing after 007 on skis), there’s no question that this would be the best Bond film ever, and probably the last or second-last one as well. It seems like the end of an era in many ways. Which is strange, because it’s missing the Big Star, and, as we all know, it isn’t really the end. Not by a long chalk.
… Seriously though, Tracy? Not Takeme Ruffly? Not Bountiful Clitoris? But Tracy Bond? It would never have worked; she sounds like a receptionist from Chelmsford.