Funny thing. You will hear a lot of cracks about George Lazenby. How he’s the worst James Bond. But everyone I’ve ever heard that from, when pressured, admit that they never even saw On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I suppose they just figure it must be bad. After all, why else was Lazenby around for just one single performance? He replaced and then was replaced himself by Sean Connery, the man who is without doubt the highest regarded actor ever in the role. Why didn’t the movie perform as well at the box office as the ones before or after it?
Irrelevant, I’ll say. Because to actually see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is to dig it.
First off, Lazenby knew how to fight for real. Between growing up rough and tumble in Australia and training with Bruce Lee, he brought an authentic physicality to the table just as filmmaking was becoming more and more dynamic. There’s a realistic brutality in the action- decades before Daniel Craig, Lazenby drowns a man in cold blood in the opening reel. Keeping that edge sharp, this movie dispenses with the gadgets. Q makes a cursory appearance to suggest that MI-6 start utilizing radioactive lint(?) to track missing agents, then doesn’t turn up again until the end.
Where Connery had and then Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnon later played 007 as an impervious and indestructible quip machine who never loses, Lazenby brought a real pathos and sense of gravitas to the role. His Bond is a mortal man who confronts real tragedy in a painful denouement unlike any scene in a Bond film before or since. The movie co-starred none other than Diana Rigg, Miss Emma Peel herself, as a Bond girl who could handle herself quite fine in a fight, and Telly Savalis as an imposing and menacing Blofeld, the best to ever take the part. This cast was on a different level than any previous incarnation.
The decision to leave the role was ultimately that of the actor. It was 1969, and it looked like the counterculture was about to swallow the straight world whole, and leave James Bond a hopelessly irrelevant square, a Beatles bashing relic of a Cold War already warming over. It would take the producers of these movies almost 40 years to make peace with what George Lazenby already knew about the world outside the bubble and subtract the overabundance of cheese from the recipe.