What’s the best James Bond film?
The odds are on “Goldfinger,” the 1964 entry that set the big-screen 007 pattern for outsize plots, lavish sets, beautiful women, clever gadgets and frequent laughs.
But among Bond purists, the winner is the often overlooked “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” released 50 years ago this month.
“OHMSS,” as it is commonly known among hard-core fans, was a singular Bond movie. It starred George Lazenby, a first-time actor, in his only appearance as 007. Every other Bond in the official franchise overseen by EON Productions has played the role at least twice.
What sets “OHMSS” apart, too, is its faithfulness to the original Ian Fleming novel, virtual absence of Q Branch gizmos and, above all, its emotional depth. Bond falls in honest-to-goodness love and marries, only to see his bride, Teresa Draco (played by Diana Rigg), murdered by the supervillainous organization SPECTRE.
Not widely appreciated at first, “OHMSS” has won increasing respect over five decades. Devotees hail its deft, action-packed direction (by Peter Hunt), smart script (by Richard Maibaum), music both dynamic and romantic (by John Barry) and mastermind criminal scheme (brainwashed young women unwittingly conducting germ warfare).
“Shot to shot, this movie is beautiful in a way none of the other Bond films are,” the director Steven Soderbergh blogged in 2013. Moreover, it is “the only Bond film with a female character that isn’t a cartoon.”
In “The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia,” Steven Jay Rubin called it “a truly epic James Bond film with a story to match.” Charles Helfenstein, author of “The Making of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,’” said, “I have always loved the film with a passion that borders on mania.”
Yet to general film fans, “OHMSS” is an outlier, even an aberration.
Much of the explanation lies with the casting of Lazenby, an Australian actor. A former model and car salesman, he assumed a role that Sean Connery had made famous after the first five Bond movies. (Connery quit the part after “You Only Live Twice” in 1967. But he returned after “OHMSS” for “Diamonds Are Forever” in 1971 — and for the non-EON production “Never Say Never Again” in 1983.)
Indeed, there was so much uncertainty about how to present Lazenby to a curious and even skeptical public that in some advertisements his face was deliberately obscured. At one point, Maibaum suggested a scene in which 007 has cosmetic surgery to confuse his enemies.
“I’m told that mine was the biggest screen test in history,” Lazenby, now 80, said in a telephone interview from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. “I think there were 800 applicants and 300 screen tests. They tested me for four months. They tested me every which way — fights, horseback riding, swimming.”
Lazenby had big shoes to fill, and some critics thought he filled them well enough. “Lazenby is pleasant, capable and attractive in the role, but he suffers in the inevitable comparison with Connery,” Variety wrote. Other voices were harsher. His “acting is noncommittal to the point of being minus,” wrote The New York Post.
“At the time, I thought I did a good job,” Lazenby said. “Now I know I could do it better.”
Hunt personally chose Rigg, who had recently come off “The Avengers,” as the chief Bond Girl. “I know why he called me,” Rigg said in a telephone interview. “George was an inexperienced actor, so they decided to pair him with an experienced actress. I hope I did help him. For someone who had never done a movie before, he was quite good.”
But the production was fraught with on-set troubles. “Peter Hunt never spoke to me again after the first day of shooting,” Lazenby recalled. “He wouldn’t even talk to me after the movie.”
Hunt, who died in 2002, said that his hands-off approach was deliberate. “I wanted that feeling of isolation,” he told Rubin. “That is Bond. He’s a loner. George wasn’t experienced enough to interpret this feeling of utter emptiness.”
Acting and direction aside, Lazenby’s behavior proved problematic. “He was racing motorcycles to the set and naturally the producers were freaking out,” Helfenstein said. “That bummed Lazenby out because he’s a free spirit.” At one point, Lazenby galloped a horse around so buoyantly that he nearly ran down Bernard Lee, who played his boss, M.
“I got into a few little scrapes here and there,” Lazenby acknowledged.
It has been widely reported that “OHMSS” was a box-office failure, largely because of Lazenby’s performance. The movie did substantially underperform “You Only Live Twice.” But “OHMSS” was still one of the highest-grossing films of the year.
The Bond producers, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, were prepared to sign Lazenby to a multipicture contract. Instead, even before the movie was released, Lazenby publicly announced he would not resume the role. It has been said he was advised to drop it by Ronan O’Rahilly, who created the offshore station Radio Caroline. The anti-establishment O’Rahilly apparently convinced Lazenby that the square-jawed, clean-cut Bond was an anachronism who wouldn’t survive in the age of Woodstock and “Easy Rider.”
“He didn’t know that Bond was strong and that it would carry on forever,” Lazenby said. He was so determined to distance himself from the Bond image that he sported long hair and a beard to the film’s premiere.
“Had he not quit the series after one film,” Rubin wrote, “there is every reason to believe he would have established himself in the role.” But that wasn’t what Lazenby had in mind.
“I’m glad I didn’t do another one,” he said. “I didn’t want to be known as James Bond. The only time I had regrets was when I was broke.”
In the 50 years since his brief moment in the Bond sun Lazenby has continued to act, but only in minor roles. “I’ve been acting on and off all the time,” he said. “I could have done better, but I didn’t want to become an actor. It was not in my blood.”
“I could never understand why George behaved as he did,” Rigg said, “because he was given such a glorious opportunity and he threw it all away. I’m sorry for him, if you really want to know. At some stage, it just went to his head.”
Both Lazenby and Rigg say they haven’t seen the movie in years. Nor are they in touch. “I don’t think one way or the other about Diana,” Lazenby said.
“Oh goodness, no, he wouldn’t come near me!” Rigg said.