Roundtable: James Bond 007: George Lazenby

Aren: When it comes to George Lazenby’s tenure as James Bond, it’s unfortunate that we only have one film to talk about. No matter how much flack Lazenby got at the time for not being Sean Connery, and no matter how many fanboys continue to insist that if only Sean Connery had starred in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service it’d be a perfect Bond film, George Lazenby was an admirable James Bond. He was merely the first to be bit by the bug of not being Connery, as Connery defined the role so that all other Bond actors exist in relation to his performance as the character. No other actor playing Bond can ever escape his shadow.

So I think that’s a good place to start. I’m not interested in whether George Lazenby is a better or worse James Bond than Sean Connery. I’m interested in how he is different. What unique characteristics does he bring to the role? What defines the way he plays the iconic character in your mind?

Anton: One of my favourite moments in the film, and one which helps define Lazenby’s portrayal in my mind, is when he turns to camera at the end of the pre-credits sequence and says, “This never happened to the other fella.” The delivery of that line is very different from one of Connery’s quips. It’s good-humouredly cheeky, not ruthlessly aggressive or mocking, and I think that distinguishes Lazenby’s Bond in many respects. He’s never as predatory as Connery, nor as charming as Moore. He’s likeable but also more imprudent, and I think some of that “in your face” quality stems from what must have been Lazenby’s intense awareness that he wasn’t Sean Connery. It’s like he’s saying to the audience throughout, “Yeah? Well, I’m Bond now,” but you also detect some anxiety there beneath the surface.

Aren: I think it’s interesting that Lazenby’s Bond is deliberately set up in relation to Connery’s. The opening of the film is all about disguising the fact that there’s a new Bond in town, building up the anticipation until that classic line introduces us to Lazenby. And I think, as an audience, we’re meant to be a little shocked that the man behind the wheel isn’t Connery. And instead of being daunted by that, Lazenby revels in it, even if there’s an anxiety, as you point out, behind the boldness.

Anton: The whole pre-credits sequence is very “meta”, with the shadowy figure in the car showing off the trappings of Bond, but I also think there’s something inescapably self-reflexive about Lazenby’s portrayal. Not only was he the first new James Bond, and hence the first Bond to be compared to another, but I think it’s still difficult for anyone to appreciate Lazenby simply as Bond in the film. The film itself seems anxious about Lazenby in the role, and nearly every discussion of the film involves comparison and contrast.

I think the anxiety gives the film a certain rough-and-tumble energy, which also really comes out in the fight scenes and action editing.

Anders: That meta aspect of the “This never happened to the other fella” line is a direct response to the anxiety on the part of the filmmakers. Rather than disguise it, they decided to treat it through direct audience address. I think that it was a good idea given some of the other ideas that were floated around, such as having Lazenby’s Bond undergo plastic surgery to infiltrate Blofeld’s lair and therefore diegetically explain the change in appearance. I think the way they did end up going—just embracing it and not trying to explain it—was for the better and in a bit of contrast to the anxiety we have just mentioned, shows a bid of confidence in both the strengths and merits of the series they had created and the character itself.

Fans of Jame Bond were going to have to get used to the idea that the character was now going to continue on beyond any one actor. They should be glad and excited that there were going to be more 007 films beyond Connery.

Anton: So what can we say about Lazenby’s portrayal itself?

Aren: Far and away Lazenby’s best trait is his athleticism. Something of a fitness guru in real life, Lazenby throws himself full throttle into the action scenes. Connery’s very good in the fight scenes in his films—he was a bodybuilder before he became Bond and his large physique lends itself well to a brawl—but even he can’t compare to Lazenby. In that opening fight on the beach, Lazenby hurls himself at his opponents with no regard for his own well-being. There’s a graceful savagery to his fighting that really makes an impact on the screen. It helps that director Peter Hunt cuts the fight scenes around each blow that Lazenby lands, changing perspective between each punch and kick, as if Lazenby is changing the camera angle himself through the sheer force of his fighting.

As well, in the ski chase near the climax and the final raid on Piz Gloria, Lazenby is full of gusto. He’s energetic almost to the point of chaos, but you never feel like he’s losing control of his actions. He’s just unleashing all the character’s pent-up bitterness and anger. Other Bond actors fuel their frustrations through humour or coldness, while Lazenby lets it out on villains in physical contests. His race down the hill during the ski escape is a high point in the film. Lazenby has demonstrated his impressive physicality throughout the course of the picture so that you believe it’s Lazenby in every moment, although I’m sure it’s a stuntman much of the time. No wonder other Bond films wanted to replicate the skiing scene from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Lazenby looks so damn cool doing it.

Anders: I agree with you, Aren, Hunt does a good job in making the most of Lazenby’s athleticism and physical ability. Lazenby has a confident stride even as he just walks down a hallway, something that probably helped him win the role in the first place. If we think of Connery’s Bond as more of a tiger prowling in his cage—a metaphor you guys used in our roundtable—Lazenby is more of a bull, confidently charging ahead both as he strolls down a corridor or leaps into battle.

I mentioned in my review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that Lazenby sells James Bond as a military man as well as anyone in the series. He lives up to his title of Commander Bond.

Anton: Lazenby carries a machine gun like no other Bond. In the final sequence, he delivers the most believable portrayal of Bond as a warrior. Connery never looks entirely comfortable fighting as a team in the big battles of those films, and most of those scenes are about large-scale combat anyway. Lazenby’s something of a leader in the final gun battle. Compare how he holds his machine gun to Pierce Brosnan and again it’s different. At the beginning of GoldenEye Brosnan is all deliberate, even militaristic, action. Perhaps the closest comparison is Timothy Dalton with his sniper rifle near the beginning of The Living Daylights, but even he’s more savage than warrior-like.

Aren: If Lazenby’s athleticism is his most impressive trait, the most memorable moment of his performance is him showing grief.

Anton: The final scene in the movie is a rare moment of heartbreak in the many years of the 007 franchise. Lazenby plays the moment well. It’s understated. I like how he plays his disbelief, how he can’t accept she’s really dead. It’s very moving, and an incredibly unique ending to an action film.

It’s also a moment of weakness for the character. Bond’s shell, his armour (to borrow the words of Casino Royale) is down. The Craig films really explore the idea that there is an inner Bond that’s perhaps different from the external, emotionally armoured 007. Lazenby’s sorrow might be our first suggestion in the series, though, that there’s tenderness beneath the surface of the character. I don’t know, do you see that in Connery?

Aren: I don’t see that in Connery. Or at least, Connery is a Bond who may have had that sensitivity in the past, but he’s buried it down until it’s essentially nonexistent. He’s buttressed his armour over the years and killed the man that used to be. It speaks to the hardness of his profession. Connery’s Bond acknowledges that the missions he undertakes require a hard man.

Anders: Yes, Connery’s James Bond is a hard man, and he brings that into his relationships with women as well. We described him as the consummate lady killer in our discussion. I don’t really buy Lazenby as a lady killer on the other hand. In his interactions with Blofeld’s “Angels of Death” at Piz Gloria, the women are all over him almost in spite of himself. He doesn’t showcase or utilize the same kind of dangerous charm that Connery did, which might be explained by the fact that he’s impersonating Sir Hilary Bray, but distinguishes his performance further. When Ruby writes her room number on his leg in lipstick under the table, Lazenby seems far less comfortable than I imagine Connery’s Bond would be in a similar situation.

But I think this is a strength rather than a weakness in this particular film. We can believe that this Bond would genuinely fall in love with Tracy. The armour that Connery’s Bond built up is allowed to open up just a bit, so that we can believe in the central romance. And enough that this opening allows him to be hurt in the film’s tragic ending.

Aren: Yes, Lazenby, allows us to see beneath the armour. That final scene truly is heartbreaking. Lazenby’s dramatic chops are not on full display throughout On Her Majesty’s Secret Service—he’s definitely trying to be a movie star more than a great actor, which is completely understandable given that he’s playing an iconic character. However, in this final scene, he shines. It’s as if any anxieties Lazenby had about playing the role are allowed to come to the surface and channel into the character, showing us a Bond who has lost his ability to compartmentalize the emotional ramifications of his work. Left without his steely defenses, he doesn’t know how to handle this kind of emotional turmoil. Here is a Bond that is so disarmed, he cannot even accept reality. Lazenby really sells it.

Anton: I wonder if the series would have stayed a bit more serious if Lazenby had continued on—whether his performance could have steered things in that direction. What if they had actually followed up on that devastating ending with a serious film about Bond seeking revenge and dealing with sorrow. The disjunction between OHMSS and DAF when viewed chronologically is extreme—more shocking than the new, secretive images of Bond at the start of this film, after YOLT.

Anders: A Lazenby anchored franchise would probably have at least for a time avoided the silliness that the Moore films quickly descended into. But as I mentioned in my review of the film, the 70s were coming on strong in the film’s aesthetic design. The shaggy, loose 70s might have been an okay fit with Lazenby who annoyed the producers by showing up at the premiere of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with a beard and shoulder length hair. But then again, by then he had already made the decision that the film would be his sole outing as Bond.

Aren: I think if Lazenby had stayed on, they would have had to stick with a more serious direction, at least for one film. They would’ve had to provide thematic continuity between this film and its sequel. I believe that Lazenby originally intended to make a sequel and that sequel would have been The Man with the Golden Gun, so it’s interesting to imagine what the Lazenby version of that film would have looked like. However, by switching away from Lazenby and back to Connery, the producers could ignore a lot of the fallout of OHMSS. They acknowledged it as the anomaly it was and moved on.

Imagining what three or four James Bond films starring George Lazenby would have looked like is one of those great movie what-ifs. I can’t say for certain that we would’ve gotten a serious Bond for that long of a stretch—an early version of what we’d get with Dalton and Craig, in a sense. But it definitely would have been different than what we got with Connery’s brief return to the franchise and the Roger Moore years. Perhaps the films would have been failures and the franchise would have died with Lazenby’s incarnation of the role. There’s really no way to tell—although someone should write an alternative history novel about Lazenby sticking with the role and imagining what kind of films we would have seen. I’d read it.