Sean Connery created (with the help of Terence Young and Richard Maibaum) the cinematic iconography of James Bond. The cool, cruel aura of danger, the easy predatory charm, the ability to handle any situation were all part of the literary legacy Fleming gave the film-makers, but translating them from author's words to the shorthand of the screen was a task that few actors could have undertaken as successfully as Connery did. It cannot, of course, be proven but I believe that we would not be watching Bond films today if not for the way Connery's Bond captured the audience's imagination in those first few films.
Connery hit the ground running in his first scene as Bond. The classic "Bond, James Bond" coming from a cloud of cigarette smoke, the imperturbability at the card table, the suave pick-up of Sylvia Trench. Handsome, cool, sexy, mysterious. Check, check, check, check. Connery showed from his first scene in "Dr. No" the screen presence that continues to make him an international star at nearly seventy.
The essence of Bond, the whole romance of the Secret Agent, is that of a man in disguise, a man who is not what he appears to be. He may, in fact he must, move comfortably in polite diplomatic circles, choose the right wines and wear the right clothes, but this is all essentially camoflage for the predator beneath, the well-tailored dinner jacket hiding the Walther PPK under his arm. Connery nailed this aspect of Bond. He looked perfect in a tux, disparaging the villian's choice of vintage or beating his eight with a nine at baccarrat. But the audience was never in doubt that Connery's Bond could excuse himself politely from the table, kill six guards, blow open the safe, steal the macguffin and be back before the next course was served. The deadly weapon within always showed through the gentlemanly exterior.
Connery's portrayal continued to grow through the first three films, adding touches to the film character, such as the encyclopedic knowledge and the sly wit, that were not aspects of the literary Bond but became intregal to the cinematic version. But the early Bond was a grounded, rounded person, not a superhero. He may have shown aplomb as he said "Shocking. Absolutely shocking," at the end of the pre-credit sequence in "Goldfinger," but the look in his eyes when the bad guy in the tub was fumbling for the gun had a touch of desperation and knocking the electric heater in the water was a product of quick thinking and fast reflexes, not some cooly thought-out plan to use a convenient gadget.
The primary characteristics of Fleming's Bond were determination and an ability and willingness to absorb tremendous amounts of punishment to achieve success in his mission. That Bond is on display crawling and falling through the airvents of Dr. No's complex, desperately struggling with Grant aboard the Orient Express and hanging beaten and exhausted from the bars inside the vaults of Fort Knox as Oddjob plays a drum solo on his ribs.
This aspect starts to become rare in "Thunderball" and virtually disappears in "You Only Live Twice," "Diamonds Are Forever' and "Never Say Never Again." In its place is the cool, untouchable shell that in the early films had seemed a disguise for the truly dangerous man inside but became all there was left of him. External resources like an endless supply of impossibly appropriate gadgets or large contingents of color-coordinated allies replaced the internal resources that had served Bond through thirteen books and three and a half movies.
Business decisions seem to have led to this change in the character of the cinematic 007. The success of "Goldfinger", with its Aston Martin, its laser cannon, its spectacular sets and flamboyant villians, led to "Thunderball's" increased emphasis on gadgets and set-pieces. When that film became the most successful box-office Bond to date, it was inevitable that "You Only Live Twice" continued the trend toward "bigger is better," with lamentable results. As the films became more focused on the big sets and fancy gadgets, and less focused on the character of Bond himself, Connery seemed to become less and less interested in them and it showed in his performance. As the character was progressively replaced by the trappings, Connery seems to have become uninterested in playing him and it does not surprise me that he quit doing so three times.
I can't help wondering whether Connery's interest in the role might have been revived and his performance in it enhanced if instead of the incoherent and silly "You Only Live Twice" he had been given the script to "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," more-or-less as it was made with Lazenby. Fans have theorized that Connery's Bond would have changed that film, possibly for the worse; that his cool, sophisticated portrayal wouldn't have fit in a film where Bond lays bare his emotions. It's even been suggested that Connery wasn't capable of playing a believable love scene. The latter assertion is ridiculous; Connery played romantic parts both before (Disney's delightful "Darby O'Gill and the Little People") and after (the magnificent "Robin and Marian") the Bond pictures. The former discounts the layered performance he gave in the first three or four Bond films. I think Connery might have relished the chance to stretch the limits of the character he created and at the same time return him to the human dimensions at which he started. The all-cool-all-the-time Bond only started showing up in "Thunderball"; if it had been immediately followed by "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," a return to a more down-to-earth Bond would not have been the shock it was after the robotic Bond of "You Only Live Twice." Pointless speculation, but it's fun to imagine.
Of course, we would have lost the "other fella" line and I'd miss that.
For all the admiration and respect that "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" gets from most hardcore Bond fans, its lead actor rarely receives more than the most back-handed of recognition. "Not bad" is about the highest praise George Lazenby usually gets, even from those who rate the film among their favorites.
Lazenby was laboring under at least two major disadvantages. OHMSS was his first acting experience. And he was following in the footsteps of an enormously popular and successful Sean Connery, in a role no one else had played on the big screen. (Discounting the abysmal "Casino Royale" of course.) The film-makers did several things in the first 30 minutes or so of the film that seem designed to ease the audience into acceptance of this new photo on the licence to kill. After a brief scene with the old familiar faces of Bernard Lee's M and Desmond Llewelyn's Q, we are introduced to the new Bond with a series of shots of Bond's classic props-- the Aston Martin, the tuxedo, the cigarette from the gunmetal case, the shoulder holster. Only after these things have established for us who this is do we get a clear look at his face, telling us as he tells Tracy, "My name is Bond. James Bond." The momentos from previous films pulled from Bond's desk also serve to emphasize that this may be a new face but it's an old friend.
Lazenby had a hell of a support team around him. It started with one of Fleming's best stories, given a superb and faithful adaptation by Bond screenwriter supreme Richard Maibaum. It included the best supporting cast since "From Russia With Love," John Barry's best Bond score ever, former Bond editor Peter Hunt's inspired direction, future Bond director John Glen's excellent editing and second unit work and some of the best and most realistic action and suspense sequences in the entire series, including the best ski chases in any film, Bond or otherwise. It would have taken a truly bad lead actor to screw up a movie with all that going for it. Lazenby was NOT that bad, not by a long shot.
Of course Lazenby did not have the screen presence of Sean Connery; damn few actors do. His delivery of some lines and his facial expression often showed his inexperience. Yet his modelling experience did show in the way he moved on the screen with great confidence and grace. He made the action scenes he was in, particularly the fight scenes, believable and exciting. And though in some of his scenes his dialog delivery seems stiff, in others it improves considerably, possibly indicating that Lazenby was learning his craft on the job.
In almost any other Bond film, that would probably have been enough. OHMSS was not an ordinary Bond film. The emotional range the story required of its lead actor was a little beyond what Lazenby was capable of at the time. Lazenby isn't awful in the high-emotion scenes (in fact he's quite good in the scene in the barn when he proposes) but I can't help wishing a more accomplished actor like Connery or Dalton had had a chance at them.
George Lazenby's short-lived stint as James Bond is perhaps most notable for all the unanswerable "what-if" questions it generates. If Lazenby hadn't developed Greek-tragedy-level hubris and had gone on to make more Bond films, what would they have been like? Would the descent into silliness that the films took in the '70's have been avoided with a 007 who actually looked like he could survive a real fight? Would, at least, DAF have been a more serious, revenge-driven movie if the producers hadn't been trying to hide OHMSS under a rug after Lazenby walked out? Would OHMSS itself have been better recieved if the producers had believed they were dealing with the Bond of the future and had promoted the film better? Could Lazenby have won over the Connery-addicted mass audience with another film or two or did it really require, as his fans allege, Roger Moore to keep the series alive through the next decade?
Sherman, set the wayback machine for 1969.
Copyright © 2000 by Byron King
Next: Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton