Bond[age] #7: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Pleads the 4th
This is the seventh essay in a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas co-produced by Sundog Lit. I encourage everyone to venture over to Sundog to read other essays, comment and join in what we hope to be an extended conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction. The entire collection of essays, live tweet digests and other Bond nonsense is housed on the #Bond_age_ website.
Of [In]human Bond[age] #7: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Pleads the 4th
I originally embarked on this voyage to watch and discuss all 23 James Bond movies because I wanted to look more closely at the temporality of the Bond adventures. A theme inspired by a moment in Skyfall when Daniel Craig retrieves the Aston Martin DB5 from storage, a car with which his Bond has had no prior relationship. Having had six different actors play the role with eleven different directors behind the camera, how did the series adjust from one actor to the next? Natural shifts in style and substance brought upon by external market influences and cinematic trends? How did filmmaking decisions attempt to explain the continuity from film to film? Or, conversely, did the filmmakers try to explain it at all?
Part 1: Unveiling the First New Bond
After Sean Connery quit the role of James Bond, Saltzman and Broccoli offered the role to then 22-year-old Timothy Dalton. Dalton declined, considering himself too young for the role. Lazenby meanwhile had moved to London in 1963, the year Dr. No was released. He became a used car salesman and then a male model before landing a commercial spot. In the Bond documentary Everything or Nothing, Lazenby said “I had nothing on my mind, night and day, except getting that job.” He purchased a Savile Row suit and a Rolex identical to James Bond’s and got his hair cut by Connery’s barber. Some stories suggest Lazenby met Cubby Broccoli at the barbershop and Broccoli liked the cut of his jib. Others suggest he snuck past the EON Productions secretary and once through the door introduced himself by saying “I heard you’re looking for James Bond.” Either way he willed himself into contention and survived the four-month Bond search. The picture below shows the five finalists for the role. (Don’t you just feel damn sorry for the other four gentlemen? Also, how did they get that far??)
Broccoli and Saltzman were often slaves to public opinion, or at the very least, their perception of public opinion, often overcompensating to relative success or failure. Connery had been such a success in the Bond role that they intended to repeat that success by casting another relative unknown, a move they would certainly regret, both due to Lazenby’s off-screen personality and lackluster box office return. They never needed to express their regret publicly; Lazenby abandoned his seven-picture deal before the release of the film (he felt that the Bond series was a dinosaur that couldn’t survive the progressive 1970’s). The further course-correction undertaken after the relative “failure” of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, however, speaks volumes.
I’d circled On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on my calendar because this would be the first film in which I could really focus on how the series shifted from one actor to the next (and back again, but that’s a chat for next week). Before watching the film for the first time in twenty years I did a little research about how Lazenby had been marketed. At the end of his tenure, Connery had been synonymous with Bond. The posters for You Only Live Twice put the phrase “Sean Connery is Bond” as large as the title itself. Advance posters for OHMSS, on the other hand,completely obscured Bond’s face in a portrait surrounded by eight bikini-clad women. (When in doubt, go back to the staples: guns and girls.)
The primary theatrical poster returns to the Bond basics. It boasts “FAR UP! FAR OUT! FAR MORE! James Bond 007 is back!” (See poster above.) A tuxedo-clad Lazenby postures with a gun on skis. Diana Rigg’s cleavage on full display (also on skis). Telly Savalas fires upward at him from a bobsled (spoiler!). Helicopters. Explosions. Skiers with assault rifles. The style of the poster itself is standard hyperbolic artwork (exceptionally so considering Secret Service is a return to a more character- and narrative-driven Bond film) consistent with the last Connery posters for the spectacle films You Only Live Twice and Thunderball. Lazenby’s name appears small and at the bottom alongside Rigg and Savalas. Rigg would have been the biggest star in the film because of her role as Emma Peel on the Avengers. Other than the foreign film roles Lazenby had lied about on his resume, his only prior acting experience had been a Big Fry Chocolate commercial. On these new posters, as opposed to the You Only Live Twice Connery poster, the James Bond character is the only attraction, just as it was on the first Dr. No posters where Sean Connery’s name is barely visible and the movie is billed as “Ian Fleming’s Dr. No.”
But even after fans were lured back by the Bond name and whiz-bang marketing, they still had to be convinced that Lazenby could be the face of the franchise. The series had reached a critical point. How would the filmmakers approach On Her Majesty’s Secret Service knowing they not only had to make a great movie, but also set the table for Bond’s future with an actor not named Sean Connery?
The Formula Adopts a Variable
Self-awareness has been an expected and almost necessary part of the modern Bond formula. As I suggested in my introductory essay to the series, Skyfall is remarkable because it succeeds at being both a quality movie and at hauling the requisite Bond baggage from the 22-prior films (whether it is a great Bond movie is up for debate). Fans love to be rewarded for their loyalty with knowing winks. In order for the movie to succeed on its own merit, however, those knowing winks cannot interrupt or detract from the narrative itself lest they seem cloying or pandering. Director Sam Mendes included dozens of sly references to past Bond films in Skyfall but only one called attention to itself as nothing more than a nod to the past – that DB5 resurrection (apparently from carbon storage due to its pristine condition).
What screenwriter Richard Maibaum and director Peter R. Hunt depict in the pre-credit sequence of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service lays bare their concept for the series A.C. (after Connery). After Bond rescues a girl from the surf and fights off two would-be assailants, the girl drives away without a word leaving Bond stranded on the beach. Lazenby as James Bond then turns toward the camera and says, “This never happened to the other fellow.”
On one hand, the line is an easy joke, a quick one-liner in the wake of violence – a Bond series staple. On the other, the line is a profound statement of awareness. James Bond talked through the camera to the audience. He’s saying I know that you know I’m not Sean Connery and I want you to know that I know you know I’m not Sean Connery. It’s a brilliant filmmaking decision, one of the most daring in the entire 007 series. That said, as a cinematic tool, it wasn’t a new concept. The popular contemporary films Alfie (1966) and best picture-winner Tom Jones (1963) would have already established this filmmaking trick in the public consciousness, albeit in the comedy genre. Breaking the fourth wall has a long history in comedy, going back to Groucho Marx who regularly used asides and fourth wall tricks in the Marx Bros. comedies of the 1930s. While the Bond films use humor to palletize violence and sex, they cannot themselves be considered comedic. The moment is brief, but bold, and lingers for only a second before the film cuts to the traditional silhouettes of the Bond title sequence, which is, in itself, a montage of scenes from old Bond films without the appearance of James Bond himself.
Many fans take offense to this moment. They complain that it’s not a “Bond moment.” But I’m going to call this suggestion into question. It is absolutely a Bond moment. Because from this moment forward, Bond, to varying degrees, is linked to the self-referential awareness of itself as a series of films depicting events in the career of one 00-agent. If you, as the viewer, accept George Lazenby and Sean Connery as the same character then you are also a willing conspirator. The Roger Moore films stray temporarily from acknowledging the past before incorporating a number of references to the Sean Connery films (and a brief mention of his dead wife) in The Spy Who Loved Me. Like EON’s rebellion against the serious Bond film, against a James Bond with feelings, against James Bond movies too close to the source material, the temporary absence of self-awareness is also a knee-jerk reaction to the relative failure of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and an attempt to fully reboot the series. The modern James Bonds (Brosnan and Craig), however, bathe in self-awareness and in the tropes of Bond’s past. Audiences, for better or worse, crave this two-way communication. Do a simple Google search for “Skyfall Bond references” to find dozens of fan-made lists chronicling the self-referential moments contained within the film.
Furthermore, consider the scene in OHMSS that takes place when Bond resigns his post. As 007 cleans out his desk, he removes a number of items from his desk drawer, mementos of sorts: Honey Rider’s knife from Dr. No, the watch from From Russia With Love and the underwater breather from Thunderball. Even the janitor in the MI-6 offices is whistling the Goldfinger theme. Of course, these items aren’t mementos for James Bond – they belong to the audience (because Bond would consider such things frivolous). They’re tchotchkes we’ve collected and catalogued along our cinema travelogue. It’s an assault of references that are all again planted to remind everyone watching that George Lazenby isn’t Sean Connery, but he is James Bond. (He’s same character and he remembers the same things you do! Really. Honestly. We promise. Look. Here’s the stuff that belonged to the Sean Connery Bond that you, I mean, he, kept as souvenirs from his prior exploits!)
Part 2: Precocious Timelines
Not only does OHMSS introduce self-awareness into the Bond formula but the sixth Bond film also poses the first temporal anomaly in the series that suggests we cannot consider the Bond series to be linear. In You Only Live Twice Bond finally squares off against Ernst Stavro Blofeld face to face in what the Fleming books considered the climax of the Blofeld plot. Bond goes undercover as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray. Blofeld intends to lay claim to the title “Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp” – Bleuchamp being the French form of the Blofeld family name. Had Bond actually met Blofeld previously this undercover scheme would not have been possible. Had they met before they also wouldn’t have required a scene of formal introductions in OHMSS.
If the Bond franchise existed only on-screen, this kind of anomaly would be inexplicable. What we have, however, is a series that existed first on the page and was then translated to the screen in an order determined by budgetary constraints and perceived marketability. The curious thing about this is that the filmmakers in charge of OHMSS (Richard Maibaum and Peter Hunt being the most influential creative contributors) chose, on this one particular occasion to create a Bond movie that remained very true to the source material. So true, in fact, that they even chose not to alter the pre-existing on-screen relationship between Bond and Blofeld.
If I were prone to wild conjecture (perhaps just this once) I’d suggest that as the editor of the first three Bond films and second unit director for the subsequent two, Hunt had formed a few strong opinions about the direction the franchise should take. And he was determined to follow through when he was finally offered the directorial job on OHMSS, his directorial debut. That said, whatever his reasoning, it can’t be discounted. It boils down to this. Blofeld didn’t know Bond, and therefore, OHMSS must, logically, take place before You Only Live Twice in the Bond chronology.
Return for a second to the drawer Bond empties out in his office. He removed trinkets from Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball and the janitor whistles the theme from Goldfinger, but the movie recalls nothing from You Only Live Twice. This omission is either a convenient oversight or a deliberate choice. I suggest the latter, albeit with one caveat. In the opening credit sequence that I mentioned earlier – the one containing clips from the prior Bond movies flowing through an hourglass – contains fleeting moments from You Only Live Twice. I excuse this because the clips are played entirely for the viewer and likely weren’t a choice made by Maibaum or Hunt, but rather from above, from EON Productions and Saltzman and Broccoli. Since the typical opening sequence contains silhouettes of naked women writhing to a suggestive theme song (something that doesn’t really happen on screen), it shouldn’t be difficult to write this off as something outside and unrelated to the Bond spacetime.
When he turned to the camera and uttered that one little phrase at the beginning of his sixth adventure, James Bond turned the franchise upside down. No matter your opinion of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as a standalone film, it must be conceded that the film serves as a fascinating turning point in the series. Not only is it the first time the Bond role changes hands, but it is also a distinct departure in tone, style and substance from the movies that immediately preceded it. That many fans now consider it to be an upper-echelon Bond entry (meanwhile others wildly disagree) makes for a fascinating discussion about the value of hindsight and OHMSS’ lingering repercussions, both as a result of its perceived box office failure and the introduction of self awareness, a brand new variable to the tried and true formula. A strong case could be made that Daniel Craig’s Bond films have become a spiritual successor to Lazenby’s only outing. Consider the serious tone, the more personal look at the emotion and motivation behind 007’s actions. Also, lest we forget that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service introduced the tchotchkes that Bond must now carry around with him and scatter throughout his missions for our viewing edification. You can be quite sure that the contents of Daniel Craig’s Bond baggage fills far more than just a tiny little desk drawer.