A different actor, a different Bond, a completely different tone - it's time to visit the esrtwhile black sheep of the Bond family: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
These days we’re well used to new actors jumping into already familiar roles. We’re on our sixth James Bond, our third Superman, and our fifth Batman just hung up his cape. Meanwhile, over in TV land we’ve just learned who’s playing our twelfth Doctor Who. While there’s inevitably interest surrounding the reveal of new person playing an iconic role, we’re so accustomed to these changes now that it seems almost quaint that Doctor Who still has to regenerate in order to usher in a new lead actor.
I have to wonder how audiences of the late 1960s adapted to the news that, after five very successful and popular films, James Bond would be played by a different actor. At this time UK viewers would have have grown used to their second Doctor Who but I fail to recall any other examples of such significant cast changes from the time (perhaps the old Universal horror movies?).
The various items I’ve found on the topic suggest that audiences back then, as we are now, were far more interested in who was taking over the role than the fact that the actor was being changed at all.
Having watched the Bond films in sequence you do get a feel for how it might have been for a contemporary audience to adapt to a new Bond. For my money, while Connery undeniably bought a charm to the role that’s hard to replicate I was definitely ready for a change. It may have been the times in which the films were made, but there was something increasingly uncomfortable about watching Connery’s Bond (and not just because he was quite obviously getting bored of the role in the later films). Admittedly, Bond is meant to be a bastard and a killer, but the casual sexism of the films to date is hard to stomach for a progressive, modern viewer.
Maybe the producers thought the same. It could certainly be one explanation for the dramatic shift of tone and character that was ushered in alongside Lazenby’s debut. Despite the slight hint of monogamy in You Only Live Twice, it’s hard to imagine Connery’s Bond settling down and getting married. A new Bond, however, has the advantage of not carrying the same baggage.
I’m not certain what changes were made to OHMSS to cater for Lazenby’s casting, but the added emphasis on story, and correspondingly reduced reliance on Bond’s swagger, must surely be a result of having an unproven Bond in the title role. Likewise the lack of gadgetry: you have to have a certain type of action hero to get away with a jetpack escape, or to handle a DIY helicopter. While the gadgets had become a hallmark of the series by this stage, most of them were getting sufficiently ludicrous that they could only be used by a leading man who’s willing to keep his tongue in his cheek while making sure the audience stay along for the ride. Lazenby’s more straightlaced approach to the role would clearly have produced a conflict here. Could you, for example, imagine Christian Bale appearing in Batman & Robin?
Inevitably talk of OHMSS must come down to how Lazenby himself suits the role. Once you get over the initial shock (the jaunty, yet wooden: “My name’s Bond...” for example) Lazenby comes very close to reinventing the role. It’s certainly not the revelation that Daniel Craig delivered, but there’s a glimmer of something I wish we could have seen more of: a human Bond with a hint of realism and a sense that this could actually be a real person doing a real job. Sadly Lazenby took his agent’s advice and abandoned the role after one film, so we never got to see how he might have brought Bond into the seventies.
While the film did well at the box office, suggesting audiences had no significant disagreements with their brand new Bond, it is overlong and could easily have benefited from twenty minutes being left on the cutting room floor. It’s also pretty jarring having Blofeld failing to recognise Bond despite their face-to-face confrontation in the previous film. Sure, this was because the novel of OHMSS is set before You Only Live Twice, but to leave the issue unaddressed in the movie chronology is lazy scriptwriting. (That said I’m glad they didn’t go with the idea of suggesting Bond had undergone plastic surgery; imagine having to rattle out that old plot point every time the actor changed - not to mention trying to address his lack of aging).
In summary: neither an unquestionable success nor a complete disaster, OHMSS provides a change of pace and flavour for the Bond series. It boldly steps away from the established conventions of the movies to date but, as Diamonds Are Forever will demonstrate, this would only be a temporary respite.