Bright Lights Film Journal

Sean Connery: A “Natural Thruster”

“Connery, never a martyr to false modesty, remains as voluble and combative as ever.”

Rex Harrison, David Niven, Trevor Howard, Cary Grant, Patrick McGoohan, Rod Taylor, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, and a young Michael Gambon (the last of whom was told, a trifle uncharitably, “Your teeth are bad and you have tits”): just some of the names under consideration around 1959-60 for the then deeply unpromising role of Sir James Bond, RN, a British Secret Intelligence Service officer created by a wealthy, vodka-quaffing former Navy lieutenant-turned-journalist (and distant cousin to Christopher Lee) named Ian Fleming. Fleming’s fictional alter ego had begun life with the novel Casino Royale as far back as 1953, but only gained international traction some seven years later, when the newly elected President Kennedy admitted to a liking for the yarns. By then a displaced Italian-American named Albert Romolo (“Cubby”) Broccoli and his Canadian-born partner and one-time circus freak Harry Saltzman had bought the film rights to the series for their London-based EON Productions. Rather belying the proverbially lavish sets and glamorous international locales of later Bond films, everything was initially done on a shoestring. Rex Harrison, David Niven and Richard Burton all turned down the title role because of its salary. Niven once told me that he passed “because I was offered beer money to give up six months of my life,” and instead went on to co-star with Doris Day in the perhaps artistically less challenging Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. According to Niven, EON offered him a basic fee of 7,500 pounds (roughly $25,000 at the exchange rate of the day), not exactly a fortune even in early 1960s Britain. Matters remained at a standstill until Broccoli and his new wife Dana wandered into a sparsely attended London screening of Darby O’Gill and the Little People, a Disney whimsy about an Irish caretaker who spins so many tales that no one believes him when he says he’s befriended the King of the Leprechauns. Playing third banana to the caretaker and the leprechaun was a 29-year-old, balding, former Mr. Universe contestant named Thomas Sean Connery. “There,” Dana Broccoli informed her husband, “is your Bond.”

As a rule (and I speak with well-earned humility on the subject), we Brits seem to like success but are fascinated by failure. This is reflected in our popular culture: we love a failed TV hotelier (Fawlty Towers), make a cult of fictional bumblers such as Mr. Bean, and slavishly worship our less than adept national sports teams. But nowhere do we relish the clumsy, infelicitous or sheer bloody awful more than in our nearly unblemished track record of turning out mainstream (as opposed to the scores of worthy independent) would-be film extravaganzas that under-perform, if not sink completely, at the box office. From Raise the Titanic to Johnny Grimbe to Spice World to The Libertine, it’s long been a steady downhill path, so much so that when in 1997 three firms were given some $250 million in lottery money to try and revitalize the British film industry, no less a judge than Richard Attenborough remarked that the money might as well be set alight.

The first Bond film, Dr No, initially seemed to fit squarely in the British masochistic tradition. Ian Fleming publicly doubted the casting, remarking of Connery, “He’s not what I envisioned of James Bond’s looks,” and “I’m looking for a Naval Commander and not an overgrown stunt-man.” Fleming added that the solidly-built, plainspoken Scot was “unrefined,” an opinion he modified only slightly when his wife Anne informed him that Connery’s screen persona would make audiences the world over “wet themselves.” If so, both Fleming and the producers owed a good deal to Terence Young, the suave 47-year-old director of Dr No (and two others in the long-running franchise) who himself might have made a passable Bond. Aside from anything else, Young was a masterful technician who combined a thorough knowledge of visual effects and lenses and the like (by no means a universal skill in directors) with personal experience of the world of Savile Row tailoring and shaken martinis. As the late Lois Maxwell (the first Miss Moneypenny) remarked, “Terence took Sean under his wing. He took him to dinner, showed him how to walk, how to talk, even how to eat.” There was a bit more to Dr No‘s success than that, perhaps, but several cast members including Jack Lord would later give the opinion that the film’s lead character was essentially doing a tuned-up impersonation of its director.

Thomas Sean Connery was born on August 25 1930, in Edinburgh. His father was a sometime factory worker and truck driver, and his mother was a cleaning woman. Connery left school at fifteen and variously worked as a bricklayer, lifeguard, and coffin polisher while earning extra money as an occasional swimming-trunk model and bodybuilder. In 1951 he landed a small part in the chorus of the London production of South Pacific. “I come from the working class,” Connery would remark, with characteristic bluntness, “so putting on tights and running around stage wasn’t exactly my idea of a serious calling in life.” The critics, to the extent that they noticed him at all, seemed to concur: Connery’s part in 1957’s No Road Back was “typical of this plodding melodrama,” wrote the Daily Express, while he was well and truly mauled in the same year’s Action of the Tiger. A few years later, Connery’s younger brother Neil played the action-man lead in two British films, then retired from acting to become a plasterer. A broadly similar career trajectory seemed to await Sean until that day in November 1959, fifty years ago, when the Broccolis ambled in out of the rain to watch Darby O’Gill interact with the little people.

You can see why Connery jumped on the Bond role. Apart from the money – by the time he played 007 for the last time in 1983, when he also negotiated a percentage of the profits, he earned 4 million pounds – it was a genuine artistic stretch. As envisaged by Fleming, the character was an impulsive, imperfect, occasionally sadistic mess, and Connery knew that general territory well enough to find the sympathetic centre within. Also, he got to do a nice line in emotional restraint as well as the trademark athleticism, and at least in the early films the gadgetry hadn’t yet stylized the whole franchise to the point of self-parody. And, though Connery was certainly a smoothie, he looked real enough to project convincingly that hangdog look so many of the spies in the works of John Le Carré and, one rather gathers, in real life, seem to have. In fact, there are moments when you wonder if Dr No and its successors don’t make Connery look too drab and careworn.

It’s just a subjective opinion, but I always think 1963’s From Russia with Love was Bond’s finest hour. Brusque, sarky, and virile with his cropped hair, swaggering gait, and ad-libbed one-liners, Connery brings just the right mixture of humor and menace to the proceedings. There’s none of that subsequent falling-off when certain other actors played the role that little bit too camp, knowing, lovable, or twee. The quality of the villains is always a vital component of a successful spy romp, and here the great polymath Robert Shaw takes a break from starring in Shakespeare and writing his own plays and novels to prove a more than worthy adversary. There are fabulous locations like Istanbul, and a generous but not overwhelming quota of gadgets and gimmicks, such as the poison-tipped shoes worn by one unfriendly KGB agent. And how can anyone resist a plot that essentially calls for Bond to jet around in search of a Soviet decoding machine while simultaneously bedding the unfeasibly sexy Russian agent sent to thwart him on the orders of the creepy spymaster Rosa Klebb, played with sado-lesbian gusto by none other than the great chanteuse (and widow of Kurt Weill) Lotte Lenya? This film has it all. Unlike certain other big-production extravaganzas, it doesn’t just invite you to share in its own cleverness – which, for some moviegoers, is apparently more than adequate compensation for the lack of drama, emotion, and character. Connery is in top gear throughout, injecting what the New York Times called an “earthy masculinity” into a plausible, rather endearing figure with a full set of humanizing contradictions.

It’s become almost a cliché in today’s Hollywood for a superstar actor to earn credibility points by mixing up his lucrative blockbuster projects with occasional forays into the world of the independent or low-budget. Connery brought off this particular artistic balancing act better than most. At the height of his tux-wearing pomp, in between Goldfinger and Thunderball, he starred in a distinctly downbeat, black-and-white British drama called The Hill, which detailed life in an army prison camp located in the Libyan desert. To say it’s a bit removed from the slick, family-friendly fare epitomized by the Bond series would be an understatement. Anyone familiar with 1987’s Full Metal Jacket has only to think of the first half of that film, but with British accents, and set in crippling heat, to get a bit of the flavor. Connery doesn’t just act the part of a bolshie but principled, and ultimately quietly heroic, prisoner; he inhabits it. Compare his work here to, say, Daniel Craig’s  The Invasion and you’ll see how much further the latter needs to go if he’s ever to catch up in the 007 extracurricular-activities stakes.

The professional restlessness was mirrored in Connery’s private life. From 1962 to 1973 he was married to an Australian actress (Oscar-nominated for Tom Jones) named Diane Cilento, an arrangement that fell some way short of the traditional, monogamous ideal. In 2006, Cilento published an autobiography in which she claimed that her husband had physically assaulted her on several occasions. Connery denied that he had ever beaten either his wife or any other woman, although he made the distinction that it would be “OK [for] a guy to hit a girl with an open hand,” should she continue to provoke him after he had conceded an argument to her. Clearly, this wasn’t one of your quiche-eating, modern-man types. Nor, by all accounts, was Connery exactly a shrinking violet when it came to the question of money. There were to be frequent ructions with the Bond producers on the subject down the years, culminating in a 1984 lawsuit in which he sued “Cubby” Broccoli and United Artists for $225 million over their alleged failure to pay him his share of the films’ profits: the case was settled out of court, with Connery reportedly some $50 million richer as a result. After taking $6 million and percentage points from MGM to star in the ill-advised comeback vehicle (and Thunderball ripoff) Never Say Never Again, Connery asked for $25 million to appear in the film’s would-be sequel, an offer the studio declined. As a rule, too, he seems not to have troubled the British Inland Revenue any more than was strictly necessary, and once or twice, perhaps, not even then. In later years, Connery made his home first in Spain and then in the tax haven of the Bahamas, somewhat belying the tattoo on his right arm reading “Alba Gu Brath,” or “Scotland Forever.” David Niven once told me that Connery was, unlike himself, a “natural thruster” and “wonderfully self-confident” actor who had originally gone into film “rather like a high-pressure executive arriving to take over a dying business.’

A forceful, Pooh-Bah assertiveness helped: Connery never seems to have doubted his talents, and by the time he came to make Goldfinger, his third Bond outing, he was “quite free with his advice to other cast members and even members of the crew,” according to Bernard Lee, who played “M” in the film. Still, it’s worth noting again how much the means justified the end: with one or two minor lapses, Connery was consistently brilliant in the six “proper” Bond films he made between 1962-70, which together form a sort of celluloid equivalent to the British Invasion then being perpetrated on these shores by the likes of the Beatles and the Stones. I rewatched all six this week, and some forty years on they’re still among the most joyous dozen hours in motion pictures, and a timely reminder of what popular culture is supposed to do: challenge and entertain us at the same time.

After several years floundering around in the likes of Meteor and Highlander, Connery launched a comeback when, at the age of 57, he won his first and only Oscar for his role as a tough-talking street cop in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. It was the beginning of a long and lucrative second act to Connery’s career in which he often found himself cast as a seasoned mentor teamed with a younger man, as in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Family Business, and 1996’s The Rock, to name just the three most commercially viable such packages. It would also be fair to say that the old trouper’s professional judgment wasn’t always infallible when it came to picking his projects, as anyone rash enough to have sat through The Avengers or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will attest. Back in the pre-ironic era, there were movie stars who could do things lesser mortals couldn’t. Connery was clearly one of them, a virile charmer who routinely saved the world before sauntering off with his latest well-upholstered female companion for what one rather gathered would be an energetic shag. Some forty years after Dr No and the rest, there remained only the crude self-parody of The League, a 110-minute live-action equivalent of a Road Runner cartoon, if not half as entertaining, and, it’s said, a significant contributing factor to Connery’s decision to retire.

Of the golden years themselves, Connery has remarked that he is “just hav[ing] too much damned fun” and has “never been busier.” In practice this seems to mean playing rather a lot of golf and releasing a series of statements in support of Scottish independence, which he issues from his Bahamian tax exile. The 007 physique may have gone south as the span of years between 70 and 80 begins to contract fast, in the disagreeable way it does, but Connery, never a martyr to false modesty, remains as voluble and combative as ever. I happened to be at a dinner two years ago when he was asked his opinion of Daniel Craig, who had just inherited the Bond role. “He was good,” Connery allowed, in his familiar sonic boom. As for the newly released Casino Royale? “Half an hour too long,” he said. “And the music was crap.”

Note: The quotes in this article are taken from the author’s interviews.