The coronavirus pandemic has brought the world of cinema to an unfortunate standstill. One of the first films to be affected was No Time to Die, the twenty-fifth cinematic outing for Ian Fleming’s fictional spy James Bond. Not only is it Daniel Craig’s final film in the role, it is also released in a year of a significant milestone for one of the series’ most important figures- this month marks the 90th birthday of the man who was first chosen to bring 007 to life, Sean Connery. Despite being followed by five other actors, Connery remains the standard by which all other Bonds are judged. But a look at Connery’s career reveals a depth and scope far beyond the character that will forever define his legacy.
The man who would become Sir Sean Connery was born on 25th August 1930 in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh. His actual first name is Thomas, but he has been referred to by his first name since he was a teenager. By the age of 18, he had already grown to his full height of 6 foot 2. Like his famous alter ego, Connery enlisted in the Royal Navy, joining in 1946 and acquiring the two tattoos that would be visible on his forearm in all his later film appearances. Discharged at 19, he worked as among other things, a milkman, a lorry driver, a lifeguard, a labourer, an artist’s model and a coffin polisher. After rejecting an opportunity to play as a professional footballer for Manchester United, he turned his attentions to acting.
After working backstage at the King’s Theatre, he earned a part in a production of South Pacific, where he would meet fellow actor, Sir Michael Caine, establishing a long friendship. After making a variety of films, with varying degrees of success, he would make two movies that would firmly establish himself as a star for the future- Another Time, Another Place with Lana Turner and Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) alongside Albert Sharp and Jimmy O’Dea.
Connery in Darby O’Gill and the Little People
It was his role in the latter that would earn him the attentions of producers Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who were casting for someone to play James Bond in their adaptations of Ian Fleming’s books. Although Fleming was hesitant towards him, preferring Cary Grant, he eventually relented and Connery was cast. Dr. No, released in October 1962, became a huge success, owed in large part to Connery’s performance. He would return as Bond in From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967), becoming an enormous star and worldwide icon. However, the success came to upset Connery, who felt he was being typecast by the role and he eventually resigned from the part in 1967. He would, however, be coaxed back to Diamonds Are Forever (1971), donating his entire salary to the Scottish International Education Trust, an organisation he founded. Twelve years later, he made one final appearance in Never Say Never Again (1983), an unofficial film made to rival EON’s Octopussy.
Of all his Bond films, his best is his second, From Russia with Love. It’s here that he is able to present James Bond as a more three-dimensional hero, rather than the rather cardboard figure he would become by the end of his run. Connery would continue to work solidly until choosing to retire following disappointing reviews for his last film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, released in 2003. Among the films he turned down were Jurassic Park (1993, in which he was offered Richard Attenborough’s role), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003- he was asked to play Gandalf, but couldn’t understand the script)
Connery in his last film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, released in 2003.
Looking at Connery’s work beyond Bond, it’s clear to see a lot of the films he made were attempts to distance himself from Bond, or to play on the persona in a humorous way. His filmography features films made by Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, John Huston, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, John McTiernan, Michael Bay and Terry Gilliam, while his range of characters include a submarine captain, seasoned criminals, police officers, villains and even a dragon. He often retained his Scottish accent and not all of his films (The Avengers) are even remotely good, but the ten performances listed below represent Connery as the star he was, with the ability to dominate a film even when not playing a lead role. As he enters his tenth decade, seeing him as more than just James Bond may be the best birthday present he can receive.
Connery in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981)
Some honourable mentions that didn’t make the list: Woman of Straw (1964), The Hill (1965), The Anderson Tapes (1971), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The First Great Train Robbery (1979), Time Bandits (1981), Outland (1981), Finding Forrester (2000)
Here they are, then, in descending order:
10. Barley Blair in The Russia House (1990)
Like a lot of actors, Connery got his chance to make a John Le Carre adaptation when he appeared in Fred Schepisi’s The Russia House in 1990. Pairing him with Michelle Pfeiffer, he plays Barley Blair, a jazz-loving publisher hired to investigate the credibility of a manuscript detailing Soviet nuclear capabilities. As with a lot of Le Carre’s work, the film is dense, complex and multi-faceted, functioning as a spy thriller, a romance and a dark comedy. Blair is among Connery’s most complicated characters and his performance is certainly one of his richest, revealing both the weariness and hope beneath Blair’s ruffled skin while at the same time remaining incorrigibly difficult and stubborn. The movie itself loses some steam, but Connery never wavers in his dedication to the role.
Connery with Michelle Pfeiffer in The Russia House
9. Robin Hood in Robin and Marian (1976)
As with Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood has been played by countless actors, ranging from the successful (Errol Flynn) to the downright terrible (Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe). Connery’s turn as the legendary archer came in 1976, when he was cast to play an older, wearier Robin alongside Audrey Hepburn’s Maid Marian. The film is more reflective and less hurly-burly than other Robin Hood adaptations, focussing on the passage of time and the bitterness of mortality. Connery’s performance, guided by Hepburn matching him all the way, is of a man full of regret and sorrow, whose decision to engage Robert Shaw’s Sherriff of Nottingham is not borne from heroism, but from a need to feel useful to Marian again. Despite only being in his mid-40s, Connery’s mannerisms and body movements suggest fatigue and tiredness, both from the constant years of fighting and the realisation that time is slipping away fast. With John Barry also in fine form, Connery is able to play a well-known character without being shackled by the previous iterations.
Connery with Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian
8. Detective Sergeant Johnson in The Offence (1972)
When Connery agreed to return as James Bond in 1971, he negotiated a deal which would allow him to make two other films of his choosing once he finished the role again. One of those films turned out to be The Offence (the other, an adaptation of Macbeth, never reached the screen). The Offence sees Connery play Detective Sergeant Johnson, a twenty-year veteran who is pulled into an investigation when his interrogation of a suspect goes badly wrong. The role is as far removed from Bond as it’s possible to get- Johnson is unstable, violent, emotionally aggressive and full of self-disgust and Connery is able to capture the full capacity of his emotions. Johnson bares more than a passing resemblance to Al Pacino’s Serpico, and like Pacino, Connery is at times unbearable to witness, but never less than horrifyingly watchable. After Bond, Connery put his very reputation on the line, and though the film wasn’t financially successful, it proved he could put away the martini and quips and deliver a proper, adult performance.
Connery in The Offence, one of five films he made with director Sidney Lumet.
7. Mark Rutland in Marnie (1964)
The Offence wasn’t the first time Connery had turned to his darker side. Eight years earlier, during the height of Bond-mania, he teamed up with director Alfred Hitchcock to make Marnie, a psychological drama about the sexual relationship between a married couple. Connery is Mark Rutland, who marries Tippi Hedren’s titular character and then appears to intimidate and control her, all the while spending copious amounts of money. The film is lesser Hitchcock, missing the vitality of some of his best work, and Connery’s role is significantly lightened from the book upon which the film is based, but it nevertheless presents a more volatile, less charismatic figure for Connery to bring to life. There are times when Mark is genuinely frightening and it’s largely down to Connery’s refusal to compromise on the character.
Connery in Hitchcock’s Marnie- he is the only Bond actor to work with Hitchcock.
6. John Patrick Mason in The Rock (1996)
The Rock is probably Michael Bay’s only good film, a bonkers but exhilarating action thriller set on Alcatraz that features likeable characters, a frenetic musical score and plenty of pithy one liners. At the centre is Connery’s John Patrick Mason, a former prisoner of Alcatraz, who is tasked to help a US taskforce infiltrate the island and take down Ed Harris’ band of renegades. With Nicolas Cage playing a much meeker character than he’s known for, Connery is allowed to effortlessly steal scenes away from him, nabbing most of the best lines and proving reasonably capable as an older man of action. Some have suggested that Mason is essentially and older version of Bond, but there’s one clear difference- Connery is clearly relishing playing Mason, resulting in a relaxed, almost effortless performance that gives Bay’s madcap direction more credibility than it actually deserves.
Connery with Nicolas Cage in The Rock
5. Captain Markus Ramius in The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Sean Connery as a Russian submarine captain? The idea seems ludicrous, especially considering director John McTiernan chooses to start the film in Russian and then pull back the camera to explain that the characters are speaking Russian but he’s translating without subtitles. The effect works, surprisingly, and the decision to cast Connery is an effective one. The role of Ramius is larger than life and charismatic and it needs an actor of substance and presence to pull it off. With Connery onboard, the character is expanded significantly from Tom Clancy’s original book, essentially making him a co-lead with Alec Baldwin, who becomes the first actor to play Jack Ryan (ironically, Harrison Ford, who inherited the part two years later, turned it down here, denying him a reunion with Connery). As expected, Connery dominates the film and The Rock aside, this is probably the last time he truly got to play a role that was worthy of his talents.
Connery in The Hunt for Red October.
4. Daniel Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Connery’s own personal favourite movie of his own is John Huston’s epic adventure based on Rudyard Kipling’s novella in which Connery and Michael Caine team up to play two former soldiers of the British Army who head off in search of adventures and riches and end up in a small Kafiristan village where Dravot is mistaken for a god. The film is one of those giddily entertaining Boys’ Own adventure films that Hollywood used to make so well and Connery is offered the opportunity to play a character of dubious means who nevertheless has a heart of gold. Connery’s Dravot is a man who lives on his wits, who has seen the horrors of war and the commercialisation of India, who yearns for a life of comfort and respect. His unhurried, unruffled performance stands in contrast to Caine’s broader portrayal of Peachy Carnahan and there’s a hint of Humphrey Bogart as well (no coincidence, since Huston directed Bogart many times and initially had the project planned with him in mind). Made during the peak of his career, Connery stands tall here.
Connery’s favourite film of his own, The Man Who Would Be King, co-starring good friend Sir Michael Caine.
3. Dr Henry Jones Snr in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
This had to be on the list somewhere, didn’t it? Possibly Connery’s most famous role outside of James Bond, he’s the father to Harrison Ford’s Indy as they go after the Holy Grail and try to stop the Nazis from obtaining it for their own evil schemes. As is well-known, there was just twelve years difference between Ford and Connery when Steven Spielberg cast him, but Connery leaves such an impression in the role it’s impossible to imagine Gregory Peck or Jon Pertwee, the two actors on standby if he turned it down, playing the role. It helps that Ford is gracious enough to let Connery do his thing when required, while Connery himself understands he’s riding in someone else’s rodeo. Henry Jones is not a man of action, but neither is he a complete novice- Connery finds a balance between being a help and a hindrance and by the end of the movie, it’s the father/son dynamic that is most remembered as the characters ride off into the sunset. Sadly, Henry Jones is unlikely to make any further appearances, as Connery’s retirement effectively forced the filmmakers to kill him off by the time the misplaced fourth film came around.
Connery with Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
2. William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose (1986)
A murder mystery set in the 1300s, The Name of the Rose is a European production based on a novel by Umberto Eco about a series of murders in an abbey in northern Italy. Connery stars as William of Baskerville, the monk who investigates the murders assisted by his assistant, Adso, played by Christian Slater. The Name of the Rose is an eerie and unsettling film, full of atmosphere and menace, sometimes bizarre, often strangely compelling and at the very centre is Connery. His performance is extraordinary, relying not on his usual tricks of charisma and charm, but on nuance, subtlety and substance. With everyone else losing their heads, or in Slater’s case going wildly off-piste, Connery keeps his head and provides a fascinating character study of a man at odds with those around him and who is forced to question the very foundation of his faith. Connery earned a BAFTA nomination for his role, perhaps finally gaining the recognition he had cherished since relinquishing his licence to kill.
Connery was nominated for a BAFTA for his role in The Name of the Rose, alongside Christian Slater.
1. Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables (1987)
An obvious choice? Perhaps, but there’s a reason Connery won an Oscar for his role in Brian De Palma’s Prohibition-set thriller about Eliot Ness’ pursuit of Al Capone. With a cast that includes Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro and Andy Garcia, Connery’s interpretation of Jimmy Malone is, wobbly accent aside, as fully-realised and three-dimensional as possible, a character with a dry wit, plenty of street-wise wisdom and some undeniable pathos. The scene in the church in which he tells Ness what he must do to defeat Capone (the famous ‘he pulls a knife, you pull a gun’ speech) explains everything about Malone in one scene and Connery plays it to the hilt. Connery’s presence is so dynamic that once his character exits the story, the film isn’t quite able to maintain its momentum and it ends a little less successfully than it begins. The Untouchables is Connery at the very height of his powers, an actor with enough experience that he’s able to play a supporting role and still emerge as the best thing about the film.
Connery with Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia and Charles Smith in The Untouchables, the film that won him his only Oscar.
SEAN CONNERY CELEBRATES HIS 90TH BIRTHDAY ON AUGUST 25th
NO TIME TO DIE WILL BE RELEASED ON NOVEMBER 12, 2020
ALL OF THE FILMS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY