Jan 25, 2021
Sir Sean Connery’s best (non-James Bond) work
This Halloween brought the sad news of the passing of cinema great Sir Sean Connery. As has been thoroughly documented over the decades, Sir Sean was best known for being cinema’s first—and, for many, best—James Bond. It was also well-known that the actor developed an intense love/hate relationship with the character within just a few short years of playing him. A recent article in Rolling Stone did a wonderful job of illustrating how this complex relationship between actor and character would end up forging the unique movie legacy Sir Sean left behind.
Connery already had two classic movies before he signed on to play Bond in the first 007 movie Dr. No. One was Disney’s 1959 film Darby O’Gill and the Little People, in which he had a supporting role of a rugged caretaker who becomes smitten with the daughter of the title character (Albert Sharpe), who has begun talking with a group of leprechauns. The movie quickly became a St. Patrick’s Day viewing tradition, and not surprisingly, its status increased once Connery began playing Bond.
The same year that Dr. No was released also saw Connery playing a small part in 20th Century Fox’s star-studded film The Longest Day. That film was an expensive depiction of the D-Day invasion, which also boasted stars like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Henry Fonda.
But once Dr. No came out, the public’s perception of Connery quickly shifted. His depiction of a spy contrasted with previous such depictions in cinema. For instance, the Bond series pushed the envelope in terms of sex and violence, so much so that the Vatican would condemn the series. However, the public soon became enamored with the films, due in no small part to Fleming’s Bond books being endorsed by John F. Kennedy, among other political luminaries. As a result, Bond producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were able to proceed with the follow-ups they were hoping to make. At the center of it all, of course, was Connery’s work as Bond, which made such an impact that it prompted Fleming to give Bond a Scottish background in the books.
However, Connery made it known that he wanted Bond to be a jumping off point to allow him to make other, different films. One of the first of these was his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie. While Connery wanted to work with Hitchcock, he raised eyebrows in the industry when he asked to read the script before agreeing to do it. Connery’s reasoning was that he wanted to be sure that Marnie did not have the same tone as other Hitchcock films such as Notorious or North by Northwest, both of which were influential in how the Bond series turned out. Marnie itself, in which Connery plays a businessman who blackmails an employee (Tippi Hedren) into marrying him in order to understand her motivations, was a not great success upon its initial 1964 release. But the movie, while having some slow moments, is still an interesting character study and has a nice, romantic musical score by Bernard Herrmann. Over the decades, Marnie has earned a more positive reputation, and today I view it as Sir Sean’s first great film after he started playing Bond.
Marnie was also overshadowed by the enormous success of the third Bond film Goldfinger, which was released a few months afterward. The latter film ensured that Bond was here to stay as a figure of pop culture, and along with the previous Bond flick From Russia with Love, probably has Sir Sean at his Bond best. But Connery would do another, atypical film following Goldfinger and that film was 1965’s The Hill. This was a dark, gritty World War II drama in which Connery plays an officer sent to a military prison in Libya. He and the other prisoners (among them Ossie Davis, Roy Kinnear, Alfred Lynch, and Jack Watson) must endure such tasks as climbing the hill of the title wearing full backpacks. After a prisoner dies, Connery ends up prompting the others to revolt against the camp’s brutal staff sergeant (Ian Hendry). Like Marnie, The Hill ended up overshadowed by Bondmania (the fourth 007 movie Thunderball came out later that year), but critics were becoming more and more convinced that there was much more to Connery than Bond.
The love/hate relationship between Connery and Bond probably reached its nadir during the making of the fifth Bond film You Only Live Twice. As filming of it commenced in Japan, media interest in Connery was insanely high, and at one point, a reporter even followed the actor into the restroom in order to conduct an interview with him. This was one of numerous factors that prompted Connery to announce that this would be his final Bond film.
As the next film in the series On Her Majesty’s Secret Service commenced without him, Connery made several films. One of these was the successful crime drama The Anderson Tapes, which reunited him with Sidney Lumet, who directed him in The Hill (and would later direct Connery in The Offence, Murder on the Orient Express, and Family Business).
But Bond ended up calling Connery back when his 007 successor George Lazenby prematurely left the role after just one film. Following a thorough search for another Bond, United Artists became adamant that the next film had to have Connery in it. Intense negotiations resulted in Sir Sean getting paid over $1 million to play Bond for a sixth time in Diamonds are Forever. That was an enormous payment for an actor in 1970, and the deal also made headlines when Connery donated every penny of it to the Scottish International Education Trust, which he co-founded.
The deal also rewarded Connery with United Artists’ promise to fund two films of his choice. One of these was set to be a film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Sadly, plans for that film fell through because Roman Polanski had released his own film version of the play during this period. The other was the aforementioned The Offence.
After the success of Diamonds, Connery’s cachet would keep rising as the 1970s went on. This is why the bizarre science fiction film Zardoz would gain a cult following and why he won critical acclaim for playing an Arab with a Scottish accent in The Wind and the Lion. He followed that with his brilliant turn in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King, in which he and Sir Michael Caine played charming rouges who attempt to become rich by manipulating the native peoples of a town in Kafiristan. While their attempts end in failure, Connery and Caine were a great match, which endeared their characters to audiences.
Sir Sean followed this triumph with an equally memorable turn as Robin Hood in Robin and Marian. This film turned the Robin Hood legend on its ear by having Robin become disenchanted with King Richard (Richard Harris) and return to England after Richard’s death during the Crusades. There, Robin is reunited with Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn), who while initially fed up over Robin taking off for the Crusades years earlier, is soon swept away by him again as he and Little John (Nicol Williamson) attempt to bring hope to the people of Nottingham again. Robin is also reunited with Nottingham’s sheriff (Robert Shaw), who’s become a slightly more thoughtful figure in the years since Robin’s absence. The film’s somber tone, which sharply contrasted with that of previous Robin Hoods, initially confused audiences. But it would become more highly regarded over the years. But from day one, the two leads were praised as perfect casting, and Connery’s scenes with Shaw were as great as the ones they shared in From Russia With Love.
Other memorable films followed, such as The Great Train Robbery and Time Bandits. While Connery had the occasional dud, such as Meteor, his stature earned him a nice salary to playing Bond one last time in the Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again. The film didn’t do anything Thunderball didn’t do better, but Sir Sean’s scenes with Barbara Carrera were quite sexy.
His career would reach a new level during the mid-1980’s with his roles in the cult smash Highlander and the medieval drama The Name of the Rose, both of which were released in 1986. Connery would follow up these films a year later with the smash The Untouchables, which won him an Oscar for playing a policeman who agrees to help Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) end Al Capone’s (Robert De Niro) reign of terror over Prohibition-era Chicago. While some say Connery’s Oscar was more of an honorary one, the movie itself is exciting and superior to the 1959-1963 TV series of the same name.
Another great role quickly followed when Sir Sean played Indiana Jones’s father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As with Star Wars, the main inspiration for Indy was Saturday matinee serials, but what drew Steven Spielberg to direct all four films in the series was his desire to direct a James Bond picture. Last Crusade would bring him a bit closer to that goal when he succeeded in getting Connery to play Indy’s old man, which proved a great move, because Sir Sean’s scenes with Harrison Ford are wonderful. One of the best parts of the movie is when Indy learns that love interest/villain Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) was intimate with both him and his father. This may have been cringe-inducing with another actor playing Indy’s dad, but Connery made this a delightful aspect of Last Crusade.
While it would’ve been interesting to see Sir Sean play Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (as Bond marries in that story), by Last Crusade, it was obvious that Connery himself had become much bigger than Bond. He would have other successes such as The Hunt for Red October, Rising Sun, and The Rock. He also voiced an impressive looking dragon in the fantasy Dragonheart. Sir Sean would even make age a non-issue with his onscreen romances in First Knight and Entrapment. He even had a great turn as the title character in the drama Finding Forrester.
Connery would be knighted in 2000, something many felt was long overdue.
Sir Sean’s final onscreen appearance was 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The film was a disappointment, but Connery was perfect casting as Allan Quartermain. However, his unhappy experience during the making of that film would lead him to announce his retirement from acting.
But Connery’s status as a beloved icon continued to endure. He would even voice and provide the likeness for Bond in the terrific video game adaptation of From Russia With Love, released in 2006. That same year, Sir Sean was awarded the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award.
While Connery himself wasn’t immortal, he left behind a legacy that will surely live forever. Farewell, Sir Sean, you shall be missed and please tell Sir Roger we said hi.