By Mike Canavan
I must admit upfront, Sean Connery was by far my favourite Bond.
I’ve always loved one detail in the story of how in 1961 Sean Connery nabbed the role of James Bond. And a number of other actors were being considered for the part, like Rodger Moore. Ian Fleming who had written 10 Bond novels (the first, ‘Casino Royale’, was published in 1953), had his heart set on the elegant and slightly fussy David Niven. That tells you a lot about how the Bond series might have turned out had Connery not won the role.
At the time, Connery wasn’t a well-known actor; his most prominent film was the Disney musical, the leprechaun fable ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ (1959). When he met the producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman at a pub in London, he wasn’t at the top of the shortlist. Apparently, they spoke for a while and then when it was time to go, instead of making a big show of it, Connery simply got up and said goodbye, and walked out. It was brusque and not very political; a real no frills exit. It was then one of the producers looked up and said, “That’s him”. Meaning: that’s Bond. “That’s the way James Bond would have left the room”.
What’s telling about that story is that it captures how Connery infused the role of Bond with a gruff existential animal magnetism that emerged entirely from who he was. It wasn’t just a matter of acting ⎼ it was being.
Connery, a former bodybuilder who had been in the Royal Navy, worked as a lorry driver, labourer, and once coffin polisher; he was an acerbic Adonis who signed the screen with his inner quality of roughneck bravura. As Bond, he was broodingly direct. He exhibited an amorous quality, whilst as graceful as a jungle cat.
I suppose more than anything ⎼ he was dangerous. Bond as an MI6 agent was ruthless, impassionate, but most importantly; the ease of the kill and the ability to dispatch a foe without ever even raising the sweat was something he inherently bought to the role. It was the quality of a born hitman, and the drama of Bond was that Connery let you know, even during all the civilised moments, that he was holding that quality in check. 007 had a quicksilver litheness, a dark joy he took in his own cunning. You could also say that he harnessed his killer instinct to the act of seduction. He had a voice that was forbearing, but most of the time it was a voice that took delight in telling you what to do.
Bond films became magical entertainment events. Never ruled by gimmicks, the famous 007 accoutrements; the Aston Martin DB5, the jet pack, the Walther PPK pistol and all those concealed and dangerous weapons Q supplied added to the Bond film’s persona. The Tuxedo became the Bond emblem because Connery wore it better than anyone on screen ever looked in it.
The Bond films were part of the wake-up to the sexual revolution that the 60’s encompassed. The first Bond film ‘Dr. No’ (1962) emerged from the same world that gave us Playboy magazine and the Presidential Rat
Pack mystique of JFK. Bond, through his shaken not stirred martinis and diamond gleam, started it off as the refined cavemen of this era. It was this timeless elan with which Connery played him that hooked us on the Bond franchise forever.
Connery played the role six times. By the time ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967) you could feel the weariness with which he approached the character. Notwithstanding the extraordinary set’s memorable soundtrack, in many ways the brutal life force had gone out of the part; the ruthless, pitiless character that we knew and loved in Dr No, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love and Thunderball was beginning to wain. Connery was right to want to leave the role, not wanting to stereotype himself in this genre alone.
And once he left the role, he proved again and again what a great actor he was.
During the 70’s he played some of his greatest rolls. Danny Dravot, aka “The Man Who Would be King”. Connery and Michael Caine had the time of their lives playing two scrappy British sergeants out to retrace the steps of Alexander the Great and conquer Afghanistan in the exhilarating 1975 John Huston film based on Rudyard Kipling’s novel.
At one point Danny and Caine’s Peachy Carnahan are trapped on a mountain with no possible means of escape. And what do they do? They have a laugh about all the good times they’ve known. A big, roaring, boisterous laugh. Such a laugh that the two men touch off an avalanche which creates a bridge of snow over a chasm that allows them to escape. That was Connery and Caine throughout their careers — two working-class blokes bluffing themselves to one great big merry laugh of a life.
As great as the scene is, it is surpassed by the climactic moment when Danny’s luck runs out. Danny, who in battle was seen taking an arrow in the leather bandolier across his chest, becomes a god-king to the natives, who believe following this lucky incident that he must be immortal. He and Peachy help themselves to all of the riches they can plunder, and Danny takes the most beautiful girl for his bride, but naturally the ruse is discovered. So, he bows to his fate and takes it like a man.
Sent out on a rope bridge over a gorge, understanding that he is to be executed by being made to plummet into infinity, he … sings. Loudly and lustily: “The Son of God goes forth to war/a kingly crown to gain …” It might be the greatest death scene in cinema history, bluff and hearty and entirely free of regret. How grand it is to think that Connery was merely halfway through his 90 year life.
Two other great death scenes displayed Connery’s range, his emotional warmth, his vitality: in Robin and Marian (1976), in which Connery plays Robin Hood at the end of his life and an incandescent Audrey Hepburn plays his lady fair in what turned out to be her final great performance, on his deathbed Connery’s Robin delivers an indescribably beautiful farewell: “I love you. More than all you know. I love you more than children. More than fields I’ve planted with my hands. I love you more than morning prayers or peace or food to eat. I love you more than sunlight, more than flesh or joy”.
Then he fires an arrow into the distance and asks Little John to bury them both where it lands. Anyone who thought of Connery as merely a wisecracking tough guy was sharply corrected by the emotional warmth he brought to this moment, and yet an even greater role was still to come.
Connery was the ideal choice to deliver David Mamet’s deathless line “Isn’t that just like a wop — brings a knife to a gunfight” in ‘The Untouchables’, the role that was smart enough and different enough from his stereotypical parts to finally earn him his Oscar.
Connery’s Malone is more of an old fox than a wolf, backing up the younger characters with tactical advice, but when he fails to anticipate one enemy manoeuvre it costs him about 50 bullets to the chest, we’d seen proudly bared so many times.
Such was the power of Connery’s life-force that it seemed plausible that Malone could somehow hang on long enough to hand off one final clue to Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness, and one final call to arms: “What are you prepared to do?” So often effortless, sly and dapper and cool, Connery was now desperate, torn, and mortal, and yet equally riveting.
Whether prowling through a casino in a dinner jacket or crawling bloodily into eternity, Connery was the kind of movie star who embodied the way things ought to be done — how to love, how to laugh, how to live, how to die.