On the passing of James Bond and overindulgent Titanic metaphors, October 2020
Connery was a huge cultural icon quite unlike any other, instantly recognisable and much imitated and impersonated the world over, whose vast filmography includes classics (more or less, depending on your definition) that will not be forgotten any time soon. “Seany [Mum’s pet name for him] was always my favourite Bond,” she said, echoing a sentiment I imagine reciprocated in households up and down the country, unless yours is a Roger Moore household, in which case you should probably get yourself checked by a psychiatrist who specialises in cases of profound delusion.
As much as I adored the Sean Connery Bond films growing up, it is the paternal chemistry sparking between Connery and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that has left the deepest impression on me. As an ensemble of childhood favourites, the young Indiana sequence with River Phoenix, and easily the best Indie storyline of the franchise, seeing Henry Jones Sr jousting with his son in Last Crusade was nothing short of cinematic magic, and I think we all hoped that he would reprise the role for the sequel that never came (there is no sequel, Crystal Skull does not count).
I also enjoyed Connery’s performance in The Name of the Rose opposite an extremely youthful Christian Slater, and have long thought his 1981 film Outland is a much underappreciated science fiction classic of the High-Noon-in-Space variety. Outland is a dark thriller that borrows much of the gritty industrial realism of Alien, although for me it remains more notable for also starring a sinister Peter Boyle, who is perhaps better known as the curmudgeonly Frank Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond. Boyle would later win an Emmy for his 1995 depiction of Clyde Bruckman, an unwilling clairvoyant who finds himself entangled in a murder investigation in a surprisingly moving episode of The X-Files, back when the series was nearing its season three peak. Connery would of course win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in The Untouchables (1987), which with the exception of Connery’s thundering performance as Jim Malone is all rather forgettable, unless you count Robert De Niro’s pantomime dame version of Al Capone. For his part Connery does a marvellous job chewing the scenery in The Hunt for Red October (1990), featuring one of the best, and by that I mean worst attempts at a Russian accent ever recorded on film, which is all very good, or as our Scottish-Soviet-Cossack submarine commander would put it, hawawshaw.
As if often the case with megastars of Connery’s calibre there are, of course, a fair number of cinematic turds strewn amongst the classics. Although treated with a kind of ironic reverence by the Irish side of our family, Connery’s 1959 Darby O’Gill and the Little People is surely the kind of visual torture you would expect to find being screened in a darkened room in Guantanamo Bay rather than, say, a post lunch Christmas treat for the family. In either case the helpless victims find themselves unable to look away as Connery’s Michael McBride belts out another strangulated ditty in what the original marketing optimistically describes as “a heap o’magic and a load of laughter.” It was a hit, which isn’t surprising given that it was a Disney product easily within reach of a wide American audience hungry for “a heap o’Gaelic horseshit.” The plot of this aural laxative is incomprehensible, and as far as I can tell focuses on the exploits of Darby, chief leprechaun catcher or whatever, who finds himself seeking a redundancy packet after he is replaced by the younger, devilishly handsome McBride (Connery), who to cap things off is also trying to shag his daughter. If memory serves, what follows is eight hours of screaming horses intercut with extreme close ups of Connery’s rubbery features has he weaves his libidinal magic, in so doing adding “twee Edinburgh-Irish” to his list of comical accents. Towards the end I seem to recall a dance off between Darby and the Leprechaun King, who for some inexplicable reason is called Brian. Fucking Brian! I honestly don’t remember much else apart from my in-laws warning me about the impending appearance of a banshee, but I must have repressed it.
Connery also shot a small number of westerns, such as Shalako (1968) alongside his Goldfinger co-star Honor Blackman aka the progressively named Pussy Galore. However, the film that attracts the most affectionate teasing is Zardoz (1974), the one featuring the much admired shot of a semi-naked Connery wearing an early precursor the Borat mankini, cut from a velvety red leather and topped off with a fetching pair of thigh-length Cavalier boots, handlebar moustache and thick ponytail. Legend has it that this fabled last addition would later inspire England goalkeeper David’s Seaman’s 2002 World Cup look, which in a 2016 interview with The Mirror he revealed is kept within easy reach inside a bedroom drawer. Even despite its cult status I’m yet to see Zardoz, although lockdown 2 is likely to see me working my through any number of postapocalyptic features, all of which I find oddly comforting at this time.
Ask anyone and they’ll acknowledge that Connery was unsurpassed as Bond, and as much as the kid version of me enjoyed a Saturday afternoon showing of a Roger Moore Bond, it was Connery who really nailed it, especially in the first three outings: Dr No (1961), From Russia with Love (1963), and Goldfinger (1964). Things start to go downhill pretty quickly after that, and the absolute least said about You Only Live Twice the better. Although Debbie can’t stand it, Thunderball was a favourite of mine growing up for no other reason that I was obsessed with anything to do with scuba diving and those wonderful fast-frame underwater fights, along with that moment towards the end of the film when SPECTRE’s hydrofoil boat, Disco Volante (from the Italian meaning Flying Saucer), suddenly splits in half revealing a high speed escape boat. Connery’s final outing as Bond was in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, a title which rumour has it was suggested by his wife after he announced he would never play Bond again. Fan sites remark that at fifty three even a naturally athletic Connery playing a retired 007 was getting past it, although I don’t recall age being a limitation Roger Moore ever troubled himself with when he pulled on the Walther PPK for the last time at fifty seven in A View to A kill (1985). Watching these slightly withered secret agents relentlessly pursue a succession of youthful starlets makes for uncomfortable viewing these days, and A View to a Kill is just plain awful. What was the plot of that one again? Christopher Walken is going to snap a piece of California off from the mainland by sending Grace Jones into a mine with a nuclear bomb? Actually, thinking about it, Grace Jones was pretty badass in that one, so I’ll let it pass.
Regardless of age Connery was always convincing as a leading man, or as a supporting actor in another childhood favourite of mine Highlander (1986), in which Frenchman Christopher Lambert proved more than Connery’s match in the abysmal accent category (for another terrible Scottish accent see also Harrison Ford’s Scottish Lord in the aforementioned Last Crusade). Highlander was a surprising success, spawning two sequels and a TV series, with Connery coax back into set for three million dollars in exchange for three day’s work in Highlander 2: The Quickening, coincidentally my nomination for all time most spectacularly awful film featuring a major Hollywood star. It really is jaw slackeningly awful, with the stories of its painful inception now the stuff of Hollywood legend. Having been killed off in the original Highlander and with the producers insistent that there could be no sequel without Sir Sean, most of Connery’s limited screen time is devoted to his character’s unlikely resurrection which takes the form of a shopping spree in a gentleman’s outfitters before hurrying off to needlessly sacrifice himself about thirty minutes later. Connery’s involvement with the production is now part of that curious subset of film history that includes the chapter where Michael Caine secures an insane $23 million dollars to star in Jaws 4: The Revenge (3D), stipulating that he would only sign if the film was shot in Jamaica, where he had recently purchased a house and wouldn’t have to travel very far. The script had to be altered extensively to accommodate Caine’s contractual requirements, which explains why Jaws Jr suddenly appears off the Jamaican coast, where it was managed to track the Brody family in pursuit of bloody vengeance and chance for the production company to reuse most of the shark footage from the 1974 original. Like Highlander 2: The Quickening it is considered a classic so-good-its-bad film, featuring the infamous roaring shark scene where Jr is impaled on the broken prow of the boat by the widowed Mrs Brody.
In the same year that Connery was cashing his Highlander 2 check, he also appeared as King John in the closing minutes of 90s favourite Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, in which Kevin Costner also adds his name to roster of terrible accents with his weird California-Compton-Nottingham twang that even he abandons midway through the first act. Connery wouldn’t have been overly troubled by his lack of screen time in Prince of Thieves, having already delivered a memorable performance as the titular hero as a venerable man in tights opposite Audrey Hepburn’s Marian in Robin and Marian (1976). The following year he would switch genres to give us A Bridge Too Far, a classic wartime epic that one of my university housemates would watch obsessively in his sweaty little room with the lights turned off and volume turned up to eleven, leading some to suspect that it was cover for a vigorous round of masturbation. Bridge is one of those stalwarts of the holiday season and always seems to be listed in the Christmas TV pages along other seasonal essentials Bridge Over the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone. Continuing with the military theme, The Presidio (1988) is a good yarn, marking the beginning of a strange period for Connery that sees him lurch from Highlander 2 in 1991, to a white savour complex in Medicine Man (1992) and Rising Sun (1993) playing opposite Wesley Snipes in an entertaining yet bizarre film that recalls some of the more troubling cultural missteps of You Only Live Twice. First Knight (1995) and Dragonheart (1996) follow in quick succession before we get to The Rock (1996) which I also watched repeatedly as a teen. Entrapment (1999) would close the decade, and wit it effectively draw Connery’s remarkable film career to an end, although he does return in another much underappreciated film, Finding Forester (2003), before being lured back into action for the very las time in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003).
Looking back over his long film career I was surprised at just how many of my favourites were in fact Connery films. I also learned that he was the original first choice for play Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a tantalising prospect albeit an unsettling one that I nevertheless would have liked to have seen if only for curiosity’s sake. Other notable rejections include the leading role of Deckard in Blade Runner and Morpheus in The Matrix, and I think we can all agree that Connery made the right call in those instances. Since his early missions Bond has also evolved to a certain degree and has more recently returned to the semi-seriousness of those of first Connery performances, pointing to a nostalgia that is quintessentially Connery’s. For better or worse he offered a benchmark in cinematic masculinity, a larger than life rogue that celebrated the hard-to-find excesses and luxuries of a post-war Britain struggling to free itself from austerity and trying to reconcile the loss of Empire. It’s interesting to consider Connery’s comments that he hated making the Extraordinary Gentlemen, that it didn’t make any sense to him, leading to his decision to finally retire. From Bond to Robin Hood, Medicine Man, King John, Major General Urquhart, Henry Jones Jr, John Patrick Mason, and Allan Quartermain, some of Connery’s biggest box office roles have provided ample opportunity to analyse the representation of British colonialism in film, and perhaps Quartermain was too pantomime or too much of a parody of these roles for Connery to feel quite at home. It’s impossible to know, but it is also a shame that we didn’t get the Sean Connery equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, a thoughtful exploration of the genre that had defined one of the great film careers and the closest you can come to a national film genre. An exhausted, disillusioned Bond, perhaps deep in his retirement pressed back into action but without the love of country that had once defined him – an altogether more thoughtful, introspective and possibly regretful Bond – would have been an interesting experiment, perhaps something along the lines of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets 2017’s Logan. At any rate the world certainly feels smaller without him.