I think it was John Lennon who said that before the 60s everything seemed to be in black and white, and then suddenly everything turned to color. This was never more accurate than in Post-War Britain. What did it mean to be British in a world where they now had to play second fiddle to the USSR and United States? What could this tiny island really contribute to the world? A western world terrified of the nuclear bomb, communists, and now obsessed with American pop culture—its greatest and most lasting export. How could Britain still leave its mark?
With Bond… James Bond… That’s how.
Before The Beatles conquered the world and became Britain’s all-powerful answer to American export, opening the floodgates to Anglo culture and multiple “British Invasions” that lasted well into the early 80s, there was Bond. And Bond was Connery. It seems inconceivable today that Connery wasn’t everybody’s first choice for the job—that Ian Fleming protested his casting. That it had taken producer Cubby Broccoli’s wife to convince him that he was the right man to play him. But then, she saw something immediately that Cubby didn’t or couldn’t: Sean Connery was really fucking sexy! With Connery as Bond, Brits were suddenly COOL. But even more unlikely— they were also SEXY.
Before Connery, Brits wore bowler hats and carried umbrellas. They behaved like a cross between the father in Mary Poppins and Lane Pryce, the English business partner in Mad Men. There is nothing, I repeat, NOTHING sexy about those guys. But who didn’t want to be (and be with) Sean Connery? Tall and masculine. Moving through the world like a panther, as Ian Fleming once described. Driving fast cars. Sleeping with every girl. And making it all seem so natural and easy and suave that even the Americans looked like dopes when found in the same room as him. Even JFK, America’s new, cool, young president, claimed Dr. NO to be his favorite film.
Fleming famously didn’t want Connery…you couldn’t help but feel the working class in him seeping through.
Of course, a lot of this was the character of Bond. But without Connery, the franchise really could’ve gone another way (and not become a franchise at all). Fleming famously didn’t want Connery, describing him as an “overgrown stuntman.” He was crass. He looked like he had been in a real bar fight more than once in his life. He was rough ‘round the edges, and although he tried to hide it, you couldn’t help but feel the working class in him seeping through. Connery, in fact, grew up poor, the son of a cleaner, and spent time as a milkman, and then as a bodybuilder to make money.
But Connery had charisma, charm, and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude that stretched out for days. No one had ever seen anything like it! It was as if bad teethed, scrawny, old, Gracie Fields-singing, down-the-pit mines Britain produced something akin to sultry, dirty, couldn’t-give-a-damn Marlon Brando. Except with a better tailor and a faster car. Sean Connery was the very definition of Big Dick Energy. And by the time the first film came out, Fleming was not only a true believer, he rewrote his own character to give him a Scottish background.
Which brings me to that accent. That iconic voice and lisp. The cause of countless pub impressions, jokes, and even songs. Along with Michael Caine, Connery chose not to drop his accent. He didn’t go to RADA. He didn’t go the route of O’Toole or Burton and adopt the Queen’s English. He stuck to his roots. Until then, it had been unheard of for a Brit in a film or on the stage (or on the radio for that matter) to not lose their regional accent and speak as if they had been brought up at Eton, my dear fellow. But Connery said to hell with that, I’m Scottish and I’m sticking to my (uncouth, working-class) Scottish accent.
Connery was a man who always did things HIS way, and in so doing, helped buckle a system that had been in place since time immemorial.
At the height of his Bond fame, for instance, Connery decided to make The Hill—a small independent film directed by Sidney Lumet, giving probably his greatest performance as an army prisoner going up against an out-of-date and sadistic system, proving to the world that he was a much more versatile actor than audiences had presumed. Later, when he’d finally had enough of Bond, he walked away (twice… oh okay, three times) he managed to carve out a long and highly successful career outside of that very long shadow which he himself had helped create and that no other Bond actor has ever managed to escape.
When given the script to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade…[Connery] wasn’t interested in playing such a run-of-the-mill secondary father figure. And so, [Spielberg] had it rewritten. And then rewritten again and again, until he was happy with it.
In the 1970s, he gave another stand-out performance in John Huston’s masterful The Man Who Would Be King. After a couple of missteps along the way (but still interesting work) such as The Offence and Robin and Marian, he then had his so-called comeback with Highlander, In the Name of the Rose, and most of all, The Untouchables—for which he won his only Oscar, all within a year of each other. After that, he never looked back.
But as always, Connery continued to do things his way, no matter the project or whom he might be dealing with. When given the script to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he told Spielberg and Lucas outright that it really wasn’t up to standard, and that he wasn’t interested in playing such a run-of-the-mill secondary father figure. And so, they had it rewritten. And then rewritten again and again, until he was happy with it.
It was Connery, after all, who suggested that his character should sleep with Elsa Schneider, the Nazi girl played by Alison Doody, whom his son also sleeps with. A suggestion that Spielberg apparently found intriguing, but that shocked Lucas to no end. Luckily, they took the suggestion to heart and ran with it, making it some of the funniest moments in the entire Indiana Jones franchise.
Once films became too laden with CGI, however, and Connery started to find the work tiresome, he again did things his way—this time walking away from cinema for good. Even Spielberg and Lucas couldn’t lure him out of retirement for the fourth Indiana movie (and no doubt a hefty paycheck). Connery was done. He had given the world a lot and had given the people of Britain even more than current generations could ever understand. And now he wanted to be left alone. And who the hell could blame him?
Rest in peace, Sir Sean. The man who became king.