For many people Sir Sean Connery is the very definition of James Bond 007. The first actor to play the part on the big screen has left a lasting impression with audiences, even nearly 60 years later. Becoming a pop culture icon in the 60s, Connery maintained his relevance with a career rejuvination in the late 80s and through the 90s. Just as Pierce Brosnan had introduced a new generation to James Bond in GoldenEye, the following year Connery would star in The Rock, showing that he too could still be a formidable action hero. Whilst other Bond actors have had peaks and troughs with their popularity, Connery maintains his high significance and popularity; so much so that if we include non EON release Never Say Never Again and the From Russia With Love video game, Sir Sean Connery has played James bond in five different decades.
My experiences with being introduced to the Sean Connery James Bond films is a little more unique than most people’s, as I essentially saw them in reverse order. My first Bond films as I remember were Diamonds Are Forever and For Your Eyes Only, so instantly I was attuned to the character of James Bond being middle aged. Criticisms often thrown at Connery in Diamonds Are Forever address the weight he had put on and his lack of physicality compared to his earlier films, but this was my benchmark. Connery was far from obese and still had great physical presence when performing stunts by himself. The Mankiewicz script gave a camp humour which was delightfully embraced by Connery, ahead of Roger Moore defining it as the tone for his films.
Soon after, Never Say Never Again would premiere on UK televiaion on Christmas Day 1986, which further leant into addressing Connery’s advancing age and gave his character more camp humour to play with. Still with no context for comparison with 60s Bond and unaware that Never Say Never Again was a remake of Thunderball, I was able to enjoy the film as a single entity, especially due to Connery’s performance, which is probably the most comedic he has had as James Bond whilst still retaining the dry charm he is known for. Still to this day I can watch Never Say Never Again and enjoy it, despite its many faults. The key component is Connery’s performance and especially that he appears to be enjoying himself in the role once again. Considering the behind the scenes drama during filming and the added pressure on Connery working with an unreliable producer, it is a testament to his acting that none of this shows in his performance.
By contrast, You Only Live Twice is a film that I enjoyed very much so as a child but fell out of favour with as I got older, and it is Connery’s performance that is one of my main gripes with the film. Upon first viewing, it would just seem that Connery plays the role more seriously. After you have heard the stories about how tired and unhappy he was, plus the outrageous hounding by Japanese paparazzi, you can see the effects on screen. Scenes shot on location in Japan have Connery appear stoic at best or uncomfortable at worst. The scenes shot in a studio setting fare better, but the film cuts between location and studio sets so often that the difference in Connery’s tone is obvious and jarring. Still, You Only Live Twice felt to me like how a template of a James bond film should be, which is ironically what it turned out to be for The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker and Tomorrow Never Dies.
By the time I came to see Thunderball, I had also seen more of the Roger Moore films and so I had a very clear idea of what I expected a James Bond film to deliver. With exotic locations, beautiful women, nuclear weapons, the world held to ransom, scuba diving and a jet pack, Thunderball provides everything I could ever want to see. For me, Connery is at his peak as James Bond here. Not only is he more comfortable and relaxed in his portrayal, he genuinely appears to be enjoying himself throughout. From this peak, going back and seeing From Russia With Love and then Dr No felt different and actually underwhelming to me as a child. Everything about Thunderball is big and elaborate, but Connery’s first two films struggled to keep my young attention, with many scenes of Bond talking to another character in a room, expositing the plot. I have matured, and I now have much more appreciation these films, with From Russia With Love being a Cold War masterpiece in cinema and Dr No as an amazing Introduction to Ian Fleming’s character.
The final Connery film that I saw was Goldfinger; it was late ’91 or early ’92, and was the penultimate fulm I saw in the series released at that point, with Live And Let Die completing my first watches a year later. Goldfinger is what made James Bond iconic, from the gadgets, girls, cars and villains, everything combines together perfectly, setting the formula that would be followed from here on. Connery is more relaxed and confident in the role at this point and gives everything in his performance. He is the man of action, the sneaking spy, the ruthless killer, the charming rogue, calm under pressure and utterly adaptable. So bold and confident is Connery’s portrayal in Goldfinger that the audience does not notice how uneffective Bond is at being a spy and saving the day. It did not matter though, as every second Connery is on screen, he has a masterful presence that has us compelled to stare in awe and wonder at him.
The recurring theme that I noticed was that confidence Connery gave Bond with each performance. As a boy heading towards adolescence, James Bond was a role model for me, for confidence and success especially when it came to the opposite sex. Nowadays, modern standards apply to 1960 climate and attitudes label Bond as a mysoginistic sex pest, but all I saw was a devilishly handsome man who was cool and self-assured, charming, funny, oozed sex appeal from every pore and fawned over by women. As a boy beginning to mature sexually and become a man, that was a hero to me and who I wanted to be. Sean Connery is the epitome of the classic phrase “Men want to be him and women want to be with him.” Connery’s films inspired me to be a more confident person and conquer shyness and confidence issues in my youth, which is why I rank him as my second best James Bond.