It may be sacrilege to admit, but I have always despised James Bond. To me, Bond embodies all of Britain’s post-war self-delusion; Bond was the avatar for a former superpower that had nothing more to offer than chest-beating jingoism, casual misogyny and state-sanctioned brutality masquerading as power. Bond was a fantasy figure for the UK establishment, and they sold this fantasy vision of itself to the world: the suave sadist. In my hatred for the Bond franchise, I feel I may have done a disservice to its star. I have always had a tendency to discount Sean Connery as an exquisitely sculpted statue, capable of filling out a tuxedo very nicely but little else. In mitigation, Connery entered my consciousness at a time when he was sleepwalking through lucrative but lacklustre fare like The Rock (1996) and The Avengers (1998), sporting a succession of increasingly elaborate hairpieces. As the years went by, Connery solidified into a monument, displayed at great expense as a signifier of prestige.
Nonetheless, it was a position borne of ignorance on my part; I was looking in all the wrong places for proof of Connery’s craft. While I will always have an aversion to 007, it cannot be contested that Connery used his fame to forge relationships with directors who could harness his inner-fire. None more so than Sidney Lumet. The Hill (1965) set the tone for the kind of films Connery would make throughout the 1970s. It was the first time the flawless facade cracked to reveal the actor beneath. In The Hill, the weapon that is Bond has malfunctioned; as the “busted sergeant-major” Joe Roberts, Connery is every inch the working-class rebel, speaking to the class antagonism that would figure in much of his 70s work. Roberts is the first in a long line of iconoclasts who use their physical strength and down-to-earth charm in the interest of challenging barbaric traditions and standing up to the abuse of power.
Connery’s 70s were a systematic attempt to chip away at the contours of the monument. Much like The Hill, The Molly Maguires (1970) is a story of solidarity, and director Martin Ritt uses shot selections and makes framing choices that position Connery as just one of the many coal miners in late-19th-century Pennsylvania. A concerted effort is made to conceal Connery’s star status to underscore that his character, Jack Kehoe, is part of a community; his is merely one of the many smut-stained faces that emerge from the coalface after a day’s toil. It is one of the most remarkable introductions to a leading man. As the group of the legendary saboteurs walks away from the dynamite they have just laid, Connery is barely visible in the background; he has divested himself of his aura in service of the character.
Connery is seldom framed alone or shot in close-up; unlike Richard Harris’s James McParlan, an ambitious undercover officer sent into town to infiltrate the Molly Maguires gang. McParlan’s desire for self-advancement in made plain: he is an avowed individualist who yearns to “look down,” and as such he is frequently isolated within the frame. Close-ups of Connery are only utilised to demonstrate Kehoe’s standing within the community beyond the public square; they are reserved for the private meetings where his true power is made manifest. It is fascinating to watch this conflict of philosophies play out visually. The Molly Maguires offers one of Connery’s most quietly dynamic performances; it has the feel of an explosion about to go off, speaking to a dread of silence that hangs over the life of the miners, as Kehoe laments of a fallen comrade: “He never made a sound; never a sound of his own.
Connery reunited with Lumet to make two films that stood in stark contrast to Diamonds Are Forever (1971). At the beginning of The Anderson Tapes (1971), Connery is utterly convincing as a man who has spent 10 years in prison: his complexion is gaunt, his thinning hair is dishevelled and his suit is too big for his shrunken frame. As with Roberts in The Hill, Lumet strips away the artifice to reveal the angry core. Anderson is angry at the whole world, and The Anderson Tapes is a form of revenge film, with vengeance being sought against society itself (“a legalised con-game” and “a fixed horse race” in Anderson’s estimation). Unlike Kehoe in The Molly Maguires, Robert “Duke” Anderson cuts an isolated figure, and Lumet’s street-level authenticity establishes Anderson as a wounded lion in a jungle he no longer recognises (Lumet anticipated Friedkin and Scorsese in utilising New York’s feral energies).
Writer Frank Pierson — who would collaborate with Lumet again on Dog Day Afternoon (1975) — used his adaptation of Lawrence Sanders’ novel to explore America’s burgeoning surveillance state. Anderson’s planned robbery of an upscale apartment block is monitored every step of the way; the ex con has traded one prison for another. Pierson presents the conception and development of the caper with the full knowledge of its failure. Anderson regards the caper as a reassertion of his masculine identity, he derives a sexual charge from the act of safe-cracking, but his inability to pull the trigger at the decisive moment signals the failure of his potency. Connery conveys the strain of Anderson’s assimilation back into society with an unvarnished performance, lending the character a raw vulnerability he had never previously been permitted, or empowered, to exhibit onscreen. The Anderson Tapes proved that Connery was capable of retaining his leading man status as something other than the masculine ideal James Bond represented: a man who thinks he is in control, but is stumbling into a snare.
The Offence (1973) extends this rage and resentment, but from the other side of the criminal divide. Connery plays Detective-Sergeant Johnson, who is on the trail of a serial child molester. But what begins as a procedural turns into a Polanksi-esque psychological thriller, as the accumulated horrors Johnson has witnessed overwhelm him. When Johnson is suspended for beating a suspect to death, the emptiness of his world is exposed. The Offence demonstrates what happens when a man is stripped of his certainty: Johnsons asks “What is happening to me?” as he struggles to keep “the man inside” suppressed. Connery deftly executes the transition from a singularly driven investigator to a figure on the brink of hysteria: one moment he is upright and unflappable, the next he is all nervous energy and tense movement. It is as effective an evocation of PTSD as that seen in Taxi Driver (1976), showing the other side of the violence Bond glorified, beyond the exhilaration of victory.
As Johnson traverses an English post-war housing development no less foreboding than Lumet’s customary locales, it becomes clear that Anderson and Johnson occupy the same mental real estate: they are equally out of step with a new configuration, seeking solace in obsolete codes, clinging to moribund certainties. Both films find Connery using the role to come to terms with the limitations of his own middle age. Johnson tells the suspect that he still feels like a young man inside, but the demands of the dead weight he has to carry are evident in the strained cadences of Connery’s performance; he betrays himself in small movements and telling gestures, he is no longer able to “lock the drawer” where his darkest recollections are stored. Anderson and Johnson could be read as manifestations of Connery’s own desire to escape the past, and his inability to shake its memory. Anderson leaves prison filled with angry fervour, while Johnson ends up coming to terms with the fact he is trapped.
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As the decade progressed, Connery became intent on putting further distance between himself and Bond. His role in John Boorman’s fevered fantasy Zardoz (1974) felt almost like a controlled demolition of his tough-guy persona. This twisted amalgam of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and hard science fiction is “rich in irony and most satirical,” and has some inventive ideas, but it struggles to settle on a consistent tone. It is neither as fantastical as Terry Gilliam or incisive as Stanley Kubrick; high camp sits uneasily alongside philosophy. To his credit, Connery attacks the role of the “exterminator” Zed with absolute solemnity (though one suspects he had no idea what he was letting himself in for). Strutting around like a walking phallus, Zed is taken in as the pet of an immortal class of “eternals” who live in an androgynous utopia. Connery is the perfect choice for the role; who better to represent the forces of male chauvinism than James Bond himself? What is ironic is that Zed and Bond are not that dissimilar; they are both seductive merchants of doom. Zed brings the threat of death and the promise of penetration to paradise; he is “a fine strong beast”; the confluence of sex, violence and power. Zardoz is an often bewildering entry in the canon of 70s reactionary cinema, as well as an intriguing insight into Connery’s awareness of himself as a macho anachronism.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Robin and Marian (1976) concern themselves with the process of mythmaking, how men cease to be entirely human by virtue of their deeds. It was a theme that was understandably close to Connery’s heart. The Man Who Would Be King posits that heroism is happenstance with the benefit of a good author. In John Huston’s retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s short story, plunder solidifies into myth, myth solidifies into history; all it requires is the decisive pen. It is one of the most honest films about imperialism, laying bare the rampant adventurism beneath the surface of the high-flown rhetoric. Huston’s picaresque tale of two “scoundrels” (Connery and Michael Caine) who set off in search of Kafiristan, “a land of opportunity for men such as we,” teems with outlandish character detail, and Connery throws himself with gusto into the role of the amiable mercenary-turned-deity.
The joy of The Man Who Would Be King is the chemistry between its stars; laughter propels Connery and Caine across the inhospitable terrain; there is more than a hint of Butch and Sundance to their badinage (Huston had been trying to get the film made since the 50s, originally with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable as the leads. When Paul Newman and Robert Redford were offered the roles, Newman generously advised Huston that Connery and Caine were the only choices). Connery is able to guide Daniel Dravot through multiple phases: from cold calculation at the spoils to be had; to awestruck apprehension when the scope of what he and Peachy Carnehan have stumbled upon becomes apparent; then the slide into hubris and the fall that results from his being too “bleedin’ high and bloody mighty.” Dravot’s arc functions as a handy parable for our present predicament: impostors like Dravot can only “bluff it out” for so long; they play with powerful symbols for personal gain, but they will ultimately be swept away by the emotional currents those symbols whip up. It is left to Kipling (Christopher Plummer) to retrieve the flotsam of Dravot and Carnehan’s quixotic quest and lend it the patina of poetry.
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Few myths are as enduring as that of Robin Hood, and Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian sets out to deconstruct the folklore with Lester’s trademark playfulness. Robin and Marian finds Connery’s Robin in rueful middle age, having returned from the Crusades with little to show for his “great victories” in the Holy Land, working in the service of the dissolute and vindictive Richard the Lionheart (Richard Harris). When Richard dies, King John (Ian Holm) ascends to the throne, and Robin must return to Sherwood Forest, reunite his merry men, woo Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) and defeat the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw). Robin and Marian is the story of a man who has lived beyond his legend, and what happens when he tries to retrace his steps. There is a weary acceptance to Robin’s actions, an understanding that anything he does will only detract from his legacy. While Marian has built a new life as a nun, Robin has been unable to find anything that can match his past exploits; there are no new battles to excite him, no great causes to champion, no dreams to chase; so he must try to revive old ones. Given how Connery’s career went from this point, it is an intriguing theme.
Great play is made of Robin’s exertions in living up to his legend. Connery leans into his state of waning vigour to charming effect — groaning every time he gets on a horse or climbs a tree, and engaging in ungainly combat sequences that showcase guile over brawn. But it becomes clear that Robin’s aura is sufficient to galvanise the villagers against the Sheriff’s men; the villagers do not see a broken down old man who is “a little bit in love with death,” but a hero to lead them. Robin bears the scars of battle, and carries the knowledge that his heroics have been inflated, but he also grasps that a decaying monument still has the capacity to inspire. Robin has entered the mythic arena, and a man cannot live in the shadow of his myth; the only remedy is to make an accommodation with it. One cannot lead “a life to sing about” without making the necessary sacrifice, so Robin seeks a demise befitting the life. For all its initial Pythonesque trappings, Robin and Marian turns into a melancholy study of a man who realises that he will forever be trapped in the forest where his greatest glories took places.
If Robin and Marian saw Connery coming to terms with his legend, Cuba (1979) was the moment of his final acceptance. Reuniting with Lester for this picturesque but pedestrian romantic thriller, Connery plays Major Robert Dapes, a “soldier of fortune” who comes to pre-revolution Cuba to help the Batista regime eliminate Castro’s guerrillas, and finds romantic entanglements along the way. Cuba signalled Connery’s newfound willingness to restore some semblance of the old star formula. It was a tentative step into familiar territory; Connery falls into the old cadences, yet he never seems fully engaged in the role, delivering the sort of performance he can pull off with faultless precision but minimal exertion. He was elegantly tailored and impeccably groomed, and that was enough for most of the audience.
It was a lesson Connery learned and repeated to great effect over the course of the 80s and 90s: his mere presence sufficed to lend an air of gravitas to the most lightweight of fare, and people would pay him handsomely for the privilege. The screen ceased to be a forum of self-exploration for Connery; nostalgia had come around for the brand of Cold War theatrics Connery brought into vogue, and he was ideally placed to take advantage. There were intermittent flashes of the spirit that animated his 70s work — most notably his Oscar-winning turn in The Untouchables (1987) — but for the most part, Connery was content to hide behind the monument. The process was complete when a 52-year-old Connery reprised the role of Bond in the renegade remake of Thunderball (1961), Never Say Never Again (1983).
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.