It is no exaggeration to write that as the star of the first movies about the British Intelligence agent James Bond, Sean Connery was part of a cultural phenomenon that shaped the 1960s. And in defining the physical and spoken character of Ian Fleming’s hero, he became the standard by which all the other actors who have followed him in the role are judged. It is also no exaggeration to place him on the mantle of among the great cinematic stars of the 20th century. This achievement was due to his persistence in successfully transcending the limitations which the extraordinary success of the Bond movies threatened to place on his range and competence as an actor.
Connery always wanted to be known as more than a beefcake or a matinee idol, and he was quick to appreciate that the character of Bond presented an albatross from which needed to escape. He proved his abilities in ‘serious’ roles such as The Hill (1965) and The Offence (1972). He was excellent as Danny Dravot in John Houston’s version of the Kipling story The Man Who Would Be King. Houston had wanted to film it in the early 1950s with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, but which thankfully for cinema audiences was “delayed” for almost a quarter of a century. Some critics posit The Hill as his best ‘serious’ role, but there are many other roles from which to choose, including from his earlier work when he was developing as an actor such as Hell Drivers (1957), and those when he was on the cusp of stardom such as his starring role as an 11th century Scottish king in the TV version of the Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth (1961).
His ineffable style of delivery of one-liners in the Bond movies were part of his skill which revolutionised the screen hero, as was his projection of masculinity. One of the highlights of Connery’s screen career surely has to be his train brawl with Robert Shaw (‘Red Grant’) in From Russia, With Love (1963). It was a realistic mix of choreographed boxing, hapkido and street fighting techniques that breathed new life into the tired formula of big screen fights which Hollywood favoured up to that period in time.
Later in his career, his screen presence remained intact when sharing the spotlight with rising talents such as Kevin Costner and Wesley Snipes. There were many accolades along the way, but his greatest triumph was when in 1988, he won an Oscar for his performance in The Untouchables”; the judges, like the audiences, evidently forgave his portrayal of an Irish cop with his trademark Scottish burr.
His Scottish heritage as well as his birth into urban poverty defined him. The son of a factory worker whose Irish Catholic forebears had migrated to Scotland, Connery’s relentless quest to be somebody never left him. The willingness of the media to portray him as the archetypal “stingy Scot” rode roughshod of the fact that his shrewdness was not remarkable for many who lived a childhood of grinding poverty. And it was a forgivable aspect of his personality given the predatory con artists which pervade the show business industry. Connery himself would suffer from poor financial advice which led to several costly legal entanglements that almost left him bankrupt.
Less forgivable were the allegations of misogyny including physical violence against his first wife, the actress Diane Cilento. Others charged him with hypocrisy for not living in Scotland, the country for which he remained an avowed proponent for national independence, while enjoying the life of a tax exile from the United Kingdom.
But these imperfections did not dim the view of many in his homeland who once voted him as the “world’s greatest living Scot”, and who in death persist in acclaiming him as not only one of the greatest ever Scotsmen, but also the last of the truly great cinema actors.
Thomas Sean Connery KBE was born on August 25th 1930 and died on October 31st 2020.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2020)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.