Sean Connery may have retired from cinema 17 years ago (his last film was the sadly unextraordinary The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but like all true stars, he continues to emit light and fascinate long after he supposedly disappeared from view.
Connery turned 90 this year, and to celebrate the life of the “Greatest Living Scotsman”, BBC Scotland produced a fine documentary in which luminaries such as Terry Gilliam paid tribute to his outstanding career. He’s both the definitive James Bond and a remarkable character actor who had graced half a dozen or more other masterpieces, often playing roles that were as far removed from the iconic secret agent as one can possibly imagine.
Connery’s legacy has also been discussed with the release of two major films in which he was almost an off-screen presence, so powerfully did they remind audiences of him. First, of course, was the Bond film, Spectre, during the promotion of which Daniel Craig, arguably the best Bond since Connery, openly talked about wanting to do non-Bond roles once his time as 007 is up, which of course was what Connery excelled at.
Secondly, was Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, which prompted memories of the greatest film version of Macbeth never made. Connery actually did play Macbeth in a Canadian TV movie in the early 1960s, but apparently, he had always dreamed of giving the play the big-screen treatment. A decade later, at the height of his Bond fame, he planned not only to star in a film of Macbeth but to direct it himself. However, he was deterred when Roman Polanski announced his post-Charles Manson, post-apocalyptic version of the play. It is a great shame, of course, that Connery never got to make his Macbeth, as it would have been a version of the Scottish play featuring the Scottish actor.
Nevertheless, Connery’s non-Bond cinematic career is at least the equal of his career as Bond, which is the ultimate accolade. Here are his Top 10 non-Bond films.
The Best Sean Connery Films that aren’t James Bond Films
10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Directed by Steven Spielberg, Screenplay by Jeffrey Boam)
Connery, of course, was the “Senior” to Harrison Ford’s “Junior” in the third installment of the Indiana Jones series, despite the fact that Connery was only 12 years older than Ford (which may have been a sly joke about the older Jones boy’s legendary powers of seduction). Certainly, this combination of “James Bond” and “Han Solo” was infinitely more successful than the later attempt, Cowboys and Aliens, in which Ford and Daniel Craig struggled with a strange hybrid of sci-fi and western. In The Last Crusade, the tone was pure boy’s own adventure, and that meant boys of all ages, as Connery and Ford skilfully evaded (and occasionally bedded) the Nazis.
9. The First Great Train Robbery (1979, Written and Directed by Michael Crichton, Based on his novel, The Great Train Robbery)
The First Great Train Robbery (released as The Great Train Robbery in America, where Ronnie Biggs et al were not famous fugitives) is a relatively unknown film, which is all the more surprising as it was written and directed by Michael Crichton, who had already achieved success with his original “techno-novel”, Westworld (about a computerized Western theme park that goes wrong, which obviously gave him the idea for Jurassic Park two decades later).
In The First Great Train Robbery, Connery is the mastermind behind a gang of Victorian train thieves who plan to steal a consignment of gold bound for the British troops fighting in the Crimean war. The combination of Connery (a great screen actor) and Crichton (a great screen storyteller) is compelling, as Connery and his partner, Donald Sutherland, have to jump through a series of ever-tightening hoops to pull off the heist. And even when the plan goes awry and Connery is caught, he executes one last great act of derring-do to escape his captors, like Bond himself narrowly avoiding a laser beam or poison dart.
8. The Anderson Tapes (1971, Directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Frank Pierson, based on the novel by Lawrence Sanders)
Connery’s post-Bond cinematic career began in earnest with The Anderson Tapes, which was released in the same year as his final Bond outing, Diamonds Are Forever. (I am sure Sir Sean himself would like to draw a veil over his ill-fated 1983 comeback as Bond in Never Say Never Again, which may have contributed a great catch-phrase to the English language but did little for his cinematic legacy.) Fittingly, just as Connery was about to end his near-decade as James Bond, so his character in The Anderson Tapes, John “Duke” Anderson, is ending his own 10 years of imprisonment for robbery, only to be enticed back by the proverbial “one last job”.
Connery made many of his best non-Bond films with the great Sidney Lumet (two more are on this list) and it is one of the great cinematic “what ifs?” to wonder what Lumet, the genius behind both 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon (among many others), would have made of Connery’s Bond if he had ever been asked to helm an 007 movie. Nevertheless, The Anderson Tapes is itself utterly fascinating, as it was one of the first major cinematic examinations of the growing surveillance culture that would eventually envelop the whole Western world, beginning with Richard Nixon’s own “private recordings”.
In fact, the film is extraordinarily prescient, a “post-Watergate” movie made before Watergate even happened, and just as Tricky Dicky was eventually entrapped by his own audio tapes, so Connery’s Anderson is ultimately trapped by technology. Worse still, he discovers that his supposedly brilliant heist has been monitored from the start by the authorities, who have the “tapes” to prove it.
7. The Molly Maguires(1970, Directed by Martin Ritt, written by Walter Bernstein, based on the novel by Arthur H. Lewis)
What links many of the movies on this list is that they were made by great directors, in particular Hitchcock, Huston, and Lumet. But the relatively little-known Martin Ritt (who also made Hud and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold), merits inclusion in that company. It was as if Connery – a former James Bond, a finalist in the Mister Universe competition and all-round Alpha Male if ever there was one – was drawn to equally powerful directors who knew how to make the most of his quintessentially masculine screen magnetism.
Ritt was one of the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters in the 1950s. He was naturally drawn to The Molly Maguires, the story of how 19th-century coal-miners formed a secret society and engaged in what would now be regarded as terrorist activities to try to win better terms and conditions from their oppressive employers, only to be infiltrated by a private detective posing as one of their own.
Connery plays Jack Kehoe, the leader of the Molly Maguires, and Richard Harris plays the private detective. But at one point, the casting was the other way round, which is a testament to the near interchangeability of cop and criminal. Certainly, Connery and Harris were one of the great screen double-acts, and Connery obviously enjoyed sharing star billing so much that he would later repeat the trick in Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King.
6. Marnie (1964, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen, based on the novel by Winston Graham)
Marnie is not one of the great Hitchcock movies; in fact, it effectively signalled the end of Hitchcock’s “imperial phase” as a director, which had lasted for more than a decade and included such undisputed classics as Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and, of course, Psycho. Nevertheless, it is cinematically important for showing the world that Connery, fresh from triumphing in the first two Bond films Dr No and From Russia With Love, could play another character on screen, even if that distinctive Scottish burr (probably the greatest voice in movies and certainly the most imitated) was present to a greater or lesser degree in all the characters he played, whatever their nationality.
In Marnie, Connery plays a wealthy businessman who employs and eventually falls in love with Tippi Hedren’s titular thief, finally discovering the appalling family secret that drives her to crime. He may not be as “all-action” as he had been as Bond, but the underlying sense of power, even menace, that had made his Bond so convincing as a state-licensed killer is also present under Hitchcock’s direction, as Connery resorts to ever more dubious tactics, including blackmail and even the threat of rape, to get what he wants.
5. The Name of the Rose (1986, Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, Based on the novel by Umberto Eco)
The Name of the Rose is one of the great late Connery movies, in which he plays a medieval monk, William of Baskerville, sent to investigate a series of murders at an Italian monastery. The original novel by Umberto Eco, which introduced the concept of semiotics (the study of signs or symbols) to the world at large, had been one of the unlikeliest high-brow bestsellers ever, but the film necessarily concentrated on the detective story at its heart.
What is particularly fascinating about The Name of the Rose is that Connery, who, as James Bond, had been the ultimate ladies man, convincingly pulls off the depiction of a supposedly celibate monk, who has obviously sublimated his sexual instincts in pursuit of intellectual accomplishment. One of the most moving scenes in the film is when Connery’s “old man” informs his protégé (Christian Slater, in his breakthrough movie) how he, too, had once known what it was to love and be loved, even if he had never acted upon it. In its own way, it is almost as moving as the announcement of the pathetic Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that, despite his foppish appearance, “I was once adored”.
4. The Untouchables (1987, Directed by Brian De Palma, written by David Mamet, based on the memoir by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley)
The similarities in the careers of Britain’s two greatest post-war movie stars, Sean Connery and Michael Caine, are fascinating. Both came to fame playing spies (Connery as Bond, Caine as the anti-Bond, Harry Palmer); both experienced, relatively speaking, mid-career slumps; and both thrillingly returned to form in the second half of the 1980s with truly stellar performances that not only revived their careers but won them an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (Caine in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and Connery in The Untouchables).
Connery certainly didn’t win the Oscar for his command of accent: such command is usually the hallmark of excellence for an actor, but that is obviously less true on screen than on stage. Connery’s Jimmy Malone is supposedly Irish, but Connery makes him “Scots Irish”, if we’re being polite. Nevertheless, his performance is superb, most memorably when he is educating Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness on the way to handle mobsters: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”. It is one of the most quoted speeches in modern movies and probably the most scarily eloquent summation of the “might is right” dictum ever written.
3. The Man Who Would Be King (1975, Directed by John Huston, written by John Huston and Gladys Hill, based on the novella by Rudyard Kipling)
The British Empire didn’t just bring the English language to the world; it also led to the creation of some of the greatest modern myths and stories, from The Jungle Book to Mutiny on the Bounty. However, perhaps foremost among those great stories, precisely because it is itself a parable on the excesses of imperialism, is Kipling’s novella (or long short story), The Man Who Would Be King, in which two ordinary British soldiers are kicked out of the army and end up becoming rulers of a small kingdom on the subcontinent.
Apparently, John Huston had originally envisaged that the two leads would be played by Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy, which is a testament to the longevity of his career. Nearly 30 years after first imagining filming The Man Who Would Be King, Huston found the latter-day equivalent of Bogey and Tracy in Connery and Caine, with the added advantage that they were both British. As I have said, Connery and Caine’s film careers had long seemed to mirror each other, but on The Man Who Would Be King, they became completely intertwined, just as the fate of the two soldiers they play become utterly conjoined.
The Man Who Would Be King may be the last great matinee movie ever made, which is meant as the most sincere of compliments. It is exactly the kind of imperial adventure movie that had been a staple of British cinema before World War Two, and even a regular fixture in American studios’ output, but which had long fallen out of favour as the sun finally set on the British Empire. However, Huston, Connery and Caine, with able support from Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling himself, thrillingly reinvigorated the genre, adding a touch of 1970s cynicism, and perhaps – who knows? – inspiring the fledgling film-maker George Lucas to invent his own American version of the classic British adventurer, Indiana Jones.
2. The Offence (1972, Directed by Sidney Lumet, written by John Hopkins, based on his stage play, This Story of Yours)
And so to the top two, and what a top two (both directed by Sidney Lumet), as Connery played the kind of destructive, even disreputable “bad guys” that his own Bond would have effortlessly dispatched. In The Offence, Connery plays a detective who has been disillusioned and perhaps even spiritually destroyed by the decades of rapes and child killings that he has investigated. Consequently, when an apparent child rapist seems to taunt him during an interrogation, Connery snaps and kills him. During the subsequent inquiry into the incident, his own moral bankruptcy is laid bare.
In an era of often pointless remakes, The Offence is one of the few films that could stand a “reboot”, or “re-imagining”, looking at the current cultural obsession with the horrors of internet pornography through the prism of a classic play. Who knows? Such a remake might even be the perfect vehicle for Daniel Craig to launch his own post-Bond career.
1. The Hill (1965, Directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Ray Rigby, based on his stage play of the same name)
The tagline to the new film of Alan Bennett’s memoir of the homeless woman who camped outside his house, The Lady In The Van, is, “Some people stay with you”. In the same vein, some films stay with you – forever – even if you may have only seen them once, years before. So it was with me and The Hill, Sidney Lumet, and Sean Connery’s extraordinary film about a soldier who defies the brutal regime in a British army prison in North Africa. I first saw it as a child; didn’t see it again until decades later; and both times, I was stunned.
The titular Hill is a man-made mound in the center of the prison camp, which Harry Andrews’ torturous Sergeant Major (a forerunner of the kind of men who ran the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay) makes Connery’s court-martialled soldier run up and down, in the searing heat, in order to break his spirit and destroy his defiance. But in effect, it is the hill that Sisyphus endlessly climbs and reclimbs, in the perfect demonstration of the pointlessness not only of petty army rules but of most human activity.
The Hill is largely forgotten now, especially when compared with Connery’s early Bond movies, but ultimately there is no doubt which is the greater cinematic achievement: Connery may have been, indeed always will be, 007, but his greatest ever performance in any Bond or non-Bond film was as the ordinary Joe Roberts, an ordinary man who becomes a tragic hero of truly epic proportions.
SEAN AND VAN (THE ONLY COMPARISON)
Sean Connery was the quintessential Bond for millions of people. But he was also an incredible actor with a career that spanned genres and iconic roles that will inspire movie-goers for decades. He is one of the greats and will be remembered for his lifelong contribution to film and cinema both on and off-screen.