“I have always hated that damn James Bond. I'd like to kill him.” Sean Connery interviewed by Barbara Walters 1986.
In 1961 Sean Connery, a working-class Scot, was chosen for the role of James Bond, the hero of a series of hugely successful spy novels by Eton-educated Ian Fleming. Connery was not what Fleming had in mind: his first choice was David Niven, the quintessential British “officer and gentlemen” of both pre and post–war Cinema.
Even if Connery wasn’t right for the role, Niven was certainly wrong, though he did later play Bond in the first unofficial Bond-movie Casino Royale. Niven’s charm was that of bygone age, the fantasy of an Edwardian era, a thoroughly decent, upper-class chap, a clubbable all-rounder whose decorum and determination never desert him. The opening, and admittedly highly affecting sequence of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, in which Niven is a squadron leader who has no choice but to go down with his plane over the English channel and who spends his final moments in conversation with an American radio operator named June, captures a certain romantic Late Victorian/Edwardian essence perfectly: all plucky and plumy, poetry-quoting, chirpy stoicism. Even by 1946 Niven seems an anachronism, more suited to portraying an earlier set of heroic gentlemen amateurs than the resolutely modern Bond; Richard Hanney, Bulldog Drummond, Biggles, Phineas Fog, chaps whose high birth and upbringing allow them to modestly muddle through. The final decision to cast Connery was made by the film’s American producers, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, against Fleming’s wishes. In this sense Connery-as-Bond is an American choice. An American imagining of the quintessential British hero that serves to give him an international dimension.
Connery-as-Bond is also congenial to a British imagination that wishes to see itself as modern, and for which modernity is American. Bond operates as a fantasy figure on several levels, a complex, composite figure who speaks to the perennial fear of Britain’s loss of prestige in the world and its inability to become fully modern. Modernisation requires a sweeping aside of the aristocratic gentleman amateurs who have dominated British politics and commerce and their replacement with a newly technocratic, professionalised elite. Bond is a projection of the ideal of a modern Britain and of its global role: youthful, relatively “classless”, still in command of the world, maintaining the best of the establishment’s tradition but also carrying forward a modern irony and sense of greater sexual openness. Bond affirms the necessity and rightness of British power ranging freely over the world, in this way he works to meliorate against he forces of anti imperialism and the break up of empire, the emergence of the U.S.A as the military superpower. In character and lifestyle terms his classlessness expresses the shifting values of the newly confident working classes, the trends toward liberalism and the age of mass consumption. Bond’s relationship with his superior M, M’s secretary Miss Moneypenny, Q, the technician who provides Bond with his “gadgets” and his American counterpart Felix Leiter all help to position the character as distinctively modern. He’s sceptical but respectful toward M’s authority, happy to flirt with and be fawned over by Moneypenny, demonstrates a sophisticatedly neglectful attitude to the hi-tech “toys” provided by Q, and is always the senior partner in his relationship with his CIA equivalent.
In his attitude toward authority, sex, the world of technology/consumption, and in international affairs Bond is a new type of man. That new type is effectively “Playboy man”, a new model of corporatist masculinity, rugged in the best American frontier tradition, a bastion of impersonal efficiency yet also thoroughly adapted to the social whirl of the jet-set. Playboy, launched the same year that Fleming published Casino Royale is perhaps the first attempt to address masculinity as a “lifestyle”, an attempt to resolve the conflict between traditional archetypes of masculinity and men’s roles within consumption–driven economies, the need to crack open previously unselfconscious, “given” social formations, monetize them and sell them back. Bond is reassuring to the British, exotic to Americans and the rest of the world, he asserts that British masculinity is more than merely in touch with modern sensibilities, it’s world-leading, yet still maintains an old-world sophistication. This sophistication is maintained through fidelity to the supreme quality no amount of modern irony can touch, Bond’s patriotism. In this respect more than any other Bond is a figure of synthesis, a titan who embodies and neutralizes the forces tearing at Britain, the professional, the specialist, who shares something of the irreverence of the Angry Young Men, but whose patriotism will ensure a symbiosis with the establishment: the country’s future will not be too unlike its past.
The pleasure afforded by the films is not simply the excitement of Bond’s adventures in exotic locales with beautiful women, but also the ways in which the character works as a sop to the perennial British fears of decline, of loss of prestige and England’s place in a modern world, themes which even now, 65 years after the end of the Second World War and the loss of Empire, trouble the national psyche.
But what of Connery’s own relationship to the role that made him famous? How does a working class boy who left school at fourteen and got a “Scotland Forever” tattoo in the Navy feel about incarnating the ideal of the post.-war “Tory imagination”? Connery himself has been inconsistent on the matter, alternately professing gratitude and sympathy, disinterest and occasional outright hostility.
It’s hard to imagine now that Connery could ever have been a radical of any kind, but as his celebrity reaches truly global proportions, as he becomes a superstar, he appears determined to undercut and expose the fantasy of the Bond movies at every turn. By the mid-Sixties, with Goldfinger reaching a new peak of popularity, Connery is still a long way from being knighted Sir Sean, twenty years away yet from his thoroughly undeserved Oscar for DePalma’s The Untouchables and a lucrative dotage, interrupting his golfing every six months or so to somnambulate through roles as silver-wigged mentors and sexy father-figures in a set of forgettable action movies.
There is something more, in the non-Bond work that he takes throughout the Sixties and early Seventies than the desire of an actor over-identified with a single role to try and break free from its constraints. There is something grim and conflicted in it which reveals not just the core of Connery’s own multiple hostilities but some of the central social and psychological conflicts of the times themselves. In the febrile, mordant Marnie, Hitchcock’s last really interesting movie before he returns to England and reaches a kind of grisly apotheosis with Frenzy, he plays a character who blackmails a women into marrying him, rapes her then sets about curing the problem of her frigidity, the very model of the perverse, sadistic core of the sensitive, liberal new-man. Following Goldfinger he makes The Hill with Sydney Lumet, returns to Bond for Thunderball then retires from the role in order to work with Lumet again in The Anderson Tapes and the Mc-Carthy era blacklisted director Martin Ritt on the nihilstic The Molly McGuires, in which he plays the leader of a group of militantly unionised mine workers in bloody conflict with the mine owners and the police who support their interests. He returns to Bond for the money in Diamonds are Forever and then uses the promise he has wrangled out of the studio to make The Offence, again with Lumet. In place of a version of Macbeth that fails to get off the ground, he stars in the unashamedly unhinged Zardoz by John Boorman, publicity stills from which, revealing a deeply hirsute Connery in a puce thong holding a ray-gun occasion gasps of disbelief to this day.
As the Bond films grow broader in scope, more spectacular and sillier, as Bond becomes more and more iconic Connery’s own choices grow darker and wilder until by the time of The Offence, his career peak and also among his least known films, a film he believes the studio “buried”, he has moved as far from Bond’s cool heroism as it’s possible to get. The Lumet films seem to offer up a response to Bond, to say: there is the fantasy, there is the Tory imagination at work, synthesising present and past in a beguiling dreamwork, here is the grim, rupturing reality of the conflicts, here is the dark heart of our national crack-up.