Roundtable: James Bond 007: Sean Connery

Aren: Sean Connery is the definitive James Bond. Let’s just get this out of the way so we don’t have to bring it up again. Not that I don’t admire every actor who has portrayed Bond over the past 50 years. I actually love each Bond actor for how he personally defined the role of cinema’s greatest spy, from George Lazenby’s athleticism to Roger Moore’s suaveness to Timothy Dalton’s brutality to Pierce Brosnan’s charm to Daniel Craig’s vulnerability. But Connery was the first and even if you could argue that he wasn’t the objective best, the part will always be linked to him in a way that it isn’t with the other actors. Every actor who follows is inevitably compared to what Connery brought to the role, and is somewhat defined by how similar or different they are to Connery. He set the benchmark for the character and he set a very high benchmark indeed, especially in his first outing Dr. No (1962), which has to be one of the greatest star-making performances of all time.

It also helps that Connery’s and Bond’s careers are intimately linked. Playing James Bond made Sean Connery a superstar, and James Bond became a cinematic icon because he was played by Sean Connery. It almost speaks to an inevitability, then, that Connery would forever define the character of James Bond in so many people’s minds. But what exactly made Sean Connery so effective in the role of James Bond, agent provocateur? Why did the role make him a star? And what’s the best Bond film starring Connery?

Anton: Rewatching the first five Bond films and Diamonds are Forever confirmed From Russia with Love as both my personal favourite and my pick for the best of the lot. It’s the most streamlined and the most elegant. I like Dr. No now more than I did before though—its so lithe in comparison to the later huge productions—and I do think there is something special about the first two films. Dr. No and From Russia with Love are more spy thrillers than big action movies (although, like all the Connery films, they contain elements of both genres).

Your choices, brothers?

Anders: Yeah, From Russia with Love is my favourite too. In fact, I’ll say that it’s among my favourite films of all time and has grown in my estimation upon each viewing. Even if the rest of the Bond series didn’t go on to become as legendary, I think it would still stand up well as a wonderful Cold War spy film. It reminds me at times of something like Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (another film beloved by me, and my favourite Hitchcock film). Like Hitchcock’s film, From Russia with Love functions as an extended adventure travelogue with the enemy in hot pursuit of a MacGuffin. The film also has an iconic villain in Red Grant (Robert Shaw). Anton did a great job of laying out all the reasons the film is one of my favourites.

But there is a lot to appreciate about all of the first three Bond films, and I think a compelling argument could be made for any of them as the best Connery Bond film, or best Bond film period. Like Aren, I think Goldfinger is a masterful film and a landmark of 60s filmmaking. It’s perhaps the most iconic Bond film for a reason. Dr. No is fantastic on its own merits as a spy film, and looks even better if one can just stop bemoaning the absence of other Bond series staples (the opening credit song, the gadgets, etc.).

Aren: I have to align myself with the hordes and say that Goldfinger is my favourite. I find it peak cinematic entertainment. It’s one of my favourite movies and probably my favourite Bond film (although this proclamation might change when I revisit Casino Royale and Skyfall). As well, as I outlined in my review, the film is much more than empty entertainment. When people think about Bond films, especially the old ones, they think of them as action movie relics. They admire them for their humour and their action, but not necessarily for their ideas. I think that’s treating them unfairly. The old Bond films are certainly entertaining, but they’re also smart.

Anton: Can I interject and clarify that the first three films are smart. I don’t think You Only Live Twice and Diamonds are Forever are.

Anders: And Thunderball, even if it isn’t smart, certainly isn’t dumb.

Aren: Fine, I’ll clarify my praise. They can be smart. The first three films combine wonderful filmmaking craft with some potent themes, Goldfinger most of all. I love how Goldfinger explores Bond’s shortcomings by making its villain an essential mirror version of him. Bond is a hero, but he’s not necessarily a good person. The assumption in Goldfinger and most of the Connery films, which they draw on from the novels, is that the good guys are lucky that Bond’s one major moral virtue, national loyalty, ties him to their side. Otherwise he’d be just another cold-hearted villain.

I do think that From Russia with Love is almost equally as excellent as Goldfinger, although in different ways. It’s the most thrilling of the Connery films and best embodies the Cold War tensions. Dr. No grows in my estimation every time I revisit it, though. Perhaps in another decade, it’ll be my favourite film of them all. Perhaps we can now consider Connery’s best performance as Bond. Does his best performance occur in his best film?

Anton: Connery’s best performance is in From Russia with Love, or maybe Dr. No. I think I enjoy Connery best when he was still establishing Bond’s character, when the character still had a lot of mystery and freshness about him, and before Connery got too settled into the roll.

You could plot the levels of Connery’s confidence and comfort in the role of 007 across his six films. Of course, he delivers a strong, poised performance in Dr. No, but Connery is still working out the character’s mannerisms and personality. His confidence—his assuredness about the character—steadily increases, reaching its peak probably in Thunderball. This is the point where Connery’s confidence is maximized while still benefiting the film overall. That film has so much gusto, and Connery is his most bold—he can do and say anything—without appearing tired. He’s still always on. After that he gets too comfortable. Steven Soderbergh’s great blog piece on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service unfortunately calls Connery’s incarnation “glib.” For the most part, I disagree. I think he comes across as somewhat glib in Diamonds (the whole film is though), and fairly lazy and unengaged in You Only Live Twice.

Anders: Yes, I’m going to agree with you that Connery gives great performances in From Russia with Love and Dr. No. But Goldfinger and, yes, Thunderball, is where he really comes into his own as the character and makes him an icon for the ages. I don’t think it’s any surprise that those two films also have the most humour. Bond’s way with words and his incredibly assured presence in those films makes him the centre, even if he’s a more gritty spy character in the first two films.

I also agree that Thunderball is as good a Connery performance as any of the others. It’s even perhaps stronger than people give it credit for. Even if the rest of the film doesn’t support Connery as strongly as the first three films do, he still delivers an iconic performance that elevates the film. I always think of Connery’s timing with the one-liners—could anyone else in film history deliver a line like “I think he’s got the point.” after shooting someone with a spear gun and have the right balance between humour and menace? Connery’s Bond in Thunderball is cocky, always ready with a comeback—his response to Domino’s “what sharp little eyes you got” with “wait ‘til you get to my teeth” is both charming and threatening somehow.

Anton: Aren’s review of Goldfinger points out some very interesting things about the character in that film, too. It’s weird that the most celebrated Connery Bond film is the one most critical of the character, and the one in which he does the least. He’s practically passive in the film, at least for the second half. As I’ve rewatched all six films, I’ve been comparing Connery’s Bond to a tiger in a zoo. He’s attractive and impressive, but you know in the back of your mind that he could easily kill you. A tiger captures the right amount of allure and menace. You can see the cruelty behind Connery’s eyes in certain scenes. Unfortunately, by the final half of You Only LIve Twice, he’s the big name in the zoo and sleeps most of the day. His tiger-like quality is all but gone in Diamonds are Forever though.

Aren: If Connery is a tiger in a zoo, Dr. No is where he’s most lethal. I think it’s his best performance. It might be that, as you said, Anton, the mystery of the character adds to the performance’s appeal. We’re not quite sure whether we ought to be enamoured or scared of this character. Happily, we’re a bit of both. We’d love to be Bond or bed Bond (depending on our preferences), but we’d also hate to be on the receiving end of his gun. Part of what makes Connery so appealing is the way he can turn on a dime from gentleman to boxer. He’s charming, but he’s chilling. The callous way he guns down Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) is the case in point. He knows Dent has no bullets but he doesn’t care. He even gets some enjoyment out of witnessing Dent’s recognition of helplessness. I like that Connery’s Bond doesn’t have his rough edges polished off him. He’s a complicated hero. He’s not entirely admirable. He’s not trying to mask his weaknesses. They are on full display.

His list of weaknesses extends towards his treatment of women and foreigners. Is Connery’s Bond a racist? Are the films racist?

Anton: I don’t find these six films any more racist than your average film from the 1960s. That’s not an outright excuse, more of a matter of approach. In other words, I don’t think racism is a special charge against the Bond films, or that they can be held accountable as specifically bad examples. Yes, racial stereotypes are employed, and there’s definitely xenophobic tensions throughout the films, but it extends beyond racial lines. A lot is said about Bond as a white hero, but he’s more strictly British. Most of the villains are white Continental Europeans. They have “foreign” accents. And even the Americans are not British, and so they can’t be fully trusted or respected.

Anders: I think you’re right. I don’t think racism is the right call here. I think you hit on an important point in how the films distinguish between Britain and everyone else, including Yanks and Continentals. So, what Bond represents instead isn’t racial superiority, but rather imperial superiority. Bond’s loyalty to the crown and role in preserving British interests is a remnant of Britain’s colonial power into the Cold War era, an era when Britain was often playing second fiddle to America as a superpower. Bond asserts British superiority just at the moment when the Empire is falling apart; the 60s and early 70s saw Britain lose most of their colonial holdings in Africa and Asia. Given up voluntarily for the most part, mind you, but nonetheless Bond serves a symbolic function to preserve pride in Britain’s military adventures.

Some have said that the time is right at this point in history for a black actor to play Bond when Daniel Craig is done, as there is no reason the character has to be white. In theory I agree. Idris Elba has been mentioned and I love the actor, who has the charm, looks, and authority to play Bond. However, the colonial legacy of the character and British intelligence would either need to be addressed or sit uncomfortably in the background. Perhaps it could be ignored in favour of escapism during the 60s, but even the Craig Bond films address it, as Bond is called a “relic” and his role as a man out of time is specifically mentioned.

Aren: I used to be fine with the notion of a black Bond, but I’ve since disavowed myself of that opinion. I don’t want to go into detail on this here (perhaps we should write an essay on it during this Retrospective), but I’ll briefly explain why I believe Bond needs to remain white. Essentially, making Bond black would be reacting to a symptom in the culture at large. Because there are a lack of mainstream black characters who act like James Bond, that doesn’t mean that the only solution is for James Bond to become black. Bond is British, white, and a man. These are his defining characteristics, and essential to his character. If you change one, you change the character. He’s no longer Bond.

As well, race is not an incidental aspect of a pop culture figure’s identity. Pop culture may want to be colour-blind, but race influences a person’s identity and personality, how they see themselves and how they see their place in the culture at large. Saying that race is inconsequential is grossly ignorant. As well, Bond is a character with strongly colonial implications. I’m not excusing these colonial implications, but they’re a large part of the character, and they’re born out of the fact that he’s the white defender of the old empire. So, Anders, I think this is a roundabout way of saying that I think you’re right when you clarify that Bond’s sin, and the films’, is colonialism specifically, and not exactly racism.

Anton: I actually think you could make Batman or Superman black in a way that it doesn’t work for Bond. I think the idea is touted more as a political statement than a proper assessment of the character. Plus, as Skyfall established, Bond has Scottish ancestry. You would have to change the character quite a bit, and, as Anders addressed, jettison some of the unsettling yet central themes in the texts.

Any of the racism in the films is the kind that requires perhaps some discussion with your kids, but I certainly don’t think it makes any of the films unwatchable, particularly the much debated You Only Live Twice. In that film, Bond actually expresses a lot of admiration for Japanese culture, and the film, despite some missteps, generally has a respect for the culture. Some of the bit parts throughout the other films are worse. I also don’t think it’s fair to accuse Connery of “yellow-face,” in the sense of mocking the Japanese. It’s actually a part of the story, having a surgery to alter his appearances. The worst part is how poorly it’s done, and how it employ assumptions about straight hair, etc. But it’s not meant to be a joke in any way.

Anders: Yes, we’re not talking Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s here. But it certainly felt particularly awkward and misguided the last time I watched the film, even taking into the context that the Bond films are full of less-than-savory behaviour and attitudes. In fact, the admiration and ostensible respect that it supposedly conveys for Japanese culture rings a little less true in its wake.

Aren: Comparing the movies’ attitudes to the Bond novels, the films come out favourably. In the novel of You Only Live Twice, Bond didn’t take a first in Oriental languages at Oxford, nor does he know the correct temperature to drink sake at. He doesn’t respect Japanese culture. Instead, he’s dismissive of this samurai culture obsessed with death and glorifying suicide.

Anton: By the way, I think this aspect was probably changed to cash in on people’s interest in Japan as an emergent powerhouse and super-economy starting in the late sixties.

Aren: It’s true that Japan’s economic rise in the wake of the 1964 Olympics is different than when Fleming penned the novel version. In YOLT it’s appropriate that Bond would be so revolted by death coming off the loss of Tracy Bond in the previous novel, but I think it clarifies that Ian Fleming was the racist party (Live and Let Die is his most egregious example) and the movies are merely as racist as most films of the 1960s. We should acknowledge that there’s implicit racism within them, just as there’s a lot of implicit racism in films nowadays, but that aspect of them shouldn’t deter us from watching them or exploring their other aspects. Can the same be said for the films’ attitudes towards women? Towards sex in general?

Anton: Aren touched on how in DiamondsAre Forever Bond’s sexual nature doesn’t entirely sit comfortably with the times. At the beginning of the 1960s, Western culture’s shift in sexual mores was beginning, and by 1971 it had largely changed, particularly for younger people or those who actively embraced countercultural movements. You can see it on screen in the Bond girls more revealing clothing. Everyone always cites Ursula Andress coming out of the water in Dr. No, but by today’s standard her bikini is pretty conservative and the shot is static and from somewhat of a distance.

Anyways, what I mean is that Bond’s predatory sexual nature seems to stand out less in 1971. In 1962, he’s still a ladykiller. By 1971, no one uses that expression, because it’s more acceptable for a woman to choose to have sex casually, and outside marriage. This makes Bond’s predatory promiscuity less lethal. I have to give Roger Moore credit. He solves the problem by making Bond a lover of women. He appreciates women the way he appreciates champagne or cigars (yes, this is still not a healthy attitude about women). I’ll have to see when I rewatch the Moore films, but I don’t think you could call his Bond a misogynist. Connery’s Bond definitely has elements of misogyny. He makes comments that women are inferior, and he willfully uses them, for both his own pleasure and to accomplish his objectives.

Anders: I agree completely that there is no way around the fact that Connery plays Bond as a full-fledged misogynist. I think that any effort to excuse the character actually diminishes him as a character, reducing his complexity and elides his historical function.

Aren: I think the way Bond, as played by Connery, treats women is the one element of these early films that doesn’t sit well with me anymore. I cannot easily dismiss it. It’s a large part of the character and it’s uncomfortable. I love that Connery’s Bond is a lady killer. I love that he can seduce any woman, even one whose appetites aren’t for men (as with Pussy Galore). He’s an appealing masculine specimen. But his misogyny taints the pleasure. Even something that was intended as innocuous like Bond slapping Dink in the ass in Goldfinger and telling her to leave them to “man-talk” come across as discomforting. Goldfinger at least weaves Bond’s misogyny in with his other faults, as his casual use of women keeps getting him in trouble, but it’s still present.

Anton: So if Connery’s Bond is a misogynist, can he be a hero? What I appreciate about Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger, is that, looking back, they present this interesting, and actually layered, character. And he’s not a good person. He’s a hero though, because of his larger goals and objectives. He’s not a hero because he’s morally upright. He’s a hero because he participates in heroic action, and is ready to sacrifice himself for larger ideals.

Aren: Definitely. The fact that Bond’s faults are so readily apparent actually complicates the character and makes him more interesting. He’s not a generic hero. He’s full of some pretty damning shortcomings. But he still fights for the greater good. Davy Crockett may have died fighting for a Texican government keen on defending its right to hold slaves, but he’s still my favourite historical hero. His faults don’t erase his triumphs. With Bond, his strengths and weaknesses co-exist. In a way, they humanize this iconic character.

Anders: Sure he’s a hero, but the more complicated part of Bond’s misogyny for me is in the fact that we are supposed to want to be Bond to a certain extent. The whole package, the clothes, the booze, and the women are all part of the appeal. To be James Bond is to be a ladykiller in the figurative, and even at times the literal, sense. I have mixed feelings about my own attachment to the character, but I’m not going to deny the appeal. Perhaps it speaks to the darker side of us all and aspects of our culture that remain from that time.

Aren: I can understand what you mean by the mixed feelings of attachment. James Bond is one of my favourite fictional characters. I don’t deny that I wish I were as cool and confident and charming and dangerous as he is. But that confidence and charm comes with a moral dubiousness. Is that part of the charm? Subconsciously, it probably is, if we’re being honest.

Anton: I think there are unappealing aspects of the character, but I do think they make the character more interesting. I also think we need to distinguish heroes from Christ-figures and saviours in our understanding of these archetypes (and yes, these types can overlap, as in the case of Christ). Since when do we need to wholly and completely accept our heroes? Heroes aren’t perfect. That’s not what the type is about, in spite of how we usually talk about heroes and anti-heroes nowadays. James Bond is a hero in the way that Lancelot is a hero in the way that Beowulf is a hero in the way that King David is a hero in the way that Achilles is a hero. All of these heroic characters have significant flaws, have aspects that are unappealing, do things that are unacceptable outside their historical context—but they are also undeniably heroes by any useful sense of the word. James Bond is a hero.

Aren: Is there anything else to discuss about these Bond films? Any comments on how they adapt the Fleming novels?

Anders: I’ve read a few of the novels that the films are based on, and it’s interesting to see how the series diverged from the novels. Of course the order of adaptation matters a great deal. In my review I touched on the way that Thunderball is interesting as it was always intended as a the first film treatment for the series, setting the template for future installments, even as it was adapted later due to the ensuing legal battle. Also, Casino Royale’s rights had been granted to another party and were unavailable to the Brocolli’s at the time. So, the series starts out with Dr. No instead. I think that the order of the adaptations really matters. But clearly as the series goes on the filmmakers feel free to move further away from the source material.

Anton: I’ll confess, I’ve only read Casino Royale.

Aren: I’ve read all the novels which the Connery films are based on. I won’t linger on the topic of adaptation, but I think it’s worth pointing out that some of Fleming’s best novels, Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Dr. No became the best movies. All three of these films are also fairly close adaptations. They don’t change a huge amount of the narrative. In my opinion, the two weakest Connery films, Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever, would have done better to hew closer to their novels. These films make certain adaptation choices that baffle me, especially Thunderball, which neuters the villain and Bond girl.

Anders: I must admit, I haven’t read the novel in at least a decade and can’t really remember.

Aren: You Only Live Twice is a complicated example of adaptation. The film does a better job of acclimating Bond to the Japanese environment and making him more amenable to the culture, but it also loses the heartbreak that drives the novel and delivers its poignant close. It shouldn’t have preceded On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, since it works so well as a revenge narrative sequel.

But we’ve talked long enough about these films and their central star. We’ll next tackle George Lazenby’s sole outing as James Bond in a roundtable before moving onto Roger Moore with Live and Let Die.