Anura Gunasekera, in Sunday Island, 9 November 2020, where the title reads “The Quintessential Bond and the Quintessential Scot””
As a teen my introduction to James Bond was “Casino Royale”, a tattered paperback copy bought second-hand, for a few rupees, from the Bethel Book shop in Dehiwala. The cover image depicted the full figure of a curvy female in distress, overshadowed by the head and shoulders of a cruelly handsome, steely-eyed male, hair artfully disheveled, forelock falling across the forehead, and the Walther PPK ready for action. With an uncanny prescience, the cover designer had captured the key ingredients that subsequently built the film franchise.
Many years later, by when I had read all the Bond novels published up to that time, viewing the film “Dr. No” as soon as it hit our local cinemas, I immediately juxtaposed my mental image of the Casino Royale cover page with the James Bond of Sean Connery. That is the picture I have retained of him, till today, Connery the reality and Bond the fiction, seamlessly becoming one.
No actor of any generation personified, as Connery did, the complex combination of cruel good looks, a hairy –chested male animalism and the sophistication and the exquisitely groomed exterior, just a veneer for the menace about to be unleashed. It was the studied understatement which lent profile and clarity to the attributes. It was the ultimate cinema, male cool, shaken but not stirred. For women, a man to fall in love with but, perhaps, not to marry. For star-struck teenage males like the writer was then, a super-male icon, who erased the baddie with clinical precision accompanied by a wintry smile and, occasionally, a quip, made the world safe for democracy and drove away with the beautiful girl, in a souped-up Aston Martin, custom tailored.
All the others who inherited the mantle, relentlessly compared with the original, have been discounted for one reason or another. When finally Connery abandoned Bond, years of searching for a replacement unearthed a plethora of good actors, but Connery the First will forever be the perfect Bond. Though others will continue to play it, the role belongs to Connery because he made it his own.
Connery played Bond in six films, after the first ” Dr. No” had both set the standard and created the 007 icon, launching one of the most successful movie franchises in the history of the cinema. It was followed by ” From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger”, “Thunderball”, “You Only Live Twice”, “Diamonds are Forever”, and after a decade long absence, ” Never Say Never Again”, all starring Connery who, from all accounts, ,was struggling escape the role by that time, for fear of becoming typecast and permanently shackled to the image he created.
He was followed by Roger Moore, who, tongue-in-cheek most of the time, spoofed his way through a few of the films, never hiding the fact that he was Simon Templar pretending to be Sean Connery. George Lazenby was forgotten after just one role; pretty Pierce Brosnan, a relatively limp-wristed 007, who repeated the immortal lines, ” The name is Bond, James Bond”, with the hint of a lisp and more recently, Daniel Craig, a tightly muscled bruiser with a battered face, more the Mafia hitman than the urbane civil servant, On Her Majesty’s Service, but with the license to kill.
Not many actors had the charisma and presence that was Connery. Whether it was playing Bond, or a medieval Franciscan friar, the captain of a Russian nuclear submarine, or as the white-bearded father of Harrison Ford on a desert expedition, a sergeant in a British military prison, a Berber brigand, an over-the -hill Irish cop, or the mythical English king cuckolded by his first knight, Connery commanded the screen in a way which had as much to do with persona as with acting ability. It was a combination of purely personal attributes, first show-cased in Dr.NO and refined over the years, which enabled him to effortlessly steal both the screen and the scene, away from colleagues with greater acting skills.
He always seemed taller and broader than the others on the screen with him; his deep voice delivering perfectly articulated lines, the Scottish burr smoothened over by voice lessons but the rough, native grain still very much in evidence, irrespective of the role, the piercing eyes below beetling eyebrows and a hardness of expression which age did not diminish; voted by “People” magazine in 1989 as the Sexiest Man Alive- at age 59, irrespective of the role, he remained a man’s man.
James Bond was born Thomas Sean Connery, in August 1930, to Joe Connery, a rubber mill worker and his wife, Euphamia, in a tenement in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh. It was a cold water flat, not far from the “Royal Mile” but still a million miles away. The mother cleaned grand houses of the rich and titled in Edinburgh. The family lived on the fifth floor and shared a bathroom located four floors down. His paternal grandfather, Thomas, worked as a bookie’s runner and used to be occasionally arrested for plying an illegal trade. His maternal grandfather was Neil Maclean, a stonemason who eventually became a foreman and, therefore, slightly better positioned socially and economically. Apparently, the Macleans looked down upon and were a bit embarrassed by the Connery’s, rag-and-bone people who went around the streets with a horse and cart.
Tam, as he was known to family and friends, qualified at age twelve for a place in Boroughmuir High School but, instead, opted for Darroch Secondary, for the simple reason that the latter prominently featured Soccer, Connery’s passion in to adulthood, till affluence replaced it with Golf. He was introduced to work early, delivering milk for Kennedy’s dairy from the age of nine. At fourteen he had dropped out of school, to become a barrow worker at the Corstorphine Dairy, for twenty one shillings a week. An early promotion resulted in Connery being given his own horse and cart at age fifteen.
At age seventeen Connery signed up with the Royal Navy for a twelve year stint but was discharged quickly on medical grounds. Thereafter he took on a bewildering series of odd-jobs, commencing with polishing coffins, going on to semi-nude modelling, as a life-guard at an outdoor swimming pool, a music hall bouncer and as a professional soccer player, in the Scottish Junior League. As a body-building enthusiast, he also entered the Mr. Universe Contest in London, possibly in 1953, being completely marginalized in the Tall Man Class by the eventual winner, Bill Pearl, a genuine professional in the sport.
It was during this period that Connery was introduced to acting, securing a part in the ” South Pacific” ensemble on a two year national tour. Robert Henderson, a leading actor in the production, encouraged Connery to make a career of acting with the assurance of personal help, on the understanding that Connery would take lessons to soften his near impenetrable Scottish burr, and also improve his literacy by some serious reading. Connery did both and the rest is cinematic history.
In his semi-autobiographical book, ” Being a Scott”, which is also Connery’s tribute to “Scottishness”, co-authored with Murray Grigor, Connery describes how important this phase was in his development, as he ploughed his way through both classics and contemporary writing, ranging from plays by Ibsen, novels by James Joyce, Hemingway, Turgenev and Tolstoy and the works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Proust.
After playing bit parts in several films, Connery played the lead role in the play, “Requiem for a Heavyweight” , an immediate hit in which, according to “The Times”, Connery displayed a “shambling and inarticulate charm”. Macbeth, Anna Christie and many other vehicles followed, a diverse range of plays, films, TV series, flops interspersed with hits, with Connery playing a bafflingly varied range of roles, the only common thread being the “heavy burr”, deliberately retained by the stubborn Scotsman. To quote Connery (in “Being a Scott”),…. ” I never wanted to imitate that staccato precision of perfection achieved by such masters of the articulated vowel as the incomparable John Gielgud……or proclaim like Dylan Thomas’s men from the BBC, who speak as though they had the Elgin Marbles in their mouths.”
Then came the Broccoli and Saltzman duo, having purchased the first Bond vehicle, looking for the best driver. A star-studded candidate list, ranging from Roger Moore, Richard Johnson, Richard Burton, Peter Finch, David Niven, James Stewart, Michael Redgrave, Trevor Howard, James Mason, Patrick McGoogan, Cary Grant, and stuntman Bob Simmons, were all considered and discarded for one reason or another.
Around this time, Broccoli and his wife Diana, saw Connery in the Walt Disney film, ” Darby O’Gill and the Little People”. Diana, identifying with a woman’s unerring instinct, the combination of male charisma and sex appeal which spelled star quality, said, “that is your Bond”. Subsequently, the relatively unknown Ursula Andress trumped already famous Julie Christie, simply because the latter’s bust did not meet Broccoli’s demanding expectations for Honeychile Rider. A deeply tanned Andress, a Nereid emerging from the Jamaican sea foam, wearing a skimpy white bikini and a hunting knife, set the bench mark for the Bond girls that followed.
Saltzmann describes Connery’s attitude in his first interview with Connery, in his office, along with Broccoli..” Take me whole or forget the deal…we had never seen a surer guy or a more arrogant s.o.b”( Sean Connery by Andrew Yule).
During the filming of Dr. NO, on location in Kingston Jamaica, Connery met Fleming for the first time and the two had connected well, though, reportedly, Fleming had once said that ” Connery was a labourer playing Commander Bond”. The common-born, working class Scot with no formal education and the upper class Englishman, son of a Conservative Member of Parliament, educated at Eton, the universities of Munich and Geneva and trained at Sandhurst, subsequently a banker and a stockbroker and a member of British Naval Intelligence, had also established a tenuous connection; Connery had delivered milk at the exclusive Edinburgh Fettes College, from which the young Fleming had been expelled.
The endless stream of messages following Sir Sean Connery’s passing, moving, complimentary and expressing regret, from co-stars, peers in his profession, and countless others from different walks of life and different disciplines, underline the measure of both the actor and the man. The stature was well earned. Despite his reputation for an in-your-face honesty, a fondness for litigation, and a not infrequent irascibility, the common thread was love and respect.
The Scottish nation will now have to look elsewhere to bestow the title of ” The Greatest Living Scott”, a search that may, actually, be easier than finding the second best Bond.