Right. Let’s get this done quickly and not waste any time or, heaven forfend, an entire feature on this “debate”: Sean Connery is the best Bond. No ifs, no buts, no “Timothy Dalton brought a much needed edge the franchise had long needed following the relative latter-period malaise of the Moore era, and it was simply unfortunate that his tenure coincided with the ’80s AIDs crisis and a re-evaluation of Bond’s nocturnal habits etc etc”. No. None of that.
Because there’s nothing like Ancient Greek Philosophy to boost that view count, let’s first consider Plato, Forms, and the Allegory of the Cave. Way back when in the long, long ago, Plato, and by extension Socrates, postulated the idea of Forms in which a second, ethereal world contained the eternal, perfect “Forms” from which all physical manifestations derive.
To explain this, Plato proposed the concept of prisoners chained in a cave since birth and forced to gaze at a wall in front of them, lit from behind by a raging fire. In front of this fire, and behind the prisoners, puppeteers would hold up puppets that cast shadows. In time, these shadows became reality for the prisoners, for they would have no concept of the physical items themselves. Thus I, very much a modern day Plato, propose that were the puppeteers to hold a toupee-wearing former coffin polisher in front of the fire, the prisoners would rub their eyes and see… James Bond.
What Connery offered in his seven-film tenure (counting the non-canon Never Say Never Again) is a near-perfect balance between all subsequent imperfections and a command of the role that prompted either substandard impressions or a significantly different approach so as not to overlap with Connery’s sizable footprints – footprints deep enough to scare off Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and Timothy Dalton.
Of those that did take up the mantle: Lazenby lasted just long enough to model this monstrosity; Moore’s eyebrow-raising charm was gradually outweighed by a general ballooning in camp and stomach; Dalton rarely proffered more than a dour realism that pushed the franchise into six wilderness years; Brosnan dived through a downwards slide of quality into an invisible car and a tsunami-surfing CGI mess that resembles an Escape From LA outtake. Now it’s the turn of Craig, the brawn identity – a convincing actioneer, but rarely a Bondian study in charm.
This isn’t to say that Connery’s successors don’t have their rightful admirers, but can a convincing case be made for any of them as the best Bond, the Form from which all other performances can be judged?
No. Connery, lest we forget, was deemed so integral to the role that he was brought back in the wake of Lazenby’s failure, returning to a desperate paycheck of £1.25m (about £17.2m today). In Diamonds Are Forever, amongst all the camp, a bruised, weathered and even jaded Bond was ready to do his duty and call it a career. The film was a hit. The faltering franchise was saved.
Come 1983 and he was back again! Kinda. His nemesis this time? Roger Moore’s Octopussy. Over at MGM, Sir Rog just two films away from retirement, Bond was barreling ahead with a film that opens with a clown clutching a fake Fabergé egg and continues in that vein. Connery, on the other hand, was remaking Thunderball and proving he didn’t need Q, the iconic gun barrel opening or silly things such as franchise continuity. All Never Say Never Again needed to signify “hey, this is a Bond film” was Sean himself. The result was a slight economic win for Octopussy ($187 million to $160 million) but the critical vindication went to NSNA and to Connery.
It helps, of course, that Connery was the first, that without him there’s a good chance there wouldn’t be the mammoth blockbuster franchise with its millions of written-off cars or product placement. Sure, it’d be foolish to speculate on the likely outcome of hiring any of the Nivens, the Bretts, the van Dykes, but I can say with 100% certainty that the British film industry would have crashed, action thrillers would have been forgotten and, if George Lucas is to be believed, Indiana Jones just wouldn’t have been the same. Indiana Jones ferchrissakes!
Yet it could have all been so different. “An overgrown stunt man” was the assessment from Ian Fleming upon first seeing Connery standing two inches taller than the eponymous character and delivering lines with that singular Edinburgh accent. His mind was changed after one film, and having watched Dr. No, Bond was retconned to have Scottish ancestry. Not only did Connery define Bond on screen, he did so on the page too.
Not that he had to put much effort in. Moonraker sees Bond so described: “certainly good-looking… a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold”, a man who spent his evenings “making love, with rather cold passion”. In Diamonds Are Forever, his scent is described as “slightly salty”, a “masculine aroma”. Connery captured that innate sense of a character already played across hundreds of pages and made it his own. Just you look at the picture above and tell me you don’t smell that salty masculinity.
Really, when it comes down to James Bond it comes down to martinis, gambling, casual sexism, racial caricatures, and a figure who can pour himself into a tuxedo as easily as he can a martini. To hear “Bond, James Bond” is to hear it in the same voice as “do you expect me to die?” and as “Martini. Shaken, not stirred.” That voice is Sean Connery’s – the perfect Form, the first, the essential, the best.
Shocking, huh? Positively shocking.