Between making his uncredited debut in 1954 musical Lilacs in the Spring and starring in the film that convinced him to retire, 2003’s reviled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sean Connery played all sorts. There were broken cops and common soldiers, career criminals and learned scholars. There were legendary figures of folklore like King Arthur and Robin Hood. Even more outlandishly, there was a Middle Eastern pirate, an immortal Egyptian warrior and a dragon.
Of course, despite the diversity of his CV, Sean Connery will forever be known best for originating and so spectacularly popularising just one character. The role of James Bond, like that sonorous Scottish brogue, is something Connery could never shake in his 4 decades of movie stardom. Having initially only played 007 in 5 films between 1962 and 1967 before quitting, Connery later returned to the character twice (in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever and 1983’s ‘unofficial’ Never Say Never Again) and took parts that traded on his Bond association, like the father of the ‘American Bond’ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and a 007-esque ageing superspy in The Rock (1996).
Still, to only focus on James Bond would be to ignore that this native of working-class Edinburgh sustained a 40-year career at the top playing a wide range of roles. Here are 10 films that are essential to understanding the career of Sir Thomas Sean Connery.
From Russia with Love (1963)
Director: Terence Young
1964’s Goldfinger set the template for the girls-and-gadgets spectacle that would become the franchise’s stock-in-trade, but it’s Connery’s previous outing as James Bond, From Russia with Love – the actor’s personal favourite of his tenure – that summarises the nature of his 007 best.
The hardest of the Bond films until the Timothy Dalton era, From Russia with Love demonstrates what Dana Broccoli meant when she likened Connery to a panther at his fateful audition: this Bond is both beautiful and deadly, a refined dinner companion to Robert Shaw’s brawny rival spy Red Grant one moment, the next every bit Grant’s ruthless match in a train carriage brawl that’s among the series’ most indelible set pieces.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Hired in Alfred Hitchcock’s late period, when the Master of Suspense cast around for fresh leading men to match old reliables Cary Grant and James Stewart, Connery is suitably debonair in Marnie, in a part that requires generous helpings of dash.
Tippi Hedren takes the starring role in Hitch’s cod-psychological thriller as the eponymous troubled thief, but Connery has his work cut out playing Mark Rutland, the enigmatic publishing magnate who uses knowledge of Marnie’s crimes to blackmail her into chatteldom. It’s a testament to Connery’s significant charm in this phase of his career that Rutland isn’t utterly repulsive, and that one of Hitchcock’s spikier efforts holds the attention to the end.
The Hill (1965)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Outside of the complicated one he had with Bond, Connery enjoyed his most fruitful cinematic relationship with filmmaker Sidney Lumet. Together Connery and Lumet made 5 features, including cracked cop drama The Offence (1973) and 1974’s peak Poirot adaptation Murder on the Orient Express. But their first picture, The Hill, ranks among the very best produced by either man.
As Joe Roberts, a disgraced former sergeant major committed to a military prison in Libya during the Second World War, Connery appears liberated by Lumet’s actors-first approach; the director thought so, calling Connery’s tinderbox performance, partly a bid by the star to avoid typecasting as a smoothie, “beyond my hopes”.
Director: John Boorman
Though his filmography is peppered with forays into the bizarre, Zardoz is comfortably the most baffling excursion of Connery’s career. As Zed, a gunslinging ‘Brutal’ who in the 23rd century discovers a failing utopia of telephathic immortals in Earth’s wastelands, Connery appears understandably confused – and, less understandably, scantily clad – throughout John Boorman’s post-Deliverance headscratcher.
A zeitgeist-chasing acid sci-fi bursting with literary references, New Age navel-gazing and countercultural preoccupations with sexual liberation and violent revolution, Zardoz could, depending on your tolerance for auteurial indulgence, be the most courageous and fascinating film Sean Connery ever made or simply his worst. Easily forgettable, however, it most certainly isn’t.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Director: John Huston
It’s regrettable that The Man Who Would Be King, John Huston’s Kipling adaptation about 2 British ex-soldiers who seek their fortunes in the Afghan region of Kafiristan in the late 19th century, did not establish Sean Connery and Michael Caine as a regular cinematic double act (they would co-star once more, though share no scenes, in 1977’s A Bridge Too Far).
As 2 of the director’s classic tragic rogues, the pair are so knowingly entertaining together in Huston’s throwback adventure their scenes play almost like panto. As Daniel Dravot, the happy-go-lucky second fiddle whose coronation as king of Kafiristan inflates his ego and precipitates his downfall, Connery gets the richer arc, though both he and Caine appear to be having the time of their lives.
Robin and Marian (1976)
Director: Richard Lester
With Connery playing a British icon reckoning with his own legend and history of violence in advancing age, 1976’s Robin and Marian curiously finds the actor in a reflective late career-type role not even halfway through his career. ‘Big Tam’ gives a particularly lived-in performance in Richard Lester’s revisionist Robin Hood picture, in which the bandit returns to Sherwood Forest after 2 brutal decades fighting at the side of Richard the Lionheart.
In outward appearance a man past his prime, Connery’s older Robin is still playfully adolescent in the presence of Audrey Hepburn’s Marian and enthusiastically antagonistic towards Robert Shaw’s Sheriff of Nottingham, the youthful idealism touchingly undimmed after all his years of mercenary life.
The Untouchables (1987)
Director: Brian De Palma
Brian De Palma’s 1987 cocktail of class (Armani suits, Mamet dialogue, Morricone score) and hyperviolent action casts Connery as Malone, a Depression-era beat cop inching towards retirement when Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) recruits him to help bring down Al Capone (Robert De Niro).
A specialist at playing the guru figure around this time, a growling Connery takes his ultimate mentor role in The Untouchables, speaking almost entirely in aphorisms as he teaches the milquetoast Ness how to defeat Capone the old-fashioned way: via bloodshed and a complete disregard for the rule of law. Connery won his Oscar, for best supporting actor, for the role.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Following a divisive sojourn into racially charged horror, Steven Spielberg brought some light back to Indiana Jones by making the third instalment in the franchise: a globe-trotting buddy movie pairing Indy with his long-absent father. Lending a comic touch that went largely untapped outside of his Bond films, Connery makes for smart casting as Last Crusade’s older, more eccentric Jones.
Only 12 years senior to on-screen son Harrison Ford, Connery, a former 007 and recipient that same year of People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive award, nevertheless totally convinces as a dusty academic whose only adventures prior to his reunion with Indy have all been imagined through his storybooks.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Director: John McTiernan
Having in the late 80s played old-timers riding out one last time for the likes of De Palma and Spielberg, Connery would be reborn in the 90s as an unlikely blockbuster star. Many a film that Connery made in the decade – First Knight (1995), The Avengers (1998), Entrapment (1999) among them – would be big budget releases that quickly faded from memory, but John McTiernan’s muscular Cold War thriller The Hunt for Red October was built to last.
As renegade Soviet sub commander Marko Ramius, Connery gives the kind of commanding performance only an actor of his years and reputation could. Framing him like some great statue, director McTiernan readies audiences for Connery’s final period, in which the actor would almost exclusively take roles playing on his near-mythical status.
The Rock (1996)
Director: Michael Bay
Starring acting’s equivalent of jazz, Nicolas Cage, as Dr Stanley Goodspeed, an FBI agent tasked with infiltrating Alcatraz to prevent a chemical attack on San Francisco by a garrison of disgruntled GIs, The Rock might not be considered in all quarters to be Sean Connery’s last great film, but it’s surely the most mercilessly entertaining.
As John Mason, Goodspeed’s maverick British secret agent sidekick, Connery gets to play at being Bond one more time, and under the stewardship of cinema’s demolition expert Michael Bay no less. Still an imposing and physical presence at 65, Connery here shows us why he was an action star right up until retirement.