Sean Connery died on Saturday, October 31, at age 90. The Scottish actor was the first cinematic James Bond, and for many will always be the greatest — defining the mix of suave, stylish, sexy, and ruthless for a generation of fans.
While so much of what he did with that character is easy to admire, it’s also important to point out Bond embodied a certain kind of cinematic male fantasy. As 007, Connery was frequently sexist and occasionally racist. You can argue that was the era, but these are the films that helped shape what people in the era thought was cool.
It didn’t help at all that off-screen Connery also espoused straight-up toxic masculinity. I say all this having grown up with Bond, and continue to be a big fan of the franchise. This while recognizing both these issues and that Connery’s career beyond Bond was remarkable. I can understand those who consider this problematic history a bridge too far to appreciate the work.
This is a look at the films, the bad and the much more frequently good. Connery’s career was the model for how risk-taking can free a leading man from type-casting. It certainly didn’t hurt he had talent and on-screen presence to spare. At no time was his intractable Scottish accent ever a liability, even when playing American, Moroccan, Russian, or an archer from Sherwood Forest.
If you’re looking to see the star’s most compelling roles away from his licence to kill, here are 10 to seek out, with a few more listed at the bottom if you’re especially keen.
Connery’s confidence in front of the camera is in full display here in this Hitchcock drama, which was sold as a “suspenseful sex mystery.” It’s a reasonable descriptor for a deeply problematic film (just look at the poster), about the titular thief (Tippi Hedren), who catches the eye of businessman Mark Rutland (Connery). He investigates her, blackmails her into marrying him, and then rapes her on their honeymoon — and yet he’s still considered the romantic lead. He spends the rest of the movie trying to solve her psychological disorder. The sexual politics are utterly messed up, and there’s no doubt Hitchcock was a perverse bastard — after Psycho this is a different kind of horror. There’s also no doubt Hedren and Connery have plenty of chemistry to spare, if you can stand to sit through it. A young Bruce Dern cameos toward the end.
Almost everything about John Boorman’s overwrought science-fiction epic was ill-advised, but it will reward those who can appreciate it with a camp sensibility, or those fans of outlandish costumes, pretentious philosophizing, gigantic flying heads, and Charlotte Rampling.
The Wind And The Lion (1975)
John Milius epic is based on the true story of an international incident in the early 20th Century involving Americans kidnapped in Morocco, dragging Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith) into it. Yup, Connery as a Berber is deeply problematic casting, and its myth-making around imperialist foreign policy is just that, myth, but as a grand adventure in the Lawrence of Arabia vein it still holds up.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
John Huston’s epic adventure adapting Kipling is a stone cold classic, with a plot tilting on hubris, pride, and the danger of believing your own bullshit. It’s the kind of film with lessons for every generation, especially one living on the privileges of colonialism. Connery and Michael Caine have rarely been better.
Robin & Marian (1976)
The single greatest Robin Hood movie, with apologies to Errol Flynn. It imagines a middle-aged Robin (Connery) returning from the Crusades, only to find the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) still up to his old tricks, and Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) in the local convent. It’s nothing less than an elegy for heroes — fine wine doesn’t age as well as this film.
“High Noon in Space!” screamed the posters, and that’s still a pretty accurate take — the western overtones and solid production values make it worth a look, as does Connery in especially stolid form.
This terrifically fun tale of immortals battling through time is remarkable for many things, especially its bonkers casting: Christopher Lambert is a Frenchman playing a Scot while Sean Connery is a Scot playing an Egyptian Spaniard. In the end, none of that matters as the film slingshots backward and forward in time to extremely pleasing effect. Clancy Brown is the MVP as Kurgan, maybe the best big-screen villain since Darth Vader.
The Untouchables (1987)
Connery would finally win an Oscar for his role as the Irish cop Malone in this much beloved gangster picture, an adaptation of the TV series about FBI man Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), how his team of incorruptible cops took down Al Capone (Robert DeNiro). The film is still hugely entertaining, with a terrific soundtrack from Ennio Morricone, but its politics have aged poorly — it’s harder to find a thrill in rule-breaking law enforcement these days.
The Hunt For Red October (1990)
John McTiernan’s submarine thriller is a suspense masterclass, with Connery as commander Marko Ramius piloting the Russian fleet’s newest vessel into the North Atlantic. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin, the first and best Ryan to date) believes Ramius wants to defect and deliver the submarine to the Americans, but will anyone believe him? With Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Tim Curry, and Stellan Skargaard on board offering sterling support, the film fairly crackles from stem to stern.
The Russia House (1990)
I’ve written about this complex, hugely satisfying espionage thriller, based on the John le Carré novel, at length here, and it never fails to impress in its script, performances, and location work. Wonderfully autumnal, if you haven’t seen it, watch it tonight.
If you’re planning a deeper dive into Connery’s work, also worth considering is Darby O’Gill and The Little People, an early Connery appearance in a quaint Disney family fantasy. Sidney Lumet’s North African prison drama, The Hill, may be worth seeing depending on your appetite for sweaty men yelling at each other. The Molly Maguires is a period drama about labour unrest in a Pennsylvania mining operation and has Connery and Richard Harris working together before Robin & Marian. Connery and Lumet would reteam for the heist picture The Anderson Tapes, which was Christopher Walken’s first feature film appearance, and again in The Offence, a gritty cop drama that prefigures Scandi noir.
The Name Of The Rose is a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery, based on the Umberto Eco novel, with Connery solid as a tonsured investigator. Some may disagree, but I find the sequels to Raiders Of The Lost Ark are a case of diminishing returns, each weaker than the one before. It’s fun to watch Ford and Connery spar in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, but they’re way too close in age to be plausibly son and father, and the script is frequently hokey. Still, many argue this the best of the bunch.
Check out Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to see how in a single scene Connery reminds everyone of both his effortless star power, and how miscast Kevin Costner is as Robin Hood. There are those who love The Rock, and while I’m not one of them I wouldn’t dissuade you from giving it a try for its potent Connery/Nicolas Cage cocktail. Also consider the late-’90s film adaptation of the 1960s TV series, The Avengers. It’s a debacle for sure, but it does have Connery as the villain, unusual in a career of heroes, in a giant teddy bear costume. Uma Thurman is Mrs Peel in the catsuit.