James Bond - Farewell
James Bond – Farewell
By Ron Falzone
Whenever a movie star dies, it is both expected and natural to use the occasion to reflect on the times that that actor helped to define. After all, we have a natural human need to look back, and the nostalgic pull of movie stars – particularly the passing of one – offers us a doorway to do this. I suspect that the death of Sean Connery, the ultimate James Bond, will call up more reflection than normal. He was, after all, more than a star. He was an icon, a tangible portal through which many of us slip when we want to visit our own past family and life experiences.
In a very real way, Connery’s Bond films were meant as “family entertainment.” Not the whole family, really, but that portion made up of males. Over the course of the 1950’s, movies had broken down into three distinct groups: ones for pre-teens, teens and adults. The pre-teen movies – ones like Old Yeller, The Absent-Minded Professor, and even one of Connery’s first major roles, Darby O’Gill and the Little People - were meant to appeal to parents as well as children. Although catered to at the drive-ins, teenagers were only offered fare that could play in the background while they were copping feels in the front seat. They had no interest in leprechauns, flubber, or Moochie mooning over his lost dog.
The Bonds were the first movies that were deliberately meant to entice fathers and their teenage sons to have their own outing. It was the meeting point between teen and adult male fantasies, between the boys love of jacked-up superheroes and the dads love of Argosy and Playboy. While all of the gadgets, fisticuffs and beautiful women did their part, it was Connery who provided the glue. He was strong enough to fuse these elements together, yet flexible enough to add a knowing wink at the absurdity of it all.
Connery’s contribution to the times, though, went much farther than the presentation of a peculiarly masturbatory form of secret agent. For those of us clumsily slamming into our teen years, he became our avatar. By today’s standards, of course, Connery’s Bond was hardly an acceptable role model. His advances on women – willing or not – rightly make us cringe today, and the rampant ethnocentricity and national stereotyping would boil the blood of any DEI officer.
The context that was the 1960’s, though, was not the same as the 2020’s. The 60’s was a period of international social upheaval. Beyond those problems that we Americans faced in that decade, Paris was awash in student riots, the Berlin Wall was a constant source of tension, and African nations were battling their own forms of fascism and repression, all amid myriad other catalytic events. These made its inhabitants feel the world was tearing itself apart at the seams. Revolution was in the air. Everywhere.
In those rebellious times, Connery gave those of us too young to take to the streets an avenue for our rebellion. The Beatles may have provided the soundtrack, but it was Sean Connery who provided the sense of omnipotence we all needed to make our halting steps through the quagmire of puberty. Defiantly British in origin, James Bond became an international standard for all that we wanted to be. Through his example, many of us found a role model who could help us face down schoolyard bullies, get past our crippling fears of the opposite sex, dedicate ourselves to ideals that were bigger than we were, and, in my case, struggle against the shackles of a parochial education.
All of this made Connery an inexhaustible supply of necessary chutzpah for my generation. My own relationship to his image went even deeper. Because of a serious eye injury, I could not indulge in contact sports or any of the typically rowdy behavior of my friends. I needed a way to relate to my peers and, in a peculiar way, it was Sean Connery who provided it. I picked up my first camera when I was nine and within a few years was shooting backyard James Bond movies with my brother doing his own take on the Connery approach to Bond. More importantly, it gave me an activity I could share with the other boys. I went through my teen years writing scripts for these mini-spy operas, all the while feeling that they were my domain, the one world that was uniquely mine yet shared with my movie hero. Imagine my surprise when I went to film school and discovered that nearly all of my classmates had similar stories about their own homemade Bond films.
Connery’s own connection to the role was filled with irony. A relatively uneducated dock worker and admitted street tough, nothing in his life story created a simpatico that could guide him through his interpretation. He therefore hated the role so associated with him and longed to be done with it. A deeper irony, though, must have provided him with more than a wincing pain.
When England entered World War II, its commonwealth held dominion over three-fifths of the world’s land. During the decade following the war, its empire and its influence shrunk to insignificance. From being one of the world’s pre-eminent powers, England could only muster a way-back seat in the station wagon of 1950’s international diplomacy. Ian Fleming, a hidebound nationalist, presented his James Bond novels as a corrective. In his world, the Soviet Union and the U.S. only thought they were superpowers. The real power was S.P.E.C.T.R.E., a manipulative evil organization of super criminals that could only be defeated by English pluck. To a nation bereft of pride, Fleming provided an inflated sense of its own importance. To a country whose industry had failed to gain a foothold in the new economy, he offered up English-built high-tech weaponry and cars that were faster, more tricked out and hotter than anything on the road. To a populace smarting from international impotence, he gifted them with an oversexed love machine. If only in the imaginary world of James Bond, England moved back into the driver’s seat.
And who was selected to present this image of a resurgent British Empire? Sean Connery, a Scot who longed to see his country independent of the very Empire for which he became the symbol.
Connery’s career was, of course, creditable, varied and award-winning for decades after his stint as James Bond. He starred in many fine movies and at least one, John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King, is truly imperishable. And yet, beyond his talent, he will always be remembered for that secret agent. Is this a negation of that later work? Does it somehow minimize his gifts or his subsequent contributions? I don’t believe so. It is simply the recognition that he accomplished something that all actors dream of: He became a cultural milestone, a spokesperson for the attitude of a moment in time.
The English always liked to say that the sun never sets on the British Empire. Sean Connery died with his beloved Scotland still tied to that imperial dream. Maybe then it is ironically fitting to say that the British sun may never set, but Connery’s passing does make us recognize that it is a little closer to the horizon.