For over a month, the 1965 film The Hill was on my watchlist. I kept pushing back, for a variety of reasons. Saturday evening, I played the film some minutes after its lead Sir Sean Connery’s death was announced. The “Greatest Scot Alive” was dead. The “sexiest man” of the 20th century had breathed his last. The death came just days before James Bond, the character he immortalized on screen, turns 100.
One of the reasons, behind being so keen on The Hill was that Sir Connery was much more than James Bond, a character he played for the first time and then returned twice to, before finally calling it quits and switching to supporting roles.
Born to a Catholic father and a Protestant mother in Edinburgh’s Fountainbridge area, Sir Thomas Sean Connery never completed formal education. Till he joined the Royal Navy, Sir Connery had worked as a bricklayer, polished coffins and delivered milk. After three years, invalided from the Royal Navy, Sir Connery returned home to an uncertain present and near absent future. Driving trucks, posing as model for art students and working as lifeguard to scrape a living, Sir Connery had gained quite a reputation as a “tough guy”.
He carried that toughness into playing Bond, a role that was still few years away from him. Sir Connery might also have a different career, a sporting one, had he accepted an offer from the English football club Manchester United. He thought otherwise and tried his luck on the stage. It was here that he started reading Ibsen and other playwrights, modern and past greats.
The ladies liked him in Blood Money. A year later he was rumoured to have been romancing Lana Turner, his leading lady in Another Place, Another Time. Turner’s gangster boyfriend, Johny Stompanato stormed into the set pointing a gun at Sir Connery, who had him easily overpowered and snatched the gun. Stompanato returned to Los Angeles the next morning.
Then came the offer to play the character that would turn him into a global fan-favourite, the British secret service agent 007, James Bond, fond of golf, gambling and women, that passed off well in the 60s but in the post-Cold War world has been frowned upon. That did not affect the popularity of either Sir Connery or Bond, James Bond. Incidentally, Fleming was unhappy with the producers favouring Sir Connery to play Bond in Dr No and came around only after seeing the film. (Fleming had described Sir Connery as an “overgrown stuntman”. Well, too err is human). Fellow Scotsman Sir Richard Burton, Cary Grant and Rex Harrison were the first choices to play Bond.
Sir Connery returned twice to play James Bond, in the 1971 film Diamonds Are Forever and Never Say, Never Again (1983).
Sir Connery’s impact was such that Bond creator Ian Fleming had to provide the character with a Scottish family background like Sir Connery, a proud Scotsman, who never gave the Scottish way of speaking which meant, the Ss were Shs, the Ohs turning Ors and more. The same actor playing an Irish beat cop in an American city with a strong Scottish accent won his only Academy Award for best supporting actor in the now-considered classic The Untouchables.
Sir Connery would play a Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius who defects to the US at the end of the Hunt for the Red October.
The Hill was among the non-Bond films that Sir Connery did in the 60s. He hated Bond and had told his close friend and actor Sir Michael Caine that he would kill Bond. In The Hill he played a former squadron sergeant major charged with assaulting his senior officers, now imprisoned in a British military prison in the Libyan desert.
The character required raw physicality as he was subjected to severe punishment in the form of routine drills by a sadistic and brutal staff sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry). And, Sir Connery’s on-screen raw sexuality was a major pull for his fans.
Tired of Bond, Sir Connery appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, played Robin Hood opposite Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian, in John Huston’s Man Who Would Be King with Sir Caine and the late Saaed Jaffrey, Murder in the Orient Express, The Name of the Rose (for which he won a Bafta award), Highlander, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Russia House, Entrapment, The Rock (both box office successes) and Finding Forrester. Others like The First Knight and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Naseeruddin Shah played Captain Nemo in the film) tanked. Never comfortable in the glitzy life of Hollywood and keen to avoid the “idiots now making films in Hollywood”, he turned down an offer to play Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings.
A member of the Scottish National Party (Left-oriented), Sir Connery was key votary for Scottish independence (a stand that almost cost him the Knighthood, not that he cared).
Several times he had turned down Apple founder Steve Jobs’ offer to endorse the company products.
He preferred exile over Hollywood, moving from the houses he owned in the Bahamas (where he died in sleep), Spain and Portugal as retirement was “too much fun.”