Sir Sean Connery died at the age of 90, one of the few men who left Hollywood better than he found it for for portraying courage, strength and wisdom. He was James Bond, who is possibly the only widely held ideal for men in two generations. It is certainly still a role that actors find difficult to play because it seldom gets a grip on the imaginations of young men seeking luxury, splendor, heroism, patriotism – in a word, aristocracy.
Since he was an actor, the best way to make him grieve is to celebrate his work. That is why I recommend you the films that show him in the most admirable light, especially those made towards the end of his career when he became Hollywood’s only example of a wise old man in what were then typically male professions – police, navy, business and diplomacy.
Thumos and royalty
However, let us first consider him in the fullness of his strength as a practitioner of royal art during the time of the British Raj at the end of the 19th century. In the 1975s, The Man Who Be King, Connery and his friend Michael Caine were directed by the great John Huston, himself a male man, in an adaptation of the short story by Rudyard Kipling.
Connery and Caine, two ex-British soldiers, set their minds on getting beyond civilization to Afghanistan. There they create their own kingdom and mimick what the British Empire did in India. With superhuman determination and half a dozen rifles, they are almost successful. In fact, Connery is revered as a pagan god as he accepts kingship.
The wonder of the film is the confrontation between modern and ancient politics, technology and piety, and the tragic limits of governance in both cases. Connery’s appearance brings to life a lowly ex-soldier, villain, and Freemason whom the British legal system regards with embarrassment and indignation. He emerges as a proud cavalryman and then rises to become judge and king.
The military virtues link the age of democracy with the age of aristocracy, as wars are still going on, but they also hide the great ambitions that are cherished in the heart of man. In the Age of Empires, it was still possible to dream of establishing a new kingdom. Indeed, every now and then someone has made himself ruler and taken full power of that freedom which puts a person above the law.
He becomes a king, but his people demand that in doing so he become a god who is more and less than a man. He is obeyed in religious fear but must live and die alone, devoid of the joys and comforts of friendship and love. The desire to become a god then leads to tragedy – in fact, one would almost have to be a god to contemplate such loneliness.
The Chicago Way
In 1987, Brian De Palma directed and David Mamet wrote The Untouchables, the only famous story we have about Al Capone, with a cast that included Robert De Niro as the gangster and a young Kevin Costner as the proud, moral Elliott Ness, the cop , belonged to who brought him down. But it was Connery who shone as an Irish Catholic beat cop and had to teach Ness how to fight “the Chicago way”.
This is a story of American democracy raised to a high level by the intense moral demands of prohibition. It depicts a city threatened by the aristocratic grandeur and tyrannical desires of the old world and embodied by Capone, a media darling who hits people’s heads with baseball bats. After all, romantic delusions about violent criminals are also a national pastime. The law seems scanty compared to luxury and also weak compared to intrigue, corruption and bribery.
Connery embodies the virtues of a younger, more robust democracy. A poor man, he rose to the status of citizenship and middle class as a police officer. He lends a certain taste to the aristocracy – the gentleman’s clothes, home leisure, and the sure judgment of character – while retaining the benefits of democracy, a sure knowledge of the ugly facts of life and a willingness to get his hands on doing dirty and dangerous things.
An honorable defector
Connery’s next icon was Marko Ramius, a submarine captain and legendary warrior, in John McTiernan’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1990 debut novel The Hunt for Red October Cold War, Freedom and Tyranny and with it an investigation of different men.
Alec Baldwin plays the intrepid CIA agent Jack Ryan, the role model for barely tamed American thumos. Ryan embodies professionalism and the virtues of the bourgeois family, but also has a searching ambition and a nose for greatness, which is why he is fascinated by Ramius, who is his boss in every way except one – the latter serves a master he detests and begins to fear a Soviet Union that connects political officers to military units to keep the men of honor on a leash.
Wisdom is a title to be ruled over. That is why we want competent craftsmen and experts whenever we have a job. Connery’s notable career ended with a series of roles in which he played the role of wisdom in human affairs.
We can call this a fairy tale, as Soviet power did not include technological innovations or great men in the 1980s. This is no accident – it is a poetic enhancement of the story that reveals the necessary complement to the virtues and experiences of Americans. Connery plays the perfect gentleman, a moral and intellectual authority who, as such, has mastered the general’s art, not just more peaceful arts. Obviously, this is an image that is more in line with the old than the new world.
I will conclude with one more foray into Connery as an exotic, mysterious, wise man. In 1993 he starred alongside Wesley Snipes and Harvey Keitel in Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Rising Sun, Michael Crichton’s novel about Japanese industrial intrigue and American political corruption. This film is unprecedented in comparing American and Japanese customs, and we could use such a portrayal of Sino-US relations today, if it were even conceivable that studios would undertake such a dangerous venture.
In typical Crichton fashion, a timely public concern – Japanese attempts to buy strategic tech companies – mixes with the ugly underworld of drugs, prostitution and murder. A detective from LA (Snipes) has to deal with the murder of a prostitute in a Japanese skyscraper during a gala celebrating all the major American politicians in California. Given the money and prestige, anything he does is likely to cause a scandal.
Connery, in a performance that recalls Kurosawa’s great actor Toshiro Mifune, as he recalls John Ford’s great actor John Wayne, ties all of this together. Connery works with Snipes having previously worked in law enforcement, but also advises Japanese companies so his loyalty and past are both suspect. Even so, he is the man who can solve the case and reveal the ugly truth because he understands the combination of ancient aristocracy and modern technology that embodied Japan – at least before the rise of China.
Wisdom is a title to be ruled over. That is why we want competent craftsmen and experts whenever we have a job. Connery’s notable career ended with a series of roles in which he played the role of wisdom in human affairs. His characters showed a knowledge of morals and souls that escapes the rules of expertise and methods of science, but governs our politics and is universal rather than specialized. He deserves our admiration and this view of human nature deserves our attention.