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'Sean Connery: the Measure of a Man' book review

20-Aug-2010 • Collecting

A new Life of Sean Connery can only swoon over the actor’s magnificent musculature, says Lewis Jones for The Telegraph.

"Sean Connery IS James Bond,” as the posters used to shout. Except, of course, when someone else is playing Bond, or Connery is playing someone else. This is the gist of a new book by Christopher Bray.

Click here to buy online (Amazon UK).

“I have, I should stress,” he says in his introduction, “no wish to know Sean Connery,” as he sounds rather “combative” and “prickly”. Connery “has not co-operated on the book” and nor “were many people who know or have worked with Connery willing to talk to me about him”. For “the purposes of research, I have had recourse to the same few interviews he has granted”.

I am sure that many celebrity biographies are written from a similar position, but few authors are honest enough to admit it. Bray’s candour is admirable, but it does raise two questions. Why did he write his book? And, more urgently, why should we read it?

The answer to the first question seems to be that he likes to watch Connery: “I like watching him move through a room. I like watching him sit down and cross his legs. I especially like watching him open and close doors.” So he naturally hopes that his book will appeal to others who like to watch Connery, or to read about his “burly charms”, his “magnificent musculature”, “silky mobility”, “carnal brutishness”, “gorgeousness” et cetera. We get the picture.

There is a biography amid this swooning appreciation and fairly well known it is (there have been five others). The descendant of Wexford tinkers, Connery was born in Edinburgh in 1930 and left school at 13. Invalided out of the Royal Navy, he worked as a milkman, apprentice French polisher, lifeguard, and won a bronze medal in the 1953 Mr Universe contest. After landing a role as a chorus boy in South Pacific, he became a jobbing actor in London and played heavies in such films as Hell Drivers (1957).

Then came his apotheosis. Quite a few actors were talked of as possible Bonds – David Niven, James Stewart, Richard Burton, James Mason, Dirk Bogarde – but Bray argues that this was merely to hype the role, as they were all established and expensive. Cubby Broccoli wanted an unknown actor, not a star, and the only real contenders were Connery, Patrick McGoohan and Roger Moore.

Ian Fleming is said to have objected to the choice of Connery – “that f---ing truck driver” – and Bray takes up the cudgels on Connery’s behalf. “Fleming’s original Bond,” he writes, “was an insufferable bore – priggish, snobbish, public-school effete and almost gruesomely uncultured.”

This is unfair. It is true the films have long since eclipsed the books, but the early ones were well written and stylish, as well as extremely popular. And though Connery was certainly magnificent in the role, it is pushing it to argue that he was somehow waging class war with his “languorously insurrectionary take on what he saw as this jumped-up imperialist bore”. Bray seems to have been infected by his hero’s evident chippiness.

Still, Connery did define the part, and was defined by it in turn, as Bray acknowledges in his rather laboured attempts to relate Connery’s subsequent roles to Bond: as Danny in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), he is apparently “relishing the chance Huston’s script affords him to poke fun at Bond”; his gentleman thief Edward Pierce in The First Great Train Robbery (1978) “is a kind of prototype 007”; and Major Robert Dapes in Cuba (1979) “was, after all, a kind of footloose 007”.

All this is another way of saying that Connery is an actor of limited range, essentially playing an idealised version of himself. He has twice – in The Wind and the Lion (1975) and The Next Man (1976) – played Arabs with Scottish accents: the “mad sheikh of Aberdeen” as Russell Davies put it. “If I didn’t talk the way I talk,” Connery told John Boorman, “I wouldn’t know who the f--- I was.”

Bray’s critical perspective, which is really the point of his book, strikes me as consistently wonky. He deplores “the lame espionage shenanigans” of The Russia House (1990), for example, which is a bit rich, and his list of Humphrey Bogart’s best films excludes both The African Queen and Casablanca. His grasp of English is wonky, too – he constantly misuses “putative” and bafflingly deploys “rapine” as an adjective.

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