The Sean Connery Years, part 2
When Sean Connery looks across the card table during a game of Baccarat Chemin de Fer in the opening of Dr. No, he started one of the greatest movie series ever simply by giving his name, “Bond, James Bond.” Since then the Bond films have gone on to be one of the most successful movie franchises ever. The eight Harry Potter films achieved unprecedented box office numbers. Star Wars is back near the top. If you add up all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, they get number one on the revenue list, but there are many films; you know, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Guardians of the Galaxy. These are not all about one character, so does it count? There are 25 Bond films, and it will take at least 2 more for the series to equal the Potter gross revenue figures.
Previously we recapped the first 4 Bond films, starring Connery as the super spy. Connery was back for the fifth outing in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, based loosely, very loosely, on the 12th Ian Fleming novel of the same name. Since the novel is a continuation of a storyline from a previous novel, not yet filmed, we are in for some Cold War-era rewrites here.
Consider this paragraph a giant spoiler alert. In the opening Bond is sent to Japan where he is set up and killed by foreign agents. The naval commander is buried at sea and that is the end of Bond. OK, it’s not. It is all a set up so Bond can go undercover in Japan to work with the head of the Japanese secret service to find out who has captured an American spacecraft. Here we get to see Bond train as a ninja and invade, along with a female assistant, of course, an island run by an evil SPECTRE mastermind. There are battles, explosions, chases, and remarkable rescues, just the usual Bond magic.
Remarkably, the next movie is based on the previous novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). The sixth Bond production brings on a new actor in the role of the superhero and a new director. Since Connery decided to retire from the role, the producers elected to go with an unknown Australian actor and model, George Lazenby. His good looks and screen tests won him the role.
The story involves a “Bond girl” who James saves at the opening, then later meets at a casino. It’s actress Diana Rigg in an early role as a Countess. Her father sets Bond on an investigation of her solicitor, which in turn leads the spy to an evil plot by the head of SPECTRE (a plan to distribute biological warfare). This may all sound rather fantastic, but this time the producers tried to stay closer to the book. Yes, the film series got people reading the Ian Fleming books. Imagine that!
By the end of filming, Lazenby had decided that he had enough of Bond, even though he was offered the next movie which was supposed to be The Man With The Golden Gun. He passed on it and the movie was put on hold. It was reported that Lazenby’s agent told him the Bond series would be outdated by the 1970s anyway.
After a couple of years and a film that did not have the box office magic of the Connery films, there was only one thing for the producers to do. They decided to bring back the magic. The story was switched to Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Guy Hamilton was brought back to direct. He was the director of the critically acclaimed Goldfinger. John Barry again did the score, as he did for all but one of the Bond films. Shirley Bassey, who sang the title tune for Goldfinger, is back for this title tune. There is a gorgeous “Bond girl” with Jill St. John. Just one more element was needed to insure a return to the top for the movie series.
Producers gave their Bond actor over a million dollars (an unheard-of territory then) and a piece of the gross to take on the super suave spy. Finally, the major challenge was met and Sean Connery was set to return as “007.”
The story is based on the 4th Ian Fleming novel published in 1956. Bond is chasing diamond smugglers and the action moves from South Africa to Holland to the United Kingdom and on to Las Vegas. Of course, a bit of a rewrite of the story allows us to have an old nemesis, Ernest Stavro Blofeld, a SPECTRE mastermind. The Bond girl is appropriately named Tiffany Case. Fleming loved to give the girls names with double meanings within the story. The Las Vegas chase scene almost makes the movie experience worth the time. The casino owner at the center of the thriller is played by Jimmy Dean. Yes, that Jimmy Dean, country singer, and sausage king.
From here the film series moves on to the Roger Moore years. In 1973 Moore becomes the famous spy for the next seven films. Connery moves on to other film projects, promising never to play the secret agent again.
Owners of the Thunderball rights, which were won in a court battle, desired to film the movie. Additional court battles over what could be used would follow any attempt to make a rival Bond film in the midst of the Bond years. But even while the Roger Moore films were being released, plans for a rival Bond movie were moving forward. Not wanting to call the film by the same name and facing a variety of legal challenges, the producers went ahead with a similar story and no rights to the iconic music. Even with a good script, how could they be successful in the same year with the release of a Roger Moore film?
The only solution seemed to be a film starring Sean Connery as James Bond, but Connery was 52 years old. Moore, on the other hand, was older. While Connery looked fit and able to play an action hero, the story was modified as if “007” was underused due to age. He is brought back to deal with the hijacking of 2 nuclear bombs. Like Thunderball, there is a limited time to find the bombs and save the world from massive destruction. Connery makes the most out of playing an aging James Bond who can still deliver in times of crisis. The overall result is a film much more satisfying than the original Thunderball. Some thought the short underwater climax was disappointing, but I found it to be much better than the overblown original.
Connery provides us with all the charm you would expect of the world’s most famous “secret” agent. The film did almost as well at the box office as the Roger Moore/James Bond film that year, Octopussy. The title of the Thunderball remake was suggested by Connery’s wife who reminded them that Connery had previously said “Never again” to playing the famous British agent.