The Best Sean Connery James Bond Films

The best films of the Sean Connery James Bond era

Sir Sean Connery: James Bond. The Scotsman was, is, and for many shall remain the classic James Bond in film. Every generation seems to have their own Bond actor that they grew up with and have subsequently come to appreciate. However, the Sean Connery Bond films tend to cast a long shadow over the rest. One thing I notice every time I talk to a Bond fan is, when asked their favourite Bond actor, even if Connery isn’t their favourite (he often is) they all add a verbal asterisk by saying something along the lines of “but of course no one will ever replace Sean Connery”.

So why is that? Is it just, as some suggest, because he was the first that he is forever the go-to example by which all others must be judged? There might be some merit to that, although we’ve seen in other movie franchises how original actors are not always so universally well regarded compared to their successors. Springing to mind are the Spider-Man or Hulk movies, or perhaps more appropriately, the myriad representations of Sherlock Holmes or Poirot in film.

Sean Connery James Bond by Glen Stone Illustration
Sean Connery James Bond by Glen Stone Illustration

More likely I’d wager it’s the way Connery’s way of embodying James Bond on screen, the sheer suave and cool demeanour Connery exudes in his best performances, that secures him such an estimable position in the hearts of 007 fans. In almost all of the Sean Connery James Bond movies he gives a commanding performance, with few notable exceptions. Indeed, he creates a seemingly effortless incarnation of what the character of Bond should be in almost every frame.

Very sadly in 2020, Sean Connery, a hero to Scots everywhere and beloved by the film-going audiences of the world, passed away in his home in Nassau, not far from where Thunderball (1965) was filmed. As such I felt that now was a good time to go through each of the Sean Connery Bond films in order of best to worst, starting with those I view as the best Sean Connery James Bond movies, and highlighting just why for so many Sean Connery simply is James Bond.

 

 

From Russia with Love (1963)

Right away, some may question my choice not to start with Dr. No (1962). Allow me to preface this by saying that while I do love Dr. No (1962), to me it’s just not one of the best Connery Bond films. I’ll be going into it in more detail in another article covering the rest of the Connery Bond films, but suffice to say here that for the first Bond film of the official franchise they had yet to find their footing in a few ways, and the film suffers from a few hang-ups of early film-making which are less prevalent in its sequel, despite releasing merely one year later. Further to that, while I am sure there are some who would put Dr. No (1962) in a top-ten all time Bond films list, I cannot imagine anybody with their head correctly attached to their body omitting From Russia with Love (1963). Indeed, the most contentious arguments I have ever had with fellow Bond fans have concerned whether From Russia with Love (1963) or Goldfinger (1964) are, in fact, the best Bond film ever made.

So that all said, why IS From Russia with Love (1963) often considered by many the first truly great Bond film? Well the simple answer could be “Sean Connery”. For many, myself included, this is his best performance as James Bond. But there’s much more to it than that. The world was a quite different place in 1963. From Russia with Love (1963) released just a few months after President John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech in front of the Berlin Wall, and just one month before his tragic assassination which, to this day, many speculate the Soviet Union may have had a hand in. Set against such a tense backdrop – the former allies of the west and Russia growing steadily apart – From Russia with Love (1963) is truly representative of the atmosphere of unease and uncertainty in which it was made.

Dr. No (1962) has no pre-credits scene, a stand-out oddity in the Bond film franchise. From Russia with Love (1963) is the first film to include one, and it sets a precedent to be followed. In dead silence, we see our beloved hero of the Sean Connery Bond Films (or so we think) silently stalking through a hedge maze garden at night, white porcelain busts a stark contrast to emphasise the dim. Then, in what must have given audiences a total shock, we see an unknown man not only sneak up on Bond, but seemingly kill him! Of course, this is soon revealed to be merely a goon in a face mask, and unknown observers silently approve of their killer’s performance. Total silence, of course, not a word is spoken. We know this man, whoever he is, is a true threat to our heroic British agent. Then we cut to the theme song, John Barry’s titular From Russia with Love (1963), a not-so-subtle hint after the wordless scene as to who may have such dark intentions for James Bond.

This may seem tangential, but it is in fact crucial to why Connery’s performance in From Russia with Love (1963) is so memorable. It is set against the backdrop of this cold opening, and an audience who knows that somewhere out there, a man who is seen only a few times before the stunning confrontation, there is a threat to our hero. It’s hard to get too invested in any film where, almost by guarantee, the hero will win, and the bad guys will lose – something most blockbusters for better or worse do little to alleviate. But in From Russia with Love (1963), Connery’s performance is pitted against that of Robert Shaw’s, the tall blonde killer hiding in the shadows, who is shown very capable of dispatching Bond, or at least facsimile, in the audience’s mind. He presents a very real threat from the outset. This was only the second film in the franchise (if you ignore the made for TV Casino Royale from 1954, not to be confused with the OTHER made for TV Casino Royale from 1967), so such suspension of disbelief was not as difficult as it may be today (with 25 films under its belt the franchise can hardly be said to leave you on the edge of your seat wondering if James Bond will win the 26th time). I can only imagine what it would have been like to sit through From Russia with Love (1963) on opening night, with no idea if this may indeed be the last Sean Connery Bond Film.

Of course, this is not merely set against the backdrop of the Cold War, and an unseen assassin. We also see the introduction of Bond’s eternal nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and the global criminal organization fought throughout the franchise by Sean Connery – SPECTRE.

It’s Connery’s cool character, effortlessly moving from the sunny riverside, to a London office, to the Istanbul streets and a tense showdown on a Yugoslav train escape, never once losing his slick composure that so impresses the audience,

In many ways, the formula and elements which Bond films will long after follow and emulate all begin with From Russia with Love (1963). The criminal organisation, their alluded henchman, a plot for world domination which more often than not is financially motivated, and so on. So much seems stacked against Bond’s favour that even he seems outmatched on paper. This is precisely the environment in which a stellar performance can shine, and Connery’s suave, smooth, sophisticated manner carries through in every scene.

More classic elements the franchise would follow are to come. A meeting with M in the MI6 headquarters, shortly followed by Q giving Bond the gadgets he will no doubt just-so-happen to need. While future instalments may stretch the realism a bit (jet packs, underwater cars, invisible cars), here Bond is given a briefcase. A beautiful prop, entirely real, it has hidden bullets, compartments, a folding sniper rifle, hidden coins, a booby trap system, it is everything a Bond gadget should be – and of course isn’t too far removed from what an actual spy in the Cold War may have actually used.

Setting the table for a franchise to come isn’t enough to warrant calling it one of the best films in that franchise, of course. It’s Connery’s cool character, effortlessly moving from the sunny riverside, to a London office, to the Istanbul streets and a tense showdown on a Yugoslav train escape, never once losing his slick composure that so impresses the audience, cementing his demeanour. Whether he’s being greeted at the airport and casually exchanging code words with a contact or bargaining for a few more minutes of life with a Russian assassin, the steely cool Connery Bond never flinches, even in the face of death. This may seem like false bravado and perhaps even a comical parody of the stereotypical British stiff upper lip from almost any other actor, but Connery pulls it off perfectly.

It’s hard to talk about From Russia with Love (1963), both practically and emotionally, without at least mentioning Pedro Armendáriz. This was his last film role after a colourful career, and very sadly, after filming The Conqueror in Utah during US Nuclear testing, he developed severe pains and cancer. If you’re looking for it, you’ll see him limping in his scenes as a result, but it’s a testament to his acting prowess that, if you weren’t told that just a few weeks after filming he would tragically take his own life, his suffering would be almost entirely masked by his warm and lovable performance as Ali Kerim Bey, Bond’s rendezvous in Istanbul. Indeed, one of the many reasons I would rate this as the best Connery Bond film would be that so many other actors also gave it their all, and Connery’s performance works so well in tandem with theirs. Much of what makes the Sean Connery James Bond movies so memorable is in fact how his role shines among even such memorable performances.

The other stand out performance is of course that of Daniela Bianchi, playing the secretive Tatiana Romanova who is to lure Bond into a trap by pretending to have fallen in love with him, offering to defect from the Soviet Union with a vital codebreaking device. While the Bond franchise has, at best, a mixed record when it comes to empowering female roles (looking at you, Moore movies), Bianchi’s role has evident agency. While MI6 knows it’s a trap, and Tatiana knows they likely know it’s a trap, she’s confident she can lure Bond with her charms (both intelligence and otherwise). Indeed, it is their faux-romance blossoming into a true romance which endears this relationship to many, as Bianchi’s character is less a helpless damsel and more an intelligent agent seeing reason and finding love. Daniela Bianchi would return to the “BOND” franchise, biggest quotes possible there, in the film OK Connery – alternate title Operation Kid Brother (1967), where Sean Connery’s actual real-life brother plays the replacement for James Bond. A remarkably interesting returning role, which demonstrates just how memorable her role as a Bond Girl was!

Of course, the shadowy games all amount to the final showdown aboard a train. Robert Shaw’s quiet and little-seen character finally appears as Bond and his Russian female counterpart, Tatiana Romanova, believe they have escaped. The assassin, Donald Grant, sneaks his way onto the train and at Zagreb convinces Bond he’s his MI6 contact. For a full ten minutes, the audience is on the edge of their seat, waiting to see if Connery will discover his subterfuge. In the end, it comes down to Bond with a gun pointed at his chest, and nothing but that handy briefcase he was given earlier. That’s when we realize that Shaw’s assassin is no Russian agent at all, and that SPECTRE is pulling strings from even higher above than the opponents of the Cold War…

If for some reason you haven’t seen what I consider the greatest Bond film of all time, and indeed one of the greatest films of all time period, I can’t bring myself to ruin the ending. Suffice to say, this is where, for me at least, the Bond films starring Sean Connery fully show what they’re made of.

Goldfinger (1964)

Just one year later, we are back with Bond in what many consider the greatest Bond film of all time, and which for me is a close second. Our hero stealthily infiltrates a sophisticated complex by water, clad in a dark scuba suit, planting explosives and arming them, only to step outside and immediately remove his scuba gear to reveal a bright white tuxedo. As the facility explodes behind him, he stops in for a drink, only to exchange a few secretive lines with a contact there. Following a beautiful woman, he is ambushed by some goon, throws him in the bath the woman was just in, only to throw a heating lamp in to electrocute him just before the man could reach for a pistol to shoot him. “Shocking,” he quips, and the tradition is set in stone for Bond to always have a line ready. It’s like a mini bond adventure condensed into just four minutes, and does a perfect job of what every pre-credits scene in a Bond film should do, in my opinion – set the tone. Daring, sneaky, and explosive!

This time around Bond is trying to figure out how the titular man Goldfinger (1964) is smuggling gold bullion around the world to sell it for such a profit. Of course, while From Russia with Love (1963) is set against the looming conflict with Russia, Goldfinger (1964) lingers on the Second World War, with Nazi gold a recurring theme throughout. While the tension is high in From Russia with Love (1963) throughout, here the stakes start small but just keep climbing higher and higher. We find out Goldfinger is not just smuggling gold for profit, but planning something far greater, to sabotage the US gold reserves to skyrocket the value of his own, scheming with the US mafia! And all of this using a recently-made Chinese nuclear weapon. This is a nod, of course, to the on-going Cold War, and indeed the rising threat China was posing at the time as an ally of the Soviet Union.

Goldfinger is quite unlike other films in the franchise, even among Sean Connery Bond Films. It is a fascinating performance for Sean Connery, Goldfinger (1964) is a Bond film where Bond is quickly captured, and spends a large part of the film as Goldfinger’s captive. Thus Gert Fröbe’s megalomaniacal villain and Connery’s Bond spend much time together, rather than a few short interactions as in other films of the franchise. We wonder, indeed, how Bond will escape with his life, let alone manage to stop this madman. There’s undoubtedly a very different approach taken with the film, Goldfinger (1964) settling into a much more contained story once Bond is captured rather than the global chase that is From Russia with Love (1963). But that works well to the film’s advantage. Sean Connery makes as good a plotting captive as he does a globe-trotting super-spy, and by having their characters in such close proximity for such a length of time, we see Goldfinger and Bond match wits repeatedly throughout the film. Where Robert Shaw’s assassin was mostly unseen, we are regularly reminded of Goldfinger’s central role, as he has almost as much screen presence as Bond himself.

For fans, this is what Sean Connery’s James Bond is at its peak.

As Bond is slowly working his way into Goldfinger’s trust, and then subsequent captivity, it takes place in quite a quiet and relaxed setting. We learn of the world-shattering events Auric Goldfinger has planned at his Kentucky stud farm, the spy agencies of the US and Britain watching on unaware that Bond has been discovered, as the two drink and smile. The undercurrent of fear and tension is just as strong behind the smiles, and this is rightly regarded as one of the most iconic moments in the history of Bond films. It’s all thanks to the performances of the two. Connery, despite not too long ago having been moments away from an industrial laser slicing him apart and just maybe showing a bit of fear, keeps his composure as he deduces Goldfinger’s plot.

For fans, this is what Sean Connery’s James Bond is at its peak. This rising tension all gives way at the climax of one of the most spectacular sequences in film, at least up until that time. Pussy Galore, the wicked female sidekick of Goldfinger, and her professional female pilot team, use prop planes to gas the entire area surrounding Fort Knox so that the Chinese military can invade Fort Knox with Goldfinger’s aid. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bond film if it didn’t have some of the best action in cinema, and it turns out Bond managed to get a warning out, smuggled on a body crushed in a car compactor. The US military played Goldfinger, pretending to fall unconscious only to remove their gas masks and move in. All of a sudden, our spy film is set against the backdrop of US and Chinese troops fighting an open combat on US soil around Fort Knox with a nuclear weapon inside slowly ticking down… and only Bond can stop it.

Aside from the titular Goldfinger we’re also treated to the performance of Honor Blackman as… (sigh) Pussy Galore. Name aside, her character itself is excellently written. Leading a professional piloting group, she’s both an enforcer and enactor of Goldfinger’s deadly plan. Her resistance to Bond’s charms is also quite refreshing, and she shows no signs of falling into his arms with a sigh and a flutter of the eyelashes. Indeed, she’s neither a sympathetic character trapped in a situation, rather someone with a definite goal in mind and clear motivations (even if they’re not immediately apparent). When she catches Bond eavesdropping on Blofeld, and witnessing him kill his rivals in the excellent Fort Knox miniature sliding-floor set piece, we get the feeling that her loyalty may be measured in dollars and cents rather than emotion, and her grudging respect for Bond is visible. Despite her outwardly cold demeanour, there’s more of an air of professionalism and detachedness to it than any real malice. Honor Blackman’s performance gives much more credence to the character Pussy Galore than perhaps its name would suggest.

Harold Sakata, playing Oddjob, Goldfinger’s muscle man with a deadly throwing-hat, gave a silent but memorable performance for his first ever major role in film. The idea of the strong-but-silent enforcer recurs multiple times in Bond, largely inspired by Shaw’s assassin From Russia with Love (1963) but undoubtedly cemented by Oddjob’s rather imposing figure. He is threatened throughout the film as the man who will stand between Bond and his goal, and in the end he’s quite literally that, standing between Bond and the bomb. As all out war rages overhead, down in the Fort Knox vaults Bond gets thrown about and nearly killed by the Japanese-Hawaiian henchman. While Bond was matching wits with the assassin on the train, here it is just brute force, man against muscle. In the end though, Bond always manages to outsmart those he can’t out-punch.

Having the dynamic of a stronger henchman and smarter villain split between two characters, rather than combined into one as we saw in From Russia with Love (1963), is much more the norm in Bond films after Goldfinger (1964). Perhaps it would get a bit repetitive to constantly have Bond matched up against men his equal or better in every measure, but I do love the tension posed by a villain you know is a true threat to James Bond. Still, Harold Sakata gives Connery a real run for his money. It’s hard to stay composed when you’re being chased and thrown like a rag-doll, but somehow, Sean Connery manages it. Even when he’s up against the wall (quite literally) and staring down death through gritted teeth, there’s always something noble behind the desperation of Connery’s performance.

As the US military manages to finally push their way into the vault, we see the timer ticking down, and Bond has to try to stop a bomb that will not just kill thousands, but collapse the US economy and see China rise to economic domination (how relevant). I don’t like spoiling endings, but for once in the Bond franchise, we have a nuclear weapon that doesn’t go off. But that’s hardly the end of Goldfinger, either the movie or the character, as we saw him escape the battle just minutes ago. Bond is finally confronted one last time by Goldfinger on his way to be debriefed, and it seems there’s nothing that can save him this time. Bond may have saved the day, but who will save him?

It’s easy for me to see why many would put Goldfinger (1964) in the number one spot of Bond films, even if I don’t personally agree. This film has everything. From the sneaky spy work we wish we got more of in the Bond franchise, to the all-out action we go to see it for. The stakes are much higher, more global and impactful than From Russia with Love (1963). While another agent could pick up where Bond left off if he had died on that train in Yugoslavia, here Bond is the only man who can stop a global disaster. It represents a quite different approach to the spy genre and one which future films much were much more likely to follow. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that every Bond film after Goldfinger (1964) is trying to capture it’s success, either by copying it or emulating it. Regardless, it’s undoubtedly one of the best Sean Connery Bond films.

You Only Live Twice (1967)

Again, I feel a need to preface this for those who may ask why I’m skipping a film. After all, the performance by Sean Connery in Thunderball (1965) is widely regarded by many as a great Bond classic. As I said I’ll be going into full detail as to why it’s not an example of Connery’s best work in my opinion, but I’ll quickly sum up my feelings here. It was trying way too hard to be Goldfinger (1964) but in doing so misses the point that you can’t emulate something which was trying to innovate. It stuck all its hopes on an aquatic theme which results in a film that’s way too long thanks to underwater scenes which drag on endlessly. The plot doesn’t really get going until about 40 minutes in, by which time arguably very little has actually happened.

By contrast, by that same time stamp in You Only Live Twice (1967) we’ve seen Bond faking his death to infiltrate Hong Kong, contacting the Japanese secret service, sneaking in to an industrial building only to escape in a high speed car chase followed by a helicopter which uses an industrial magnet to lift their pursuers’ car clean off the road only to drop it in the ocean. It really is a pulse pounding action thriller by comparison, and that’s still only the first act. You Only Live Twice (1967) benefits from having had three years since Goldfinger (1964) released to try to re-visit the James Bond film concept rather than re-hash it. This film knows that it is supposed to be a spy-action film, and it plays to its strengths.

As a result, we see Bond exploring Hong Kong and Japan, the then-little-known eastern nations which were only recognized as trade and manufacturing capitals, rather than stretching the runtime by slowly exploring dimly lit water (like Thunderball (1965)). While one could hardly today accuse You Only Live Twice (1967) of being a tasteful cultural showcase (ahem, more to follow), the locations chosen for shooting are effortlessly beautiful. I can only imagine that for many who had never seen Japan or any of its neighbours, as many in the west haven’t even today, it was eye-opening.

The Sean Connery James Bond movies often feature technology or issues we often associate with later decades, not realising they often saw their debuts far earlier, so some disconnect does occasionally occur when Sean Connery is taking down a nuclear power station gone rogue, or tensions between east and west, yet it’s filmed very much in the style of the 60s. This deserves a mention, I suppose, as it is a caveat to calling You Only Live Twice (1967) one of the best Connery bond films. The others are better able to avoid these anachronistic pitfalls, and are a little less dated for it. The film is at its core about the space race, and the potential of a nuclear conflict between the US and Russia when each is accusing the other of stealing their spaceships and satellites (it’s SPECTRE, of course). These are things we associate with the latter half of the cold war and yet its easy to forget they were happening in the 60’s.

While we’re on the topic of a film being a product of its time, I suppose it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room any longer, which I alluded to previously. Once Bond discovers the location of SPECTRE’s hideout, he has to infiltrate the island, and to do so of course he disguises himself as a Japanese fisherman, in what can only be described as blatant yellow-face. I don’t make excuses for films usually, instead I try to frame films within their context. You Only Live Twice (1967) was made at a time when that was acceptable, and indeed, what may have been seen as a forward thinking move in terms of cultural outreach. It is obviously no longer considered as such, and no longer acceptable to do so. It’s a very short part of an otherwise excellent film which I’d hope modern audiences wouldn’t find ruining their experience. However for those who would be offended, very little is missed by skipping through it, and you won’t lose track of the plot by doing so.

A more refreshing representation of Asian characters is found in Akiko Wakabayashi, whose role as Bond’s female Japanese secret service counterpart is surprisingly modern. Whether she’s tricking Bond into falling into the secret tunnel trap hidden under the Japanese underground system which leads to their secret service HQ (don’t ask), or showing up at the last moment in a sports car to save Bond from gun-toting goons, she’s an excellent partner to bond. Indeed, seeing their mutual respect slowly grow throughout the film is a rare delight in the franchise. Indeed, there are many obvious similarities (and references) between Akiko’s character Aki and a certain Chinese spy who shows up in a much later Pierce Brosnan title.

The Sean Connery James Bond movies are, at their best, unsurpassable.

What I feel makes You Only Live Twice (1967) a stand-out among even the best Sean Connery James Bond is the beautiful camera-work. As an example, when investigating the docks to find the ship Ning-Po, Bond and Akiko are ambushed and chased up this massive dockside construction for loading and unloading freight. Bond leads them to the roof so she can escape, and from there we see thirty seconds of absolutely breath-taking film-making. We see Connery ambushed by a man with a knife, only to be followed by several others, and once he dispatches the first, we cut to a helicopter pan where the camera pulls out to reveal just how many men are flooding the rooftop to chase him. This is truly an excellent scene. I’d put it up there as one of the best scenes in Bond for how memorable it is. So much so that when I most recently viewed the film I rewound it several times just to watch it over. This kind of spectacle scene is what marks the Bond franchise out, it goes to the limit to make the most engaging cinema-viewing experience possible, and this is a perfect example of it. It’s why these films (the good and the bad) have lasted so long, and why (most) are still looked on so fondly – they do what you don’t find anywhere else.

Although the car chases do suffer from the time at which they were filmed, when you just filmed a stationary car in front of a screen showing the footage you filmed in a car earlier. That quaint style of film-making is rather charming, and though I’m sure many modern audiences might have trouble looking past it, they’re interspersed with a healthy amount of external footage as well, so it’s not quite as distracting as in say Dr. No (1962). Much like the subject matter’s surprising modernity, it’s easy to forget just how long ago this film was made until something like this crops up. I would hope most can see past it and it wouldn’t disturb their immersion too much, but all I can say is for those who can’t is it’s a quirk that’s soon forgotten about.

Where From Russia with Love (1963) has its climax aboard a night-time train, and Goldfinger (1964) has the Battle of Fort Knox, well, You Only Live Twice (1967) blows them both out of the water for me. Its climax is a scene which has become so iconic that pretty much every Bond parody is in one way or another parodying this scene. The assault on, and I beg you to appreciate how incredible this sentence is, the SPECTRE volcano spaceship launching lair with sliding rooftop access is basically the Tracy Island toy set in film form (no one under 30 reading this will know what that is, but trust me, it was the coolest toy ever in around 1992, google it). But who’s assaulting this heavily armed facility full of goons? Why an army of Japan’s secret service ninjas of course, who we saw training earlier on at a Dojo with katanas, throwing stars, and of course guns and explosives. Realistically, nothing I could say can do justice to this scene. It is the best kind of film excess. While this is nothing like Jumping the Shark (I leave that honour to Sir Roger Moore’s space laser battle), it very much strains the bounds of reality, and yet that is precisely what the Bond novels did. Each book was an astounding tale of barely believable exploits and daring, and the films deserve nothing less than to be just as incredible if not more so.

I love these films. In fact, I love every James Bond film for its own reasons, no matter how I may criticise one or two of them. But the Sean Connery James Bond movies are, at their best, unsurpassable. Nothing will compare to the first time I saw Connery clouded in smoke at a baccarat table light a cigarette and say “Bond, James Bond”. I was a young boy the first time I saw these movies, I hadn’t been told they were amazing or special, I figured that out for myself. From one director to another, the films changed, the action was great, but one thing was always the same: Sir Sean Connery was, is, and always shall be James Bond.

CREDITS

Writer: Ben Kelly
Editors: Jeremy Scott, Richard Williams
Artwork: Richard Williams (banner image), Glen Stone Illustration (Sean Connery sketch, as credited above)