Book Review: Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man
Few Scots have been the subject of more books than Sean Connery. There are half a dozen on my bookshelves, but that is by no means a definitive library. Connery himself made an abortive attempt at autobiography, before finally coming up with Being a Scot, which began with an excellent chapter on childhood and his early days before turning into a commentary on Scottish culture.
So why do we need yet another book now? Christopher Bray is a critic and cultural commentator who wrote an acclaimed book on Michael Caine a few years ago and sets out his stall early with an upfront admission that he has not met Connery and found very few of his associates or co-stars willing to talk about him. He then spends 340 pages trying to get to know Connery through his work and his choice of projects, arguing that we know even less about the private lives of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Shakespeare. "Biographies get written about people not because of who they are but because of what they have done," Bray maintains.
The approach is perfectly legitimate, if we ignore the inconvenient detail that, unlike Shakespeare, Connery is still alive.
Bray traces Connery's journey from Fountainbridge tenement, to his almost accidental appearance in the chorus line of a production of South Pacific, and the role of Robert Henderson, one of the show's stars, in persuading him to consider acting as a career.
Connery was essentially self-taught, learning from books, experience and from his first wife Diane Cilento. Bray does a good job in tracing his development as an actor and acknowledges the importance of Connery's working-class roots and allegiances, even after he became James Bond.
One of the films he did in between Bond films was The Molly Maguires. It was a big, expensive Hollywood production, but it was about a very un-Hollywood subject - the exploitation of Irish immigrants in Pennsylvannia coal mines in the 19th century. Connery played a militant who takes the law into his own hands and blows up the mines. He is hanged at the end of the film.
Connery made it around the same time he made The Bowler and the Bunnet, a documentary for Scottish Television about attempts by Clydeside management and labour to break down traditional barriers.
Bray writes: "The Molly Maguires was to be a mainstream companion to The Bowler and the Bunnet - another way for a now huge international star to remind the wokers that he came from the same place they did."
Connery has a reputation for being careful with money and has regularly gone to court in pursuit of his dues. Bray makes a persuasive argument that he was motivated more by that old concept of "fair play" than by greed. He also constructs a convincing argument that his choice of films, right through to The Avengers and Entrapment at the end of his career, was a commentary on and riposte to James Bond. Although sometimes he goes to ludicrous lengths to make details fit the argument, occasionally he does not go far enough. The Red Tent was an historical epic that hardly anyone saw. Connery plays Roald Amundsen and Bray comments on the real-life explorer vis a vis the fictional secret agent. But this was a film Connery made for Mosfilm in Russia at the height of the Cold War and disappointingly Bray fails to place the project within the frame of reference of either Connery or Bond's politics.
Bray is at times insightful, at others provocative and pretentious - citing the thriller Rising Sun in relation to "Baudrillardian simulacrum". But he is also sloppy. Despite the growing number of reference sources that give Connery's birth name as Thomas Sean Connery, the name on the certificate is Thomas Connery, and it does not take a top investigative journalist to check that.
As the book progresses Bray also becomes increasingly and annoyingly smug, not content with pointing out what actors, writers and directors have done wrong, but also telling them how they should have done it.
He seems grudging in his praise, acknowledging Connery's development as an actor and an icon, but being dismissive of so much of his work, refusing to accept the sheer entertainment value of some films. He talks about "the tragedy of Sean Connery's late career". Not that he is too keen on the early career either. "At least part of the blame for the post-Seventies infantilism of the cinema can be lain at the door of the Bond series. And since, as I have argued, there would have been no series without him, it follows that Connery is, if not entirely, culpable, then at least partly responsible for the premature death of the movies."
Perhaps the more interesting character arc here is not that of Connery, but of Bray, from the little boy at the beginning of the book blown away by Diamonds are Forever to the guy at the end who seems to have concluded that he doesn't really like films.