R.I.P. Sean Connery

The original Bond, James Bond, bracketed our Cold War fantasies from the beginning to their end

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Like every other teenager in the 1960s, I was thrilled by the James Bond flicks starring Sean Connery as British MI6 agent 007. Bond’s clever lines, white dinner jackets, sexual seductions and weapons-loaded sports cars were as much an entertainment sensation as the light sabers and black plastic helmets of Star Wars in later generations. Connery’s portrayal of 007 in films like Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice drew millions to theaters around the world and supplied a generation of adolescent males with yuck-yuck lines like, “Bond, James Bond” and “shaken, not stirred.”

Since we knew virtually nothing of the spy world back then—it was well before the age of CIA exposes—we thought of 007’s exploits as an approximation of the real thing. Only after the military draft propelled me to Army Intelligence School did I learn what the real deal was: the slow, delicate dance of recruiting foreigners to commit treason. Car chases and shootouts were very much to be avoided. Instead of Walther PPKs and Moonraker lasers, we had standard issue .45’s, and those rarely carried, much less drawn. Only in our wildest dreams would we go up against somebody like Pussy Galore, the sleek, black haired, violet-eyed villainess hired by Goldfinger to poison the soldiers guarding Fort Knox.

By mid-decade, the profile of the debonair Bond as the prototypical, morally uncomplicated Western intelligence officer would be eroded by the likes of British agent Alex Leamas, the disheveled antihero of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, based on a John Le Carré novel, who challenges the very notion that our guys are ethically superior to theirs.

It was impossible to imagine Bond making a speech like the one Leamas, masterfully played by Richard Burton, does in an angry retort to his idealistic girlfriend, Nan, who’d berated him for being involved in a murder plot.

What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not. They're just a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me, little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing "Cowboys and Indians" to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong? Yesterday I would have killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he is evil and my friend.

Sean Connery laid off 007 for a while. When the actor appears again as a secret agent, in the 1990s, he inhabits a far more morally ambiguous landscape than the one in Never Say Never Again, his last Bond film, where he defeats the evil SPECTRE outfit. This time, in Russia House, adapted from yet another cynical and moody John Le Carré novel, the enemy is as much his MI6 and CIA controllers as the Kremlin’s. And then, as if to balance the score, Connery emerges again as an unambiguous Cold War hero, as the disillusioned Russian submarine captain in The Hunt for the Red October who makes a thrilling dash to the West.

It’s probably just a coincidence, but the Soviet Union collapsed a year later.

R.I.P., Sean Connery. You were the best secret agent ever.