The late and legendary Scottish actor Sir Sean Connery was one of cinema’s most popular actors of all time. Despite his passing nearly two years ago, the actor’s impact and lasting legacy are still widely felt around the world.
The role that shot him into superstardom was his performance as what many fans (including this author) believe to be the greatest action hero in movie history, the British super-spy, “Bond… James Bond.” Ever since Connery smoothly delivered that line, his portrayal of Agent 007 has gone down as the gold standard to which the other five actors, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig, have all been compared. Some hardcore fans believe that while Connery’s successors played Bond, he WAS Bond.
Connery’s films aren’t equally the best ever within the entire selection of Bond films. They’re each worth the time to watch, but a few are a little off-target (pun intended) for their own reasons.
All seven of the James Bond films starring Connery — six produced by EON productions and one independent — are ranked below, from worst to best.
7. You Only Live Twice (1967)
This pick from 1967 was the fifth film in the official franchise and was, at one time, the last film in which Connery would play Bond. This movie was based on British author Ian Fleming’s original novel of the same title, like all of the ones that Connery appeared in. Bond’s mission had him traveling to Japan to investigate who was behind the hijackings of a spacecraft belonging to major foreign powers. This would be the first time Bond’s archnemesis, the bald and scarred Ernst Stavro Blofeld, would have his face revealed to audiences. On a side note, this film helped inspire Mike Myers’ uber-villain, Dr. Evil, in the Austin Powers trilogy of spy spoofs.
The story plays out in a decent fashion, with all the usual Bond-ish details, like the exotic locales, cool cars, death-defying action, lovely ladies, and the classic musical theme. However, this film goes considerably awry because of scenes that, at the time, were tolerated, but would definitely get this movie canceled on opening night by today’s standards. Bond undergoes a makeover that has him appear Japanese, so he can “blend in” at a local fishing village. The idea sounds ridiculous, and it looks twice as much when you actually see it. Even Stevie Wonder knows that’s still Sean Connery onscreen. Unlike Connery himself, this gimmick hasn’t aged well, which is why this pick suffers for most Bond Fans.
You Only Live Twice was the fifth Bond film starring Connery in a six-year span. Apart from his other acting work done outside of the franchise, it added to the stressful toll it took on him trying to steer away from being typecast as Bond. At times, you can almost tell he was just fulfilling his contract more than genuinely acting. This would strain the relationship between himself and the film producers, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. It forced Connery to leave the role only to be lured back four years later for one last official film, Diamonds are Forever.
6. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
After Australian actor George Lazenby did his only Bond film in 1969, the Bond producers lobbied hard to bring Connery back for at least one more go-around as 007 in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. Connery accepted $1.25 million for the film, more than any actor in history at that time. He was also given an added incentive: green lights for two separate non-Bond films, no questions asked. While he was in the middle of shooting this movie, Connery was on record stating that, once again, he would be done with the character when production wrapped.
In this movie, Bond is on the trail of Blofeld. Aesthetically speaking, this version of the villain looked nothing like the bald character that audiences saw in the prior two films. This likely confused viewers at first glance. To explain it more clearly, an outlandish gimmick involving plastic surgery and body doubles was used in order to make life confusing for Bond. It’s a rather funny way of explaining that the actor playing the villain has a full head of hair that would’ve made Connery himself a bit jealous. The film was shot on location in Amsterdam, California, and Las Vegas, and featured a healthy dose of the action that Bond fans love, including a sequence where Bond gets beaten down by two pretty but perilous women.
Even though Blofeld is featured in Diamonds Are Forever, none of the other elements of SPECTRE are seen anywhere, making this just another “good guy vs. bad guy” action movie. Compared to other plots, Blofeld’s evil plan to hold the world for ransom or else he would use a laser-powered satellite as a weapon was certainly far fetched. The classic James Bond theme was only heard briefly, making the experience slightly unlike a typical 007 adventure. However, Connery coming back to the role translated into success at the box office, outdoing the previous Bond film two years prior.
5. Never Say Never Again (1983)
This one-off Bond film from 1983 was indeed Connery’s last as 007. Essentially a remake of another Connery classic, 1965’s Thunderball, Bond’s mission to foil SPECTRE’s plot to use stolen nuclear bombs played out in stark contrast to the first version. Never Say Never Again was shot in different locations than Thunderball and featured renamed characters, and the order of events was mostly rearranged between the original and official versions. Never Say Never Again is still a decent action movie for its time, and the screenplay did a great job of recognizing Connery’s Bond to be just as much a veteran as the actor himself.
This movie was released in the same year as another official Bond film, Octopussy, which starred another Bond legend Roger Moore. Legal battles stemming from the mid-1950s involving the rights to adapt Ian Fleming’s novel into a film eventually opened the door for this independent Bond film years later. Since Connery was not a fan of the movie franchise’s producers, his casting in this movie truly made it a “Battle of the Bonds.” The finished product wasn’t terrible; it could certainly rank in the top half among the official films. However, it was missing the Bond theme music as well as other classic details that you’ll usually see in those entries, all to avoid copyright infringement. While it was received well by moviegoers, it didn’t earn as much at the box office compared to Octopussy.
4. Dr. No (1962)
The first official James Bond film, Dr. No was released in 1962. During pre-production, a number of other well-known actors at that time were approached to play 007. Names like Cary Grant and James Mason were offered the role, but refused because they didn’t want to do a series of films featuring the same character. In comes a then-relatively unknown Sean Connery, who was even at first rejected by the character’s creator, Ian Fleming, and he never looked back.
The plot features Agent 007 being sent to Jamaica to investigate the murder of a British MI6 officer who was helping the CIA figure out who was tampering with American rocket launches out of Florida. While there, he meets and joins forces with Felix Leiter, Bond’s most trusted ally throughout the character’s history. The path eventually leads to “Dr. No,” who 007 discovers is an operative of SPECTRE. Other classic Bond moments occur like the emergence of the beautiful Honey Ryder out of the water onto a sandy beach, the effortless seduction of women, the one-liner puns, the Bond theme, and Connery giving the line that every other actor can’t quite deliver: “Bond…James Bond.”
There are parts of this film where it’s slightly obvious that the filmmakers were still trying to truly nail down a complete formula for future films or perhaps they were at the mercy of a production budget that was relatively low, even if you figure for today’s economy. You can’t totally blame anyone, though, when you consider that the film’s success wasn’t guaranteed prior to its release. But after it became a bonafide hit, audiences could see where the subsequent films made their improvements in comparison. This movie isn’t considered Connery’s best ever but without it, Bond fans wouldn’t have anywhere close to what they have in the present day.
3. From Russia With Love (1963)
In his second outing as 007, Connery was back and better than the first time he donned the world’s most famous tuxedo a year earlier. After dealing with Dr. No in Jamaica, his next mission has him sent to Istanbul, Turkey, to make contact with a beautiful Russian cipher clerk, recover the “Lektor,” a Soviet cryptographic machine, and help her defect to London, all under the ruse that he’s working against Russia, not SPECTRE, who set the whole caper up in secrecy. While in the field, he’s unknowingly tracked by one of his toughest adversaries, Donald “Red” Grant, a deadly SPECTRE agent who plays a chilling role in making sure his organization’s plan runs smoothly.
This film is the quintessential classic spy story where trusting people isn’t as easy as the common man might think; where even the smallest slip-up, like ordering “red wine with fish” can blow your cover. There’s even an intimate scene of seduction between Bond and the clerk, so well-done that the scene is used for every potential Bond actor and Bond girl to screen test during auditions. The screenplay is paced well, with many of the usual elements of classic Bond films like the music, the use of clever gadgetry, and Connery’s ownership of every scene he’s in showing audiences that the franchise is certainly on its way to absolute success.
2. Thunderball (1965)
Connery’s fourth Bond film was 1965’s Thunderball. Connery was at the height of his stardom after the mega-success of Goldfinger the year before. This mission has Bond in the Bahamas to locate and recover a pair of nuclear bombs that were stolen during a botched NATO air force exercise. Set around several bodies of water that included a plethora of beautiful beaches and islands, this was definitely the wettest Bond film at least. For 42 years, this was the highest-grossing movie before Skyfall, in 2012, took the top spot in the franchise.
For this movie, the filmmakers felt they needed to go bigger in scale, compared to the last one and they did in some parts. For example, Bond’s priority is two nuclear devices, not just one, while his adversary is practically the entire organization of SPECTRE, not a rich megalomaniac who loves gold. The beginning of the movie features one of the more memorable scenes in the franchise’s 60-year history, where Bond makes a quick getaway thanks to a jetpack on his back that “no well-dressed man should be without.” Also, the final fight of the film takes place largely in the ocean, and not inside a fictionalized underground layout of Fort Knox.
1. Goldfinger (1964)
In 1964, the third Bond film, Goldfinger, hit theaters around the world and the rest became cinematic history. The movie starts off with a bang, but not before Bond reveals that he does some of his best work in a clean, white dinner jacket underneath his tactical gear. Then comes an opening title sequence and song that’s among one of the best in the series’ history. Before long, Bond encounters a gold fanatic aptly named Goldfinger and one of the most popular henchmen in cinema history, “Oddjob.” The film gets more and more intriguing, scene by scene, all the way to the end credits involving a clever caper that involves Fort Knox. And above all, you can’t go wrong when you wake up to a beautiful woman named “Pussy Galore,” and that was before he asked for his martini “shaken, not stirred” for the first time.
Woven into this film are so many ingredients to a classic 007 adventure: a grand soundtrack, massive yet mesmerizing set designs, impressive contemporary fashion design, a focus on the use of gadgetry, a henchman or henchwoman with a unique characteristic, and one of the most popular vehicles, not just in Bond, but cinema history: the 1964 Aston-Martin DB5. That car has been featured in several other Bond films throughout franchise history and was driven by two other actors in the role, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. And speaking of Brosnan, he’s been known to say, countless times, that the first feature film he ever saw in color was Goldfinger, the film he’s often credited as the one that inspired him to be an actor, long before he ever imagined joining Connery as a Bond actor.
The success of Goldfinger was incredible after its release in theaters. It broke several box office records around the world and was once declared the fastest-grossing movie in cinema history by The Guinness Book of World Records. By winning the 1965 Academy Award for Best Sound Effects Editing, it became the first Bond film to win an Oscar. Rotten Tomatoes has Goldfinger as the highest-rated Bond film on their site.