There. That’s conclusively settled the argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints. It’s Sean Connery.
The argument, of course, centres on the question, “Who is the best James Bond?” And I suspect it’s been raging a lot lately, stoked up by reports that the most recent incumbent in the role, Daniel Craig, has decided to call it a day and the Bond producers have started looking for a replacement. Currently Tom Hiddleston seems to be the media’s favourite, although the actor himself said at the weekend, “I don’t think that announcement is coming.”
Anyway, I’ll go further and offer a ranking of all the actors who’ve played James Bond over the years, from best to worst. This is an official Eon-Film-series list, though. I’ve made no mention of Bond actors from ‘rogue’ productions such as Barry Nelson, who played 007 in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale for the CBS TV anthology show Climax!; or David Niven, who played him in another adaptation of Casino Royale, the dire, zany, swinging-sixties comedy released by Columbia Pictures in 1967.
So in descending order, we have:
- Sean Connery
- Timothy Dalton
- Daniel Craig
- Pierce Brosnan
- George Lazenby
- Roger Moore
(c) Eon Productions
To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Connery is the best Bond needs his or her head examined. He swaggered in at the start of the film series, dark and Byronic but equipped with that inimitable Scottish burr, and made the role his own. He invested Bond with a ruthless but suave lethalness, a threatening but graceful physicality, a cruel but entertaining laconicism. In fact, 54 years ago, Connery was such a revelation in the role that even Bond’s literary creator Ian Fleming, still alive and still writing at the time, was sufficiently inspired to put a bit of the brooding ex-Edinburgh-milkman into his spy-hero. No doubt Fleming had Connery in mind when he ended his final Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun, published posthumously in 1965, with Bond turning down the offer of a knighthood. “I am a Scottish peasant,” he retorts, “and will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant.”
It has to be said that at the turn of the century when Connery himself was offered a knighthood, he displayed none of Bond’s reluctance. He took it and promptly became Sir Sean. (Or Ssshhhir Sean.)
Yet having just said that Connery is the best Bond, I must confess that he isn’t quite my favourite Bond. That accolade goes to number two on my list, the Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, who played him in the movies The Living Daylights (1987) and Licenced to Kill (1989). Mainly this is because I’d read most of Ian Fleming’s novels at an early age, before I saw any of the films; and Dalton struck me as the actor who came closest to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had imagined him and the way I’d first imagined him from the books. (While researching the role, Dalton read the original literary canon, so this was to be expected.) His was an edgier and more troubled 007. It’s fitting that The Living Daylights begins by using the plot of the Fleming short story of the same name, which has Bond refusing to kill an enemy sniper – a woman – and declaring bitterly that the secret service can sack him for all he cares.
(c) Eon Productions
Alas, Dalton didn’t capture the imagination of the public, who still seemed in thrall to the jokey tone of the previous Bond movies of the 1970s and early 1980s. He wasn’t helped either by Britain’s fickle film critics. They’d spent years moaning that the Bond films had become ‘too silly’. But as soon as someone tried to toughen up the films, they started moaning that the series had lost its lovable silliness.
Ironically, Daniel Craig has approached the role in a similar way – a minimum of silliness, a maximum of seriousness – and won much acclaim in recent years. Today’s world just happened to more ready for Craig’s approach. It was less ready when Dalton did the same thing 30 years ago. Anyway, I’d put Craig third in my list of Bonds, while fourth place goes to that genial Irishman Pierce Brosnan. I like Brosnan as an actor and at his best he showed some grit in the role; but overall his version of Bond was a bit too bland for my tastes. He also was unlucky with the quality of some of his films. His swansong in the role, 2002’s Die Another Day, is a particular stinker.
Fifth, and second from the bottom, is Australian George Lazenby, who definitely wasn’t much cop as an actor. Ironically, his one outing as Bond, 1968’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is perhaps the best movie of the lot. It’s arguable that because it’s very different from the usual entries in the series – wistful in tone and tragic in its ending – the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits the bill. Despite his limitations, or perhaps because of them, Lazenby is acceptable in the context because he projects a weaker, more vulnerable Bond. I couldn’t imagine ‘Big Sean’ breenging through On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in his usual insouciant manner and the film having the same emotional impact.
And finally… Well, if you’re a regular reader of this blog and you’ve seen my previous posts about the Bond movies, you’ll hardly raise an eyebrow in surprise at who occupies the bottom of my list. (Actually, raising an eyebrow was about the extent of the acting he did in the role.) Still, his Bond movies were massively popular in their day – during his reign as 007 the franchise made millions. So even if I didn’t think much of old Roger, vast numbers of other people evidently did.