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The Other British Invasion

May 2024
3min read

In 1964 the most popular movie star in America held a license to kill from the British government

James Bond hit U.S. shores in 1964 with an impact that fitted the description Bond’s armorer, “Q,” gave of his .32-caliber Walther PPK: “Like a brick through a plate-glass window.” Goldfinger was number two in the U.S. box office in 1964 and From Russia With Love was number five, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The one film that outgrossed Goldfinger that year, Mary Poppins, was released much earlier in the year, while Goldfinger, establishing the trend of the big holiday adventure release, opened on December 22. Business at New York City theaters was round the clock.

How popular was Goldfinger? The Web site estimates that the average movie ticket in 1964 cost approximately one-seventh of an average ticket today. By that yardstick, Goldfinger at today’s prices would have grossed nearly $360 million, dwarfing such supposed megahits as the Mission Impossible movies and surpassing even the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Let’s put 1964 in context. It was an era dominated by British films and British stars. Of the top 10 grossing films for the year, 6 starred Britons. The top box-office stars of the time were Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Peter Sellers, Audrey Hepburn, and Cary Grant. Sean Connery was, by the end of 1964, without reservation the biggest box-office star in the world.

Did Connery make Bond or did Bond make Connery? Probably both. A 1954 television production of Ian Fleming’s first Bond book, Casino Royale, starring Barry Nelson—an American James Bond?—made no stir at all. Probably Connery was a star waiting to happen, and Bond is what made him happen.

Oddly, it has become a commonplace idea that the Bond books and films gained popularity largely because of the Cold War. But in only one Bond movie and in just a few of the books were Soviets the targets of Bond’s aggression. Sensing even before Hollywood did that the Cold War was losing some of its frost, Fleming invented an international criminal organization, SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) made up from equal parts of the murder arm of Soviet intelligence, the Gestapo, the Mafia, and Fleming’s imagination.

Ian Fleming’s first impression of Sean Connery: “He looks like a lorry driver.”

The true villains in most of Fleming’s books and nearly all the movies were modern robber barons, high-tech pirate predators—Doctor No, Auric Goldfinger, Emilio Largo in Thunderball, Ernst Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE—ruthlessly trying to carve personal empires by setting East against West. Bond was neither English (he was Swiss on his mother’s side and Scottish, like Connery, on his father’s) nor a spy, as the English novelist Kingsley Amis, a close student of Bond, correctly pointed out. He was a counteragent and professional killer, sent out to hunt and destroy these predators—in effect, a pre-Miranda international cop. The Bond stories reflected not the Western World’s obsession with the drudgery of the Cold War but its desire to escape from it. Connery was not initially Fleming’s idea of James Bond. “He looks like a lorry driver” was Fleming’s first appraisal of the actor chosen to play his hero in Doctor No (1962), a judgment that was, in fact, accurate; Connery, as working class a hero as movies have ever seen, had actually been a truck driver. Eventually, of course, Fleming was won over, like everyone else.

The Bond of Fleming’s novels was a highly trained, multiskilled British agent, more typical of his breed than exceptional. Connery proved to be the superprojection of Fleming’s literary hero on the big screen, and the women he was matched with, such as Ursula Andress’s Honey Ryder in Doctor No and Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore in Goldfinger all had lives as adventurous and colorful as Bond’s. They were strong, assertive, and deadly.

This wasn’t the case with most of the later Bond movies because the later Bonds weren’t Sean Connery. The worst of the bunch was Roger Moore, who, perhaps not coincidentally, was the only English actor ever to play the role (although the English actor Daniel Craig has just finished filming Casino Royale). Increasingly, as the series went along, technology and pyro-technics began to dominate the stories and the actors. With Roger Moore in the role, the Bond films lacked a strong center and had to rely more on budget and special effects. Nor did Moore give his leading ladies much to play off. Connery was Fleming’s Bond raised to a higher power; Moore, in contrast, was the Saint (a character he had played on television) with an expense account.

Bonds after Connery have their fans. George Lazenby (an Australian), Timothy Dalton (a Welshman), and Pierce Brosnan (an Irishman) had their moments, but all of them, ultimately, seemed like fill-ins. They may at times have shaken us, but only Sean Connery stirred.

—Allen Barra writes American Heritage’s “History Now: Screenings” column.


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