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Rating the Bond Films: The Connery Era

After watching — and loving — Casino Royale, I’ve started a bit of James Bond kick. I’ve never read the novels before, so I’ve been picking them up in order. I’m also going to watch the entire film series in order via Netflix. I have fond memories of many Bond films, but I’m afraid that they don’t always live up to these remembrances upon re-watching.

The Bond films conventiently divide into three seven-film clusters. I plan to review each group in turn. Here are my evaluations of the Sean Connery-era Bond flicks.

Dr. No (1962) – Sean Connery [7.2 on IMDb] – B- from me
A passable entry, though a little schizophrenic. It’s nice to see the early incarnation of Bond. The trappings of the late-fifties and early-sixties seem as if they’re from another world. Some of the stuff at the beginning of the film is just absurd. I like Dr. No as a villain, though, and like his strange lair. This film is much more low-key and less gadget-oriented than the series becomes later.

From Russia With Love (1963) – Sean Connery [7.4] – A
Excellent. This is a wonderful spy film, and one of the best Bonds. It steers clear of most of the Bond conventions. There are few witticisms. There’s no secret lair. There’s real cloak-and-dagger stuff here instead of crazy superspy mumbo-jumbo. I watched this three weeks ago, and already want to watch it again (if only to get the bad taste of Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice out of my head). This film works well on its own, without any other knowledge of the Bond universe.

Goldfinger (1964) – Sean Connery [7.8] – C-
Vastly overrated. This is the first Bond film to fit the mold we’ve come to know as typical. The first half shows glimmers of promise, but the last half is obscenely stupid. Why has Goldfinger built an elaborate scale model of Fort Knox in his house? Simply for a short demonstration of his plan? How did the good guys get set in place outside Fort Knox without being subjected to the nerve gas? Who knows? This is the first of the films with a prolonged climactic battle scene between the forces of good and the forces of evil. These scenes, which become a staple of the series, suck. Plain and simple: they suck.

Thunderball (1965) – Sean Connery [6.9] – C+
This is a mixed bag. It has some great elements — strong female characters, a good villain with whom Bond has close contact in social situations while struggling to defeat behind the scenes, a prolonged underwater battle scene — but it has some clunkers too — hilariously bad background visuals during the climactic boat battle, a prolonged underwater battle scene (yes, it’s both good and bad), and a plot that doesn’t always make sense. The soundtrack is excellent.

You Only Live Twice (1967) – Sean Connery [6.9] – D
This film is pretty bad, especially in its last half. Like From Russia With Love, it opens with a fake Bond death. The first act features some interesting cinematography and intriguing ideas, but it quickly descends into absurdity. Things just don’t make sense. They occur for no other reason than to spur the plot along. Characters possess knowledge that they couldn’t possibly have. The final battle scene in the caldera of a volcano is overlong and dumb. The screenplay is by Roald Dahl, but that doesn’t matter. This film is not very good.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – George Lazenby [6.9] – B
What an interesting trip. This is unlike any other Bond film I’ve ever seen. Bond doesn’t operate on any official secret service business (thus making the title a misnomer). He falls in love and gets married. The first half of the film unfolds at desultory pace, more like a romantic drama than an action-adventure movie. But things pick up at the end with a couple of exhilarating set pieces. The soundtrack is fantastic, almost psychedelic at times. Diana Rigg is the best Bond girl yet — smart and beautiful. Unfortunately Lazenby is a lousy Bond and, at times, a lousy actor. The film has other weaknesses, too, but they don’t detract too much.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) – Sean Connery [6.7] – C
This film has its moments — Bond scaling the sheer surface of a building, his exceptional taste in wine, Blofeld’s cat confronting its double (Kris says this was the only good moment) — but it’s undone by sheer stupidity — Bambi and Thumper, Bond built into a pipeline, Bond jumping into a lunar probe, bad actresses, and yet another stupid mass-fight ending. I’ve probably scene Diamonds more often than any other Bond film.

For those keeping score, I’d order the films thusly: From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dr. No, Thunderball, Diamonds are Forever, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice.

Having now viewed the Sean Connery canon (he made one more appearance in a Thunderball remake, but that’s not part of the official series), I feel comfortable saying that he is a good Bond, but he’s often undone by lousy stories. Daniel Craig in the recent Casino Royale, though, is a better bond, and truer to Ian Fleming’s original imagination of the character. (Casino Royale is also better than any Connery film except for From Russia With Love.)

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  1. I like Goldfinger much more than you, but if you dislike the series’ style-over-substance approach, then this is certainly the film to blame for it.

    But your question about the nerve gas suggests that you missed the revelation that Bond persuaded Pussy to swap out the nerve gas for something inert: Everyone who was “gassed” (a scene so ridiculous with soldiers dropping like flies as the planes fly overhead that I giggle whenever I see it) was just faking it.

    I would rate Twice above Diamonds (the latter being the worst of the set here, I think), mainly because Diamonds is just so stupid: Charles Gray is completely unconvincing as Blofeld. Bambi and Thumper make no sense at all. Why the Americans just don’t come in and bomb the oil rig is beyond me. Tiffany Case goes from strong woman to an arm accessory in about 90 minutes. The only scene I really like is Bond climbing up to Willard Whyte’s penthouse. (Whyte is an amazingly annoying character, too.)

    Watching George Lazenby on OHMSS always reminds me a bit of Sam J. Jones in the title role of Flash Gordon, but at least the latter was supposed to be campy. As I recall, OHMSS had a plot that didn’t make a lot of sense, either. Nice music, though.

    Apparently Roger Moore was one of the actors considered to be the first Bond, and Timothy Dalton was considered as Connery’s replacement after Diamonds. The series might have been rather different had all that happened.

  2. You were completely right to put You Only Live Twice at the bottom of the Connery barrel. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s the worst Bond film, period. Plenty are lame, but this one sticks out by far.

    It’s not just bad, it’s MST3k bad — and mocking it MST3k style was the only way a friend and I could maintain enough interest to even bother finishing when we chose it at random a while back.