In his 1988 memoir Travels, author Michael Crichton recalls the time he spent with actor Sean Connery during the shooting of the film The Great Train Robbery in Ireland in 1978. Crichton, the famed author of Jurassic Park, Sphere, Congo, Disclosure, and a number of other popular novels, was also once a film director. Connery was the star of The Great Train Robbery, and Crichton clearly was in awe of the volcanic Scotsman. The anecdotes he relates of Connery’s masculine charisma make it clear that men today can learn a great deal from him.
Crichton was at first daunted by the task of being a director. “A secret, lifelong desire is fulfilled. I am an international film director, shooting in foreign locations with big movie stars…But I am also secretly terrified. This is only my third movie, and I’m not really an experienced director. I’ve never shot on foreign locations. I’ve never made a period picture. I’ve never worked with a foreign crew…To direct a movie you must be authoritative, and I don’t feel authoritative at all.” At the beginning of the shoot, the production was beset by all sorts of problems. The crew was a mixed group of Irish and British, and there were tensions that, in Crichton’s words, were “reflecting an ancient antagonism.” Worse still, the crew did not have much confidence in Crichton as a director until someone brought out a copy of his first film, Coma, and showed it. Things improved a bit after that.
But it was working with Sean Connery himself that Crichton found so fascinating. Anyone who has seen Connery on-screen or in interviews knows that he gives off this bristling masculine energy that always seems ready to burst out of the container he keeps it in. Connery had a tough life, growing up poor, but worked his way to the top by years of sustained effort.
In the film, Connery also agreed to do his own stunts, the most dangerous of which consisted of moving around on the top of a speeding, vintage 1863 locomotive. Here Crichton tells us more about his impressions of Connery. In an era such as ours–so starved for positive male role models and living exemplars of masculine demeanor–Crichton’s words have taken on even more importance, perhaps, than when they were written back in 1988. Taken together, these little reminiscences illustrate the maxim that “masculine virtue,” as the historian Sallust tells us in the preface of the Conspiracy of Catiline, “is pure and eternal.”
Connery throws himself into his work with abandon. He is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met, lighthearted and serious at the same moment. I have learned a great deal from being around him. He is at ease with himself, and is direct and frank. “I like to eat with my fingers,” he says, eating with his fingers in a fancy restaurant, not giving a damn. You cannot embarrass him with trivialities. Eating is what’s important. People come over for an autograph and he glowers at them. “I’m eating,” he says sternly. “Come back later.” They come back later, and he politely signs their menus.
He doesn’t hold grudges unless he intends to. “I spent a lot of my life being miserable,” he says. “Then one day I thought, I’m here for the day, I can enjoy the day or not. I decided I might as well enjoy it.” There is that quality about him, that sense of choice and control over himself and his moods. It makes him integrated, self-assured. The most common remark about him is “That’s a real man.”
Once, on an airplane, a woman sighs, “Oh, you’re so masculine.” Connery laughs. “But I’m very feminine,” he insists. And he means it; he delights in that side of himself. A gifted mimic, he likes to rehearse alone, playing all the parts himself. He does startlingly accurate imitations of everyone in the cast, including Donald [Sutherland] and Lesley-Anne [Down], his leading lady. He always seems to enjoy himself. He takes pleasure in all his aspects, all his appetites.
I am not equally open, and he teases me. Once, after a shot, I feel his hand gestures were a little effeminate. I call for a retake, but I’m not sure how to tell Sean what needs to be changed. How do you tell 007 that he’s effeminate?
“Sean, on that last shot, you had a hand gesture…”
“Yes, what about it? I thought it was good.”
“Well, uh, it was a little, uh, loose. Limp.”
His eyes narrowed. What are you trying to say?”
“Well, it could be a bit crisper. Stronger, you know.”
“You’re saying I look like a poof?” Now he’s grinning, amused at my discomfort.
“Yes. A little.”
“Well, just say so, ducky!” he roars. “Just say what you want! We haven’t got all day!” And he shoots the scene again, with a different gesture.
Later he takes me aside. “You know,” he says, “you don’t do any favors beating about the bush. Making us try to deduce what you mean. You think you’re being polite, but you’re actually just difficult. Say what you mean and get on with it.”
I promise to try. And I do better, but I never manage to be as direct as he is. He says, “You should always tell the truth, because if you tell the truth, you make it the other person’s problem.”
He follows his own dictum; he always tells the truth. Sean seems to live in a kind of present moment, responding to events with an unaffected immediacy that disregards the past and future. He is always genuine. Sometimes he compliments people I know he doesn’t like. Sometimes he blows up angrily at his close friends. He always tells the truth as he sees it at the moment, and if somebody doesn’t like it, it’s their problem…
Filming begins. Sean runs up the length of the train. I smell a harsh, acrid odor. I feel a sharp pain on the top of my scalp. I realize that my hair has been set on fire by the cinders from the locomotive. I am frantically brushing at my hair, trying to put the fire out…While I am doing that, Sean jumps to the nearest car, stumbles, and falls. I think, Jeez, Sean, don’t overdo making it look dangerous. He is carrying a bundle of clothes, a story point. He drops the clothes as he falls and I realize that Sean would never do that, that he must have really fallen….I get the cinders out of my head as the camera swings over. We make the shot.
Afterward we stop the train; everybody gets off. [Connery] has a bad cut on his shin that is being attended to. “Are you all right, Sean?” He looks at me. “Did you know,” he says, “that your hair was on fire? You ought to be more careful up there.” And he laughs…
One day, after lunch, Sean says, “I’m through at the end of the day.”
“I’m through on the train,” he says evenly. “Finished. Going back to Dublin, have a kip.”
We have three more days of filming scheduled. I don’t think we’ll need all three days, but I feel there is at least one more full day of work. Why is he quitting?
“I’ve had it with this bloody train,” he says…And that is all he will say. He leaves at the end of the day, driving back to Dublin. The next morning, we shoot some final bits and pieces, points of view, establishing shots, and so on. I am on top of the train, with a stunt man and a camera operator. We are going very fast. At high speeds, the train rocks and jerks erratically; it is nerve-racking.
And suddenly, in an instant, I am done with the train, too. The tunnels aren’t fun any more, the overhanging wires aren’t a challenge any more, the jolts from the track and the freezing wind aren’t bracing any more. It is just dangerous and exhausting and I want to stop at once and get off the train. And I realize that is what happened to Sean the day before. He’d had enough, and he knew when to stop.
These little memories of Sean Connery are vivid and revealing. Plutarch once said that often a minor anecdote about a man’s life can be more illustrative of his character than his involvement in some famous historical happening. I saw a video clip of him recently, taken in the mid-2000s. Connery is confronted by a few obnoxious reporters, and he tells them exactly what he thinks of them and of the questions he has been asked. Whoever made this video gave it an unfair title; Connery is not being “rude” or “aggressive,” but is simply being direct and pointed. It is a sad commentary on our society that being direct and honest is seen as “aggressive.” Like all gentlemen, he is polite if treated with courtesy, but will respond in kind if treated disrespectfully.
Our era sorely misses men like this; men who can can lead by example, who are not intimidated or cowed by the world, men who refuse to grovel, men who don’t go looking for fights but will deal with those who provoke them. We need Sean Connery, and men like him, more than ever now. May he always be with us.
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