The iconic film character that immediately comes to mind when discussing Sean Connery is, of course, James Bond. He was the perfect Bond -- for most of us, the "real" Bond, whose testosterone-drenched shoes have never quite been filled by the parade of Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig. Sir Ian Fleming may have created Bond in his novels, but Connery fleshed him out as a smart, sexy, self-aware creature of utter cool and confidence, and he set the bar quite high for those who followed.
But Connery's Bond films -- he made six between 1962 and 1971, then returned for the "unofficial" Bond flick Never Say Never Again in 1983 -- are a small fraction of the films he's made in a career that's lasted for over five decades. In his 30s during the Bond years, Connery hit his stride as an actor (and, arguably, as a fully matured sex symbol) in his 40's in pictures like The Wind and the Lion, Zardoz, The Molly Maguires, Robin and Marian, and A Bridge Too Far, playing complex, world-weary men who were as marked by their weaknesses as they were by their machismo.
Granted, a number of those films were far less impressive than Connery's performances in them (a charge that could be leveled at most of the actor's choices throughout his career, actually) but smack in the middle of that uneven stretch of the '70s, Connery starred opposite Michael Caine in John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King (1975) -- playing one of his oddest, most compelling characters in a masterful picture that's as much a farce and a satire as it is a romantic lad's adventure.
John Huston reportedly began thinking about adapting Kipling's tale in the 1950's, considering it as a vehicle for his friend Humphrey Bogart, and co-starring Clark Gable. It's easy to see why the director of Key Largo, The African Queen, and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean would be attracted to the story, first published in 1888. It's a buddy picture at its core, and one inspired by a number of real-life adventurers who made themselves princes and rajahs during the heyday of British Colonialism -- a subject close to Kipling's heart, and the sort of inequitable, absurd and tragic power struggle that Huston returned to in many of his films.
The characters of Peachy Carnehan (Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Connery) are a pair of ever-so-slightly dim ex-British soldiers turned con artists who get the notion to set themselves up as kings in the uncharted wilds of Kafiristan and make off with whatever treasures they can grab. Glib, greedy and brimming with confidence, they find that their plan works far better than even they had hoped, but when Daniel's crowned king and worshiped as a god, he begins to take himself a bit too seriously, leading to a variety of tensions and complications.
Both Caine and Connery cannily inhabit the roles of small-time grifters who find themselves out of their league, but Connery's work is especially magnificent. Mutton-chopped, tanned, often smirking as if he's laughing at his own inner dialogue, he plays Daniel as a fellow who believes himself to be the smartest guy in the room -- which he often is, but only because he's always set his sights so low. He finds a well of inner goodness that enables him to serve well as a king, but when his fame spreads and he's called up to the holy city of Sikandergul to prove that he's a god, Daniel realizes that he's reached a bit too high ... until a bizarre twist of fate intervenes and saves him. Now endowed with delusions of grandeur (he imagines being greeted by Queen Victoria as an equal), he doesn't want to give up his position as ruler and god. But hubris is a harsh mistress, and circumstances conspire to bring him down.
Given his stature as an actor and sex symbol, it's not surprising that Connery can play an ego-driven character; what's most impressive (and delightfully entertaining) is that he plays Daniel with no actorly ego of his own, allowing the man's weakness of will, short-sightedness and sometimes callow disregard for others to come through without reserve. Connery also finesses Daniel's less-intelligent moments, while engaging in patter with Caine that's reminiscent of the Hope and Crosby Road pictures.
The Man Who Would Be King is always a marvelous, swashbuckling experience, made even more so by current events in the news about modern-day Afghanistan (the setting of Kafiristan is now an Afghan territory, although the film was shot in Morocco). Kipling was a master at telling stories set during colonial occupations; Huston, a master at tales of small men done in by their big greed. And Connery brings his own brilliance, as well, making for an almost perfect movie.