Few movie stars ever reach the global icon status that Sean Connery enjoyed. In his youth he was the face of arguably the first modern film franchise, James Bond. The experience took him around the globe and laid the groundwork for a career where even into his 60s, no less than Steven Spielberg would say Connery remained one of “only seven genuine movie stars in the world today.” His roles are the stuff of legend: Bond, Jimmy Malone, Professor Henry Jones, Major General Urquhart, Robin Hood, and many more.
Yet few folks ever talk about the last cinematic role of his career, the classic literary character Allan Quartermain, nor do they mention the misbegotten comic book movie it was attached to, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. An adaptation of a respected Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill comic book series, and a film that leaned into Connery’s history as a big screen legend in the action-adventure genre, the so-called LXG (as per studio marketing) should’ve been another feather in the cap for the man who would be James Bond. Instead the experience was so plagued with conflict and mishap, including from Connery himself who allegedly came to blows with his director Stephen Norrington, that it would poison his passion for acting and the movie business forevermore.
Twenty years after the trainwreck which was LXG, here is the story of how that film drove Connery into a retirement so deep that even Spielberg couldn’t get him to come out and play again.
Why Was Sir Sean in LXG in the First Place?
On paper Allan Quartermain is a role that should’ve fit comfortably in Connery’s cast of characters. The actor, after all, famously played the father of Indiana Jones on the screen, and a case could be made that Quartermain was one of several fathers for the character off screen.
Quartermain was created by H. Rider Haggard, the perceived father of the adventure genre who wrote novels like She (1887) and King Solomon’s Mines (1885). The latter was the first Victorian adventure story set in Africa and perhaps the first “lost world” novel in which white explorers discover hidden, ancient, and primitive cultures. More progressive than other Victorians in his depictions of Africans (at least the “good ones” who aided Quartermain), it is hard to imagine Rider’s stories being adapted in the modern climate, what with for example a white queen who is “she-who-must-be-obeyed” subjugating African natives to slavery through hypnosis in She.
Of course 2003 was a different era, and besides, 20th Century Fox wasn’t adapting any of the many Quartermain novels Rider wrote; rather Connery was meant to be Alan Moore’s comic book reinterpretation of the character. Supposedly.
While based on a fairly literate comic series where Victorian characters like Quartermain, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and Bram Stoker’s Mina Harker interacted, the film was produced at the beginning of the 2000s by Don Murphy (who was a few years out from his work on Michael Bay’s Transformers flicks), and developed at 20th Century Fox during the years Tom Rothman ran shop. Which is to say this was when comic book movies were treated as 90-minute time-fillers that appealed to the lowest common denominator at that studio. Think Daredevil (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).
Hence the inclusion of Shane West as secret agent Tom Sawyer in LXG. The character is not in the comics (nor does his appearance as a twentysomething heartthrob make sense given the story is set in 1899 and Tom Sawyer was a young teen in 1840 in the famous Mark Twain book). But the inclusion occurred because the studio insisted American audiences wouldn’t care about the movie unless there was an American character, and preferably a young attractive one at that. Murphy initially called the change “a stupid studio note” before later stating it was “brilliant.”
So how did Connery wind up in this movie? Apparently a big reason had to do with the major roles he had not played recently. In the span of three years, Connery had turned down the characters of Morpheus in The Matrix, Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, and Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Turning away from Gandalf especially hurt since Connery was allegedly offered $30 million to play J.R.R. Tolkien’s wizard plus 15 percent of the three films’ box office—which at an ultimate tally of $2.9 billion would’ve netted Connery a cool $450 million. Looking back on the project, Connery later told The New Zealand Herald, “I read the book. I read the script. I saw the movie. I still don’t understand it. Ian McKellen, I believe, is marvelous in it.”
Rumor has it Connery felt similarly apprehensive about Harry Potter and Matrix movies, including when the Wachowskis came back a second time and offered him the role of the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded (2003). So when another big special effects action movie with an impenetrable script, this one put together by future writer and producer of CW’s Stargirl, James Dale Robinson, came along, Connery said yes to LXG.
What Went Wrong on the Production
When The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen opened on July 11, 2003, it debuted in second place with $23.2 million. The number was embarrassingly half the total of what the other movie opening that weekend achieved: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and its $46.6 million treasure chest.
Both pictures marketed themselves as the heir apparent to the Indiana Jones franchise, and both aimed to combine swashbuckling iconography with CGI-heavy effects. Fox marketers even amusingly suggested their film was the more intellectual and mature offering when compared to that “theme park ride” film. Theirs certainly looked older, with 73-year-old Connery competing with a movie that starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley at what would be the peak of their popularities. Nonetheless, many at Fox considered that mediocre premiere a win considering how bad the press had been on LXG, beginning with reports by Entertainment Weekly eight months earlier about Connery and director Norrington coming “to blows” with a full-fledged fist fight allegedly occurring due to the appearance of Quartermain’s elephant gun in the film.
Indeed, by the time LXG was released, sources were placing the film’s failure at the feet of the director in The LA Times.
“Stephen is incredibly creative,” producer Trevor Albert said, providing the faintest of praise before adding, “He just doesn’t love the pressure of a big group of people. The rewards don’t outweigh the negatives.”
Meanwhile producer Murphy said, “He was really happy with the way things were going, but he never would have been ready by July 11. He never believed that the July 11 date was real. He never believed the hard financial budget number was real.”
For context, things were almost immediately off to a bad start when the film began principal photography in Prague the previous year. The $95 million budget—low for a summer tentpole even in 2003 when Terminator 3 and Hulk both cost a cool $150 million—had already been stretched thin up to that point. Connery took a $17 million payday, which producers noted prevented them from hiring any other marquee “names” on the production. In fact, the only other intriguing bit of casting was Monica Bellucci as a vampiric Mina Harker (after she played a vampire bride in Bram Stoker’s Dracula). However, the Italian actress dropped out of LXG to appear as a pseudo-vampire in The Matrix Reloaded instead. There was just something vampy about her?
But it was when the film got to Prague that torrential storms destroyed $7 million worth of film sets. They even ironically left in ruins the props which made up Captain Nemo’s submarine, as well as apparently any confidence in the production. Norrington, who at this time was (and still is) best known for Blade (1998), reportedly begged the studio to delay LXG’s release date, but Fox refused.
So the production moved to Malta where Connery was apparently taken to his wit’s end after an increasingly distracted Norrington shut down production for a full day (as per EW) because he didn’t think Connery’s prop gun looked right.
According to The Scotsman, Connery threatened to have Norrington fired on the spot when told that the scene in question was not going to be shot that day. Norrington allegedly responded, “I’m sick of it! Come on, I want to punch you in the face!” While the studio denied it came to actual fisticuffs, by the weekend of release producers were confirming that Norrington was not in charge of the editing and post-production of the film. The LA Times reported Norrington only oversaw the editing of “three of the film’s seven reels.”
This seems to correspond with what Connery said in an interview per THR some years later about the project: “The last one I did, [Norrington] was given $85 million to make a movie in Prague, but unfortunately he wasn’t certified before he started because he would have been arrested for insanity. So we worked as well as we could, and [I] ended up being heavily involved in the editing and trying to salvage [it].”
Tellingly, Norrington skipped the movie’s Los Angeles premiere. Before post-production was even finished, he’d even written a letter to the producers announcing he was quitting Hollywood. But Connery was there and when asked about the absent director, he said, “Check the local asylum.”
Connery Cashes Out
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ultimately wound up grossing $179 million globally. Given its tight budget and hellish production, this number wasn’t the end of the world, even if it paled to Pirates’ $654 million. Unsurprisingly though, there was no LXG sequel, despite the movie ending with Connery’s Allan Quartermain coming back from the dead after being buried in his adopted homeland of Africa. The final shot of the movie suggests the great white hunter’s hand is just moments away from punching out of his grave when the screen cuts to black.
More surprisingly, Connery soon quit acting altogether. It wasn’t immediate, however. In fact, the Scottish actor made headlines in 2004 when he walked away from a $17.5 million paycheck and another 20th Century Fox production, this one a heist film called Josiah’s Canon, which was to be directed by Brett Ratner. While the reasons were never officially given, screenwriter Brian Koppelman shared a story on social media after Connery’s death in 2020 that many attribute to that production where Connery told Koppelman and his writing partner, “I’m afraid boys, I agreed to do a movie directed by a fraud. You’ve done very well. But I’m quitting this thing. Today.”
And, indeed, Connery never acted again lest you count his vocal performance as James Bond in the 2005 video game From Russia with Love.
Years later, Connery confirmed it was his experience on LXG that killed his love for moviemaking. While chatting with the UK newspaper The Times, the actor said, “It was a nightmare. The experience had a great influence on me. It made me think about showbiz. I get fed up with dealing with idiots.” He went on to again insist Norrington revealed himself to be “insane” when the first day of production began.
The ordeal was apparently so harrowing that when a director he did respect came calling, namely Steven Spielberg, Connery remained adamant he was out of the business. Which in some ways is a shame since Spielberg had several scenes written for Connery in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). But after reading the script, Connery wrote back, “In the end, retirement is too damn much fun.”