The Rock: the crucial rewrite that got Sean Connery on board

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Sean Connery was looking for a blockbuster movie to make in the mid-1990s – but he wasn’t too happy when he first got the script to The Rock.

Sean Connery wasn’t happy.

We’re back in the 1990s here, and towards the middle of the decade, an offer had gone in to him for a film that was going to be called The Rock. The idea was that it’d be a big action movie, and in it he’d play the role of a man called John Mason. As it happened, it was just the kind of project he was on the lookout for.

The basics were that Mason would be a British man who had been locked up without a trial. He’d be incarcerated for three decades, yet would have one successful escape from the infamous Alcatraz prison before he was recaptured. His character, although Connery didn’t know this at the time, would have a fabulous haircut.

This offer came at a quiet-ish time for Connery. Most of the decade before had been fruitful though. Following his Oscar win for 1987’s The Untouchables, he’d remained in demand from Hollywood studios. Some movies worked –  Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, The Hunt For Red October, Rising Sun and even Medicine Man did okay – whilst others were less successful (Family Business, A Good Man In Africa, Just Cause). But still, there was a feeling he’d add real gravitas to The Rock.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer thus got the screenplay to Connery and he was umming and aahing about the film. It’s no secret that Connery has a reputation for not particularly suffering fools gladly, nor being shy about having his input. In the case of this one, he also signed up to be an executive producer on the film, and he wanted changes.

Christopher Bray, in his biography of Connery, suggests that one of the reasons the actor may have been interested in The Rock was the revival of the James Bond franchise with 1995’s GoldenEye. But also, he’d not taken a big leading role in a major movie for a while and in conjunction with his agent (Mike Ovitz at CAA at the time), he was on the lookout for one. The Rock had bubbled to the top of the pile.

Meanwhile, writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais – known for their string of hugely successful television work, such as The Likely Lads and Porridge – were having some success with their movie scripts too. Their script for 1991’s The Commitments had led to further movie offers, building on screenplays they’d written for 80s movies Water and Vice Versa . That said, Connery had called on their services when he returned to the role of James Bond with Never Say Never Again. They’d been asked to add more humour to his dialogue as he returned to (unofficially) play 007, and they duly reworked parts of that script, not that they were credited.

But Connery remembered, and when it came to The Rock, he told Jerry Bruckheimer he wanted them to look at its script (which had originally been penned by David Weisberg and Douglas Cook, with Mark Rosner also coming on board).

Connery hadn’t signed up by this point, and Bruckheimer was keen to land him. As such, Clement and La Frenais were duly hired, and they discuss this in their own memoir, More Than Likely. There, they confirm that the brief they were given was to not touch the film’s action sequences. Director Michael Bay would know his way around those, and the writers were happy with that. “Nothing is more boring than writing a car chase”, they wrote.

Instead, they needed to go in and add more humour, and to make the character of John Mason more British. If anything, more Bond. The lack of Britishness had been one of Connery’s key objections to the original screenplay, and it needed addressing. They got to work, and they concentrated on fleshing the character of Mason out. One example contribution is a conversation at the end of the film’s second act, where Connery’s Mason explains “I was special services. Military intelligence. They taught me to be a killer. In retrospect, I’d sooner have been a poet or a farmer. Which I consider infinitely more honourable professions”.

They also brought the character of John Mason a little bit closer to that of James Bond too, adding that Mason’s background – as he says in the movie – is “British intelligence”. There are little hints of 007 added to the dialoguie

The rewrites worked and Connery signed on the dotted line. Clement and La Frenais were then invited to rehearsals, and suggested further line changes to Connery, as well as Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris and Bay. They also then went on set briefly when production began. And as they mused in their book, “we didn’t get a credit on this one”, but added “The Business knew about our contribution and our stock rose”.

And everyone won. For Connery, the movie was the blockbuster hit that he and his agent were hoping for. And for Clement and La Frenais, Hollywood kept calling. They were recruited for further Hollywood productions, including some rewrite work on Pearl Harbor for Bruckheimer and Bay.

For Connery, he was box office gold again. The Rock proved to be his biggest hit since The Hunt For Red October had shailed into hishtory, and he took on further commercial projects such as The Avengers (not that one), Entrapment and his final live action movie, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in its aftermath.

But heck, is that last film a story for another time…


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