What’s your favorite Sean Connery role before he became famous as James Bond. This question might stump the average movie-goer but film buffs would probably choose one of his menacing villain roles in either Hell Drivers (1957) or Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) or possibly his dashing romantic hero opposite Janet Munro in Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), where he actually gets to sing. The latter is easily my favorite with the Irish mythology of leprechauns, pookas and banshees giving it the edge but there is something quite appealing about Connery trying his hand at comedy in the lesser-known British B-movie Operation Snafu (1961), which was released in the U.K. as On the Fiddle (It was also known as Operation War Head).
Operation Snafu would be his only top billed role prior to appearing in Dr. No the same year. The film, directed by Cyril Frankel, is also set during WWII but it’s played for laughs. The original title On the Fiddle is a British colloquialism for someone on the take and that should give you an idea of what to expect.
In the film, Connery plays a character named Pedlar Pascoe, a gypsy rogue who hooks up with con artist Horace Pope (Alfred Lynch) when the latter convinces him to join the RAF. Once enlisted, they plot to hoodwink and exploit fellow enlisted men with their opportunistic schemes. All of their so-called business ventures are failures until they are transferred to a combat zone in France where they become unexpected war heroes and return in triumph, eventually regaining ownership of a pub in Cornwall they had previously lost.
At the time he made Operation Snafu, Connery was at the end of a very unsuccessful contract with 20th-Century-Fox and unhappy with the direction of his career and the sort of roles he was being offered. Fox gave him one more opportunity in the sprawling all-star Normandy Invasion epic, The Longest Day (1962), in which his brief scene with comrades-in-arms Kenneth More and Norman Rossington qualified as no more than a cameo.
After that, Fox cut him loose but director Terence Young, who had previously directed Connery when he was a minor supporting actor in Action of the Tiger in 1957, caught his performance in the stage play Judith and realized he would be perfect as the heroic lead in an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s spy adventure, Dr. No. While there are varying accounts of who deserves the credit for casting Connery in the role of James Bond –producers Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman often claim that honor – Young was instrumental in the decision and Connery’s subsequent success.
Despite its relatively obscure status in Connery’s filmography, Operation Snafu also had a hand in assisting Connery’s climb to fame. It might have been a minor feature but it did attract the attention of some movers and shakers in the film industry. A writer for the British publication Woman noted at the time that “It’s a real mystery to me why no film company has built Sean Connery into a great international star. He reminded me of Clark Gable. He has the same rare mixture of handsome virility, sweetness and warmth.”
Connery has moments of charm and appealing foolishness as the not-too-bright, more macho half of the con man team in Operation Snafu and the picture is more interesting today than when it was first released. Now it provides an intriguing look at wartime England with director Frankel mixing stock footage with real locations that featured bombed out ruins and damage from the war. It also functions as a showcase for some of the best comedic character actors in British cinema at that time, all of whom get to shine in brief bits in the film’s episodic structure, such as John Le Mesurier, Cecil Parker, Stanley Holloway, Barbara Windsor, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Lance Percival. New York comedian Allan King even shows up in a supporting role.
When On the Fiddle opened in the U.S. as Operation Snafu, audiences and critics weren’t fooled into believing it had any connection to the James Bond films and it quickly vanished after a brief theatrical run (It was paired with co-feature, The Conquered City (1962) aka La citta prigioniera, an Italian-British production starring David Niven and Ben Gazzara in a wartime espionage tale).
The few reviews Operation Snafu did receive were more positive than negative with Howard Thompson, film critic for The New York Times, writing, “The wonder is that a picture with a story already done, gag by gag, a hundred times is so easy to take. It is, though–flip, friendly, brisk and a wee bit cynical in its take-it-or-leave-it jauntiness. Even the final switch to heroics clicks into place as deftly played by Alfred Lynch and Mr. Connery.”
Alfred Lynch, unfortunately, never had the same impact that Connery had on American audiences but on his home turf, he was quite successful, specializing in working class Cockneys in such films as Two and Two Make Six (1961) and West Eleven (1963), eventually graduating to bigger international productions such as 55 Days at Peking (1963), The Hill (1965) with his former co-star Sean Connery, The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and numerous television shows in England (Manhunt, The Fortunes of Nigel, Doctor Who).
Director Cyril Franklin didn’t exactly achieve major recognition outside the U.K. either either but he did manage to garner a nomination for the Grand Prize of the Cannes Film Festival for Man of Africa (1953) and Hammer film fans know him for the incredibly creepy pedophile thriller Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1960) and The Devil’s Own (1966) aka The Witches starring Joan Fontaine as a schoolteacher who discovers a black magic cult in her village.
Much more famous in their professions are Operation Snafu’s cinematographer Edward Scaife and music composer Malcolm Arnold. Scaife has lensed such famous cult movies as Curse of the Demon (1957), All Night Long (1962), the jazz scene-inspired remake of Othello, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) and John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter (1970). Arnold, on the other hand, is an Oscar-winner for his score for David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). He also composed the music for Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952) and Hobson’s Choice (1954), Carol Reed’s Trapeze (1956), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).
Operation Snafu remains a modest, unassuming B-movie entertainment that would probably never have received a U.S. theatrical release if it wasn’t for Connery’s success as secret agent OO7 but it provides a fascinating glimpse of the pre-stardom Connery whose talent and charisma are undeniable here.
The film was released on DVD under its original title On the Fiddle in 2013 from Network, a U.K. distributor, but you need an all-region DVD player to view it. I suspect that at some point a savvy distributor will release a collection of Connery films from his pre-Bond days for hardcore fans.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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