We recently bid a fond farewell to Sir Sean Connery, who sadly passed away on 31st October 2020 at 90 years old. While Connery will of course always be remembered as the first (and perhaps best) James Bond, he had a long career playing a wide variety of roles – and, in a perhaps unexpected development, he enjoyed a resurgence of his action hero days in the 1990s.
Connery was 65 when he co-starred with Nicolas Cage in 1996’s The Rock, one of the most memorable and outlandish action movies of the decade, made at a time when the film’s title was not yet synonymous with wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson. Did you know the following thrilling facts about the high-octane romp from the famed master of disaster Michael Bay?
20. The script was first offered to Arnold Schwarzenegger
The Rock producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer knew they wanted big names for the movie.
However, early on, they weren’t thinking of Sean Connery or Nicolas Cage for the lead roles.
The first actor asked to star in The Rock was action movie icon Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Reports vary as to which role Arnie was offered; Connery’s John Mason would seem the likeliest option, but it’s widely claimed that he was actually offered Cage’s role of Stanley Goodspeed.
Either way, Schwarzenegger declined as he was unimpressed with the early draft of the script he was shown, which by all accounts was quite far removed from the final film.
In the years since, Schwarzenegger has admitted regretting this decision. The film he ultimately made in 1996, Eraser, is not generally considered one of his best.
19. Producer Don Simpson died during the shoot
The Rock is dedicated to the memory of producer Don Simpson, who died in January 1996 while cameras were still rolling on the film.
Simpson passed away from heart failure, the result of many years of drug abuse.
The producer had been infamous for his excessive lifestyle; on hearing of his death, Sean Connery reportedly remarked, “I have to say, I’m not that surprised.”
In partnership with Jerry Bruckheimer, Simpson had been one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood in the 80s and 90s.
Following his partner’s death, Bruckheimer went on to further success as a solo producer, most notably with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
18. Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino both worked on the screenplay
As is commonplace with Hollywood movies, many different writers worked on the screenplay for The Rock.
These writers included Jonathan Hensleigh, Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino – none of whom received on-screen credit.
The film’s credits officially list the only screenwriters as David Weisberg and Douglas S. Cook (who wrote the very first draft), and Mark Rosner (who did the first re-write).
The Writer’s Guild of America ruled that no other writers could be given credit on the film, despite the significant rewrites that had taken place.
This was fiercely contested by the filmmakers, with director Michael Bay blasting the decision as “a travesty.”
It was widely agreed that Hensleigh (above, also the writer of Die Hard with a Vengeance) played an especially significant role in crafting the script as shot.
17. Sean Connery berated Disney execs into giving the film more money
Thanks to the multi-billion dollar success of the Transformers movies, Michael Bay is now one of the most successful filmmakers around.
Back when The Rock was in production, it was a different story, as the film was only Bay’s second feature after Bad Boys.
As such, the director didn’t pull much weight in Hollywood at the time, and found himself badgered by studio executives at Disney who kept him on a tight leash.
Luckily for Bay, Sean Connery had his back. The esteemed actor accompanied the director to a lunch meeting with the studio.
Connery proceeded to bark at Disney execs, “This boy is doing a good job, and you’re living in your Disney f***ing ivory tower and we need more f***ing money!”
According to Bay, the studio gave him no further problems after that; and Connery would continue to refer to the then-30-year-old director as ‘Boy’ throughout production.
16. Nicolas Cage improvised most of his dialogue
The notoriously eccentric Nicolas Cage seemed an unlikely choice to appear alongside Sean Connery in The Rock.
Cage shot the film straight after Leaving Las Vegas, which would earn him the Best Actor Oscar at the 1996 Academy Awards.
The actor is quoted as saying that he specifically took the role to prove wrong those who called him “too quirky” for a mainstream blockbuster.
True to form, Cage took steps to make chemical weapons expert Stanley Goodspeed a more outlandish character than originally written.
First off, the actor threw out most of the written dialogue and ad-libbed the bulk of his lines.
This includes one of the most unmistakably Cage-y moments in the movie, when Goodspeed asks Mason in a rather animated fashion how he escaped his cell.
He also insisted on such eccentric touches as Goodspeed’s aversion to swearing, and the early scene in which he sits naked in his apartment playing guitar.
15. Several real-life Navy SEALs appear in the film
The Rock co-stars Michael Biehn as Commander Charles Anderson, leader of a Navy SEAL team.
These elite soldiers are charged with taking back the besieged Alcatraz Island and freeing the hostages.
Biehn had played such a character before (in The Abyss and – funnily enough – Navy SEALs), but on The Rock things were a little different.
Rather than being surrounded by fellow actors, Biehn’s team was in fact made up mostly of real-life Navy SEALs.
The actor is said to have admitted that it was intimidating for him to pretend to be in charge of men who did this thing for real.
On top of this, Biehn also confessed to feeling intimidated barking orders at Sean Connery.
14. In reality, three people escaped from Alcatraz
The key reason that Connery’s John Mason is enlisted to help save the day is that he’s the only man who ever escaped from Alcatraz.
Of course, that’s just what the movie tells us – but (not unlike nerve gases housed in beads of green glass) this isn’t how things are in reality.
Actually, there were three men who managed to get out of Alcatraz alive: brothers John and Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris.
After many months of careful planning, the trio successfully broke out of the island prison in June 1962.
It’s probably no coincidence that The Rock tells us 1962 is also when Connery’s John Mason is meant to have broken out.
After successfully escaping from Alcatraz, Morris and the Anglin brothers disappeared and were never found by the authorities.
13. Michael Bay had ideas for a sequel that never happened
The Rock was a hit. It took over $335 million at the box office, making it the fourth-biggest movie of 1996.
Director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer followed this up with disaster epic Armageddon, which was an even bigger hit.
Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys II followed – and The Rock seemed to be forgotten, with no sequel in sight.
Bay has since admitted, however, that he did have ideas for a follow-up film which would have picked up where the first film left off (spoiler warning): with Nicolas Cage’s Goodspeed discovering a lost microfilm containing all the US government’s shadiest secrets.
Bay says his sequel would have seen “the government [coming] after Nic Cage with a vengeance.”
This would then force Cage’s Goodspeed to enlist the help of Connery’s Mason to stay alive, and the two men would then have gone on the run together.
12. Its plot inspired (incorrect) descriptions of Iraq’s alleged chemical weapons program
In 2003, a military coalition lead by America and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq and overthrew the dictator Saddam Hussein.
The move was highly controversial and was based on claims that the Middle Eastern country was building weapons of mass destruction.
Britain’s MI6 cited intelligence reports describing deadly nerve agents housed in chains of glass beads.
These claims inspired outrage and mockery around the world once it was recognised that this described the chemical weapons used by the villains in The Rock, which are an entirely fictional creation.
The Rock’s co-writer David Weisberg was stunned that the authorities “didn’t do apparently the most basic fact-checking or vetting of the information.”
The writer remarked, “If you’d just asked a chemical weapons expert, it would have been immediately obvious it was ludicrous.”
11. Sean Connery demanded his own accommodation on Alcatraz itself
One of the distinct advantages to being as legendary a star as Sean Connery is that film producers are usually only too happy to bend to your whims.
When the screen icon signed on to take the leading role in The Rock, he did so with various stipulations.
For one, he insisted on the hiring of British screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais to rewrite his dialogue with a more authentically British feel.
When it came time to start shooting on the famed Alcatraz Island itself, Connery had another demand to make of his producers.
The actor declared he wanted his own cabin to live in on Alcatraz, because he didn’t want to have to go back and forth between the island and San Francisco every day.
Simpson and Bruckheimer acquiesced to Connery’s stipulations, and a cabin was built for the actor especially.
10. Unsuspecting onlookers were shocked by some of the stunts
Shortly after we first meet Sean Connery’s John Mason, we see the disgruntled ex-SAS soldier dangling his nemesis Womack (John Spencer, or, rather, Spencer’s stunt double) off the balcony of a hotel penthouse.
This sequence was shot on location in central San Francisco – and the streets below had not been cordoned off.
As a result, several passers-by were naturally quite shocked to see a man hanging from so tall a building.
Phone calls were made to the hotel and 911 to report the alarming activity – but the hotel and the local police were well aware of what was going on, and were able to put the anxious onlookers at ease.
Another stunt caught an unsuspecting onlooker unawares when military consultant Harry Humphries arrived on set to see a man on fire.
On impulse, the former Navy SEAL set about extinguishing the flames – only to discover too late that the cameras were rolling on a stunt, and he’d just ruined a take.
9. Tony Scott was the first choice to direct
The Rock was the second movie from director Michael Bay, who at the time enjoyed a close association with producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.
However, Bay – whose only feature credit at the time was the previous year’s Bad Boys – was not the producers’ first choice for the project.
Originally, Simpson and Bruckheimer offered the director’s chair on The Rock to their old collaborator Tony Scott.
Scott had previously directed four films for Simpson and Bruckheimer: Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder and Crimson Tide.
However, when the offer came in for The Rock, Scott passed as work was already underway on his next movie, The Fan.
Scott would later reunite with producer Bruckheimer on the movies Enemy of the State and Déjà Vu.
8. A fan theory suggests that Connery’s John Mason is really James Bond
Sean Connery’s name will always be synonymous with the role that made him a superstar: MI6 secret agent James Bond 007.
The Scottish actor rose to fame playing the role in 1962’s Dr No, and he would portray Bond again on six further occasions – including the ‘unofficial’ Bond movie Never Say Never Again.
That having been said, there are some fans who suggest that The Rock also counts as an unofficial Bond movie.
We’re told that Connery’s character John Mason worked for British intelligence back in the 60s, and was the best of the best. Sound at all familiar?
Fans speculate that Mason is in fact Bond, and that he was briefly held prisoner in Alcatraz prior to the events of Dr No – then was recaptured by the US government some time after the events of 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, Connery’s last official Bond movie.
This is given particular credence by fans who theorise that ‘James Bond’ is actually a code name used by many different men over the years, thereby explaining the five subsequent actors who have appeared as Bond since Connery. (Yes, we know it’s all just fiction, but a bit of nerdy speculation never hurt anyone.)
7. The San Francisco car chase was a logistical nightmare
As it’s set largely on a small island housing a maximum-security prison, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Rock wouldn’t have much room for a car chase.
But as this is a) an action movie and b) directed by Michael Bay, there really wasn’t any way to go without one.
The sequence comes early on, when Connery’s John Mason escapes his FBI captors in a stolen Humvee, pursued by FBI agents including Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed – who has commandeered a yellow Ferrari. (Again, this is a Michael Bay movie.)
The sequence was added at the behest of Bay himself, despite the objections of some of the writing team.
The director may have fought to include the scene, but he and the crew endured some serious struggles getting it on film.
Bay has casually described shooting the sequence as “the biggest clusterf*** I’ve ever done in my entire filming career.”
Getting access to the San Francisco streets required thousands of signatures from city officials, and Bay found himself in hot water with both the city and the studio when the shoot fell behind schedule.
6. The studio didn’t want it all shot on location on Alcatraz
Just because a movie is set in a specific place doesn’t always mean that the movie is in fact shot there.
Initially, the plan on The Rock was that only a few days’ worth of exterior photography would actually take place on Alcatraz itself.
Beyond that, executives at Disney wanted the film to shoot in the safety and convenience of their Los Angeles sets and soundstages.
But this was not what Michael Bay had in mind, particularly after the young director visited Alcatraz and got a feel for the location.
Bay stated in an interview, “I went on a tour [of Alcatraz] and my mouth dropped open… I said, ‘we gotta shoot half the movie here.'”
The producers then had to negotiate the location via the US Parks Service. Alcatraz is now officially used as a bird sanctuary, which made shooting action scenes tricky at times.
5. The film’s world premiere was hosted on Alcatraz
As The Rock revolves around Alcatraz, it makes sense that the iconic island was chosen to host the film’s world premiere.
The very first screening of The Rock took place within the confines of Alcatraz on 3rd June 1996.
This marked the very first time that Alcatraz had been used to host a Hollywood movie premiere.
At no small expense, a fully functioning cinema screen with 35mm projector was set up in what had once been the prison courtyard.
An audience of 500 invited guests were ferried in especially for the event, along with substantial press coverage.
It was also reported that some enterprising fans approached the island on jet skis in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Connery, Cage and co.
One such fan is said to have worn a tuxedo under his wet-suit – just like Connery did all those years earlier in the third Bond movie, Goldfinger.
4. The shower room shoot-out was copied wholesale in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
One of the standout action sequences in The Rock comes when the team of Navy SEALs break into Alcatraz.
After sneaking in through a shower room, the SEALs face off against the soldiers who are holding the island hostage.
Years later, gamers noticed echoes of this sequence in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
The 2009 first-person shooter pays direct homage to The Rock, most notably with a similar shower room shoot-out level.
The game also features a military leader turning against his country on a personal principle, as is the case in The Rock.
In addition, the game features the use of green flares to stop fighter jets from bombing a location, which also happens in the movie.
3. Simpson got the idea for Hummel from TV’s 60 Minutes
The Rock producer Don Simpson wasn’t a screenwriter, but he was famous for coming up with big ideas for his movies.
In the case of The Rock, it was Simpson who came up with the main motivation for General Hummel, the film’s villain portrayed by Ed Harris.
Simpson decided Hummel should be an honourable, military man laying siege to Alcatraz in protest of the US government’s refusal to compensate the families of soldiers killed in covert missions.
The producer took inspiration from stories he saw on TV’s 60 Minutes, as well as the memoirs of Colonel David H. Hackworth.
Simpson then worked closely with screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh to develop Hummel into a far more nuanced and sympathetic character than most action movie bad guys.
Ed Harris recalls Simpson and Bruckheimer spending 45 minutes explaining the character to him whilst persuading the actor to sign on for the role.
2. The movie opened before Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson made his WWF TV debut
Today, typing the words ‘The Rock’ into a search engine is by no means guaranteed to get you results about the 1996 movie.
That’s because since the movie was released, The Rock was also the name by which megastar Dwayne Johnson rose to fame as part of the World Wrestling Federation.
Although officially he’d already joined the WWF (later renamed WWE), Johnson didn’t make his TV debut until November 1996, five months after the movie The Rock hit screens. Initially, Johnson wrestled under the name Rocky Maivia.
Within a year Johnson was renamed The Rock, and he quickly became the biggest name in wrestling, as well as being one of the few wrestlers to successfully cross over to mainstream celebrity status.
Johnson made his film debut in 2001’s The Scorpion King, still credited as The Rock – and in a few years he became a major movie star under his birth name. Today he’s one of the biggest names in the business, his films having collectively grossing over $10.5 billion worldwide.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s filmography also includes a collaboration with The Rock director Michael Bay, 2013’s Pain & Gain – which incidentally co-stars The Rock actor Ed Harris. We hope there wasn’t too much confusion on the set.
1. It’s the only Michael Bay movie with a ‘fresh’ Rotten Tomatoes rating
While The Rock was a resounding success at the box office, the first reviews were lukewarm – a recurring issue in the career of director Michael Bay.
However, almost 25 years later, even Bay’s fiercest detractors tend to agree that The Rock is the notoriously bombastic filmmaker’s best work.
Indeed, The Rock is the only Bay-directed film to be ‘certified fresh’ at review aggregators site Rotten Tomatoes, with a 66% fresh rating.
Bay is said to have called it his favourite film of his own. Sean Connery also reportedly considered it the best film he made in his last decade as an actor, before retiring after 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.