There was a time when I’d have ranked Octopussy second only to The Spy Who Love Me out of the Roger Moore 007s. The thirteenth Bond movie falls somewhere between the flamboyance of the two Lewis Gilbert pictures and the vague gestures towards a real world setting of John Glen’s lacklustre For Your Eyes Only. Whilst it is replete with colourful settings and comic asides, the plot also seems to be curiously coded with a pro-nuclear deterrent ethic; it’s a feature that makes you wonder how enamoured Cubby Broccoli was of the Tories at that time. This is no deal-breaker (if you’re that concerned about the politics of Bond you’d hardly consume regular helpings of his last bastion of British imperialism), but this does feel more like a statement than the series is used to. More damagingly, one of the best villains the series has come across is nigh on wasted; the irrepressibly maniacal Steven Berkoff. Nevertheless, any movie with not one but two action set pieces involving a spy in a clown suit must have something going for it.
It may not seem like it at first glance, but the previous Moore Bonds, with the possible exception of The Man with the Golden Gun, all had a clear motivating force behind them (aside from making a ton of money, obviously). Live and Let Die was not only introducing a new 007, but it was also feeding off the Blaxploitation genre. The Spy Who Love Me was a conscious attempt to return to the vast spectacle of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. Moonraker cashed in on the Star Wars phenomenon. And For Your Eyes Only was a back-to-basics attempt to put Moore Bond in a grittier From Russia With Love type world. Sure, none are the most creative of imperatives but they nevertheless represent a guiding force or statement.
With Octopussy, all they had was a slightly suggestive title from Ian Fleming (the short story bears scant resemblance) and the prospect, yet again, of Moore vacating 007 duties. He had been on a per-film contract for a couple of Bonds now, and it was most likely putting a strange on Broccoli’s voluminous wallet. And he wasn’t getting any younger. He turned 56 in the year Octopussy was released and, while you can’t deny he’s in pretty good shape, the wrinkles that had hitherto eluded him are beginning to make their mark. As per the last film, Eon had been sniffing around potential replacements. James Brolin very nearly bagged the role; his screen test (which can be seen on the DVD and Blu-ray releases) proffers the same kind of transatlantic charm Pierce Brosnan eased the character into more than a decade later. Broccoli reportedly blanched at the thought of an American in the role when it came down to the line. Whether that would happen now, in an era where Superman and Batman are played by Brits, is questionable. Ironically, probably more than ever. Superman may be an all-American hero, but he’s also an alien. Bond forever waves the flag for an ailing Britain and it’s unlikely the current producers would seriously want to run the risk of home-grown outrage.
There was also another, very pressing reason behind the decision to revert to Moore (or rather, to meet Moore’s price). Sean Connery. It’s a testament to Moore’s youthful visage that, even though he is three years older than Connery, he assumed the role eleven years after him. When Connery came back to Bond for Never Say Never Again he was a spry 52-year-old, and looked like he was in better shape than the slightly puffy greying forty-year-old of Diamonds are Forever. Everything else about NSNA let him down, from his toupee to his costumes. Whatever genius had gripped Irvin Kershner when he directed The Empire Strikes Back was wholly absent from this rogue Bond outing.
But Broccoli was rightly concerned over the prospect of putting up a fledgling Bond against the old master. Connery had starred in what were still by far the most successful pictures in the series (in inflationary terms), and there was a real risk that a debutant would be eaten alive (or outright spurned if he was played by a Yank). So Moore came back, and the “real” Bond movie was the bigger hit. Marginally. One wonders how aware the general public were of the rights issues surrounding Kevin McClory’s bid to establish his own movie property (and presumably remake Thunderball, again and again and again); there must have been some understanding, as no doubt the kids were asking why two Bond films were vying for public attention (it’s not like they were in the same film; you could have previous Doctor Whos sharing the small screen together, as happened in 1983, and you could have comedy Bonds larking about , as in the ’60s Casino Royale).
There was clearly no solidarity in getting behind brand Bond. For all that audiences had embraced Moore’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink style, there were as many who longed nostalgically for the original. When the series was serious (anyone actually reviewing Connery’s era will see that lasted for exactly two pictures) and the lead has some heft. For some it was simply an embarrassment of riches; two 007 movies in one year, it didn’t matter where they came from. And there was also genuine curiosity at play, no doubt. I suspect much more so than seeing how duelling Robin Hoods (1991) Columbuses (1992), O.K. corals (1993/4), volcanic eruptions (1997), meteor strikes (1998) or White House invasions (2013) compared.
One thing even the staunchest champion of the Moore era is unlikely to argue is the lack of physicality of its hero. Connery’s Bond was a bruiser. He was right in there, and grounded each scene with his earthy brawn. Moore had none of that. He was light on his feet, but had no weight behind his punches. When he runs he conjures images of a reluctant Sunday afternoon game of gentleman’s cricket. There’s a sense that it would be somewhat inelegant to actually bend those knees. He and his stuntman still make a good team when it comes to dodging yo-yo saws or avoiding a testicular mishap while sliding down a staircase, but there’s no longer a passing illusion that it might all be the star up there. He might have been able to get away with this as 45-year-old 007, but one a decade older? Brosnan may have been knocking his sixth decade when he left the role, but he doesn’t look as if he lives in a London establishment club; it may just be the increasing youthfulness of each generation, but he looks better at sixty than Moore did at fifty). Then, that fine wine quality worked wonders for Connery. The beardless Scot of 1983 is out of joint with his soon-to-be rebirth as a major Hollywood player in the last half of the decade. It seemed like his actual age had caught up with his face; I mentioned that Connery looked trim in his return to Bond, but that doesn’t mean he looked right for the role any longer.
Which is all to emphasise that Octopussy now looks like something of a placeholder. With a new Bond, it would have seemed like a reassuringly traditional adventure, blending styles and scenarios in order to usher in a strange face in familiar surroundings (although it’s hard to believe the double-taking camel and Tarzan yell would have made it to the final cut). With Moore involved, it occasionally succumbs to the pedestrian. That’s not just about the leading actor, though. Director John Glen has adjusted to the demands of calling the shots more seamlessly than in his debut, but he’s never more than workmanlike in his approach.
He can’t be seen as fully to blame, though. The screenplay (credited to George MacDonald Fraser – the Flashman man – producer Michael G. Wilson and regular Richard Maibaum) makes few concessions to intrigue and suspense until the climax, which stands up as one of the series’ best, focussing on a countdown clock (like Goldfinger) rather than huge explosions (I’m talking about the true climax, rather than automatic pilot of the ensuing attack on the Khan’s palace and plane sequence).
Bond: Fill her up, please.
The Cuba-set (Bond showing his support of US interests, evidently) pre-credits sequence is jolly, but there’s nothing jaw-dropping until Bond makes his escape by flying a micro-jet through an exploding hangar (it was all done on wires, you know). It stands up, but you’d be hard-pressed to recall what surrounds it; Moore impersonates a general (who does bear a passing resemblance) with a fake tache, setting the store for a series of disguises throughout (clown, knife thrower, gorilla…) He makes a joke about a Spanish-sounding character name, Toro (“Sounds like a load of bull”) and flies a jet out of a (intentionally, but still very fake) horse’s arse. Of course, the jet is red white and blue on it, the series now falling prey to overt patriotism at every opportunity; ever since the show stopping opening of The Spy Who Loved Me.
Later, Q’s hot air balloon is inevitably adorned with the Union Jack; there’s something rather lazy about this self-regarding Britishness, and it has an increasingly sour taste when it is mirrors the tone of the surrounding era; Thatcher’s manipulative and jingoistic appeals to national pride and identity. There are some squawking chickens, always a bonus in a scene, and a particularly inimitable Moore wink-wink smile as his seductive sidekick attracts the attention of Cuban soldiers while he opens their parachutes. There’s the same sense of mayhem we’d see later in Tomorrow Never Dies’ pre-credits sequence, but it’s all a little too relaxed. I suppose you can excuse Bond’s tech crew for not keeping the jet’s tank full since it fosters such an obvious line as the one above, with 007 pulling his plane in to a petrol station.
Bond: That’s a charming tune.
The title song that follows may not be one of the series’ biggest hits, but it could well be my favourite. There’s a delightfully over-the-top quality to Rita Coolidge’s delivery, and Maurice Binder’s titles may be the most ridiculous yet; “Bond” swings a lovely lady around by her legs as Coolidge’s voice reaches a crescendo. Moore, who had been drafted to perform in earlier sequences, appears here only as a cardboard cut-out. Sadly, the theme is used minimally as a cue during the score. The Bond theme pops up diegetically though, as 007 expresses approval of the tune his “snake charmer” contact is playing.
Bond: What is that?
Magda: That’s my little Octopussy.
A look speaks a thousand words. Or a predictable one in Moore’s case. Fleming wrote his short story in the years following the film adaptation of Goldfinger, and he must surely have decided if you can get away with a cheap dirty joke once you can get away with it twice. So Pussy Galore becomes more outrageous; now pussy is in the title of a movie, which conjures images of some particularly nasty Manga cartoon. The producers were initially a little trepidacious over how far they could go; a character is one thing, but a suggestive title risked boycotts. As it turns out, there was little comment. This was Roger Moore Bond; it’s precisely what everyone expected. Indeed, it’s only the above scene, where 007 catches sight of Magda’s tattoo, that proffers any innuendo from the title. Kristina Wayborn’s delivery of her line helps as much as Moore’s expected look. If the scene had been played in the dark, it couldn’t get any more suggestive.
At first sight, Magda might be expected to assume the traditional Bond girl role; 007 beds her early in the proceedings, leading to one of the movie’s rare moments of visual poetry (let’s face it, the series isn’t really vying for that kind of laurel) to the accompaniment of a lusciously romantic slice of John Barry’s score; she takes her leave from Bond’s balcony, her sari unravelling for a soft descent, and a bikini-clad Wayborn enters a waiting car (Wayborn polishes up well in circus top hat and tails too). But this is a Bond movie devoid of an imperilled leading lady who just needs protecting by our hero. Magda’s official role is as Octopussy’s henchwoman, and she emulates her mistress by not needing a man around. Wayborn, like Adams and Britt Ekland, is a Swede. With an extensive forehead and slightly feline features, she’s also one of the series’ most striking ladies. Yet her character is the antithesis of Ekland’s clumsy klutz in The Man with the Golden Gun.
Octopussy: I don’t have to apologise to you, a paid assassin, for what I am.
Bond: You’re right. We’re two of a kind.
The background to Adams’ character is faintly dull (and the single aspect carried over from the short story), the only glimmer of interest being what sort of father would call his daughter Octopussy, even as a “pet name” (that just makes it worse). Adams was called in for the Bond audition pieces and ended up nabbing the role. Reportedly, it started out as a straight villainess. Names considered included Faye Dunaway, Barbara Carrera (Never Say Never Again’s Bond girl), Sybil Danning and Persis Khambatta. It would probably have been more interesting to have a lady as the baddie.
Maud is fine, and enjoys good chemistry with Moore, but there isn’t enough to maintain an interest in Octopussy, not even with nude bathing and a harem-come-army of women. One might argue that Octopussy ends up as just another manipulated Bond girl who needs the dashing British Secret Serviceman to save her (“Oh, James!”). But her proactivity and self-sufficiency do mark her out from the norm; it’s just that Adams is maybe a little too demure for a role that ought to make a big splash. This is the title character, after all.
And the final scene does rather reduce her to the usual totty. It also rubs it in that this is Bond mimicking past glories, right down to a returning Bond girl. Bond appears to be injured following his climactic scrape, with Octopussy tending to him (“I wish you weren’t in such a weakened state.”) But actually, he’s fine! So for whose benefit was he pretending? The audience, of course. At least it doesn’t plumb the depths of the Dennis and Maggie impersonators at the end of FYEO.
Q: 007 on an island populated entirely by women? We won’t see him until dawn.
Octopussy’s palace is the most trad-Bond fantasy part. You know; the villain’s army all wear rather silly costumes to show they are part of a super scheme for world domination. Why Octopussy’s smuggling ring does likewise, aside from maintaining series tradition (and the Octopus Cult), is anyone’s guess. Well, there is one reason. The tight-fitting leotards of Octopussy’s posse result in a particularly prolific case of camel toe; to be seen throughout in the character of Gwendoline (Suzanne Jerome, who sadly died only three years after the movie’s release). It’s impossible that the producers weren’t aware of this, so they presumably considered it a lucky accident, something to be embraced as part of the series’ unthreatening lewdness.
Gogol: Our military role is strictly defensive.
The fantasy army element jars somewhat with the attempt to tackle a “real world” theme (rogue Russian general), one the series had tentative moves towards in the previous three Moore films, with Walter Gotell’s Gogol kept on the fringes. Here, a character that appeared to have a rather affable and relaxed outlook on East-West relations is shown to be positively Gorbachev-like in his progressiveness compared to Orlov.
Bond: And that’s for 009.
The plot concerning the sale Fabergé eggs seems like a bit of a stretch depending on what the profits are actually for. The money is clearly being used to finance Orlov’s quest for dominion over Western Europe. But what precisely he is using it for, I’m not sure. I’ve seen it suggested that it’s for the purchase of a Soviet nuke, but surely, he could lay his hands on one of them anyway (and how much would one cost? He can only have made in the low millions from his scheme. What are his overheads?) Octopussy is doing the smuggling while Orlov has the military at his disposal. Is the money needed to pay Khan, to ensure his loyalty and the safe delivery of the warhead? There were surely less conspicuous ways of making money, if money was needed, than flooding the market with art treasures that would draw attention from both MI6 and Orlov’s superiors. That said, it makes a change from initiating the plot with stolen weaponry or top secret advanced military equipment. And there are some neat switcheroos en route, with Bond palming the egg and replacing it with a fake at the Sotheby’s auction
Bond: What happens when the US retaliates?
Orlov: Against whom?
If the financing methods lack subtlety, Orlov’s plan for victory is extremely optimistic, based upon a series of unlikely developments. He believes there will be an assumption that America accidentally triggered one of its own nuclear bombs. Europe will insist on unilateral disarmament, allowing Orlov to walk across every border (“Tomorrow I shall be a hero of the Soviet Union”). Something here does not compute. First, it’s a stretch that the US would reach such a conclusion regarding the explosion of a nuke. Wouldn’t they just count their bombs and note that it was a rogue device? And why is Orlov so convinced that the tide would turn in favour of disarmament, just like that? It doesn’t seem at all likely. Far more probable is the realisation that it was a Soviet device and the resultant reprisals. Apart from the problems of trying to wring a single drop of logic out of his hare-brained scheme (and in fairness, Orlov’s clearly barking, first introduced ranting at a volume of eleven, in a quite magnificent “war room” set from Peter Lamont that outdoes any other piece of design in the picture) there’s something a bit whiffy about the subtext.
Early on, we see Orlov opposing weapons reduction treaties (favoured by Gogol). The movie is careful to make “most Russians” appear to be decent sorts; it’s just that one rotten apple that spoils the barrel (isn’t this the way with all Hollywood terrorist factions?) But the subtext seems quite clear; disarmament is a bad idea because it only requires one mad dictator to take advantage of it. In the age of Greenham Common protests, Bond’s message couldn’t be more oppositional to lily-livered hippy peaceniks. One might argue the plot is derived from an attempt to justify Bond’s place in an ’80s political landscape, but if so it seems enormously coincidental that the movie’s sentiment goes hand in hand with Thatcherite values. There’s also little reason why anyone would go along with Orlov’s plan once he is iced. What is Kamal Khan’s interest in seeing the bomb go off? He’s just out to make money. Very little of this one stands up to close scrutiny, and it’s a sign of a script thrown together from fragments of ideas rather than drawn from a central one.
Khan: Good, let the sport commence.
Berkoff’s Orlov is sadly underused; for such a magnificent scenery-chewer, there was a real missed opportunity not to make him the central villain. He fires up the screen whenever he appears, tossing off lines with relish (“Follow that car!”) and more of his energy might really have lit a rocket under Octopussy’s arse. As it is, the movie suffers when he is extinguished; the remaining villains don’t have his gusto. Louis Jordan as Kamal Khan is eminently watchable and but he’s not remotely menacing.
Bond: I don’t suppose you’d care for a nightcap?
Bond has a nice scene at the casino where he bests Khan at backgammon by using the villain’s lucky dice. But it shows that Kabir Bedi’s turbaned henchman is little more than an Odd Job clone (he grinds the dice to dust, just as Odd Job did with a golf ball). It’s a shame Bedi, a Bollywood star, didn’t get more to work with. With only Orlov passing muster, the final attack on Khan’s palace sees Octopussy’s kick-ass commando chicks make short work of the opposition, and it smacks of a for-the-sake-of-it damp squib big set piece.
Bond: It’s odd that, when I’m stared at, I seem to lose my appetite.
Staging the final sequence on a plane also recalls Goldfinger, as does having Bond do some investigative work when he is held prisoner at Khan’s palace. It should come as no surprise that Bond isn’t above cheap gags at the exotic cuisine of foreigners; here, he is served a stuffed sheep’s head. Spielberg went a similar route with a whole series of gross courses in the following year’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Eon’s similar sense of humour to Lucasfilm is also evidenced by both Octopussy and Return of the Jedi featuring Tarzan yell gags in the same summer.
Temple of Doom was denied permission to film in India, with the script cited as racist and offensive. Octopussy escaped indictment, and filming took place in Udaipiur; it’s probably the most striking location in a Bond movie since The Man with the Golden Gun’s trip to Thailand. It may not have been taken to task, but the movie is still awash with many clichéd ideas about Indian culture and some dubious taste gags – “Keep you in curry for a few weeks”, Bond tells Vijay (Vijay Amritraj) as he proffers his casino winnings – such that, perhaps, the only aspect that might let it off the hook is Moore injecting every joke with self-conscious mockery. He knows his sexist one-liners are groan-inducing, just as he knows his stereotyping of Indian culture is. He’s a naughty schoolboy, basically. Nevertheless, it’s difficult avoid the feeling of a rather backwards viewpoint coming to the fore in the moment where Bond surprises an ignorant native; he assumes Bond is a mummy come to life.
Bond: Thank God for hard currency.
As ever, the movie has its share of memorable set pieces. Glen and his crew put together a highly amusing electric taxi chase soon after Bond’s arrival in India. The visual gags are piled so high that Lewis Gilbert must have been green with envy; with tennis rackets are employed as a weapon, the crowd’s head turn back and forth following the blows as if they are a watching a game at Wimbledon (Amritraj was a famous tennis player, and this was his first screen role). Bond is stabbed, but only his wad of cash is hit. He throws it from the cab and it lands in a beggar’s bowl. As a taxi does a particularly daring leap, a camel raises its head to follow the trajectory. Also appearing are a bed of nails and a sword swallower (“You’d better stick this back yourself”).
The danger here is that Bond occasionally looks as if he has come back to take charge of one of the ex-colonies. Amritraj is immensely appealing as Vijay, but he’s little more than Bond’s batman. It’s a cruel and unnecessary development when Vijay is murdered, serving no purpose in terms of the plot and leaving Bond relatively unaffected (his “That’s for 009” rather underscores this; a character we haven’t even seen him interact with). This, after Q suggests Bond will have a mentoring role (“Don’t let him teach you any of his bad habits” he tells Vijay).
Tourist: Are you with our group?
Bond: No ma’am. I’m with the economy tour.
The human safari sequence is another burst of frothy silliness, complete with Bond telling a tiger to “Si-it!” à la Barbara Woodhouse, but the potential of a manhunt isn’t really tapped. For one thing, Bond escapes far too easily. It’s more memorable for the gags than for exerting any grip.
The other set piece of note is the chase atop a train (likely an inspiration for Wolverine). It’s an effective action sequence that kicks off with Orlov being killed and then sees the knife throwing duo eliminated. But the behind the scenes is probably the most dramatic part; stuntman Martin Grace was hit by a concrete pole during Bond’s climb down the train. His left leg was severely fractured and it led to the second unit director considering retirement over the guilt he felt for his part in the incident.
Bond: General, there’s a bomb in that cannon.
General: Sure, where else would a bomb be?
For whatever reason, Bond is quite the man of disguise in this movie. His first scene finds him posing as a Cuban officer, he dons knife thrower’s garb and even pulls on a gorilla costume (again, Octopussy seems to have a feel for the movie world around it; gorilla suits are a key ingredient in the same year’s Trading Places). But best of all is 007 disguised as a clown in a countdown to present a nuclear bomb going off (it’s also a reason why this should have been the climax proper; neatly bookending the film with clown chases). This is the sort of surreal inspiration that one might more expect from TV’s The Avengers. Obviously, John Glen is far too literal a director to fully grasp the potential of the scenario. But just the juxtaposition of Bond saving the world wearing a big red nose is sufficient.
Talking of unusual moments, the brief scene where Bond thinks he’s going to get a lift (“Come on, get in”) before the car speeds away, its occupants laughing at him, is a lovely touch; it ups the ante as time is of the essence, but it also has a bunch of kids taking the piss out of granddad Bond; they’d never have done that to Connery!
Bond: Well, I must say. You become more beautiful every day.
Moneypenny: I am over here.
Bond: Oh yes. Of course, you are.
The series’ regulars (just Q and Moneypenny now) are quite well served in this outing, with a reasonably high quip quotient. Lois Maxwell is the same age as Moore, but obviously he really sees her as a grandmother. So the (brief) introduction of Penelope Smallbone makes for a decent sight gag about her age.
Bond: Having problems keeping it up?
Q: I haven’t time for these adolescent antics.
Desmond Llewellyn, meanwhile, was knocking 70 but rewarded with his largest part yet. To be honest, I think it’s too much and kills the pace to have him floating by in his balloon. Sure, it’s a bit of fun to have Octopussy’s girls throw themselves at him (“Later, perhaps.”) but it’s an indulgence too far. Great for Q fans but a crawl for everyone else (the series is never on firm ground when the peripheral characters take on larger roles; look at how Dench’s M encroached on the plots).
Octopussy surprisingly doesn’t feel like Moore’s Bond is quite on his last legs. Indeed, 007 is very nearly back on form after the slog of For Your Eyes Only. Sure, the plot is equal parts bite and sag, but it tends to the winning through being much more reflective of its star’s sense of humour; it’s not really Moore’s Bond if he isn’t peddling a bit of smut and a raft of dodgy one-liners. If he’d left here, he would have done so with his reputation more or less intact. Things could only go downhill by clinging on, and A View to a Kill was to see the producers’ reluctance to embrace change (I know, they got Duran Duran to do the theme song) result in one of the most maligned entries in the canon.