Film Discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Fourteen: Octopussy (1983)

There are few more divisive films in the James Bond canon than 1983’s Octopussy.  Although usually ranked fairly low in any series review, it has been known to be a favourite Moore entry for many.  On a personal note, there are only two films in the series that have failed to give any pleasure, at any time, on any viewing, and Octopussy is one of them (Diamonds Are Forever is the other one by the way).  This is a genuinely unpleasant watch every time it’s attempted.  It may just be the most “Roger Moore” of all his entries.  As such, there does seem to be some correlation: the more you like Moore’s Bond in general, the better it’s likely you’ll get on with this film.  As Moore is my second least favourite Bond, it’s clear this film isn’t really speaking to me.

After British agent 009 is killed in Berlin, while dressed as a clown and carrying a counterfeit Faberge egg, MI6 note the real egg is up for auction in London and send James Bond to investigate, fearing Soviet involvement.  Covertly swapping the fake egg in for the real one, Bond forces exiled Afghan Prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) into a bidding war.  Tailing Khan back to his palace in India, Bond foils attempts on his life and that of his contact, Vijay (Vijay Amritraj).

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After allowing himself to be seduced by Khan’s associate, Magda (Kristina Wayborn), he also allows her to escape with the real egg, which he has bugged.  Through this he learns that Khan is working with Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a Soviet General looking to expand Soviet influence further into Western Europe.  Events lead Bond to Octopussy (Maud Adams), leader of the Octopus Cult, of which Magda is a member, and also an associate of Khan.  Bond has a connection to Octopussy through her father, who he’d helped when in disgrace, and the two establish a rapport.

Bond discovers that Orlov has been gifting Khan Soviet treasures, replacing them with replicas.  Khan then using Octopussy’s circus troupe to smuggle them into the West.  After the brutal murder of Vijay by associates of Khan’s henchman Gobinda (Kabir Bedi), Bond travels to infiltrate the circus, and finds that Orlov has replaced the treasures with a nuclear warhead, set to detonate during the circus show at a US Air Force base in West Germany.  Such an explosion would trigger disarmament, in the belief that the bomb was a American one that detonated by accident, thus leaving its borders open to a Soviet invasion – something to which Orlov has been working.  Bond will need to stop the bomb, and prevent Orlov achieving his goal of an environment conducive to Soviet invasion of the West.

Octopussy somewhat reversed the move of the previous film away from the goofy tone found in parts of Moonraker.  That is understandable when it’s considered that there was a competing Bond film coming out this year.  In light of the initial failure of EON to come to terms with Roger Moore’s agent, there were screen tests.  One or two of which make a fiction of the ideas of those of a nostalgic bent, that the Cubby Broccoli-era was one long line of unimpeachable decision making.  As a proto-Daniel Craig, the testing of Lewis Collins, from TV’s The Professionals, makes perfect sense.  Although dismissed as “too brutal” after his test, Collins is one of the more interesting “what ifs” in series history.  On the other hand, the testing of James Brolin was a head scratcher: every now and again, as with John Gavin in the early-70s, EON would come within a hair of making a truly baffling casting choice.

In the event, Roger Moore signed on to make his sixth appearance, at the age of 55.  Moore would actually look a little better in his final entry, A View to a Kill, as he was a bit fitter, and had undergone minor cosmetic surgery before filming – the giveaway is the small mole/wart by his nose that isn’t there after this film.  In 1983, he really did look like an old man, with now kind-of-funny hair, unable to function without a stunt double for anything over walking pace.  As very few stuntman in the world look like an old man with funny hair, this means that action scenes stand out a mile, with Bond suddenly being far lighter, more lithe, and looking nothing at all like Roger Moore.  Hence, action scenes play like Naked Gun-style parody.  Come to think of it, this era Roger Moore would have made a terrific Frank Drebin-style character.

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That’s a shame, as Octopussy is an extremely well-made film.  John Glen, in his second outing as director, continues to demonstrate an excellent grasp of action cinema; with the train set piece, in particular, outstanding.  Though often ridiculed for the fact that Roger is dressed as a clown in the scene, a circus-set race to defuse a bomb is a genuine series highlight, and not remotely an issue for the film as a whole.

The goofy tone is an issue, though.  A Barbara Woodhouse (a dog trainer of moderate TV fame in this era) joke, and a Tarzan yell as Bond swings through some trees, are both not at all funny, and make a mockery of the assertion that Moore’s films are humorous.  There may be plenty of jokes, but actual laughs are harder to come by.  That said, an exhausted Bond’s line telling a tourist that he’s with the economy tour is terrific, and the sole line to match the standards of The Spy Who Loved Me‘s humour.

Casting is a mixed bag.  Louis Jourdan as the villainous Kamal Khan is a highlight of the Roger Moore era, and their gambling exchanges among the best scenes of the film (along with those of Bond at the auction house in the Property of a Lady sequence).  Kristina Wayborn, as henchwoman Magda, has a striking look, and fits her role well.  Maud Adams, as Octopussy, distinguishes herself in a role very different from her turn as Andrea Anders in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Steven Berkoff is divisive as General Orlov, as he is wildly over-acting in every scene, but he certainly stands out.

The film-breaking piece of casting is Vijay Amritraj as the imaginatively named “Vijay”.  In the next film (far from a good film in itself) the filmmakers were wise enough to pair Moore with Patrick Macnee, a man of roughly the same generation, with whom he establishes an immediate rapport.  More importantly, Macnee was a professional actor, with decades of experience.  Here, Amritraj is on debut – and boy does it show.  He’s a game, upbeat presence, but he’s painfully self-conscious.  A truly lame joke where he has to play the Bond theme on a snake charmer’s flute sees him almost looking at the camera out of the side of his eye.  This is a man deeply unnatural in front of a camera.  Looking at his filmography since suggests either casting agents agree, or he simply didn’t enjoy it.  Both are plausible on the evidence here.  Additionally, his presence leads to a lot of unfunny tennis humour, as he was a then-current professional player.  To watch this film, you’d imagine Amritraj was the second coming of Bjorn Borg.  A cursory glance at his record shows four grand slam quarter finals.  Yet the film is making a thing of his tennis connection, as though we’re watching a superstar of the sport.  Add to this Bond making a bordering-on-racist curry joke, and it simply adds to the feel of a tired film featuring an old, out of touch man who should no longer be doing this.

Octopussy came in with a very healthy gross of $187.5 million.  Audiences had responded positively to the familiar, and EON had struck first blood in the Battle of the Bonds.  Kevin McClory would finally get the chance the same year to launch his competing product.  He’d secured the participation of Irvin Kershner, director of The Empire Strikes Back and, more importantly, after 12 years, Sean Connery, the man who defined Bond, and led the series to the summit of the cinematic world, would be back in his signature role.  Even in the aftermath of success, EON held its breath, as it waited to see how badly this would hurt them.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Never Say Never Again (1983).

1 comment

  1. In the interest of adding some balance, I must say I love Octopussy and it’s my favourite film ever!
    It is, simply, topical and timeless, which is what Bond has always been. In this respect, the film distils this formula. (There are, in fact, binaries throughout, beginning with a smooth, regal prince and a fulminating, self-made general.)

    The timelessness comes from the high, swashbuckling adventure of the train roof fight in Germany and, more particularly, in the India scenes, in which Bond basically transports himself into the world of H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling – and even, in the jungle chase, the classic man-hunting short story ‘The Most Dangerous Game’. The Tarzan yell is woeful, of course, but let’s not forget that it’s literally a second (I’ve checked) in a film which lasts for two hours and eleven minutes. I really rue that moment, but mainly because it has so comprehensively coloured the reputation of a film which offers so much more.

    It was also hugely topical, arriving during the second wave of the Campaign of Nuclear Disarmament. There was even a march that very Easter around the Atomic Weapons Establishment. These Euro-politics gives a film a sense of uncomfortable reality which nicely balances the more fantastical elements happening in far-away India.

    Reality also intrudes during Bond’s race to the American airbase in which his desperate attempts to avert an imminent nuclear blast are thwarted by everyday frustrations like teasingly insolent teenagers and an unavailable payphone. This could have been played for cheap laughs, but actually establishes some genuine suspense, climaxing with what may be the most misunderstood scene in Bond history.

    The clown outfit is too elaborate and detailed (the blame of the costume department, surely, not screenwriters), but it is nothing if not Hitchcockian (as are other moments in the film), and sees Bond in an unenviable scenario: he must convince these people that their lives are about to be ruthlessly terminated by a nuclear bomb, yet they just laugh at him, as he’s dressed as a clown. It’s like the worst anxiety dream ever. It also dovetails neatly with the equally surreal first reel, in which an almost pathetically terrified clown is hunted with eerie calmness by a couple of short identical twins with throwing knifes (notably, not guns, are we may expect).

    Alongside all this suspense, of course, we get bucket loads of fun, like a car grinding down a railway track in pursuit of a train, a fight on top of a said train, Bond galloping after an escaping plane, on which roof we get another fight (“Go out there,” demands Khan of his henchman Gobinda, “and get him!”).

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