BOND, JAMES BOND: Octopussy (1983)

Directed by John Glen
Screen Story and Screenplay by George McDonald Fraser and Richard Maibaum & Michael G. Wilson
Release Date: 7th June 1983 (U.K), 10th June 1983 (U.S)

After two decades of battling villains such as Blofeld, Dr No, Hugo Drax and Scaramanga, James Bond was about to go up against his most unique antagonist in 1983; himself.

Christened the ‘Battle of the Bonds’ by the British press, the thirteenth James Bond film, on the twenty first anniversary of the franchise no less, would face competition from Sean Connery himself, and the re-emergence of Kevin McClory, finally getting to make good on his promise to make a rival 007 film with his Thunderball rights.

Having begun the 80s strongly with For Your Eyes Only, there were very few changes behind the scenes from Eon for their 1983 entry. John Glen was retained as director, the screenplay was once again a joint effort from Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, and while there was speculation that there might be a new 007 in the shape of James Brolin, who did audition for the role (and footage of which is frequently available as a special feature on the many home entertainment releases of the film), Roger Moore returned for his sixth film.

The screenplay itself had also received some help from Flashman author George McDonald Fraser, contributing elements to the film’s India sequences.

Race and Bond have frequently had a complex relationship, beginning with Ian Fleming’s novel for Live and Let Die, not to mention the fact that the Bond character himself is seen a stand in for a fantasy where the British establishment still have a large say in the geo-political sphere.

The image of Bond in India comes with the spectre (no pun intended) of British colonial rule in the country. The film never touches upon that, but it still plays into the image of a white British Agent going into foreign territory where he is amongst people who aren’t white and basically telling them what to do.

This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen this image, having witnessed it in Dr. No and You Only Live Twice, and Octopussy even throws in a wince inducing moment when Bond hands the Head of MI6’s Indian office a wad of cash he wins from a Backgammon game and tells him it will ‘keep him in curry for a while.’

The 80s was an interesting time for British culture and its increasing interest in stories centred on India itself. Only the year previously did Richard Attenborough sweep the Academy Awards with Ghandi, David Lean was a year away from premiering A Passage to India, while ITV would win critical acclaim and high ratings for The Jewel in the Crown, an adaptation of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, which counted amongst its cast future Bond star Art Malik, as well as Charles Dance who had played a henchman in For Your Eyes Only.

Following on the heels of the previous film’s attempts at a more grounded Bond picture, Octopussy doesn’t go back into the realm of fantasy by any stretch of the imagination, but it does harken back to a more overt humour that, opening and final sequences aside, For Your Eyes Only ignored for most of its duration.

Returning to the series for a second time as the titular character of the film was Maud Adams.

In fact, the film straddles two type of Bond films; a more escapist adventure film with a lushly filmed Indian backdrop, and the other a Cold War-thriller that continues in the vain of the previous film.  For some, the film is somewhat of a mess, and its inclusion of more overt comedic moments such as Bond disguised as a gorilla and then later a clown represents a nadir for the series and another reason to take a dislike to the Moore era.

And yet, yet, the film has a strange charm that it fully commits to and which works strangely well. On the one hand, it’s easy to appreciate why the film is looked at somewhat disdainfully by some, but watching the film is always an escapist joy. It shouldn’t work, and maybe if one wants to analyse the film more deeply it could fall apart like putty in one’s hands.

There are moments when the comedy doesn’t work. Bond using a video camera to zoom in on a woman’s cleavage for comedy is perhaps the most infantile the series has ever gotten and should surely be more than substantial for Bond to be reprimanded for sexual harassment. It’s something that makes one want to detract a score from the movie as it represents something of a regression from the more mature figure of the last film and back to the zero-minded misogynist of Moonraker.

On the other side of things, there is a Cold War atmosphere to some elements of the story here that continues with the previous film’s embrace of political themes. The Russian government, as represented by the constantly reassuring presence of Walter Gotell as General Gogol, was kept to the periphery of the story in the last film, but here has a more overt presence as he must deal with the renegade General Orlov whose dastardly plot to set off a nuke at an American Air Force base in Berlin in an attempt to ensure the Soviet Union is the most supreme nuclear power in the world is perhaps the most legitimately suspenseful villainous plot in the series up to this point.

Sure, Orlov is played by Steven Berkoff who dials everything up to eleven, including his big speech when he details his plan to an assembly of other key Russian generals, but for once Bond isn’t against an antagonist whose motivations are purely fantasy. There is no attempt at wiping out half the world to populate it with a new one under the sea or amongst the stars. It’s all about enhancement of political ideology.

Yet, the other side of the film’s villainous coin is Kamal Khan played with suave menace by Louis Jourdan, whose motivations are greed and involves forging Faberge Eggs, chasing Bond in a big game hunt, threatening him while wining and dining with him (like all Bond villains, why doesn’t he just kill him there and then?), and comes with his own silent henchman, Gobinda, played by Kabir Badi, who is capable of crushing dice with bare hands, all of which harkens back to a more frivolous style of movie.

The film really should be a mess and yet it all comes together well. Hell, it even manages to throw in overt Fleming touches, with Fleming’s short story Octopussy serving as the backstory to the film’s titular character, while another short story, The Property of a Lady (and allegedly the working title for what would have been Timothy Dalton’s third film), serving as the basis for the hugely enjoyable auction scene where Bond drives up the price of the Faberge Egg just to rifle Khan’s feathers.

Octopussy herself is the most fascinating character in the film. Played by Maud Adams, her second role in the series, the film presents a Bond Woman who at times has more in common with being an antagonist and yet who has the potential to be the most feminist character in the series were it not for the fact that this is a Bond film from the 80s and it still conforms to certain narrative stereotypes, mainly being saved by Bond in the final act and having to fall into his arms at the first opportunity.

The idea of an all-female criminal organisation, albeit one that is far from the antagonist stakes of something like SPECTRE, is intriguing, and Adams makes for a wonderfully mysterious presence, her first appearance teased in a manner similar to our first glimpse of Connery in Dr No with her back to the camera, and her voice over the soundtrack, all the while feeding her pet octopus.

Yes, Octopussy is the Bond film where Bond is disguised as a clown, yet it comes during the peak of the film’s most suspenseful moment and arguably brings to a conclusion one of the best sequences in the entire series.

The casting of an actress from an earlier film could play merry hell with continuity, but truthfully the choice works. An elegant, classy presence, she has considerable chemistry with Moore, while the backstory itself hints at this being a Bond with an expansive history which plays into Moore’s maturing years, a welcome recurring element to go with the previous film, although it says a lot about the plates this film is running with that it still is the Bond film where Bond plays around with a camera zooming in on a woman’s cleavage in the workplace.

For the most part, there’s a balancing act going on here that miraculously the film manages to stay on track with. The India scenes are escapist but fun, some humour that doesn’t work aside, but the real genius section of the film is without a doubt the prolonged chase scene that takes up the bulk of the second act when Bond tries to track down Orlov’s bomb to the Air Base.

Bond and trains have frequently gone well together, and this is no exception. Yes, he wears a gorilla suit, and yes, the scene culminates with Roger Moore disguised as a clown, but everyone here is firing on all cylinders. There are genuine stakes, a real sense of threat and for once Bond isn’t getting ahead of the problem without breaking a sweat. Every obstacle is put in his way, from being chased by psychotic knife wielding twins, to prankster teenagers, to an occupied telephone box and a disbelieving crowd who believes he’s part of the circus act, it’s a glorious piece of suspense and on its own merits reason enough to watch the film.

Bond’s confrontation with Orlov is brilliantly done, and even culminates with some pretty full on violence for a PG rated film; one of the Russian soldiers gets a bullet in the head for his troubles and it’s once again a subtle nudge in a tougher direction not only for Moore’s version of 007, but the character overall. We may not have known it, but the series was inching its way towards a tougher style for the end of the decade.

‘All I wanted was a sweet direction for an hour or two’ sings Rita Coolidge for the film’s main theme song, All Time High. It’s perhaps a line that sums up Octopussy best overall. It’s a sweet distraction, it’s escapism, and it’s fun. While it might be a low point for some, it’s honestly frothy escapism of the highest order that never overlooks some of the notions and directions the series hinted at in the last film, but does so in a way that it’s in complete control of.

It was also a huge hit at the time, meaning that whatever happened with Never Say Never Again at the box office, Eon had produced another blockbuster. Stranger yet, it’s the one Bond film that has a strange hold on American pop culture. It has been referenced in The Simpsons (‘Man, I must have seen that movie…twice’ says Homer Simpson) and the lead characters of Seth McFarlane’s Ted enjoy the film while getting high.

It’s one of those movies I never think about highly when I do and yet when I watch it, I find it hard not fall for its weird charm. It was one of the first Bond movies I recall watching, first time through an ITV broadcast on a Saturday night and the other when I rented it on video. I always recall loving the pre-title sequence, another enjoyable piece of fluff and one that has nothing to do with the rest of the film and which just exists as a stand alone adventure to get you in the mood for the rest of the film.

It may not be a literal all-time high for the series, but it really is a sweet distraction…for an hour or two.

Bond, James Bond will return with…Never Say Never Again.

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