An ageing Moore returns for John Glen’s most indecisive Bond entry
Roger Moore will always be emblematic of Bond’s campier instalments, but his tenure wasn’t as straightforward as some would have us believe. In fact, his three instalments under the direction of John Glen were a mixed bag, giving us a somewhat contradictory dose of sombre action mixed with flights of unabashed fancy. Of his record-equalling seven movies, Octopussy is perhaps the most indicative of such a tonal imbalance. When director John Glen first took the reins in 1981, he gave us the sober antithesis to 1979‘s rushed-into-production, Star Wars cash-in Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only allowing Moore the hard edge audiences had been longing for since Sean Connery’s first departure from the role back in 1971. Moore was originally contracted to three movies before the wildly extravagant and often cavalier Moonraker tempted him back into the fold with the promise of a huge payday. Two years later, Glen once again enticed Moore, convinced that his debut would suffer without the steady hand of an actor who had come to define the role in the eyes of a generation.
By that point, Roger was already 53 years old, and the evergreen actor was finally beginning to look his age. Glen was aware of this, smartly cooling Bond’s libido by introducing the young and persistent Bibi Dahl and having him shun her advances with the warm condescension of a knowing father. For Your Eyes Only also introduced a love interest closer to the actor’s age in Cassandra Harris’ ill-fated acquaintance Lisl. The delectable Carole Bouquet was the movie’s main Bond girl, and the film would end with she and Roger taking part in the perquisite, pre-credits bout of canoodling, but for the most part he kept her at arms length, adopting a mature and respectful stance similar to that reserved for Bibi — albeit in a far less patronising manner.
Four years later, this was all but forgotten for Glen’s third and final Moore-led instalment, A View to a Kill treating us to the rather icky sight of a 57-year-old Roger canoodling with avant-garde alpha female Grace Jones, one that proved the death Knell for Roger’s tenure as the philandering 007. In Octopussy, James uses an MI6 device to zoom in on the breasts of a young female employee. He also canoodles with two different kinds of women, openly cavorting with both Kristina Wayborn’s deliciously nubile Magda and the more mature and independent Octopussy (Maud Adams), a jewel smuggler who has history with Bond and as a result empathy — though in reality she was still 20 years his junior. This time, there’s no nod to Roger’s increasing age, and it hurts both the actor and the character. Everywhere you look young beauties are fluttering their eyes at a man well into his 50s: bikini-clad babes, Moneypenny’s new assistant, even the hotel maid, who’s willing to whore herself out if he so desires. “Maybe later,” Bond suggests. They really pile on the sleaze at times, and it leaves Moore looking like a bit of a fraud. Personally, I’m glad the actor returned for two more entries, but moments like this only serve to strengthen the notion that For Your Eyes Only would have proven the perfect swansong.
Several actors were considered for Octopussy as Moore contemplated finally walking away from the role of 007. In 1981, star of British Starsky and Hutch clone The Professional, Lewis Collins, was considered but turned down for being just a little too aggressive for the suave and sophisticated Bond of the era. The following year, Return of the Saint‘s Ian Ogilvy was touted as Moore’s successor having already succeeded him as Simon Templer. Josh Brolin’s father, James Brolin, who was on the brink of buying property in London specifically for the role came closest of all, but relinquishing the Walther PPK proved rather difficult for Roger, who probably realised that playing Bond for the best part of a decade would reduce opportunities for roles elsewhere at his age; at least roles that would possess anywhere near the magnitude of 007.
As much as he fit the bill as Bond for a generation, Roger didn’t have the broad appeal of someone like Sean Connery outside of his most famous role. Ironically, Octopussy was released a few months prior to Warner Brothers Bond production Never Say Never Again, a movie which would star a returning Connery, pitting the ageing actors against one another in the commercial arena. This was a mouth-watering prospect for fans of the franchise, particularly those who had been raised on Connery and had resented Moore’s comparatively wimpish demeanour from the outset. Though many had cried out for a younger successor, Connery, though preceding Moore chronologically as Ian Fleming’s perennial super spy, was younger than Moore by almost three years, which made him just as, if not more suitable for a role he had been considered too old for more than a decade earlier. If nothing else, the actor’s unofficial return was a chance for a generation to relive their youth, but at 51, Connery was still well past his action-packed prime.
Vijay: Is he still there?
Q: You must be joking! 007 on an island populated exclusively by women? We won’t see him till dawn!
Not that it mattered to Connery loyalists. While the marginally older Moore was panned by critics for his advancing years, his predecessor’s return was mostly pegged as a triumph. Leading his review with, “A Hero’s Return”, Ian Christie of the Daily Express would write, “Connery has lost none of his charm and, if anything, is more appealing than ever as the stylish, resolute hero.” A similarly exhilarated David Robinson of The Times would write, “[Connery] is back, looking hardly a day older or thicker, and still outclassing every other exponent of the role, in the goodnatured throwaway with which he parries all the sex and violence on the way”. Even The Guardian’s Derek Malcolm, though admitting there was very little between Never Say Never Again and Octopussy in terms of quality, stuck the shoe in by claiming that Connery was still, “the best Bond in the business”. Others were less eager to glorify Connery’s belated return, The Observer’s Phillip French comparing the film to “an hour glass of damp sand.” Ultimately, the non-Eon production would lose out to Moore’s sixth instalment at the box office, but only marginally, Octopussy pipping Never Say Never Again by $187,000,000 to $160,000,000 worldwide.
Never Say Never Again, lacking John Barry’s iconic theme, did pretty well for itself all things considered, and though fans were somewhat split on what to make of Connery’s return, the movie has garnered quite the cult following in recent years. Similarly, many felt that Octopussy was something of a tired entry in the Bond Canon, but the movie is not without its charms, and in the end there’s a little something for everyone. In some ways, this too is indicative of the movie’s muddled tone. After an astonishingly assured and assertive diversion into serious espionage territory in For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy seems to stumble somewhat, embracing the sillier side of Moore while continuing along a path that would culminate in ice-cold successor Timothy Dalton‘s brief yet superlative rein — another reason why the omission of Brolin, who delivered a rather impressive screen test as 007, was a sound decision in the long-run.
For those who cherish Glen’s less grandiose tendencies, Octopussy may seem like a step backwards tonally, but for those who prefer just a little more humour when it comes to Bond, it may seem like something of a return to form. Unlike For Your Eyes Only, the film does stop short of the elaborate and ultimately fruitless schemes and death devices later lampooned by all and sundry, but there’s plenty of silliness to go around, some of it welcome, some of it not so much. In fact, Octopussy may very well be the peak of Roger’s much maligned formula of quips and double entendres, but the action genre would rely heavily on cheap puns as the 80s progressed, so in some ways Moore’s ironic take proved rather influential. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle when it comes to Bond. Too much silliness detracts from the persona of the deadliest spy in the business, but when you consider that pretty much every character knows him by name, too much seriousness can have a similarly negative effect. Octopussy sometimes struggles with that recipe. At times it felt like I was being pulled in two directions, each side yanking with equally resolute indecision, but by the end I had somehow succumbed to both forces, and it makes for quite the experience.
Octopussy begins with the usual pre-credits prologue, one tinged with shades of silliness that will blossom into unabashed rumpus by the movie’s often ludicrous second act. Typically, it’s also rather memorable, the spectacular image of the world’s lightest single-engine jet aircraft tearing through an enemy hanger and escaping the other side pure, fist-pumping exhilaration. So skin-of-the-teeth is that particular stunt that it makes Harrison Ford’s hat grab seem like child’s play, and that isn’t the only Indiana Jones comparison to be made. In fact, a sequence in which Bond is chased through an Indian marketplace by the movie’s stereotypical henchman and his dastardly rabble takes more than a little influence from Spielberg’s hugely popular Raiders of the Lost Ark ― ironic since Indiana Jones was actually conceived as James Bond without the gadgets.
Those scenes in India can be Bond at its gaudiest. It doesn’t take half as many liberties as something like Moonraker, but at times the sword-swallowing, coal-hopping chaos is like a flesh version of Disney’s Aladdin, with a rather offensive scene that sees Bond turn his nose up at a plate-full of sheep’s head. It’s not like Bond was worse than anything else at the time in this regard. 80s adventure movies thrived on heavy-handed racial stereotyping, the kind Indy sequel The Temple of Doom would receive widespread criticism for just a year later. Compared with the likes of Temple of Doom, Octopussy is positively conservative.
This being India, Bond also battles leeches, tarantulas, a tiger, and even dresses up as an alligator in the kind of covert plot that anyone with half a brain could spot from a mile away (good job we’re dealing with Indian savages, eh?). We’re even treated to the sight of an ageing Bond swinging through the jungle while performing his best Tarzan impression. For a director who’s mostly remembered for diluting the nonsense and updating the Bond formula, this scene proves uncharacteristically doltish, and is almost entirely responsible for Octopussy‘s poor reputation in the Bond canon.
There is an explanation for this. The jungle scene was actually a throwaway from 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, a movie also renown for moments of astonishing silliness. Producer Harry Saltzman had originally planned to include the scene in Roger’s second outing but was unable to after discovering that elephants would require special shoes in order for them to safely pull it off. Months later those shoes arrived, and Eon decided to recycle the proposed scene for use in Octopussy. To say it proved an ill-fit is a huge understatement. Remove that scene and you’re left with a movie that’s much closer to its predecessor. Another reason was a simple case of giving the people what they wanted. Glen originally decided to axe Moore’s “Fill ‘er up” quip at the end of the opening scene but reneged following a positive response from an audience treated to a trailer for the movie that featured the line. Here, Glen went against his best instincts, something that likely had an influence on the rest of the production.
Take the movie’s plot. This one is characteristically low-key, coming at a time when Cold War tensions were at their peak. This time, Bond is tasked with unravelling an international jewel-smuggling operation being used as cover for a planned nuclear attack on N.A.T.O. The lunatic behind the attack is the deliciously deranged Genral Orlov, a Soviet rebel disliked by his own comrades for his seeming insistence on destroying mankind. Orlov is a megalomaniac in a subdued environment — yet another tonal contradiction that’s indicative of the whole movie. To be fair, it kind of works, but since we’re dealing with two antagonists vying for top spot, neither leaves enough of an impression to qualify them for most memorable Bond villain. Beverly Hills Cop‘s Steven Berkoff, who was born to play the role, is still a joy to behold, but he doesn’t receive anywhere near enough screen time to fulfil his unlimited potential.
The film’s other main antagonist comes in the form of Louis Jourdan’s Kamal Khan, an exiled Afghan prince who oozes smarm. Khan is given more of a platform, fitting Glenn’s less extravagant formula, but he’s certainly more forgettable. He takes part in some classic moments, mainly losing out to Bond’s superior savvy, but he never really feels like much of a threat. In a priceless scene that highlights Moore’s effortless cool, Bond drives up the auction price of a Fabergé egg found in the possession of a murdered 009. Bond, who is looking to get to the bottom of 009’s assassination, knows that Khan must buy the egg whatever the price. Not only that, he swiftly switches the item for a forgery. Not only will such a manoeuvre provide a way out if he accidentally buys the egg, it means the bad guys will have to come to him. Later, he uses the forgery as capital in a card game with Khan that he inevitably wins. French actor Jourdan does an admirable job as Khan, but if Bond films are only as good as their villains, Octopussy is somewhat middling.
More memorable are the movie’s henchmen. Since we’re dealing with bad guys from different nations, there is more than one henchman to deal with too, which means once again there are characters vying for screen time, but since they are essentially bit-part players it’s not quite as prominent. Again, the two are at opposite ends of the spectrum. On the Indian side we have a turban-sporting, super henchman reminiscent of earlier Moore entries, a larger-than-life character who can crush dice with his bare hands. On the other side we have a pair of knife-throwing circus twins. That may sound like a recipe for further gaudiness but it proves quite the opposite. Their first appearance sees them pursuing an ill-fated 009 through the wilderness wielding their objects of destruction, resulting in one of a few darker moments that foreshadow 1989’s Licence to Kill, the first Bond movie to be hindered by a 15 rating. Of all the scenes in Octopussy, this is the one that most stuck with me as a kid. There was something wholly disconcerting about a clown being pursued by a pair of stone-faced identicals intent on assassination — particularly the sight of the wounded clown’s body floating motionlessly downstream. The fact that the movie’s henchmen are more memorable than the main villain is indicative of a production that sometimes feels bloated and ill-defined.
Though Octopussy can be something of a horse’s ass at times (and I mean that quite literally), there are several moments of stark brutality that build on Locque’s cliff-kicking in For Your Eyes Only. Among the petting zoo madness and moonlit battles with spandex-clad assassins who look like they belong in an Austin Powers movie, we’re treated to such macabre images as a man impaled by a bed of nails, a ruthless fire attack and a pair of corpses hanging from hooks in a palace freezer. In one of the movie’s most animated scenes, a man is brutally murdered with an implement that wouldn’t look out of place in a slasher movie — a circular saw yo-yo that proves as kitsch as it is devastating. Q’s selection of gadgets are also a mixed bag, from a simple homing device and liquid crystal TV to a gaudy, remote-controlled snake charmer’s rope that behaves rather limply. How on earth would such a device be of use on the move is anyone’s guess, though its true purpose is to set-up one of Roger’s most infamous lines, the kind that you either love or loathe. In this instance it’s rather welcome.
James Bond: [Q’s mechanized version of the “Indian Rope Trick” malfunctions] Having problems keeping it up, Q?
Q: Experimental model!
Asides from our opening, pre-credits sequence and an enjoyable airborne plane battle, Octopussy is pretty low-key in terms of stunts — ironic when you consider that two of the movie’s participants were injured rather badly during production. The first of those was the actor who attempts to assassinate Bond and Octopussy with the yo-yo saw. The man wasn’t in a particularly precarious position. He simply broke his arm after tumbling over a balcony and was forced to wear a cast while completing the scene. The second was far more serious, stuntman Martin Grace injuring his leg and hip during Octopussy‘s superlative train battle after crashing into a pylon, an accident which hospitalised him for several months. And you still resent Roger for dodging his stunt work?
Octopussy isn’t exactly one for grandiose statements. The movie builds rather shrewdly, remaining pretty low-key for large stretches, but the moment a pursuing Bond skids onto the train tracks on blown-out tires, it really ups its game. Octopussy is at its best during the all-important final act (or, since we’re dealing with dual villains, two final acts). First we’re treated to a beautifully prolonged action sequence, one of my absolute favourites in the entire Bond canon. 007 embarks on a train-bound ‘Game of Death’, stealthing his way from carriage to carriage before deactivating a nuclear warhead at a potentially ill-fated circus. The whole sequence is so exquisitely measured, taking a notable step towards late-80s action territory. Amid so much implausibility, it reminds you that 007 is actually a spy on a deadly mission of paramount importance and not just a suave philanderer with a pocket full of innuendos.
The movie’s final action scene, which sees Bond and Octopussy heading back to India, is much more fanciful, but it’s still lots of fun, particularly the priceless moment when a machine gun wielding Bond, sliding along a bannister with a potentially sore end, stops to shoot off a precariously positioned nub directly in line with his nether regions. Some probably cringed watching this, but for me it’s the kind of comedy moment that Bond was made for, and perhaps a cute nod to the irrepressible libido that had been the source of so much criticism for Moore. There’s also the moment when Roger disguises himself as a sad clown during the circus bomb disposal, another widely reviled moment in the series, but as far as I’m concerned it’s self-aware irony at its finest.
When it comes to Bond girls, Octopussy is also considered somewhat underwhelming. Maud Adams, in particular, was criticised for her turn as Octopussy — though many were disappointed simply because this was her second appearance in the series as a totally different character (the actress also played Andrea Anders in The Man With the Golden Gun). For me, she’s glamorous and independent enough to fit the bill, even if she doesn’t rank with the most memorable. The same can be said of Wayborn’s surreptitious Madga, a scene in which she swiftly exits Bond’s boudoir via a Rapunzel-esque unravelling simply spellbinding — even more so since she actually performed the stunt herself. Octopussy also features one of the most underrated Bond themes in the series; one of only a few that doesn’t share the movie’s title in Rita Coolidge’s All Time High. I know it gets a lot of flack for being weak in many quarters, but for me it’s classic Bond.
So what about Roger? Has he really outstayed his welcome by 1983? To be honest, he is creaking a little, but not quite as much as he was two years later for A View to a Kill, which, like Octopussy before it, is unfairly maligned by many. Yes, he’s looking his age and yes the Bond formula was evolving into territory that had little use for the pre-Glen camp that would dominate affairs for a period, but after a decade in the tuxedo and other, rather more baffling attire, Moore has fine-tuned his version of 007 to the point where it all seems just a little effortless, and not in a bad way.