An ageing Moore returns for John Glen’s most indecisive Bond entry
For many, 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 sobering antithesis of 1979‘s rushed-into-production, Star Wars cash-in Moonraker with straight-up spy thriller For Your Eyes Only, a movie which allowed Moore the hard edge audiences had been longing for since Sean Connery’s first departure from the role back in 1971. Moore was only 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, and the movie made the smart decision of 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. Sure, 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 similarly mature and respectful stance to that he had previously 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 is no nod to Roger’s increasing age and it hurts both the actor and the character. Personally, I’m glad Moore 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 — also 53 at the time — pitting the ageing actors against one another in the commercial arena. 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.
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!
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 gained 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 free from youthful frolicking 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 The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, Octopussy may seem like a step backwards tonally, a temporary setback if you will, while for those who prefer just a little more humour when it comes to Bond, it may seem like something of a return to form. Personally, I was somewhere in the middle. At times it felt like I was being pulled in two directions, each side yanking with equally resolute indecision. It was somewhat jarring, 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 is also rather memorable, the spectacular image of the world’s lightest single-engine jet aircraft tearing through a 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 Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ironically, there is also a rather offensive scene that sees Bond treated to a plate full of sheep’s head — the kind of racial stereotyping that Indy sequel The Temple of Doom would receive widespread criticism for less than a year later.
This being India, Bond also battles leeches, tarantulas, a tiger and even dresses up as an alligator in the kind of covert ploy that anyone with half a brain could spot from a mile away. This is Bond, and stereotypes are a given — go back far enough and there’s a reason for everyone to be offended — but contrary to Glen’s debut two years prior, Octopussy reverts back to the sillier days of yore. We are even treated to the sight of an ageing Bond swinging through the jungle while performing his best Tarzan impression. A director who is mostly remembered for diluting the nonsense and updating the Bond formula, this scene proves uncharacteristically doltish. There is an explanation for this. Apparently, the elephant hunt scene that incorporates much of this was 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 that 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 that it proved an ill-fit is a huge understatement. Remove that scene and you are left with a movie that is much closer to its predecessor. Another reason was a simple case of giving the people what they want. For example, 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, a conflict that likely effected him at other times during production.
Take the movie’s plot for example. 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 that is being used as cover for a planned nuclear attack on N.A.T.O. The leader of that attack is the deliciously deranged Genral Orlov, a Soviet rebel disliked by his own comrades for his seeming insistence on destroying the whole of mankind. He is one part megalomania, one part subdued — yet another tonal contradiction that is indicative of the whole movie. Orlov is one of two main villains vying for the top spot, and as a result neither leaves enough of an impression. Beverly Hills Cop‘s Steven Berkoff does as much as he can with his limited screen time but it doesn’t prove enough to qualify him as one of the most memorable villains in the series. The second main antagonist comes in the form of Louis Jourdan’s Kamal Khan, an exiled Afghan prince who oozes smarm. Again, the character failed to make enough of an impression on me. Whether this is a case of personal taste I’ll leave for you to decide.
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, which means once again there are characters vying for screen time, though since they are essentially bit-part players it’s not as prominent. Again, the two are at opposite ends on the spectrum. On the Indian side we have the turban-sporting super henchman more reminiscent of earlier Moore entries, a larger-than-life character who can crush dice into dust 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 the first of many distinctly dark 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 witnessing 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 its main villains is indicative of a production that sometimes feels bloated and ill-defined.
Despite the fact that 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. Amongst the petting zoo madness and moonlit battles with spandex-clad assassins who look like they belong in an Austin Powers movie, we are 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 is 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. Though Roger’s usual repertoire of eyebrow-raising and lewd innuendo is kept to a minimum for the most part, the latter of these inventions leads to one of Roger’s most infamous lines, the kind that you either love or loathe. For me, it’s a case of everything in moderation, and with Octopussy they don’t bombard us as they have in the past. In fact, in this instance it was 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 the opening pre-credits sequence and a still relatively brief and underwhelming airborne plane battle during the movie’s finale, Octopussy is also comparatively 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, who 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? On the subject of the train scene, it is Glen at his finest, an action sequence that is both believable and spectacular, with the kind of tension that qualifies it as arguably the movie’s highlight. Sometimes its as if you’re watching two different movies. When we’re in India, it’s colourful and gaudy and just a little silly and haphazard. Whenever the commies are involved, it becomes the complete opposite: subdued and controlled and more in the Glen mode.
As contradictory as Octopussy sometimes is, I actually like the movie a great deal. I’m a fan of both Moore’s sillier side and the hard-edged character he is capable of playing when the material demands. The movie features glamorous locations and villains of both the extravagant and low-key variety. It has some tense action sequences more in tune with For Your Eyes Only, but also the kind of stereotypical madness found in the likes of Moonraker. It 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. Similarly, Maud Adams was criticised for her turn as Octopussy — though many were disappointed simply because this was her second appearance as a totally different character. For me, she is glamorous and independent enough to fit the bill. 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. Also, the sight of Bond disguised as a sad clown during the movie’s time bomb crescendo is priceless. Moore’s tenure carries a cheap pun stigma, but this particular juxtapose is self-aware irony at its finest.
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.