An ageing Moore returns for John Glen’s most indecisive Bond entry
Roger Moore will always be emblematic of Bond’s more flamboyant entries, 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 something a mixed bag, giving us a somewhat contradictory dose of sombre action and flights of unabashed fancy. Of his record-equalling seven movies, Octopussy is perhaps the most indicative of such a tonal imbalance. When 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 kind of hard edge many fans 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 a star who had come to define the role in the eyes of a generation.
By that point, Roger was already 53 years old, the evergreen actor 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, perhaps under the assumption that For Your Eyes would indeed be Roger’s final fling with cinema’s most famous philanderer. For Your Eyes Only also introduced a love interest closer to the actor’s age in Cassandra Harris’ ill-fated acquaintance Lisl, another indicator that Bond was looking to cool his engines prior to the character’s next transition. The delectable Carole Bouquet was the movie’s main Bond girl, the film ending 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, a pairing that proved the death Knell for Roger’s tenure as the womanising 007. This was before CGI was around to lighten the burden, and though Stallone would soldier on as an action star way into his 70s, the musclebound profile didn’t exactly fit Bond’s particular brand of suave, and let’s face it, Jones wasn’t your average woman. Though their silken clinch was mercifully brief and left to the imagination, her stallion physique completely outmatched Moore’s waning youth. Other than that, the actor’s lustful tendencies were relatively muted, Tanya Roberts’ blonde bombshell Stacey Sutton treated with a respect rarely glimpsed during Bond’s early years.
In Octopussy, James is back to his old tricks. There’s no age discrimination on Bond’s part either. Whether using an MI6 device to zoom in on the breasts of a young female employee or flirting with pretty hotel maids, he often drools through affairs like a pensioner who’s momentarily taken leave of his senses. Even Moneypenny’s young assistant gets the grooming treatment, much to the chagrin of his oldest admirer, who really should be giving him a semi-serious slap across the face by this point in their relationship. In terms of Bond girls, James has his pick of two beauties, 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. Unlike For Your Eyes Only, there’s no nod to Roger’s increasing age this time around, a creative decision that hurts both the actor and the character. Everywhere you look young beauties are fluttering their eyes at a man who’s old enough to be their father. The screenplay really piles on the sleaze at times, leaving Moore looking like a bit of a fraud. Personally, I’m glad the actor returned for two more entries, but moments like these only serve to strengthen the notion that For Your Eyes Only would have proven the actor’s perfect swansong.
It’s not like producers hadn’t tried to replace Moore, but finding the right personality for Bond’s particular profile is always a risk given the fandom the franchise generates and the huge commercial stakes. Several actors were considered for Octopussy as Moore contemplated finally walking away from the role. In 1981, star of British Starsky and Hutch clone The Professional, Lewis Collins, was considered but was turned down for being just a little too aggressive for Moore’s suave and sophisticated brand of Bond, a style that producers were looking to emulate to some extent. 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 elsewhere, particularly for an actor his age. The odds of him landing a role that would possess anywhere near the magnitude of 007 were slim-to-none.
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 that starred a returning Connery, unthinkably pitting the character’s two most famous portrayers against one another in the commercial arena. This was a mouthwatering 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’d 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 well past his action-packed prime. The sense that new blood was needed had never been stronger.
You must be joking! 007 on an island populated exclusively by women? We won’t see him till dawn!Q
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, and despite the film typically ranking as one of the weakest entries in the history of the franchise, it’s not without its charms. 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, but embrace it for what it is and there’s a little something for everyone.
For those who cherish Glen’s less grandiose tendencies, Octopussy may seem like a step backwards tonally, but for those who prefer their Bond with a little more humour, 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 cute quips and crude 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 the preposterous notion that pretty much every character knows that spy 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 camp 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 by the skin of its proverbial teeth pure, fist-pumping exhilaration. So excruciatingly close is that particular stunt that it makes Harrison Ford’s trademark hat-grab seem like pure child’s play, and that isn’t the only Indiana Jones comparison to be made here. 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 film’s sword-swallowing, coal-hopping chaos is like a flesh version of Disney’s Aladdin, a colourful banquet of cultural stereotypes fulfilling their humorous, death-defying duties with cartoon superficiality. It even features a rather offensive scene that sees Bond turn his nose up at a plate-full of sheep’s head, painting Indian natives as barbaric philistines who are barely worthy of our derision. It’s not like Bond was worse than anything else at the time. 80s adventure movies thrived on heavy-handed racial stereotyping, the kind that Indy sequel The Temple of Doom would receive widespread criticism for just a year later. Compared with the likes of The Temple of Doom, Octopussy is positively conservative in those terms.
This being India, Bond also battles leeches, tarantulas and a tiger, even dressing up as an alligator in the kind of covert manoeuvre 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, the kind of frivolous flourish that turned millions of Bond fans cold towards Moore. For a director who’s mostly remembered for diluting the nonsense and updating the Bond formula, this scene proves uncharacteristically doltish. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that this single moment is almost entirely responsible for Octopussy‘s poor reputation in some quarters.
There is an explanation for Glen’s incongruous inserts, the reason why Octopussy is something of a hop, skip and a jump tonally. 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, Eon deciding 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. Audience expectation also played a part. Though many resented Moore’s antics, just as many had grown accustomed to them, some of the humour 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 Kamal Khan, an exiled Afghan prince who oozes smarm. Khan is given more of a platform, Louis Jourdan’s subdued but memorable turn fitting Glenn’s less extravagant formula, but again there’s something lacking. 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 Bond 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’s more than one henchman to deal with too, which means once again there are characters vying for screen time on both sides of the tonal coin, but since they’re 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.
[Q’s mechanized version of the “Indian Rope Trick” malfunctions] Having problems keeping it up, Q?James Bond
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 some 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 — perhaps a cute and welcome nod to the irrepressible libido that had been the source of so much criticism for Moore. There’s also the scene when Roger disguises himself as a sad clown during the circus bomb disposal, another widely reviled moment in the series, but I respectfully disagree. As far as I’m concerned this is 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.