James Bond 007: Octopussy (1983)

I’ve really come around on this one. When I first saw Octopussy, I thought it was easily the worst Bond film in the series—excluding Die Another Day, the only Bond film I wish didn’t exist. I thought it was a ludicrous assortment of exotic locales and lame set-pieces, capped off by the horrible climax where Bond disguises himself as a circus clown. While I still believe there are a few fatal missteps in Octopussy—the circus clown climax is arguably the worst moment in any Bond film—the film as a whole is no failure. It’s an affectionate adventure romp bearing a fair amount of resemblance to the Indiana Jones films, even if it begins to show that the Roger Moore Bond film was nearing its expiry date.

Much of Octopussy has to be viewed as a reaction to Never Say Never Again, the unofficial Thunderball remake from Warner Bros. that again starred Sean Connery as James Bond. After the success of For Your Eyes Only, Roger Moore intended to depart the role of Bond, with either James Brolin or Timothy Dalton taking over. However, the producers believed that a Bond film starring the established star would fare better against Never Say Never Again than an introductory film for a new actor, so they extended Moore’s contract.

George MacDonald Fraser wrote an early draft of the screenplay, setting the majority of the action in India and naming a character off the title of one of Ian Fleming’s posthumous short stories. Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson then rewrote his screenplay, fashioning it into an exotic adventure film exploring the latter days of the Cold War—a marked contrast to the extortion plot of Never Say Never Again. The film bears no resemblance to the story of the same name, although it does incorporate some of the events of the story as exposition. In fact, the only elements Octopussy takes from Fleming’s writing beyond the name is the scene auctioning off the Fabergé egg at Sotheby’s, which draws from “The Property of a Lady.”

Octopussy’s plot revolves around rogue Russian General Orlov (Steven Berkoff) who plans to set off a nuclear bomb on an American military base in West Germany. Disguised as an accident, the bomb would hasten nuclear disarmament in Europe, forcing the American bombs out and opening up Europe’s defenses for Russian invasion. Exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) aids Orlov in his plot, using his relationship with the mysterious Octopussy (Maud Adams) and her traveling circus to infiltrate the bomb into West Germany and pass it off as an accident. Bond becomes involved through the efforts of 009, who shows up dead at the British Embassy in East Berlin holding a Fabergé egg. The egg alerts Bond to a jewelry smuggling ring run by Khan and Octopussy, and he travels to India to unearth the rest of Orlov and Khan’s plot.

As evidenced by this description, Octopussy’s plot is much too complicated for its own good. It’s full of double-crosses and actions motivated by hidden backstories and it takes much too long for the purpose of Orlov and Khan’s actions to be revealed. Midway through the film, when Bond is galavanting through India with his colleague Vijay (Vijay Amritraj), the motivations for what was happening onscreen eluded me. That’s when I stopped caring about the plot and started to appreciate its opportunities for spectacle. Despite being unnecessarily convoluted, Octopussy’s plot fuels some excellent action sequences and takes Bond to some places that mine unexplored potential—that it took this long for Bond to go to India is baffling. And, like For Your Eyes Only, the plot exists within the confines of a recognizable reality. It’s heightened reality to be sure, but there are no satellite death rays or underwater cities and even Orlov’s nuclear threat is not to incite nuclear war, but instead to defang the Americans’ nuclear arsenal. The Moore era was still committed to its narrative focus on geopolitics and not on supervillians.

The film even plays as the Moore era’s answer to From Russia with Love, explicitly exploring East-West tensions and the Cold War. Exploring the difference between these two films offers a fascinating vision of the Cold War and the growth of East-West relations. In 1964, the Russians were the villains. There was no ambiguity about the hostility on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Thus, From Russia with Love depicts the Russians as out-and-out villains. However, 20 years later the relations between Russia and the West have warmed considerably.

In the world of the films, much of this is spurred by The Spy Who Loved Me. After teaming James Bond up with a Russian agent, it makes little sense for him to be combatting the Russians one picture later. One of the smartest things the Moore era ever did was extend the appearances of General Gogol (Walter Gotell) after The Spy Who Loved Me. It gives the films a Russian perspective (albeit brief) and shows the gradual growth in East-West relations. In You Only Live Twice, the Americans are convinced the Russians commandeered their space shuttle and threaten nuclear retaliation. Conversely, in Moonraker they phone Gogol to confirm that Drax’s space station isn’t the Russians, and they believe him. In Octopussy, Gogol’s role is no longer even the neutral bystander. He actively works to stop Orlov’s plot, chasing him in East Germany, even if he fails to stop his death by East German guards and suss the rest of the plot out of him. This examination of East-West relations is about as deep as Octopussy gets, as most of its interest lies in its stuntwork and set-pieces.

Octopussy is full of great set-pieces. I’m not sure how I missed it the first time around. The opening pre-credits scene is one of the best of the Moore era, with Bond infiltrating and planting a bomb in a Cuban aircraft hanger and being captured by the Cubans after his moustachioed disguise fails him. It’s a swift sequence, highlight the tonal dexterity of the Moore era, smoothly shifting between comedy to romance to action as Bond infiltrates the base, is captured, and escapes alongside a beautiful ally. The pre-credits scene even offers some structural bookending for the film, as it begins with Bond failing to plant a bomb, and the film ends with Bond rushing to defuse a bomb.

The film hits it peak once it gets to India, which is as good a cinematic locale as an action film could ask for. Crowded streets. Ancient buildings. Snake charmers and sword swallowers and men lying on beds of embers and nails. Octopussy takes every advantage of these action opportunities. Bond’s fight with Khan’s cronies in the crowded streets of Udaipur is a great example of this. Bond shifts from one street performer to another, using each of their objects to deflect or defeat his enemies. In one moment he pulls a sword out of a man’s throat to fend off his attackers. In another he throws a villain onto a yogi’s bed of nails. The scene shares the visceral ingenuity of a vaudeville act, filling a confined space with a bunch of fascinating objects and then having the hero stumble through each one. Roger Moore is a great physical comedian. Even if the series often forced him to become too clownish (they do literally dress him as a clown in this film), scenes like this are where his comedic strength shines.

Octopussy’s action highlight is Khan’s hunt of Bond through the Indian jungle. It’s absurdly spectacular—Khan rides an elephant in his pursuit of Bond, who has to escape snakes and tigers as well as Khan and his men—but also chilling. There’s echoes of The Most Dangerous Game in Khan’s zeal to hunt Bond for sport. The scene is also like something out of an Indiana Jones film, throwing Bond into a situation where he’s in way over his head and having him come out alive through the miraculous intervention of well-meaning strangers. Its similarity to the Indiana Jones films is all the more remarkable considering Octopussy was made one year before Indiana Jones himself went to India in Temple of Doom. (Can we then consider Octopussy one of Temple of Doom’s greatest influences?)

This Indiana Jones feel continues into the final section of the film, where Bond races after and then aboard a train in order to catch and defuse Orlov’s bomb. Raiders of the Lost Ark perfected the action film as one long chase sequence, and Octopussy learns from its approach by stringing together this series of action scenes for the final 30 minutes of the film. It’s too bad then that the sequence climaxes in Roger Moore’s worst moment as James Bond: where he dons a clown suit, complete with white makeup and a drawn-on tear rolling down his cheek, to infiltrate the big top and defuse Orlov’s nuclear bomb. Roger Moore plays Bond at his most debonair, his most charming. It’s a travesty, then, to have him simultaneously inhabit the superspy as a bumbling clown, traipsing around the big top in oversized shoes while children laugh, pathetically trying to convince an oafish American general that there’s a bomb in the stage. You can read the filmmakers’ intention here as tongue-and-cheek, but in execution, it’s nothing short of a trainwreck.

Octopussy has a few other notable missteps, although none as awful as the clown suit. For example, the red jumpsuit costumes of Octopussy’s private guard look like ridiculous rejects from a Star Trek episode. The epilogue where her circus performers retake her palace from Khan’s men highlights just how silly Octopussy’s mystique is. As well, the film makes some unfortunate blunders when it comes to race. The addition of real-world tennis star Vijay Amritraj as Bond’s Indian colleague is a nice gesture towards respecting the South Asian setting, but casting Maud Adams as a woman originally intended to be Indian is an unfortunate retreat into Hollywood tropes. The same goes for the casting of Louis Jourdan as the Afghani Kamal Khan, even if Jourdan is an appropriate mix of charming and devious. Think about how interesting Octopussy would be if it tackled race the way Live and Let Die did, if Octopussy was played by an Indian woman, and the Indian location was more than just an Orientalist playground for Bond?

Octopussy is an example of the filmmakers playing it safe and missing the opportunity to dig deeper into their storyworld. It has to content itself with being a solid adventure film. It has a few notable blunders, no more unforgivable than Bond’s short stint as a clown, but it still brings just enough gusto and cinematic fireworks to compensate for its shortcomings. Octopussy belongs near the bottom of a consideration of Bond films, but it still comes out on top of most other films of its sort.

6 out of 10

Octopussy (1983, UK)

Directed by John Glen; written by George MacDonald Fraser and Richard Maibaum & Michael G. Wilson; starring Roger Moore, Maud Adams, Louis Jourdan, Kristina Wayborn, Kabir Bedi, Steven Berkoff, David Meyer, Anthony Meyer, Desmond Llewelyn, Robert Brown, Lois Maxwell, Walter Gotell, Vijay Amritraj.