Octopussy (1983)

When it’s on: Saturday, 18 August (3.20 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Following the James Bond series on these pages, it’s become clear to me that at heart I’m a 007 fan and, as such, prepared to overlook many of its little foibles. But then I reach Octopussy, which to me is an irredeemable turd of a picture, and it seems the franchise has reached the limits what I can realistically forgive.

As usual, the smashing ‘Making of’ documentary on the DVD offers insights into why this was the case. Back in 1983, the film that would become Octopussy was in a race for public affections against the ‘non canon’ i.e. not produced by Eon, Bond being churned out by Warner Brothers. Worse still, the alternative project had somehow coaxed Sean Connery into the lead role, whilst reintroducing SPECTRE and Blofeld thanks to the script by copyright holder, Kevin McClory. The possibility that Never Say Never Again might gazumph the original series in terms of audience affections appears to have put the frighteners on everyone involved. As a consequence, George MacDonald Fraser’s script was tinkered with to the point of lacking all intelligibility, and to ensure a ‘safe’ entry that ticked the usual boxes, offering spectacle, thrills, laughs and pure entertainment.

This was supposed to be the film that unveiled a new 007 to the world. Roger Moore was understandably ready to hang up his Walther PPK after For Your Eyes Only, leaving the producers to suggest the likes of Timothy Dalton and Michael Billington for the role. The ‘Making of’ even includes a screen test of James Brolin, playing against Maud Adams and actually coming across as more than a credible option. In the end, Moore was persuaded back by a production desperate not to upset its box office chances with a new face. Moore’s far from the worst thing in Octopussy. Moments in the plot give him the opportunity to show a tougher streak than we’re used to seeing, though there’s no getting away from the actor’s advancing years and the complete bypass of credulity at seeing him in bed with the much younger Kristina Wayborn, making lewd comments to Michaela Clavell or using an expensive Q gadget to focus on a woman’s cleavage. Nothing wrong with that, right?

But that’s the main problem with the film – mere moments, tantalising glimpses at the film that might have been. The best is Steven Berkoff’s over the top rogue Soviet general who’s prepared to stage a nuclear strike to spark off a Third World War, his raving speech during a meeting of the High Command suggesting a yarn in which Bond’s playing for the highest stakes imaginable. The tension should almost take care of itself, yet due to the production fulfilling a desire to be set largely in India, the Cold War angle quickly gets lost amidst the elephants, sheep’s brain main courses and Octopussy’s harem of women, which serves no purpose other than to shoehorn as much scantily clad flesh into the film as possible.

Everything is played strictly safe. A jaw droppingly awful chase scene through the Indian jungle becomes an excuse to inject some terrible comedic stunts, such as Bond telling a tiger to ‘Sit!’ (it does), ordering an encroaching snake to ‘Hiss off!’ and making his escape by swinging across tree vines, drawing inexplicable attention to himself by bellowing the Tarzan cry. The film scores a coup by casting tennis pro, Vijay Amritraj, as ‘our man in India’, but then throws in a ridiculous stunt involving a tennis racquet during a car chase through the crowded streets.

If there was a word I’d use to sum up Octopussy, it would be ‘tired.’ The whole affair looks exhausted, utterly spent of any sense of originality and spark as it goes through the motions. Louis Jourdan’s villain plays backgammon with loaded dice and loads nuance into every time he says ‘Octopussy.’ The overall impression is that Jourdan takes none of it seriously, and that’s fine, but when Bond later bollocks Berkoff for his nutty scheme the two worlds within the film collide.

None of it really mattered in the end. Octopussy did well at the box office, eclipsing Never Say Never Again by more than a $30 million margin and giving the ‘official’ franchise the seal of approval it so nakedly sought. But it’s worth remembering that  Eon’s desire to edge out the competition was the entire motivation behind the film, not such noble sentiments as bringing the character ‘back to basics’ that underpinned For Your Eyes Only. In America, both films made up the numbers as 1983 belonged commercially to Return of the Jedi, whilst Terms of Endearment (a film that seems to say ‘Look, real tears! Can I have my award now?’) received the critical nod. Bond’s position at the top of the tree was over, a sorry dip in interest following the highs of the 1960s.

Octopussy: *

P.S. Yet another apology for the site’s sleep over the last few days – more Birthday celebrations, last week at work, getting a new computer up to speed, etc. Back to normal service on Tuesday!

3 Replies to “Octopussy (1983)”

  1. Funny, Mike… I’ve never really been that conflicted towards Octopussy! It sort of reminds me of Indy And The Temple Of Doom (which was, not coincidentally, released the following year) in that the plot’s all over the place and there are some really tasteless sequences.

    I’d add that, with Octopussy, Sir Roger is of course showing his age, and Gobinda is an Oddjob rip-off.

    And yet… and yet… for me, the film somehow works. Louis Jourdan is a fine villain (I like Steven Berkoff as an actor, but he’s a little too over the top) and I would put the train chase and race to stop the bomb going off among one of the best Bond set-pieces of all time. (Pity about all the silliness, but hey.)

    1. Thanks Simon, and I agree about them being damn fine set pieces, but would also argue that Bond films are routinely stuffed with these and you need more. The ‘Making of’ doc shows all the trickery involved in putting those stunt scenes together – really clever, from the plane flying sideways through the hangar actually being mounted on a car to the train scene taking place in a studio with the tracks painted on a roller to make it look as though its speeding along.

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