Musings on Bond at 50: Octopussy

Posted: 16 September 2012 in entertainment, film
Tags: , , , ,

OctopussyWhilst not an all time high thirteen is not an unlucky number for Octopussy despite the spectre of the original James Bond looming over proceedings.

As Octopussy entered pre-production in late 1981 Roger Moore was undecided in the extreme about signing on for his sixth outing as James Bond. His reticence was not simply a negotiating tactic for a higher fee. Aged 54 he increasingly felt that he was no longer the right man for the job and was increasingly frustrated by the limited acting opportunities afforded by the part.

Faced with Moore’s reluctance to commit to the thirteenth entry in the series Cubby Broccoli gave serious consideration to casting American actor James Brolin as a replacement. Brolin even carried out three screen tests for the role, including the now-traditional From Russia With Love Bond/Tatiana seduction scene. There are not enough words in the English language to describe how unsuitable Brolin is for the mantle of 007. One can only presume Brolin’s involvement in the Octopussy project was a surreal negotiating tactic on the part of the producers. For the brave, foolhardy, drunk and/or plain masochistic the awfulness of the screen tests can be viewed on the Ultimate Edition DVD of Octopussy.

Octopussy - James BrolinUltimately United Artists and Broccoli lured Moore back into the fold with a $4 million paycheck and a percentage of the profits. Their desire to have an established 007 aboard was due in no small part to the announcement that Sean Connery would be returning to the role of James Bond in a rival production due for release at the same time as Octopussy in the summer of 1983.

Script copyright in the Thunderball film project material had reverted to Kevin McClory in 1975 and ever since the Irish filmmaker had been attempting to get a non-EON Bond franchise off the ground. With the involvement of Sean Connery as a script advisor and thriller writer Len Deighton penning the script, filming on James Bond of the Secret Service, later known as Warhead, had been due to begin in February 1977 with locations including New York and the Bahamas. Initially back by Paramount the production had stalled due to legal intervention from Broccoli that sought to clarify exactly what McClory held the rights to. At that point Connery walked away from the project as he had no wish to become involved in protracted court wrangling. The rights to what McClory was permitted in the new production were finally agreed upon in the early 1980s and to the astonishment of the film industry Sean Connery signed onto Never Say Never Again (a title coined by Micheline Connery from her husband’s frequent statements that he would never play 007 again).

Whilst tension bubbled between the Broccoli and McClory camps about the potential head-to-head cinematic confrontation no animosity prevailed between the leading actors as Sean Connery and Roger Moore were old friends and had been since the 1960s.

Octopussy - Bond and OctopussyMcClory’s continuing legal claims to the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and the SPECTRE organisation scuppered Broccoli’s early plans for the plot of Octopussy. The eponymous character was originally conceived as a villain using research into the death of Tracy Bond to manipulate Bond into joining her vendetta against SPECTRE. In place of that concept came a story that mentioned Ian Fleming’s short story Octopussy only in passing and cribbed the scene where Bond inflates the auction price of a Faberge egg from another short story The Property of a Lady. After initial work by George MacDonald Fraser (famous for his work on the action comedies The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers starring one time potential 007 Oliver Reed), the final script was delivered by Richard Maibum and Michael G Wilson.

The backdrop of Udaipur and its environs served as some of the most exotic locales in the entire Bond series with the Lake Palace Hotel in the centre of Lake Pichola and the spectacular Monsoon Palace being utilised as Octopussy’s palace and the lair of Kamal Khan respectively. Known as “city of lakes” the location also proved to be one of the most challenging ever with extreme humidity that frequently put temperatures between 48-65 Celsius. Roger Moore required a new tuxedo shirt and jacket between most takes due to having sweated through the previous ones.

Like many aspects of the Bond universe the India of Octopussy seems to have forgotten that the British Empire no longer exists. The club, characters and attitudes that host the backgammon clash between Bond and primary villain Kamal Khan sit more easily in the British Raj of the 1880s as opposed to the independent India of the 1980s.

A pall was cast over the Indian filming when news was received that stunt co-ordinator Martin Grace had suffered a horrendous injury while doubling for Roger Moore in sequences being filmed atop a train on the Nene Valley Railway. A miscommunication had caused the train to enter a stretch of track that had not been surveyed and Grace’s left leg was severely fractured upon hitting a concrete post. Only Grace’s exceptional reflexes and strength enabled him to cling on until the train had halted. If the stuntman had fallen it is odds on that he would have been killed. Upon returning to England Roger Moore was a frequent visitor to his friend’s hospital room and as a result Grace became very popular with the nurses as they paid frequent visits in order to meet the Bond actor.

Octopussy - AcrostarThe Utah desert doubled for India for Jake Lombard and B J Worth enacting aerial stunt work atop a twin propellor aeroplane for the terminal confrontation between 007 and Gobinda (the latest in a long line of Oddjob impersonators). Also conducted in American skies was the majority of the pre-credit footage featuring the Acrostar mini-jet being chased down by a ground-to-air missile. For the scene where the mini-jet flies through the hanger it was attached to an old Jaguar car by a steel pole with the roof removed and driving along. The second unit was even able to film footage of Roger Moore in the rigged mini-jet.

Maud Adams holds a unique place in the annals of the Bond franchise as she is the only actress to appear as a leading lady in two separate 007 outings. In Octopussy she provides Roger Moore with his best leading lady from his seven films. Cubby Broccoli was initially reluctant to cast Adams again given her role in The Man with the Golden Gun but relented as he considered her to be the best choice for the role, sharing excellent relationship with Moore.

Adams frequently experienced difficulty in saying the name Octopussy with a straight face and in common with others working on the film considered the naming of her character to be rather ridiculous and taking a joke too far. Possibly with his tongue placed firmly in his cheek, Roger Moore took great delight in imparting the title of the new film to all and sundry in order to view the resulting consternation. The filmmakers retained Octopussy and when tackled by puritanical individuals pointed them to the original short story as proof that it was an original Ian Fleming title.

Octopussy - Bond 1Every so often the narrative core of a Bond film contains a chilling heart of darkness. The central conceit of a renegade ultra-nationalist Russian military officer committing an act of nuclear terrorism in order to gain a tactical and political advantage remains all too terrifyingly plausible even in the 21st century. Battling to save thousands upon thousands of innocents from nuclear annihilation Octopussy could have been Roger Moore’s crowning glory as 007. Indeed Moore has rarely been more effective as Bond than when he conveys chilling fury in his confrontation with the renegade General Orlov. In that moment his Bond seems capable of doing anything to anyone in order to prevent the death of innocents.

Unfortunately the ineptly conceived and handled humour of the 1970s that was moderately toned down in For Your Eyes Only rears its ugly head once again to undermine the seriousness of proceedings to an almost Moonraker-like levels of ridiculousness. In a idiotic meta reference the James Bond theme is played by Bond’s contact Vijay to attract Bond’s attention upon his arrival in India. Vying for places in the role of honour for idiocy are Bond’s Tarzan yell and Barbara Woodhouse “Sit!” during the human safari. Why, why, why, do the filmmakers persist in inserting such stupidity into proceedings? Do they seriously believe audiences will be rolling in the cinema aisles in tearful amusement? Such stupidity wrecks all the hard work done in other areas of the film.

Ultimately the box office clash of the titans never occurred with Never Say Never Again being released four months after Octopussy with Moore’s Bond taking box office honours with takings of $187 million against £160 million for Connery’s Bond. Whilst EON’s official franchise did not have the original and best 007 they possessed something that Never Say Never Again had not: an experienced, and highly acclaimed production team well used to the complexities of making the James Bond epics.

Whilst not as rewarding a cinema experience as The Spy Who Loved Me or For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy had not proved to an unlucky number for 007 but surely it was to be Roger Moore’s swan song as 007 as his oft voiced concerns about being too old for the role had become more evident than ever …

1 From Russia With Love
2 Goldfinger
3 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
4 The Spy Who Loved Me
5 Thunderball
6 Dr. No
7 For Your Eyes Only
8 You Only Live Twice
9 Octopussy
10 Moonraker
11 Diamonds Are Forever
12 Live And Let Die
13 The Man with the Golden Gun

  1. vinnieh says:

    Great post man, keep up the good work.

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