Across The Bond: Octopussy


Octopussy frequently gets dismissed because of its name, but is actually one of the strongest movies of the Moore era. Bond gets a complex and sensibly aged loved interest, the villain is as charismatic as he is cunning, there’s a hint of Cold War politics underpinning the plot and Fleming’s short story is put to good use.

Matt and I both enjoy the movie, but he doesn’t rank it quite as highly as I do. For me, it’s at least the equal to The Spy Who Loved Me, but in the wake of the comparatively sober For Your Eyes Only, the sometimes broad humour affects Matt’s experience more than mine. It’s a divisive entry in the Bond canon, but I think I speak for both of us in saying anyone who instinctively turns their nose up at the title should give the movie a fair chance. At least read our breakdown to help make your mind up.

Matthew Razak

I always look down on Octopussy until I’m watching it. Then I remember that it’s actually quite a thrilling Bond replete with big stunts, ridiculous gadgets, a unique villain dynamic and world tennis star Vijay Amritraj. I think it might be two things that throw me off each time. The first is the name, which clearly sounds either like some sort of B-grade monster movie or a really disturbing porn film. The name was quite controversial at the time, though the MPAA let it pass since it was the name of the Fleming short story (posthumously published in Playboy). By today’s standards it just sounds kind of cheesy no matter how official it is. The second reason my mind instantly turns to Octopussy as a poorer Bond, despite it actually being quite enjoyable, is because this is the first film where Roger Moore is pushing it in the age game. Having recently rewatched the movie I will say he isn’t too old yet, but is definitely damn close to crossing the line. He wasn’t even supposed to play Bond again, but thanks to Connery returning in Never Say Never Again the producers decided that launching a new Bond actor was not the best idea at the time. So Moore returned, and while decently charming he’s clearly getting on in age.

In a move almost entirely uncharacteristic of the Bond producers they actually brought in an age appropriate woman for Moore. Maud Adams, who had already been a Bond girl in The Man with the Golden Gun, is definitely older than your average Bond girl, and makes Moore’s age less awkward than in both the previous film, where they paired him with Bibi Dahl, or his next film, A View to a Kill, where he’s so old his relationships with the far younger Tanya Roberst and Grace Jones is painfully awkward. Adams and Moore on the other hand have an incredibly easy going dynamic that works wonderfully, and it helps that she stays on par with Bond throughout the entire film. The movie could have gone a lot worse if she had to play an all out damsel in distress by the end of the film. Speaking of good dynamics, Bond and the film’s main villain (let’s not forget that Octopussy is technically a bad guy) Kamal Khan, played wonderfully arrogantly by Louis Jourdan, have a fantastic game of backgammon that puts a great twist on the classic scene of Bond gambling against the villain. It may in fact be Bond’s best gambling scene simply because of its ending, with henchman Gobinda crushing the dice to a fine powder in his hand after Bond defeats Khan and demands he be paid in cash – a random demand that plays out later in a fun, but lackluster chase sequence.
Octopussy isn’t perfect, however. It’s goofy to an almost extreme extent. Gadgets like a fake crocodile for Bond to escape from Octopussy’s floating island are ridiculous to the point of eye rolling, and the villains are less threatening than they should be. Khan is menacing for the most part, but never reaches the levels you want a Bond villain to, especially since he’s put in such ridiculous situations. The idea of him hunting Bond like an animal is a great one, but the scene’s execution, with him riding elephants and Bond encountering a tiger, is really just plain goofy. The film really kicks off in this manner too, with an action sequence involving a very small plane. While the action parts are quite thrilling (a common fact of Moore films) it’s weighed down by bad site gags and a poor excuse for the action. Jokes like the plane being hidden in a fake horse’s ass and Bond pulling up to a gas station turn what could have been a stunning action sequence into some pretty lame fodder. The sight gags continue in a mostly thrilling train fight scene that steals more from Westerns than Bond’s previous train exploits. For the most part it’s an impressive series of train stunts, but involves Bond hiding out in a gorilla costume and a few other gags that once again go a little too goofy. Then there’s the closing action sequence involving all the acrobats from the Octopussy circus, a hot air balloon and Q. It’s too ridiculous overall.
It’s too bad too because behind all the site gags and jokes is an intriguing plot involving a rogue Russian general and plenty of Cold War tension. As the Cold War thawed it was clear that Russia couldn’t be evil anymore, but rogue generals definitely could. Steven Berkoff’s General Orlov is one of the more subdued psychotics Bond faces, but definitely works. His eventual death at the infamous Checkpoint Charlie is one of the better Bond villain deaths despite happening well before the end of the movie. The perfect example of the serious tension behind the glib nature of the film is Bond’s defusing of a nuclear bomb (yes, another one) while dressed as a clown. At first glance it seems too goofy to be taken seriously, but winds up being the most intense bomb defusal in the Bond series. Thanks to Bond having to desperately plead to defuse the bomb, Moore’s look of terror and anger that no one will let him near it due to everyone thinking he’s insane and, in a strange twist, clown make-up making him look even more desperate, the scene turns into a thrilling moment despite the outward camp. It’s hard to make a Bond bomb scene tense anymore, but it is pulled off in Octopussy. 

If Moore had stopped here it would have been a fitting exit to his time as Bond. A great action movie, filled with a little too much fun, but still Bond at heart. What it does prove once again is that Moore can make any line work better than it should. While Octopussy is easily full of some of the worst of Bond’s one-liners (“Toro. Sounds like a load of bull.”), one line I can’t help but laugh at it is when Bond escapes Kamal Khan’s hunting expedition by hopping into a tour boat. A woman asks him if he’s with the tour and Moore just absolutely nails the response: “No ma’m, I’m with the economy tour.” I only wish this truly had been his last outing. 

Xander Markham

Octopussy is among the most unjustly maligned Bond movies, mostly by people who’ve read the title and assumed the worst. In fact, it’s possibly Moore’s best, with a reasonably original plot, some terrific action sequences, interesting characters and gorgeous cinematography. ’80s India might have been impoverished in real life, but through Bond’s eyes is an oasis of abundant colour and beautiful women in flowing saris. The middle period Bonds have a tendency to waste their exotic locations with perfunctory photography and camerawork, but this time around cinematographer Alan Hume does stunning work in giving Bond’s adventure a distinctly Indian flavour.

There’s no doubt that the cheesy quips sidelined in For Your Eyes Only are given greater prominence here, but they are nowhere near as overused as in Moonraker or The Man With The Golden Gun. Moore unleashes a couple of clunkers, but proceedings are taken just seriously enough that the plot has clear dramatic stakes. Yes, Bond has a (completely nonsensical) alligator submarine, tells a tiger to sit and does an awful Tarzan cry while swinging through the jungle, but those are exceptions rather than the rule. The pre-credits sequence plays relatively straight and is fantastically exciting, with the punchline (Bond pulling up at a rural petrol station in his aircraft and asking the attendant to ‘fill her up, please’) more an amusing cap on the scene rather than obnoxious distraction. Yes, Bond later disarms a bomb dressed as a clown, but the scene is played for suspense rather than humour. A Roger Moore movie with a strong circus motif should be deeply concerning, but the movie mostly focuses on the more unsettling aspects of circus performance rather than the expected broad humour.

As Matt notes, Octopussy is interesting for reflecting the changing sociopolitcal landscape of its time (bet you never thought you’d read that sentence), with the Cold War gradually giving way to détente and the main danger coming from those reluctant few unable to see past old prejudices. Casting Steven Berkoff as a Russian general is an invitation for hamminess and he doesn’t let anyone down, laying on the exaggerated gesticulation and syrupy accent with gusto. He overdoes it – what do you expect, he’s Steven Berkoff – but is a diverting contrast to the dispassionately devious Kamal Khan and his silent, Oddjob-esque right hand man, Gobinda. Khan is a fabulous villain and Louis Jordan has great fun mispronouncing ‘Mr. Bund’ and giving his character the cruel stately air befitting a disgraced Afghan prince. He and Moore bounce off each other very entertainingly because the characters share so many traits. Every encounter between the two is a gem, with each using carefully trained manners to veil their dislike and undermine the other. Bond’s ‘I intend to, Kamal Khan’ riposte has become something of a catchphrase of mine.

Gobinda doesn’t get much to do other than stare menacingly and be physically imposing, but his Indian accoutrements make him a memorable addition to the henchman gallery. In one of the movie’s best jokes, even he expresses concern when instructed to go and get Bond from the roof of an aeroplane in mid-flight. The second set of henchman, a pair of identical twin knife throwers called Mischka and Grischka, are among the series’ most sinister. It is they who murder 009 in the story’s instigating scene, hunting him through a dark forest until successfully launching a knife into his back before he can make his escape. Their red and black outfits and identical appearance double up the fear factor, an effect made even stranger by the hint of twisted affection between the sibling killers.

The show’s ringleader, Octopussy, is one of Moore’s most complex female foils: she’s a smuggler with a sense of decency, having isolated herself from the rest of the world but not quite ready to surrender to the immorality exemplified by Khan and his cohorts. In Bond, she senses a similar soul: a killer who does what he does for the right reasons. That he has to prove himself to her before she switches allegiance makes a positive change, and while she requires rescuing at the end, is entirely self-reliant and intelligent until that point. Some may complain that her team of female gymnasts is too ridiculous for its own good, but I find it silly in the entertaining rather than embarrassing sense, not to mention serving double time as a sly nod to Pussy Galore’s former profession (as leader of an all-female team of acrobats) in the Goldfinger novel. It’s the rare Moore movie where the women generally come across well, with the stunning but treacherous Magda using her sexuality to get the better of Bond. Let’s all try and forget about Penelope Smallbone, though.

The movie draws surprisingly heavily on Fleming, and not in the expected ways. The literary Octopussy is a short story collection, and two of its entries are clear influences on the plot. The brilliant auction scene at Sotheby’s near the beginning is an adaptation of Property Of A Lady, where Bond attends an auction to spot an undercover KGB agent pushing up the price of a Fabergé egg to pay off a female mole in the British secret service. More interesting is how the movie essentially operates as a follow-up to the story of the same name. In Fleming’s Octopussy, Bond is sent to bring home a WW2 officer who has eloped with stolen Nazi gold, but allows him the chance to commit suicide rather than face the humiliation of having his reputation dragged through the mud on trial. In the movie, Octopussy (the character) is the officer’s daughter and trusts Bond because of the respect he paid her father. This intelligent use of the source material gives Octopussy some moving backstory informing her character’s view of the world – it’s clear where she gets her distrust of governments and law – and the nuances of her underlying morality.

Octopussy isn’t perfect by any stretch and has a bit too much campy humour, but is easily the most rewatchable of Moore’s movies. For every blunder, there are three or four great scenes to make up for it: for one, the fight inside and above a moving train looks to have been a significant influence on Skyfall‘s opening action sequence. The characters are memorable and enlivened by terrific performances, with Vijay being in the top tier of Bond’s non-mustachioed allies and his death genuinely affecting. Q gets to save the day and be swamped by grateful, lithe women, and though Rog is looking a little old in the tooth, at least the object of his affections is closer in age than the usual twenty-somethings and a worthy character in her own right.