Political correctness and James Bond have always been mutually exclusive. Ian Fleming’s literary 007 was an unreconstructed chauvinist, a reflection of the author’s own tastes and prejudices and an “anonymous, blunt instrument”, as Fleming himself called his creation. Russian journalist Yuri Zhukov described the world of this Bond as “nightmarish…where laws are written at the point of a gun, where coercion and rape are considered valour”, but the cinematic Bond has routinely been lent redeeming charm by the humour and suavity of the actors cast to play him.
In 1983, we were treated to not one, but two Bond films, as Sean Connery’s return in Never Say Never Again faced up to Roger Moore’s sixth outing as Connery’s successor in the official series, Octopussy. The promotional posters for Octopussy featured the tagline “nobody does him better”, a tacit acknowledgement of the competition between the two, but in truth Connery was the winner as the Broccoli camp produced one of their duffest and most troubling efforts in Octopussy.
The origins of the film lie in a posthumously published short story by Fleming, the plot of which is largely ignored in the film, used solely to provide a back story to the titular character. While the two preceding films (Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only) offered absurd science fiction and an attempt to add depth to the Bond character respectively, Octopussy is a muddled and convoluted affair, which leaves an unpleasant taste of right-wing misogyny and casual racism in the mouth.
As ever, we begin with a stand-alone pre-title sequence, in this case involving Bond’s escape from Cuban communists using a light aircraft disguised as a horse’s arse. Soon, however, we encounter a more sinister set of reds, as Soviet General Orlov (played by Stephen Berkoff, a man who never knowingly under acts) seeks to take advantage of European unilateral nuclear disarmament in order to expand his country’s borders. The message here is clear: back off peaceniks, nukes are necessary.
Confusingly, we then encounter yet more villains and Orlov is offered little subsequent screen time. Instead, Bond heads to India to investigate a fake Fabergé egg, coming up against exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jordan), who works for a mysterious female cult leader (think Blofeld, with a preference for sea life). The India of Octopussy is a parade of clichés; dirty, taxi-strewn streets are filled with elephants, snake charmers, sword swallowers, beds of nails, hot coals and rope tricks. The natives dine on curry and sheep’s heads, while Bond’s Indian contact Vijay (played by real-life tennis professional Vijay Amritraj, a fact which is referenced more than once) resembles a satirical character from BBC sketch show Goodness Gracious Me.
Even more worrying than this rather tiresome stereotyping is the film’s attitude to its female characters. Of course, Bond’s womanising is a major element of his character, and one which FYEO attempted to address through reference to his dead wife, but for a film made in the post-feminist era, Octopussy (from its suggestive title onwards) seems strangely misogynistic.
Bond’s usual flirting with Moneypenny is quickly undermined by his new interest in her young assistant, with Moneypenny treated like yesterday’s news. Khan’s strangely anachronistic barge is rowed by a bevy of bikini-clad, semi-slave girls. When he finally comes face-to-face with Octopussy herself, Bond ignores the standard “no means no” rule, virtually forcing himself on her (despite her protestations, she is predictably unable to resist his overpowering ‘charms’), while her island paradise is entirely populated by scantily-clad swimwear models.
Perhaps the only moment of female empowerment in the film sees said models turn ninja, aiding Bond in giving Khan’s minions an almighty kicking, a sequence that still requires little clothing and bears more resemblance to an Eric Prydz video than, say, Kill Bill. However, the novelty of a female villain is lost in Octopussy’s turning to 007’s aid, which leaves her as just another, rather underwhelming Bond girl.
On a separate note, Octopussy contains some of the weirdest dressing-up in the Bond series. Much of this is due to the bizarre inclusion of a circus as a key part of the world domination/egg-smuggling plot; indeed, 009 meets a sticky end early on having been knifed in the back while dressed as a clown (though he does get to boot a villain in the jewels with his enormous shoes). Bond himself slaps on the pancake while attempting to locate a nuclear bomb, lending a sense of levity to an otherwise fairly serious scenario. We also see 007 in a monkey outfit and fleeing would-be assassins in a safari suit, a scene during which he delivers a farcical Tarzan impression, complete with Johnny Weissmuller yodel.
The theme tune of Octopussy is Rita Coolidge’s ‘All Time High’, a song which flopped in the UK charts. Similarly, the film’s confused plot, lack of engaging action and outdated, often distasteful attitudes make Octopussy itself one of the Bond series’ all time lows.
Blogalongabond is the ingenious brainchild of blogger The Incredible Suit.