Movies, Briefly: Octopussy (1983)


When people claim Casino Royale is a “realistic” Bond movie, they don’t mean it’s realistic in any sense that relates to the real world, because it’s not and it doesn’t.

They mean it’s more realistic than 1983’s Octopussy, which makes Casino Royale look like it was directed by D.A. Pennebaker. All Bond movies are, to varying degrees male fantasies. Octopussy is, by far, the most fantastic.

The movie, directed by John Glen (who also directed my beloved The Living Daylights), plays like the dream of a boy on the cusp of puberty. James Bond is not a spy, he’s a globe-trotting super-hero. He’s got his own mini super-plane, a robot alligator disguise, a hot air balloon, he saves the world, and winds up on an island populated solely by foxy jewel thieves. I’d say you can’t make this stuff up but, apparently someone did.

Look, I’m a careful observer of movies. I watch a lot of them. Generally, it takes a hell of a lot for a movie to confuse me — it better be Memento-complex to get me scratching my head. And, for the life of me, I haven’t the foggiest idea what James Bond’s doing in Octopussy. He starts off on the trail of a priceless Fabrege egg, which he’s got a perfect copy of (don’t know why) and which he swaps with the original at an auction (don’t know why) where he forces the movie’s villain to reveal himself by bidding up the price of the egg to a point that no one would reasonably play. The villain, Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) simply must have the egg (don’t know why) to placate a rogue Russian general (don’t know why) who dreams of conquering Europe (don’t know why) and to appease the Bond girl Octopussy (who’s a jewel thief, I know that much). The island of sexy thieves belongs to Octopussy, who also runs a circus (don’t know why), which winds up as the hiding place for the nuclear bomb the Russian general wants to detonate (as established earlier, don’t know why). If you can succinctly and clearly explain Octopussy you deserve a medal, or at least a degree in advanced literature studies.

I’ve left out one crucial part of Octopussy‘s general lack of lucidity, and that’s Roger Moore’s performance as James Bond. Every Bond has things they do particularly well, aspects of the character they like to emphasize. Typically, people believe Moore’s was comedy, but there was something that his Bond enjoyed even more than a double entendre: playing dress-up.

James Bond was and always will be a clothes horse: the tuxedos and custom suits he wears are part of the character’s enduring image. Moore took the clothes fetish to a whole new place. He wears way more outfits, changes many more times, than his five other counter-parts, and Octopussy is probably the most outrageous. In his very first scene, Bond changes suits via the old inside-out-coat-and-hat gag, even though he has no reason to. That’s just silly, but some of his later quick changes are downright reckless. At the film’s climax, Bond sneaks aboard Octopussy’s circus train as it makes its way from Russian to the west with the big nuclear MacGuffin. He quickly gets into a fight with one half of a knife-throwing circus act, after he knocks him unconscious he decides to steal his clothes, I guess in the interest of disguise. Of course, even in the knife-thrower’s Russian cossack outfit, Bond looks nothing like the shorter, darker man (who also has a twin who Bond looks nothing like). When Bond again springs into action his cunning ruse lasts exactly two seconds before the villains go “Uh, you’re Bond.”

Now think about this. Bond is aboard a train filled with evil terrorists and a deadly bomb. He could go and try to stop the train or derail it. He could try to kill all the people on board. He could even try to disarm the bomb before it reaches its destination. Instead he gets naked and puts on a stranger’s clothes. WHY?!? With the fate of the free world hanging in the balance should he really be taking the time to try things on? Aren’t there more pressing matters? And think about how much time he must be wasting taking off and putting on all those clothes. That Russian cossack outfit isn’t simple either, he’s got to tie the sash just so and try on those pointy boots and make sure they fit just right.

In part because of Bond’s complete fashion obsession, the bomb makes its way to an American air force base in Europe, where it is set to blow in the middle of the circus. Moore, still dressed as a Slavic peasant, steals a car and breaks into the air force base, so he’s got half of Germany on his tail looking for a man matching his description. Okay so now he has to change. What does he do?

Oy. A nuclear bomb that has the potential to start a catastrophic, civilization-ending war is set to go off in mere minutes. Bond chooses to put on a clown outfit, along with that intricate makeup that can take professionals hours to properly apply. How can Bond do it? I will accept that Bond is a master fighter, marksman, pilot, driver, fencer, and lover. But make-up artist?

AND YET! I kinda liked it in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. It totally commits to its stupidity — its sincerity in the face outright implausibility is charming, if not inspiring. And Glen could really direct fun action sequences, and I love the scene where Bond chases the train via car, blows his tires out and jumps his car onto the train tracks and keeps right on chugging along. This is pure popcorn fantasy, generations removed from Daniel Craig and the “serious” Casino Royale. But fantasy is fun too sometimes.

Matt Singer covers the world of film for the Independent Film Channel. He's also a regular contributor to their website, His personal blog is Termite Art. More from this author →