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Bond Girl: Re-Watching and Re-Evaluating Octopussy

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Octopussy is a weird mix of goofy attempts at humor (all the clown costumes and that Tarzan thing) and a serious plot with intrigue and deaths galore. That shouldn’t work well together as it does, but aside from a few lingering issues with white-washing and racism, Octopussy is a really wonderful film. It’s an amazing entry to the series and one of Moore’s best showings in the franchise.

Thirteen films in and we’re on the second half of the films in Eon Productions’ James Bond lineup. Octopussy takes its name and titular character from a 1966 collection of short stories written by Fleming himself. However, that’s about all we get from the source material. The plot of Octopussy is an original one. After the death of MI6 Agent 009, James Bond sets on the hunt to find out who is responsible for his death and the theft of a Faberge egg. The hunt, though, only intensifies when Bond realizes that the wealthy Afghan prince Kamal Khan is waist deep in a Soviet general’s plot to expand westward.

politics

Off the bat, the thing that I enjoy the most about Octopussy is the politics.

Released in June of 1983, the film is set dead center amidst the backdrop of the Cold War period that lasted between 1979 and 1985. The focus of that period was the fear of nuclear war and so one of the main points of the film is the threat of nuclear arms being used to force Europeans to disarm.

This film has three main villains and they all fit well within the historical landscape.

First, we have Soviet general Orlov pushing to expand his country’s territory despite his government’s desire to do otherwise. Even the head of the KGB General Gogol (a recurring character played by Walter Gotell) argues against him, pointing out that the only way that this could end is in war.

Next we have the film’s major villain and his henchman, the former of which I have a major bone to pick in terms of casting.

Louis Jourdan (who is so not Afghani in the slightest) plays the Afghani prince and our bigger big bad, Kamal Khan. Whitewashing, something that was mostly left behind with the earlier films, comes back with a vengeance in this film. And it’s still very obviously out of place. We’re given this Afghani character of color played by a white French actor and as with Joseph Wiseman’s portrayal of the biracial Julius No in Dr. No amidst plenty of background actors of color, it’s hard not to wonder why.

Why these choices?

Why the white-washing?

The film is largely set in India and has plenty of characters of color who are South Asian. Of course, aside from Kabir Bedi playing Gobinda, Khan’s bodyguard and James Bond’s Indian contact Vijay (who is played by former tennis pro Vijay Amritraj), these characters are all largely in the background and barely have speaking roles. Why is it that in 1983, it was still too much to ask to cast actors of color to play characters of color?

This is an issue the films had in the 60s and 70s.

By 1983, we really shouldn’t have had that problem.

It’s not just a James Bond thing, I know, it’s a continuing Hollywood thing that shows how endemic racism is in entertainment, but it’s a huge pet peeve for me in these films. When watching films like Octopussy I can look, see these characters of color in the background or as henchmen, and know that once again, actors of color were passed over for or not even considered to play a major villain of color.

Again: Ugh.

khan and gobinda

The film does get it right in some ways with Kamir Bedi’s Gobinda. He’s a really good villain. Not on the level of Jaws where you wanted to see more of him (aside from how Bedi was gorgeous in this film), but still really good at being moderately menacing.

The setting of Octopussy is largely in India. That is where we get some of our most memorable scenes and our most beautiful scenery. I do get the feeling though that with some of these films set in former British colonies like Jamaica, Hong Kong, and India where POC are the majority, they sometimes go above and beyond to remind you of colonialism and the long arm of the British Empire (even though it no longer exists). There’s also a bit of racism in the form of “jokes” where Indians and Indian culture are the punchline.

After Bond wins at backgammon against Kamal Khan, there’s a brief scene where he parses out his winnings to Vijay and another operative. He splits the 200,000 rupees with them and then follows it up with a curry comment. I kid you not:

James Bond: Hold on to these, will you? [hands the money to Vijay and Sadruddin] Keep you in curry for a few weeks, won’t it?

the comment

It’s a throwaway line that should’ve been thrown away.

On top of that there’s a fight right after this where the physical gags see Bond using torches from a fire juggler, a sword pulled right out of the mouth of a sword swallower, and a well-placed bed of nails to take out several of Gobinda’s own henchmen. It feels, to me at least, as if they’re making jokes out of culture and stereotypes revolving around Indian culture. Maybe I’m reading too much into it because of how humor is usually a miss from me and I’m extra critical about attempts at it in the Bond franchise, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth.

So not fun.

Now I’ve actually talked about the bad stuff a bit earlier than I thought I would so let’s get to the fun stuff where I wax poetic about my second favorite part of Octopussy: the ladies.

magda and octopussy

Yes, I know it’s rare that the ladies take second stage on my likes or dislikes of a Bond film, but here we are. While I will always focus on the Bond Girls way more than anything else in the film, my ire was turned all the way up when it came time to picking at and unpacking Octopussy‘s race issues.

But okay Octopussy has some of the best ladies (even if I’m still unsatisfied with how much screen time some of them get).

This the second of Maud Adams’ three appearances in Eon’s Bond franchise and honestly, it’s the best one. In contrast to her role in The Man With The Golden Gun, Adams is in charge as Octopussy. Similar to Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, Octopussy is the leader of a team of acrobats and smugglers made up only of women — of course. She’s less of a henchwoman, more of an equal (right up until Khan’s betrayal), and part of a cult built up around a mega poisonous blue ringed octopus.

I love how take-charge Octopussy is in this. She’s powerful in this film, her gang of smugglers immense enough to fill an entire palace. I think that while her character is superficially similar to that of Pussy Galore, she gets to do more. She’s not just a smuggler.

She takes care of the women that come to her and has an empire built up that has many avenues for them to be successful. These avenues range from owning hotels to carnivals and her famous circus. After the death of her father – a man that Bond went after on orders from his superiors for stealing gold – she turned what could’ve been a chance to spend her life trying to get revenge into a successful life that has her as a powerful, wealthy, and feared name in the world. She made smuggling her profession and proved that crime really does pay if you’re good at it.

One of the most brilliant scenes in the film revolves around Octopussy defending herself and her chosen occupation from James Bond’s judgement. Octopussy is getting dressed on her way to leaving Bond alone in her floating palace (under guard) and one of the things that she brings up is that she’s hopeful that they’ll have a future together because they’re two of a kind. So of course James Bond starts this argument about how he’s nothing like her because he’s not for hire.

Octopussy isn’t having any of that and her response actually might top that of Fiona Volpe from Thunderball:

Octopussy: Oh! A man of principle! With a price on his head. Naturally, you do it for Queen and country! I have no country. I have no price on my head. I don’t have to apologize to you, a paid assassin, for what I am!

octopussy callout

Because she’s right in this situation and Bond is definitely overstepping here. He’s alive only on Octopussy’s sufferance. She told Khan that she’d deal with him so that Khan wouldn’t kill him and Bond rewards her by judging her for wanting him to join her.

Bond doesn’t apologize (apparently that’s asking too much) but after a tense scene where he kisses Octopussy and tries to stop her from being angry, he admits that she’s right about them being two of a kind and the non-apology gets him back on Octopussy’s good side.

We don’t get to know much about all of Octopussy’s girls but one that stands out is Magda (played by Kristina Wayborn). While she technically doesn’t fall under the Bond Girl category by virtue of her working under Octopussy and Khan, I tend to count her as one. She goes after Bond for the sake of getting the Faberge egg about a third of the way into the film, making love to him and then stealing the egg that Khan wants from right underneath his nose.

Of course, this is all exactly what James Bond wants but comparing it to other scenes in the series where the henchwoman that Bond is going after doesn’t want him as much as he wants her, it’s much better. Magda may not know that Bond wants her to steal the egg, but they’re both playing each other. They’re using each other for something – Magda wants to get the egg for Khan and Bond wants her to take the egg and its newly implanted tracking device to Khan – and in the process, they wind up having fun with one another.

There are so many levels of sleaze to James Bond’s interactions with women that when those interactions are absent, I feel the most profound sense of relief. It’s a little sad, I know, that I get so excited over James Bond doing the actual least to not be a sleazy creep around women, but man – when it’s bad in this franchise, it’s really bad. So this is me clinging to the positive.

While most of Octopussy’s other workers remain nameless, they actually steal the show in the final scenes. After the circus scene at the film’s climax, Octopussy realizes that Khan was out to betray her the entire time and kill her and her team. This gets us a scene where all of Octopussy’s female circus acrobats and dancers use their skill to distract and defeat all of Khan’s men within a matter of moments using things they learned in order to

moneypenny and smallbone

On the MI6 side of things, Lois Maxwell returns for her five minutes of screen time as Miss Moneypenny. This time, she’s not alone. Michaela Clavell plays her assistant Penelope Smallbone who seems like she’s being set up to be a recurring character to sort of play Moneypenny out but then aside from this appearance, I’m not sure if the actress or the character ever return to the Bond franchise.

I’m still super annoyed with how we’re thirteen movies in and Lois Maxwell’s role hasn’t changed. In fact, she’s down to what basically amounts to a walk on role. She shows up either at the beginning of the film or the middle, gets to do a little banter, and then vanishes from the screen.

Lois Maxwell is an amazing actress and incredibly funny in her dry delivery and the banter she has in her scenes, but she’s still super underused. Unfortunately, the next film, A View To Kill, is her last outing in the role and that means we’re only going to get to see Lois Maxwell in one last role and she’ll probably only get five minutes there too.

Great.

Despite my complaining, almost all of my issues with Octopussy were minor ones. My biggest complaint was about the racism inherent in casting a white European character to play an Afghani character but that’s about it as far as five-alarm anger starters go. I also didn’t exactly dig the humor but when do I ever?

Officially, Octopussy has one (maybe two!) of the best Bond Girls in the entire franchise, characters that I loved because of the way that they expressed their agency and saved the day. The massive fight scene before the end is what won me over entirely and I loved the thought and choreography that went into making it all possible and entertaining to boot. I can really see why many people enjoyed the film and why it earned big bucks in the box office ahead of Sean Connery’s Bond film later on in the year.

What I’m looking forward to:

I’m not actually looking forward to the end of Roger Moore’s term as James Bond. I’m still not sick of him and I kind of want to keep him as Bond despite the fact that Timothy Dalton is basically the best person to follow him. (That CHIN! That FACE!)

Saying goodbye to Roger Moore’s Bond means saying goodbye to Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny. I don’t want to do that either.

But there is absolutely one thing I know I’m looking forward to more than anything in A View To Kill: Christopher Walken as Max Zorin and Grace Jones as the love of my life May Day. Possibly the best villains ever in anything. How could I not look forward to them?

Zina Hutton writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories. Find her on her blog or on Twitter.

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