1983 offered up two James Bond films, with Roger Moore in Octopussy and Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again – we revisit the battle of the 007s.
With the latest announced delay, the gap between the release of Spectre and the next Daniel Craig-starring Bond film No Time To Die has extended to five-and-a-half years and counting. It’s a far cry from the old days, when EON Productions cranked out 007 adventures every two years, or 1983, when there were two James Bond films released within four months of each other.
This unusual occurrence arose from the long-running dispute over Ian Fleming’s ninth Bond novel, Thunderball. The book was adapted from a script called Longitude 78 West, a potential Bond movie that Fleming once worked on with collaborators Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham, without the permission of its co-creators. In the plagiarism case that followed, Fleming and McClory both claimed to have created the criminal organisation SPECTRE, and its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
When the case came to court, McClory was awarded the worldwide screen rights to Thunderball, while EON kept the separate Bond film rights and Fleming retained copyright on the novel. This enabled McClory to make a rival James Bond movie if he wished, so EON producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman licensed his rights for a period of 10 years, allowing the studio to use Blofeld and SPECTRE in sequels produced during that time. Released in 1965, the film adaptation became the highest-grossing Bond movie at that point, a title it kept until 2012’s Skyfall.
A decade later, the Bond franchise was still going strong with Roger Moore as 007, and McClory began trying to remake Thunderball at another company, with Connery in the lead again. Saltzman had moved on, but Broccoli and EON closely guarded the Bond brand, torpedoing a project called Warhead (co-scripted by Len Deighton and Connery himself) by claiming it infringed on elements of the film series outside of Thunderball.
This ongoing rivalry is the only reason we can think of why 1981’s For Your Eyes Only would start with a total non-sequitur, in which a character strongly implied to be Blofeld (in the same condition of anonymity as his non-appearance in From Russia With Love) is unceremoniously dropped down a chimney by Bond before the opening titles start.
Eventually, McClory licensed his rights to producer Jack Schwartzman, who set up a remake called Never Say Never Again at Warner Bros, in the same year as EON was making its 13th Bond film, Octopussy. The tabloids touted it as a ‘battle of the Bonds’, although the Bonds themselves, long-time friends Connery and Moore, seemed quite good-humoured about the competing films.
Even discounting the production rivalries, both films have interesting stories behind them, but it has to be said that neither is counted among the very best of all the Bond films to date.
To paraphrase Harry Hill – I don’t like Octopussy, and I don’t like Never Say Never Again, but which is better? There’s only one way to find out…
“Nobody Does HIM Better”
Octopussy lives in infamy for a number of reasons, not least that it’s the Bond film so good, Homer Simpson saw it twice. At this point in the franchise, Roger Moore planned to retire from the role of 007. After his fifth film For Your Eyes Only, the producers began the search for a new Bond, testing actors such as Timothy Dalton, Michael Billington, and James Brolin.
Brolin would have been the series’ first American lead and was reportedly working with stunt teams and set to relocate to the UK, but Broccoli was still hoping to persuade Moore back for another go around. Moore reportedly pressed his advantages – the uncertainty of Bond distributors United Artists merging with MGM and the looming return of Connery in a rival film – in pay negotiations, but eventually signed on for his sixth outing in July 1982.
At the time, Moore joked in an interview with NBC that he’d been asked to star in Never Say Never Again as well. “Of course it gave me a certain amount of leverage… I said to Sean, ‘Which one do you want to do?’ He didn’t want to do the one with Cubby, so I’m here. And he’s there.”
During pre-production, Flashman writer George MacDonald Fraser penned the original script for this one in 1981 and hit upon the idea of making this the first Bond film set in India. His script was later reworked by series regulars Michael G Wilson and Richard Maibaum. Behind the camera, editor and second-unit director John Glen had graduated to the director’s chair with For Your Eyes Only and was asked back for Octopussy and the next three Bond films as well.
Also returning was Maud Adams, who had previously appeared in The Man With The Golden Gun and screen-tested with Brolin and the other potential replacements for Moore. She plays the title role of Octopussy, a jewel smuggler who unwittingly helps exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and zealous Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff) with a scheme to force nuclear disarmament in western Europe.
Following For Your Eyes Only’s attempted back-to-basics seriousness, Octopussy was supposed to follow the same tack, but it feels a return to form that still lands a long way from the peak of the Moore era’s comic sensibilities. For instance, the gripping conclusion involves Bond disguising himself as a clown and trying to defuse a nuclear bomb while small children laugh at him, and then there’s that Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan yell over 007 swinging on a vine.
The super-charged tuk-tuk chase through a busy marketplace is a highlight for both comedy and action, but the meandering story and 130-minute running time makes this one of the weaker outings of the era. As The Living Daylights demonstrated a few years later, a new Bond would have brought a change in tone, but as it is, it’s hard to imagine Brolin getting on well with this material.
Meanwhile, the producers were keen to emphasise what Octopussy had over the rival production in terms of iconography. For his part, returning composer John Barry reportedly emphasised the series’ classic theme song in his score, because Never Say Never Again couldn’t. On the subject of music though, this one is a low as Bond theme songs go, despite what its title suggests. All-Time High not only immortalises Rita Coolidge as the stuff of Pointless answers, but also has arguably been usurped from its Bond connection by Mark Wahlberg’s excruciatingly heartfelt cover of the song in 2012’s Ted.
Produced on a budget of $27.5 million, Octopussy hit cinemas on 6th June 1983. It was warmly received by contemporary critics and went on to take $187.5m at the worldwide box office. Both Bond films had been targeting a summer release date, but Octopussy was the one that came out on time…
Never Say Never Again
“Do you actually imagine that I could lose a woman to an underpaid British agent?”
Various legal challenges from EON had seen off any potential for a McClory-produced Bond film to deviate from the source material. Connery and Deighton’s script had adapted the plot into a techno-thriller involving mechanical sharks and an assault on Wall Street, (in that order) which the plaintiff suggested would be an unauthorised James Bond sequel, rather than a Thunderball remake.
While Connery had initially been approached by McClory to turn his hand to screenwriting, serving as a sort of consultant on how to mix up the Bond formula enough to avoid EON’s ire, the process went well enough that the star was attached to play Bond for the seventh time as well. This is what led his wife Micheline to suggest the film’s official title, for which she’s credited at the end.
For Connery, the project gave him more of the stake he felt he deserved in the Bond films the first time around. He duly scooped a $3m salary (along with an undisclosed percentage of the box-office gross) for the film, and it is, for better or worse, his film in a way that no other Bond actor can claim of any of the other, more producer-led EON escapades.
Once Schwartzman came aboard, he cleared the legal issue by dropping the existing scripts and turning to Lorenzo Semple Jr, renowned for his screenplays Three Days Of The Condor and The Parallax View but best loved for his work on the 1960s Batman series and 1980’s Flash Gordon, to write a more faithful adaptation. The general feeling was that the film should be a comedic thriller somewhere in the middle of Semple Jr’s range.
Instead of rewriting the story of Thunderball, Never Say Never Again updates it. Acknowledging Connery’s age, the film starts with Bond relegated to teaching work by a new M (Edward Fox) who has little patience with the 00 section. However, Bond happens upon an extortion plot involving two stolen nuclear warheads and is thrust back into action chasing down SPECTRE’s Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and his mistress Domino (Kim Basinger).
Filming began in September 1982, with Irvin Kershner at the helm after directing The Empire Strikes Back for LucasFilm. Semple Jr departed the project after creative disagreements with Kershner, leaving the film with several script problems that needed to be solved on the fly. Connery later hired British sitcom legends Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais to rewrite the script extensively, both during and after shooting.
Where EON was a well-oiled machine, using its tried-and-tested Bond formula to create ambitious action cinema spectacle on a biennial basis, Never Say Never Again ran into budget problems and quickly fell behind schedule. While all parties acknowledged that it was better for the film to avoid direct competition with Octopussy, there were still various behind-the-scenes battles.
With greater creative control, Connery won a few of those battles, including his choice of composer, Michel Legrand and the casting of Brandauer, who’s legitimately excellent as Largo. Meanwhile, in a victory over EON, Barbara Carrera reportedly turned down the title role of Octopussy because she had already accepted the role of SPECTRE agent Fatima Blush. (She’s great too.)
However, he didn’t have a fun time of it on the film, falling out with Kershner and Schwartzman on set and later losing a dispute with the Writers’ Guild Of America about getting non-members Clement and La Frenais billed for their extensive work on the script. What’s more, Connery had his wrist broken by martial arts instructor Steven Seagal (yes, that one!) while training for the film.
Despite Schwartzman’s aptitude in tackling the legal side of things, he was untested on a film of this scale and the production ran into several problems. One notable mistake came when a major underwater sequence had to be reshot after Kershner realised that Connery’s stunt double had inexplicably been cast based on the star’s appearance in Thunderball, as opposed to his stature 20 years later.
Watching it back, it should be no surprise that Never Say Never Again is the result of a slightly troubled production. It doesn’t have anything like the courage of Robin And Marian, another Connery outing, in portraying an older version of its hero. It plays very much like an American take on James Bond, with British influences tugging things back across the pond through additions like Rowan Atkinson as British envoy Nigel Small-Fawcett.
On the plus side, Brandauer’s volatile turn as Largo would comfortably rank in most lists of the best Bond villain performances, if only the film itself was counted. Underseen due to its omission from the boxset canon, the film is legally bereft of the rest of the franchise’s most famous trappings, (Lani Hall’s tepid theme song plays out over an opening action scene rather than the traditional silhouettes of naked ladies) but there’s precious little else to mark it out as memorable in its own right.
Production was finally completed on the film after Octopussy had already hit cinemas and it didn’t get released until 7th October 1983 in the United States, where its opening weekend gross outstripped the Moore film. EON got its own back for the UK release date on 15th December, by officially announcing the next instalment A View To A Kill and sucking up some of the film’s publicity.
It did get better reviews at the time, but it’s impossible not to notice the Connery nostalgia creeping in, with Time Out’s review gushing: “the real clincher is the fact that Bond is once more played by a man with the right stuff.”
As with many nostalgic things, it seems plausible that people didn’t actually want Sean Connery to play Bond again as much as they wanted to be 10 years old again.
It’s tempting to say there are no winners this time on Takeshi’s Castle. One film is trying a little too hard to be funny, the other tries a little too hard to be serious, and neither seems willing to accept that the lead is advancing in years or look any closer at their serial patterns of leching over younger women and murdering randomers. It’s galling in retrospect, when you consider that the newer films have been calling Daniel Craig’s Bond a dinosaur since his third outing.
Stacking them up against each other, Never Say Never Again received warmer reviews, but it cost more to make and ultimately made less than Octopussy at the box office, despite a strong opening weekend. Even so, the EON film had the benefit of the summer holidays, with matinee screenings and all, and the weight of the brand behind it.
For his part, McClory thought there was more to be done with the story after Never Say Never Again, and in the 1990s, he mooted a new Thunderball-inspired Bond project titled Warhead 2000, with an eye on casting Timothy Dalton or Liam Neeson as Bond. Even with EON embroiled in legal disputes elsewhere, this idea never came to fruition.
MGM later acquired the rights to Never Say Never Again as part of the deal that got it the screen rights to Casino Royale, which EON duly adapted in 2006. That same year, McClory passed away at the age of 80, and in 2013, his estate sold all screen rights back to EON, which enabled it to use SPECTRE, in Spectre. That means the screen rights are all in one place for now, but looking back on the battle of the Bonds, we wonder what clashes the future may hold.
Fleming’s books will enter the public domain around the world in the next 10 to 15 years and it’s been speculated for a while that EON may be looking to sell its stake after No Time To Die. Will James Bond enter the same canon of British characters as Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood, where multiple producers can work on different takes at the same time? In the not-too-distant future, could we have a young Bond and an old Bond in the same way as Enola Holmes and Mr Holmes exist alongside the more traditional take?
For now, we’ll leave you with Brolin’s screen test, which was released as part of the special features on the Ultimate Edition home release of Octopussy, and let you wonder how different things might have been if not for the battle of the Bonds…
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