Background: given what Eon were facing in 1983 they made some odd choices for their 13th entry in the Bond series.
A little on the challenge before the producers at the time, before looking at how Octopussy came to be.
Kevin McClory had been threatening for some time to use what he had (the plot of Thunderball and certain concepts contained within it) and provide Eon with some competition. This year was when he had it all together. For the first time in 21 years not only were Eon competing with other action movies and big releases, they were going head to head with another Bond movie (the spoof version of Casino Royale and vehicles like OK Connery, despite starring many people from the Bond movies and Sean Connery's brother, Neil, were not serious competition). To make Eon even more nervous, McClory had managed to get Sean Connery to agree to star in his production as Bond and had cheekily titled it Never Say Never Again (possibly in reference to Connery's refusal to return to the role). Never Say Never Again is basically a remake of Thunderball with Klaus Maria Brandauer playing another version of Emilio Largo, Maximilian Largo, possibly a brother, and Kim Basinger taking the Domino role and Barbara Carrera as Fiona Volpe (more on Carrera and her involvement with Octopussy in Casting).
Eon tried to laugh it off, but I think they were nervous about Never Say Never Again, and this shows in Octopussy. They hired novelist George MacDonald Fraser to work on the script with Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum. MacDonald Fraser was best known for his Flashman series of books. They starred one of fictions great anti-heroes Harry Flashman (they're a personal favourite) and while Flashman is a confirmed coward he does share some things with Bond (he globe trots, he often engages in battles for Queen and country, he enjoys a high life and he's also very good with the ladies, his bed hopping is legendary), so he was a good fit for a Bond script. It was MacDonald Fraser who suggested setting a good part of the film in India, he served in India during his time in the army, and held a great affection and a good deal of knowledge about the country, especially it's colonial history.
The title is taken from an actual short story collection (Octopussy and The Living Daylights) written by Ian Fleming, although the story is completely original, except for the bit featuring the Faberge egg, that was a story called Property of a Lady, which may have been a better title in hindsight.
Setting a Bond film in India wasn't necessarily a bad move, he'd never been there before, it's an exotic and attractive location, they loved Bond films and their own Bollywood film industry was really starting to take off.
Unfortunately the story is a confused mess, it's badly miscast, much was played for laughs, the gadgets are overdone and a lot of the Indian scenes (especially those in the streets of an unnamed city, although I think it's meant to be Delhi) are culturally offensive. I had hoped we'd left that behind as we moved into the 1980's.
Story: I won't attempt to explain it, because to be honest like with The Man With The Golden Gun I don't understand it, despite having seen the film a number of times. There are two many threads and quite complex characters that many of the actors (Maud Adams in particular) don't have the ability to portray with the nuances that they require.
Suffice it to say that it has a circus, lots of clowns, stolen Faberge eggs and other faked and real Russian treasures, a mad Russian general who wants to take over the world for the glory of the Soviet Union, a nuclear bomb, beautiful female outlaws, an arrogant Afghan prince, his giant bodyguard/sidekick, deadly Indian assassins, a former professional tennis player masquerading as a spy, a plethora of 'cool' spy gadgets and of course a blue ringed octopus.
Bond finds himself on the trail of an Afghan prince called Kamal Khan, after the prince purchases a Faberge egg at a Sothebys auction for about 200,000 more pounds than it was supposed to go for. What is important about the egg is that prior to the auction it was recovered from the dead agent 009, who was dressed as a circus clown at the time with a large throwing knife embedded in his back. It's also a fake, Bond palmed the real thing and replaced it during the auction and he thinks Khan paid more than it was worth because he couldn't risk anyone else buying it.
This of course takes him to India, Khan's home. Despite Delhi being the only city actually mentioned, audiences are treated to vistas featuring the Taj Mahal, which is in Agra (approximately 2 and a half hours by train), admittedly Bond does arrive via helicopter, but I really don't think it was that fast. Presumably the film makers were presupposing that their audiences weren't aware of the country's size and used the Taj Mahal as a point of reference and a way of letting everyone know that 'hey we're in India, people!'
There's a chase through the streets, this time using the little motorised rickshaws that are a popular means of transport through the humanity choked streets. Professional tennis player Vijay Armritraj was cast as Bond's Station I contact, also named Vijay and they played on this by having the agent battle pursuers with a tennis racket, including the sounds of balls being struck and having the crowd flick their heads from side to side as if they're watching a hotly contested exchange on the court. There are bad guys despatched by being pushed onto beds of nails and hot coals, snake charmers, Vijay even plays the Bond theme on a snake charmer's flute. Later on some of Octopussy's outlaws (nearly all overwhelmingly European looking) do some belly dancing to distract Khan's guards (how I longed for the days of From Russia With Love and Leila, who could actually belly dance, being India maybe they were nautch dancers). The assassins Khan hires to kill Bond were also quite stereotypical, although I did like the spinning saw blade attached to a cord that one of them used as a tool of his trade. If they could find an Indian cliche they used it, the promotional poster (above) and the titles used the 8 armed Kali image.
I know I've said Get Smart often borrowed from Bond, in this case I think the film borrowed from the TV show. The opening scene with an agent dressed as a clown fleeing from a couple of knife throwers is right out of one of the TV shows episodes as is the scene with Bond being actively hunted by Khan and his people. They actually ignore a tiger in favour of the human prey.
Far too much of this was played for laughs and when you have Bond resorting to playing a clown, you just know things have gotten right out of hand.
As with most Bond films it ends on the water, this time in Octopussy's pleasure barge where it is revealed Bond appears to be faking the injuries he incurred rescuing Octopussy from being kidnapped by a plane piloted by the panicked Khan.
I've seen this one a few times and unlike On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which rises in my estimation on repeat viewings, Octopussy slides down my personal ranking scale.
Director: John Glen came back and for some reason he did a complete about face from what he had done so successfully in For Your Eyes Only. This one is filled with gadgets, Bond seems to heavily rely on them, and they don't even attempt to take it seriously most of the time, starting with the ridiculous double entendre title. I'm sure Octopussy is classified as action, but it fits better in comedy/action. I do wonder if Glen was influenced by Cubby Broccoli, who seemed to make some odd decisions with the later Moore films.
James Bond: Roger Moore did seriously talk about leaving after For Your Eyes Only, and even people associated with the films were concerned about his age. They screen tested James Brolin (I've seen some of his screen tests and even with him being American he would have made quite a good Bond) and they even considered Timothy Dalton. I believe Dalton came very close, but was offered a deal with the Royal Shakespeare Company and couldn't pass that up. When McClory secured the services of Sean Connery for Never Say Never Again, Eon decided that they needed an actor who audiences were comfortable in the role to go up against him, so some more zeros were inked onto Moore's cheque and he took the role.
Kamal Khan: of course when you're casting the role of an Afghan prince based in India it makes perfect sense to cast a French actor, best known as the romantic lead in a light musical comedy. Despite his unsuitability for the role, Louis Jourdan actually does a decent job with the character. He's broad caricature and makes quite a meal of the scenery for most of it. From interviews I saw conducted with Dana Broccoli I think the casting may have been another case of 'let's give a friend some work'.
Gobinda: Khan's large, strong, silent bodyguard was kind of a mix of Oddjob and Jaws, although he didn't have Oddjob's hat or Jaws' teeth. He does crush a pair of dice in his hand after Bond cheats to beat Khan at backgammon and that's rather reminiscent of Oddjob crushing the golfball in Goldfinger after Bond does something similar to beat Goldfinger at golf. Kabir Bedi was already popular in Bollywood and was an easy casting decision. He still works frequently, both in Bollywood and Italy where he's very popular.
General Orlov: Orlov is another caricature villain. He's a Russian general using the money Khan gives him for Russian treasures to help him start WW III, which he believes his forces are equipped to win and spread the doctrine of the Soviet Union worldwide. He was an anachronistic character, as the Cold War really was grinding to an end at the time. He's played with eye rolling, mouth frothing relish by Steven Berkoff.
Peripheral roles: Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn both returned as Moneypenny and Q respectively. Moneypenny's role was once again minimized and to add insult to injury they gave her a younger, more attractive assistant, Penelope Smallbone, played by Michaela Clavell, daughter of novelist James Clavell. It is the younger, prettier Penelope that Bond flirts with, before she gives him a Moneypenny style rebuff. They would have been better simply casting Clavell as Moneypenny and retiring Maxwell at this point, but that would have also meant breaking up the Bond film family a bit. Q goes into the field again, helping keep an eye on Bond as well as supplying him with gadgets. I think they only gave this role to Q to beef up his part a little, because there's no real reason for him to be in India, he's also none too happy about it, and Bond has gone back to being the silly schoolboy in their relationship again. I think I can safely include Geoffrey Keen's Minister of Defence Frederick Gray and Walter Gotell's General Gogol as recurring characters now. Gray seems to be in all meetings Bond has with M, possibly helping the new actor transition into the role and Gotell is the voice of common sense as Gogol, trying to talk Orlov down off his crazy tree.
M: this was Robert Brown's first outing as M, audiences had seen him previously as Admiral Hargreaves. There's no real explanation as to why M looks different, so I think audiences are simply meant to assume that Bernard Lee's character now looks like Robert Brown, similarly to how Bond used to look like Sean Connery, but now looks like Roger Moore. It's quite a minor role in comparison to some of Bernard Lee's later appearances as the MI6 commander. The casting was also rather amusing in that Robert Brown played Gurth in the 1950's TV series Ivanhoe, which also starred Roger Moore as the title character and Gurth is Ivanhoe's squire, so the tables have been turned.
Magda: I'm really not sure where to put Magda. She's Octopussy's 2IC, but she seems to work as much for Khan as she does for Octopussy, but then turns completely good later on. It's a weird characterisation that Kristina Wayborn does her best with. She, like a few of the smaller female roles, probably would have been better cast in the major role, she was a better actress than Maud Adams, although there's not much between them.
Vijay: the character, who meets a rather sticky end, makes sense as Bond's Indian contact. The casting of professional tennis player Vijay Armritraj (he was ranked as high as 16 at one point of his career) was largely a concession to where they were filming. Armritraj did flirt with acting for a while, although this was probably the highpoint of that career. He gave the Indian audiences someone that they could identify with, as well as being a familiar face to audiences outside of India through his tennis achievements. He didn't do much acting which is just as well because he really doesn't have any aptitude for it.
Octopussy: Maud Adams was far from first choice for the role. Sybil Danning was publicly announced as having landed the role in a magazine, but this proved to be false. Another serial contender for Bond girl roles, Faye Dunaway was deemed as being too expensive (given the budgets of the films, she must have been asking for an awful lot of money), Barbara Carrera was approached, but turned it down to play Fiona Volpe in Never Say Never Again (ouch!). They then flirted with the idea of actually casting a south Asian actress in the role and casting director Jane Jenkins looked at two Indian actresses like Persis Khambatta and Susie Coelho. Cubby Broccoli overrode her and decided to cast Maud Adams, initially there was reluctance to do as her character of Andrea Anders had been killed in The Man With The Golden Gun and they didn't want to confuse audiences, but that was 9 years ago and they darkened up her hair and altered the character's background to make her appearance fit. Stupid name aside, it's a fairly complex layered character, she's initially a villain in love with Bond and being duped by Khan, but turns good when she realises what has happened to her. Unfortunately Adams, predominantly a model, lacked the acting ability to accurately portray this duality. Again she seemed to have been on friendly terms with the Broccolis, and at this stage that counted for a lot in the films. Adams herself wasn't comfortable with the name of her character, I really don't see why after revealing her as the mysterious criminal boss known as Octopussy they couldn't have given her a proper name and used that. She also appears clearly uncomfortable with the role in general.
The Curse of the Bond Girl: Adams is the only actress so far to have played a major role in two Bond films, and if you count her brief crowd appearance in A View To A Kill, she's the only actress to appear in 3 films. She's really a model who acts a bit. She was good as Andrea Anders in The Man With The Golden Gun, but way out of her depth in Octopussy. She didn't do a lot after the film, but she does occupy a part in pop culture as the only woman to play two significant roles in Bond films, and at age 37/38 when she was cast as Octopussy one of the oldest Bond girls.
Pre credit sequence: this really does let you know that you're in for a farcical over the top ride. I kept getting flashbacks to Goldfinger. Bond is once again in a banana republic (it's never named, but the uniforms and the look are based on Cuba) causing havoc for the local government. It has nothing to do with the plot of the film, and that necessitates a second sequence after the credits, which may have been better placed here. There's a miniature (it fits into a horse float), highly manoeuvrable and very fast aeroplane involved, that's how Bond makes his escape and causes maximum chaos in the process. He winds up well away from his pursuers out of petrol at a small country petrol station, telling the surprised proprietor to 'fill 'er up' with the smug smirk that was identified with Moore's Bond.
Gadgets: after cutting back on the gadgets in For Your Eyes Only they must have missed them, because they were back with a vengeance in Octopussy. Maybe public feedback indicated that they were missed in the previous film. There's the aforementioned aeroplane, as well as the horse float it is transported in, complete with fake back end of the horse to help disguise it's presence, there's also an exploding briefcase that Bond uses on that mission. Vijay's rickshaw is more powerful and capable of pulling off 'wheelies' at high speed, which indicates that it's not standard issue. Q plants a miniature tracking device and a bug in the Faberge egg, he also supplies Bond with a watch capable of tracking the egg and a pen that has a miniature listening device as well as emitting corrosive metal burning acid from it's nib. I cannot leave out the fake crocodile 'boat', (a small one person boat disguised as a crocodile) either. That's possibly one of the franchise's most ridiculous gadgets.
Music: of all the things they got wrong, this was something they got right. Tim Rice wrote the lyrics to All Time High, while John Barry provided the music. Grammy Award and crossover singer Rita Coolidge sang it. It's another example of the film's title not being the name of the associated song. I don't think the charts at the time would have tolerated a song called Octopussy, it was also impossible to work that into the lyrics. It reminds me a little of Carly Simon's Nobody Does It Better from The Spy Who Loved Me in style and execution, although I think Nobody Does It Better is a better song. It charted respectably and it can stand alone as a track. It's not the best, but it's far from the worst.
James Bond will return in A View To A Kill.