Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds

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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.

This feature was originally published in October 2020 – it has been expanded and updated as part of our regular James Bond features. It also contains moderate spoilers for Octopussy and Never Say Never Again.

“You’re right, we are two of a kind.”


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In July 2022, Barbara Broccoli stated that Bond 26 will be a reinvention of the franchise after Daniel Craig’s take, and filming is “at least two years away”. At the time of writing, it looks like the next instalment will arrive in 2025 at the earliest, and that’s after an almost six-year gap between 2015’s Spectre and 2021’s No Time To Die.

It’s a far cry from the old days, when Eon Productions cranked out Bond movies every couple of years, or even 1983, when there were two 007 adventures released within four months of each other.

First off the blocks was Eon’s Octopussy, a film that unfolds more like a mystery story than any of Roger Moore’s previous Bond movies. When 009 (Andy Bradford) turns up dead at the British embassy in East Berlin, Bond is tasked with investigating what his murder has to do with a fake Fabergé egg, a Russian general’s scheme to force US nuclear disarmament, and an all-female commune ran by businesswoman and smuggler Octopussy (Maud Adams).

A few months later – strike a light, it’s Sean Connery as James Bond again! Must be a Thursday. Never Say Never Again restages Thunderball with an older 007, relegated to teaching by a younger, less indulgent M (Edward Fox). However, when Bond happens upon an extortion plot involving two stolen nuclear warheads, he’s thrust back into action chasing down SPECTRE’s Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and his mistress Domino (Kim Basinger).

Seeing the original Bond go through the motions of a very familiar story, the “unofficial” outing was the culmination of producer Kevin McClory’s decades-long quest to make a rival Bond movie after securing the screen rights to Thunderball, Blofeld, and SPECTRE in various court battles with Fleming and Eon.

Read more: Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations

After a few thwarted attempts, McClory got his Thunderball remake up and running at Warner Bros in 1983, just as Eon was getting its 13th Bond film underway. 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. If not for this clash of projects, we might have seen Moore bow out two films earlier than he did, whereas this marked Connery’s return to headlining big movies, ahead of his career getting a second wind later in the 1980s.

Then again, 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…


“All I wanted was a sweet distraction for an hour or two…”

Roger Moore’s sixth outing lives in infamy for various reasons, not least that it’s the Bond film so good, Homer Simpson saw it twice. At this point in the franchise, Moore planned to do a Craig and retire from the role after five films. When production wrapped on 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 to return as 007 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.”

The producers wanted to make this the first Bond film set in India, and in pre-production, Flashman writer George MacDonald Fraser was recruited to write a first draft in 1981. His script was later reworked by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum, though the “he’s never been to India but did his research” quality that the writers cooed about in press for the film seems to have lingered to the shooting script. Behind the camera, editor and second-unit director John Glen had graduated to the director’s chair with For Your Eyes Only and went on to direct every Bond film of the 1980s as well.

Also returning was Maud Adams, who had previously appeared in The Man With The Golden Gun as Scaramanga’s lover Andrea and had more recently screen-tested with Brolin and the other potential replacements for Moore. Octopussy isn’t the lead antagonist here (she and Bond are “two of a kind” as both the dialogue and Rita Coolidge’s theme song call them) but villainous duties are split between exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and over-zealous Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff).

Following For Your Eyes Only’s attempted back-to-basics seriousness, Octopussy was supposed to follow the same tack, but its espionage mystery plot burns through great ideas for Bond films in a not-very-satisfying package.

Heck, you could make a whole movie out of 007 having to traverse Europe and cross the Berlin Wall in 24 hours to stop a nuclear bomb going off. In Octopussy, he finds out in enough time to wait for Robert Brown’s M to come and meet him at Checkpoint Charlie and authorise his passage. (Wow, cue that Monty Norman music!)

The bit where Khan and his cronies hunt Bond for sport might also be a good old-school predicament for our hero, but here it’s a 10-minute detour that includes Bond swinging on a vine and doing the actual Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan yell, a nadir of the series’ recent audio shout-outs to other movies. Once again, what should feel desperate is hilarious and what should be hilarious feels desperate.

The super-charged tuk-tuk chase through a busy marketplace is a highlight for both comedy and action, but all in all, the sense of humour here lands some distance from the peaks of the Moore era’s heightened comic sensibilities. It’s the sort of film that keeps spiking its suspense and undermining the big stunts and action sequences with unwarranted random bits like Bond and Q storming Khan’s palace in a big Union-Jack hot-air balloon, with Desmond Llewelyn waving his enormous hands around to complete the diversion.

Coupled with the meandering story and the 130-minute running time, this makes it 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 or the next fella getting on well with this material.

Nevertheless, 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 theme tune in his score, expressly 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 its mawkish melody also feels ill-suited to a Bond film as bawdy and chaotic as this one.

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…

Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond 
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen

Never Say Never Again

McClory and Eon’s legal sabre-rattling had gone on for a while before this one came along. In the courts, Broccoli torpedoed Warhead, a project that he argued would constitute an unauthorised James Bond sequel rather than an adaptation of Thunderball, while McClory successfully blocked Eon’s use of Blofeld as the villain in The Spy Who Loved Me – and all the better for that film!

The latest, pettiest shot across the bow was a couple of years before Never Say Never Again entered production, when For Your Eyes Only opened with an uncharacteristically silly non-sequitur. in which Bond unceremoniously kills a very Blofeld-like figure who attacks him on his way back from visiting his wife’s grave. The skit protests a little too much, as if to say they didn’t need the villain after all, but then we all know that, really, don’t we?

Meanwhile, there was no love lost between Connery and Eon, so the star had initially agreed to serve as a screenwriter and consultant on McClory’s film on various iterations of his rival project. He enjoyed the process enough that he became attached to play Bond for the seventh time as well, despite his opposition to the idea after Diamonds Are Forever. Connery’s wife Micheline suggested the new film’s official title, for which she’s credited at the end.

To drop another Simpsons reference, it seems the most rewarding part was when they gave him his money. He scooped a $3m salary (along with an undisclosed percentage of the box-office gross) for Never Say Never Again, 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. However, he’s on the record calling the production “a bloody Mickey Mouse operation”.

The legal blocks were cleared when McClory licensed his rights to American producer Jack Schwartzman, who dropped the existing scripts and got a green-light for the project at Warner Bros.

Schwartzman hired 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 of Thunderball. The general feeling was that the film should be a comedic thriller somewhere in the middle of Semple Jr’s range. Fresh off directing The Empire Strikes Back for LucasFilm, Irvin Kershner was signed up to direct.

Semple Jr later departed the project after creative disagreements with Kershner, leaving the film with several script problems that needed to be solved on the fly as filming began in September 1982. 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 every couple of years, 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 title role in Octopussy because she had already accepted the role of SPECTRE agent Fatima Blush. (She’s great too.)

However, Connery didn’t have a fun time of it, 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, apparently forgetting that he’d aged in the intervening 20 years.

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 UK envoy Nigel Small-Fawcett, one of his first big Hollywood roles.

On the plus side, Brandauer’s volatile turn as Largo almost makes it worth seeking the film out. Peppering his megalomania with paranoia and downright confusion about being cuckolded by this “underpaid British agent”, his nuanced performance is head and shoulders above Adolfo Celi’s dull turn in the original Thunderball. It would comfortably rank in many lists of the best Bond villain performances, if only the film itself was counted.

Little seen due to its omission from the boxset canon, Never Say Never Again is bereft of the rest of the franchise’s most iconic trappings, (for instance, Lani Hall’s tepid title song plays out over an opening action scene rather than the traditional Maurice Binder-style titles) but for a legally distinctive outing, 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 Never Say Never Again 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 come Never Say Never Again’s UK release date on 15th December, by officially announcing the next instalment, (which would be Moore’s final Bond film) on the same day and sucking up some of the film’s publicity. Again, the sort of pettiness that only a franchise that’s been going strong for more than 20 years can pull off.


Who won?

In this “battle of the Bonds”, it’s really tempting to say there are no winners this time on Takeshi’s Castle.

One film tries too hard to be funny, the other takes itself a little too seriously, and neither seems aware of its 50-something lead’s advancing years beyond one or two throwaway lines, and certainly isn’t going to examine their serial patterns of murdering randomers or leching over women young enough to be their daughters. Neither of them are at their best here, which is 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 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.”

However, the latter film also cost more to make and ultimately made less than Octopussy at the box office, despite its strong opening weekend. Even so, the EON film had every advantage, from the fine-tuned production machine to the summer release, with matinee screenings and all the weight of the brand behind it. By comparison, Never Say Never Again is second-run in all regards.

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.

Amazon’s recent acquisition of MGM and its library makes it a stakeholder in the past and future of the James Bond franchise. While Broccoli, Wilson, and Eon look set to keep their stake in 007 in the family after No Time To Die, Ian Fleming’s books will enter the public domain in the next decade or so.

Through the years, there are countless quotes about Bond being part of the same canon of British characters like Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood or (shudder) Tarzan, but with their hounding of McClory’s rival projects, that’s never quite extended to other producers being able to make their own takes. In the not-too-distant future, might we have many more Bond adaptations arriving all at once, in much the same way as there are different takes on those other public-domain characters?

We’ll see, but for now, we’ll leave you to enjoy Brolin’s screen test with Maud Adams, 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…

Octopussy is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 8th July. Never Say Never Again is not back in cinemas, but it’s on ITV1 in the UK on Saturday 9th July at 8:00 p.m.

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