When Flashman Met James Bond: George MacDonald Fraser and the Making of Octopussy
Octopussy is chiefly remembered as the film that went head to head with Never Say Never Again in the summer of 1983 as part of the famous ‘Battle of the Bonds’. It considerably outperformed Never Say Never Again at the box office, and the reviews broadly agreed that Octopussy held together better than Sean Connery’s ill-judged return as Bond. However, thirty years after their original release, neither film is well regarded critically.
After watching Octopussy again recently, I felt it a very strong addition to the Bond film series, helped in no small part by the screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser. I’m a huge fan of the Flashman novels and have read most of Fraser’s other books. In his memoir The Light’s on at Signpost (2002), Fraser devotes a chapter to the making of Octopussy. It’s a fascinating insight into how the author who gave the world the greatest literary coward ended up writing the screenplay for the cinema’s greatest hero.
Octopussy begins with a dying British secret agent arriving at the British embassy in East Berlin clutching a fake Fabergé egg. Bond is sent to investigate, and at an auction in Sotheby’s, he observes the exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) buy the real egg, or so Khan thinks, for an astronomical price. Tracking Khan to his palace in India, Bond discovers Khan has connections with the belligerent Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), and the beautiful, enigmatic Octopussy (Maud Adams). Octopussy is running a jewellery smuggling operation which, unbeknownst to her, is a front for Orlov’s plans to smuggle a nuclear bomb into a US air force base in Berlin. That’s about all I’ll say here about the plot. As you can probably tell from that summation, Octopussy has a convoluted narrative, but the plot threads come together nicely, and its makes a plausible and welcome break from earlier fantastical Bond films such as Moonraker.
Aside from the storyline, what I really admire about Octopussy is its exotic setting, lush photography and seductive evocation of India at its most magical. One critic derided the film as anachronistic. That really seems to be missing the point as the film is deliberately imbued with a sense of Kiplingesque adventure. George MacDonald Fraser’s love of India, his defence of the British Empire and his detailed knowledge of Victorian and Edwardian Britain made him, in many respects, a latter day Rudyard Kipling. In Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1990), Fraser alludes to Kipling with his choice of subjects: the novel features the American adventurer Josiah Harlan, whom it has been said was the real inspiration for Daniel Dravot in Kipling’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King’. Fraser’s Octupussy script presents Bond as a sort of aristocratic adventurer, which is well-suited to Roger Moore’s portrayal of the character. Moore, incidentally, is also something of a Kipling expert, at one point he was lined up to star in an adaptation of Soldiers Three with Sean Connery and Michael Caine. That production never happened sadly, but Moore did perform in a one-man play of Kipling’s poetry readings on the London stage. Here’s a snippet he gave on the The Paul O’Grady Show.
Fraser’s Romantic and unique vision for Octopussy was not greeted with unequivocal enthusiasm by Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli. Although he admired the legendary Bond producer describing him as ‘plump and cuddly and gentle; he was also generous and considerate’, he still got the impression that Cubby Broccoli distrusted him. Fraser wrote the original screenplay and then Bond regulars Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum revised it. Exactly who wrote what we’ll never know, but we do know from Fraser’s memoir that he made several choices and won a few arguments that had a profound effect on the film. For instance, at one of their first meetings he asked Broccoli to name all the locations that Bond had already visited in the films. After learning that Bond had never been to India it was decided that India should be the main setting. It proved to be an auspicious choice as Octopussy was released at a time of renewed interest in India in British cinema and television; films such as Gandhi (1982), Heat and Dust (1982), A Passage to India (1984) as well as television dramas such as The Jewel in the Crown (1984) and The Far Pavilions (1984) all dealt with the history of India and the Raj. Fraser wrote some scenes that had Broccoli in uproar, specifically where Bond is dressed first in a gorilla suit and then later a clown outfit. However, the scenes stayed in the finished film. He was overruled on some of his other ideas. Fraser wanted the pre-credits sequence, usually a mini-movie in itself in the Bond films, to be a motorbike chase set at the Isle of Mann TT (Tourist Trophy). Fraser was a resident on the Isle of Mann, as he cheerfully admitted for tax purposes, and described the TT as ‘the nearest thing to the Roman circus since the hermit Telemachus got the shutters put up at the Colosseum.’ Fraser thought it would be the perfect setting for ‘a duel-to-the-death sidecar race between Bond and a heavy.’ Alas, it never made it into the movie, but the eventual pre-credits sequence which pits Bond in a BD-5J aircraft against a small South-American army is a strong, thrilling sequence.
Octopussy may not be in the running as the best James Bond film, but its still a very strong one with a great deal of charm and a compelling storyline, qualities which have proved rare in later additions to the series. George MacDonald Fraser’s contribution as screenwriter should not be overlooked. The rich evocation of India is entirely his style as a writer and the film abounds with strong eccentric characters. Maud Adams is beautiful and memorable as the conflicted Octopussy, giving a touch of gravitas to a Bond girl whereas previous actresses had little to do but look pretty and swoon. Louis Jourdan is both diabolical and suave as Kamal Khan. It was a typical Fraser touch to make the villain an Afghan prince, Flashman is taken hostage by Akbar Khan during the Anglo-Afghan War in the very first book of the series. Also, the presence of a Soviet General in India harks back to the ‘Great Game’, the rivalry between Britain and Russia in Central Asia that was memorably portrayed in Kipling’s Kim (1901) and is also the subject of the fifth Flashman novel.
If you want a taste of George MacDonald Fraser’s writing on India, then a good starting point would be his wartime memoir Quartered Safe Out Here (1992). The title is taken from Kipling’s poem ‘Gunga Din’, and reading Fraser’s description of Calcutta makes me think he really was the heir to Kipling:
Calcutta is still my favourite city, probably because I haven’t been there since 1945 and remember it as it looked to me then, which was something like a paradise market. Nowadays the name conjures up images of poverty, starvation, disease, and squalor, of Mother Teresa and that fine old retired British officer who runs his own field kitchen in the slums. It wasn’t much better, I dare say, when I saw it in the twilight of the Raj, but I was there on seven days’ leave, and as every holiday-maker knows, even in this enlightened age, you don’t spend an eagerly-awaited vacation seeking out the plague-spots which exist within a mile of your hotel.
Not that you had to look far for them in “Cal”: the beggars displayed their sores and hideous deformities on the main streets, you could find corpses on the station platforms, and a tram-ride to Howrah would take you through slums and hovels populated by uncountable filthy multitudes who didn’t so much live as swarm. One look would have convinced the most zealous reformer of the sheer impossibility of doing anything with that vast, proliferating Augean stable, and if you had been any time in India you were hardened to it. There was something else, too, which if it did not transform the second city of Empire, lifted it at least a little from the depths. Everybody smiled.
That may be at the root of Britain’s three-century love affair with India. Nowadays it is taught (usually by people who never saw the Raj) that our passion for the sub-continent was mere pride of possession, arrogant satisfaction of conquest, and lust of exploitation, leavened only by a missionary zeal to improve. No doubt those feelings existed, among some, but they don’t account for the undying affection that so many of the island race felt for that wonderful country and its people. Nor do all its great marvels: the beauty of the land and its buildings, the endless variety of its customs and cultures, the wonder of its art and philosophy and ancient civilisation, the glory of its matchless regiments. That may inspire awe, even reverence, but they don’t quite explain why thousands of soldiers and merchants and administrators and traders left their hearts there, to say nothing of their mortal remains. One can babble about the magic of India, and convey nothing: I can only say that when I look back at it my lasting memory is of smiling faces, laughter in the bazaar, tiny naked children grinning as they clamoured for buckshee – and it wasn’t an act, for they still laughed and joked and play-acted if they didn’t get it. There was a life, a spirit about India that was irrepressible, and it outweighed all the faults and miseries and cruelties and corruptions. That, I think, is why the British loved it, and some of us will never get it out of our systems.