1983's Battle of the Bonds: "Octopussy" vs. "Never Say Never Again"
There Can Be Only One!
1983 was definitely the strangest year in the long history of the James Bond franchise. The thirteenth entry in the long running series of 007 films - Octopussy, starring then-current Bond Roger Moore - was released during the peak summer-blockbuster season, and then a second James Bond film hit multiplexes later that same year - Never Say Never Again, an independent production which featured original 007 Sean Connery making a long-awaited return to his most famous role. Most fans probably didn't even stop to ask how this strange set of circumstances came about; they simply rejoiced at being able to see their hero on the big screen twice in the same year. As it turned out, this Battle of the Bonds was the end result of a bizarre series of court battles and behind-the-scenes drama that had lasted for nearly a quarter century
How "Never" Came to Be
Ian Fleming created James Bond in the early 1950s, inspired by his own experiences in the British Navy's Intelligence Division during World War II. By the end of that decade, the super-spy had appeared in a half dozen best selling novels and the character had begun to garner interest from filmmakers. The first Bond book to be filmed was 1953's Casino Royale, which was adapted in a 1954 episode of the U.S. adventure TV series Climax! In this one-hour version, "Jimmy Bond" (played by Barry Nelson) was an American agent who worked for "Combined Intelligence."
Still hoping that 007 could make the jump to the silver screen, Fleming began working with an Irish screenwriter and director named Kevin McClory in 1958 on a screenplay for Bond's potential feature film debut - an original action adventure awkwardly titled Longitude 78 West. The film script went through numerous title changes, drafts and re-writes over the next several years, until the project eventually fell apart due to financial difficulties. Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli's Eon Productions swooped in shortly afterwards to snap up the film rights to the Bond novels, and their series of films debuted in 1962 with Dr. No, starring Sean Connery. The rest, as they say, is history.
When Fleming later used the aborted Longitude project as the basis for his ninth James Bond novel, 1961's Thunderball, Kevin McClory sued Fleming on breach-of-copyright grounds, claiming that he had created the bulk of the story elements in Thunderball, including the basic plot outline, numerous characters, and the name of the global criminal organization SPECTRE. London's High Court settled the matter after a lengthy battle, and decided that Fleming had indeed used McClory's concepts in his novel without giving him proper credit. By this time, Eon Productions' Dr. No had already become a box office smash and sequels were in the works, so the Court decreed that when Eon eventually made a film version of Thunderball (which happened in 1965), McClory should receive an onscreen producer's credit. As the owner of the Thunderball story concepts, the court further decided that McClory was free to use those ideas to produce a film of his own if he so desired - after ten years had passed.
As soon as that ten years was up, McClory began trying to mount his own competing Bond film based on his Thunderball ideas. Throughout the '70s McClory made periodic announcements stating that he was about to begin production on films with titles like James Bond of the Secret Service or Warhead, but none of the projects ever got off the ground due to difficulties in procuring financing - as well as legal challenges from Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli's Eon Productions. Now that Eon's "legitimate" Bond series was a worldwide box office phenomenon, Broccoli and Saltzman certainly weren't about to let anyone else horn in on their territory if they could help it.
"Never Say Never Again" Trailer:
After numerous fits and starts, McClory's "alternate" Bond film finally began falling into place when the original 007 Sean Connery, came aboard to reprise the role. Connery's relationship with Broccoli and Saltzman had been rocky throughout his years as Bond, so one had to wonder if his agreeing to take part in a competing production was his subtle way of thumbing his nose at his old bosses. Connery was given input into the film's script and casting to sweeten the deal, and once he came into the picture the project finally found sufficient financing through a consortium of independent European production companies. Long time Bond film editor and one time director Peter Hunt (1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service) was asked to helm Never Say Never Again, but he declined, saying he did not want to jeopardize his long working relationship with Eon. Therefore Irvin Kershner of The Empire Strikes Back fame was hired instead. The film's title was suggested by Connery's wife, Micheline, because her husband had famously told reporters that he would "never" play James Bond again after being lured back by a big pay day for 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. When Never Say Never Again began filming in 1982, Connery was 52 years old - four years younger than Roger Moore, the man who'd replaced him as 007 and who was in the midst of filming his sixth Bond adventure, Octopussy, at the same time!
The release of a new James Bond movie always gets a lot of press attention, so naturally the news of two dueling Bond pictures in the same year caused more media hysteria than usual. The press tried their best to manufacture a "Roger vs. Sean" feud, but neither Moore nor Connery spoke ill of the other during interviews for their respective films. "Roger plays it his way, I play it mine," Connery said. "I don't want to make comparisons." He even suggested that he and Roger Moore pose for a photo together and issue a joint press statement to squash the rumors of a "rivalry" between the two men, which unfortunately never came to pass. Rumor had it that McClory originally wanted to release Never Say Never Again to theaters on the same day as Octopussy, but the head-to-head battle never materialized. MGM/United Artists released Octopussy in June of 1983 while Warner Brothers opened Never Say Never Again in October
Comparing the two films.
I revisited both of the 1983 Bonds recently and found Roger Moore's Octopussy to be a fairly paint-by-numbers Bond adventure. A rogue Russian general (is there any other kind in a Bond movie?) wants to kick start World War III so that the Soviet Union can expand its territory into the rest of Europe. He's financing this plan by smuggling Faberge Eggs and other precious treasures out of Russia and selling them at auction. 007 becomes involved when a fellow double-0 who was investigating the general ends up dead. Bond travels to India and both East and West Germany in this globe trotting adventure, encountering the general's partner in the operation, the mysterious Octopussy (Maud Adams) and her private all-female army. Though I remember liking this film a lot during the '80s when it was a cable-TV staple, this time I found Octopussy to be overlong and needlessly complicated. The story could've actually been told without the Octopussy character; her sole purpose (aside from giving the movie its title) is to provide a love interest for Bond and eye candy via her butt kicking squad of warrior women. Roger Moore, who was starting to seriously show his age at this point, is game as usual but the film's tendency towards goofy comedy rather than action is distracting. When 007 slips into a gorilla suit to hide from East German border guards aboard a circus train, and later defuses a nuclear device while dressed as a clown, you can't help but feel a bit sorry for him. It was not a surprise when the next Bond film - 1985's A View To A Kill - was Moore's last outing as 007.
Meanwhile, McClory and Connery tried hard with Never Say Never Again but the film is never much more than a curiosity item. If you've seen Thunderball you already know the basic plot - Bond is sent to the Bahamas to recover two nuclear weapons stolen by SPECTRE - and It's fun to watch Connery play 007 as an agent who's older but still has his smug, self-satisfied cool. Compared to the 1965 film, though, Never Say Never Again feels much slower paced and looks quite dated even by '80s standards. A young Kim Basinger (in one of her earliest film roles) provides eye candy as the femme fatale Domino, but she's no match for former Miss France Claudine Auger, who played the same character in Thunderball.
Without such familiar 007 touchstones as the "gun barrel" opening sequence, Monty Norman's James Bond theme, and different actors playing familiar characters like "M," "Q," Miss Moneypenny, etc., Never Say Never Again feels like you're watching an alternate-universe version of a James Bond film. The right guy might be playing the lead, but everything else just seems a bit "off."
Which 1983 James Bond Film Did You Prefer?
So Who Won the Battle of the Bonds?
Contemporary film critics were kinder to Never Say Never Again than they were to Octopussy. Moore's film got mixed reviews but performed slightly better at the box office; its wordwide take was $187 million, compared to Never Say Never Again's $160 million. Kevin McClory apparently intended to continue making his own Bond films - during the 1990s he was supposedly planning a new movie called Warhead 2000 A.D., which would've starred recently-ousted Bond actor Timothy Dalton. This sparked yet another round of legal battles between Eon Productions/United Artists and McClory, who by this time had the backing of Sony Pictures.
Kevin McClory died in 2006, four days after the release of Casino Royale - the first James Bond film to star Daniel Craig as 007, and the first released by Bond's new "home" at Columbia Pictures, who partnered with Eon to take over distribution of the series after the financial collapse of United Artists. His passing signaled, at long last, that the Battle of the Bonds had come to an end.
© 2015 Keith Abt