After listening to one of my regular podcasts recently, I realized that there exists a deeply important topic about which most people seem to be deeply confused. As I have a good deal of understanding pertaining to this particular issue, I have decided to use space in my blog in an attempt to clarify things, so that discussion of this deeply important subject can move forward, freed of misconceptions and the errors that those misconceptions can create. These are matters of deep import, and my blog is a wasted opportunity if I do not use it to help the world in its ongoing grapples with this issue.
I speak, of course, of the plot of Octopussy.
The podcast in question was the James Bonding cast, of which I have written before. Octopussy is actually one of my favorite in the series of films featuring the adventures of British secret agent James Bond (code-number, 007). It’s not the first James Bond movie I ever saw – that was Moonraker – but Octopussy was the first one I ever went to see by myself, when I was twelve years old. One shouldn’t discount that: it’s generally my view that what one is into when one is twelve is likely what one is into for much of the rest of life. And that’s not a bad thing.
So, if you remember Octopussy, it’s likely as the one with the ridiculous name, the one where James Bond dresses up as a clown at the end, the one where Bond flies a tiny jet plane in the pre-credit sequence, et cetera. If you remember the plot at all, you likely recall that there’s a Russian general with a plot to detonate an atomic bomb on a military base, and that somehow the story involves Faberge eggs. It is, admittedly, not the easiest plot in the world to follow.
But having listened to the James Bonding guys struggle to explain things, I realized first that the story isn’t that hard to put together, and second, that enough is enough. Let’s get this over with, shall we?
After the opening credits end, we’re in East Berlin (remember, this was 1983), and there’s a clown on the run from two identical twins who are expert at throwing knives. The clown is no slouch, very nearly pulling off the escape before getting a knife in his back and falling into a river. This clown staggers to the British embassy, where he tumbles through a glass door as he dies. Something rolls across the floor to the feet of the Ambassador: a Faberge egg.
Next, Bond is briefed in London. It turns out that someone is auctioning Faberge eggs and other rare Russian treasures, someone unknown and shadowy. MI6 has no idea why, but they suspect that the Russians are raising money for use in intelligence work. The reason this is all relevant to MI6 in the first place? The reason some shenanigans in the jewelry market is on their radar at all? Because the egg in the clown’s hand is a forgery of an egg that’s about to be auctioned, and because the dead clown is actually Agent 009.
Meanwhile, a Soviet general named Orlov is trying to sell the Soviet High Command (or whatever they call it) on his plan to steamroll Western Europe, but they are having none of it, with General Gogol (a recurring character in Bond movies in that period) pointing out that the West will respond to a Soviet invasion by nuking the Soviet Union. So here’s Orlov’s problem: he wants to overrun the West without risking nuclear reprisal.
Next comes a pretty odd scene: Orlov is called to the bowels of the Kremlin Art Repository, which looks like the Soviet equivalent of the giant warehouse into which the US government stashed the Ark of the Covenant in 1936. There’s a guy down here working on forging jewelry pieces, and also there is one of our knife-wielding twins. The jewelry guy, named Lenkin, informs Orlov that his superiors have announced an unscheduled inventory of the Repository holdings, and that the fake egg has been lost. Orlov says that “their man in London” will have to get the original egg back. So here’s the first plot point: these characters are replacing treasures from the Kremlin Art Repository with fakes and auctioning the originals in the West.
Now, one might wonder how long such a plot can go on. Sooner or later, someone is going to do an inventory and discover that a lot of priceless art objects in the Kremlin Art Repository are actually fakes, and they will find that the actual items have been auctioned off to Western collectors. So what could possibly be the point of all this? As M later asks Bond, “Why would General Orlov participate in a jewelry caper?” Bond replies that the jewelry is merely “the tip of the tentacle”, and it really is. The key here is that General Orlov doesn’t give a shit about the jewelry.
We’ll come back to that. In London, Bond goes to the auction and antagonizes the eventual buyer, an Afghan man named Kamal Khan (played, in nice 1980s whitewashing, by Frenchman Louis Jourdan), buy forcing up the price and, we later learn, actually switching the real egg for the fake one. Bond knows that he was at no risk of winning the auction: Khan had to make the purchase, but Bond doesn’t know why. Off he goes to New Delhi to find out why.
And what does Bond find out in India? Well, among other things, he learns that Orlov and Khan are working together. Orlov shows up at Khan’s palace with a cask filled with jewelry, and he overhears the men talking about something to do with the town of Karlmarxstadt in East Germany. Bond also learns that there’s a connection of some sort between Kamal Khan and a mysterious leader of a women’s cult named “Octopussy”. He learns that her cult is a front for a crime organization, albeit a fairly small-potatoes one, whose activities include using her circus’s travels throughout Europe for...wait for it...jewelry smuggling!
So, by the time Bond arrives in East Germany, he knows that Octopussy is smuggling the jewelry, with Kamal Khan acting as the “middle man”. Orlov gives the jewelry to Khan, who has it duplicated "according to Lenkin's specifications". Then Khan keeps the genuine jewelry, while Orlov returns the fakes to the Kremlin. Octopussy then smuggles the jewelry into the West; there, Khan sells it and, presumably, keeps the money. Or so it seems.
But remember what we established above: Orlov doesn’t give a shit about the jewelry. He has a huge doublecross in mind. He’s arranging this shipment of jewelry, well enough, but the only reason he’s participating in the jewelry caper is to give him a way of smuggling his real goal into the West: an atomic bomb. As the train is setting out, Orlov’s men switch the cask full of jewelry for a cask loaded with the bomb. The idea is that when the bomb detonates, on a US Air Force Base in West Germany, everyone will assume that it was an accidental detonation of an American bomb. This will enable Europe to demand that all nuclear weapons be removed from their countries, allowing Orlov to send his armies into Western Europe without fear of nuclear retaliation.
Octopussy is to die in the blast, because you always sacrifice your co-conspirators, if you can. She has no idea at all of the bomb plot, remember. As for Kamal Khan? He stands to make a ton of money, and Orlov will be, as he says with his dying words, “a hero of the Soviet Union.”
I always loved this plot, to be honest. It’s complex, like any good spy thriller plot should be, and it employs the conspiratorial activities of people who each want different things. It’s just plausible enough, by Bond film standards, to be a bit scary as Bond’s race against time in the film’s last act plays out. There’s some real edge-of-the-seat stuff that goes on in that last part of the film as Bond races to get to the bomb before it goes off, and the scene in the train car between Bond and Orlov is as good a Bond-confronts-villain scene as there is. It’s the only time Bond and Orlov are on screen together, and those who think Roger Moore a lesser actor should watch this scene again. Bond, having realized that Orlov plans to detonate a bomb on a USAF base, says, “What happens when the US retaliates?” Steven Berkoff as Orlov, who has been wildly overacting through the entire movie (to this day, my sister brings up his goofy enunciation of the word Czechoslovakia – “Czech-o-slo-VAKIA!!!”), goes understated right here to look at Bond, smirk slightly, and simply say, “Against whom?”
I love that scene.
I’m not sure why the James Bonding guys apparently had such a hard time following all this. Admittedly, there isn’t really any scene at which all the dots are connected, so it’s easy to lose sight of how the jewelry-smuggling caper fits into the larger, “Tilt the geopolitical scales” scheme. But the connective tissue is there, and when one is trying to piece together a complex plot, I find that the best way to figure it all out is to first keep in mind what the villain, or villains, are trying to achieve. What does the bad guy want? That should inform all the things that happen. In the case of Octopussy, you have two outright villains and a villain/ally who are all working together but who all want different things.
So, when one of the James Bonding guests asks how they expect to get away with switching real jewels for fake ones (or something like that), the answer is: They don’t care. That’s not the objective. By the time the fake jewelry is discovered, the world will have bigger fish to fry, the real jewelry will either be sold or in Kamal Khan's collection.
Thus concludes our lesson. Tune in next week when I either propose a comprehensive plan for solving global warming, or post pictures of the cats and the dog!