Film, James Bond, Partisan Cinema

Partisan Cinema: OCTOPUSSY (1983) – From Orlov to Putin

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, I look at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Just this last weekend, as of writing, I ticked another milestone off my cinematic bucket list. In this case, it was watching Octopussy on the big screen.

Much like catching Pokemon, my intent is to try and see every James Bond film on a cinema screen across my lifetime, especially those which were released before my birth. Octopussy was the first Bond movie filmed after I was born, shot during the same summer I came into the world: 1982. The 13th Bond film, and Roger Moore’s penultimate outing, Octopussy is considered outside of 007 die hards such as myself a cinematic relic. It would never make any film critics list of the greatest Bond pictures. For many, it is a creaking, close to pastiche example of Bond lethargy as Moore’s ageing lothario limped toward old age.

While especially catching it on a broader canvas made apparent that John Glen’s picture is rather critically underrated, and deserved of some level of reappreciation, Octopussy also stands out on a political level. Though 007 producer supremo Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli might have long protested that the Bond pictures were apolitical, he was lying to himself first and foremost. Every single one of them made before 1995 reflected the Cold War, with Octopussy no exception. Yet in this film, the political scheming by forces within the Soviet Union, Britain and Bond’s seemingly eternal geopolitical nemesis, is far more overt thanks to the inclusion of one character: General Orlov.

Looking back now, long after the end of the Cold War, with almost 40 years distance, what fascinates is not just how much Orlov stands as an artefact of a lost era, but rather how his Russian zealotry makes Octopussy far more relevant in 2022 than anyone might have expected.

Though 007 starts the picture swapping Faberge eggs as he heads on the trail of slick, smuggling Afghan prince Kamal Khan, an early scene in Octopussy places the U.S.S.R. in a very specific frame.

In each 007 picture, especially since the late 1970s, the Russians were increasingly portrayed as a thawing threat, a resting bear whose machinations lay behind many of the outlandish villains Moore’s Bond would face. They would be represented by General Gogol, portrayed by Walter Gotell, a wily figure who became synonymous with the franchise for a decade. In The Spy Who Loved Me, he would dispatch 007’s love interest, Anya Amasova, aka Agent XXX, sent to do for her country what Bond does for his. He threatens Max Zorin in A View to a Kill, a former KGB agent. And in For Your Eyes Only, he is ready to receive the ATAC, a submarine detection machine he has gambled with a Greek smuggler to get his hands on. Bond throws it over a cliff instead. “That’s detente, General. You don’t have it. I don’t have it.” Bond quips.

Gogol, therefore, becomes a safe representation of waning Soviet power.

He is devious but he is also a pragmatist who understands the rules of the game. He eventually is even seen supping tea in the office of M, head of the British Secret Service at one point, quite remarkably. In Octopussy, for the first time, we see inside the Kremlin’s political machine. We see a heavily eyebrowed party ‘chairman’—a man looking every inch a Brehznev or Andropov, the ageing Soviet leaders who followed Stalin’s singular reign—overseeing a meeting where they discuss a report from Gogol about disarmament talks Russia is having with NATO. “I believe I express the opinion of everyone present that adoption of NATO proposals does not compromise our defensive position.” Gogol quips, confidently.

At which point, the aforementioned Orlov speaks up. Played with wonderfully, intentionally manic energy by Steven Berkoff, one of Britain’s finest experimental theatrical performers, Orlov immediately places himself at odds with the solid, uniform and ageing example of Soviet pragmatism and détente that Gogol exemplifies. “He speaks for himself and others who cling to timid, outdated and unrealistic policies. Must I remind you, the committee, of our overwhelming superiority over NATO forces before we give it away?” Orlov goes on to describe a ‘lighting strike’ he could launch on Europe out of numerous Russian satellite states in record time, convinced it would only take five days to subdue any European defensive forces and allow the Russians a foothold.

To be clear, Orlov here is promoting—almost 40 years after the end of WW2 and with decades of Cold War brinkmanship behind them—an attack on mainland Europe by a massive Russian invasion force in order to dominate territory, akin to the tactics of Nazi Germany. Gogol, representing Soviet ideology, is agog and angrily suggests his ideas are ‘madness’, and that NATO would counter-attack with nuclear weapons. Mutually Assured Destruction – the great fear that spawned out of the nuclear near miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which by the early 1980s remained key to the ever increasing state of relations between America and Russia during the Reagan administration. Orlov refutes this: “The West is decadent and divided. It has no stomach to risk our atomic reprisals.”

What struck me, watching Octopussy for what must be a countless time, only on the big screen, was just how much Orlov in this scene reminded me of Vladimir Putin.

At the time of writing, his invasion of Ukraine remains a pitched battle that could rage on for a long while. Commentators fear he might not stop at Ukraine should he be successful. Putin has banked his entire national legacy, and his status as an international pariah, on a belief in Western decadence and that they would never risk a nuclear conflict. It is the same disdain for Western values that fuels what at the time is positioned by Octopussy as Orlov’s extremism and now, with modern eyes, feels like Orlov’s far sightedness.

“Throughout Europe daily demonstrations demand unilateral nuclear disarmament.” He suggests, pointing to a battle which continues decades on in the public sphere, about the need for nuclear weapons. America have spent years working to try and stop Iran from enriching uranium. Failed British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wanted to get rid of Trident, the UK’s nuclear defence system. Though perhaps less of a potent symbol of protest in the days of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, the idea of UND has never really gone away. But if Orlov serves as a historical analogue for Putin, Gogol stands as the kind of centrist Russian figure the Kremlin sorely lacks in the modern day. “I see no reason to risk war to satisfy your personal paranoia and thirst for conquest. We must turn our energies to pressing domestic problems.”

In the early 1980s, Russia was in economic and cultural decline, a state of affairs hastened by decades of stagnation in the Communist state. It would help see the end of the greying figures of the Politburo and soon after Octopussy, and before the epochal moment of Chernobyl, usher in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika and eventually the end of the Soviet Union itself. You can sense that coming in how Octopussy positions Russia not as an antagonist state but rather troubled by Orlov’s militaristic fanaticism. He still believes the Soviet Union exist in an era of greater glory and need to fight to regain their status in the world.

The Kremlin, however, are fully behind Gogol. “World socialism will be achieved peaceably. Our military role is strictly defensive.” the Chairman tells a sulking Orlov.

It pushes Orlov into a needlessly knotty plot with Kamal Khan, the titular Octopussy, and a smuggling operation where he intends to take unilateral action to force through his point, by organising the detonation of an atomic bomb in a USAF base in West Germany. Bond ends up smoking out his motivations, of course; an act of treachery and trickery to force unilateral Western nuclear disarmament, in the wake of a bomb seemingly detonating accidentally and killing thousands, “leaving every border undefended for you to walk across at will.” Bond claims. Orlov seeks to remove the problem of MAD and revert to an older state of geopolitical, wartime affairs – one of standing armies, territory and brute strength.

This is Putin, to a tee. A man born of the KGB, who rose through the ranks at the tail end of the Cold War, watched the decay of post-Soviet Russia and the mismanagement of Boris Yeltsin, and conspired with the rise of the oligarch to seize what would become increasingly totalitarian, Stalinist power for himself. He is what Orlov, had the bomb exploded and he perhaps used the geopolitical power it gave him to seize control of the Kremlin and install himself as Chairman, would have been. Octopussy doesn’t allow him such glory. He dies, shot in the back, trying to keep up with the bomb, killed by Russian forces led by Gogol who describes him as a traitor and a common thief. “But tomorrow, I shall be a hero of the Soviet Union.”

Those were Orlov’s dying words. The crazed ramblings of a zealot in 1983. The manifesto of an ideological terrorist, convinced of Russian superiority and greatness and prepared to tear up the rule book to prove it. For years before the Ukrainian invasion, online discourse joked that Putin looked like a Bond villain, with his puffed out chest, masculine declarations and exorbitant displays of power and wealth. These days, the joke is less funny. Especially as, unlike in Octopussy, we don’t have a James Bond to stop our Orlov. 

Hell… we don’t even have a General Gogol.

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