In 1983, Roger Moore and Sean Connery Squared Off in ‘The Battle of the Bonds’
Growing up, Roger Moore was my James Bond. My older brother Keith, on the other hand, was ride-or-die for Sean Connery. It’s amazing what an age difference of three years could make back in the early ‘80s. To both of us, the stakes in our ongoing blood feud felt almost existential, as if a critical piece of our identities hung in the balance over which 007 we preferred (it should be noted that neither of us cared about the one-and-done George Lazenby).
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I suppose that sort of white-hot passion still exists today in the schism between DC and Marvel partisans. Still, whenever a new Bond extravaganza made its way to our sad local movie theater in suburban Massachusetts or an old one popped up on one of the three networks, our heated double-O debate would pick right back up where it had left off. Punches flew, wet willies were administered, titties were twisted. Back then, these things mattered. At least, to us.
And then came 1983….
Nowadays, a new Bond film is still a big deal, of course. The Daniel Craig movies continue to rake in money hand over fist, and the sheer absence of a new 007 sequel on the release calendar can force theater chains to board up their doors and close for business (as we’ve just seen with the latest postponement of No Time to Die). But today, Bond movies are just a small part of the larger Hollywood tentpole ecosystem alongside shock-and-awe superhero spectacles, eye-candy Pixar confections, and whatever Fast and the Furious installment is being shoveled at us.
In the early ‘80s, though, Bond was everything. Which is why 1983 would go down as the ultimate litmus test for moviegoers who cared as much about license-to-kill superspies as we did. After all, it was the year when, during one brief four-month window, we got two James Bond movies—one with Moore and one with Connery. In our household, those four months felt like the World Series, the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Super Bowl all rolled into one glorious grudge match that would crown a victor once and for all. We called it “The Battle of the Bonds.” Apparently, so did everyone else.
In one corner stood Connery. I suppose it would have been fair to call him the reigning heavyweight champ, nostalgia being what it is. But by 1983, the original MI6 man of mystery was 52, and it had been a dozen years since he’d last ordered a Martini, shaken-not-stirred, in Diamonds Are Forever. He’d moved on. Connery had played Bond six times between 1962 and 1971, but like all actors who think too much about their legacies, he bridled at being typecast. So after hemming and hawing about returning to play Bond one more time, he finally turned his back on the series, famously saying the words: “Never again.”
In the opposing corner was Moore, who I guess you’d call the challenger even though he currently had the gig. While the dashing and debonair Brit had proven to be a smoother, sillier, and more tongue-in-cheek 007 in the five Bond sequels he’d made between 1973’s Live and Let Die and 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, he was getting a little long in the tooth by 1983. Bond had been good to Moore. The role had allowed him to buy a chalet in Switzerland where he spent his winters skiing and his summers playing tennis. But by 1983, he was the one now threatening to walk. After telling this to Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and the rest of the Bond braintrust, they weren’t about to be held over the barrel by an indecisive leading man a second time. So they held a very public audition for Moore’s replacement, going so far as to screen-test James Brolin. That was enough to scare Moore straight. He shaped up and signed on for the next 007 adventure, Octopussy.
While all of this was going on, a different drama was playing out in the background at the British High Court. An independent producer named Kevin McClory and a screenwriter named Jack Whittingham, who had both helped Ian Fleming come up with the idea for his 1961 novel Thunderball (then going by the title Longitude 78 West), had sued Fleming for breach of copyright when he failed to credit their contributions. In the end, McClory would win the case. And in 1963, Eon Productions, the company that would end up producing all of the canonical 007 films, struck a deal with McClory saying that, yes, he could be a producer on the 1965 screen version of Thunderball, but only with the stipulation that he not make his own movie version of the story for a period of 10 years.
Flash forward a decade and Bond was as popular as he’d ever been. With no legal hurdles blocking his path, McClory launched head-first into his own new cinematic spin on Thunderball called Warhead. For the screenplay, he turned to bestselling coach-class author Len Deighton and, as an adviser, the man who knew 007 in his deepest marrow, Connery. Eon took McClory to court again. But the renegade producer kept fighting like a Rottweiler with a T-bone. It would take years of legal wrangling and new writers would come and go, but by the early ‘80s, McClory had finally persevered. And Connery, who initially had no intention of starring in McClory’s unsanctioned Bond wannabe, found it hard to say no to the $3 million check McClory was dangling in front of him—or the hefty backend points that only sweetened the pot.
Kevin McClory, film producer, being restrained in a barroom brawl with London film critic Leonard Mosley, who gave a very negative review of his film ’The Boy on the Bridge’, Venice Film Festival, September 1959.
Moore and Connery were old friends by that point. Maybe not the kind that play mixed doubles together on the tennis courts of Gstaad, but they both regarded the idea of two competing Bond movies opening in theaters at roughly the same time as a bit of harmless sport. But if you were a teenage 007 drooler at the time, this box-office collision of the titans felt like a life-or-death referendum.
Moore’s Octopussy would end up being the first to bow in theaters. The film was adapted from a short story taken from Fleming’s 1966 collection Octopussy and The Living Daylights. Directed by Bond veteran John Glen and costarring the Pepe LePew-like Louis Jourdan as the evil playboy Kamal Khan and returning Bond girl Maud Adams (The Man with the Golden Gun) as the titular international smuggler who leads a squad of spandex-clad female acrobat warriors, Octopussy is pure Moore through and through. The actor dresses up as a circus clown and does a switcheroo with a priceless Faberge egg at a Sotheby’s auction, Jourdan cheats at high-stakes backgammon, and Adams, like I said, leads a squad of spandex-clad female acrobat warriors.
Glen used every cent of his $27.5 million budget on Octopussy, putting Moore through his globe-trotting paces in Berlin, Moscow, and Udaipur, India, as Bond attempted to head off a rogue Soviet general (Steven Berkoff) hellbent on detonating a nuke at a U.S. airbase in Germany. Sure there’s plenty of the cocked-eyebrow ham and cheese we’ve come to expect from Moore-era Bond. But all in all, it’s a hugely entertaining movie—even if its silly and juvenile name makes it easily dismissible to some. Critics, who had come of age with the Connery films and who knew that his own 007 adventure was coming down the pike in four months, gave Octopussy luke-warm reviews. But when it was released on June 6, 1983, audiences gobbled it up. It would end up making $187.5 million worldwide.
Sean Connery was now on the clock…
As Connery’s Bond movie was in development, it had the placeholder title of James Bond of the Secret Service. But then the actor’s wife suggested that they call it Never Say Never Again—a winking inside joke at her husband’s famous words years earlier when he thought he was done with the character once and for all. The title stuck. Directed by Irvin Kershner, who had just come off 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, Never Say Never Again had a slightly steeper budget ($36 million) and an equally exotic laundry list of locations (the French Riviera and the Bahamas), and it had Connery. But this wasn’t the Connery that Bond fans remembered from Diamonds Are Forever. This Connery constantly wore turtlenecks to hide his jowls and paraded through the film with an impossible-to-ignore toupee. He still had the same blunt-instrument charisma, but despite his lightning-quick one-liners, he moved slower.
Never Say Never Again was always going to be an unsanctioned Bond film, but too often it feels like one. For example, when Connery visits Q branch to pick up some cool new gizmos, it isn’t Desmond Llewelyn who greets him, but rather Alec McCowen’s Algernon. M isn’t played by Bernard Lee or Robert Brown, he’s played by Edward Fox. And Moneypenny isn’t Lois Maxwell, but Pamela Salem. It all feels slightly…off. It’s like the touring-company version of a Bond film. And once you get past the giddy thrill of seeing Connery as 007 again, there isn’t all that much to get super-excited about. It makes you kind of wish he meant it when Connery said “Never again.”
Aside from all of the underwater Thunderball deja-vu, however, there are still some things that do work. With his psychotic grin and bizarro timing, Klaus Maria Brandauer makes an extremely solid Bond villain as Maximillian Largo, a SPECTRE-trained mad man who steals a pair of American nuclear missiles to blackmail the world’s governments. Bernie Casey is a welcome addition as 007’s CIA pal Felix Leiter. And a pre-9 ½ Weeks Kim Basinger is glowing as Largo’s Stockholm Syndrome love interest, Domino. But the person who steals the whole movie (and there’s a whole lot of movie to steal since it clocks in at a funereal 134 minutes) is Barbara Carrera as the S&M assassin Fatima Blush. With her deep-toned cackle and wild-eyed energy, the one-time Playboy model doesn’t look like she’s acting at all. She looks as if killing James Bond isn’t just a mission to be carried out, it actually excites her. She’s fantastic.
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When Never Say Never Again debuted on October 7, 1983—37 years ago today, by the way—the reviews couldn’t help but compare it to Octopussy. And those comparisons, almost without exception, tilted toward Connery. But his box-office fate didn’t measure up to Moore’s, pulling in a still-respectable $160 million globally. Now, you could argue that Octopussy won the Battle of the Bonds (at least monetarily) simply because it came out first. But now having watched both films too many times to count, I’m convinced that Octopussy is by far the better movie. At the time, my brother disagreed. But I could tell his heart wasn’t really in it when he said that. Thirty-seven years later, I’m older and flexible enough to see his side of things more clearly and respect his point of view. But he’s still absolutely wrong.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.