The James Bond Rights Battle That Led to Octopussy vs. Never Say Never Again

Forty years ago, two rival James Bond movies came out and competed at the box office. How and why did this duel between Sean Connery and Roger Moore happen?

Roger Moore vs Sean Connery as 007
Photo: MGM/UA

It was 40 years ago this month when the biggest battle on movie screens took place not between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but improbably enough, between James Bond and… James Bond.

In 1983, audiences got to choose between two films starring Ian Fleming’s famous secret agent: Octopussy, the sixth film to feature the debonair Roger Moore as British spy 007, and Never Say Never Again, the first movie in 12 years to star the original James Bond, Sean Connery. This was following his second departure from the wildly successful film franchise in 1971.

How did this come to pass? Why would two movie studios go head-to-head with competing films about the same character, and how was that legally possible in the first place? The answer is found in a complicated series of events that stretch back to the 1950s and the very origins of James Bond, even continuing well past 1983 and into the 2000s, right up to the beginning of Daniel Craig’s tenure in the role. The story centers primarily on one lone producer who was determined to make his own 007 movies–even if he had to keep making the same one over and over again.

The Name’s McClory, Kevin McClory

By 1958, British author Ian Fleming had found great success with the first six of what would ultimately become a dozen novels starring James Bond, the British Secret Service agent with a license to kill, a predilection for strong martinis and pliant women, and a soul haunted by the violence and loneliness of his life.

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It only seemed a matter of time before Bond reached the screen in some form, although Fleming was surprised that the offers had not come as swiftly as he might have hoped. That changed in ’58 when a friend named Ivar Bryce introduced Fleming to an Irish film director and producer named Kevin McClory.

McClory had read the Bond books and loved the character, but didn’t necessarily think the books themselves were cinematic. So he proposed coming up with an original story starring the character. He, Fleming, Bryce, and another friend named Ernest Cuneo hashed out a number of different outlines and treatments–the titles ranging from James Bond of the Secret Service to, interestingly, SPECTRE–with Fleming even trying his hand at penning a screenplay.

Dissatisfied with Fleming’s attempt, McClory brought a screenwriter named Jack Whittingham on board to whip the thing into shape. From written accounts, all the parties involved contributed aspects of the story: McClory came up with the idea of setting it in the Bahamas, as well as the world being held to nuclear ransom; Cuneo sparked the idea of underwater battles while Fleming, McClory, and Cuneo all laid claim to coming up with the criminal organization known as SPECTRE and its supervillain leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

The result was a script by Whittingham called Longitude 78 West, with Fleming changing the title to Thunderball. But while the author seemed pleased enough with the screenplay, he was increasingly questioning McClory’s ability to produce what was likely to be a very large-scale enterprise. With their relationship strained, and Fleming looking for other options, the film venture collapsed.

Fleming, meanwhile, had already set about completing his ninth Bond novel–Thunderball, which rather shockingly utilized elements from the unproduced script while not crediting either McClory or Whittingham. McClory sued Fleming in London’s High Court to get publication of the book stopped. The case was settled by an ailing Fleming (who had suffered a heart attack during the trial), with McClory winning the film rights to the book, which also had to be credited as “by Ian Fleming, based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming.”

McClory’s victory would come back to haunt the Bond franchise in the decades to come.

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By the time the book Thunderball was published, Fleming had already begun a series of negotiations that ended with the rights to almost all the James Bond novels, with the exception of the first one, Casino Royale, which is another story in itself, optioned to producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli Jr. and Harry Saltzman.

Broccoli and Saltzman–and later Broccoli on his own, then his descendants after his passing in 1996–have controlled the Bond film franchise ever since, starting with Dr. No in 1962 and continuing to the present. But after making the first three films, which turned Sean Connery into an international star as the first big-screen Bond and launched the series into blockbuster territory, the producers ran into a problem once they selected Thunderball as the fourth entry in the series.

That problem was Kevin McClory, who still owned the film rights to Thunderball as a result of his court proceedings against Fleming. Broccoli and Saltzman initially wanted to make Thunderball as their first Bond movie, back in 1961, and even had a screenplay commissioned, but were stymied at that time by the legal wranglings around the book.

They did not want the adaptation to slip out of their hands again, so they made a deal in which McClory would produce the film for their Eon Productions, with Broccoli and Saltzman as executive producers. According to the book Some Kind of Hero by Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury, Broccoli said at the time, “We had the feeling that if anyone else came in and made their own Bond film, it would have been bad for our series.”

In fact, that’s exactly what McClory was intending to do. Irritated by the success of the Eon series, McClory had begun planning his own 007 movie and had even reportedly approached Richard Burton about playing the role. But all that came to a halt when he agreed to the deal with Eon. Thunderball, released in 1965, was a massive hit, representing the peak of the Connery era. The film is still considered a classic in the series to this day.

There was one issue, however: McClory still held the film rights to Thunderball, but according to his deal with Broccoli and Saltzman, he was forbidden from making another version of the film for 10 years following the release of the original. Clearly even Bond’s own producers didn’t think they’d still be making movies about the world’s most famous spy a decade later.

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Exit Bond’s Greatest Villain

Like clockwork, McClory announced his intentions in 1975 to make a new James Bond movie on his own, based again on the material in Thunderball. The Eon series was still going relatively strong, although it had cycled in the years since Thunderball through Connery (You Only Live Twice), George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and Connery again (Diamonds Are Forever) as Bond before settling on Roger Moore as 007. Moore’s first two entries, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun, were moderate successes while his third picture, The Spy Who Loved Me, was in pre-production when the specter (pun intended) of a competing McClory film raised its head again.

When McClory found out that Ernst Blofeld and SPECTRE–last seen in Diamonds are Forever–were going to be the main enemies in The Spy Who Loved Me, he sued Eon, claiming that those elements could not be used since he, Whittingham, and Fleming had developed them. The court ended up awarding the rights to Blofeld and SPECTRE to McClory, forcing Eon to remove them from The Spy Who Loved Me and all of the company’s succeeding Bond movies for decades to come.

But both Eon and the Fleming estate also accused McClory of going past his brief as well and using material related to Bond that he was not supposed to. As a result of an ongoing legal assault from both, his project was scrapped (for the moment) and he was restricted to adapting only the material in Thunderball for any future attempts at a new 007 movie.

A ‘Mickey Mouse’ Production

McClory, who had not produced a single film since Thunderball back in 1965, refused to give up his dream of making a Bond movie, but the threat of legal action from both Eon and the Fleming estate kept other studios away from the project. In the end, McClory handed the rights in 1980 to producer Jack Schwartzman, who was able to navigate the legal waters and clear the runway for the film to move forward… with Sean Connery officially on board to reprise the role of Bond.

How was Connery lured back after swearing off the character completely following 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever? The process started with McClory’s attempt to get the project off the ground in 1975. He asked Connery if he’d be interested in writing the movie (with screenwriter Len Deighton) and possibly even directing it. Even though that version of the film didn’t happen, Connery had enjoyed the writing experience and began thinking about playing the part again.

When Schwartzman offered him a reported $5 million and a piece of the revived film’s box office in 1981, that sealed it. Connery had long felt that he had been underpaid for his efforts on the first five official Bond films he starred in, and saw this as an opportunity to both make up lost ground and shiv Broccoli. “I’d own a considerable piece of it and the financial return would be in ratio to my investment, which hasn’t been the case before,” he said at the time, according to Some Kind of Hero.

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With Connery signed, Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) recruited to direct, and McClory relegated to executive producer, Schwartzman hired Batman TV series writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. to pen a new screenplay that would adhere strictly to the original Thunderball to avoid further legal hassles. But Connery was unhappy with Semple’s reportedly campier tone and brought in his own writers to rework the script, with revisions happening most of the way through production (Connery’s wife allegedly came up with the title, based on her husband saying “never again” to Bond in 1971).

Schwartzman reportedly ran into budget problems as well, forcing the team to further pare down the script and a number of action sequences. With the production running out of funds, Schwartzman had to reportedly use his own money to complete the film. Tensions escalated between him and Connery, with the latter literally acting as producer on the set while Schwartzman stayed away. Connery later called the production “a bloody Mickey Mouse outfit.”

At the same time, Eon was hard at work on Octopussy, the 13th film in the official Bond franchise and sixth to feature Roger Moore as 007. Although Moore had expressed a desire to quit the series on his previous film, For Your Eyes Only (and other actors had auditioned for both that entry and Octopussy), Eon was very much aware that Never Say Never Again was in production and thought it best to keep the established Moore onboard rather than try introducing a new Bond against Connery’s return.

Director John Glen, who had successfully helmed the more grounded For Your Eyes Only, returned to guide Octopussy in a similar direction. The film took its provocative title and a few story elements from a Fleming short story (and some others), but was otherwise a more or less original narrative.

Unlike the problem-plagued Never Say Never Again, production, Octopussy went smoothly under the guidance of the well-oiled Eon machine. In the background, however, longtime Bond franchise distributor United Artists was facing its own financial difficulties and ended up being sold to MGM. It was against this backdrop that Octopussy went into battle against Sean Connery and Never Say Never Again at opposite ends of the summer in 1983.

Bond vs. Bond

Octopussy arrived first from MGM/UA, in June 1983, riding into theaters on a wave of promotion that emphasized that this was the true 007. “Roger Moore IS James Bond” was one of the slogans plastered on posters and ads. Never Say Never Again, picked up by Warner Bros. for distribution, was released in October of that year (December in the UK), despite last-ditch legal efforts by both Eon and the Fleming estate to stop it. But even Connery agreed that the space between the two films was better for both: “It would have been stupid to bring them out at the same time.”

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According to Rotten Tomatoes today, critics were mixed on both films, although Never Say Never Again gets the edge with a 71 percent fresh rating. Conversely, Octopussy is stuck in the mud with a 42 percent rotten consensus. Those who liked Octopussy appreciated that it continued the more grounded tone established in For Your Eyes Only, although some critics thought the Moore formula had grown stale. As for Never Say Never Again, critics praised Connery and other members of the cast, but also derided the idea of simply remaking Thunderball as pointless.

How do the films hold up? Like many movies from the 1980s, not especially well, although both have their charms. Octopussy does benefit from being more of a geopolitical thriller than a sci-fi adventure like Moonraker, but its many helpings of attempted humor fall flat. Moore is as genial and comfortable as ever, and while Maud Adams is good enough in the title role, the rest of the cast is utterly forgettable.

Same goes for the plot. Its labyrinth of rogue Russian generals, exiled Afghan mercenaries, jewel smugglers, flirtations with nuclear blackmail, and an all-female circus troupe is almost hopelessly incomprehensible, with its villains among the weakest in the canon. Most of the movie is carried by Moore and the action scenes, and while some fans favor it, many agree that Octopussy is one of the flimsiest of the Moore era. It does have something that Never Say Never Again lacks, however: Style, panache, and production value, despite costing $9 million less ($27 million) than its competitor ($36 million).

Brought to the screen by essentially a TV producer who could barely finish the picture, Never Say Never Again often veers between looking like a TV movie and a cheap Cannon-style production. The action is limited in scope, and the pacing turgid–something that hampered the bloated Thunderball as well, although not to the same degree–while the plot does, for the most part, rehash that of the 1965 original, with SPECTRE agent Maximillian Largo blackmailing the world with two captured atomic bombs.

Never Say Never Again is also missing those familiar trademarks like the pre-credits sequence, the gun barrel opening, and the Bond theme. The score is jazzy and wildly out of place. M, Moneypenny, and Q are all present and accounted for, but played by different actors with different interpretations. Yet Never Say Never Again has something that still makes it eminently watchable: Sean Connery.

Not hiding his age (he was 52 during filming, ironically three years younger than Moore and looking better than he did in his own last two Bond movies), Connery slides back into the role with the easy swagger and coiled intensity that made him a star the first time around. The movie leans into the idea of Bond aging, with M threatening to deactivate the 00 division and put Bond out to pasture. Connery strides through the film with a jocular irony that benefits him and the picture enormously.

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The rest of the main cast is quite strong as well, with German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer playing an offbeat, eccentric, yet scary Largo and Bernie Casey–the first person of color to essay the role–showing up as a more rugged Felix Leiter. The women are two of Bond’s most beautiful: Barbara Carrera is the dangerously sexy femme fatale Fatima Blush while Kim Basinger (in just her third film role) delivers both innocence and sensuality as Domino, Largo’s squeeze and ultimately Bond’s ally.

In the end, we’ll give a slight edge to Octopussy, despite Connery’s presence in the other film, simply because it’s better produced. Audiences seemed to feel the same way. Never Say Never Again grossed a healthy $160 million worldwide, but Octopussy sailed past it with a take of $187 million. With neither film a financial failure, it appeared that the battle of the Bonds was a draw and audiences had an appetite for both.

But Connery was done for real this time, and Moore hung up his tux after one more adventure, 1985’s A View to a Kill. Broccoli’s Eon Productions soldiered on, however, and incredibly, so did McClory. In the mid-1990s, as Eon was revitalizing its series with Pierce Brosnan debuting as Bond in GoldenEye, McClory announced yet another remake of Thunderball, this time titled Warhead 2000, with Brosnan’s short-lived predecessor in the official series, Timothy Dalton, touted as the lead.

That story, and how it eventually led to Eon winning back not just the rights to Thunderball, but also outlier novel Casino Royale, is, however, a tale for another time. Because as we all know:

James Bond will return.