Forty Years of Moonraking*
Defence of an oftentimes abused film by CBn’s Tim Williams
Forty years ago, Moonraker was released to the world.
As we all know, Moonraker is a silly, over the top parody and a complete embarrassment to James Bond. That’s the kind of statement you’re used to hearing about the 11th outing in longest running film franchise, all too often labelled as an embarrassing low point.
I’m here to tell you those statements are wrong. Moonraker represents one last hurrah for the 1960s dream team who set the gold standard for cinematic spy entertainment a decade prior.
Shirley Bassey is back, this time singing a hauntingly beautiful title song, and an upbeat disco rendition which plays over the end credits. Ken Adam returns to oversee production design with his usual futuristic flair, and John Barry composes an ethereal work of art – with the last usage of the 007 Theme that first appeared in 1963’s From Russia With Love.
Moonraker also represents the last time the original MI6 team are together following Bernard Lee’s passing in 1981. The creative talent couldn’t be any more impressive and they all unite for this film.
The Bond of Moonraker is extremely appealing. He’s a smartly dressed daredevil who thinks nothing of freefalling without a parachute, rappelling down cable car wires and hang-gliding off waterfalls – while previously driving a gadget laden speedboat. He’s also an investigator – breaking into a safe, donning black attire to sneak into a secret laboratory, looking through a Rio warehouse and observing plane movements.
It is my belief Roger Moore looks his best in this film. Being his fourth film out of a total of seven, Moonraker is smack bang in the middle of his tenure. After the triumph of 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, the Moore template was firmly established, and Moonraker wisely built upon it.
While early Connery films Doctor No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963) came very close, no Bond can claim Fleming purity. Nor can Timothy Dalton. Moonraker is not without connection to the original Fleming novels, while still providing the entertainment that we have come to expect from the cinematic brand.
Fleming describes Bond as a knife thrower, and those skills are put on show when Bond dispatches of a would be assassin in the Venice canals. Bond is also described as an expert marksman, and that’s exactly what we see when he casually shotguns an unsuspecting sniper out of a tree. Later in the film, he literally saves the world by destroying a poison globe via manual aim as his space shuttle burns up on re-entry.
Not only that, but Moore’s Bond is shown to be a capable fencer, with Moonraker being the only film up until Die Another Day that demonstrated Bond’s abilities with a foil.
Creature encounters have a firm grounding in Fleming. Bond has a centipede deviously placed in his bed in Doctor No, and famously battles a giant squid. Felix Leiter memorably has his legs taken off via sharks in Live and Let Die. Moonraker tips its hat to this often underutilised element of the mythos by having Bond battle a python that wraps itself around his body inside villain Hugo Drax’s jungle lair. Drax himself, played by Michael Lonsdale, steals every scene he appears in with killer dialogue delivered in an irritated monotone voice, commanding authority and power.
Drax’s jungle lair is a homage to the traditional ‘mink lined prisons’ of old, memorably demonstrated with Doctor No’s secret Crab Key headquarters in Fleming’s 1958 story, where the villain sought to interfere with American rocket launches, demonstrating a further foray into rocketry that began in Fleming’s 1955 Moonraker.
The novel version of Drax sought to destroy London, whereas the film version sought to eradicate all life on Earth. This aptly demonstrates the one-upping of the existing material to suit the world of Roger Moore. Just as Fleming’s Blofeld used poisonous flowers to kill Japanese suicides, Drax’s weapon of choice consists of poisonous orchids found deep in the Amazon.
Fleming’s 1959 Goldfinger ended with a plane hijacking that culminated in a depressurisation. Moonraker commences with a plane hijacking that includes a depressurisation and culminates in a freefall chase without a parachute. This is easily one of the most thrilling openings to a Bond movie, demonstrating a loving commitment to stunt work with 88 skydives required to complete the sequence.
From being presented with the wrist dart gun by the Quartermaster (a new Walther PPK in Doctor No), having allies brutally killed, to customary attempts on his own life – a standout centrifuge sequence which not only evokes the spirit of ‘the rack’ from Connery’s Thunderball, but eclipses it, the Fleming formula remains sprinkled throughout, serving as a springboard for further imagination and creativity with a go big or go home, put all the money on the screen mindset.
Double taking pigeons are balanced out with moments of darkness. The usually unflappable Moore Bond is visibly shaken after his centrifuge spin. Brief Bond ally Corrine is chased down and killed by a pair of hungry Dobermans. Unwitting scientists are gassed to death inside an airtight room, and returning henchman Jaws ominously approaches ally Manuela in an oversized clown outfit. And of course the Master Race plot to gas the population of Earth strongly channels the worst of Nazism. So indeed, while Moonraker does not have the weight of a horror film, the reputation of it being a non-stop cartoon is blatantly false. It instead offers a cross section of content for people to enjoy.
In recent times there has been an emphasis on Bond women being strong and independent rather than defenceless, doe eyed victims in need of male protection. The lead female in Moonraker is CIA agent Holly Goodhead, played by mesmerising American actress Lois Chiles. Holly most definitely fits the definition of strong and independent, and being on loan from NASA, she possesses skills and knowledge that Bond does not have.
Holly coolly rebuffs the professional advances of Bond for the majority of the film, as she also prefers to work alone. When Holly’s apprehensions towards Bond thaw and the two finally agree to join forces it is satisfying and feels earned. This emotion is amplified because just as the pair unite in Rio they are quickly separated following a bungled assassination attempt by Jaws. Upon their reunion later in the film, Holly and Bond are very much equals working towards a common goal.
Jaws himself also finds love in Rio. Unlike Bond and Holly, whose trust and affection matures over a period of time, Jaws experiences love at first sight with concerned onlooker Dolly. This pairing provides an element of the bizarre but it also lends a degree of humanity to someone who we considered to be a clumsy monster.
Crucially, however, this relationship is later exploited by a cornered Bond during the film’s conclusion. By highlighting Drax’s Master Race scheme will not apply to people such as Jaws or Dolly, a former foe becomes an ally. As Abraham Lincoln said, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” This is an apt demonstration of Bond’s power without the need of a gun or a vehicle at his disposal.
Reviews in 1979 were favourable and speak for themselves. The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called Moonraker “one of the most buoyant Bond films of all. Almost everyone connected with the movie is in top form, even Mr. Moore. Here he’s as ageless, resourceful, and graceful as the character he inhabits.”
The Globe and Mail critic Jay Scott said Moonraker was second only to Goldfinger. “In the first few minutes – before the credits – it offers more thrills than most escapist movies provide in two hours.” Film scholar James Monaco designated the film a “minor masterpiece” and declared it the best Bond film of them all. These enthusiastic reactions belie the reputation that came to form around Moonraker.
Moonraker will always be known as ‘the film where Bond goes into outer space’. I believe the film has a lot more going for it outside of those sequences. However, the fact remains: no matter how enjoyable Moonraker may be, for a lot of people the film crumbles in the final act.
It is then dismissed as an abomination that should be ignored. I honestly don’t see the finale as a weakness, but rather a strength. The final act in outer space allows Moonraker to become the definitive and most authentic representation of the Moore era as a whole, and not in the negative sense we’ve come to expect. While the Bond films were already becoming more fantastical, Moore’s films are an elevation of what the Connery era presented.
In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, Connery’s Bond was all set to go into space, until a last minute slipup kept him Earthbound. Moore, on the other hand, successfully boards a shuttle, travels to a secret space station and is later surrounded by a laser gun fight involving royal marines. With Roger, we don’t just go one step further, but several steps further. This is often used as a criticism against the film, but not me. Moore’s Bond is best enjoyed as a loosened up adult, rather than being an uptight snob bemoaning a lack of realism.
The laser battle involving the royal marines is in the same tradition of prior films like Thunderball in which the cavalry arrive to assist in defeating the forces of evil. Moore’s Bond does not take part in Moonraker’s final battle, instead choosing to chase down Hugo Drax. This hands off approach is not without precedent, as the Bond of Goldfinger also was preoccupied with dispatching a villain as a battle raged outside Fort Knox.
Forty years on, Moonraker represents a warm blanket of nostalgia and a sanctuary from an increasingly turbulent world. Embrace that. Regardless of where your final opinion rests, we can all at least agree we will never see the likes of Moonraker again. And for that reason, I’m always eager to board the shuttle and allow it to “take me around the world one more time.”
*Moonraking: the act of taking part in a foolhardy or unfruitful activity; Collins Dictionary