Our Word Is Our Bond returns and today Mike Baker offers his thoughts on Moonraker (1979) starring Roger Moore, Michael Lonsdale and Lois Chiles.
Moonraker has over the years developed a reputation as the Bond film it’s okay to hate. Bloated, unoriginal and opting for naked spectacle over realism, it isn’t difficult to see where the dislike comes from. The movie plays partly as homage to itself, riffing on numerous action set pieces and plot elements from previous entries time and time again. Jaws makes his return, in the same role, just because people liked him in The Spy Who Loved Me. Similarly, the relationship between Bond and Anya Amasova (the agent from another country who is pitched as 007’s equal) proved so popular that they ploughed that furrow again here, pitching Lois Chiles’s CIA agent as the Bond babe with a little more heft than normal. Even John Barry’s score snatches gleefully from past glories, inserting his own 007 theme into one sequence.
Worse still for the purists, Moonraker was made as a transparent attempt to cash in on the science fiction craze that had been inspired by Star Wars. As the entire western world leapt onto the possibilities of adventures in space, Cubby Broccoli decided he wanted a piece of that action and conceived Moonraker as Bond’s Star Wars story, plunging an ambitious $34 million into the production. Lewis Gilbert’s services as director were retained, as were the writing talents of Christopher Wood. The latter, who before his forays into 007 was best known under the nom de plume of Timothy Lea and his lurid series of ‘Confessions Of’ novels, was ordered to effectively strip mine Fleming’s third Bond novel, chucking out virtually everything apart from the name of the villain, Hugo Drax. While Moonraker was, in critical terms, positively received upon its release, it developed a status for taking Bond too far into the realms of outright fantasy, offering a succession of thrills and marvels but at the expense of the audience’s belief in the character. When Bond can emerge smiling from the destruction of a space station, caught in a compromising situation with Chiles’s obscenely named Holly Goodhead whilst ‘attempting re-entry’, has he ceased to exist as a credible character and become finally a spoof of himself?
The film whisks us through a series of dazzling locations on its way to the climax in space – California, Florida, Venice, Brazil and the gorgeous Igazu waterfalls in Argentina were all used, while principal filming took place in France due to high taxation levels in Britain that made it prohibitive to use Pinewood on this occasion. It plays like a compendium of Bond’s best bits, taking advantage of Venice’s canals and the Mardi Gras in Rio de Janeiro as the backdrop for action scenes. The former helps to show why Moonraker is reviled by some circles. A chase through the canals – Bond’s gondola is equipped inexplicably with a motor – ends when 007 activates the ‘hovercraft’ button on his boat and guides it onto land and across St Mark’s Square. A packed Venice watches in disbelief as this supposedly secret agent glides along. Victor Tourjansky, brought back from The Spy Who Loved Me, is once again cast as ‘man with a bottle of wine’ who looks worriedly at his plonk as he spots Bond. A dog stares. Then a pigeon does a double take. The scene turns into one of daft fun, abandoning any sense of realism in favour of having a laugh with the audience, and it isn’t especially funny, indeed there’s a sense that once Tourjansky reaches the bottom of his bottle he’ll be scraping this moment out. Nor does it get any better when Bond turns up later on horseback, riding through Brazil while wearing the sort of poncho favoured by Clint Eastwood in his Leone films as the theme from The Magnificent Seven plays, for no earthly good reason.
And yet it’s difficult to dislike this entry, partly through its earnest desire to please and thrill its viewers. It reminds this writer a lot of You Only Live Twice, another supremely silly film in which the supporting elements came to the fore. The photography by Jean Tournier is smashing, particularly when filming the Igazu falls and bringing out all their natural beauty as Bond handglides away from danger, the majesty of nature framed in the background. Future Bond director John Glen does a great job with the editing. In one scene, Bond walks into Drax’s Amazonian base, in reality exiting the Pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala and entering a Ken Adams designed set, all put together seamlessly on film. Adams is on top form also, conceiving Drax’s control centre as a riot of screens at triangular angles, reflecting the craziness of his scheme to destroy all humanity on Earth and replace it with his chosen few. The work on the space station is marvellous, its interiors as clinical and austere as Drax’s cold philosophy, whilst its introduction in the film ranks as one of the 007 series’ finest money shots. As Bond’s space shuttle approaches, the station is gradually revealed by light from the emerging sun, Barry’s score taking on an almost reverential tone. Speaking of whom, this is certainly one of the lovelier pieces of John Barry’s work. Just like his music for Disney’s The Black Hole, released in the same year, he emphasises the magnificence of human achievement when it comes to scoring scenes that depict vessels in space, and the results are awe-inspiring. The title song, featuring the vocals of Shirley Bassey, is a further allusion to past glories within a film that does that many times, and it’s a good one.
Michael Lonsdale plays Drax as one of the franchise’s more memorable villains. Too often there was a tendency for the ‘Big Baddie’ to get caught up in the climactic scenes of destruction, going down with his ship as happened to Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, but Drax gets plenty of screen time and doesn’t waste it. Lonsdale essays his character as an exercise in cold, almost detached megalomania, with his plain dress sense and the businesslike way he dispatches those who displease him. The fate that befalls Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery), after she has betrayed Drax once Bond wins her over obviously by sleeping with her, is horrific. She’s chased into the woods by dogs, which then kill her, and it’s all at the behest of Drax, whose order for her death is made almost as an afterthought. It’s a rare moment of danger in the film, the kind that Roger Moore’s Bond has long since skipped away from once too often, and it brings everything crashing back down to a visceral, human level.
As for Moore, there’s a sense that his take on Bond is perfectly at home in a caper like Moonraker. Irreverent and a little too knowing, the only time he appears to be in any peril is during the film’s centrifuge scene, elsewise there are gadgets and contraptions that will always protect him, let alone the silent eyebrow raise between he and the audience that everything will be all right because, well, obviously it will be. The scenes he has with Richard Kiel’s Jaws are part of the fun, the latter threatening and going in for a slow motion bite, Dracula style, before Bond saves the day each time and leaves his outsize opponent looking like an idiot. Jaws ends Moonraker by turning to the good side and finding love with a bespectacled girl who looks like Su Pollard on a good day. It’s a nice conclusion for a character who by this stage has become an affectionate villain, though one whose love life – he towers over the girl – is played mainly for laughs.
Both feature in the film’s prologue scene, a deliberate attempt to one-up the notorious parachute leap from The Spy Who Loved Me by involving 007 in freefall from a plane without a parachute. He has to skydive down to someone else, then wrestle the parachute away from him, all in mid-air, before Jaws in turn tries to kill him. It finishes with Bond making it down safely, whilst Jaws, without anything to help his landing, flaps his wings vainly and falls into a circus tent, which then collapses around him. It’s an impossible sequence, hopeless on virtually every level, and yet brilliantly filmed, professionals performing these stunts for real during the pre-CGI age in an effort to produce a deliriously fun action set piece. It sets the tone for the entire movie, one that’s given up on anything approaching serious spycraft and instead stepping into outlandish whimsy, yet it isn’t without a certain, careworn charm, a bit like ‘Rog’ himself, who was into his fifties by the time Moonraker was released, and looked it. Buy into this bit and rest of the movie is a fanciful joy.
Perhaps Moore was referring predominantly to his time making Moonraker when he wrote ‘How can he be a spy, yet walk into any bar in the world and have the bartender recognise him and serve him his favourite drink? Come on, it’s all a big joke’, in his autobiography, My Word is My Bond. The film was a box office success, suggesting audiences were accepting of this direction the character was taking, but the producers clearly saw something different when they agreed to take Bond ’back to basics’ in For Your Eyes Only in 1981. The gadgets were put away, the sports car destroyed, and while the infantile humour remained the spectacle was trimmed away in favour of a spy relying mainly on his wits, all of which represented Eon hitting a big reset button. About time, some might argue, after Moonraker’s undoubted craziness, but that depends on the individual viewer. This one liked it, albeit in a slightly shamefaced, guilty pleasure kind of way.
MoM Rating: 6/10