To mark the 50th Anniversary of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time and with filming well underway on James Bond’s 23rd official outing in Skyfall due for release later this year, I have been tasked with taking a retrospective look at the films that turned author Ian Fleming’s creation into one of the most recognised and iconic characters in film history.
With the tenth James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me proving to be another success at the box office, Bond’s adventures were set to continue in For Your Eyes Only but by the end of 1977 one film had eclipsed all others and changed everything. George Lucas’ Star Wars altered the face of cinema and in its wake filmmakers were keen to jump on the science fiction bandwagon. Producer Albert R. Broccoli seized the opportunity to send Bond into space for his eleventh film, deciding to take the title of Fleming’s third Bond novel, Moonraker as inspiration for an out of this world mission for the secret agent.
Fleming’s book, published in 1955 had a very Earth based plot tackling timely issues of Communism, Nazism and V-2 rockets. Broccoli hired screenwriter Christopher Wood, who had successfully written the largely original story around the title of the previous film to once again provide a new adventure for Bond only this time with a brief to making it more ambitious than ever. In addition to Wood, director Lewis Gilbert was hired to return and with his experience of spacecraft in from You Only Live Twice and as director of the largest scale Bond film to date, The Spy Who Loved Me, he was the perfect choice to bring a sci-fi Bond to the screen and with an inflated budget of $34 million how could he possibly fail?
By the time Roger Moore began work on this his fourth Bond film he was already ten years older than Sean Connery had been when he made his final appearance in Diamonds Are Forever. Looking back now it is hard to believe he still had another three films and six years to go before he would retire from the role. Moonraker is the first misstep in Moore’s Bond career, the charm that he had brought to the part during his first three films is replaced by smarm and with the supporting females becoming younger there is something less believable about the ease in which he manages to seduce every woman he meets.
Hugo Drax: James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.
As Moore had proved in his previous films, he was certainly more adept at delivering the humorous lines and witty quips than Connery was but with Christopher Wood back on script duty and with his CV including the British sex comedies of the Confessions series, the jokes in Moonraker feature even more innuendo than ever before. Moore’s raised eyebrow, something that had been a defining characteristic of The Saint’s Simon Templar, also begins to creep into Moore’s portrayal of Bond signposting the more risqué jokes in the film.
Despite these few misgivings, Moore still proves to be a great choice in the role and is more than capable of providing a good balance between the action and some of the more serious aspects of the film. His interplay with recurring characters M, Q and Miss Moneypenny is always a joy and he still manages to make some of the film’s more ludicrous plot points work in a way that few other actors could get away with.
Pre-Credits & Theme Song
Opening with the hijacking of a Moonraker space shuttle setting the film’s main plot in motion, the pre-credits sequence continues with another excellent signature action scene. After the superb opening to The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker would have to do something pretty spectacular to top Rick Sylvester’s skiing mountain leap and surprisingly, it actually comes close with another audacious parachute stunt.
Beginning in typical style with Bond enjoying the company of a woman on board a small plane, it is soon revealed that he has fallen into a trap as the plane’s pilot emerges from the cockpit wearing a parachute. The pilot shoots the plane’s control panel before a brief tussle with Bond that sees the pilot pushed from the plane. As Bond watches the pilot fall, Jaws, the steel-toothed henchman from The Spy Who Loved Me, appears and pushes Bond from the plane. The following sequence sees Bond skydiving without a parachute towards the pilot with whom he manages to wrestle with during their freefall eventually taking the pilot’s parachute for himself.
The incredible scene was filmed under the supervision of returning second unit director John Glen with stunt co-ordination by Don Calvedt. The 88 jumps needed to complete the scene were performed by B.J. Worth, Jake Lombard and Ron Luginbill. Special skydiving equipment had to be devised to make the sequence possible such as an extra-thin parachute pack that could be hidden underneath Velcro seams in the stuntmen’s clothing to give the appearance of a missing parachute and special lightweight cameras had to be used to prevent whiplash injuries when the camera operator opened his parachute. By placing the camera right in the centre of the action as well as minimal use of actor close-ups, filmed in a studio, the scene is an exhilarating piece of edge-of-the-seat action and once again raises the bar for later Bond opening sequences to follow.
After composer Marvin Hamlisch’s disco infused score for The Spy Who Loved Me, John Barry returned to scoring duties on Moonraker providing a more traditional approach to the music. Barry eschewed the usual horn heavy soundtrack for a more string based score and as a result produced some of his best accompaniments so far for the series. His score recalled cues from some of his previous Bond work as well as a number of fresh, evocative movements particularly when the film moves into space.
Initially the theme song was offered to Kate Bush and Frank Sinatra before Johnny Mathis accepted the opportunity to record the song with Barry. However with just weeks before the film’s release and despite having started the recording sessions, Mathis was unable to complete the recording and left the project leaving it to Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever singer Shirley Bassey to step in at the last minute and provide vocals for the track. Of the three songs she provided for the Bond films, this is probably her least memorable and after the diversity of the previous three Bond themes, the song is a relatively bland addition to the series.
When a Moonraker space shuttle on loan to the UK is hijacked during an RAF test flight, British secret service agent James Bond is assigned to investigate. Bond heads to California to meet Hugo Drax, the billionaire owner of Drax Industries and manufacturer of the shuttle. During the meeting Bond is introduced to Dr. Holly Goodhead, a CIA agent working undercover within Drax’s organisation. After several attempts on his life Bond quickly ascertains Drax as the prime suspect behind the hijacking and with Dr. Goodhead’s assistance he uncovers Drax’s plan to transport dozens of genetically perfect young men and women to his hidden space station to begin a new master race while simultaneously launching toxic globes into Earth’s atmosphere destroying all human life. Posing as pilots on one of the Moonraker shuttles, Bond and Dr. Goodhead follow Drax to his space station where, with the help of a platoon of US marines, they attempt to put a stop to Drax’s plan.
Moonraker shares a number of plot points and similar beats with director Lewis Gilbert’s other Bond films, You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. All three films have a megalomaniac villain intent on bringing about the end of the world with their plans beginning with the hijacking of military or space craft. Another similarity is that they feature three of the most ambitious and elaborate villains’ lairs which by the end of each film are destroyed after a large scale battle. Although this was Gilbert’s final Bond film, his contribution to the series cannot be understated. His films took the Bond formula set by the early films from Goldfinger onwards and raised the bar with each of his films, challenging the crew to outdo the previous film until there was no possible way to go any bigger.
In addition to the film’s title taking inspiration from Fleming’s original novel, Wood also carried over the underlying theme of Nazism in Drax’s plot to destroy all human life and start his own master race from his space station by taking genetically perfect couples to his own “Noah’s Ark” in space. However, alongside such a dark subject, the film bizarrely features some of the series’ lightest comic moments; during the now infamous scene with the Gondola hovercraft in Venice which includes a shot of a pigeon doing a double take there follows a scene where two scientists are killed when a vial of toxic liquid is released in a laboratory. The two scenes are almost side by side and are so tonally different it seems jarring that they even appear in the same film. The film includes a number of scenes that go from light to dark in such a short period and it is these tonal shifts that make the film so uneven.
Hugo Drax: Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him.
One commendable aspect of the film is the imagination and creativity shown in the sets, miniature models and special effects. The combination of contributions by production designer Ken Adam, returning for his final Bond film and visual effects maestro Derek Meddings help save the film with extraordinary attention to detail. Adam produces his trademark cavernous sets taking inspiration from many sources including Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey particularly for the design of Drax’s space station. Drax’s other Earth based locations also include many of the features that have become synonymous with Bond villain lairs such as the vast command centres with spinning dials and computer screens as well as a deadly pool, usually filled with sharks or piranhas but on this occasion a 15 foot long python. Adam’s contribution to the series shaped the look of the films from the very beginning of the series and his influence is still evident to this day in the money is no object attitude to creating memorable sets for the Bond films.
Meddings’ miniature work really was the make or break aspect of the whole film. If the special effects had been below par the film would most likely have been an outright disaster. At the time the NASA space shuttle program was still in its early stages and it was to be another 2 years after the film’s release before the shuttle would make its first launch into space. The visualisation of the space scenes for the film took real imagination to bring them to life and aside from the slow motion weightlessness scenes the effect is for the most part convincing. The climactic outer space battle with Drax’s forces going up against US marine astronauts, while impressive for its time is slightly less successful. It lacks the pace and excitement of some of the land based battles of previous films and is essentially a re-working of the underwater battles of Thunderball which also proved to be a little tedious.
Moonraker is one of the oddest entries in the series and is a victim of Broccoli’s slightly misguided hopes that he could emulate the success of Star Wars with his Bond series when really there was no need, Bond was already popular on his own terms. For all the film’s faults there is still plenty to enjoy from the well paced familiar plot bringing the excessive decade to a close with a bang.
The Bond Villain
Due to Moonraker’s large budget, Broccoli accepted an offer to co-finance the film from the French subsidiary of United Artists, Les Productions Artistes Associés. As a result much of the film was shot in France avoiding the high taxation in England at the time but also forcing the casting of a number of French actors in the film’s key roles in particular that of the main villain Hugo Drax. Michael Lonsdale was chosen after beating James Mason, Stewart Grainger and Louis Jourdan to the role.
Hugo Drax: Mr. Bond, you persist in defying my efforts to provide an amusing death for you.
Lonsdale’s Drax is very similar to Curt Jürgens’ Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me. They both share a plot to destroy humanity to essentially start again in space and under the sea, they have equally elaborate bases for their operations and the both employ the services of Jaws as their chief henchman. They also share many personality traits as well, understated but still with an air of menace using intelligence in their exchanges with Bond giving the whole interaction the feel of a chess game. Drax rarely lets his guard down as he remains tranquil throughout the film refusing to rise to Bond’s interference in his plans. Despite being modelled on Adolf Hitler and Jules Verne’s Robur from Master Of The World, Drax is a tepid villain and is only memorable for being in the much derided Moonraker.
After receiving a reprieve at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me; surviving a shark attack and the destruction of Stromberg’s Atlantis, series favourite Jaws, returns as Drax’s lead henchman. Once again played by Richard Kiel, the metal toothed giant continues to prove to be a formidable foe for Bond throughout the first half of the film. Making his first appearance during the opening skydiving sequence surviving a freefall into a circus tent after his parachute fails, he also features in several of the film’s standout action scenes; an impressive cable car rooftop fight in Rio de Janeiro and a boat chase down the Amazon which sees him once again prove his indestructibility by surviving a fall over one of the world’s biggest waterfalls, the Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian and Argentine border.
Dr. Holly Goodhead: You know him?
James Bond: Not socially. His name’s Jaws, he kills people.
Jaws is at his most menacing in a scene taking place during the Rio carnival where he corners Bond’s female companion in an alleyway. This is Jaws at his most threatening, earning his place as one of the greatest Bond villains, however due to the inconsistency of the film Jaws is devalued by being made to become a source of comic relief towards the final half of the film. While there are moments of humour during some of his action scenes; he is seen flapping his arms like a bird after his parachute fails to open, he pulls the steering wheel off the boat when trying to steer away from the waterfall, it is as if he has become a Wile E. Coyote to Bond’s Road Runner and to cap it all off he is given his own romantic subplot with the ever so slightly simple Dolly, played by French actress Blanche Ravalec and eventually ends the film as Bond’s ally after Bond highlights the fact that he does not fit in with Drax’s plan for a master race. Jaws’ change of allegiance, while serving the film’s plot, makes little sense in the overall scheme of things and is a sad end to a great character.
Drax’s other henchman Chang is played by Toshiro Suga making his film debut. The Japanese aikido instructor was recommended for the role by the film’s executive producer Michael G. Wilson who was also one of Suga’s pupils. His most memorable scene takes place in a Venice glass museum as he fights with Bond destroying most of the museum’s exhibits in the process.
The Bond Girl
For the lead role of CIA agent Dr. Holly Goodhead, former fashion model Lois Chiles was chosen following appearances in The Great Gatsby and Agatha Christie’s Death On The Nile. Initially offered the role of Anya Amasova during the casting of The Spy Who Loved Me, Chiles turned down the opportunity while she temporarily retired from acting, however when she happened to sit next to Lewis Gilbert on a flight he convinced her to take the role in Moonraker.
Dr. Goodhead’s relationship with Bond is similar with that of Anya Amasova, the Russian agent in The Spy Who Loved Me, in that they are essentially working towards the same goal and after initially working apart they decide to join forces to bring down their common enemy. The partnership lacks the interplay of Amasova and Bond with none of the underlying conflict that made that match so interesting. As was also the case with Amasova, Dr. Goodhead is portrayed as Bond’s equal rather than someone to constantly save from perilous situations. Without her ability to pilot the Moonraker to Drax’s space station Bond would have been stranded back on Earth, so her role is vital to the success of Bond’s mission.
Moonraker will always be remembered with some disdain for one gadget that took the concept too far. Bond’s motorised gondola is one of the most absurd vehicles of the series. Starting out with a decent boat chase through the canals of Venice, Bond foils his pursuers by pressing a button that converts the gondola into a hovercraft so he can take the boat on land and make his escape across St. Mark’s Square. After the excellent Lotus submarine of The Spy Who Loved Me, the Bondola seems totally ridiculous and impractical. The scene is ruined even further by the reaction shots of the people of the square culminating in the double take by a pigeon.
A later scene with Bond on the Amazon River slightly restores faith in Q’s gadgets. Bond finds himself part of yet another boat chase, the fourth of Moore’s career, as Jaws and a number of Drax’s men attempt to stop Bond finding Drax’s hidden base. Bond’s hydrofoil boat is loaded with mines, torpedoes and is fitted with a hang glider setting up his escape as he is able to fly out of the boat as it sails over a waterfall.
Bond’s other significant gadget is his wrist operated dart gun. The gun, capable of shooting armour-piercing or venomous darts is used on a couple of occasions during the film. The first is used during a scene that sees Bond trapped in a G-force centrifuge machine. As Chang takes to the controls of the machine Bond forced to endure G-forces of up to 13G before he used the dart gun to shoot the controls and disable the machine bringing it to a halt. The other significant use of the gun is during the film’s climax it is used to shoot Drax before he is sent into the vacuum of space.
James Bond Will Return…..
Despite mixed reviews from critics, Moonraker was a huge hit at the box office going on to take over $210 million setting a Bond record that remained unbeaten until 1995 and the release of Goldeneye. The same phenomenon had occurred during the Sean Connery era when Thunderball, considered to be one of Connery’s weaker Bonds took more money than the previous film, Goldfinger, generally accepted as Connery’s best. The Spy Who Loved Me had obviously left audiences wanting more and Broccoli’s gamble on sending Bond into space had paid off financially but after conquering space there was only one way for the character to go and that was back to Earth for his next adventure taking a more back to basics approach……
To catch up on previous installments of the James Bond Retrospective click here: