James Bond Declassified: File #11 – ‘Moonraker’ leaves the world of reality behind

FILE #11: “Moonraker”

This series will trace the cinema history of James Bond, while also examining Ian Fleming’s original novels as source material and examining how faithful (or not) the films have been to his work.

Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay by Christopher Wood
Produced by Albert R. Broccoli and William P. Cartlidge and Michael G. Wilson


James Bond / Roger Moore
Dr. Holly Goodhead / Lois Chiles
Hugo Drax / Michael Lonsdale
Jaws / Richard Kiel
Corrine Dufour / Corinne Clery
Sir Frederick Gray / Geoffrey Keen
Chang / Toshiro Suga
Manuela / Emily Bolton
Dolly / Blanche Ravalec
Col. Scott / Mike Marshall
M / Bernard Lee
Q / Desmond Llewelyn
Miss Moneypenny / Lois Maxwell


I get such a particular emotional surge seeing the Space Shuttle piggybacked on a plane.  The recent flybys here in LA were major events in my household, the slow drive across LA was reason enough to leave the house at a preposterously early hour on a Sunday morning, and if you get me started talking about the space program, it’s hard to get me to shut up.  It is one of my favorite things, so imagine how space-crazy “Star Wars” fan me reacted when the sequel to “The Spy Who Loved Me” opened with the theft of the Space Shuttle, which hadn’t actually launched yet.  Pretty much the perfect set-up for a Bond film for me, right?

Nine year old me would say yes.  Forty-two year old me, who just rewatched the movie, would not concur.

I really don’t get anything about this movie.  I know that each time I watch it, it annoys me all over again, and I always swear it will be the final time I see it.  It feels like it was a decade ago when I turned to Scott Swan after we finished “Moonraker” and said, “I never need or want to see that movie again.”  Of course, here I am watching it again, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time, but it should be.  At some point, I should learn my lesson.  I find myself confounded by almost every choice they make on this movie.

For example, the opening.  The shuttle heist, which sounds like a cool idea for a set piece, is pretty silly.  Two dudes who are just hanging out as stowaways onboard the Shuttle somehow and then just fly it off of the back of the airplane that’s carrying it.  And after we see a pained M sitting at his desk, he orders Moneypenny to call Bond, who has his hand up some girl’s skirt onboard a private plane.  Unfortunately, he seems to have chartered the flight from Bad Guy Airlines, because everyone onboard is out to kill him, including Jaws, who is so huge that I’m not sure where he was supposed to be hiding before he steps out and surprises Bond.  Bond gets thrown out of the plane without a parachute, and while he goes after the pilot so he can steal the pilot’s parachute, Jaws jumps out and goes after Bond.  The idea that Jaws has just been randomly ambushing Bond at inopportune moments ever since the end of “The Spy Who Loved Me” makes me cackle, especially when you consider that he’s obviously failed over and over and over again.

Like I said… it’s a cool idea for an opening scene, but the execution is just ridiculous.  There’s no tension at all, even though it’s a real stunt involving real people that took something like four weeks to shoot, in part because of the way it’s undercut by the punchline when Jaws has his chute fail and ends up falling into a circus tent, leading to a Maurice Binder sequence that is coupled with one of the worst themes of the entire series.  It sounds like the closing credits song to a crappy “Benji” sequel, and I’m not sure I get the trampolines and outer space imagery.  Normally I can at least see how the film suggested the images in the Binder sequences, but this one is just random and weird, as poorly conceived as the film itself.

I guess on that level, it’s an appropriate opening.  When even the return of Shirley Bassey can’t liven up the opening sequence, you know something’s wrong.


So I guess the UK was borrowing our Space Shuttle?  That’s the set-up, and the first exposition scene in M’s office is remarkable if only because it clearly illustrates just how old everyone in the series is at this point.  Moore is looking positively grandfatherly by this point, and we’re still in the first half of his run as Bond.  The exchange with Q should end with a “sad trombone” music cue.  It’s bad sitcom writing, complete with Bond shooting a dart into the butt of the horse on the painting and Q shaking his head with a “oh, you rascal” expression on his face.

One of the few ways I would call “Moonraker” outstanding is in the use of Derek Meddings miniatures.  He does some remarkable work in the film, and he had more money to work with than in almost any other Bond film.  It shows just in terms of technical polish on the FX sequences.  The approach to the Drax Industries complex in California, for example, is a great mix of reality and miniature, and utterly convincing.

In some ways, this is just a remake of “The Spy Who Loved Me” with a different anonymous beardo playing the bad guy.  Their plans are roughly the same, with one planning a master race living underwater and the other planning for a master race living in space.  Drax is so obviously the bad guy from the moment he’s introduced that it makes Bond look even dumber than normal when he doesn’t pick up on it right away.  I will give Drax points for his line to his henchman, Chang, as Bond walks away to take his facility tour:  “Make sure some harm comes to him.”

But let’s talk about one of the film’s biggest sins.  In a series that is filled with preposterous names and outrageous characters, I still marvel at the fact that someone got paid to name a character “Dr. Holly Goodhead,” and that no one else in the production pipeline said, “Hey, maybe that’s not subtle enough.”  It is a stunningly on-the-nose joke, a single entendre at best.  Another “Spy Who Loved Me” parallel has to do with Goodhead turning out to be a spy for another world power, teaming up with Bond and also competing against him depending on the scene.

The scene where Drax’s henchman, an Asian stereotype with a hilarious Moe Howard haircut, attempts to kill Bond in a centrifuge is unintentionally funny.  When they start using powerful air cannons to flap the skin on Roger Moore’s face around, it’s both alarming and hilarious, a sight gag that has to be applauded.  And in tone, it stands in stark contrast to the scene when Drax realizes Corrine, his pilot, has helped James Bond break into his safe.  He tells her he knows, his henchman brings out the dogs, and they are sent after her.  It’s maybe the best moment in the movie in terms of tension and style and reality, and in some ways, it’s striking because of how completely it doesn’t fit in this movie.

Now… a bit of full-disclosure.  When I saw “Moonraker” in 1979, I thought it was awesome.  That’s not an exaggeration, either.  I was bitten by the bug when I saw “Spy Who Loved Me,” and then I watched whatever ABC showed on TV between the two films.  I think “Live and Let Die” was one of the ones I saw, and maybe “Diamonds Are Forever.”  I’d love to see a list of when ABC showed the various films just so I could fill in the proper order in my head.  But I know I thought “Moonraker” was amazing in the theater, and part of what I loved was how clearly it was a sequel to “The Spy Who Loved Me.”  Jaws was a perfect Bond villain for a seven year old, and seeing him rehabilitated to some degree over the course of this film was a thrill when I was nine.  Seeing it again now, I’m far less dazzled by it.

The Venice gondola chase suffers from the unfortunate issue that they would not allow the producers to shoot real high-speed scenes in the canals, so everything looks sped up.  It’s not a successful visual trick.  And when Bond drives the gondola up onto land, reversing the great reveal from “The Spy Who Loved Me” when he drove his Lotus underwater, we are treated to some low comedy that I have trouble believing really exists.  Between the drunk looking at the boat then checking his bottle of wine and the pigeon who does an actual double-take, it is a nightmarish left turn that perfectly sums up what’s wrong with the Moore years.  Pratfalls and waiters pouring drinks on people’s heads and dogs looking puzzled… all that’s missing are a few fart jokes and a sad trombone.

Gotta love the scene where Bond accidentally murders two scientists with what looks like terribly painful nerve gas.  I’m also impressed with the way he handles himself during the sword fight considering he’s wearing shoes with a heel so high that he could be considered a cross-dresser.  As henchmen go, Chang is no Odd Job.  Part of what makes the Bond movies frequently feel sort of interchangeable is that the producers would routinely design an action scene for one film, cut it, and then drop it into another movie later, whether it organically fit or not.  The fight with Chang was supposed to happen in another famous public place in another movie, and then got repurposed for this one.  And the ending of the fight, with Chang upside down in a broken piano and Bond firing off a limp, “Play it again, Sam,” is one of those winky-winky moments, like the use of the “Close Encounters” theme on the keypad to Drax’s laboratories, that just makes me grind my teeth.

As Bond women go, I want to cast my vote for Emily Bolton as Manuela as this movies’s most beautiful woman.  She’s Bond’s contact in Rio, and there’s an interesting mix of real footage taken during Carnival and footage that had to be recreated later.  I always like it when a real situation or location is used to memorable effect in the Bond films, and the inherent spookiness of a place where everyone is in elaborate costumes and masks pays off well with that freaky nightmare giant-head clown thing that Jaws hides in during his introduction in Rio, although they defuse things too quickly, and the notion of a professional killer like Jaws letting himself get carried away by a dancing crowd seems like a weak way to end the scene, especially when we see in the scene on top of Sugarloaf Mountain that he can literally bite through a steel cable and stop the progress of a motorized cable car with his bare hands.  I feel bad for Kiel in the sense that he was treated like a freaky make-up effect more than an actor.  It’s that whole Rondo Hatton thing where the person only has a career because of how they look, which puts it somewhere between exploitation and gainful employment.

If we’re voting on “weirdest subplot in Bond movie history,” the bizarre “love at first sight” storyline with Jaws and Dolly has got to be in the running.  Their meeting as Jaws sits in the rubble of his latest attempt on Bond’s life, which ends with the third or fourth exaggerated “OH NO!” facial expression from Jaws, is just plain weird.  I would love to have been in the script meetings on this film.  In general, if we’re giving an award for “most scenes that end with an awful visual gag,” then “Moonraker” is near the top of that list.  This is one of those movies that makes me wonder why I fell in love with the Bond films in the first place when I look at it now.  I do like the odd trend in the Moore years of having M, Q, and Moneypenny show up in these strange sort of makeshift offices around the world.  

This was Bernard Lee’s last time playing M, and I give him credit for being out in the field in this one, in the mix to the bitter end.  I liked Lee in the role, and I think he was a great example of what Fleming knew as the reality of the English intelligence service, a “little grey man” of the highest order, practically invisible even as you’re looking at him.  It’s like having Le Carre character whose job it is to wrangle this silly movie spy on his adventures, and when Lee departed the series, it was as profound a loss as when Connery moved on.

The boat chase in Rio is pretty great, but by this point, they’re showing so many reaction shots of Jaws that Toshi said, “Do they have to show his teeth every single time they show him?”  Still, it’s nice to see real stunts, and I’ll say this for “Moonraker”: it has some genuinely impressive big action stunt set pieces.  Some of the Moore films are too light on action, like “The Man With The Golden Gun,” which barely even has a single noteworthy sequence.  “Moonraker” had a great team, and it’s interesting to see how nonchalant they are about showing a stuntman’s face.  As long as the stunt works, their attitude seems to be “Who cares if you can tell it’s a stuntman?”

When Bond wanders into Drax’s building in the jungle after he escapes from his boat via hang-glider, there’s about four minutes where it’s just hot women walking in and smiling at him while cheesy music plays, and I have to wonder what Bond thinks is going on.  After Bond fights with the reeeeeeally fake snake, Jaws shows up again like Jason Voorhees, somehow having magically transported himself from the sure death of that dive off the waterfalls so that he was there before Bond.  It’s so clear at this point that the series has lost even the most tenuous grasp on reality that you just have to roll with it.  Drax does some world-class monologuing as he shows Bond what he’s got planned for the planet and what he’s doing with the Moonraker shuttles, and again, Derek Medding and his team did really great work, some of the best miniature work in any of the Bond films.

They took one of the best set pieces in the novel, one of the only things they used in any way for the movie, and totally blow it in the execution.  It’s the scene where Drax leaves Bond and Goodhead under the rockets for the Moonraker 2 as it’s getting ready to take off, trusting that the launch will cremate them instantly.  It’s an amazingly tense and vivid piece of writing and it’s kind of clumsy in the film.  What a shame.  It does not appear to be very difficult for Bond to outrun the fire that erupts from the rockets, even though he’s crawling uphill and can barely move.  It’s also incredibly easy for Bond and Goodhead to find their way into the crew chairs onboard the third Moonraker that is launched.  Considering how awful they are as spies (Drax appears to be fully aware of their identities from the very start of the film), they sure are lucky.  The only reason they pull anything off in this film is because Drax and his support team appear to be completely incompetent.

I forgot how very, very ’70s Drax’s plan is regarding the couples he’s picked to repopulate his new world.  There’s something about the late ’70s and the sexual attitudes of the time that is so particular, so blissfully pre-AIDS giddy about everything.  There’s something about the wardrobe and the casting and the attitudes here that makes me think of “Logan’s Run” and disco, a truly strange combination of things.  Drax is such a creepy Eddie Munster looking dude that I guess I never think of his plan in terms of sex, but it’s a serious undercurrent running through the film once they get to space.

Honestly, the only thing wrong with Drax’s plan is the whole “killing off the human race” part of it.  If all he wanted to do was leave the planet on a private space station and thrown a giant floating f**k party in the sky, I’d wish him well and see about booking a ticket.  It’s that one step too far that makes him an evil genius and not just Hugh Hefner with an air/space department.  It’s interesting to see how they decide to turn Jaws into a good guy and how Bond reaches out to him.  it’s all done pretty quickly, the space of two or three sentences, but once it’s done, the final stretch of the movie kicks off, and it is a giant grab bag of silly, complete with the best use of a “why in the hell would you install that?” emergency brake I’ve ever seen.  I love the idea that the shuttles that came to investigate just happened to have a platoon of military-trained astronauts armed for laser battle, but the staging of the space battle is fairly awkward and stiff.  This should be one of the great action battles in the series, and instead, it seems like Lewis Gilbert doesn’t really know what to do with it once he’s set it up.  There’s a lot of stuff blowing up, there’s a lot of running around, and Drax gets a fairly weak villian’s send-off, although I will give him credit for a great final line.  “At least I get the pleasure of putting you out of my misery.”

And then we’ve got Jaws and his girlfriend running towards each other in slow motion while they play the love theme, and Jaws opening a champagne bottle with his teeth.  And while I can’t swear to it, boy it sounds like they use “We Have All The Time In The World” in there for a moment, which would be very weird.  The ending, with Bond and Goodhead boning in zero gravity while the White House and the Queen watch, has one of the most brutally on-the-nose jokes of the series (“I think he’s attempting re-entry”), and it’s a welcome farewell I bid the film each and every time I make it to the end.  I know nostalgia puts this one high on many people’s list of favorite Bond films, but it is a test of my patience each and every time, and I’m baffled by the love people profess for it.

I will add that the John Barry score is of particular interest for fans of his work because it marks part of a major transition he was making from the sound of his earlier work to a lusher, more string-heavy sound that distinguished much of his work in the ’80s.  I like the score, even if I’m not crazy about the movie, and it’s interesting to see Barry stretching his stylistic legs even in the midst of one of his biggest franchise gigs.





The third Ian Fleming novel, and perhaps my greatest heartbreak when it comes to how the film was handled.  I love this book.  There’s something cool about how human scale the adventure is.  I wouldn’t accuse “Moonraker” of gritty realism, but there’s something about the way it’s imagined and the terse, direct force of the action writing that makes it all feel perfectly credible.

This is the last one of these that will specifically deal with the book that inspired the film, since it’s the last one until “Casino Royale” to use the title of one of Fleming’s novels.  The producers continued to pick bits and pieces from the Fleming work, including short story titles and characters and ideas, but this is the last film that was meant as an “adaptation” of one of the books, even if they just barely nod to the book with the eventual film.

The book is one of the few of the series that takes place entirely in England, and I think the unusual structure of the novel perfectly captures the various interests that led Fleming to create the character and write the series in the first place.  In the book, M comes to James to ask him to help out with something of a more personal nature.  He takes Bond with him to Blades, the gentlemen’s club where M is a member, and asks Bond to watch carefully as Sir Hugo Drax, another member of the club, plays bridge.  M is convinced that Drax is cheating, but he’s not sure how or why considering the man is a billionaire.  James takes great delight in doing so, and he’s curious about Drax in general.  He’s got a great backstory in the book.  He was in WWII, and he was injured when a German bomb blew up the military headquarters where Drax was working.  He was one of the few people to survive, and he was treated and released, still suffering from a near total amnesia about the accident and what led up to it.  When he got back from the war, he went into the air/space business, and he became filthy rich doing so.  His latest project is the “Moonraker,” a nuclear missile that is designed to make England a nuclear power.  All of that already had Drax on Bond’s radar, but when he is able to prove that Drax cheats at cards, beating him in a hilariously rigged game, Bond becomes fascinated and determined to figure out what else Drax might be hiding.

Fleming was compelled by the notion of someone on your own team betraying you, something which was obviously of great concern in the Cold War era, and Drax is one of the best of his “insider” bad guys.  What I love about the plot in the book is how it deals with the notion of sleeper agents who are such a key part of the system that their turn could cripple a nation.  Drax is deeply trusted, part of the infrastructure, and his back story has made him a national hero.  When the book finally reveals who he really is and how he played the system, it’s a great reveal, smartly handled, and Drax stands revealed as a truly despicable villain.  His plan involves “testing” the nuclear missle by firing it directly into the heart of London, and Bond has to work with Gala Brand, a Special Branch agent who has been working undercover in Drax’s organization.  Gala and Bond have a very strong relationship, etched quickly, and I think they are one of the most interesting combinations of characters in the series.  I also love the way the book opens with a look at the way Bond lives his daily life.  It makes this feel personal, and if you read the Bond novels in the order they were published, this feels like Fleming making the choice to take the character deeper and start to flesh him out like a real person.  I’m fascinated by the way the book makes that choice while the film feels like the moment they abandoned reality and character completely in favor of silly trend-chasing nonsense.  I don’t think any other example in the series more completely illustrates the disparity between the films and the books than this one.  It feels well-researched, grounded, and driven by the genuine anxieties of the age.  If you want to know whether or not you like the Fleming books, read “Casino Royale” and “Moonraker.”  If you’re not convinced at that point, you never will be.

We’re getting closer and closer to “Skyfall,” and we’ve still got six more articles to publish before the film arrives in theaters.  Look for a serious emphasis on all things Bond as we count down to what is already sounding like one of the highlights of the series.

Our Series So Far:

File #1 – “Dr. No” kicks off our look back at the classic series
File #2 – “From Russia With Love” is still one of the best
File #3 – “Goldfinger” takes the series into the realm of pop cartoon
File #4 – “Thunderball” is the first series stumble
File #5 – “You Only Live Twice” rewrites Fleming completely
Father’s Day Dossier
File #6 – “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” changes everything
File #7 – “Diamonds Are Forever” is Connery’s last shot
File #8 – ‘”Live And Let Die” introduces Roger Moore
File #9 – Moore is less in the silly ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’

File #10 – Film Nerd 2.0 and James Bond Declassified collide for ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’

James Bond will return…