2012 marks the 50th anniversary of James Bond on the big screen. To celebrate, SFX’s Nick Setchfield revisits each and every 007 adventure in a week by week countdown to Skyfall…
MISSION 11: MOONRAKER (1979)
“WHERE ALL THE OTHER BONDS END… THIS ONE BEGINS!” Hurling 007 to the stars, Moonraker is the most outlandish and brazenly awe-chasing of all the Bonds. Ian Fleming’s original tale seems positively prosaic in comparison to its outrageous widescreen dreaming: first published in 1953, the third Bond novel is rooted in the gloom of postwar Britain, a land threatened by the ghost of Nazi rocket science where Bond operates as a kind of lustier, more conflicted Biggles. Our hero never jets beyond Blighty’s grey-green shores, fails to bed the heroine and finds himself embroiled in a four-chapter bridge game – all far from the raw material of blockbuster cinema. Cubby Broccoli spurned Fleming’s plot with an uncharacteristic flash of disdain – “A little piddling rocket that went up to destroy London” – but channeled the villainous Hugo Drax’s Nazi past into a tale of a madman chasing a master race fantasy high in Earth orbit. Drax’s dream of establishing a race of gods by annihilating life on Earth is the grandest, most diabolically high-stakes plot Bond has ever confronted, and the filmmakers had ambition to match – the total cost of the eleventh Bond adventure was greater than the combined budgets of the entire run of ‘60s films. Very much an amped-up sequel to the crowdpleasing spectacle of The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker is Bond as pure fantasia, a film built for the wide-eyed gaze of Christmas Days.
WHERE NO BOND HAS GONE BEFORE In ‘77 the closing moments of The Spy Who Loved Me vowed “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only”. And then a phenomenon named Star Wars smashed into pop-culture, shaking the traditional certainties of Bond’s universe. Colonising the minds of Force-struck kids everywhere, the globe-quaking success of George Lucas’ tech-laden swashbuckler established a blockbuster arms race in late ‘70s cinema. As studios scrambled to profit from the SF surge – Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Superman The Movie arrived in its slipstream, with Star Trek The Motion Picture and Alien readying for launch – Broccoli jettisoned Eyes in favour of another unfilmed Fleming title, the suitably spacey-sounding Moonraker. The fantasy boom’s influence is alternately winking and blatant here: an entry-coder in a secret lab is keyed with John Williams’ five-note CE3K theme while a silhouetted girl in the title sequence soars like a Kryptonian in red and blue; elsewhere Bond saves the day by “switching to manual” (you can almost hear a disembodied Alec Guinness whisper “Use the Force, James!”). For diehards the decision to propel Fleming’s hero into orbit may feel a fad-jump too far – and yes, there’s something jarring about hearing the zap of laser weapons in a Bond film – but it’s as utterly, unshakably of its time as the disco mix of Shirley Bassey’s keening title song that accompanies the end credits. As the poster had it, “Outer space now belongs to 007” – a clear declaration of territorial intent to the Lucas empire.
THE MOORE BOND’S THE MERRIER? “People go to laugh at Bond films,” insisted director Lewis Gilbert, unapologetically. And Moonraker’s popular perception remains a smirk-fuelled distillation of all that’s deemed ludicrous and clowny about the Roger Moore era, Fleming’s tortured government assassin remade as a safari-suited cheese strolling merrily between sight-gags and slapstick setpieces, an unstoppable gatling-gun of double-entendres. But is that fair? There’s actually considerably more to Moonraker than double-taking comedy pigeons and candy-striped hover-gondolas (yes, officially the moment it all goes too far). Take the scene where Bond staggers from a whirl in the rigged centrifuge machine. He emerges sweat-slick, visibly shaken, stripped of his quips, his eternally arched (and arch) eyebrow finally quelled. He falls, but is too proud to let Holly help him. He exits in silence, half-broken, momentarily closer to the Fleming conception than Connery ever came. Elsewhere Corinne’s pursuit by Drax’s hounds is the grimmest, most nightmarish sequence in all the Bonds: as slants of daylight cut like knives through a tangle of trees a pack of flesh-hungry dogs race a terrified girl to her death, accompanied by a John Barry score that sounds like some beautiful, regretful lament. As the dogs fall on Corinne we cut to the bells of Venice. It’s as if the film itself wants to outrun the dark realities of Bond’s world. Once again, no one’s laughing.
SKY FALL The audacious ski-leap that launched The Spy Who Loved Me set a whole new standard in grandstanding opening setpieces. Moonraker competes with an equally vertiginous pre-titles gag: Bond is pushed out of an aeroplane and, armed only with blazer, slacks and his wits, engages in a fearless freefall tussle for a parachute, high above fast-approaching ground. It misses the brilliant, iconic kick of Spy’s Union Jack punchline – though Moore, amusingly, appears to be manoeuvering through the air by the cunningly applied power of flares at one point – but it’s an impressive, intrepid piece of stunt-craft that took no less than 88 separate skydives to accomplish. The filmmakers faced some crucial practical challenges: could parachutes be made small enough to fit beneath the stunt performers’ clothes? And would a Panavision camera prove too heavy for aerial photography? Skydiving specialist BJ Worth developed a parachute pack that was an astounding 25mm thick and, quite by chance, the crew found an old, experimental Panavision camera (fitted with a plastic lens, not a glass one) in a Paris pawn shop. Stuntman Jake Lombard assumes the role of 007 in the scene and while his doubling may be a little too conspicuous at times it’s an acceptable trade for one of the most genuinely courageous stunts in the Bond canon.
JAWS 2 Moonraker marks the return of Richard Kiel as the hulking, steel-gnashered killer from The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s the first (and only time) that a henchman is granted an encore performance in the Bond movies. While the original screenplay for Spy had definitively offed the character, Broccoli, sensing his potential, chose to spare him from his fatally ironic encounter with a Great White in Stromberg’s sharkpool. “I had convinced the producer that Jaws should have some characteristics that were human to counteract the steel teeth,” recalled Kiel. “I guess I overdid it – I became too likeable to kill off!” In truth Jaws is not best served by Moonraker, too often reduced to a gurning comedy stooge whose ultimate redemption as an ally of Bond’s strikes an improbably cosy note for a character originally established as a professional murderer (next: tea and fig rolls with Rosa Klebb?). But go back to the splendidly macabre scene where he infiltrates the Rio street carnival beneath a giant, bobbing clown head – advancing on the lone Manuela down an empty, darkened alleyway he’s legitimately terrifying, a figure plucked from the realm of nightmare, not Looney Tunes.
THE FINAL FRONTIER Key to the sci-fi-spiced iconography of Moonraker is the space shuttle. In the real world it wouldn’t launch until 1981, but NASA’s creation was already embedded in the public consciousness as the future of space travel and its inclusion gives this Bond adventure a cool, topical gleam. While the end credits slyly declared “And on location – in outer space!” it was veteran British modelmaker Derek Meddings who hurled 007 starwards (Broccoli had approached the big American FX houses and while he was wowed by their technical acumen he had baulked at their call for a stake in the film’s profits). Meddings approached the task with characteristic ingenuity: magnesium flares simulated launch-fire while cascades of salt doubled for the contrails of the shuttle in flight. Elsewhere the climactic destruction of Drax’s space station was accomplished with the timely creative input of twelve-bore shotguns. Meddings’ methods may have been far from the bleeding edge of Industrial Light and Magic but the results remain startling, from the shuttle’s stately escape from Earth’s blue grip to the heart-stopping moment Drax’s orbital lair emerges from darkness, ominous and insectile in the firmament. Teamed with Barry’s most majestic score it truly feels like a thrilling new frontier for Bond.
TRIV AND LET DIE:
The Bondmakers originally hoped to film aboard a genuine NASA shuttle launch.
Derek Meddings’ FX earned an Academy Award nomination – it lost to Alien.
Lois (Moneypenny) Maxwell’s daughter Melinda is one of Drax’s master race.
Jaws was originally to fall in love with a 7’ 7” Amazonian.
The fight between Bond and Chang in the glass factory was a revised version of a scene cut from The Spy Who Loved Me, where Bond brawled in a museum of Egyptian antiquities.
The space art director on Moonraker was Harry Lange, who had headed NASA’s future projects division in the 1960s, working alongside rocket pioneer Werner Von Braun. He had been production designer on 2001.
Bond’s spy camera is adorned with the number 007. He’s clearly now a brand.
Early contenders for the title song were Kate Bush, Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra – “Fly Me To The Moonraker”?