Musings on Bond at 50: Moonraker

Posted: 9 September 2012 in entertainment, film
Tags: , , , ,

With any attempts at gravitas overwhelmed by inane humour, spectacular backdrops and outlandish gadgets Moonraker attains but ultimately fails to emerge as a classic Bond film.

Look after Mr. Bond… see that some harm comes to him.

Moonraker

Essentially a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me with Lewis Gilbert and Christopher Wood returned as director and screenwriter respectively, Roger Moore’s fourth outing as 007 once again featured a megalomaniacal billionaire intent on the annihilation of humanity as part of a master plan to repopulate the world according to his vision of perfection.

The closing credits of The Spy Who Loved Me had announced the return of James Bond in For Your Eyes Only. However Cubby Broccoli changed his plans following the massive financial success of Star Wars in the summer of 1977 and instigated the development of a science fiction orientated eleventh film utilising Ian Fleming’s third novel Moonraker as its basis. Science fiction was gold at the box office once again and Broccoli decided to leap on the bandwagon.

Armed with an astronomical budget of $32 million (over twice what was allocated to the previous film) Moonraker proved to be a globe-trotting adventure unlike no other Bond up until then with location filming undertaken in Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, France, Italy and the USA – as well as interiors at all the largest studios in Paris and on the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios.

India and Nepal were initially considered as settings but location scouting revealed that attempting to film in those countries would require far more preparation time than was possible under their schedule to release Moonraker in the summer of 1979. Although Nepal has yet to feature in a Bond film India would later play host to extensive location filming for 1983’s Octopussy. From possible 007s to potential locations to unused ideas nothing is ever forgotten by EON Productions and this certainly proved the case with material developed for the Moonraker script. Excised scenes featuring an Acrostar Jet was eventually used in the pre-credit sequence for Octopussy, and Bond meeting a contact at the Eiffel Tower found its way into A View To A Kill.

Cubby Broccoli had visited Rio de Janeiro on holiday and suggested its inclusion as an exotic locale for Bond. A skeleton crew was sent to the Brazilian city in early 1978 to record footage of the Rio Carnival, which would act as a backdrop to sequences in a similar manner to that of the Junkanoo parade in Thunderball.

Sugarloaf Mountain was another prominent location with a major stunt sequence staged high above the city on the cable cars that service the summit. Stuntman Richard Grayson (doubling Roger Moore) came perilously close to death when he hung off the side of one of the cable cars without his safety line attached. Iguazu Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil also attracted the attention of the production team and a boat chase culminating at the waterfall was constructed for the narrative.

For the first ten films in the series Pinewood Studios in England had been the primary venue for interiors but for the new film the production team found themselves forced to relocate to facilities in Paris due to the high rate of taxation in the UK in the late 1970s. Production designer Ken Adam once again oversaw the construction of massively elaborate and breathtaking sets. The sets were the largest ever in France and 222,000 man-hours were required to construct them. The French crews felt such enthusiasm for Adam’s vision they even worked overtime and weekends to finish the sets on time, undertakings unheard of amongst the film production teams of that country. Moonraker was Ken Adam’s seventh 007 epic and ultimately his final one. Alongside Sean Connery, director Terence Young and composer John Barry, Adam is cited as one of the major factors in the early success of the series. From Fort Knox to Blofeld’s volcano lair to the interior of Stromberg’s supertanker his design work stunned cinema goers around the world and none of his successors have come close to matching his flamboyant genius.

You have arrived at a propitious moment, considered to be your country’s one indisputable contribution to Western Civilization: Afternoon tea. May I press you to a cucumber sandwich?

Moonraker - Drax

Paradoxically one of the worst films in the series contains the best villain of the entire Roger Moore era. The first choice to play Sir Hugo Drax was James Mason but his non-acceptance proved as fortuitous to the filmmakers as Orson Welles’ rejection of the role of Auric Goldfinger. In common with Gert Frobe’s performance as the eponymous character of the third film it is hard to imagine anyone playing Sir Hugo Drax as perfectly as Michael Lonsdale. Armed with the best lines for any villain since Goldfinger Drax is a megalomaniac demanding total loyalty and utterly obsessed with his vision to repopulate the planet with his chosen Herrenvolk. The concept of Drax and his desire for a genetically pure master race is an unacknowledged nod to Fleming’s novel where the industrialist was a Nazi war criminal who had assumed the identity of the deceased knight of the realm and utilising his empire as a means of revenging himself upon Britain.

Although it was unknown at the time Moonraker contains the final performance of Bernard Lee as Admiral Sir Miles Messervy KCMG, head of the British Secret Service, known to everyone as “M”. Before Lee could film his scenes in For Your Eyes Only he succumbed to stomach cancer and passed away at the age of 73. The actor remains the definitive M of the series – a serious, no nonsense authority figure capable of rendering Connery’s Bond into the state of a schoolboy in the presence of a feared headmaster. Lee’s contribution and legacy is acknowledged in The World Is Not Enough with the presence of his portrait in MI6’s Scottish base.

Allow me to introduce you to the airlock chamber. Observe, Mr Bond, your route from this world to the next. And the treacherous Dr Goodhead; your desire to become America’s first woman in space will shortly be fulfilled.

EON Productions had originally hoped to release Moonraker to coincide with the first launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle and garner extra publicity. In the end the Moonraker space shuttles left the launch pad long before Columbia did thanks to the genius of special effects designer Derek Meddings who had been working on the Bond films since Live And Let Die. Without any reference to real shuttle launches available Meddings created beautifully realistic models utilising falling salt to simulate smoke trails. Due to the tight production schedule there was not enough time to undertake optical composting for the various elements required for the space sequences. Instead Meddings combined all the elements using in-camera using multiple passes of the same piece of film. Often film would be exposed almost 90 times to capture all the required aspects. One of the executive producers became so nervous about the potential for a disaster in the shape of damaged film and having to start all over again that he requested that Meddings not provide him with progress reports but simply to tell him when the deed was done. The effects proved to be stupendous beyond hope and were nominated for the 1979 Academy Award for Visual Effects (though Alien went on to win).

I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir.

Star Wars Episode 1.1: The Phantom Edit is fan edit of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace that removed 18 minutes of the original film in order to make a stronger version. Amongst the changes was the removal of scenes involving Jar Jar Binks and the re-editing of inane dialogue from the Battle Droids and Anakin Skywalker. Perhaps Mike J Nicols who created the edit can be persuaded to undertake a similar task on the eleventh James Bond film Moonraker in order to improve on the original material.

Moonraker - Bond in spacePerhaps with the excision of scenes of camp humour, such as Bond’s horse riding to the theme of The Magnificent Seven and pigeons doing double-takes at Bond’s antics in a Venetian gondola Moonraker would emerge as a far more focused and serious production. Also, every scene with Jaws needs to be consigned to an editing dustbin where they can never be found. To an even greater degree than The Spy Who Loved Me his presence undermines the tension of every scene in which he appears – a prime example being the pre-credit sequence when 007 is pushed out of an aeroplane without a parachute.

Devised by Michael G Wilson and overseen by 2nd unit director John Glen (who had recently filmed the skydiving sequence in The Wild Geese) the stunt team involved had to skydive 88 times in order to capture the required footage. Bond pursuing and wresting the parachute from the other skydiver is an exciting sequence that comes to a natural conclusion when the agent achieves his goal and kicks his opponent into the void. Cue opening credits. But no, the filmmakers stretch the sequence beyond its natural conclusion with the appearance by having Jaws suddenly appear and undermine all that has gone before and plunge onto a circus tent when his parachute fails.

The fact that Jaws can survive a seemingly fatal fall renders any danger to 007 null and void. And so it continues…crash him in a cable car, throw him off a waterfall, magic him through the burning effects of re-entry from Earth orbit. Supposedly influenced by fan mail from children, the decision to evolve Jaws from a baddie to a goodie ranks as quite possibly the most inane decision in the history of the James Bond series.

During the first half of the 1960s secret agent James Bond 007 resembled Sean Connery and armed with his licence to kill powered his way through intelligent action thrillers populated by premier acting talent portraying living breathing characters. As the 1970s concluded and the third decade of the Bond franchise beckoned, a neutered non-threatening agent 007 bearing a striking similarity to television’s Simon Templar virtually sleepwalked his way through glossy cartoonish crash-bang-wallop outings that rendered the antics of Tom and Jerry Shakespearian in comparison.

1 From Russia With Love
2 Goldfinger
3 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
4 The Spy Who Loved Me
5 Thunderball
6 Dr. No
7 You Only Live Twice
8 Moonraker
9 Diamonds Are Forever
10 Live And Let Die
11 The Man with the Golden Gun

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