At the close of “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977), it was promised that Bond would return in “For Your Eyes Only” but following the huge success of “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” and the subsequent rise of the sci-fi genre, producer Cubby Broccoli decided to change course. Based on the 1954 novel by Ian Fleming (which itself was based on a screenplay he’d written earlier), it needed updating (Broccoli, in interview, said it concerned a “piddling little rocket”) but fitted perfectly.
As with most Bond adaptions, the screenplay ignores a lot of the novel and, in this case, the name of Hugo Drax is the only real link (though the character in the novelisation is closer to Fleming’s). In the film, Bond investigates the hi-jacking and theft of a Moonraker space shuttle, which leads him to Drax, the owner of the manufacturing firm. Along with CIA agent/scientist Dr Holly Goodhead, Bond follows a globetrotting trail from California (complete with transplanted French chateau) to Venice, Rio de Janeiro to the Amazonian rainforest and finally into outer space, where he foils a plot to wipe out the world’s population so that Drax can re-create humanity with his own master race.
|Ken Adam's space station set
|BJ Worth (in brown) and Jake Lombard (as Bond)
During the sequence at the Venice laboratory, Steven Spielberg gave permission for Cubby Brocoli to use the five-note melody from his film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. In 1985, Broccoli returned the favour, granting Spielberg's request to use the James Bond theme in “The Goonies”.
The film also broke two world records. The sequence in the Venice glass museum (filmed at Boulogne Studios) used the largest amount of break-away sugar glass in a single scene whilst the climax at the space station had the largest number of zero gravity wires in one scene.
|The work of Derek Meddings and his team
|Top - Lois Chiles, Sir Roger Moore, Corine Clery
Bottom - Michael Lonsdale, Toshiro Suga
“Moonraker” premiered on 26th June 1979 in the UK, before going on general release on 28th June. It was released in the USA on 29th June, with most mainland European countries releasing it during August except France which, even though it was filmed there, didn’t open it until 10th October. It received its UK TV premiere on 27th December 1982. On a budget of $34m, it is currently estimated to have taken $210.3m worldwide ($19.4m at the UK box office) and was the highest grossing Bond film until “Goldeneye” in 1995.
|left to right - Ken Adam (production designer), Cubby Broccoli (producer), Lewis Gilbert (director), on location in Venice
However, the spectacle, the space angle and the comedy elements didn’t sit well with everyone. Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, praised the special effects and production design but criticised the pacing with “it's so jammed with faraway places and science fiction special effects that Bond has to move at a trot just to make it into all the scenes.” Even Richard Maibaum, a previous (and future) Bond screenwriter said “With “Moonraker”, we went too far in the outlandish. The audience did not believe any more and Roger spoofed too much.”
|On the promotional trail (Sir Roger was making "North Sea Hijack", hence the beard)
left - Corine Clery, Sir Roger, Richard Kiel / right - Michael Lonsdale, with Moore and Kiel
Derek Meddings, Paul Wilson and John Evans were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but lost to “Alien”. The film was also nominated for three Saturn Awards, Best Science Fiction Film, Best Special Effects, and Best Supporting Actor (Richard Kiel).
* * *Since the screenplay of “Moonraker” differed so much from the Fleming novel, screenwriter Christopher Wood was allowed to write a novelisation (as he had with his previous “The Spy Who Loved Me”). It was published in 1979 as “James Bond And Moonraker”, to avoid confusion with the original novel.
I decided this year, after watching the film for the umpteenth time, to read the Wood novelisation (having found it in a second-hand shop a couple of years ago). I mentioned it on Facebook at the time and my friend and fellow writer Kit Power said that he was keen to re-read the Fleming novel. So we both did and these are our thoughts…
James Bond And Moonraker
by Christopher Wood
|Panther paperback 1979, cover scan of my copy
Aided by the beautiful - and efficient - Dr Holly Goodhead, 007 embarks on his most dangerous mission yet. Obective: to prevent one of the most insane acts of human destruction ever contemplated. Destination: outer space. The stakes a high. Astronomical even. But only Bond could take the rough so smoothly. Even when he’s out of this world…
I liked the book (I like Wood’s writing, generally), it has a good pace and a nice sensibility about it, but I can see how that might be influenced by my liking the film. As it stands, I enjoyed it and for a fan of the film, I’d say it was very much recommended. Fleming purists, however, might well disagree.
by Ian Fleming
review by Kit Power
Because it is, and there's no way to talk about that without talking about it, so let's just get the obvious out of the way: This book is ugly in many places. Whilst it's not quite as breathtakingly, gut-punch racist as Live And Let Die (“The kind of banana handshake that made you want to wash your hand afterwards”) or a jaw-droppingly misogynist as Casino Royale (where a woman - a woman Bond professes to himself to be falling for – is sufficiently headstrong and independent that 'sex with her would always carry the sweet tang of rape'), it stars the same protagonist and is cut from the same cloth. So, yeah, there's a 'strong female' companion, a Special Branch officer assigned to the same case as Bond, but the inside of Bond's mind as they interact is not a particularly pleasant place to be, and you will read some assumptions and comments about Germans that make 'Allo 'Allo look subtle and nuanced.
Here Be Dragons, in other words – the cultural dragons of the British empire, to be precise. Back when they still had wings and fire and teeth. In that sense Moonraker, alongside the other Bond books, stands as a vital and deeply uncomfortable cultural marker. Much in the same way that Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories indict the hypocrisies of Victorian England, even as they are told from within the establishment and intended to be endorsements, so too does Fleming's Bond shine a light on some of the darkest corners of post war Britain's establishment and it's view of the world.
For me, that's actually a big part of what makes this an awesome book. Our tale begins with Bond working his way through a typical Monday at the office – shooting practice followed by reading top secret documents to assess if they need wider circulation to the other 00 agents, and perving over his secretary.
The level of detail is insane. Fleming names the brand of air conditioner that sucks up the gun smoke from the basement shooting gallery, and provides the contents of the first couple of dossiers verbatim. It really does make the reading experience intensely voyeuristic – we're hovering just behind the eyes of one of three of the UK's trained assassins as he goes about his daily tasks. That level of detail continues throughout, giving us such treats as the brand of muffler on Bond's car, the mixture of chemicals that the Moonraker rocket burns as fuel, right down to the brand of cigarette lighter on Drax's desk (Ronson, of course).
Depending on your preferences, this level of detail is either boring or fascinating. For me, it's spellbinding – a window into both a time and a place that is at once recognizable and almost totally alien.
Similarly, the pacing is... odd. The Pan paperback I read came in at under 200 pages – most Fleming Bond books come in around this kind of page count, some significantly shorter – so obviously it's in many ways a quick read. On the other hand, the story takes place over the course of five days, and fully the first third revolves entirely around a game of Bridge in a private members casino in central London, of which M, Bond's boss, is a member.
Now, again, how much you enjoy this will be heavily predicated on how much tolerance you have for painstaking descriptions of a fictional but no doubt representative high society gambling joint. But I have to say, as someone for whom long descriptive passages are normally my cue to pick a different book, I was transfixed (and bear in mind this has to be my fifth or sixth read of this book). It's so damned evocative, that's the thing; and again, there's a voyeuristic satisfaction of seeing the inside of such exclusivity. In this way, Bond is a brilliant guide, because he's there as a guest of his boss (investigating a possible case of cheating that for various political reasons needs to be dealt with without the cheat actually being formally unmasked, because oh! The scandal!). Not being a member himself, he brings an outsider's view, along with a sense of longing that is unspoken but runs underneath the whole scene. Bond is clearly in love with this place, and with the version of England it represents to him.
After which, he proceeds to drink the best part of two bottles of champagne (to 'appear drunk'!), ingests a healthy dose of Benzedrine, and then proceeds to out-cheat a cheat at a game of ludicrously high stakes Bridge.
Now, I can't play a note of Bridge. I don't even know how to play Hearts. And the Bridge in this novel is told in fairly close detail, right down to a pictorial representation of the key hand. So this should have been both impenetrable and dull to me. It was not. It was, is in fact, one of my favorite pieces of sustained thriller fiction ever.
Why? Well, there's a fantastic sense of the stakes, for starters. Drax is a national hero, the war survivor and self made multi-millionaire who is set to provide the UK with an independent nuclear deterrent in the form of the Moonraker rocket (due to be test fired on Friday). And he's cheating at Bridge, in one of the most exclusive clubs in London. Exposure of his cheating will lead to a scandal and could end the rocket project. At the same time, well, gentlemen are being hurt. Something Must Be Done. So Bond has to out-cheat the cheat - burn him bad enough to play straight in future – without either getting caught or exposing Drax for what he is. Whilst, as I previously mentioned, bombed out of his mind on champagne (to 'appear' drunk) and Benzedrine (for 'confidence'). Only the security of the realm at stake. No pressure.
Fleming also clearly loves the game of Bridge and high stakes gambling in general, and that love is infectious. So much so that you can follow the action even without having the first clue of the rules – or at least I could, and as a writer, I'm pretty much drowning in envy at the level of storytelling skill that represents.
Add in the aforementioned voyeurism, the extraordinary sense of place, and it's pretty much catnip for me - tense, exciting, combative. Masterful.
Truthfully, I don't enjoy the rest of the book quite as much as that first third – there's a purity to it that burns incredibly bright, and of necessity can't sustain throughout the rest of the plot. Nonetheless, for my money the book does a good job of building the tension throughout the rest of the narrative, throwing odd facts and circumstances at Bond and letting us inside his mind as he sifts the pieces, trying to make the puzzle picture that fits the facts. The climactic car chase is gut-wrenching, and taut, as is the inevitable 'captured-by-the-villain' monologue (was that a cliche in 1955, I wonder, or was it a Fleming invention?).
One other note: Fleming is exceptional at describing physical discomfort and torment – economic to the point of terse, and yet at certain points I found myself gritting my teeth.
In summary, I really feel like I can thoroughly recommend this book. It's far from the best Fleming Bond (Doctor No, Live And Let Die, Goldfinger, and The Man With The Golden Gun all top it easily, for my money), yet it's worth the price of admission for that opening third alone, and the window it offers into a world long gone, for good and ill (mainly, IMO, for good). And as for the laughably one dimensional Germans, well... it was first published in 1955 – only ten years after VE day. That doesn't excuse the attitudes expressed in the book – but it does to a large degree explain them. Fleming was an amazing talent as a thriller writer, and whilst his attitudes towards women, race, and empire feel cartoonishly dated at this point, it's worth remembering as you read, eyebrows occasionally raised so high they feel stuck to the ceiling, that there was a time in living memory when such attitudes were not merely commonplace, but actually informed the decision making process at the very highest levels of our society.
We've come a long way, baby. Take a trip down Fleming's all-too-vivid memory lane, and see just how far.
Or to put it another way, Moonraker is an awesome book in large part because it's, sexist, racist, and dated.
Which is not a statement I'd make too often.