by Ian Fleming
190 pages, Coronet Books
Review by Pat Black
Moonraker is the loopiest Bond movie adaptation by a hundred thousand light years - but I’ll watch it before Skyfall or Spectre any day of the week.
The film is ridiculous, with a third act which is basically a sci-fi land-grab, released a few months before The Empire Strikes Back. It features a space battle with ray guns.
It also features Roger Moore’s stunt double skydiving in flared slacks. This movie perhaps predates Fonzie “jumping the shark”, by “Moonraking the Moore”. But I still think it’s great. If I discover it’s being screened on ITV4 on an idle Friday night, I’ll be watching.
I’ve read a fair bit of sneering about that movie, but it made a lot of money in its day, and Sir Roger Moore was, as ever, a complete charmer as 007. It’s the centrepiece of Moore’s Holy Trinity, flanked by The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only.
Those films were fun. The past few Bonds have not been fun.
Ian Fleming’s original cold war novel, written in 1955 (“Hello, McFly!”), has little in common with the movie adaptation. For one thing, Bond doesn’t leave the UK, with the main action taking place on the south-east coast of England. Domestic matters are not the remit of MI6, as the author acknowledges in the story, and Bond has to get a special dispensation from the Prime Minister in order to check things out. Get you, Mr Big Deal!
As in the movie, our villain is Hugo Drax. Supposedly the son of a Liverpool docker, Drax was badly injured in the war, but overcame his injuries and went into business. The tycoon made a fortune out of various commodities, including a rare metal with a very high melting point - an essential component for rockets.
A billionaire with a high public profile, Drax comes across as a prototypical Sir Richard Branson, but with a military edge. The great benefactor even provides, privately, a state-of-the-art nuclear defence system for Britain, with a greater range than any other warhead on the planet: the Moonraker.
This rocket grants Britain far greater clout in world affairs than it had in reality at that time, or at any point since. The Suez Crisis came only a year after the publication of Moonraker, after which no-one would view the United Kingdom as a key player in world affairs again.
The public loves Drax, enjoying his ostentatious wealth and outrageous publicity stunts at a time when the country had only just stopped being rationed. Bond freely admits to admiring the man.
But there’s a problem: Drax is a card cheat.
Bond accompanies his boss, M, to Blades, London’s most exclusive gambling house, to find out if there is any truth to the suspicion.
It’s so bloody British. Drax has Armageddon at his fingertips, on a private base staffed with his own private militia - but what makes people suspicious about his character and motive is that he rips off a few dissolute aristocrats and old military duffers at cards.
“Not cricket, old boy. Imagine the scandal if it got out!”
In the first half of Moonraker, there is not one single fight, car chase, shoot-out or bed-hop, but it’s a great piece of writing in so many ways. I’ve always said that Ian Fleming might have made one of the great travel or food critics. Arguably, his talent for crisp descriptive prose was wasted on espionage comedies.
We start off with a bored Bond, back at his desk and sporting a few new scars following his escapades in Live And Let Die. Here’s where we might glimpse the working day of the real Ian Fleming before Bond came into his life: stuck at a newsdesk, head angled towards the window, bored out of his skull.
In the long stretches between assignments Bond does courses and reads “top secret” reports which have little bearing on his operations. This classic sexpanther’s head drifts out the window as he attempts to live the life of an umbrella-carrying British civil servant. Ten am starts, lunch at the canteen, idle lust tipping into overt flirtation with secretaries, a spot of banter with colleagues, and the odd roll about on the carpet with married women during downtime.
M snaps Bond out of his clerical fugue to check out Drax at Blades. We follow 007 as he dresses, drinks, orders a belt of Benzedrine from his private secretary (no questions asked, either!), then downs two bottles of very fine champagne as he figures out how Drax does the dirty – before snaring him with a con of his own.
The stakes are high - £15,000, equivalent to just under £400,000 in today’s sterling – and the gambling scenes are on a par with those in Casino Royale.
Bond loves it. It plugs 007 in at source, as you suspect it did with Ian Fleming. The cigarette smoke, the green baize, the sweat, the booze, the tension, and the unique charge that only gambling can give you; this is part of the very bedrock of Bond.
After Bond triumphs, Drax signs off with a sinister line: “Spend it quickly, Mr Bond.”
Amazingly, Bond does – he puts himself down for a brand new Bentley, a new set of golf clubs and some redecoration of his Mayfair flat (how much would that property be worth today compared to 1955, one wonders? Not easily calculable).
I thought, “Christ, 007, put it away in the bank! Get it invested in bricks and mortar… you could retire on that! Your fancy car will depreciate rapidly, you know, and think of the maintenance costs...”
Hard on the heels of this mental reflux, the bitter realisation: I’ve lost something. I’m not the same man who first read this book, when I was 24.
Bond is a guy in his mid-thirties who enjoys living life on the edge, and doesn’t expect to reach mandatory retirement age from front line duties (45), never mind pension age. It’s worth noting that Fleming, whose tastes in wild women, high living and general excess matched that of his literary creation, clocked out aged only 56, just as the Bond phenomenon was about to detonate worldwide with Goldfinger.
We are drawn into Drax’s world. Again, breaking with tradition, Bond is semi-out the closet as a security operative rather than strictly undercover with Universal Exports, looking into a strange murder-suicide which took place near Drax’s base a matter of days before the test-firing of the Moonraker. One of the base’s exclusively German operatives has shot a love rival in a pub, before turning the gun on himself.
Among the many things which don’t add up: the German chap seemed to say “Heil Hitler” before pulling the trigger. How curious, thinks Bond…
The girl involved in the supposed love triangle is an undercover Special Branch operative, an English girl named Gala Brand. How interesting, thinks Bond…
Before The Spy Who Loved Me came along, Moonraker was the odd man out in the series, and I didn’t enjoy it the first time I read it, 15 years ago. I much preferred it this time around – taking time to sip at Fleming’s pitch-perfect prose, and gazing around the post-war settings with a sense of appreciation and wonderment, rather than astonishment and sometimes outright hilarity.
Bond trope: A villain with some kind of deformity. Half Drax’s face has been burned off and re-grafted; it seems he is just as ugly on the inside. The Bond series is not particularly progressive in its view of disability and disfigurement.
Things that annoy me about Bond: When Bond is being briefed by M, Bond seems to know just as much about the topic as his boss, if not more. How is this possible? The guy can’t go from being bored with top-secret reports on Japanese poisons one minute to knowing everything under the sun the next!
Perhaps Bond has genius-level recall; perhaps this basic retention of facts and details is what sets him apart in the world of espionage. I can’t remember what I had for dinner two nights ago, and I might break into a sweat if you asked me to compute basic fractions. Maybe my irritation at Bond’s vast knowledge base says more about me than it does about Fleming’s storytelling.
Also: henchmen and soldiers in ridiculous attire. Drax’s all-German militia (there’s a wee clue for you) dress in the same zippy-up one-piece jumpsuits, and are all shaven-headed, with the added flourish of silly moustaches. Drax explains why this dodgy biker gang style is necessary near the end, but that doesn’t lessen its comedic effect to modern eyes. When these chaps were first described, I was thinking of the baddie in the video for the Communards’ Don’t Leave Me This Way.
Fleming wrote in a hardback style, and his prose was strictly business class, but his stories, scenarios, plots and characters were quite often the stuff of comic books getting soggy outside a bus station. In many ways, he was a lucky writer.
Also, as you might anticipate for a Bond novel written in the 1950s, the portrayal of women is outdated, at best. Bond’s appraisal of secretary Loelia Ponsonby as a woman married to the job, tottering into frigid, virginal middle age, was utterly brutal. That said, Fleming does go beyond Bond’s one-track assessment and reveals Ponsonby as an excellent operator, who worries herself to death about the men she helps send out on assignments. We’d call her a workaholic, these days. Fleming is saying a lot about women who embarked on careers back in the 1950s, not much of it flattering, but at least he appreciates them, however condescendingly.
There’s also that wince-inducing scenario which we see throughout the Bond milieu. Bond is clearly up to no good, in the eyes of the villain, from the moment he appears. He tries to ingratiate himself, despite humiliating his quarry in some way (usually through gambling). Instead of putting out a contract on him, the villain seems to decide, “You’re alright, Bond,” even as he wipes the spit off his face.
The villain doesn’t trust him, but still invites Bond into his inner circle. Then (as in this novel), there is an attempt made on Bond’s life, which he survives. Bond knows that they know that he knows that they know he’s up to no good, but the charade continues.
This has always irritated the life out of me in Bond movies. “Why not just shoot him?” You shouldn’t ask yourself this question. Surely it would be better to show Bond as having gained the villain’s trust, instead of everyone pretending they don’t know the truth? Licence To Kill, one of the most under-rated Bond films, is one of the few to get the idea of Bond as an undercover saboteur exactly right.
Bond trope breaker: Gala Brand – the Bond girl Bond couldn’t have.
Vesper Lynd and Solitaire were two very different characters to this professional, imperturbable girl – one a femme fatale, the other a beautiful ingénue. Brand is something else entirely. She’s the girl at the centre of the suspicious love triangle. It doesn’t take long for Bond to show an interest beyond the job at hand.
(“Distinguishing features: a mole on the upper curvature of the right breast. ‘Hmm!’ said Bond.”)
Brand still needs rescuing, of course, but she is more recognisably modern than her two predecessors, and certainly an absolute professional.
Also, Brand is unique in that she doesn’t go to bed with Bond, despite some heavy flirting on the beach and a couple of kisses. She even delivers something of a slap in the face, by only revealing at the end that she is engaged to someone else, dashing Bond’s plans for spending a month’s leave with her.
Well, thanks very much, Moley McMoletits, thinks Double-0-Blueballs. It just shows you, ladies – even James Bond appreciates an EBR (Early Boyfriend Reference). Probably wouldn’t put him off, mind, but it’s nice if everyone’s on the same page.
Bad Bond: When Bond first meets Brand over dinner at Drax’s house, he is annoyed that she doesn’t pay him much attention. In order to get it, he actually considers kicking her shins.
How many of you out there will recognise that scenario? How many times did it happen in pubs and clubs last night, alone? The crude inquiry, the sullen disappointment, and maybe the outright Cro-Magnon rage. “Alright darlin’, how you doing tonight? Hey… I’m talking to you. Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
For such a slow-burning start, Moonraker has plenty of peril in its second half, including a fine car chase and a thrilling race-against-time conclusion. Bond is made to suffer, as usual; my very buttocks cringe in recalling one scene where the baddies try to smoke Bond and Brand out of the ventilation system with a steam hose. Less baroque but no less painful is the absolute battering 007 takes near the end while he is tied to a chair.
It all leads to a satisfying climax when Bond and Brand save the day – if we’re sort-of ignoring, as Fleming does, the effects of nuclear fission.
It’s hard to know what Fleming would have said in the 1950s had you told him that the movie version of Moonraker would finish on a space station with astronauts on jet packs lasering each other. He might well have approved – he was fond of ludicrous action and outlandish settings, contrary to what you may have heard about the supposedly “gritty” Bond novels. They weren’t all low-down and dirty, and certainly none of them were remotely realistic.
That’s one of the aspects of the series I hope to explore in more detail later on. The books are a real mixed bag, and the more outlandish aspects of the Roger Moore years fit some literary entries in the Bond canon quite well.
The great irony is that Moonraker, despite its notoriety as one of the most far-fetched Bond movies, actually qualifies for “gritty Bond” status on the page.
Bondsquawk will return, in… Diamonds Are Forever.