The Moonraker (1958)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 16 May (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

England, 1951. The Royalists, rallying to the flag of Charles II, have lost the Battle of Worcester. Fleeing to the south coast with his Cavalier friends, King Charles (Gary Raymond) enlists the help of the Earl of Dawlish (George Baker), an adventurer who’s earned the smuggler’s nom de plume of Moonraker. With Roundhead Colonel Beaumont (Marius Goring) in hot pursuit, the Moonraker and Charles Stuart engage in a race against time to leave the country…

The Moonraker is a largely forgotten English take on the swashbuckler, and it’s easy to see why. Stuffing a series of sword fights, derring-do and a Civil War tilt on the Scarlet Pimpernel tale into its 79 minute running time, there’s not much that should have been allowed to go wrong. It had the cast (complemented by Sylvia Syms, John Le Mesurier and a rather shouty Patrick Troughton). The director, David MacDonald, was a veteran of budget quickies and B-movies who knew exactly how to keep the action rolling. The aim of the film was thrills, served fast and in large quantities; as Baker noted at the time, producing something of ‘a fine British Western.’

And yet forgettable it is, from the awful pop song ‘The Moonraker’ sung by Ronnie Hilton over the opening titles, to the weightless plot. The eponymous main character is quickly established as virtually invulnerable, considering the number of Roundhead soldiers he dispatches with a sword and a smile, and it seems clear he is channelling the spirit of that other English hero, Robin Hood as played by Errol Flynn. The only time he’s put in real jeopardy, as the result of a duel with Peter Arne’s Roundhead swordsman, he’s revived by Syms, here playing the betrothed of Beaumont. But she’s quickly won over by Dawlish’s charm and it becomes apparent the point of the sword fight was to place the soon-to-be lovers together. Elsewhere, the duelling is fairly perfunctory, lacking the urgency of many contemporary films and serving only to satisfy the promise of featuring them to begin with.

It’s a pity, as there’s a level of substance bubbling beneath the surface that the film seems to lack confidence in attaining. For a start, the level of historical accuracy is surprising. The fictional Moonraker might have been shoehorned into the story, but Charles’s flight to the continent following the lost Battle of Worcester really happened. He was pursued every step of the way, finding brief solace with sympathisers who gave him respite from his oncoming Parliamentary enemies. There’s a neat sense – especially from Goring and Syms – that the two sides in supposedly bitter enmity aren’t perhaps so very different; I wish this sentiment had been teased out a little more. Yet after hinting at such profundities, George Baker has another sword waved in his face, the orchestra strikes up and we’re lost once again in the action.

The Moonraker: **

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5 Replies to “The Moonraker (1958)”

  1. It’s not a bad little movie and does move at a good pace. But you’re right, it lacks something. To give it its due, I don’t think it ever aimed to be much more than an adventure flick. The fights aren’t bad though and it generally has a very attractive look.

    1. Thanks Colin – I think I was just expecting a bit better, rather than going through the motions, but I agree about the look of it – some nice period detail going on. I couldn’t find too much to fault with the history either, which isn’t often the case with these things.

  2. I know the reviews for the movie aren’t the greatest, but I first saw it over 30 years ago on a black & white TV set. I enjoyed it immensely and it got me interested in the English Civil War. I looked for a number of years to see it replayed again on cable and finally was able to record it, only to have my bitch ex-wife record over it shortly thereafter. I’ve been looking again for years for it to be replayed so I can record it again. I would buy it on DVD, but as far as I know, it is only available in Region 2, which will not play on US DVD players. Anybody know how I can get a copy of it that will play in the US?

  3. Great upbeat movie, tuneful rousing intro song, why do so called critics pan such enjoyable movies, what do they want Bruce Willis firing rocket launchers at Cromwell accompanied by some mindless rap song ! – This is based on true events (admittedly with artistic licence), and all locations are real – you can visit them today ! (except Windwhistle Inn). The costumes are perfect the acting is played with conviction, DVD colour is crisp so get a (non Sony) DVD player sit back and enjoy it over and over again, and why not visit the real locations and wallow in UK’s history

    1. Thanks for the comment Anthony, glad you liked the film and good to see some different opinions here. Whilst the sight of Bruce Willis sending modern artillery in Cromwell’s direction is something I wouldn’t pay to see, this wasn’t a film I especially enjoyed. It did have its moments though, and the casting was just fine. I also like the mixture of fact and fiction; the actual flight of the future Charles II is certainly good material for storytelling.

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