When it’s on: Wednesday, 16 May (2.55 pm)
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: **