The 11th James Bond movie was originally titled For Your Eyes Only, but came out as Moonraker – here’s the tale of 007’s last adventure of the 1970s and the first of the 1980s.
This feature contains spoilery discussion of Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and one pre-hyped moment from Fast & Furious 9.
In the week that the ninth Fast & Furious movie roared into cinemas and the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only reached its 40th anniversary, we’ve been thinking about Moonraker. Truth be told, it doesn’t take much to get us thinking about Moonraker, with its hover-gondola moment, the subsequent double-taking pigeon, Michael Lonsdale’s brilliant villain, and, oh yes, the bit where 007 goes into space.
If you do prefer the more hard-edged Ian Fleming-flavoured Bond, the subsequent back-to-basics film, 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, is probably more your cup of tea. That’s not to say that either of them is especially faithful to the Fleming stories from which they take their names, because by this point, it was well established that the scripts and tone could go in a different direction.
Published after Casino Royale and Live And Let Die, Moonraker was Fleming’s third Bond novel. The plot sees 007 teaming up with Special Branch agent Gala Brand to stop ex-Nazi industrialist Hugo Drax from turning the titular British nuclear deterrent on London. Far from outer space, the action doesn’t even leave Britain, which came in for some criticism from contemporary readers.
Indeed, the novel was published in the beginning of the space race between the USA and the USSR, and so didn’t really cover the launch of satellites, much less manned missions.
At least the screenwriters of Fast & Furious 9 – who have fully taken the challenge of taking former street-level car thieves into orbit as a dare and just about got away with it – have the imminent prospect of commercial and private space travel on their side. How else do you get a jammy line like “As long as we follow the laws of physics, we should be fine” in there?
So, how did Moonraker wind up being the James Bond series’ first (and thus far, only) movie in space and why did For Your Eyes Only wind the series back in? Although the two were only made two years apart, it’s hugely significant that they came out in two different decades.
Preparing to launch
Fleming adapted Moonraker out of a screenplay idea he’d previously been working on, and thus long before producers Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman’s EON Productions had the rights, the author was developing a film version of Moonraker with the Rank Organisation. Despite contributing his own script to get things moving, Rank didn’t move forward with it, and a frustrated Fleming ultimately purchased the rights back in 1960, in time for EON to option them the following year.
By the time Moonraker entered development at EON in the 1970s, there was a precedent of mixing and matching Fleming titles and their story elements. For instance, the film of Live And Let Die doesn’t have a scene where Felix Leiter is mauled by sharks, but this beat from the novel appeared in 1989’s Licence To Kill instead. Elements of Moonraker the novel would show up in later films, but it was taken as read that Moonraker the film needn’t be a faithful adaptation.
Indeed, Thunderbirds supremo Gerry Anderson was one of the first writers to pitch a treatment for Moonraker. Working with writer Tony Barwick, he wrote a story that differed significantly from the novel, reportedly featuring a villain called Zodiak and triplet henchmen called Tic, Tac, and Toe. Although Anderson’s treatment wasn’t taken up, the writer later sued EON when elements of his story turned up in The Spy Who Loved Me instead and the case was settled out of court.
Around the same time, Saltzman sold his 50% stake in EON’s parent company Danjaq, (which holds the actual screen rights to the Bond stories) to United Artists (UA), leaving Broccoli to produce future Bond outings. The Man With The Golden Gun was Saltzman’s last producing credit on the series, but his departure meant that (not for the last time in this particular franchise) there was a longer-than-usual gap between films due to ongoing legalities.
Once all of that was sorted out, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me was the tenth 007 adventure to reach cinemas. Although it takes its title from one of Fleming’s least popular novels, the film didn’t use the source material. Instead, Moore’s third film in the lead role sees Bond begin an uneasy entente with his female opposite number in the KGB, Barbara Bach’s Agent Anya Amasova, while tangling with fish-daft maniac Karl Stromberg and his hulking henchman, Jaws. It’s rightly considered to be one of the very best Bond films of all, but we’ll get to that another time.
Compared to the underwhelming returns for The Man With The Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me was a huge worldwide box-office hit too, the biggest in UA’s history at that point, which kept the new stakeholders of the franchise very happy. And as usual, the movie ends with a teaser for the next outing, with a caption that says, “James Bond Will Return In For Your Eyes Only”, but various shake-ups behind the scenes and in the movie market in general led to a production switcheroo…
Off the back of The Spy Who Loved Me, EON had enormous clout at UA, and Broccoli was determined that the next instalment would be “bigger and better”. At this juncture, it’s worth noting that the Bond films of the 1970s all echoed the popular Hollywood cinema of the decade to some extent. Nevertheless, you’ll find plenty of quotes with Bond writers and producing, poo-pooing the idea that Live And Let Die capitalised on blaxploitation or that The Man With The Golden Gun included martial arts scenes because of hits like Enter The Dragon.
But as far as we’re concerned, when you cast Richard Kiel as a character who’s called something else in the book and name him after the first bona-fide Hollywood blockbuster, released two years earlier… well, Jaws has eaten whatever leg you had to stand on. And although the emergence of Star Wars as a worldwide phenomenon was a more immediate influence on the film’s direction, the filmmakers also had one eye on NASA’s upcoming Space Shuttle program launch. All the while, Broccoli insisted that 007’s trip to space would be “not science fiction but science fact”, which is as clear a real-life forerunner to that Ludacris line about the laws of physics as we’ve ever seen.
Written by series regular Tom Mankiewicz, the first treatment for Bond 11 is dated 20th March 1978, and was indeed titled For Your Eyes Only, as suggested in the credits of the previous film. However, coming in the wake of Star Wars, the plot is still Moonraker as we know it, complete with all that outer-space action. The title was officially changed at Mankiewicz’s suggestion on a subsequent revision, which used the Fleming title for a space-shuttle operation previously dubbed “Enterprise”.
Mankiewicz signed off after submitting these treatments, and The Spy Who Loved Me screenwriter Christopher Wood was brought back to write the shooting script, coming up with a lot of the more down-to-earth aspects of the story as it developed. As a fan of Fleming’s books, Wood was eager to keep in touch with Bond as a grounded and dangerous character even as the story ventured into sci-fi territory.
Speaking at a Bond convention in 1982, Wood reflected: “My James Bond is an earthbound man who wears a suit and tuxedo and punches people on the nose. When you put him in space kit he loses that touch, he disappears behind that mask.”
On the lighter side of things, the script also brought back Jaws for another go-around. According to returning director Lewis Gilbert, it was the popularity of the character with younger fans that prompted the rejigging of Kiel’s murderous goon into a more comedic character, who gains a love interest and is redeemed over the course of the story.
This still seems to upset a lot of older viewers who should know better than to be upset by this sort of thing, so we’ll move on.
Meanwhile, back in space – Broccoli met with George Lucas’ effects house Industrial Light and Magic about doing the effects for Moonraker. Blanching at ILM’s quote of $2 million and a 2% cut of the film’s profits, the producer resolved to shoot the effects scenes between studios in Paris and the then-newly built 007 stage at Pinewood Studios instead. Creating the effects would still prove to be a nerve-racking and time-consuming process.
With no time to use optical compositing to combine shots of actors on wires, lasers, and models in the climactic space scenes, visual effects supervisor Derek Meddings had to combine them in-camera instead by carrying out multiple passes on the same piece of film. For his troubles, Meddings got an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects, though Alien took the gong on Oscar night.
Although the end credits cheekily count “Outer Space” among the shooting locations, it was the stuff set on Earth that wound up pushing Moonraker’s budget into orbit. This included expenses on various location scouting trips through India and Nepal, neither of which appeared in the film. The final production cost was estimated at $34m, which was more than twice the budget of any other Bond film up to that point. Heck, that’s three times what Star Wars had cost to make.
This reflects not only the cost of doing practical effects that could stand up to Lucas’ technical landmark, but also building glorious sets (Moonraker would mark production designer Ken Adam’s last contribution to the Bond series, at least in part due to the pressure and stresses of bringing this one in on budget) and shooting on location in Europe.
While doing press for the film, Gilbert mused: “I used to make entire feature films for less than the Moonraker telephone bill.”
Fortunately for all concerned, the series’ moonshot paid off. Despite more mixed reviews, Moonraker was an even bigger hit than The Spy Who Loved Me, becoming the first Bond film to cross the $200m mark (around $741m in 2021 dollars) at the worldwide box office.
Nevertheless, it took place on a scale (and a budget) that wouldn’t be sustainable for the regular turnaround of Bond films, and so it’s a true last hurrah for that part of Roger Moore’s era. For Your Eyes Only also marked a changing of the guard behind the scenes, with editor and second-unit director John Glen stepping up to the director’s job, a role he would hold through the rest of Moore’s films and both of Timothy Dalton’s outings.
Dalton was among the stars EON approached when it looked as if the 12th Bond film might usher in a new lead before Moore was persuaded to return for a fifth instalment. The film’s uncharacteristically absurd pre-title sequence is at once a vestige of the version that would have introduced audiences to a new Bond in a scene at his late wife’s graveside, and also possibly seen the franchise thumbing its nose at producer Kevin McClory and his screen rights to the character Blofeld.
After that diversion, it’s all a lot more grounded. Combining elements of different adventures from the Fleming short story collection for which it’s named, For Your Eyes Only follows Bond’s race against the Soviets to recover a stolen ATAC missile command system, and a young woman’s quest to avenge her murdered parents.
The ATAC McGuffin is almost a straight call-back to From Russia With Love, heralded as the most faithful to Fleming before Goldfinger took the series in a more spectacular direction, and the script by Richard Maibaum and producer-in-waiting Michael G. Wilson also cherry-picks various unused bits from previously adapted stories as well.
As much as any film in the series might look down to Earth next to Moonraker, this is doubly a more straight-faced outing. Thought not without a sense of humour, Glen’s take on Bond is more ruthless, in a way that sometimes rankled Moore (during shooting, he famously objected to a scene where Bond kills lead henchman Locque by kicking his car over the edge of a cliff) but suited Dalton perfectly.
In the main, the tone makes the sillier moments stick out more than they did in Moonraker. Yeah, the pigeon bit was daft, but is it any dafter than an opening with A Cat-Stroking Villain Who Is Legally Distinct From Blofeld being tipped down a chimney, or the final gag where Margaret Thatcher (Janet Brown) is prank-called by a parrot she thinks is Bond?
Praised by reviewers, For Your Eyes Only fell slightly short of Moonraker’s worldwide box-office take but it was a sizeable hit, proving Bond was still a big draw in his third decade on screen. Indeed, all of the Glen-directed entries’ box-office totals would range from $150m to $190m.
That’s not bad going for a series that was consciously walking back from its biggest special-effects extravaganza. The budgets didn’t necessarily drop with inflation in the 1980s, but $30 million didn’t go as far on 1985’s A View To A Kill as it did on Moonraker. However, the franchise wouldn’t hit that $200m mark again until the 1990s when Pierce Brosnan came along after another long gap in production, and the budgets have only grown since then.
Maybe it’s a sign of the series calming down in the 1980s that some of the unused bits from Fleming’s Moonraker made it into subsequent films; the face-off in which Bond out-cheats the villain at a gambling table appeared in Octopussy, Christopher Walken’s villain had the same Nazi-turned-Soviet ties as Drax in A View To A Kill, and his plan to nuke England as revenge for a World War II defeat was echoed in GoldenEye.
Then again, the novel has Gala Brand, and portraying a capable female character who doesn’t have to have sex with Bond is an open goal the film series has missed repeatedly since the 1990s. Quantum Of Solace came closest with Olga Kurylenko’s Camille, but that one still has Gemma Arterton’s Agent Fields the field agent, who’s seduced and killed off in typically short order. Hopefully, Lashana Lynch’s new 00 agent in No Time To Die will fare better.
But in the main, the cooldown period in the films after Moonraker is not because that film was unsuccessful, but because Broccoli’s “bigger and better” mandate was not a sustainable strategy for the Bond movies, from their fast turnarounds to the credibility of their stories. Nobody would expect Bond to carry on going off to infinity and beyond after this one, but where 1980s blockbuster cinema only got bigger, the following Bond films seem geared towards rediscovering more recognisable stakes.
Die Another Day is as close as they’ve dared approach this level of high wackiness since, but that’s a much worse film than Moonraker, and the more serious films we’ve had in the 21st century since then have borne out a similar trend of recoil to that of the early 1980s.
With Craig’s Bond films taking the series into ever more dramatic territory as they’ve gone on, Mission: Impossible has picked up the mantle of ground-breaking stuntwork, Kingsman takes to the “he’s attempting re-entry”-grade innuendo with the subtlety of Michael the Geordie shouting “he means his cock”, and it’s left to Fast & Furious to slip the surly bonds of sanity and do a Moonraker.
We don’t see Justin Lin’s films winding their necks in for the recently announced two-part finale, but then franchise cinema is a different game now. Even with things as they are with cinemas recovering after the pandemic, we expect the film’s take over the next month or two will comfortably outstrip Moonraker’s adjusted-for-inflation total.
Having fully embraced its live-action Saturday-morning cartoon evolution in a way that Bond never could, we reckon the Fast Saga will give us a finale that makes Moonraker look like For Your Eyes Only. Then again, I’m not sure they’ll be able to find a parrot’s voice deep enough to pass for Vin Diesel’s…
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