MOONFLEET misfired in 1955, losing a bundle for MGM, who couldn’t figure out how to market an intriguing but flawed period adventure; a children’s semi-classic suited by its presentation more to adults, it was shrugged off by critics and left aside by audiences. An unhappy shoot aimed blame for failure in a circular firing squad. *
On the outlaw-plagued Dorsetshire coast of England in 1757, orphan lad ‘John Mohune’ (10-year-old natural Jon Whiteley) seeks adoptive acceptance from gentleman rogue ‘Jeremy Fox’ (Stewart Granger), who leads an otherwise scurvy crew of rascals, and on the side dallies with corrupt aristocrats (George Sanders and Joan Greenwood). The trusting, naive boy and a windfall treasure tests the true mettle of the dashing but self-centered Fox.
Quite popular in the vein of Robert Louis Stevenson’s sagas, the 1896 novel by J. Meade Falkner was liberally changed-up in the adaptation by screenwriters Jan Fustig & Margaret Fitts; the blended result had a Gothic air ala Du Maurier, with a dash of Dickens. Producer John Houseman alloted $1,955,000, but scope was jettisoned in favor of mostly set-bound action, and director Fritz Lang had his art direction and camera favor a storybook-look atmosphere over spectacle. It was the stylistic and vexatious Lang’s first tussle with CinemaScope, and he didn’t fare well with the process: too many of his shots literally distance the actors from the material: a lack of close-ups (or just closer to them) takes punch away from dramatic moments that call for characterization intimacy.
There are a number of flashy sequences sprinkled over the 87 minutes: a sexy table-top seduction-dance from a ‘Gypsy woman’—the dazzling Lilliane Montevecchi; an energetic scene with Alan Napier as an impassioned parson haranguing his guilty flock, and a pretty good tavern face-off between Granger and ruffian Sean McClory, with the latter twirling a nasty-looking halberd (a combination spear & battle-ax).
The art direction is often striking, and Miklós Rózsa does decent if not particularly inspired work on the score. Granger shoulders the dash readily; Sanders and the purring Greenwood have too little to do and Viveca Lindfors’ thankless role apparently suffered in the editing. Lang makes scant use of other supporting players, and a few key action scenes are diffidently handled.
The money end went down the pike like highway robbery: it earned just $1,574,000 worldwide–only $567,000 in the States. The cost factor left the studio in the marsh for $1,203,000. With Melville Cooper, John Hoyt, Donna Corcoran (sister to Kevin, she left acting after this), Jack Elam, Dan Seymour, Ian Wolfe.
Flaws notwithstanding, there is a goodly amount to admire in the film: a shame it didn’t fully live up to the potential of the material and everyone’s expectations.
* No one was happy. Lang’s famous views on CinemaScope had it “…only good for funerals and snakes.”…”if you think about famous paintings, there is only one I know of that has this format, and that’s ‘The Last Supper.'” He’d been given just two weeks of prep before taking the assignment, and in the backwash faulted producer Houseman: “Producer’s cuts not only drastically reduced Viveca Lindfors’ part, but rendered certain sequences almost unintelligible.”
Lindfors was less than enamored with the imperious director, saying “Lang might as well have puppets to play with”..and “treated actors like cattle”. Granger called it a “dreary costume epic” and skewered deeper: “I hated working with Fritz Lang. He was a Kraut and it was a bloody awful film”…Moonfleet was not Lang’s type of film – it is a romantic child’s film.” Hoo-ray for Holly-wood!…
Young Whiteley—often reduced to tears by the director, he compared laboring under Fritz Lang to working for Michaelangelo (i.e. not fun)—only made five films and then his Mum yanked him out of the limelight. Author of several books, he is now an art historian at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the glamor and stresses of MGM’s sound-stage ego battles in the past.
Just to further muddy the Channel: the stout fellow who wrote “Moonfleet”, John Meade Falkner, was a poet as well as novelist, a collector of medieval manuscripts, yet he also managed to find time—after cricket and birding—to become Chairman of Armstrong Whitworth. This he did between 1915 and 1921. Among their many contributions to the world of Boys & Toys, A&W were a major supplier of Britain’s weapons—chiefly artillery, in World War One. One can’t help but sadly reflect that Mr. Falkner’s beloved kid’s book was no doubt cherished by many of the 1,118,000 ‘Tommies’ who were killed during the Cousins Feud of ’14-’18, their loss ensuring that a class that honored poet-novelists like Falkner would not feel unduly shown up by guys named Fritz. Okay, maybe I’m reading too much into this (“he said on the perch edge of Nuclear War”) since Mr. Falkner’s book does deal with the greed and duplicity of the Wonderful World of Grownups. We quote the stalwart from his retirement: “the imperious tyranny of golf has fallen upon me, late in life.” Gad,must have been bloody taxing….