Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Moonraker! (No, Not That One)

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Moonraker! (No, Not That One)

The Moonraker (UK, 1958)

In many ways, 1958 was a peak year for British screen swashbucklers. On the TV screen, The Adventures of Robin Hood continued its popular run, and was joined by other series, including Ivanhoe, William Tell, and Sword of Freedom. On the big screen, the swashbuckler hit of the year was The Moonraker, a fine cloak-and-sword production that did well in Europe but didn’t really make it across the pond to America. This week, let’s take a close look at UK swords ’58.

William Tell (or The Adventures of William Tell)

Rating: ****
Origin: UK, 1958
Directors: Ralph Smart, et al.
Source: Network DVDs

William Tell, or “the other Robin Hood,” the national hero of Switzerland, is known to Americans (if he’s known at all) for the feat of splitting an apple atop his son’s head with a bolt from his crossbow. For the Swiss, Tell is a freedom fighter of the early 14th century, when the cantons of what would become Switzerland were occupied by Austrians of the Hapsburg dynasty; Tell inspired a revolt when he refused to bow to the Austrians, was cruelly forced to shoot an apple from his son’s head, and then assassinated Albrecht Gessler, the Austrian tyrant who made him do it.

For Hannah Weinstein’s Sapphire Films, which had produced the successful Adventures of Robin Hood TV series and were looking to expand with additional small-screen swashbucklers, a series based on William Tell was a natural. Tell was portrayed as a leader of an underground resistance movement against the occupying Austrians, with themes that harked back to the then-recent Second World War, with stories about espionage, betrayal, and guerrilla warfare. Though sometimes described as an adventure series for kids, William Tell had a harder edge than other Sapphire series such as Robin Hood and Lancelot, dealing with adult themes such as forced labor, extortion, and blackmail, and Austrian soldiers frequently met death at the hands of Tell and his partisan allies. This is a show about a country at war.

William Tell, played with activity and intelligence by the English actor Conrad Phillips, is a dead shot with a crossbow and equally effective as a brawler, wielding everything from a broadsword to a bench. However, his most important asset is a mind teeming with schemes for outwitting the Austrians. He’s joined in his fight by his wife Hedda (Jennifer Jayne), no slouch with a crossbow or broadsword herself, and sometimes by his young son Walter (Richard Rogers), making resistance against the Austrians a family affair. They’re most often pitted against local Austrian ruler Landburgher Gessler (Willoughby Goddard), a greedy and obese despot who’s not without wits or courage, though Tell repeatedly outmaneuvers him.

Gessler is frequently supported by the hapless Hauptman Hofmanstahl (Peter Hammond), while Tell often relies on the strength of the laconic former robber known only as The Bear (Nigel Green, Little John in Sword of Sherwood Forest). The 25-minute episodes mostly use stage sets, often with assets reused from Robin Hood and Sword of Freedom, but many exteriors were shot in striking locations in the mountains of Wales, which stands in for Switzerland more effectively than you might suppose.

The stories are surprisingly sharp and well written, and every one of the 39 episodes is worth watching. If you have time for only a few, recommended episodes include “The Trap,” with Nigel Green as the Bear and guest-starring Robert Shaw in full-on sneering villain mode; “The Manhunt,” with Christopher Lee as a mad Austrian prince who hunts humans; “The Castle of Fear,” a Hammer-style Gothic melodrama; “The Master Spy,” with Adrienne Corri (Sword of Freedom) as an Austrian femme fatale; and “The Spider,” with Donald Pleasence as a creepy Austrian general who abuses women and children. Don’t worry — William Tell settles his hash.

Sword of Freedom, Season 1

Rating: ** (first half) / *** (second half)
Origin: UK, 1958
Directors: Terry Bishop, Bernard Knowles, et al.
Source: Network DVDs

This is another swashbuckler series from Hannah Weinstein’s Sapphire Films, which also produced The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Buccaneers. It’s set in Renaissance Florence during the late 15th century, after the Florentine Republic was essentially usurped by Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as The Magnificent. The hero is an artist and fervent republican, Marco del Monte (Edward Purdom), with a studio on the Ponte Vecchio, who must balance his covert activities on the behalf of restoring the Republic with his need to please wealthy patrons such as… Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The series has a rocky start, taking a while to find its footing and establish a consistent tone. At first it leans toward comic swashbuckler, a sort of sitcom-with-swords in the mode of British comedy in the Those Funny Foreigners genre; this isn’t very good but it suits the talents of star Purdom who, if he’d been a sandwich, would have been a ham rather than a hero. But eventually the tone settles on intrigue with a touch of humor, and that more ironic than broad, after which the series becomes dependably watchable.

Its supporting characters are particularly strong, one or more of them often carrying an episode despite Purdom’s histrionics. The best is Adrienne Corri, a talented comic actor with a broad range, in the role of Angelica, Marco’s regular model and a reformed pickpocket. Also excellent are Martin Benson as villain Lorenzo de’ Medici, and Kenneth Hyde as Niccolò Machiavelli, who plays for both sides; whenever one or both of them are onscreen a good time is guaranteed. Monica Stevenson frequently appears as Lorenzo’s sister, the adorably duplicitous Francesca de’ Medici, and the ever-reliable Patrick Troughton shows up in a number of character roles. Swords are drawn in every episode, usually cheap-looking proto-rapiers, but there are also plenty of Italian stilettos and the occasional authentic matchlock musket.

Most of the better episodes occur in the second half of the season, after the writers and cast have figured out what they’re doing. These include two highlighting Angelica, “The Ambassador,” her best comic episode, and “Angelica’s Past,” which delves into Florence’s thieves’ guild and where she gets to show her dramatic chops. Machiavelli shines in “The Besieged Duchess,” a sort of Renaissance ghost story, and Francesca gets to strut her stuff in “Strange Intruder,” where she plots to replace her brother Lorenzo with a French nobleman. And don’t miss “Forgery in Red Chalk,” in which Medici tries to get hold of Leonardo da Vinci’s advanced weapon plans, and “Marriage of Convenience,” which turns on Renaissance science scams such as perpetual motion and turning lead into gold. All the later eps are worth watching.

The Moonraker (or Blood on the Sword)

Rating: ****
Origin: UK, 1958
Director: David MacDonald
Source: StudioCanal DVD

This is a British swashbuckler set during the English Civil War, one of the few that’s sympathetic to both sides. In 1651, after the Royalists have lost their last battle to Cromwell’s New Model Army, an unknown cavalier known only as the Moonraker helps fugitive Royalists escape arrest by the Roundheads. The Moonraker, secretly Anthony, Earl of Dawlish (George Baker), has his greatest challenge in trying to help the fugitive Charles II (Gary Raymond) evade the ever-tightening net of Cromwell’s troops, led by the implacable Colonel Beaumont (Marius Goring, of The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel). The Moonraker plans to help Charles escape from a smuggler’s inn on a headland on England’s south coast, but the tides of fate bring all his friends and enemies to the inn at the same time — and some of them are not what they seem.

Sounds like a stage play, doesn’t it? That’s because it was a stage play before it was a screenplay, but fortunately the writers opened the story out with a full act of alarums and excursions in the pursuit of Charles Stuart before anyone arrives at the inn, which is where all the speechifying between the major characters takes place. At the inn, the surprises, reversals, and revelations of the original drama get a chance to play out, with a romantic interlude and a duel or two tossed in, and then finally Colonel Beaumont shows up with a troop of horse and it’s time for everyone to make their escape — or try to prevent it.

Those clever screenwriters added a fine extended climax that bursts the inn’s bounds and culminates in a rapier duel between the hero and his nemesis on the sea-girt rocks below. There are some striking English locations, the costumes are good and so is the fencing, and the acting is better than average for a medium-budget historical adventure. It’s all quite satisfying, and if the story might be a touch too tidy, well, that’s a stage-play for you.

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

The Barbarian Boom, Part 5
Musashi and Kojiro
Forgotten Fantasies
More o’ Zorro
Laugh, Samurai, Laugh
Boarding Party Bingo
They Might Be Giants
Mondo Mifune
Swashbucklin’ Talkies
Barbarian Boom Part 6
Valiant Avenging Chivalry
Buccaneers Three
For the Horde!
The Princess Bride Redeems the 80s
Samurai Stocking Stuffers

LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle; the sixth volume, Court of Daggers, is available now as an ebook or trade paperback from Amazon, while the seventh, Devil’s Dance, is being published in weekly installments at musketeerscycle.substack.com. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net. Check them out!

Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s a Narrative Design Expert for Larian Studios, writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Baldur’s Gate 3.

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Joe H.

I could swear I’ve seen The Moonraker, but right now I’m darned if I can figure out when or where. Apparently, Patrick Troughton was also in it.

Thomas Parker

But the other Moonraker has that divine moment when Michael Lonsdale, as the ultimate stereotypical Bond Villain, goes into his final glassy-eyed rant about ruling the world etc, and (I don’t know if was two in the morning and this was the 30th take or if he was just struck with the fundamental absurdity of the enterprise) starts to crack up in the middle of the speech and they didn’t even bother to retake it.

John ONeill


Now I want to re-watch Moonraker just to catch that one scene!

Thomas Parker

It’s a great way to get the best of a two hour movie in fifteen seconds!

Neil Harvey

William Tell was repeated, during the 60s, when I was in short trousers. I can only recall one comic scene which, I am sure, was repeated at the end of many episodes. When the evil Gessler has been thwarted by Tell, he consoles himself by going into a rage and, with his bare hands, stuffs large quantities of food – pies, joints of meat, etc.

John E. Boyle

Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? Fantastic!

I can’t remember seeing ANY of these films and they all sound great! Thanks again for tipping me off to treasures I didn’t even know existed.

Neil Houlton

William Tell, my favourite of all the series of swashbucklers that were shown during the late 50’s and the 1960’s, fortunately a box set was issued and I am working my way through all the episodes. I also remember that one of the toy companies who made cap guns also made William Tell’s crossbow, it once spent a month on top of my Father’s wardrobe after I shot a bolt through a window in our dining room.

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