Fritz Lang | 86 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English
Moonfleet is probably what you’d call a curio. It’s a colour CinemaScope Hollywood adventure movie from a director best known for epic German silents or dark film noirs; it’s not been passed by the BBFC since its original release in the ’50s, meaning it’s never been released here on DVD or (presumably) even VHS; I believe it’s also unavailable in the US; yet despite this dearth of attention in both the country that made it and the country in which it’s set, a poll in France’s Cahiers du cinéma ranked it the 32nd “most essential film”, besting the likes of Battleship Potemkin, The Godfather, Seven Samurai and The Passion of Joan of Arc. That probably explains why it has been released on DVD in France.
It was brought to my attention by a passionately positive article in MovieMail’s catalogue (because they currently sell imported copies of the French DVD), and then I caught it in the middle of the night on Channel 4, complete with sign language accompaniment. It’s based on a children’s adventure novel by J. Meade Falkner, though going by comments from the novel’s fans it makes some considerable changes that they find none too impressive.
Rendered on screen, it starts out feeling like a Dickens adaptation — part Oliver Twist, with orphaned blonde poppet John Mohune arriving by foot in the titular village, and part Great Expectations, with an unwilling guardian in a run-down, closed-off mansion and an attempt to forcibly send the boy to a distant boarding school. Gradually it becomes more overtly exciting, with smugglers, hidden treasure, adventures down wells and crypts, fights and chases of various kinds, a dramatic shoot-out on a beach, midnight escapes, and so on.
These moments provide some of the excitement one hopes for from a swashbuckling adventure, but they take a little while to trot along and feel hard-won. It’s difficult to see what so inspired the voters in Cahiers du cinéma’s poll, but then the French have always had their own ideas about cinema. On the bright side, between the film and the comments online, I do quite fancy reading the original novel.
At the very least, Moonfleet deserves more recognition as a curious aside in the accepted narrative of Fritz Lang’s career. Plus, for fans of mid-century Hollywood adventure movies (of which I’m sure there are more than a few), I imagine it’d be right up their street.