Some films fail at the level of script, others fail at the level of pacing or subject matter. Bryan Forbes’ The Raging Moon is interesting in so far as it fails at the level of casting.
Based on a novel by Peter Marshall and manifestly inspired by the author’s life, the film tells of an unpleasant but vital young man who inexplicably loses the use of his legs. Abandoned by a family who simply cannot cope with the idea of a disabled son, the character plunges into depression just as he begins life in a Church-run home for disabled people. This protagonist’s depression lingers until he becomes friends with an attractive middle-class girl who effectively gives him something to live for. No longer depressed and now capable of imagining a future without the use of his legs, the young man emerges as a fully-formed adult with a promising literary career.
As I explain in my review for FilmJuice, the problem with Forbes’ adaptation of The Raging Moon is that while the story was originally designed to be a bildungsroman in which a young man has to lose the use of his legs before gaining the use of his mind, the film focuses not upon the protagonist’s journey but upon the under-written romance that marks the point at which the character comes properly of age:
Simply stated, the romance between Bruce and Jill feels under-written, poorly paced and completely unbelievable. Having spent a quarter of an hour establishing that Bruce is depressed and alienated from the people around him, the film transforms him into a love-struck puppy within fifteen seconds of noticing Jill across a crowded room. Given that Jill simply did not exist as a character prior to that scene, Bruce’s attraction and mood change seem completely out of character. Shockingly under-written given the detail lavished upon both Bruce’s relationship with his brother and Jill’s relationship with her former fiancé, the bond between Jill and Bruce feels more like a cynical contrivance than something genuinely character driven. Indeed, a romance featuring Malcolm McDowell and Nanette Newman was always going to be an easier sell than a film about a horrible young man who loses the use of his legs but gains the ability to think and feel like a normal human being.
Rather than casting someone who could play a petulant boy as he turns into a man, Forbes cast Malcolm McDowell… postboy for adolescent angst and justified rebellion. This casting decision alone practically forces us to mis-read McDowell’s character and view him as a rebel rather than the immature and lonely figure that Peter Marshall quite obviously intended.
Also problematic was the decision to cast Nanette Newman in the role of Jill. In 1971, Nanette Newman was not only a proper film star but also Bryan Forbes wife meaning that the character of Jill could not help but expand beyond the limited role accorded it in both the script and the novel. Had Marshall and Forbes decided to rework the story to provide Jill with more back-story and interiority then the romance between the two characters might have worked. Instead, we have a romance that rests on an underdeveloped and unengaging relationship.
It took me a while to work out quite how negative I wanted to be in this review. The problem is that while the film was s0ld as a romance and fails according to that particular yardstick, there’s a really interesting (if somewhat prosaic) drama trying to get out from beneath the director’s terrible casting and adaptation decisions.
Rather than viewing The Raging Moon as an under-cooked romance, we would be better off viewing it as a social drama looking at the lives of disabled people in the late 1960s. For example, the film does an excellent job of noting how families would distance themselves from disabled children in an effort to remain untainted by the stigma of disability. The film also suggests that this stigma informed the policy of locking disabled people away in homes and resulted in people experiencing real horror and disgust at the idea of disabled people having relationships with each other.
Raging Moon deserves full credit for daring to show a tender love affair between two people in wheelchairs but that type of romance is poorly served by a script set up to support a completely different type of story.