Peter Marshall developed Polio at the age of 18. While the disease may have left him paralysed from the waist down, Marshall took inspiration from his own life and produced an award-winning autobiography about his life before and after the illness. Though Marshall died at the tragically young age of 33, he left behind not only an autobiography but also a pair of novels touching on issues surrounding disability and mental illness. Considerably lighter than Marshall’s final allegorical novel, The Raging Moon was adapted for the screen by Bryan Forbes who seems intent upon turning an important social drama it into a well-intentioned but ultimately stillborn romance between Malcolm McDowell and Nanette Newman.
Bruce Pritchard (McDowell) is a working class lad who is almost overflowing with life. When we first encounter him, he is being thrown out of an amateur football match but this doesn’t seem to dampen his spirits as he just pulls on a jumper and begins chatting up the local women. Released a couple of years after Lindsay Anderson’s If… and in the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, The Raging Moon allows McDowell to give his rebellious teenaged persona yet another airing and while the unpredictable cockiness is starting to look a little shop-worn, there is no denying the charm of the persona, even when it seems to be working against the best interests of the story.
Once back home, we learn that Bruce is due to serve as Best Man at the wedding of his socially-awkward brother Harold (Geoffrey Whitehead). As might be expected given the nature of McDowell’s rebellious persona, Bruce spends the entire day getting legless whilst making speeches that use wit and intelligence to distract from the fact that they are both cruel and insulting. Left on his own at the end of the wedding, Bruce drinks himself into unconsciousness and wakes up paralysed from the waist down.
These character beats are interwoven with a series of fascinating insights into Northern working-class life. However, as fascinating as the family relations and marriage customs may be, they are rapidly upstaged by the film’s desire to explore what it was like to be disabled back in the late 1960s.
Unable to explain his sudden paralysis, the doctors organise for Bruce to be sent to a church-run home for what the film refers to as “cripples”. It is in these moments that the film really shines as we are shown the shame and awkwardness experienced by many families when confronted with disability in their own homes. Unable to care for their son and unsure of how to relate to him as an individual, Bruce’s parents seem more than happy to send him away somewhere out of sight. The scene in which Harold tries to convince Bruce that his new home is anything other than a prison is as powerful as it is pathetic.
Once deposited in the home, Bruce slumps into a deep depression that leaves him alienated from the people around him. Unable to relate either to the people who were born with disabilities or the people who became infirm as a result of old age, Bruce retreats into his head and begins putting his intelligence to work in the creation of poems and letters. However, this emotional fugue comes to an end when Bruce first notices Jill (Newman). Like Bruce, Jill is paralysed from the waist down and the pair become firm friends until Jill leaves the home in order to marry her long-time fiancé. Jill’s relationship with her fiancé is particularly well-handled as while the man may appear to be quite romantic, Jill correctly surmises that his devotion is born of obligation and pity rather than genuine love. Realising that her fiancé wants to marry her for all the wrong reasons, Jill returns to the home and so begins a love-affair with Bruce. At which point the film runs into real difficulties.
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.
The real problem is that The Raging Moon was never designed to be a love story. Marshall originally wrote Bruce as a horrible person but the decision to cast McDowell in that role means that we are more likely to view Bruce’s drunken cruelty as rebelliousness than the profound unpleasantness that was quite obviously intended. Similarly, if we assume that the character of Bruce is the story’s real focal point then the nature of Bruce’s relationship with Jill is a lot less important than the fact that he entered a romantic relationship at all. This shift of emphasis not only excuses Jill’s relative lack of substance but also the fact that her relationship with her ex is a lot better-written than her relationship with Bruce. The real tragedy here is that while McDowell and Newman are both extremely capable actors, their presence in the film serves only to distract from a more interesting and important story than the one they were employed to tell.
Freshly restored, the film comes on a disc that is light on extras except for an unintentionally hilarious interview with Malcolm McDowell who wears sunglasses, speaks in an American accent and runs out of things to say about a fifth of the way through his fifteen minute slot. Given its unique subject matter, it would have been nice to include some discussion of either disabled people in film or what it was like to be disabled in the 1960s but then The Raging Moon was always a work of social realism struggling to emerge from the shadow of its two leading actors.
Given the film’s rather unique subject matter it might have been nice to include some discussion of the film’s treatment of issues surrounding disability