Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fantasy and Science-Fiction: Soviet Style

by Lawrence McCallum

During the 1950s, one rarely heard mention of Soviet films in the United States unless it was with a negative slant. Even American films about the Soviet struggle during World War II seemingly ceased to exist despite a few exceptions. NORTH STAR (1943), which cast Dana Andrews and Walter Brennan as anti-fascist Soviet patrons, was reissued in 1956 with a veneer of anti-communist feeling. The film was re-titled ARMORED ATTACK and included new documentary footage of the brutal Soviet intervention in the Hungarian revolution.

McCarthyism created a political atmosphere that was not compatible with what seemed to be the intrusion of Soviet culture in an American society. Such "cultural subversion" was frowned upon by American distributors who didn't care to risk being investigated by the House of Un-American Activities.

With the end of the fifties, the two Joes (Stalin and McCarthy) were in the past. The de-Stalinization program of Nikita Khruschev brought a new freedom to the USSR. The United States, likewise, showed a relaxation of certain internal pressures. Grigory Chukhrai's BALLAD OF A SOLDIER (1960) was widely acclaimed by American critics who admired both its poignant human story and the absence of any overt political propaganda. Such films, however, often lacked strong commercial possibilities and were booked only at tiny art theatres.

American distributors in the early sixties began to consider Soviet productions that were more suitable for Saturday matinee crowds. Some intriguing titles that were tentatively scheduled for release, unfortunately, never reached American theatres. SADKO (1953), for example, was a fantasy-adventure in the sword and sorcery vein. The film concerned a young warrior who encountered mythological menaces that included a Harpy-like bird-woman. It was released in the U.S. by Roger Corman's Filmgroup under the title THE MAGIC VOYAGE OF SINBAD in 1962. FLYING CARPET (1956) told the story of an ancient genie who was mystified by modern society after being released from an enchanted jar. SAMPO (1959), a Finnish-Soviet co-production, was about a Conan-like hero who entered a dark kingdom called "The Kelevala" and struggled against its evil ruler, Lord Louhi. The film's bizarre characters included a variety of witches and warlocks plus a birch tree that could talk. Like SADKO, it was acquired by Roger Corman and released in the U.S. by his Filmgroup (as THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE) in 1963.

One of the few Soviet fantasy-adventures to be released in the United States was the spectacular THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON (1960). This widescreen, color production was shot in 1956 under the title ILYA MUROMETS. The story took place in the Russia of many centuries ago when a horde of barbaric Asians called "The Tugars" subjugated a Russian peasant village. The courageous Ilya Muromets escapes the village and vows to return with an army of liberation.

During his wanderings, Ilya performs many deeds of bravery, such as the defeat of the fearful, troll-like "wind demon." His feats of valor are so impressive that they inspire an alliance between Ilya and the armed forces of an independent city-state. A huge army descends on the Tugars, defeating them and destroying their deadly, fire-breathing dragon. Ilya Muromets is united with his family once again and his village resumes its peaceful life, free of foreign tyranny.

THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON contained the ideological points that were typical of Soviet period adventure films. Such efforts stressed unity among the common people, selfless devotion to the good of all men and a strong determination to resist all foreign aggression.

These ideas also formed the philosophical framework of many Soviet science-fiction films set in the near-future. A noticeable distinction, however, was that the costume dramas with semi-historical settings were often more strident in their jingoism. One of their space operas, released in the United States by American International Pictures (AIP), exhibited a softer stand toward foreign elements. An in-depth discussion of that film now follows.

THE HEAVENS CALL (1960) was a simplistic but ultimately positive look at East-West tensions as expressed in the race for space. Rather than being vile or despicable, the Americans depicted in the film are dedicated but overly ambitious men who make rash decisions. The impetuous course that they take comes about when the American astronauts, who are about to embark on a flight to Mars, discover that the Soviets are also ready to launch a manned expedition to the red planet. The Americans recklessly try to beat the Russians to their destination and are caught in the middle of a meteor shower. After crash-landing on one of the Martian moons, the Americans are rescued by the Russians. Both crews join forces and journey forth to conquer Mars together. All men are brothers and real human progress can only be achieved through that realization.

THE HEAVENS CALL was one of two Soviet films purchased for U.S. release by Roger Corman. After being rewritten and restructured by Corman, the film was released in 1963 by AIP under the title BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN. The U.S. version took place some years after a thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. North America had been consolidated as a nation called "Xenon Minor." Europe is united under Soviet control as "Xenon Major." Much of the remaining story was unchanged – except that the roles of the competing space crews were reversed! It is the Russians who recklessly try to accomplish the first Mars landing. In the American version, the Soviet crew fails to survive the crash-landing of its vessel.

It may be interesting to note that BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN was the first film to feature the work of Francis Ford Coppola, excluding his uncredited directorial assist for THE TERROR (1963). Coppola created a special effects sequence that was intended to add excitement value to the Soviet film.

A key scene that Roger Corman disliked in the original THE HEAVENS CALL became the focal point for Coppola's work. That scene concerned a querulous young Russian, highly resentful of Americans, who rejects the alliance between the Soviet and American space explorers. He begins exploring the Martian terrain without the accompaniment of his comrades. During his wanderings, the Russian sees the remarkable sight of a golden statue atop a hill. The form is of a gilded cosmonaut and the Russian's eyes widen in surprise at viewing it. He backs away in awe and the excitement of this strange encounter causes him to faint. When he regains consciousness, the statue is gone but the other crew members have arrived. The young Russian greets them eagerly, having been imbued with a new sense of awareness. His strange vision reminded him that space exploration is a noble cause that rejects the prejudices of the past.

Reportedly, after viewing this scene, Roger Corman wrinkled his nose and shook his head before turning to Francis Ford Coppola. "Cut the shots of the statue," Corman told Coppola. "Put two monsters fighting on the hill." Coppola followed orders and constructed two "cute creatures" that were manipulated by invisible piano wires. The scene now ended with the young Russian being found dead, apparently of a heart attack, after watching the duel between the two Martian monsters. And so, we saw an amusing example of commercialism in action. Routine but saleable programmer material was used to replace a Stanley Kubrick-like symbolic sequence.

Roger Corman also purchased a Soviet space opera entitled THE PLANET OF STORMS (1962). This effort became the basis for two films that merged Soviet footage with American sequences. The better of the two films, released by AIP, was QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966), which seemed to incorporate the best effects footage from THE PLANET OF STORMS. Curtis Harrington directed QUEEN OF BLOOD, which concerned the rescue of an alien emissary who has crash-landed on one of the Martian moons. The space crew taking her to Earth discovers, almost too late, that the female alien is a vampire. After two of the astronauts fall prey to her blood-lust, the alien dies with mere scratches suffered in a scuffle with the heroine. The other-worldly vampire, we soon discover, is a hemophiliac.

QUEEN OF BLOOD was impressive mostly for its colorful Soviet footage which probably included a few leftover scenes from THE HEAVENS CALL. Curtis Harrington generated some fair suspense from his thin material and this low-budget thriller featured some good character performances by Basil Rathbone and Czech actress Florence Marly.

The main body of THE PLANET OF STORMS was contained in AIP's VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET (1967). This effort was quickly released to television, though it may have had a limited release in some parts of the United States. The film was a largely predictable outer-space adventure about an expedition sent to a newly discovered planet that has remnants of an extinct (?) civilization. One crew member claims to have found evidence that the alien race still survives somewhere on the nearby barren world. The final scene proves this claim to be true for, as the spaceship departs, we see the image of a humanoid creature reflected in a pool of water. Otherwise, this space opera features the usual heroics including confrontations with natural obstacles and a battle with lizard-like monsters.

VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET contained several poorly-shot U.S. sequences with Basil Rathbone repeating his Dr. Farraday characterization from QUEEN OF BLOOD. Stephanie Rothman directed with a heavy hand and genre favorite Faith Domergue was wasted in a throwaway supporting role. The end result was a needlessly "Americanized" failure that may have been better in its original form.

Serious fans of science-fiction were more pleasantly surprised by SOLARIS (1976), the Soviet version of Stanislaw Lem's famous novel. In this case, it was the Soviets who did some pruning and removed a few scenes that were politically sensitive. Nevertheless, the film retained its disturbing fascination with symbolic implications about the Stalinist era.

SOLARIS concerned a deep space probe that unexpectedly encountered an alien life form. The intruding alien is fairly ambiguous and defends itself by probing the minds of the cosmonauts, then assuming the identities taken from human memories. Crew members now confront people who have been dwelling only in the dark corners of long-buried remembrances. Although these appearances are illusions, the cosmonauts cannot deny the disturbing, even tragic memories that are recalled. When we reach the film's climax, the alien's intentions may not be important to us. Instead, we begin to wonder how often devotion to duty makes hash of human lives. Ideologies and social "awareness" produces functionaries who often forget about past lives destroyed in the name of social progress. The alien intruder of SOLARIS symbolizes the human conscience – which can be a troublesome and frightening thing.

More recently, the "Rambo" syndrome has produced simplistic political views that have not gone unnoticed by Soviet observers. A similarly eclectic response from the Soviets is their anti-CIA political thriller THE LAST VOYAGE (1986). International tensions increase and subside, both in the real world and in that of the movie theatre. The present conflicts obvious both in American and Soviet films will probably become less intense, much as they did with the end of the 1950s. Who knows what Soviet cinematic treasures will emerge from the practice of "glasnost?" Only time will tell.

[Originally printed in Temple of Schlock #14, December 1988]


Tim Mayer said...

Dude, that article was so 1988.

Temple of Schlock said...

Yup. No mention of DVD anywhere!

Anonymous said...

Hi guys: Good to see that you're still around. I haven't re-read the Soviet sci-fi piece for quite some time, but I'm still reasonably satisfied with it. Best-- Lawrence McCallum

Temple of Schlock said...

Hi Lawrence! Good to hear from you. We really enjoyed this piece as well, which is why we reran it. We still have a few others you did, like the Outer Limits one and the John Carradine tribute.

I'm so glad I decided to re-open the Temple, because it's been a blast hearing from the old gang.