Battle Beyond the Sun (1963)

In the 1950s and 60s, the Cold War was in full swing, and it was reflected in the film productions of both the US and the Soviet Union. In particular, science fiction movies were often used to carry more or less covert political messages. The American tradition was to use lots of space monsters and robots to represent the terrible Reds. There were several exceptions, of course, but to a large extent the fear of communism fuelled the popularity of science fiction, just as it also fuelled the ongoing space race.

The Soviet films had their own share of political messages, yet they were very different from their American counterparts. While you might find the odd monster or robot in a Soviet film, focus was on a more philosophical aspect of science fiction. This made the films very much slower in terms of plotting and cutting, and the propaganda was often more direct.

Many of these films found their ways (whether legally or not, I do not know) into the hands of American distributors such as Roger Corman. But to distribute a Soviet film as it was would not do, both because of the tempo and the political implications. So they were dubbed and significantly altered. In many cases, entire scenes, plotlines and even endings were removed, added or replaced. Additional material was often shot in the US, with American actors.

Astronauts in Battle Beyond the Sun (1963)

One of the best films to meet this destiny was Mikhail Karyukov’s 1959 Небо зовёт (“The Heavens Beckon”). In America, it was released as Battle Beyond the Sun, and just like several others, it was cut to pieces and made into something else than the original.

In the film, astronauts from the South Hemisphere (Americans in the original) intend to make the first manned journey to Mars, but their more heroic colleagues from the North Hemisphere (originally Soviet cosmonauts) decide to take up the challenge, forcing the South Hemi ship to make a risky start ahead of schedule. When their ship is thrown off course without enough fuel to make it home, the North Hemi crew has to decide whether to save them, at great risk of their own lives, or to push on towards a successfully completed mission.

Although there is a lot of propagandistic content (switched around for the American version, of course) director Karyukov wanted to make a film about peace and friendship across ideological borders. Most of all, though, the film is worth seeing for Karyukov’s groundbreaking use of special effects. In many ways, he was years ahead of contemporary American sci-fi producers. Some scenes are reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, made almost a decade later.

Another reason for watching it is that the US version was directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola. His most famous addition to the film is in the shape of two monsters battling, a scene which adds absolutely nothing to the story, but needed to be there for the monster-hungry American audience. It is said that Coppola’s monsters were designed to look like a penis and a vagina, and to some extent they do. I leave it to the reader to consider the metaphorical and freudian implications of this.

This film is best enjoyed if you realize that American version was heavily altered, and none for the better. This version is worth watching, but the original is much superior in every way.

One of Francis Ford Coppola's monsters in Battle Beyond the Sun (1963)

Battle Beyond the Sun
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Year: 1963
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Director: Mikhail Karyukov, Aleksandr Kozyr, Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Aleksandr Shvorin, Ivan Pereverzev, Larisa Borisenko
Image quality: Acceptable (American material) to poor (Soviet material)
Resolution: Medium (720×528)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (690 M)

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Santa Fe Trail (1940)

It is really the most absurd sensation to watch an old film with Ronald Reagan and ponder that a few decades later, this was to become the president of the United States. But there it is, and when the film in question deals with important events in American history, that absurdity increases.

In Santa Fe Trail, he plays a young George Custer (yes, the George Custer of Little Big Horn) alongside the film’s leading male Errol Flynn as “Jeb” Stuart (another famous American general). And between them, in that eternal Hollywood love triangle, stands Olivia de Havilland, the only leading actor to play a fictional character in this film.

Ronald Reagan as George Custer, Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn as J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

There are more than just a few parallels between this film and The Birth of a Nation from 25 years earlier. In terms of chronology, Santa Fe Trail describes the events leading up to those depicted in the older film. Both films also feature many historical persons, casting them in a sympathetic light or lack thereof depending on what fits the film’s message. And even that message is partly the same: that the African Americans and their supporters were the ones responsible for the American Civil War, even though Santa Fe Trail is not quite so open and outspoken about it, trying to hide its racism behind double meanings and generalisations.

So this film should not be seen as a history lesson. In terms of historical accuracy, it is standard Hollywood nationalistic nonsense, or worse, and when that nationalistic nonsense is delivered with an Australian accent, it tends to become a bit silly at times. Indeed, Flynn is not making his best role here, though his natural charm shines through as always.

But of course, this movie has a number of good sides, or there would be no reason to report it here. There are many things to recommend it. Lighting and camerawork show excellent craftsmanship, and the actors are good overall. And better than all the rest put together is an absolutely brilliant Raymond Massey as John Brown. Massey delivers every line with just the perfect touch of madness.

This film is best enjoyed if you can see past its shortcomings and enjoy it as a typical period piece with some very interesting actors at the height of their careers.

Raymond Massey as John Brown in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Santa Fe Trail
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 49 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Erroll Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Raymond Massey
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

Q Planes (1939)

The more British 1930s mysteries I see, the more I come to enjoy them. I have previously reviewed Non-Stop New York (1937) here. Certainly, there was a major Hollywood influence in British film, but the Brits had their very own distinctive style. There is lightness and elegance here, and at the same time often thematic forebodings of the coming war.

One enjoyable example is the nice spy thriller Q Planes, released just months before the outbreak of World War II. The enemy in the film is very vaguely defined, but with the political situation being what it was, it is not difficult to imagine what the audience was supposed to conclude.

Valerie Richardson, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier in Q Planes (1939)

The plot of Q Planes should be paid as little attention as possible. Major Hammond, who is working for some unspecified spy agency, tries to investigate experimental military planes that have been disappearing in various countries all over the world. His superiors are convinced that these are only a series of accidents, but Hammond sees a pattern. When test pilot Tony McVane loses one of his best friends in yet another “accident” he, too, becomes involved, as does the beautiful reporter Kay. Then there is the usual bit about an engine-stopping ray gun and somesuch.

While this may seem promising, there is really very little else to the plot. The film’s strengths, rather, lie in the nice characterizations (especially Ralph Richardson’s Major Hammond) and the snappy dialogue. The big star, by all rights, should have been Laurence Olivier as McVane, but he plays the second fiddle to Richardson, both in terms of screen time and performance. Still, it is very interesting to see him in what must have been one of his last British films before his Hollywood breakthrough.

Aviation buffs will be disappointed to find that there is very little here in terms of aerial action. Mostly some studio shots of the test plane’s cabin and planes standing on the ground.

This film is best enjoyed if you have at least a basic understanding of the political situation just before World War II.

Valerie Hobson and Laurence Olivier in Q Planes (1939)

Q Planes
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Directors: Tim Whelan, Arthur B. Woods
Stars: Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Valerie Hobson
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (699 M)

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Most Interet Archive films have found their way there because someone was careless about renewing copyright at some point. Or because they are very, very old.

But there are also films that are there because the copyright holders made a deliberate choice to distribute them that way, being more interested in giving the film as wide a distribution as possible than in making money from it, or because they make money in ways other than traditional distribution channels.

These films are sometimes made by amateurs (that holds true especially for many short films, often of mediocre quality, but occasionally a diamond in the rough), but a number are completely professionally produced. One of these is the animated feature Sita Sings the Blues.

Sita and Rama in Ramayana section of Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues tells the autobiographical story of how the animator Nina lost her boyfriend, home and cat, all at once, and parallels that storyline with the old Indian mythological Ramayana epic about the goddess Sita and her husband Rama.

This film is not only very good, it is also innovative on several levels. Most immediately noticeable is the mixing of at least five distinctly different animation styles, each setting the mood for a certain part or aspect of the story. Underlying the animation is also the interesting fact that it is largely animated in Adobe Flash.

In some ways, the storytelling of Sita Sings the Blues is very similar to that of Three Ages, which I wrote about last week. But where the latter movie has three parallell storylines, Sita Sings the Blues has only two traditional ones, with a third layer consisting of three shadow puppets commenting upon the events and characters in the Sita segments. This last layer is perhaps the weakest in terms of maintaining the tension of the plot, yet it is also very powerful in its own way.

One final thing which must be mentioned is the music, performed by the 1920s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. Combining these old songs with the ancient story and the modernistic animation is a stroke of genius. The banality of the words amplifies the depth of the double plot.

This film is best enjoyed together with someone you like.

Nina Paley in Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues
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Year: 2008
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Nina Paley
Stars: Annette Hanshaw, Reena Shah, Nina Paley
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1080)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (4.1 G)