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.
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.
Battle Beyond the Sun
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)