Duck and Cover (1952)

“This is Tony, going to his Cub Scout meeting. Tony knows the Bomb can explode anytime, day or night, any time of year. He’s ready for it. Duck and cover!”

Oh, yeah. Those American kids of the 1950s were ready, all right. Thanks to governmental terror propaganda, every kid knew what to do when the Communists dropped the Bomb. After all, they were told what to do in the film Duck and Cover, part of our October Short Film Month spotlight.

Bert the Turtle and a monkey in Duck and Cover (1951)

Duck and Cover is part animation, part live action. It begins and ends with Bert the Turtle giving some sound advice about what to do when faced with an atomic bomb, or a monkey with a stick of dynamite. In between, a soothing voice tells us that everything will be allright if you take cover underneath your school bench, or behind a low wall, or just anyplace you can find.

Today, Duck and Cover may look silly and ridiculous, but it must be remembered that in the 1950s, the danger of nuclear war seemed very real, and probably was. Even though Russia and Communism are not mentioned, even indirectly, the film was nevertheless a tool for strengthening patriotic awareness.

The advice given, to duck and cover, may not be as inane as it seems at first glance. Even an atomic bomb will not kill every living thing within the blast radius, and the more cover you have, the better your chances of survival. The film only becomes ridiculous because it nowhere gives any hint of exactly how dangerous and terrible a nuclear explosion actually is. It gives the impression that if you just cover yourself with a picnic blanket, you might be perfectly safe.

Duck and Cover is not a great film by any standards. The animations in particular are cheap, and the rest is nothing special. So you do not watch this film on any cinematographic merits.

This film is best enjoyed for providing some amusing perspective on a world that was still a reality only thirty years ago. But if you think about it, the film can also be seen as a powerful allegory to some politicians’ solutions to today’s problems like climate change, migration or foreign wars. Just duck and cover, and everything will be all right. (And don’t forget to cover your head with that newspaper.)

Man hiding under newspaper when the Atomic Bomb strikes, from Duck and Cover (1951)

Duck and Cover
Download link
Year: 1952
Running time: 9 min
Director: Anthony Rizzo
Stars: Robert Middleton (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (322 M)

The History of Apollo (1968 – 1973)

The United States’ moon program, the Apollo program, has often been mentioned as the peak of the big Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union. While the program was still going on, NASA produced a series of very interesting documentaries, one for each mission. The majority of these are available at the Internet Archive.

Apollo 4 Saturn V rocket in The Apollo 4 Mission (1968)

As far as I know, there was never an official title for this series. Each part was produced as a stand-alone piece to be released after the respective mission. The title The History of Apollo was used as the subtitle of a DVD compilation of these films, and I thought it made for a nice umbrella title.

The editing and narration are fairly low-key. There is some focus on the technical aspects of the missions, and compared to many later Apollo documentaries, there is little about the astronauts’ feelings and practically nothing about their private lives. There is also nothing about the politics behind the missions. For my own part, I find this to be a refreshing change. We get to focus on the process of getting men on the moon, and that is as it should be.

Here is a list of all the parts, and links to the Internet Archive for each.

The “missing” Apollo 10 episode can probably be found on other Internet sites.

This series is best enjoyed if you are interested in a specific mission – or if you are really into the big Space Race and the Cold War. The documentaries are very good, and a nice document of a historically important period. At between 15 and 30 minutes of length for most they are quick watches, but the entire series, especially in one sitting, is a bit over the top.

NASA control room during an Apollo mission from Apollo 13 - Houston, We Have a Problem (1972)

The History of Apollo
Download link (Apollo 11 episode)
Year: 1968 – 1973
Running time: 4 h 49 min
Director: Ted Lowry
Image quality: Acceptable
Sound quality: Good

First Spaceship on Venus (1959)

There are some movies that I really wish I could see in original, uneditied versions, but at the same time I realize that I do not have the energy to actually find (not to mention pay for) such a version. So in the case of First Spaceship on Venus (originally Der schweigende Stern) I can only be thankful that the Internet Archive provides any version at all.

Just like many other old sci-fi movies from behind the Iron Curtain (e.g. Battle Beyond the Sun) this film was recut, poorly dubbed and then released into the U.S. market.

First Spaceship on Venus aka Der schweigende Stern (1959)

First Spaceship on Venus is in many ways similar to Rocketship X-M. The first half is a typical exploration movie (see Flight to Mars review for further details), and at some point during that half, I started wondering exactly why I had been recommended to see this film. The trip to Venus is slow-moving, not terribly dramatic, and packed full of bad science. However, when about half the movie has played out, it quickly changes with the arrival on Venus. It is still slow, but in a pondering way typical of the best communist sci-fi of this time. It also starts to become exciting, almost tense, and there is some really wonderful, almost breath-taking, scenography showing the Venusian landscape. It is still full of bad science, but when other things compensate I find that to be rather cute. Like Ikarie XB 1 it was based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, one of my favourite sci-fi authors.

Due to the dubbing, it is more or less impossible to say anything about the actors’ performances. Perhaps they are great, perhaps mediocre. It is all drowned in American voices.

Unlike many similar movies, this one appears to have no additional material shot in the U.S. The American version has been cut, though. This is actually visible in some places, where the action cuts a little bit too fast. The U.S. editor probably wanted to increase the tempo a bit, but failed to understand that this kind of sci-fi, unlike films driven by monsters and action, actually depend upon the slow tempo. This gives the viewer time to think and reflect, and it also gives the actors room to flesh out their characters.

This film is best enjoyed in the original (or so I have been told), but if you do not have access to it, then this American piece of butchery is better than nothing.

East German kosmonauts in Der schweigende Stern aka First Spaceship on Venus (1959)

First Spaceship on Venus
Download link
Year: 1959
Running time: 1 h 19 min
Director: Kurt Maetzig
Stars: Yōko Tani, Oldrich Lukes, Ignacy Machowski
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (800×608)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (2.0 G)

The Air Force Story (1953)

Did I mention that the Internet Archive is an amazing resource? In addition to the thousands of freely and legally downloadable fictional films (I am only scratching the surface in this blog), there are also thousands of documentaries, propaganda, instructional films and other historically interesting items made available by the American government. These include some true classics, such as the Why We Fight series from World War II, but also a good number of lesser known jewels. Today, we take a look at The Air Force Story, a history of the US Air Force produced early in the Cold War.

Boening B-17 Flying Fortress bombers during World War II in The Air Force Story (1953)

There is very little information available about this series of films. No information, not even year of production, is given in the films themselves, except that the music is played by The Air Force Band (which apparently had a male choir as well). The descriptions at the Internet Archive only give keywords for the contents, and the year of release as 1953.

For anyone interested in the history of aviation, though, the series is a gold mine. Here you will find information about and spectacular film sequences of classic military aircraft such as DH-4, JN-4 “Jenny”, B-17 Flying Fortress (image above), P-38 Lightning, B-29 Superfortress and B-36 (image below). Just to mention a handful.

The Air Force Story is at times almost ridiculously detailed, especially the chapters dealing with World War II. When I started watching the series, I thought I was only going to see a handful of chapters; the early ones, the final ones, and some samples from the war years. But the more I saw, the more fascinated I became, and I ended up watching the entire 26(!) episodes.

It is very interesting to watch some of the later episodes after first having watched Victory Through Air Power, since that film describes many of the tactics that were actually used in the war.

The propaganda, fairly light in the early episodes, becomes more and more pronounced the closer one gets to the “present” (i.e. 1950s). Near the end, it actually becomes quite embarrassing, as Hiroshima was said to be a military target (about 50,000 dead civilians as a direct result of the blast and fire).

Here is a list of all the chapters, and links to the Internet Archive for each.

  1. The Beginning
  2. After the War, 1918 – 1923
  3. Struggle for Recognition, 1923 – 1930
  4. Between Wars, 1930 – 1935
  5. Air Power Advances, 1935 – 1937
  6. Prelude to War, 1937 – 1939
  7. The Air War Starts, 1939 – 1941
  8. The Drawing of the Battle Lines, December 1941 – April 1942
  9. The AAF Fights Back, April – July 1942
  10. The Tide Turns, June – December 1942
  11. North Africa, November 1942 – May 1943
  12. Global Operations, 1943
  13. Expanding Air Power, June 1943
  14. Schweinfurt and Regensburg, August 1943
  15. Two Years of War, September – December 1943
  16. Maximum Effort, October 1943
  17. Road to Rome, September 1943 – June 1944
  18. Prelude to Invasion, January – June 1944
  19. D-Day, June 1944
  20. Ploesti, March – August 1944
  21. Superfort, August 1943 – June 1944
  22. Victory in Europe, June 1944 – May 1945
  23. Retreat and Advance, June 1944 – March 1945
  24. Air War Against Japan, 1944 – 1945
  25. A New Air Force, 1945 – 1947
  26. Cold War, 1948 – 1950

Even for an aviation nut like myself, watching the entire series will become tiresome after a while. There is a lot of reiterated propaganda, and some episodes contain relatively little information. If you just want to watch a few parts, I would recommend 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 19 and 26 for starters. Most other episodes have something to offer, however, and especially if you are interested in World War II.

As if the original 26 parts were not enough, there is also an Air Force Story, Volume 2 from a few years later (chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; chapter 2 appears to be unavailable). I have not decided whether I will watch that, too.

This series is best enjoyed if you are interested in military history. It must be remembered at all times that this is propaganda, but though some details may be left out or exaggerated, the overall story reflects true events, and it is told in an interesting way. Most important, however, is the huge amount of unique film material used for the series, much of which is publicly available nowhere else.

Convair B-36 Peacemaker bombers during the Cold War in The Air Force Story (1953)

The Air Force Story
Download link (Chapter 1)
Year: 1953
Running time: 6 h 10 min
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2

Ikarie XB 1 (1963)

The Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem is something of a cult celebrity. His stories have inspired several good movies, including three versions of Solaris (in particular Tarkovskij’s splendid adaptation from 1972).

Not one of his best-known works (but still interesting), The Magellanic Clouds is the basis for the Czech film Ikarie XB 1.

Ikarie XB 1 / Icarus XB-1 (1963)

The film is about a pioneer space flight to the Alpha Centauri system, two hundred years into the future. The world at that point is a communist Utopia, and the forty-man crew depart in search of extra-terrestrial life. But the there are many dangers ahead of them.

Ikarie XB 1 comes complete with some heavy-handed anti-capitalist propaganda. Though it is no worse than the corresponding anti-communist messages in some Hollywood films from about the same period.

Like Battle Beyond the Sun and many other sci-fi films from behind the iron curtain, Ikarie XB 1 was released in the US in a slaughtered and dubbed version, with a new ending and generally much worse than the original. The title of this abomination was the bland Voyage to the End of the Universe. Fortunately, the original version, subtitled in English, is the one to be found at the Internet Archive.

This film is best enjoyed if you prefer the psychological and philosophical kind of science fiction that was more common in the East during the Cold War. The tempo is slow and the plot is somewhat splintered, but that matters little, for the focus is on character development and interaction. Great stuff!

Exploring the capitalist ship in Ikarie XB 1 (1963)

Ikarie XB 1
Download link
Year: 1963
Language: Czech (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Jindřich Polák
Stars: Zdeněk Štěpánek, Radovan Lukavský, František Smolík
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (852×360)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG 4 (493 M)

Rocketship X-M (1950)

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (commonly known as MST3K). The show’s premise is that a man has been captured by an evil scientist, the obvious plan of whom is to find the worst movie ever, and use it to numb the minds of all humans. So in each new episode the man, together with two robots, is forced to watch one more B movie. The TV audience see the same film, but in the foreground we see the three beings watching, and we hear their comments.

MST3K became a cult favourite, and it was very good in many ways. It was funny, thought provoking and highly original. Even so, I dislike watching it. But why?

The show’s problem is that not every movie featured is rotten throughout. In fact, a number of them are really good, but when you watch them through the MST3K filter (especially since some films have been cut to fit the show’s program slot) they become bad. And people who have seen an MST3K episode unreflectingly assume that they watched a bad film.

Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery Jr and Hugh O'Brian in Rocketship X-M (1950)

By all means, there is certainly opportunity for satirical snides at Rocketship X-M, which is the subject of today’s post, and which opened MST3K season two in 1990. But Rocketship X-M was also a unique and inventive film, with many interesting qualities.

Decades before the term was invented, Rocketship X-M was an early “mockbuster” (possibly the first). It was produced extremely quickly in order to beat George Pal’s Destination Moon to the theatres, and ride on its marketing. The budget was only about one fifth of the Pal movie. Because of the fast production, there are a few really stupid moments in the film, not least so in the noticeable lack of all scientific sensibility.

The successful race against Pal’s movie made it the first outer space movie after World War II. It thereby became the masthead of the long range of sci-fi movies that followed in the coming decades. I have written in connection with Battle Beyond the Sun about the way that the Cold War was reflected in many of these movies. Rocketship X-M is no exception, but it is not the communist fear that is the driving force here. Rather it is an anti-war analogy, said to have been the first film to fictionalise the effects of all-out nuclear war.

It was also the first science fiction film with electronic music in the soundtrack. Composer Ferde Grofé added a theremin to the orchestration, for excellent effect. The theremin was later used in many sci-fi movies, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Rocketship X-M was the first American movie to feature a female astronaut. This, however, does not earn it a place in the history of movies questioning traditional gender roles, since the only reason to include Danish actress Osa Massen (except maybe for her good looks) was to tell the message that a woman’s place is at home, not aboard a spaceship or even in a laboratory. This sexist crap would be disturbing to say the least, except the film is over 60 years old, so I mostly find it a little amusing and somehow touching.

The film also has a very interesting ending, unexpected and certainly not standard Hollywood. This, too, makes it worth watching.

This film is best enjoyed in its original clothing (or the 1970s recut, which I believe is the one available at the Internet Archive), not the MST3K garb.

Astronauts on Mars approaching an alien building in Rocketship X-M (1950)

Rocketship X-M
Download link
Year: 1950
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: Kurt Neumann
Stars: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (693×576, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (699 M)

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
Download link
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)