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BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (1963)

"If you hadn’t sacrificed for us, you might have attained your goal."
"A life is more valuable than any goal man can strive for."

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Director: Aleksander Kozyr, Mikhail Karyukov, Thomas Colchart (Francis Ford Coppola)

Starring: Edd Perry, Arla Powell, Andy Stewart, Bruce Hunter, Gene Tonner, Barry Chertok (NB: All cast names pseudonymous)

Screenplay: Nicholas Colbert, Edwin Palmer

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Synopsis: After an atomic war, the Earth is divided into two regions, North Hemis and South Hemis, which are still in conflict. The space program of South Hemis has developed a rocket ship in which the first trip to Mars will be attempted. Project director Dr Albert Gordon and his astronauts Paul Clinton and Craig Matthews travel to the space station where the rocket ship Mercury has been built. The day before the launch, a rocket from North Hemis approaches the space station. Its crew, Captain Torrens and Dr Martin, radio for permission to land and repair their rocket, which is granted. The South Hemis scientists are friendly towards their visitors, entertaining them and even revealing their plans for the Mercury. When Torrens hears of the planned flight to Mars, he becomes obsessed with winning the race to the planet. Although his superiors forbid him to take the risk, Torrens tells Martin that they have been given permission to attempt the flight to Mars. They take off, and Paul Clinton is injured by their blast; his place on the Mercury is taken by Craig Matthews. The South Hemis launch is successful. Meanwhile, the North Hemis rocket is in extreme danger, being drawn into the sun. Torrens radios for help. Gordon and Matthews decide they must try to rescue their rivals. They succeed, but their rocket runs out of fuel. They are forced to land on Angkor, a satellite of Mars, and can only wait as risky rescue attempts are mounted by their colleagues on Earth.

Comments: During the sixties, Roger Corman purchased two Russian science fiction films, Niebo Zowiet (1959) and Planeta Burg (1962), and handed them to some of his talented proteges with instructions to recut them for American consumption. In the case of Niebo Zowiet, the project was given to Francis Ford Coppola, who accepted an associate producer’s credit, but hid the rest of his involvement behind the pseudonym "Thomas Colchart".

One of the things Coppola was unable to alter was probably the best part of the original film anyway, the production design. While some of the film’s space effects are shaky, the interiors of the headquarters of the space program on Earth and of the space platform in orbit, and the exteriors of the rocky satellite planet, Angkor, are quite interesting. The space platform, in particular, seems to have been a kind of self-contained world. The presence on board of vegetable life is reminiscent of Silent Running (1971); one of the plants, a climber gone berserk, looks like a first cousin to Katharine Hepburn’s potplant in Desk Set (1957).

Of all the changes made to the Russian film, the tampering with the identities of the original characters is the most revealing. Niebo Zowiet concerned a group of gallant Russian astronauts involved in a race to Mars against some evil Americans, who they unselfishly rescue when the Americans’ greed and incompetence lands them in trouble. Obviously, this plotline had to go. The denizens of the Southern Hemisphere (i.e. the Russians) now mysteriously rejoice in names like "Paul Clinton" and "Craig Matthews". Except for this role reversal, the rest of the plot is left more or less intact. (Intact too is a very clear indication that this film wasn’t made in America: there are far too many women involved in the space program, even, horror of horrors, in positions of authority.) Executive producer Corman clearly felt that this just wasn’t exciting enough, so other changes were made.

The film’s original title translated as "The Heavens Call"; its new one was probably felt to be more of a draw, and apart from the fact that the film doesn’t take place beyond the sun, and that there’s no battle in it, it’s a great title. Russian lip movements, it turns out, are even harder to dub than Japanese ones, and many sentences run on way after their supposed speakers have stopped talking.

Obvious attempts were made to lighten up the product by altering the intended tone of the script, but facetious American dialogue emanating from solemn Russian lips fools no-one. Finally - and it is for this that Battle Beyond The Sun is now best known - Coppola was ordered to edit in some monsters. He did, and they’re a couple of beauties, the creatures in question being a penis-monster and a vulva-monster. Yeah, okay, they aren’t actually called that; but it doesn’t take an overly dirty mind to see what game Coppola was playing here. The latter, in fact, is a particularly nasty specimen of vagina dentata, and when its (her?) fatal wounding of one of the astronauts occurs offscreen, you hardly know whether to be glad or sorry.

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB