Nebo zovyot and Battle Beyond the Sun; or, Why, oh why did Americans trash a very good Soviet science fiction movie? Part 2

A poster of the Soviet science fiction movie Nebo Zovyot.

Greetings, my reading friend, and welcome to… What’s this? The image is a tad small? Well, excuse … Actually, now that you mention it, it is a tad small. Would this one be better?

The landing of the spacecraft Rodina after its harrowing journey through space.

The landing of the spacecraft Rodina after its harrowing journey through space.

Are we happy now? Good. Greetings, my reading friend, and welcome to the second part of our article on Nebo Zovyot.

Now that yours truly has provided you with the storyline of this Soviet science fiction movie, it might be interesting to go behind said storyline. And no, there will be no popcorn.

Let us begin by pointing out that, even though it was not a documentary, Nebo Zovyot depicted humanity’s future in space in a serious and realistic, dare one say (type?) quasi documentary manner. As Kornev himself stated during the visit of the young writer mentioned in Part 1 of this article, there was no romantic plot, only persistent work, and lots of mathematics. Even though he lacked the youth and trim physique of the archetypical movie / real life cosmonaut, the actor who played Kornev brought a definite seriousness and plausibility to the movie.

His plea to the younger generation, at the very end of the film, was / is worth noting. While most space films of the 1950s and 1960s intended to inspire said generation, Nebo Zovyot was seemingly the only one which actually said so out loud.

Propaganda, you say? Of course it was. The Cold War was less than 15 years old and it still had another 30+ to go. Still, Nebo Zovyot was a propaganda film very different from the propaganda films produced by the American film industry.

It is also worth noting that, while said American film industry produced quite a few science fiction films in the 1950s and 1960s, all too often long forgotten low quality productions, science fiction was not a genre the Soviet film industry played a lot with.

Given the possibility that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had finally found a field in which it was able to overtake the United States and its allies, the Soviet government used every tool at its disposal to promote its successes in space. The country’s film industry was one of these tools. If truth be told, the message transmitted to viewers through the script of Nebo Zovyot was deemed so important that the central committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union may have kept a close eye on its development.

I just realised I had neglected to use the Russian name of this organisation, Kommunisticheskaya Partiya Sovetskogo Soyuza, in previous issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Profuse apologies.

One could argue that what distinguished Nebo Zovyot from other Soviet science fiction films of its day was the symbolism imbedded into it. While there were visible and invisible ways of identifying dominant ideas about the future of communism in the USSR, one could not help but notice that this ideological material was very neatly embedded in the general outline of the movie’s plot. Mind you, it was not necessarily all that subtle. One only had to think about the scenes showing the bad hombres of the story (Hello, EG!), Robert Klark and Herman Verst, mentioned in the first part of this article, or the unidentified metropolis.

Speaking (typing?) of symbolism, don’t you think that the very title of our movie of the week had / has a double meaning? While the sky and heavens did indeed beckon and call, toward adventure in space, one could also argue that the government of the USSR beckoned and called its people through the media it controlled.

Incidentally, even though Nebo Zovyot was not a colourful movie, direction and acting being merely functional if not pedestrian, it was nonetheless shot in colour, using a process known as Sovcolor whose colours were far from gorgeous. By the way, Sovcolor was derived / copied from a mid-1930s German process known as Agfarcolor Neu. Sorry, I digress.

As far as the functional / pedestrian acting of the main characters was concerned, the individuals who had the good fortune of living in the very bright future depicted by Nebo Zovyot would be practically perfect in every way examples of Homo sapiens, space age Soviet counterparts of Mary Poppins so to speak. Speaking (typing?) of Poppins, am I the only one who finds her a wee bit creepy? Sorry. You do remember that she was mentioned in a June 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, now, don’t you? Sigh. Let us proceed.

As far as said functional / pedestrian acting of the main characters was still concerned, one could argue that it reflected the art of the time. There were strong-willed cheekbones, expressive shadows and stern brows galore. Every single word spoken carried so much weight that one felt tired after each sentence. Still, Nebo Zovyot felt almost surreal at times.

The special effects, models and sets of Nebo Zovyot were also impressive indeed. They looked, well, real. Few if any Soviet science fiction film screened before it had special effects, models and sets that were as good. Indeed, the special effects, models and sets of Nebo Zovyot were arguably as good as those of the best American science fiction films of the 1950s. Incidentally, it has been suggested that the team behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, an admirable film mentioned in the first part of this article, used a number of Nebo Zovyot drawings and illustrations when the time came to design the interior of its space station.

In that regard, yours truly would like to offer a thought. There were / are interesting similarities between Nebo Zovyot and an American motion picture, The Conquest of Space, whose premiere took place in April 1955, from the Mars mission that went awry to the use of elaborate models of spacecraft. This may well be a coincidence of course. Even if it was not, there was / is nothing wrong with borrowing an idea seen in another film.

Better yet, one has to wonder if the cooperative spirit promoted by Nebo Zovyot did not in fact inspire one or more episodes of Men into Space which were broadcasted around 1960, and… What’s this, my reading friend? You want to hear (read?) more about this well-known American science fiction television series? Attaboy! Sadly enough, yours truly has to turn down this request. I shall, however, seriously consider the possibility of writing an article on this fascinating series at some point in the future – if you behave.

I will tell you, however, that one of the episodes of Men into Space saw a spacecraft leave before all precautions were taken. Now, I ask you, was said craft American or Soviet, as if we didn’t know?

By and large, Nebo Zovyot did not contain too many bloopers and / or logic errors. The fact that no one on the space station appeared weightless was soon explained, for example. An individual floating in a room was told by laughing colleagues to put on his magnetic shoes. In the rotating sections of the space station, such shoes would presumably not be required, said rotation creating an artificial gravity that kept the cosmonauts on the “floor” of the revolving wheel. This particular detail would explain how, during the dinner held in honour of the foreign astronauts who had docked at the space station, everyone was able to drink champagne, or some equivalent thereof, using the proper type of glassware.

The presence, on the space station, of a departure deck similar to the flight deck of an aircraft carrier seemed a tad odd. Even so, cosmonauts walking there, presumably with magnetic boots, did so in a realistic manner. They moved slowly and stiffly, for example. This being said (typed?), the group of cosmonauts moving on said departure deck soon after the departure of the Tayfun skipped around a bit like people moving in a low gravity environment like the Moon.

Speaking (typing?) of low gravity, yours truly wonders how the cosmonauts / astronauts were able to walk on the surface of the Icarus, the small asteroid (about 1.4 kilometre (about 0.9 mile) in diameter) they were marooned on, without bouncing like a child on a trampoline.

Incidentally, the spacesuits of Nebo Zovyot had a most impressive and authentic look. The business suits worn inside spacecraft and in the space station did / do feel a tad odd, however.

Being somewhat of a subductisupercilicarptor, in other words a first class nitpicker, I must admit that the drastic change in course of the Tayfun was / is a tad hard to explain. As we both know, a spacecraft going to Mars would follow a course determined, and checked, well before its launch date. While it is true that the Tayfun left the space station slightly before the most favourable time possible, its new course would not have been that bad. Probes launched toward Mars do not dive toward the Sun.

All in all, Nebo Zovyot was / is a remarkable motion picture. One might even say it was prophetic, in one aspect. The vertical landing of the spacecraft Rodina was / is virtually identical to the one performed in April 2016 off the coast of Florida, on the unpiloted platform ship Of Course I Still Love You (I kid you not, that’s the name of the ship.), by a Falcon 9 unpiloted rocket designed and built by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, an American firm better known as SpaceX.

Would you believe that Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read the Instructions, the other ship of SpaceX, are 2 names known to readers of a series of science fiction books written between 1987 and 2012 by Scottish author Iain M. Bain?

As well, would you believe that the word Rodina was mentioned in a March 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee?

You have probably noted that the main characters of Nebo Zovyot were all male Homo sapiens. No woman for space exploration, no siree, and this even if there were women aboard the space station. Vive la patriarchie – et les pommes de terre frites! Oops, wrong language, sorry. Long live patriarchy – and French fries!

And now for something completely different.

Roger William Corman, an American movie actor, director and producer sometimes / often known as the Pope of Pop Cinema, or as the King of Movie Schlock, your choice, saw Nebo Zovyot in the very late 1950s or very early 1960s and was suitably impressed. As we both know, this Second World War veteran and industrial engineer (Leland Stanford Junior University, 1947) had every reason to be impressed. If truth be told, Corman bought the North American distribution rights of the Soviet movie. Mind you, he also bought the rights for several other (East?) European movies in the very late 1950s or very early 1960s.

Unbeknownst to the Soviet producer, director and distributor of Nebo Zovyot, however, Corman ordered his associate producer, a recently graduated film school student by the name of Francis Ford Coppola, yes, that Coppola, to craft an English language version, dare one say (type?) a dumbed-down version, of Nebo Zovyot that would be more palatable to a Cold War era American audience – an action which, ironically enough, all but proved the Soviet film’s contention that Americans were ruthless and greedy capitalists and profiteers.

In spite of this, one had / has to admit that Corman was / is admired by a lot of people, on both sides of the Atlantic. He may not have been a great movie actor, director or producer, but he had an eye for talent. Over the years, Corman mentored many young American movie directors like Martin Charles “Charlie” Scorsese, Ronald William “Ron” Howard and the aforementioned Coppola, not to mention a young Canadian by the name of James Francis Cameron. Mind you, Corman also helped launch the career of movie actors you may have heard of, namely Peter Henry Fonda, John Joseph “Jack” Nicholson and Sylvester Enzio “Sly” Stallone, born Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone, not to mention a young Canadian by the name of William “Bill” Shatner.

Yours truly could list you the issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee in which these gentlemen were mentioned but where would be the fun in that? So, that’s your homework for this week. There will be a test. Next week. But back to our story.

What did Coppola do to poor, defenceless Nebo Zovyot, you ask, my concerned reading friend? Well, one could argue he brutally distorted and thoroughly butchered this very fine production. The editing was, dare I say it, very bad. The awkwardly dubbed English dialog was also, you guessed it, very bad.

Coppola removed every anti-American statement and all references to Soviet-American rivalry, or to the USSR for that matter. He hid every word in Cyrillic letters underneath under one or more neutral designs. Well, almost all of them. The name Rodina, and the acronym CCCP (USSR in Cyrillic letters) perhaps, could still be seen in a couple of shots. And no, Coppola did not erase the telltale red stars on the fins of the Rodina.

Coppola replaced shots showing paintings or models of Soviet spacecraft with shots showing American spacecraft. Understandably enough, he changed the names of all the characters. Would you believe that Coppola inserted some shots of an early 1960s edition of the Rose Parade held each year in Pasadena in the scenes that showed the throngs of people cheering the astronauts after their landing on Earth at the end of the film?

Worse still, Coppola added a pair of monsters, seemingly because, as we both know, space was / is chock full of horrible creatures whose sole purpose in life was / is to tear human beings into little pieces. Or so one would think after watching countless American science fiction movies of the 1950s. That, or he was badgered by Corman’s marketing people eager to splash a monster on posters.

Would you be upset if I suggested that the space race of the late 1950s and 1960s, up to and including the race to the Moon, was the most expensive public relations / propaganda campaign of the 20th century, a way to mask the failures of American society, especially during the 1960s when the prestige of the United States got seriously damaged by events as varied as the failed invasion of Cuba, the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Junior, or truly frightening race riots? I thought so. Sorry. Back to our monsters we go.

Said monsters looked like tentacled hand puppets covered in goo. If yours truly may be permitted a somewhat risqué comment, Coppola wanted his monsters to look like the naughty bits of female (and male?) human beings. He seemingly got his way. He nonetheless had to get around that fact that the Soviet footage he was butchering contained nothing he could use to beef up his monster scene.

One has to wonder if Coppola, very much aware that he was not working on the greatest movie of the 20th century, designed his ludicrous monsters as a joke. I mean, how could a life form survive, let alone evolve (Yes, evolve. Evolution is real. It is not an opinion. Human beings are mammals, just like bats, kangaroos and platypuses. We happen to be uglier than most of our cousins, that’s all.), on a small piece of rock with precious little gravity, no atmosphere and no protection whatsoever against radiation?

Let us review the rather boring and illogical storyline of the Coppolan version of Nebo Zovyot, which was commercialised as Battle Beyond the Sun, a rather more catchy title one must admit. The premiere of this reprehensible and often maligned movie, and a pretty awful one it was / is, was held in 1962. Do you know in which month, my reading friend, because I don’t?

Given the need to desovietise and americanise the beginning of this potboiler, Coppola blended some clips from the movie’s opening with some original, and very American, material. He cut all dialogues but added a narration in voiceover, which included some spaceflight notions. Even though said narrator stated that Battle Beyond the Sun was a fantasy of the future, its main storyline was no dream of a bright tomorrow. The movie was set around 1997, after a global (thermo)nuclear war. Two great nations were now facing each other: North Hemis, home of the villains of the story, and South Hemis, home of the heroes of the story. Do I need to clarify which of the 2 was / is the United States?

What is it, my reading friend? You seem puzzled. Yes, both the USSR and the United States are in the northern hemisphere of ye olde planet Earth. Doesn’t that put both of these countries within the borders of arrogant and deceitful North Hemis, you ask? Of course not. That’s downright subversive and unpatriotic, and… Err, well, let’s move on.

Battle Beyond the Sun’s premise being firmly set in place, the action moved to another venue, the space station – an American one, sorry, a South Hemis one, of course. Scientist / engineer Albert Gordon was planning a trip to Mars with engineer / astronaut Paul Clinton aboard the spacecraft Mercury. A North Hemis spacecraft, the Typhoon, unexpectedly arrived at the space station and was allowed to dock for emergency repairs. Its crew, 2 individuals by the name of Torrance and Martin, 2 names that did / do not exactly sound Soviet, was invited to dinner.

Hearing about the South Hemis plan to go to Mars, Torrance cut short the dinner and rushed to his cabin to talk to his superiors. The latter seemed somewhat reluctant to launch a flight to Mars with a spacecraft whose repairs might not hold. Refusing to accept the possibility that he might not reach Mars first, Torrance convinced Martin to commandeer the Typhoon. Clinton was injured when that spacecraft left the space station. Another engineer / astronaut, Craig Matthews, immediately volunteered his services. Gordon and Matthews began their journey to Mars soon after.

You have probably noted that the main characters of Coppola’s film were also all male Homo sapiens. No woman for space exploration, no siree. Long live patriarchy!

Meanwhile, the Typhoon encountered a meteor storm. Its course veered toward the Sun. Gordon and Matthews selflessly came to the rescue of Torrance and Martin. Now lacking the fuel necessary to reach Mars, the 4 men were forced to land on an asteroid which orbited the red planet. A vague form was seen in the shadows, but not by the 4 astronauts, and… I feel a rant coming.

I have a question for you, my reading friend. Given how much Gordon, Matthews, Torrance and Martin wanted to go to Mars, why in Flying Spaghetti Monster’s name did they land on an asteroid that went round and round, in an elliptical orbit actually, the red planet of their dreams? The terrain of the asteroid may well have been far more rocky and dangerous to land on than almost any area of Mars anyway. End of rant.

Gordon and Matthews soon informed their space station comrades, sorry, colleagues of their precarious situation. The latter sent an unpiloted rocket loaded with fuel toward the asteroid. Gordon and Matthews unsuccessfully tried to safely bring down the rocket, which crashed and exploded.

The crew of the space station launched a second rocket loaded with fuel, with Clinton on board. The latter successfully managed to land on the asteroid. As he cautiously walked toward the Mercury, Clinton ran into a pair of monsters which seemed to be fighting. Running away, he reached the Mercury only to collapse. Clinton died soon after. Having refueled their stranded spacecraft, without any opposition from the nearby monsters, mind you, Gordon, Matthews, Torrance and Martin successfully returned to Earth. The Mercury landed on a floating platform. The End.

You may be displeased, or not, to hear (read?) that Battle Beyond the Sun was not the only bad movie produced by Corman which contained footage from Nebo Zovyot. Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet came out in August 1965. It was / is not really worth seeing either. Would you believe that most of the footage of that film came from another very good Soviet science fiction film? If you ask me, and you are, because you, my reading friend, are reading this text, Planeta Bur’ would be a fine topic for a future article of our blog / bulletin / thingee. What say ye?

Another Soviet science fiction film, Mechte Navstrechu, might also be worth looking into, and… What is it, my reading friend? You seem puzzled by the mention of this motion picture. Apologies. I forgot to mention that, in 1968, Corman produced a thoroughly revamped version of Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. Premiered in 1968, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women combined the footage from Nebo Zovyot with footage from, you guessed it, Mechte Navstrechu. The film crew also included sequences showing ravishing young women in sexy attire. Did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences grant an award to Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, you ask, my reading fiend, sorry, friend? You are kidding, right?

Was this journey into the world of cultural thievery, sorry, dialogue, interesting? Good. Carpe the **** out of this diem, my reading friend, for winter is coming.

P.S. Answering the calls of countless you know whos, I hereby and heretofore proclaim that the title of the 1928 book written by Herman Potočnik, using the pseudonym Hermann Noordung, a gentleman mentioned in the first part of this article, was / is Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums – Der Raketen-Motor, or the problem of space travel – the rocket engine.

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Rénald Fortier