Everyone loves a good success story, and Hollywood history’s full of them. Actors sleeping in their cars until they get their first lucky break. Writers papering the walls of their lodgings with rejection letters until they finally get a script in front of a receptive producer. Filmmakers who’ve spent years paying their dues before a studio finally comes calling.
Director Francis Ford Coppola, before he shot to fame – and, for a time, considerable wealth – with such films as The Godfather, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, scrabbled around at the lower end of the industry like just about everyone else. While still a film student, he made a short horror movie, The Two Christophers, and a zero-budget erotic comedy, Tonight For Sure, in 1962.
That same year, Coppola fell into the orbit of Roger Corman, the filmmaker and producer who, aside from being responsible for some of the greatest exploitation movies ever – Bucket Of Blood, The Fall Of The House Of Usher, Death Race 2000, to name a few – also happened to have an incredible eye for new talent. Martin Scorsese; Joe Dante; John Sayles; Curtis Hanson; Jonathan Demme – dozens of now-famous writers and directors got their start under Corman’s wing.
For Coppola, who was still in his early 20s at the time, Corman had a particularly special assignment to work on. In the early 60s, Corman had purchased the rights to several Soviet sci-fi films at a knock-down price. One of these was called Nebo zovyot (often translated as The Heavens Call), directed by Mikhail Karyukov and Aleksandr Kozyr, and originally released in 1959. Coppola’s job was to take this unknown movie and adapt it for a US audience.
In the 50s and 60s, America and the USSR were locked in their race for the Moon – a competition that was as much about Cold War posturing and national prestige as it was scientific curiosity. And just as US cinema became preoccupied with movies about brave astronauts, such as producer George Pal’s Destination Moon, so Soviet filmmakers began making space exploration movies of their own.
Often made with lavish budgets and special effects, these movies were told with an attention to detail and (relative) scientific rigour that was relatively rare in US sci-fi cinema before 2001: A Space Odyssey. Set in the near future, The Heavens Call was about humanity’s first attempts to reach Mars. Road To The Stars (1958), directed by Pavel Klushantsev, was part documentary, part speculative sci-fi, with its second half imagining what life in space might look like.
The Heavens Call, in particular, took a particularly communist view of the unfolding space race. The Soviets are preparing to launch their expedition to the Red Planet, when a bunch of hot shot Americans shows up at the same space station and announce their plans to get to Mars first. The film contrasts the Soviet cosmonauts’ measured lack of ego with the Americans’ haste and competitiveness. Meanwhile, back on Earth, we see how capitalist America makes its plans for Mars after the mission’s complete:
“Buy land on Mars!” a salesman crows, “It’s so, so cheap!”
“Ladies and gentleman, drink this space cocktail!” someone else shouts. “Two glasses and you’re in space!”
In the end, it’s this undignified self-promotion that leads to the American astronauts’ undoing. When their rocket runs into an asteroid field, it’s made clear that one astronaut’s regular radio announcements, transmitted live every half hour back on Earth, have distracted him from his mission.
As Corman later observed, this streak of anti-capitalist fervour wouldn’t exactly fly with American audiences.
“In the 1960s I bought the American rights to several Russian science fiction films,” Corman told Kinoeye magazine in 2003. “They were made with big budgets and tremendous special effects. They were, unfortunately, filled with anti-American propaganda. I said to the Russians, “I’m going to have to cut the anti-American propaganda out. I can’t show these pictures in America,” and they said that they totally understood.”
Coppola was therefore given the job of removing the “anti-American” plot thread running through The Heavens Call and, if possible, spice the movie up a bit to make it more crowd-pleasing for a broad audience. With only a tiny budget to work with, Coppola began re-editing and redubbing The Heavens Call to tone down the east-west rivalry, and then, with his filmmaker friend Jack Hill, devised some new scenes to give the movie a more monstrous edge. The result was the brilliantly titled Battle Beyond The Sun.
The plot remained broadly the same between the US and Soviet versions: one rocket blasts off from a space station, runs into trouble, a second rocket bravely goes in to help them out, but then both sets of explorers wind up trapped on a huge asteroid not far from Mars. In Coppola’s version of events, however, one of the explorers encounters a pair of huge monsters on the asteroid, which emerge from the shadows and begin shimmering suggestively before the camera. According to Jack Hill, it was Coppola’s idea to give the creatures some distinctly biological appendages:
“Francis had a wonderful ideas for the monsters,” Hill recalled in a Trailers From Hell video. “One would look sort of like a penis, and the other would look sort of like a vagina. I dunno. It was supposed to mean something.”
All told, the fight between these two wobbly, Lovecraftian beasts took up approximately three minutes of the entire movie, with sequences of the monsters – shot on a Hollywood soundstage – intercut not entirely convincingly with old Soviet footage of a cosmonaut in retreat. Battle Beyond The Sun’s trailer, on the other hand, devoted much of its duration to the asteroid critters – if audiences saw it and thought they were getting a pure, B-grade space horror, then all the better.
Despite the iffy dubbing and the saucy genital monsters, the quality of the original film’s cinematography still shone through here and there: one special effects shot, of the Red Planet dwarfing a group of explorers in its crimson glow, is particularly effective.
Battle Beyond The Sun so impressed Corman that the producer handed Coppola a small budget to make his first professional feature film: the 1963 horror Dementia 13. Corman’s original brief was to make a violent thriller in the mould of Hitchcock’s Psycho; the result, shot in Ireland for about $40,000, so horrified Corman that he brought Coppola’s friend Jack Hill in to shoot some extra sequences.
Such inauspicious beginnings aside, Coppola’s rise through the industry was relatively fast. Just three years after Dimension 13, his coming-of-age comedy You’re A Big Boy Now emerged to widespread acclaim. By 1972, he’d won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Patton, while The Godfather went on to become a global box-office hit.
For decades, The Heavens Call seemed in danger of becoming a half-forgotten footnote in history, eclipsed by Battle Beyond The Sun and its goofy aliens. In more recent years, however, the importance of The Heavens Call and other Eastern Bloc genre films has become more widely recognised. In 2012, the British Film Institute ran a special season of classic sci-fi films from the Cold War era, entitled Kosmos: A Soviet Space Odyssey. More recently, a number of these films have appeared to watch online, legally and for free, which means that everyone can finally see these films as they were originally intended.
As well as The Heavens Call, there’s Planeta Bur – another film harshly re-edited under Corman’s aegis. Released in America under the titles Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet and Voyage To The Planet Of The Prehistoric Women, their new sequences were overseen by Curtis Harrington and Peter Bogdanovich, respectively – further proof that even great writers and directors have to start somewhere.
Full of shiny, metallic rockets and curvaceous space suits, these movies from behind the Iron Curtain may hail from a distant era, but they’re steeped in a romanticism that is quietly infectious. Concisely, colourfully, often thrillingly, they capture the optimism and pioneering spirit of the Space Age – the childlike daydream of clambering into a ship and heading off on an adventure among the stars.