“Battle Beyond The Sun”: Francis Ford Coppola’s first director credit was actually for this rejiggered Russian space-opera

By on October 26, 2015

In the early sixties, independent film producer Roger Corman acquired the distribution rights to a sophisticated and somewhat controversial Russian space opera, 1959’s Nebo Zovyot (translated into English as: The Heavens Call), and then hired a young new director to transform it through editing and filming new sequences into a “westernized” B-movie for American audiences. That director was named Francis Ford Coppola.

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Re-titled Battle Beyond The Sun for its eventual release in U.S. theaters in 1962, the film’s action is set in then-futuristic year 1997, after a catastrophic atomic war has left the Earth divided into two rival, competing countries, North Hemis and South Hemis, both countries no doubt named for the Northern and Southern hemispheres (the original Russian filmmakers claimed they were NOT depicting the two main superpower countries then-currently embroiled in the Cold War, but well, as Wikipedia’s entry for the film states, North and South Hemis were “clearly analogues for the United States and Soviet Union.”).

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The plot of the film begins with a spacecraft launched from North Hemis landing on South Hemis’s space station Mercury, while on its way to Mars, after it radios for permission to land to make emergency repairs. Over a pleasant dinner, South Hemis project director Dr. Albert Gordon, and his astronauts Paul Clinton and Craig Matthews, learn the North Hemis crew, including the rather American-ized named Captain Torrens and Dr. Martin, are also planning a mission to Mars.

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Torrens becomes obsessed with the idea of his space team beating the South Hemis’s crew to Mars, leading to a futuristic late 90s space race in which both countries attempt to land their manned spacecraft (although, speaking of “manned,” we should point out, women are depicted in positions of authority, in contrast to what was shown in the West at the time) on the red planet before the other does, in preparation for colonization.

What they do not know, of course, is that alien life awaits these astral travelers on Mars.

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Perhaps Corman had anticipated the Eastern Bloc was going to fall in the near future, and he wanted to preserve the Soviet film by remaking it for American audiences knowing that only his version would survive. In a 2003 issue of Kinoeye, Roger Corman told an interviewer: “In the 1960s, I bought the American rights to several Russian science fiction films. 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.”

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He gave them to some of his talented protégés with instructions to re-cut them for American consumption, a standard practice at the time for Corman’s AIP, who were decidedly low-budget and simply looking for a way to turn a profit easily. It may have also had something to do with the fact that, at the time, it was easy enough to skirt relatively non-existent Soviet film copyright laws too, and he purchased the rights easily without having to lay out to much cash to do so. American-International Pictures (AIP) also grabbed — and then re-configured — another Soviet-made sci-fi films during this same era, Planeta Burg (Planet of Storms, 1962), fitted out with new scenes directed by Curtis Harrington and released as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965).

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The opening titles for Battle credit someone named “Thomas Colchart” as the additional U.S. director of this movie, along with the two original Russian directors (Mikhail Karzhukov and Aleksandr Kozyr), and the credits further state that Francis Ford Coppola was the associate producer for the American-ized version too, but it turns out that Coppola was actually Colchart, and he had actually used the psuedonym because the project hadn’t originated with him, and since he also expected to have his own career in filmmaking as a director he didn’t want this to be his first directorial credit.

Coppola, just 24 at the time, was still a graduate student at UCLA film school when Corman hired him “to edit, write and loop the English dialogue so it made sense to an American audience and then shoot post production inserts with special effects.” It’s been reported that Coppola (who has since described Battle as “a very idealistic science fiction film”) worked for six months on the script and received $250 in payment from Corman.

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The eager-to-please young Coppola dubbed the film’s original Russian language in English, added some nifty narration, and, somewhat notoriously, the future Godfather director edited out roughly half of the film’s somewhat ponderous setup depicting the preparation and departure of the alien probe from it’s home world — one reviewer who had seen the original Russian film says it’s “one of the most visually striking sequences ever filmed” — and inserted, in its place, new footage featuring two monsters fighting each other, one looking more than a bit like a penis, while the other, naturally, resembled a vagina, all of which certainly makes the climatic battle of the film a tad more interesting. This news comes courtesy of filmmaker Jack Hill, who shot additional cinematography for Coppola’s version.

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A few years back, the original Soviet film — also translated sometimes as The Sky Is Calling — was restored back to its original state, keeping only the original Russian segments and adding back the appropriate language subtitles. Retromedia released it on a double-bill DVD with the Italian space operetta Star Pilot.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.