Thursday, July 6, 2017

Retro Movie: Battle Beyond The Stars

There have been countless re-makes and re-workings of Akira Kurasowa’s Seven Samurai (1954), including the classic western The Magnificent Seven (1960). In 1980, prolific B-movie producer Roger Corman (hoping to cash in on the success of the Star Wars films) served up a science-fiction version of the tale entitled Battle Beyond The Stars. As the film opens, Sador (John Saxon, veteran of a galaxy of genre movies, including Enter The Dragon and the original Nightmare on Elm Street) is a ruthless warlord who shows up in orbit above the planet Akir (named as an homage to Kurasowa), whose peace-loving people are farmers. He threatens to use his ultimate weapon, a “Stellar Converter” on the planet, unless the people surrender to him, and turn over their crops. He leaves a small ship in orbit of the planet to guard them, and vows to return to pick up his tribute.

What can these peaceful farmers do? Shad (Richard Thomas: that’s right, John-Boy of The Waltons) volunteers to find a group of mercenaries to help them fight. He jumps into an old ship and heads into space, where he meets up with Nanelia, the daughter of an old friend of his people. Shad then recruits an intergalactic trucker from Earth nicknamed “Space Cowboy” played by George Peppard (The A Team) and Gelt, an assassin on the run, portrayed by Robert Vaughn, best known for his role as Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. A few others also join the fight. Sybil Danning (in quite the form-fitting costume) plays the lovely but deadly warrior known as St. Exmin of the Valkyrie. Then there's a group consciousness known as Nestor, and a reptilian being known as Cayman of the Lambda Zone, who has a very personal score to settle with Sador.

George Peppard & Richard Thomas
The team heads back to Akir, where they prepare for a showdown. Can Sador be defeated? Who will survive the battle? Will St. Exmin pop out of her costume, to the delight of teenage boys (and their Dads) everywhere? The film is an enjoyable, well-made B-movie. Director Jimmy T. Murakami keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and stretches the small budget to make the film look like an "A" picture. Thomas is good (if a little bland at times) in the lead, and he's got a great group of actors backing him up. The supporting cast is excellent. Vaughn is wonderful in his role, which is essentially a reprise of his character from The Magnificent Seven. Peppard has a lot of fun as "Space Cowboy" and John Saxon effectively chews the scenery as the evil Sador.

The film has some interesting talent behind the scenes. Producer Corman is well known for giving many actors, directors and other crew members their first jobs on his films, and Battle Beyond The Stars is no exception. For this project, a young model maker named James Cameron was promoted to work on the special effects and production design for the film. That’s right, the James Cameron of The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic and Avatar fame. The rousing music is by the late James Horner, who also scored Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Apollo 13 and Braveheart, among many others. The clever, witty screenplay is by Oscar nominated writer/director John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star) who used the money he made writing scripts for Corman to help fund his own first feature, Return of the Secaucus 7Trivia fans take note: look for Jeff Corey, who appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek series, “The Cloud Minders,” in a small role as Zed, Marta Kristen (Judy of Lost in Space fame) as Lux, who takes a shine to Peppard’s character, and a brief cameo by Julia Duffy (pre-Newhart) as an ill-fated woman captured by Sador’s forces.

Corman would later re-use some of the effects sequences and music from this film in some of his other productions, including Space Raiders (1983) and Sorceress (1982), so you may feel like you've seen the film before, even if you haven't actually watched it. Battle Beyond The Stars is an enjoyable popcorn film that you'll appreciate a bit more if you’re a sci-fi fan, and are familiar with its influences. I have to admit, I saw this at the local drive-in during its original release, and it remains a guilty pleasure for me. The film is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD, with a nice assortment of extras, including an audio commentary by Corman and Sayles, and an interview with Richard Thomas. Here's a link to an ad for the DVD & Blu-ray release, which features the original trailer for the film. And remember, as St. Exmin says "Live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending."

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