The Vaughn Identity
Well, as seems to be becoming standard, I find we are nearly at Christmas and there are no new films of note in the cinema, thus requiring that I glance into the realms of yesteryear for something just to keep the column ticking over during the holiday season. Well, at least this year we are well-provided for when it comes to raw material for the 'In Fond Remembrance' section of the annual review, so I suppose I may as well do a proper tribute to one of the stars who departed this dimension in 2016 – ladies and gentlemen, I give you the late Mr Robert Vaughn.
Vaughn split his career between cinema and TV before it was really acceptable, with plenty of famous movies and iconic TV shows on his CV: The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt, The Towering Inferno, Superman III, The Man from UNCLE, The A-Team, Hustle... However, if we're short of one thing at this time of year, then it's surely knockabout late-70s-influenced space opera, and so in remembrance of Mr Vaughn I thought we might cast our minds back and consider Jimmy Murakami's 1980 movie Battle Beyond The Stars.
Our story takes place a long time in the future, in a galaxy quite a long way away, where the peaceful natives of the planet Akir find themselves being hassled by interstellar despot Sador of the Malmori (John Saxon) and his mutant raider henchmen. Being a despot with a well-organised schedule, Sador informs the Akira that he will be back in a week to conquer their planet, as he has some other tyrannising to do in the meantime. Cue concerned discussions amongst the Akira, and the decision to send bold young fellow Shad (Richard Thomas) off in their one and only spaceship to recruit some mercenaries to help defend the village – sorry, I mean planet...
Is this sounding a bit familiar, plot-wise? Well, it should, because... hmmm. Firstly, we should take a moment to pay tribute to the wisdom of producer Roger Corman and screenwriter John Sayles. Corman is a legendary figure in the low-budget exploitation movie business, but justly admired for his willingness to leave his writers and directors alone as long as their films hit the requisite quotas of whatever exploitation ingredients he was after. Hence, they are quite often much more interesting movies than you might expect, and some very distinguished people started their careers working on Corman movies (as we shall see). It was this policy that allowed Sayles to write a script which is much more inventive and knowing than could easily have been the case.
You couldn't turn round in a cinema in the late 70s without falling over a homage/rip-off clearly inspired by a George Lucas stellar conflict project (how far we have come since then), and the question was obviously one of how to make Battle Beyond The Stars distinctive and less obviously a rip-off. Sayles hit upon the solution of diverting everyone's attention by making it an equally blatant rip-off of another, equally famous film, The Magnificent Seven. It would be lazy critical shorthand to describe Battle Beyond The Stars as The Magnificent Seven in Space. But it would also be perfectly true.
The real cleverness of this ploy, if you ask me, is that this means the movie is essentially remaking Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai again, and quite apart from the fact that this is almost never a bad idea, it puts this film on a much more level pegging with that other stellar conflict movie which we're being quite careful not to name, for that itself was famously inspired by another Kurosawa film, Hidden Fortress. Sayles clearly knows exactly what he's doing – as well as various tips of the hat to The Magnificent Seven, the script references elements of Seven Samurai which didn't make it into the 1960 remake (plus, of course, the villagers in peril are called Akira).
Chief amongst the loving little references is, of course, the presence of Robert Vaughn as Gelt, the most lethal and experienced of the mercenaries gathered to defend the Akira. It's not exactly a reprise of his role as Lee from The Magnificent Seven, but it's close enough, and if Vaughn found appearing in a low-budget SF B-movie in any way beneath him, you can't tell that from his performance, which is immaculate. Elsewhere the film looks a little further afield, and isn't afraid to go properly SF on the audience: apart from Shad and his techie love interest (Darlanne Fluegel), the team includes Gelt, a wise-cracking trucker called Space Cowboy, a cloned telepathic hive-mind entity, Cayman the space-whaling slaver lizard, two dwarves who communicate through manipulating the local temperature, and a warrior woman called Saint-Exmin. It's a toss up whether the characters are any more of a mixed bag than the cast assembled to play them, which includes one of The Waltons, two bona fide movie stars in Vaughn and George Peppard, Morgan Woodward (probably best known for playing a nutty Federation captain in an episode of Star Trek only I seem to like), a handful of anonymous character actors, and Sybil Danning, an actress who started her career appearing in, erm, specialist films for German gentlemen. (When this movie got a UK release I distinctly recall Danning doing the publicity circuit to promote it, which must have been the only time anyone from The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried turned up on Saturday morning kids' TV.)
Battle Beyond The Stars arguably surpasses many of its late 70s brethren in its imagination and its capacity to build some of its SF ideas into the plot, rather than just treating them as set dressing: the various alien powers of the hive-mind and the thermal dwarves do end up influencing the action, one way or another. Being only 100 minutes or so long means that the film never has time to get stale or particularly repetitive; it may not all quite be killer, but there's certainly no filler – there is a consistently high level of inventiveness and wit that makes it easy to overlook the obviously very low budget. The ebullient score is another major plus – one of the very first works of James Horner, later to go on to score two of the better Star Trek movies and Krull (also, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar).
In fact, the only thing that keeps this film from being a real gem is the slightly ropey nature of the special effects, primarily the space battles. Now, some of the ship designs are interesting and most of the models are okay, but the special effects people responsible just don't have the technical capacity to put more than one spaceship in any given shot, which is a bit of a problem in any film with as many space dogfights as this one: it's the equivalent of trying to film a drama with the camera locked in a static medium shot. The rest of the film is good enough for this not to completely torpedo it, and given that the special effects guy involved was James Cameron, later to direct The Terminator and Aliens (also, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar), we must assume he was doing the best he could.
A lot of homaging and ripping-off has gone on over the past nearly-forty years since George Lucas had his bright idea; it continues to this day and shows no signs of stopping. The quality of the results has frankly been rather variable, with actual possession of the rights apparently no guarantee of a good movie being the end result. Battle Beyond The Stars gets much closer than many better-resourced movies to capturing the same imagination and free-wheeling sense of fun that Lucas did in his original films: this is the movie that deserved the big budget, all-star remake, not The Magnificent Seven (which they got right the first time round anyway). One would have thought James Cameron would have felt some obligation... but no, apparently not. Oh well: nothing can change the fact that this is a great little movie, and a fine showcase for everyone involved. Except James Cameron, obviously.