Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
After the success of Star Wars in 1977, there were many knock-offs across all media that just wanted to capitalize on the success of the original film. One of those films tried to combine planet-spanning space opera with the rough plot of The Magnificent Seven (1960). While a remake itself, based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai (If you haven’t seen these you’re doing yourself a disservice), the American version was so popular it spawned three sequels. Roger Corman decided to set his version in space and spare no expense (well, some expense was spared). The result was 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars.
Following the outline of a village forced to give their resources to an evil bandit and his men, the village seeks out heroes who will fight for them. In the original Seven Samurai, it’s ronin samurai, then Wild West gunslingers in The Magnificent Seven. In Battle Beyond the Stars, it’s the denizens of a peaceful planet, Akir (Get it? It’s short for Akira), that need to look to space for help against the threat of the evil Sador (sadist?). One amusing note from history, Marvel had secured the rights to publish the comics adaptation of Star Wars, and once they were done with the original story, they were able to continue the series with “all-new” adventures. Their first attempt at a story was a tweaked adaptation of The Magnificent Seven with Han Solo leading the charge. This happened in 1977 with issue number eight of the original comic. (Yes, this is where the giant green bunny Jaxxon shows up). Who knows for sure, but maybe Corman got the idea to meld The Magnificent Seven and Star Wars together from a comic book (this is unsubstantiated but an interesting idea).
It’s a fast-paced film that follows Shad (Richard Thomas) as he collects adventurers from around the galaxy. Even Robert Vaughn appears as one of the spaceslingers, in a role very reminiscent of his character from The Magnificent Seven. For some reason, though, the creators decide to tie the film a little closer to Earth and have a space cowboy from our little blue planet join the fight (whose name happens to actually be Space Cowboy). Space Cowboy is played with full “gleam-in-his-eye” charisma by George Peppard. He just looks like he’s trying to have a good time on set. Mad props if all the actual alcohol he drinks in the film is real.
Where the numbers get a little murky from the original “seven” idea is that one of the aliens Shad meets is actually a group of five alien clones who happen to share one consciousness. Also during his quest, Shad meets his requisite love interest Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), who ends up getting kidnapped by a slaver named Cayman, who wants Sador dead for his own reasons. So slavery is relegated to a quick plot device and Cayman and his crew join the fight. All told, it’s more like the magnificent 16. Seven would do fine, but if you more than double it, you will more than double the entertainment value.
In an early role, Julia Duffy plays Shad’s sister, Mol, who also ends up getting kidnapped (seriously, a lot of female kidnapping in this movie now that I think about it) and killed rather quickly by Sador’s henchmen. The sad part is, after this happens, Shad is never told about it and never gets the chance to mourn her or cry for revenge. It’s a wasted character in a plot overrunning with characters. At least Julia Duffy went on to a notable career on TV shows such as Newhart and Designing Women. Now would also be a good time to mention that Sador is played by a scenery-chewing John Saxon. You might recognize him from Enter the Dragon, or even better, A Nightmare on Elm Street. A great character actor who typically plays supporting anti-heroes to the main hero, this time he goes full-on bad guy who takes body parts from other creatures to sustain his own life.
While not a classic film in the traditional sense, Battle Beyond the Stars does have a lot going for it. Independent film director John Sayles (check out Lone Star from 1996) wrote the screenplay, Oscar-winner James Horner (who has done so many things) wrote the score, and James Cameron (Terminator, Aliens) created the special effects. The lack of budget is apparent, but at the same time you feel that these folks are getting their shots to create film and they’re taking the ball and running with it. It’s slightly awkward and endearing at the same time. I recommend it if you’re in the mood for a little cheese but still want to delve into lesser-known space operas.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.