The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)‘I’ll build your temples on all the five continents and crown your images with grapes.’

The authorities investigate when a learned Professor disappears under mysterious circumstances. His plans for a heat ray have also vanished, taken by a brilliant engineer who plans to build the device and become master of the world…

Curious Soviet science-fiction piece that plays like an amalgamation of various ideas and influences, none of which resolve into a coherent end result. Based on a 1926 novel by Aleksey Tolstoy called ‘The Garin Death Ray’, this black and white picture has elements of an espionage drama, a Hollywood movie serial, a warning about the evils of capitalism and a rip-roaring juvenile adventure tale. All delivered in a style which echoes silent filmmaking and the German expressionist cinema on the 1920s. It’s a mixture with amazing possibilities, that’s for sure.

The film opens with the story already in motion. Engineer Garin (Evgeniy Evstigneev) has already got his hands on the designs of his colleague Professor Mantsev (Nikolai Bubnov) and has been working to fashion them into a usable prototype in a remote location. Already on his trail is government agent Shelga (Vsevolod Safonov) but, by the time he arrives, it’s too late. Garin and his invention are in the wind, on their way to Paris where he hooks up with millionaire Rolling (Mikhail Astangov) and his beautiful mistress Zoya (Natalya Klimova). Unfortunately, this is a weak opening. Despite the luminous photography by Aleksandr Rybin and excellent shot composition by director Aleksandr Gintsburg (an ex-cinematographer himself), the results are muddled and tedious. None of the characters are clearly established, and there is an over-abundance of anonymous figures with vague alliances and motivations that orbit the main cast to little purpose.

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)

‘Moving on…these are the slides of our trip to the Cotswolds…’

This confusion may have been down to the film’s slightly troubled production history. Tolstoy’s novel had gained great popularity amongst young teenage boys, and they were the film’s original target audience. However, authorities insisted on a more serious approach to the material after two Soviet scientists won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1964 for their pioneering work on lasers.

It’s unclear how much tampering may have been involved, but it’s undeniable that once Evstigneev holds the world to ransom with his deadly device that the film switches gears and morphs into a far different beast. From here on we’re given a faintly satiric, outlandish Bond science-fiction romp, albeit a little more thoughtful than most. Evstigneev’s motivations aren’t merely a lust for power or madness, but a conviction that the world will be better off under his leadership. His campaign begins when he fires the Hyperboloid from the ruins of a hillside tower and destroys the factories of one of Astangov’s rivals, although the money man is quickly reduced to a mere bystander in his plans. The film’s final third is set on a remote island where Evstigneev builds his lair; a massive installation where he mines for the Olivine Layer (a mixture of Mercury and Gold) which he plans to use to destabilise the world’s economy. All protected by the Hyperboloid in its own tower.

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)

‘You know…for kids!’

And it’s here where the technical aspects of the production score. The production design and use of real interiors are excellent, and the model work in the climactic scenes where the ray is used against a fleet of battleships is top-notch for its time. But the most impressive scene is when Evstigneev descends into the Earth in a cylindrical metal craft to complete a geological survey.

Setting the film back in the 1920s is another point in its favour as this allows Gintsburg to create some memorable visuals including a recreation of the Parisian cafe culture, a political rally (probably the film’s most satiric moment) and an escape by dirigible. The performances are also fine. Evstigneev, a respected stage actor, provides a charismatic lead and Kilmova is appropriately cool and detached as his femme fatale paramour. The heroes are a little bland, but they don’t have so much to get their teeth into.

Sadly, a lot of these good qualities are torpedoed by the uncertain tone and seemingly pointless digressions. There’s an entire subplot about Bubnov, whose gone into hiding in Siberia after designing the Hyperboloid. Evstigneev is desperate to track him down for some reason, but we never really find out why. There’s also the presence of young boy Ivan, who has a map of Bubnov’s location tattooed on his back just as inexplicably. Probably, his presence was more clearly explained in the film’s original conception. Indeed, the choppy nature of the final results does suggest reshoots and heavy editing may have been involved.

A project with some very enjoyable and accomplished aspects that would look wonderful compiled into a trailer, but falls well short as the finished article.

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (1953)

The_Magic_Voyage_of_Sinbad_(1953)‘So, the only way you know is treachery! So be it, Barbarians! The battle begins!’

Returning home, Sinbad the Dirty Pinko Commie finds his people living in poverty whilst the local merchants live in splendour (sounds familiar). He decides to empower the proletariat by finding the Bird of Happiness, but can’t afford to finance the trip as he’s given all his money away like a good little comrade.

This is actually nothing to do with Sinbad at all, being a Russian fairy-tale movie called ’Sadko’ bought by American-International Pictures and dubbed for the U.S. market. Obviously, Sinbad still had box office clout after the hit Douglas Fairbanks Jr vehicle ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ (1947) so it made sense to ignore that this is actually a re-telling of a Ukranian folk story and crowbar in a few references to some of the more famous exploits of the swashbuckling adventurer instead.

Judging the original film on its own merits is difficult with the fairly hideous dub track in place, but what we seem to have is a garish, slightly plodding fantasy with a political agenda. That agenda is a tad muddled in the U.S. version, but I guess that’s fairly inevitable. American-International weren’t really known for the intellectual content of their product.

Anyway, it seems that what we have is a noble merchant capitalist elite who feast and carouse whilst the ignorant, lazy consumers starve in the streets, presumably because they don’t know any better. Comrade Sinbad isn’t too chuffed with all this and makes a lot of speeches, whilst waving his arms around in a most impressive fashion. The merchants aren’t interested in funding his search for the Bird of Happiness as it’s not a sound investment with increased dividends for their shareholders but, luckily, a strange aquatic woman with leftie tendencies stumps up the necessary in the form of golden fishes (which can be exchanged for goods and services). After recruiting his crew on the basis of their ability to take a punch and neck a flagon of ale (rather than their skill with… say, sailing a ship for instance), we’re finally off to sea with just about half the movie already over.


“Surely you do not adhere to a feudal and patriarchal society which has already been destroyed? All your scalding tears for the misery of the proletariat are nothing if you make common cause with the bourgeoisie to establish the rule of aristocracy…”

The voyage itself is somewhat underwhelming and a skirmish with some rather wimpy Vikings is an early highlight. Later on, Sinbad meets a woman with the body of a bird, plays some chess with a horse and throws himself into the drink to save his ship during a storm (eh?) Then he spends some quality time with King Neptune’s royal family in their underwater kingdom. The old monarch wants him to marry one of his daughters (the strange aquatic woman of the leftist tendencies and the golden fishes that can be exchanged for goods and services) but Sinbad quits the scene because it’s a drag, splitting on a sea horse after turning everyone on to the sounds of his funky harp (yes, really!) This is all fitfully amusing (well, the octopus seems to enjoy it anyway) and acceptably realised considering the vintage of the film, although some of the undersea puppetry is pretty awful at times.

Obviously, it would be interesting to see the original film, rather than this ‘adaptation.’ Too much has been lost in translation in terms of the plot and character motivation and what remains is some halfway decent visuals that inevitably fit far better with a traditional fairy-tale than they do with a tale of Sinbad’s derring-do.

Oh, and where was the ‘Bird of Happiness’? You’ll never guess. l was shocked, l tells ye, truly shocked!