(aka, Ori okeanis saidumloeba, The Secret of Two Oceans)
Sometimes it is impossible to understand what is happening in the world of film without a solid look at the culture around a particular movie.
Now for those interested in Soviet Science Fiction, there is a strange and rather awkward gap between the early science fiction films produced in the Soviet Union, and the sudden explosion of Science Fiction films in the late Fifties and early Sixties. One notes the strange avant garde space fantasy, Aelita Queen of Mars in 1924, the American adventure serial inspired Luch Smerti in 1925, Gibel Sensatii and its army of worker robots in 1935, and the stunning silent space adventure, Cosmic Journey in 1936.
Not, that is, until a half-hour short animated film called Polyot na Lunu came out in 1953.
And a pair of undersea adventures which are at least marginally Science Fiction followed in 1956 and ’57.
But, if you look beyond Science Fiction cinema, one notes how the extravagantly colorful avant garde poster art so typical of the USSR in the Twenties vanished completely during the Thirties and were replaced by a sort of idealized Socialist fantasy realism.
In the cinema, the avant garde weirdness of the twenties, the wild experiments in filmmaking and editing, and even the gloriously overblown Expressionism of Eisenstein’s historical epics, disappeared, in favor of movies about collective farms and tractors.
It is called “socialist realism” and, like so much of Soviet life in Stalin’s time, was imposed on artists by the state. Far from being a simple set of rules, it put every single detail in a work of art up for debate about how well it fit in with the official state ideology. It is fascinating, in a train wreck sort of way, to read through the internal turmoil created by what to Western eyes might seem like an openly propagandistic film, Dovzhenko’s Earth, and see how it set off countless debates about how well it reflected Soviet policy in the wake of Stalin’s murderous campaign against the Kulaks.
As socialist realism demanded a focus on the down to Earth realities of life in the Soviet Union, one of the first casualties was something that looked not toward the present, but the future: science fiction.
But, obviously, the attitudes had softened a bit by the mid-Fifties.
Part of the reason was Pavel Klushantsev and his series of science documentaries starting with Meteorites in 1947, which featured dazzling predictions of spaceflight and atomic power, culminating in the 1957 release of his masterpiece, Road to the Stars.
Part of it was Sputnik’s launch in 1957.
Part of it was the fact that Polyot na Lunu was a children’s film and more or less a remake of Cosmic Race.
But perhaps the most important fact may have been something simpler: a realization of the need for films which merely (or at least mostly) entertained.
While the road to the revival of the space film is relatively clear, it is a touch harder to see why they made two super submarine films back to back before the launch of Sputnik. Of course, Disney’s adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea came out in 1954, although I’m not sure whether it was shown in the Soviet Union. They had allowed the importation of some ideologically safe adventure, detective and Western movies for a while, although they ultimately replaced these with the so-called Red Pinkerton films, which were generally simple escapist fare, light on political messaging and aimed at children. But many of the more important Soviet filmmakers went to international film festivals and saw films that weren’t shown in the USSR. Even if they never saw it, they would at least have been aware that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a big hit.
Of the two, the first, The Mystery of the Eternal Night (1955), is one of those films where the adventure story exists so they can present a lot of documentary footage, in this case about undersea life. Descriptions of the world beneath the sea take up a large part of Verne’s novel, too, so it may have been an influence.
Although the Disney version does work in a bit of travelog style footage, as well.
However, The Mystery of Two Oceans, while it does occasionally stop to give us some glimpses of the sea life, is primarily a children’s adventure story. The incredible super sub, Pioneer, is sent out to investigate two mysterious shipwrecks, which took place at the same exact time. Only one was a French ship in the Atlantic, and the other a Russian ship in the Pacific.
Meanwhile, a vast and powerful secret spy organization is out to stop the crew of the Pioneer by any means.
Like a lot of Soviet Science Fiction, The Mystery of Two Oceans was based on a novel. However, Grigori Adamov’s book had been published only two years earlier.
In many respects, the film is a lot like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, although a better comparison might be to Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Certainly, the Pioneer is a lot like the Seaview as it is far better equipped as an exploration vessel than a warship, with deep sea diving suits, an onboard science lab, a “Bathysphere” which is actually more of a minisub, and even a resident scientific genius.
Although the Pioneer still has torpedo tubes.
Just like the Seaview.
You have to wonder whether Irwin Allen might actually have seen The Mystery of Two Oceans.
As in Cosmic Race, the story finds a way to put a little child on board the Pioneer, who is our eyes and ears for the wonders of the ship, as the crew thoughtfully shows him around and explains things.
However, one major subplot that wasn’t in the book has been added, following a group of detectives back on land trying to track down the spy ring. Mind you, this probably reflects the influence of the Red Pinkerton films.
The Mystery of Two Oceans has the great sense of design found in so many Russian films from the era: the Pioneer itself is a sleek and modern looking design and the deep sea hard suits are imposing and just a touch creepy. The effects have a lot of the toy-like quality of Derek Medding’s work on Gerry Anderson’s TV shows and are generally pretty good.
It’s hard to miss the influence of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: there’s even a battle between the ship’s Bathysphere and a giant squid. We also get a few high tech James Bond gimmicks and a great car chase.
The film’s finest point comes when [Spoiler] we finally reach the gang’s mysterious, fully automated island base, which features secret mechanical cave doors, lots of high tech machinery and for some reason I can’t fathom, lots and lots of stone heads.
Not that we’re ever given any explanation of how this secret base got there or what their plan for it was.
The film’s biggest problem is that the film is too long. For some reason, even though it is only two hours and twenty minutes long, it was divided into two parts, and is rather slow on the whole. I suspect that the big musical number may have been in there because of Kirk Douglas’ performance in the Disney film.
Although, curiously enough, there are quite a few moments where the film cuts from one series of events to another without a clear connection.
I suspect that this is one of those films which modern American audiences won’t appreciate. After all, it is long, slow and subtitled. It may look great (even if the interior of the sub is a bit bland except for a few areas, like the diver’s airlock) and have interesting effects, but that won’t be enough to hold most people for more than two hours.
I’ll admit I found in modestly enjoyable, but then I knew more or less what to expect when I watched this one.
Perhaps the best we can say about it is that it is an intriguing curio, a film which is notable more than anything else for being one of the first Soviet films to return to Science Fiction after a long absence.
But we all know that the important firsts of the film world are often interesting only because they were a first.
And that is certainly true of this one…
(My thanks once again to the incomparable Janne Waas of Scifist for reminding me about this film and sending me off in search of it. And no, I’m not blaming you this time, I’d have gotten to it on my own. Sooner or later…)
3 thoughts on “Tayna dvukh okeanov [The Mystery of Two Oceans] (1957)”
Hey, what a superb write-up, Mark! Great background on Soviet Realism and the re-emergence of Soviet SF!
Sorry to have been on the lazy side lately, but I’m working on a German curio from the thirties, which I suspect you will appreciate!
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Thank you for the kind words! I am definitely looking forward to whatever exotic curio you find next!
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