(0/10) Flying Saucers over Istanbul is Turkey’s ”first” science fiction film, and quite possibly the worst as well. An unfunny comedy about belly dancing alien women who land their UFO in Istanbul to bring Earth men to their planet. Noted for featuring Turkey’s ”queen of disgrace and scandal”, belly dancing vamp and nude model Özcan Tekgül. And Marilyn Monroe. Sort of.
Ucan daireler Istanbul’da (1955, Turkey). Written & directed by Orhan Ercin. Starring: Orhan Ercin, Zafer Önen, Türkan Samil, Özcan Tekgül, Halide Piskin, Mirella Monro, Özdemir Asaf. Produced by Özdemir Birsel for Birsel Film.
IMDB Rating: 5.9/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
If you want to say something good about this film, translated as Flying Saucers over Istanbul, then it is that it has some historical value as the first Turkish film to deal with space flight, UFOs or aliens. In addition it is – maybe – Turkey’s first science fiction film ever. It is a toss-up between this film and Görünmeyen adam Istanbul’da (1955) or The Invisible Man in Istanbul, which I, unfortunately, haven’t been able to find online nor on DVD. I can’t find any release dates for either of the movies, but write-ups on the web seem to at least indicate that the invisible man film was released prior to the UFO film. I don’t think that Görünmeyen adam Istanbul’da has ever been released on DVD, whereas Ucan daireler Istanbul’da is available online with English subs, as it has fallen into public domain.
Ucan daireler Istanbul’da/Flying Saucers over Istanbul starts with a long opening title sequence consisting of a scantily clad young belly dancer doing her routine on a small stage in front of a white statue of a naked man. When she is done, she is photographed by an enthralled audience, which consists of a group of middle-aged or old women, as well as two men: a journalist called Sapsal (pronounded Shapshal) and a photographer called Kasar (pronoounced Kashar), played by Zafer Önen and Orhan Ercin, respectively. Three older women take the stage, and thank the two reporters for coming, explaining that the belly dancer was a ruse to lure men to the club, as it is a club run by older, unmarried and rich women, who seek husbands. The journalists explain that they don’t intend to wed anyone, but will write an article giving the club visibility.
The reporter, Sapsal, is a functioning moron, whereas the the photographer Kasar is an absolute dimwit, which is accentuated by his stammering. The duo play out like a sort of Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis combo, but their humour is more tilted toward The Three Stooges or Abbott & Costello. Only several classes worse.
Upon returning to their newspaper office, the two get a scalding by their editor (Özdemir Azaf) because they have been hanging out in nightclubs, watching belly dancers, instead of writing about the flying saucers that are the talk of the town. He sends them out again, and tell them to have a flying saucer story before the end of the day, or there will be hell to pay. So, the two break into an observatory, where old scientists debate flying saucers. After the scientists have gone, the bumbling journalists hit the wrong buttons on the telescope, and accidentally call a UFO into landing. Outside the window they see a flying saucer descend from the heavens, and go out to take pictures.
The silvery UFO opens, and out steps a boxy robot, followed by a group of women clad in leotards, mantles, broad, shiny collars and glittery head-pieces. And holding ray guns, naturally. The two men are captured, and the alien queen (Türkan Samil) explains that the men of their home planet have become extinct and they are now out looking for new men to marry. Turns out the women are all over 400 years old, thanks to a youth elixir. With money signs flashing before their eyes, the two journalists devise a plan to seemingly help the aliens to find new men, if they get one bottle of the elixir as payment, but in fact plan on selling it to the old, rich women at the club. The alien women agree to them going out to look for more men on their own, but in fact they only return to the club, to another bout of belly dancing.
Even with subtitles, the plot now gets rather confused, but the gist of it is that everyone soon begins fighting over the youth elixir, the men are kidnapped once more and threatened with death by an alien queen doing an interpretive dance, but are helped by another alien woman (Özcan Tekgül), who puts the other women to sleep with her ray gun, and agrees to let the men carry out their original task of finding more men. Meanwhile “Marilyn Monroe” (Mirella Monro) arrives at the club, where she – unsurprisingly – starts belly dancing. More complications ensue as business men try to steal the elixir for their own, and the two journalists try to escape. The aliens soon wake up and realise what is happening, so one of them shape-shifts and takes on the form of Marilyn Monroe, and soon we have two Monroes on stage, in one of the worst split-screen effects ever seen in a film. Finally chaos breaks out, and the two journalists happily join the aliens as they take off home again in their UFO.
To put this film into context, let’s talk briefly about the movie history of Turkey. Film arrived in Turkey quite early – the first movie showing of one of the Lumiere brothers’ films took place in 1896. However, for the better part of the first half of the 20th century, the Turkish film industry mainly focused on dubbing foreign films. Turkish movies were made, but between 1896 and 1945, the combined Turkish movies counted less than 50. However, the Turkish film industry experienced an explosive growth after WWII, and by 1960 it had become one of the largest movie industries in the world, competing with Egypt over the audiences in the region.
However, science fiction or genre cinema in general had no precedent in Turkish cinema prior to 1955. While sci-fi had a strong history in Europe, with Denmark, Germany, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union leading the charge, and the US mostly trailing up until the thirties, post-war cinema in Europe had a very realist slant. Between 1950 and 1958, I’d say that around 95 percent of all sci-fi movies were produced in three countries: USA, UK and Japan. And outside Japan, Europe and North America, there really was no tradition with science fiction movies. Even most European countries were still to produce their first sci-fi films. Of the Nordic countries, for example, only Denmark had made full-length science fiction films before 1954. Countries like Spain, Greece, Portugal and Holland were not yet up to sci-fi speed. Egypt had made a full-length sci-fi movie, and so had Mexico, but that was pretty much it.
By the fifties, however, science fiction was becoming a phenomenon, and young boys and (and girls, to a lesser extent) were reading comic books and science fiction stories – and watching American science fiction movies. Newspapers and magazines were filling up with stories about UFOs and abominable snowmen. Science fiction now provided trappings for popular culture and coffee table discussions. And like all trends, it soon started finding its way into film. But since sci-fi was not a topic that ”could be taken seriously”, much of the output in countries without a history of the genre leaned on comedy. This could be seen in films like the Hungarian Sziriusz (1942, review), Mexico’s Boom in the Moon (1946, review), Egypt’s Min aina laka haza? (1952, review), Austria’s 1. April, 2000 (1952, review) and Finland’s Pekka ja Pätkä lumimiehen jäljillä (1954, review). And now also in Turkey’s Ucan daireler Istanbul’da. And the trend would continue throughout the fifties.
Analysing the plot of Flying Saucers over Istanbul at any length is a futile operation, since the film is gag- rather than plot-driven. This in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing – many fine comedies are gag-driven. But in forsaking plot for gag one should make sure that the gags are funny. There is of course the possibility that something is lost in translation over geography and time, but I think it unlikely. The jokes here are of the practical rather than linguistic sort. Neither of the main actors have any talent for physical comedy, although they do try falling over and stumbling. Orhan Ercin is trying to do a Jerry Lewis schtick, but hasn’t the timing, the wit, nor the facial motor skills for it. There’s one scene where he’s character gets drunk, seemingly for no other reason than for Ercin to get a chance to do a drunken skit, and he doesn’t even do it particularly well. The scene with the vulgar Marilyn Monroe impersonator doesn’t really have any bearing on the plot either, nor does it become funnier by having two “Marilyn Monroes” on screen at the same time. And I’m pretty sure the real Monroe wouldn’t have performed with a giant band-aid on her elbow as Mirella Monro does.
The film was written and directed by Ercin himself, who, as most Turkish actors at the time, got started on stage. He directed nine films, and acted in most of them himself. He was best known for his comedies, although he also acted in a number of straight roles. When not acting in his own movies, he was mostly doing supporting parts. He was also known for dubbing most of Spanish-French movie star Louis de Funès’ roles.
The direction is pedestrian at best, amateurish at worst. Most effort seems to have gone into directing the belly dancers, and one of the girls is shot from a number of different angles, some of them downright avantgarde. The special effects, sets and props are all Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) standard. In an interview for Geci Yarisi Sinemasi, retold by Sinematik Yesilcam actress Özcan Tekgül explains that the night sky against which the flying saucer was filmed landing was simply three black walls with reflective cut-out stars glued on. The landing saucer was made from two modified pot lids with firecrackers stuck on.
Tekgül calls set decorator Sohban Kologlu an ”intelligent and practical man”, and indeed practical he would have had to be, dealing with the budget that this films seems to have had. The full-size UFO is probably meant to conjure up images from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 review), particularly the scene where the hatch opens and Gort appears. However, this UFO looks more like a cake mould made out of all the tin foil in Istanbul, and the robot looks like something a seven-year-old would have cobbled together from cereal boxes and a couple of light bulbs, and that’s probably what it’s made out of, too. The spaceship interior is clearly plywood, and the torture chamber the two journalists are put in look like ordinary shower drapes. Plywood seems to be the material of choice for the observatory as well, and I’ll be darned if the telescope isn’t made out of papier mache. The ray guns look way too sophisticated for this production and thus can’t really be anything else than over-the-counter children’s toys. But it is Kasar’s camera that takes the cake. The huge, bulky thing is clearly made out of plywood, a sawn-off broomstick and a small metal bowl for a flash, and isn’t even meant to look real. This is a hint that none of the props and decor were even meant to look convincing, and that the camp is all intentional. But that doesn’t make it any less shoddy.
None of the actors are particularly good, but then again, I don’t know what it would take to make anyone look good with this script. Respected character actor Zafer Önen, playing the Dean Martin role, does come off this film without any permanent damage to his career, though. The incredibly prolific Önen has acted in close to 100 Turkish films, on stage as a theatre actor, singer and pianist, and is a legend of Turkish dubbing and voice-over, having given his voice to close to 1 000 films and TV series, both foreign and Turkish – in the past, Turkish films often tended to use different actors to dub films than the ones seen on screen. He was especially renowned for dubbing cartoons, but would also have been heard in recent years as the Turkish dub of the Harry Potter movies. A debate about how the Turkish state treated its retired artists broke out in the 2000s, when press reported that the beloved actor lived in poverty on a meagre state pension of 500 lira, or 136 dollars, a month. Önen passed away in 2013, 92 years old.
One can perhaps not expect too much from the alien women, as none of them seem to have been primarily actors, but dancers. At the time, belly dancing was frowned upon by the cultural elite, much in the same way as, for example, pole dancing is sexually stigmatised today. Nevertheless, a number of oriental dancers became stars of the movie screen, including Türkan Samil, who plays the alien queen, and does so with some competence, even though she was probably hired more for her dancing chops than her acting.
The real star name of the movie, however, is Özcan Tekgül, playing the rebellious alien who helps the two journalists when they’re re-taken by the aliens after having tried to sell the youth elixir for the first time. Tekgül was noticed as a dancer at a young age in 1954 – how young is a matter of debate. Most biographies states her birth date as 1941, which would have made her only 14 when she made her movie debut in 1955, but looking at Ucan daireler Istanbul’da, I find that pretty hard to believe. Other sources state that she was born in 1939, which more credible, but since official birth certificates weren’t mandatory in Turkey at the time, nobody seems to know for sure. When she died in 2011, the coroner simply estimated her age as between 66 and 73.
Tekgül made her film debut just prior to Flying Saucers over Istanbul, and hadn’t yet become the ”Queen of disgrace and scandal” she is remembered as today. Over the course of her career Tekgül according to her own words appeared in close to 150 films, other sources, like the Turkish Encyclopedia of Cinema, claim it was closer to 30. Although admittedly a name that would draw a male audience to cinemas, she wasn’t primarily a film star, but a dancer. Reportedly one of the most talented, innovative and daring belly dancers of the fifties and sixties, Tekgül toured internationally with her famous ”Fire Dance”, reportedly performing for sultans, kings, presidents and millionaires. However, in her home country respectable venues would seldom tolerate her shows, and she made her name in nightclubs, private parties, daring art exhibitions and on film.
If her dancing was concidered lewd, Tekgül didn’t do much to change the public’s image of her. She was probably Turkey’s most notorious vamp in the late fifties and sixties, to the point that her name even entered the political vocabulary; politicians who refused to give straight answers were accused of ”squirming like Tekgül”. Tekgül often appeared nude in men’s magazines and posed for artists’ photograph in body paint. In 1956 she was sentenced to prison for appearing in nude photographs, but appealed the judgement, which was finally settled in 1960. She would sometimes dance with nothing on except a tiny G-string, and stories of her wild lifestyle was gossiped about in the press. The tabloids reported about car accidents, near-drowning and poisoning. However, while some of it was probably true, Tekgül herself also loved to play up the hype around her, and some commentators write that many of these stories should be taken with a grain of salt.
Even after her heyday was over, she continued to create scandals. In 1980 the National Turkish Cinema Council awarded 66 artists who had contributed to Turkish cinema for 25 years or more. The news caused an uproar among conservative commentators, and especially fundamentalist islamist politicians frothed at the mouth over the fact that a belly dancer would be given a medal of honour by the government. The website Occidental Dancer has dug up an article by the New York Times from 1980, where it is reported that the parliamentary spokesman for the islamist National Salvation Party, Sener Battal, challenged the prime minister with these words: ”Should this queen of disgrace and scandal put the medal given to her by your government onto her belly or do you have any idea as to what proper place she should wear it? Do you plan to put this medal onto the said person yourself?” The minister of culture then denied that any such medal would be given to Tekgül, and called reports about it ”trivial”. However, Tekgül herself was adamant that she had been given notice of the award, and industry magazines who had seen the list of honourees backed up her story. Turkish newspapers published front-page photos of the scantily clad dancer, with the caption: ”Where should the medal be put?” It’s unclear whether she actually received her medal or not.
But even after all the hoolabaloo, she died almost forgotten in 2011. After being killed in a car crash on June 3rd, 2011, news agencies made brief reports about the fatal crash in Antalaya, and even named the victims, but neither the police, the morgue staff, the agencies or the journalists printing the agencies’ telegram took notice of who it was that had died. The body lay unclaimed in the morgue for three days before it was buried without the attendance of any relatives. It wasn’t until half a week later that the media, like the tabloid Milliyet, got wind from observant readers that it was, in fact, one of Turkey’s biggest movie stars of the golden age of Turkish cinema that had passed away.
Flying Saucers over Istanbul was produced by Özdemir Birsel, a B movie producer with a long and prolific career, who is perhaps best known for his 1975 film Atini seven kovboy. It is a live-action film featuring the Belgian comic book gunslinger Lucky Luke, or as he was known in Turkey, Red Kit. It is probably the first live-action movie about the comic book character, created by Morris & Goscinny.
Comic book heroes were popular objects for adaptation into movies in Turkey, beginning from the sixties, probably catering much for the same audience as read the comics. But between 1955 and 1965 no more sci-fi films were made in the country. In 1964 there was released a children’s film called Aydedeye gidiyoruz (We are going to the moon), meant as an educational film about the possibility of space travel and the cosmos. But since it is framed as a dream, it is not technically sci-fi. After this, things started moving, though. After a few sci-fi tinged crime thrillers came the film Kilink Istanbul’da (1967), or Killing in Istanbul, the first of the famous Turkish comic book ripoff films. The titular character is the Italian comic book villain/anti-hero Killing, but the film also features a very unauthorised Superman. The movie became a blockbuster and warranted a number of sequels. Over the years, filmmakers became more and more blatant in their ripoffs of superheroes, and between 1967 and 1979 a number of unauthorised films were released in Turkey, featuring heroes like Superman (who teamed up with Mexican wrestler/superhero Santos), Batman, Batgirl, Captain America and Flash Gordon. These were all played as campy comedies aimed at juvenile audiences.
In 1973 Turkey released a movie called Turist Ömer Uzay Yolu’nda in which a hobo called Turist Ömer gets picked up by a rather famous space ship inhabited by a certain duo named ”Kaptan Kirk” and ”Mister Spak”. The most famous of all ripoffs, sometimes called ”the Citizen Kane of ripoffs”, is Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam (1982), which is sometimes called by its literal translation, The Man Who Saves the World, but more often it’s labelled ”Turkish Star Wars”, because it blatantly steals a whole number of special effects shots from Star Wars (1977), and builds its own comedy story around it. A later entry into Turk sci-fi is the hugely successful G.O.R.A. (2004), which has received international genre acclaim, and a sequel, A.R.O.G. (2008). These are also comedies, which really is the genre that has almost exclusively dominated Turkish science fiction. However, there may be a change around the corner, as Turkey has released a big number of serious and thoughtful short films in the genre in recent years. There has also been rather well-regarded TV series called Subat (2012) and a serious full-length movie, released on DVD in the States as Ivy (2015).
Flying Saucers over Istanbul was considered lost for many decades, and the movie rose to almost mythical heights within the Turkish science fiction community. Suddenly an almost pristine copy was unearthed in the early 2010s, and broadcast on TV, and later apparently released on DVD. It seems to have been a commercial dud at the time, and I am not surprised at that. Today the film holds an inexplicable 5.9/10 rating on IMDb, although with only 63 total votes (as of February 2017), this should be taken with a grain of salt. Turkish reviews I’ve read seem to be forgiving towards the film’s horrendously bad production values and overall quality due to its historic significance. Some even call it ”fun”, and I guess one can view it as a so-bad-it’s-good romp. But even as such it doesn’t hold up, in my opinion. Ed Wood’s films are so charming because they are very sincere and serious, and have lots of heart and passion. This film doesn’t. The filmmakers knew they were making a bad movie, but still intended it to be funny as a comedy. Which it isn’t. And making an unfunny comedy where nothing else works either is unforgivable.
As Utku Uluer at the afore mentioned Sinematik Yesilcam points out: ”This film is made for Turkish men”, and is intended to make fun of women’s liberation. This is a theme carried out in many sci-fi flicks of the fifties, when men all over the world felt their ”natural” position as head of the family threatened by feminism. Women were increasingly taking their places both in public and domestic life, and several films were made warning of the dangers of a world rules by ”feminazis”. Without the firm hand of an alpha male, women would enslave men and become cold and calculating, soon forgetting about love and emotion. Women wanting to live their lives and pursue careers would realise until too late that what they really want is marriage and kids, and a man telling them what to do. And just imagine how silly a world we would have it of was run by women!
The women do come out on top in the film, but it’s the scantily clad amazons that take the prize, while we are left laughing at the unmarried shrews at the nightclub. The long, pointless belly dance sequences are nothing but softporn for a juvenile audience of the fifties (not that this is in itself a bad thing, but there’s better porn on the web today). As such it has parallels with movies like Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review) and Devil Girl from Mars (1954, review). But even Cat-Women of the Moon, which I gave two stars, had better production values and story than this film, although the dancing is better in the Turkish movie. The vulgar Marilyn Monroe impersonator is almost unbearable to watch. I have no idea who the ”actress” dubbed Mirella Monro is, since all her mentions on the web point to her credit for this film.
Like Todd at Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! puts it: the film contains much of the same elements as other low-budget sci-fi comedies of the fifties and early sixties from around the world: ”comically bumbling Earthlings, lady aliens who look more like Rockettes than rocket jockeys, cardboard box robots, and a trifling narrative that takes stock situations from American science fiction films of the 50s and attempts, with varying degrees of success, to milk them for laughs.” This film may bring some joy to sci-fi completists, lovers of bad science fiction, belly dancing fanatics and people who like really, really dumb comedy.
Ucan Daireler Istanbul’da (1955, Turkey). Written & directed by Orhan Ercin. Starring: Orhan Ercin, Zafer Önen, Türkan Samil, Özcan Tekgül, Halide Piskin, Zeki Alpan, Semiramis Güze, Mirella Monro, Sadri Karan, Turgut Pasiner, Kadri Senkal, Rusen Hakki, Akif Maden, Özdemir Asaf, Maudelet Tibet, Salih Tozan, Asuman Cintay, Zühre Songun. Music: Metin Bükey. Cinematography: Lazar Yazicioglu. Editing: Zafer Davutoglu. Set decorator: Sohban Kologlu. Wardrobe: Mannik Manolyan. Produced by Özdemir Birsel for Birsel Film.