“People living in a seaside town are frightened by reports about an unknown creature in the ocean. Nobody knows what it is, but it’s really the son of Doctor Salvator. The doctor performed surgery on his son and now young Ichthyander can live underwater. This gives him certain advantages, but creates a lot of problems.” (courtesy IMDB)
Directed by Luc Besson, The Big Blue (1988) became the most financially successful French film of the decade, screening in cinemas for over a year and selling more than nine million tickets in France alone. Starring Jean-Marc Barr and Jean Reno, it depicts a fictionalised rivalry between two famous deep-sea divers, and was considered an instant cult-classic. When I asked Luc what his inspiration was for creating one of the greatest films in French cinema history, he cited a Soviet production from a quarter-century before: The Amphibian Man (1962). Virtually unheard of by American moviegoers, The Amphibian Man (also known as Человек-амфибия = Chelovek-amfibiya) combines seafaring adventure, monstrous fantasy, water choreography, romance and tragedy into a strange beguiling dream of a motion picture. It’s no wonder that Besson was influenced by it while making The Big Blue, with which it shares a similar story arc and many visual similarities.
Directed by Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennadi Kazansky, The Amphibian Man is an excellent place to start for newcomers to Russian genre cinema. Based on the popular 1928 novel of the same name by Alexander Beliaev, the film starts with sailors and fishermen of a remote Spanish town who are set into a panic when divers spot a glittering man, a sea-devil, lurking beneath the depths. However, the creature’s nature is more benevolent than expected when he comes to the rescue of young Gutiere Baltazar (Anastasiya Vertinskaya) who has recently become betrothed to a unscrupulously rich sea captain named Don Pedro (Mikhail Kozakov) but, when she is attacked by a shark in the sea, the creature rescues Gutiere and falls in love with her.
She mistakenly thinks it was Pedro who saved her, and so the creature must come onto land in search of his new love. This amphibious denizen of the deep reveals himself by emerging into the town, where he turns out to be Ichthyander (Vladimir Korenev), the handsome blonde son of a local professor named Salvator (Nikolai Simonov) who saved his ailing son’s life by transplanting shark gills to his lungs. Ichthyander’s love for Gutiere eventually forces him to confront the less-than-receptive villagers, who make life difficult for the aquatic outcast. Indeed, the loathsome Pedro is always on hand to derail their attempts at romance, with Gutiere trapped in the betrothal arranged by her father (Anatoliy Smiranin), who would rather see her marry into money than for true love.
On its release in the USSR, 65 million ticket sales were churned out, making it something of a Soviet box-office hit. With attractive actors, stunning special effects, beautiful photography and memorable music, Russians flocked to the screenings (despite not having a Hollywood-style happy ending). However, until its recent DVD release, The Amphibian Man was rarely seen in anything resembling its intended form, thanks to poorly dubbed muddy bootlegs and television recordings, so the movie was largely been ignored by American viewers, while its reputation flourished in Europe. There are similarities to many other protagonists in films and literature past and future, not least The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Tarzan The Ape Man (1932). In fact the original novel by Alexander Beliaev was given the working title of Tarzan Des Mers, until the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs was informed and took exception.
Unlike traditional science fiction movies of the time, The Amphibian Man focuses much more on the concept of love won and lost. Ostensibly a lost-love-tragedy like William Shakespeare‘s Romeo And Juliet or Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Little Mermaid, the film also has a significant focus on greed and commercial exploitation, possibly under the influence of Socialist Realism. Themes of greed are ever-present throughout the film, reflecting the socialist realist attitudes of the time, a social commentary (a Soviet specialty) that adds gravitas to what might have been a straightforward B-movie. While many of other sixties science fiction films concentrated on the fear of new technologies and ‘The Bomb’, The Amphibian Man is instead concerned with the world that is created by simple human greed and cruelty. There’s no big threat here, only trying to exist in a world that is made by men who are greedy and selfish. It’s interesting to see that while American cinema was hysterical about threat of Communist Russia, this Russian film was more concerned with working within the world as it stood and looking at the problems that actually exist, rather than scaring people with over-the-top atomic threats.
In order to resemble the scenery of a beautiful Latin country, the movie was shot in sunny Baku, Azerbajan on the Crimean coast. If some parts of the film seem poor compared to today’s film-making standards, they are easily forgiven due to the beauty of the scenery, interesting plot, striking-looking actors and their sincere approach to the characters. If you appreciate good international cinema and want to familiarise yourself with Soviet pop culture and the work of one of the world’s best science fiction authors, I highly recommend this film – it’s full of mythical mood, a great scientific fantasy mixed with true portrayal of human emotions. The fantastic elements of the story are well-integrated into the period setting, coupled with exquisite colour and a haunting music score by Andrei Petrov.
This would have been an ideal project to be remade by MGM studios but, of course, an American studio would have reversed the unexpected ending, so it’s probably for the best that this Soviet gem remains a quiet little treasure to be discovered by adventurous viewers. The moral of the story – concerning the miseries of people trying to make money, no matter the life of a human being – has a lovely heart to it and, although certainly naive and simple by today’s standards, it possesses a warmth that is so often missing from most American films of its genre and era. Keep that melancholy thought in mind until next week, when I’ll have another opportunity to inflict upon you the tortures of the damned from that dark, bottomless pit known as Hollywood for…Horror News! Toodles!