Flying Saucers Over Istanbul

Rating: 0.5 out of 10.

Attack of the belly dancers from outer space! Two dimwit journalists fall prey for the matriarchal aliens landing in Istanbul in Turkey’s earliest preserved SF movie from 1955. Unfortunately this Turksploitation milestone fails on every level. 0/10

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.
IMDB: 4.8/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N//A. Metacritic: N/A.

Ucan daireler Istanbul’da or Flying Saucers Over Istanbul 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, period. It is a toss-up between this film and Görünmeyen adam Istanbul’da (1955) or The Invisible Man in Istanbul, which, unfortunately, is listed as a “lost” film. 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.

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 (pronounced 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.

Orhan Ercin and Zafer Önen visiting the ladies’ club.

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.

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 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.

Robot & friend.

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.

“Mirella Monro” doing her thang.

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. 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. Science fiction or genre movies in general had no precedent in Turkish cinema prior to 1955. However, the genre itself became a worldwide youth phenomenon in the fifties, with pulp magazines and comic books offering up fantastical stories about UFO’s, radioactive monsters, time travel and mad science. 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.

The comedy in Flying Saucers Over Istanbul is of the practical rather than verbal sort. Unfortunately neither of the lead 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. 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.

Zafer Önen (left) as Sapsal), Türkan Samil (top middle) as the alien queen, Orhan Ercin (right) as Kasar and Özcan Tekgül (bottom middle).

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.

Zafer Önen and Orhan Ercin.

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. 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.

Belly dance!

The background of Flying Saucers Over Istanbul lies, like for so many other films, in the Universal horror movies. Just like Mexico and Argentina made their own versions of the Hollywood horror films, so did Turkey. 1952 saw the release of Dracula in Istanbul, a huge success, which gave rise to the peculiar Turkish brand of films that took Hollywood tropes and placed them “in Istanbul”. The brand stepped out of the horror genre in 1953 with Tarzan in Istanbul. According to the Daily Sabah, the first of these films with an SF slant was another Universal ripoff: the afore-mentioned The Invisible Man in Istanbul. Perhaps because of the low quality of Flying Saucers Over Istanbul, SF didn’t quite take on in Turkish cinemas before the late sixties, creating a cinematic comic book universe rivalled only by Marvel’s recent exploits — but completely unauthorised. More on this further down.

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. As of writing, the film holds a 4.8/10 rating on IMDb, based on a little more than 100 votes.

The alien ladies.

Utku Uluer at 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, fuelled by so-called “fifties values” that emphasised that a woman’s place was at home, taking care of a family, not as scientists, professionals or politicians. This was partly a backlash against the way in which women had taken the place in the workforce of the many men fighting in WWII, but also against a more general sexual, cultural and political emancipatory trend in the fifties. The women do come out on top in the film, but it’s the scantily clad, sexualised amazons that take the prize, while we are left laughing at the unmarried shrews at the nightclub. The long, pointless, but undoubtedly erotic belly dance sequences make it clear who the intended audience of this film was.

Utku Uluer at Sinematik Yesilcam writes: “Flying Saucers Over Istanbul is not a science fiction classic, but a movie that is historically interesting and a fun movie to watch. It has a little bit of everything in it, which is undoubtedly both the film’s strength and its weakness. […] The primitive space effects are funny and laughable today. [As it was made for men in the fifties] there are certainly aspects that are ethically problematic today. […] If you are a collector, it is a must have movie in your archive.” Other Turkish critics are also forgiving. “Full of absurd dialogue and scenes, Flying Saucers Over Istanbul must be seen as a shoddy but brave attempt at that time, and the flying saucers and robots make it an entertaining production for fans of the genre.”, writes Kadri Kerem Karanfil at the Turkish SF site Bilimkurgu.  

Stelekami emerging.

Non-Turkish critics are not as readily forgiving of the film’s shortcomings. Todd Stadtman at Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! writes that 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.” Swedish site Filmtipset gives Flying Saucers over Istanbul 1.2/5 stars. Mark David Welsh writes: “The lack of production value could be forgiven of course, if proceedings had an ounce of wit or sophistication, but sadly the screenplay makes Abbott and Costello look like Oscar Wilde.” And Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster is no more positive: “Unless you are a completist, film critic, Belly dancing fiend, or masochist, you probably will be just as happy avoiding this one.  It lacks that passion that transforms the terrible films of an Ed Wood into something transcendently bad.  Which means that it is just…bad. And about as unexciting as it gets. Unless you like belly dancing.”

Flying Saucers Over Istanbul can certainly be enjoyed as a so-bad-it’s-good movie. However, as an actual work of cinema, it has few, if any, redeeming qualities. The script doesn’t work as a straight-up comedy, since the attempts at comedy are feeble and derivative at best, and it is delivered by actors who aren’t able to compensate for the bad writing with physical comedy, invariably turning to forced mugging. Neither does the movie work as a spoof on Hollywood SF movies, since a requirement of a successful spoof is that it is able to place itself above the material it uses as a starting point at least in some aspect of the production, not below. The material may have been mildly entertaining as a 20- or 30-minute TV treatment, but adding what feels like another 30 minutes of belly dancing doesn’t do anything to make it less dull. This one is strictly for completists.

Orhan Ercin and Zafer Önen. And Stelekami.

Dracula in Istanbul and Tarzan in Istanbul marked the beginning of the so-called Turksploitation movies, which became a regular industry onto itself in the sixties and seventies. 1966 saw the coming of Altın Çocuk, the first in a series of three films based on the James Bond franchise. For SF fans, a film series of interest is the 1967-1968 franchise starting with Kilink Istanbul’da (“Killing in Istanbul”), based on the Italian comic book super-anti-hero Killing. During their five-movie span, the films pitted Kilink against such villains as Superman and Frankenstein. 1973 was a special year for Turksploitation SF. Writes Leyla Yvonne Ergil in Daily Sabah: “In 1973, the Turkish film industry literally came up with the concept of superhero teams by combining the powers of Captain America, Spider-Man and Mexican wrestler El Santo in 3 Dev Adam, in English ‘3 Giant Men.'” This was also the year of Yarasa Adam, or “Turkish Batman”, as well as the first ever motion picture based on the then recently cancelled Star Trek TV series, Turist Ömer Uzay Yolunda (“Ömer the Tourist in Star Trek”), which is popularly known outside of Turkey as “Turkish Star Trek“. This was the eighth and lasts in a series of comedies starring Sadri Alışık as the titular hobo who ends up as a “tourist” in surprising situations. This is time he is beamed up to the Starship Enterprise, where he takes part of an almost verbatim recreation of the first Star Trek episode from 1965, Man Trap. Dozens upon dozens of similar Turksploitation SF movies were made in the seventies and eighties, with other highlights being “Turkish Star Wars” and “Turkish E.T.“. The films are famous for brazenly lifting whole special effects sequences, action sequences and soundtrack from their Hollywood counterparts, as if blissfully unaware of anything called copyright, and editing them in with super low-budget original footage, trying to match the originals with the help of cardboard sets single-camera setups. Saïntrell Oshioke writes in WhatCulture: “their charm doesn’t necessarily lie in their superficial comic value, or even in their odd, out-of-the-ordinary film logic but in the courage of the filmmakers to make films, despite the limitations of available resources.”

Erol Amac as “Mister Spak” and Sadri Alisik as Ömer in “Turkish Star Trek” from 1973.

A later entry into Turk sci-fi was the hugely successful G.O.R.A. (2004), which has received international genre acclaim, and two sequels, A.R.O.G. (2008) and G.O.R.A. 2 (S018). These are also comedies, which really is the genre that has almost exclusively dominated Turkish science fiction, despite a few later dips into horror or drama territory, such as the apocalyptic Grain (2017) by producer/director Semih Kaplanoglu. Here, by the by, is an interesting write-up by screenwriter and SF author Selin Arapkirli about the lack of serious SF films in Turkey, on the Bilimkurgu website.

The incredibly prolific lead actor of Flying Saucers Over Istanbul, Zafer Önen, 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.

Özcan Tekgül.

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 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.

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 considered 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.

Özcan Tekgül.

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 — among them Tekgül. 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 ballyhoo, 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.

One last belly dance pic.

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.

Janne Wass

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.

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