Only one year after science fiction film exploded in popularity, The Day The Earth Stood Still was released, becoming one of the most important and formative films of the era.
Following a year in which the two seminal sci-fi films dealt with man breaching into space, 1951 presented two films about space coming to the Earth. Sci-Fi Saturdays is proud to discuss one of these two films.
The trailer starts much like a news program, with an anchor telling the audience about the arrival of a spaceship in Washington DC. A spaceman appears to be threatening the earth, and his robot attacks several of the local military men. The army seems to take this very seriously as there are many shots of them mobilizing and shooting someone. There’s no narrator, but the super-titles remind everyone that this is one film “you will never be able to forget.”
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The Day The Earth Stood Still opens with a documentary style broadcast from actual newsmen of the time, telling the audience that a spaceship is landing in Washington DC. An alien exits the ship and is accidentally shot by a member of the army. A large robot, Gort, exits the ship and uses a laser eye to zap the infantryman’s gun, but the alien calls him off. The alien is then taken to Walter Reed hospital to be fixed.
The alien tells the gathered individuals that he is called Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and asks to be taken to see the United Nations. One of the President’s secretary’s, Mr Harley, speaks for the President and says that the request is impossible. Klaatu reiterates his request, before sneaking out that evening, fully healed. He decides to go out amongst the people to see what the world is all about. Stealing a suit belonging to a “Mr. Carpenter,” Klaatu finds a room in a local boarding house and befriends Bobby Benson (Billy Gray) and his mother Helen (Patricia Neal).
The next day Bobby shows him the sights of Washington including the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Cemetery, where Bobby’s father is buried. Klaatu asks Bobby to take him to the most powerful man in Washington. Bobby figures that’s Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), near where his mother works. The professor is out, so Klaatu alters some equations on the scientists blackboard, leaving a calling card for him.
Meanwhile, the hunt for the escaped spaceman escalates as the army increases its presence around the city and spaceship. Later, while meeting with Barnhardt, Klaatu informs the scientist that the Earth is under scrutiny for its atomic powered rockets, and that humanity needs to change. The professor suggests that Klaatu show some non-harmful exhibition of his power, while Barnhardt attempts to gather more scientists to meet with him. Klaatu causes a 30 minute global power outage to show the Earth that his people mean business.
When Helen finds out who the mysterious Mr. Carpenter actually is, she tries to warn him of the dangers waiting for him and help him return to his ship. The army ends up shooting and killing Klaatu, whose body is returned to his ship by his robot Gort. Gort then heals Klaatu so that he may address the assembled world scientists. His final plea to the people of Earth before departing concerns the choice that they must make: live in peace or continue on the present course and face obliteration.
“I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” – Klaatu
History in the Making
The Day The Earth Stood Still was one of two strong sci-fi films in 1951. While 1950 only had about half a dozen films with science fiction themes, 1951 tripled that number, which included not only this film but The Thing From Another World, When Worlds Collide and the comedic Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man. The major films of 1950 were more focused with man’s exploration of the universe, while films this year dealt with the invasion of aliens and creatures from beyond our planet.
Earth was an early film for Robert Wise, whose career had been established for at least a decade. This early sci-fi film provided much notoriety for him and continued his success in the motion picture industry. Unlike other directors, Wise did not focus on genre pictures specifically, making films from varied genres such as The Haunting (1963) or Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). However he would return to the sci-fi late in his career with the two well received films The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
Unlike many other alien invasion films, The Day The Earth Stood Still took a global viewpoint. Other films of the era tended to depict only a small slice of the world being affected by an invasion, while in Earth, Klaatu was definitely talking to the whole planet. Even though it was firmly rooted in the America of the early 50s, Wise included depictions of citizens both white and black observing the alien spacecraft in DC, as well as showcasing moments in other countries when the power outage occurred. This was not a small film about the problems in an American town, but one that impacted the world.
Besides the depictions of humanity, the film also presented a strong case for the science fiction genre being able to provide more to audiences than just Saturday matinee entertainment. Important themes of war and peace, or xenophobia, spring up in this film asking the audience to think about issues greater than themselves.
The Day The Earth Stood Still is classic science fiction film that has inspired films after it. Given the title of the film, it sounds like much more of a B-movie than it was. I had always imagined it along the lines of I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958), where something actually causes the Earth to stop spinning. But the title actually refers to the power outage in the film where literally the cities of the world “stand still” due to lack of electricity.
Earth was such a success that it seemed to capture the imagination of the public like no previous sci-fi film had. Strange characters with names like Klaatu and Gort, or phrases like “Klaatu barada nikto” entered the lexicon of popular culture and have continued to be referenced many years since. “Klaatu barada nikto” has a special longevity having been incorporated into both Army Of Darkness (1993), as a phrase Ash must use to stop the Book of the dead, and Return of the Jedi (1983), where it’s the names of three alien characters.
Additionally the film produced one of the screens most famous robots in Gort. After Metropolis’ Maria, Gort is the next breakout robot in all of cinema, leading to a long line famous automatons, including Robbie the Robot, HAL, C-3PO and R2-D2. His laser beam eye also may have influenced such sci-fi staples as Battlestar Galactica’s race of mechanical warriors, the Cylons.
Earth also touched on the specific theme of paranoia, which was present in another 1951 film (Thing From Another World) and would find greater roots later in the decade with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The fear humans have of things they cannot control, and the worry that aliens could walk amongst them unnoticed would soon become a staple of sci-fi stories and films.
Along with the paranoia, another major theme in the film is xenophobia, or more specifically America’s fear of the foreigner. Not only does Secretary Harley rebuff Klaatu’s request to speak at the United Nations, he also tells him that it would be awkward, and begins making excuses as to why it would be easier to just meet with the American delegates now. When Klaatu escapes, all he hears are vicious rumors about him and his intentions. News reports call him a monster and thinly veiled supposition from citizens is that he is here to cause harm to the American way of life. What the film does however, is portray him as a simple man with a lesson for all mankind, not just one specific individual or country. He does not seek to harm anyone, and those that do get harmed by Gort were done so because of provocation.
If this story of Klaatu sounds familiar, it may well be, as it’s a pretty clear cut allegory for the life of Christ. A mysterious light in the sky that heralds the coming of a man with news for all mankind – check, check, and check! The guise taken by Klaatu is one of “Mr. Carpenter,” who also adopts the first name of John, a reference to Jesus’ job as carpenter and the name of one of his apostles. He is a character that is killed, and then resurrected to be able to spread his warning to the masses. However it may not have been something that the filmmakers meant to be as overt as it appears. In the 2007 book entitled Hostile Aliens, Hollywood and Today’s News, screenwriter Edmund North stated “It was my private little joke. I never discussed this angle with [Julian] Blaustein, [producer] or [Robert] Wise because I didn’t want it expressed. I had originally hoped that the Christ comparison would be subliminal.”
The Science in The Fiction
While the film is not intended to contain any actual science like Destination Moon did, there is a bunch of faux science including the block of KL-93 that Gort is trapped in – “a new plastic material stronger than steel,” and the mention that Klaatu came 250 million miles to the Earth, which would put his home planet somewhere between Mars & Jupiter. Obviously this film is more concerned with the human condition rather than getting all the minutia correct, and if the story is told well, audiences shouldn’t mind things like this. These sorts of story elements are really part of the history of sci-fi.
The Final Frontier
The film has some surprisingly good performances, including Billy Gray’s Bobby. Billy would go on to greater prominence in a few years as Bud on Father Knows Best. Another fun cameo is that of the boarding house owner, Mrs. Barley, played by Frances Bavier. She is more well known for her role as Aunt Bea on The Andy Griffith Show. They help round out an already stellar cast led by Michael Rennie, a British actor, in one of his first American roles.
Earth was remade in 2008 with Keanu Reeves in the role of Klaatu, but did not fare as well as the original version. It used a lot more special effects to sell the film, and the story became somewhat lost in the retelling. The 2008 version substituted themes of environmentalism and ecology for war and xenophobia, and was not as forthright about their depiction, having been watered down by overly-slick production and some less than amazing acting.
All in all, The Day The Earth Stood Still holds up amazingly well for an almost 70-year old movie. Robert Wise’s direction and Edmund North’s script create a parable using science fiction to elicit an age old concern about man’s use of power. A message that is just as true today as it was in 1951.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.