Robots in Film
A Complete Illustrated History
of Robots in the Movies


Part 1



Robots in the Movies
Film/Year, Name of Robot and Film Description
Screenshot

L'Eve Futur (1896, Fr.) (aka The Future Eve, or The Eve of the Future)

Hadaly

This early film was based upon the 1886 published book, a classic SF tale of the same name, by Auguste de Villiers de l'lsle Adam. It told about a brilliant alchemist (modeled after Thomas Edison) who created a mechanical, robotic facsimile of his British friend Lord Ewald's beloved fiancee - a singer named Alicia Clary. The android (andreide), Hadaly, was indistinguishable from Alicia. It had a phonographic apparatus to realistically reproduce Alicia's voice, and was supernaturally endowed with the spirit of Sowana, Edison’s mystical assistant.

 

The Mechanical Statue and the Ingenious Servant (1907)

Mechanical Men

This very early, one-reel film from Vitagraph, was the first American film with 'robot' predecessors called mechanical men. They were created as automatons (or automated thinking machines), but proved to be dangerous and deadly after running amok, like Frankenstein (1931). The film's survival status is unknown.

Other early depictions of "mechanical men" included these one-reel short films with threatening robot-servants: An Animated Doll (1908), The Rubber Man (1909), Dr. Smith's Automaton (1910, Fr.), The Automatic Motorist (1911, UK), D. W. Griffith's The Inventor’s Secret (1911), The Electric Leg (1912, UK), Sammy's Automaton (1914, Fr.), Hoffmans Erzaehlungen (aka Tales of Hoffman) (1915, Ger.), and the 6-part serial Homunculus (1916, Ger.).

 

The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (1908)
also
Return to Oz (1985)

Tik-Tok

L. Frank Baum's novel Ozma of Oz (1907) featured round-bodied Tik-Tok, the first 'robot' to appear in modern literature. The character also first appeared in the film The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (1908), presented in Baum's live travelogue presentation (with Tik-Tok - The Machine Man portrayed by Wallace Illington), and much later as the mustached Tik-Tok in Disney's film Return to Oz (1985).


Return to Oz (1985)

The Golem (1920, Ger.) (aka Der Golem)

Golem

Paul Wegener directed three influential adaptations of the Golem legend by Gustav Meyrinck:

  • Der Golem (1914, Ger.) (aka The Monster of Fate)
  • Der Golem Und Die Tanzerin (1917, Ger.) (aka The Golem and the Dancer) - notably the first horror film sequel
  • Der Golem (1920, Ger.) (aka The Golem: or How He Came Into the World), with Karl Freund as cinematographer

The first expressionistic film was based upon Central European myths and influenced later 'Frankenstein' monster films in the early 1930s with themes of a creator losing control of his creation. The Golem, played by Wegener himself, was an ancient clay figure from Hebrew mythology that was brought to life by Rabbi Loew's magic amulet to defend and save the Jews in 16th century Prague from a pogrom threatened by Rudolf II of Habsburg. The giant man-made, clay creature roamed and lumbered through the Jewish ghetto of medieval Prague to protect it from persecution.


The Master Mystery (1920) (aka The Houdini Serial, and Le Maitre du Mystere)

Q, or The Automaton

Director Burton King's and Harry Grossman's independently-produced serial (with 15 episodes, some of which are lost) was made by studio Pathe in France.

It starred magician and trick escapist artist Harry Houdini as heroic Justice Department/secret service agent Quentin Locke who battled a threatening and criminal international cartel/corporation.

It featured a huge, mechanical, evil robot named Q or The Automaton (Floyd Buckley), the cartel's protective robot-servant, with a goofy-looking face and a barrel-shaped pelvis.

This film had one of the earliest (if not the first) on-screen theatrical representation of a robot.



The Mechanical Man (1921, It.) (aka L’Uomo Meccanico)

Mechanical Man

Writer/director Andre Deed's short silent film (only parts of which survive, in a fragmented form) featured a giant, 9-10 foot-tall, colossal evil "mechanical" robot that was programmed by evil villainess adventuress Mado (Valentina Frascaroli) to cause severe damage with its fiery, acetylene blow-torch hands and its massive bulk.

The lumbering robot had headlights for eyes, and had the capability of running at high speed.

The film's finale featured a climactic battle at a masked ball in the Opera House between the first monstrous robot and a second mechanical robot, specifically created (with similar specifications) to destroy the first one.



Metropolis (1927, Ger.)

"Fake" Maria

This future dystopic silent film from director Fritz Lang featured one of the earliest robots (and also female!), a great iconic image, in its story of an elite ruling technocracy run on the labor of oppressed underground masses of toiling workers who ran the machines.

The Art Deco-styled female robot (Brigitte Helm) was constructed and brought to life by archetypal mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) as a metal android (later inspiring Star Wars' C-3PO). Rotwang had kidnapped the virtuous and compassionate union leader heroine Maria (also Helm), and created an evil doppelganger of her in his laboratory - in a stunning transformation scene in which he copied Maria's face and body onto the metal surface of the robot.

She was to deceptively assume an evil, seductive and sadistic version of Maria. The robot had a fully-armored head, with slits for eyes and mouth, sculpted shoulders, as well as a mechanically-jointed body with armor-like coverings on the legs and feet.

The android was created in order to discredit the real Maria by - among other things, performing lascivious, erotic dances to a frenzied male audience to incite them to riot (as part of the aristocracy's plan to brutally subdue them).


Flash Gordon (1936)

Ming's Army/Guards (possibly non-robotic!)

In this popular 13-part serial, Flash Gordon (Larry 'Buster' Crabbe) and Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) met up with Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) on his rocketship and went to the planet Mongo to defeat the evil emperor, Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton).

In the first chapter, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov were taken prisoner by Officer Torch and two helmeted, robotic guards. Ming's deadly army was composed of mechanical robotic soldiers with scientifically-advanced rifles. When they went outside, the guards appeared to be wearing some kind of undergarment under their armored suits.

[Note: Some regard the army's soldiers as non-robotic, as per the comic strip which portrayed the guards as human when they took off their helmets.]


Robots with Underwear
Under their Armor

Undersea Kingdom (1936)

Volkites

This early Republic Pictures serial (with twelve episodes or chapters) was produced in haste to compete with Universal's Flash Gordon serials. It starred naval action hero Lt. Ray "Crash" Corrigan (Ray Corrigan) and featured the lost city of Atlantis at the bottom of the sea.

Trash can-like robot soldiers with zap rays guns (Atomguns) called Volkites were commanded by warlord Unga Khan (Monte Blue), the evil tyrannical ruler of the Black Robes and remote-controlled by his henchman Captain Hakur (Lon Chaney, Jr.).

The Phantom Creeps (1939)

"Iron Man"

Bela Lugosi starred in his last serial, Universal's 12-part serial titled The Phantom Creeps, as mad scientist Dr. Alex Zorka intent on taking over the world.

He invented a fearsome, slow-moving 8-foot golem-like iron monster or robot that he referred to as "his iron man" (played by 7'4" tall stuntman Ed Wolff).

The robot was remote-controlled, designed to "crush all opposition and make me the most powerful man in the world" - according to Dr. Zorka.


The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Tin Man (aka The Tin Woodsman)

In this beloved musical fantasy film, the Tin Man (Jack Haley) (aka The Tin Woodsman in L. Frank Baum's original book) was one of the fanciful characters in the Wonderful Land of Oz - he was actually a silver-faced, funnel-capped robot who joined Dorothy (Judy Garland) on her journey to Oz' Wizard in the Emerald City to request a heart to fill his hollow chest ("The tinsmith forgot to give me a heart" and "If I only had a heart..."). He was first found rusted immobile from moisture and needed to be oiled to begin moving again.

Others who played the Tin Man in film:

  • Oliver Hardy in the silent The Wizard of Oz (1925)
  • Al Joseph in The Wonderful Land of Oz (1969)
  • Nipsey Russell in the adaptation The Wiz (1978)
  • Deep Roy in Return to Oz (1985)

The Mechanical Monsters (1941)

"Mechanical Monsters"

The Fleischer Brothers created this 10 minute-long animated short film (for Paramount Studios), titled "The Mechanical Monsters." It was the second of seventeen Technicolored Superman cartoons released in the early 1940s.

It told about a group of giant flying robots (created by a mad scientist) with flamethrowers in their heads that were attacking the metropolis of Gotham City.

After robbing a bank and a jewelry exhibit, they abducted Lois Lane (voice of Joan Alexander) - forcing Clark Kent/Superman (voice of Bud Collyer) to come to the rescue and use his X-ray vision to battle the army of multiple robots.


The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
and
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

GORT (Genetically-Organized Robotic Technology)

Director Robert Wise's seminal science fiction film in motion picture history contained an anti-nuclear war message during the Cold War. It featured a giant, nine-foot tall, all-powerful, mighty, menacing and massive metallic robot companion-protector named Gort (Lock Martin), with a featureless face dissected by an opening visor, smooth metallic surface, straight legs (without knee joints), boots for shoes, and fixed mitten-styled hands (without joints or fingers). The robot did not talk Gort was a prototypical Terminator and Robocop character and similar to the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Gort's origin as a green robot named Gnut was in Harry Bates' 1940 short story Farewell to the Master - unlike the film, in the short story, Gnut was "the master."

After a huge flying saucer landed on the mall in Washington, DC in 1951, a benevolent, humanoid, interplanetary alien visitor named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) who was seeking peace emerged down a ramp, followed to everyone's amazement by silent, killer bodyguard Gort - who had the ability to zap (vaporize or melt) weapons or tanks with a lethal, disintegration laser beam heat-ray behind his sliding visor. The robot, an interstellar guardian - a member of a police force, had the power to destroy worlds such as Earth, whose inhabitants were intent on destruction, aggression, and hostility. However, his main objective was to warn Earth to establish peace - and to demonstrate his power, he shut down the world's power supply (hence, the film's title "The Day the Earth Stood Still"). One of the most famous 3-word phrases in science fiction history was recited by single mother/widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) to stop Gort's destructive rampage when Klaatu was killed: "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto."

The film ended with the alien visitor's resurrection and a warning-proclamation as an ultimatum for disarmament: ("...But if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you").

In the film's 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves (as Klaatu) and Jennifer Connelly (as Helen Benson), the spaceship landed in New York's Central Park, with the theme of ecological damage rather than nuclear war. Gort was portrayed with the magic of CGI, and was about 28 feet tall, with five-fingered hands (but feet without digits). He was without a visor, but still possessed the trademark eye-beam that could project destructive forces. Gort's composition was of microscopic insect-like devices ('nano-machines') or bugs that could swarm around an object and completely disintegrate it.






Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952, UK) (aka My Son, the Vampire, and Vampire Over London)

Mark 1

In this awful B-movie vampire satire and horror comedy (the last in a long-running series of Mother Riley films), Central European mad scientist Von Housen (Bela Lugosi), known as the "Vampire" and intent on world domination, created a uranium-powered, 6 foot-tall slave robot named Mark 1, that was ordered to kidnap Irish grocery store owner and washerwoman Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan in drag costume) and bring her to his mansion.

Von Housen's intent was to build an army of 50,000 robots, but he had only completed one robot due to the scarcity of uranium to power them.

In one of the film's more memorable scenes, Mother Riley wrestled the robot and dismantled it, to come to the rescue.


Robots in Film
(chronological, by film title)
Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

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