Filmsite Movie Review
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
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Background

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is one of the most influential, seminal fantasy science fiction films in motion picture history. The counter-revolutionary, big-budget film provided salient social commentary about the madness of Cold War politics, with an additional anti-nuclear war message of peace presented almost evangelically by a Christ-like figure that came to announce an ultimatum - the destruction of Earth rather than redemption, and then ascended back into the heavens.

The 20th Century Fox feature was based on ex-Army officer Edmund H. North's adaptation of the 42-page 1940 short story Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates. (Bates' short story was also reprinted in an anthology of science fiction stories in 1946 entitled Adventures in Time and Space.)

Director Robert Wise's seminal, allegorical film not only examined wider issues of politics and society, but also delivered a message about human emotions and frailties. One of the main factors that caused an increase in nuclear anxiety among filmmakers and the general public in the 1950s was the successful test of the Soviet's first nuclear device in late August, 1949.

The classic cult film was the first of many 50's Cold War-inspired science-fiction films, much like other similar "drive in movies" of the 1950s, such as The War of the Worlds (1952), Forbidden Planet (1956), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The feature film was the first US studio-backed (20th Century Fox), big-budget sci-fi film since Just Imagine (1930). It heralded the first modern or true robot, the silver giant Gort, and was reportedly the first major science-fiction feature film to feature "flying saucers."

Its memorable score by Hitchcock's most popular composer, Bernard Herrmann, enhanced the drama with his electronic score (using theremins). The B/W cinematography of Leo Tover emphasized expressionistic dark noirish shadows - not typical for sci-fi films. It was also memorable for the cameo appearances of real-life journalists-reporters (Elmer Davis, H. V. Kaltenborn, Drew Pearson, and Gabriel Heater) playing themselves.

The entire film was a precursor to Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and to John Carpenter's Starman (1984). Director Brad Bird's animated Cold War fable The Iron Giant (1999), set in the 1950s, was about another peace-loving giant robot from outer space and its friendship with a young boy, who were sought by a paranoid government agent. More parallels could be drawn between the alien in this film and Thomas Newton (David Bowie) in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, UK).

All of the taglines referred to the menacing threat of a strange alien power and a giant machine-like robot from a distant planet that threatened Earth with an ultimatum:

  • "From a Distant Planet Came...A Giant Robot!"
  • "From Out Of Space... A Warning And An Ultimatum!"
  • "Strange Power From Another Planet Menaces The Earth!"
  • "The World Faced With Destruction By Strange "Men" and Demonic Machines From A Distant Planet!"

This cautionary science fiction parable began with the landing of a spacecraft on the White House Mall in the early 1950s. A benevolent, interplanetary alien in humanoid form, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), caused a panic when he came with a message of good-will and peace, and then demanded to speak to all of the representatives of Earth's governments. Although the emissary warned the people of Earth to be non-violent and stop nuclear testing, in his first few moments of human contact, he was shot by a nervous soldier. His massive robotic companion Gort (Lock Martin) vaporized the offensive weapons with his Cyclops-like laser beam, and Klaatu was hospitalized but healed quickly. He went into hiding posing as an Earthling named Carpenter while temporarily residing in a boarding house with a human family (single mother/widow Helen (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray)), in order to observe and understand their Earthly lives, and also to attempt to establish contact with Earth's leading scientist Dr. Bernhardt (Sam Jaffe).

In the film's conclusion, Gort's demonstration of power over the industrial complex -- by stopping power everywhere for half an hour -- ended up tragically. One of the most famous three-word phrases in science fiction history was recited by Helen to stop Gort's destructive rampage when Klaatu was killed: "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto." The film ended with the robotic alien visitor's resurrection and a dire proclamation to Earthlings - a warning that received no proactive response from the ruling authorities.

This classic science-fiction film featured state-of-the-art visual effects and seamless model miniatures. The film's most memorable character was the giant, nine-foot tall, all-powerful, mighty, menacing and massive metallic robot companion-protector named Gort, 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 was non-vocal, but could understand commands. Gort was a prototypical Terminator and Robocop character and similar to the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Gort's origin was as a green robot named Gnut in Harry Bates' 1940 short story Farewell to the Master - unlike the film, in the short story, Gnut was "the Master" of the stars, while Klaatu was a doubling 'clone.'

In its awards year with competitors The African Queen (1951), A Place in the Sun (1951), An American in Paris (1951), and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) that received most of the accolades and awards, The Day the Earth Stood Still did not receive any nominations - not unusual for a sci-fi film. The film first aired on network television, in early March 1962 during the first full season of NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies (the first prime time network movie series).

Soon after, a low-budget British remake directed by Burt Balaban was released titled Stranger From Venus (1954, UK) (aka The Venusian in the US), starring Patricia Neal reprising her original role (but named Susan North). In the Hollywood remake The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) by director Scott Derrickson, starring Keanu Reeves (as Klaatu) and Jennifer Connelly (as Helen Benson), the spaceship landed in New York's Central Park, with the theme of global 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.

Not surprisingly, there was a get-rich-quick version of the 2008 film, released three days before the big-budget remake - the low-budget homage film was titled The Day the Earth Stopped (2008).

The Story


Opening Title Sequence:

The thought-provoking film's intriguing title sequence opened with a montage of other-worldly images (of galaxies and nebula). The outer space theme was emphasized by the eerie and moody electronic sounds of theremin theme music. The camera descended, with a rapid approach from deep space toward the planet Earth and entered into its atmosphere.

[Note: According to some sources, the last objects seen before approaching the planet Earth (and its Moon) were the Eagle Nebula, Messier 16 in the constellation Serpens. Later in the film, Klaatu mentioned the distance traveled - from 250 million miles away - placing his home planet much closer than thought - somewhere between Mars and Jupiter in Earth's solar system, presumably Mars.]

Reactions to Radar-Tracked Object:

After a shot of a large rotating radar tower, the first line of dialogue was delivered by an American radar operator (Grady Galloway): "Holy Mackerel! Call headquarters. Get the lieutenant." A montage illustrated how other culturally-identifiable groups around the world were also reacting to the appearance of the strange, fast-moving radar-tracked object. Nations from around the globe and in the US tracked its progress:

  • near Hong Kong, British operators reacted to an unidentified object (flying at an altitude of 200,000 feet, at 4,000 mph) - they exclaimed: "Holy Christmas! That thing's doing about 4,000! But that's incredible, sir. That can't be aircraft. Must be a buzz bomb."
  • in Calcutta, India, a radio reporter (Hassan Khayyam) was speaking Hindustani
  • in Paris, France, a group of Parisians huddled around a radio and looked upward
  • in London, England, a BBC-radio broadcaster (John Burton) issued a statement: "Reports are coming in from all over the Empire, from all over the world. The government has not yet issued a statement, but there seems to be no question that there actually is a large, unidentified object circling the Earth at incredible speed."

The radio reports began to narrow their focus toward the US, and specifically toward Washington, D.C.:

  • in the US, commentator Elmer Davis (as Himself) reported: "We still don't know what it is or where it comes from, but there's something there. It's been tracked around the Earth by radar, travelling at a rate of 4,000 miles an hour. This is not another 'flying saucer' scare. Scientists and military men are already agreed on that. Whatever it is, it's something real."
  • another US military bulletin was issued via radio from a naval unit at sea: "A large object travelling at supersonic speed is headed over the North Atlantic towards the East Coast of the United States."
  • journalist HV Kaltenborn (as Himself) reported from the nation's capital: "Here in the nation's capital there is anxiety and concern, but no outward sign of panic. As a matter of fact, there are signs of normalcy - the beautiful spring weather, the tourist crowds around the public monuments and other buildings." There were views of tourists at the Lincoln Memorial and at the large Mall near the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson Memorial.

Space Saucer Landing in Washington, DC - Friday Afternoon at 3:47 PM, and The Appearance of Two Aliens Two Hours Later:

An eerie humming noise in the sky heralded the first glimpses of a gleaming, silvery-domed, metallic extra-terrestrial vessel's rapid approach over the US Capitol building, the Washington Monument, and the White House, causing observers to look skyward. It was mid-July of 1951. Crowds of picnickers and others on the expansive lawn of the Ellipse (the President's Park) in Washington, DC near a baseball diamond fled in fear. A frightened, bald man (Jack Daly) cried out as he gesticulated and ran through heavy traffic on the streets, shouting: "They're here! They're here! It landed! Over on the Mall! It landed!" [Note: The location of the landing was not "on the Mall" - a narrow strip of land stretching from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial.] Police squad cars with sirens blaring were dispatched to the area. The shocking event caused a panic and troop deployment (with tanks and artillery) to the area. The President was notified of the emergency by a government official.

A recap of what had happened was reported by Drew Pearson (as Himself) via radio and television on WMAL - the momentous landing of a "spaceship" at 3:47 pm - currently, a ring of tanks and artillery surrounded the strange flying object, but there had been no movement for two hours. Lots of media reporters, curious onlookers and tourists were gawking from behind the military and police lines:

"We bring you this special radio-television broadcast in order to give you the very latest information on an amazing phenomenon - the arrival of a spaceship in Washington. Government and Defense Department officials are concerned by reports of panic in several large eastern cities. I am authorized to assure you that, so far, there is no reasonable cause for alarm. The rumors of invading armies and mass destruction are based on hysteria, and are absolutely false. I repeat, these rumors are absolutely false.

The ship, designed for travel outside the Earth's atmosphere, landed in Washington today at 3:47 pm, Eastern Standard Time. We still do not know where it came from. The ship is now resting exactly where it landed two hours ago, and so far there is no sign of life from inside it. Troops have been rushed across the Potomac River from Fort Myer and have thrown a cordon around the ship. They are supported by tanks, artillery and machine guns. Behind the police lines there's a huge crowd of curiosity seekers. The army has taken every precaution to meet any emergency which may develop. Every eye, every weapon is trained on the ship. It's been that way for two hours, and the tension is just beginning..."

But then, there was a change ("something is happening") - a ramp silently emerged from the side of the ship and slid to the ground, while through another higher hatch opening, an interplanetary, humanoid-like emissary-visitor appeared, wearing a shiny metal suit. The strange but gentle, benevolent, pacifist and philanthropic Christ-like figure, his face obscured with a helmet, walked forward, and held out his raised hand - a symbol of neutrality. The impressive-looking, dignified alien announced that he was on a good will mission seeking peace:

"We have come to visit you in peace and with good will."

After the intergalactic visitor descended the sloping ramp to the ground, he pulled out a device or object from inside his spacesuit (his right chest area). When he activated the device, one of the edgy soldiers interpreted the movement as menacing and fired his weapon. The device dropped to the ground, shattered in pieces and lying on the ground next to the wounded alien, who had been hit in the upper left shoulder.

Suddenly, through the hatch of the vessel-ship, a second alien behemoth (a robotic figure) emerged. The first alien was followed, to everyone's amazement and panic, by a silent, menacing, 9-foot tall, killer bodyguard or giant humanoid protector with a shiny and smooth metallic surface. The crowds of people screamed and fled in terror, as the expressionless robot ponderously lumbered out and descended the ramp from the ship to confront the military force, that had backed off.

The statuesque figure had the ability, when threatened, to zap (vaporize or melt) the soldiers' weapons (rifles, tanks and giant guns) with a lethal, disintegrating, death-ray laser beam heat-ray behind his sliding head visor. The robot colossus destroyed (or disintegrated) many of the weapons present (plus one tank and artillery weapons) with the mysterious laser beam concealed by his facial shield, without injuring a single soldier. All that was left was a pile of twisted, melted scrap metal.

The alien ordered the robot, named Gort, to cease and desist ("Gort! Deglet ovrosco!"), and it paused obediently and stood motionless. The alien then stood up and with a bit of exasperation described to a group of soldiers (now unarmed) how the broken and smashed object was a tubular viewing device or telescope - a gift for the US President: "It was a gift for your President. With this, he could have studied life on the other planets." The wounded alien was ordered by a Colonel to be immediately transported to Walter Reed Hospital for treatment.

Wounded Klaatu at Hospital on Friday Evening - His Mission to Earth Revealed in Discussion with the President's Secretary:

At the military hospital after a surgical procedure removed the bullet, the alien was recuperating in a hospital bed, wearing a sling strapped to his shoulder. A debriefing in his guarded hospital room that evening was held after the arrival of Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy), the President's business-like secretary. The spaceman, who revealed his name to be simply Klaatu (Michael Rennie), was capable of speaking English. Harley mentioned the obvious - that the alien's arrival was regarded with great "surprise."

Klaatu related the reason for his lengthy journey (of five months duration) - he had brought an urgent message from 250 million miles away from a closeby, neighboring planet. He stressed that his mission was not "a personal matter" but concerned all the people on the planet. And his message needed to be delivered simultaneously to all of the world leaders at one time - convened together.

"I want to meet with representatives from all the nations of the Earth."

Initially, Klaatu was told by the somewhat-shocked Mr. Harley that a meeting with his specifications was impossible due to bureaucratic complications: ("I'm afraid that would be a little awkward. It's completely without precedent. And there are practical considerations. The time involved. The enormous distances"). Klaatu cooly mentioned the great importance of his message brought from such a long distance. But Harley offered an excuse: "Our world at the moment is full of tensions and suspicions. In the present international situation, such a meeting would be quite impossible." Klaatu suggested conferring with the Earth's recently-established United Nations (known about via the monitoring of Earth's radio broadcasts over the years), founed in 1945 at the conclusion of World War II.

[Note: Obviously, Klaatu came from a distant group of advanced alien civilizations modeled after the United Nations, and therefore didn't want to meet with each of the Earthly planet's separate sectors divided by imaginary boundaries, such as city, state, province, region or nation, but was interested in the Earth as a whole entity.]

However, Mr. Harley again reiterated how the US government was at a troubling stage - with lots of political differences and looming crises to solve, due to "evil forces that have produced the trouble in our world." But Klaatu didn't want to work with just the United States and its petty "internal affairs" and "squabbles":

"I'm not concerned, Mr. Harley, with the internal affairs of your planet. My mission here is not to solve your petty squabbles. It concerns the existence of every last creature on Earth...I intend to explain - to all the nations, at the same time."

After Harley noted that the UN did not represent all the nations, Klaatu then suggested meeting with all the "Chiefs of State" instead. But Mr. Harley provided another excuse: "They wouldn't sit down at the same table." Exasperated by the secretary's response, Klaatu felt unable to communicate the urgency and importance of his message - and ramped up his rhetoric with blunt words:

"I don't want to resort to threats, Mr. Harley. I merely tell you that the future of your planet is at stake. I urge that you transmit that message to the nations of the Earth."

Although Mr. Harley was dubious about the outcome of Klaatu's request, he promised that he would convey the alien's wishes and recommendation to the President - to assemble a meeting of every worldwide leader. Klaatu seemed to be hopeful, unlike Harley who remained dubious:

Harley: "But I must tell you in all honesty, I'm extremely dubious about the results."
Klaatu: "Apparently I'm not as cynical about Earth's people as you are."
Harley: "I've been dealing in Earth's politics a good deal longer than you have."

Next Day at the Spaceship Landing Area: Early 2 AM Saturday Morning

Back at the spaceship at 2 am, engineers and metallurgical experts found both Gort (standing immobile at a silent vigil) and the vessel "impregnable" - the two were constructed out of the same "stuff." They made numerous attempts to enter the spaceship without any luck, and were astonished there wasn't even a 'crack' marking the ship's ramp entryway or opening. The General (Charles Evans) on site was briefed by the discouraged supervising civilian engineer Carlson (Harlan Warde): "We've tried everything from a blowtorch to a diamond drill...This is the toughest material I ever saw, General. For hardness and strength, it's out of this world." The General wryly made the obvious connection: "I can tell you officially that's where it came from!"


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