Celebrating 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” standing tall as a classic – despite everything we and the universe have thrown at it.
Many years ago I had a co-worker ask me: “So, Daniel, as a visitor, what do you think of planet Earth?”
(Thank you Lance, wherever you are.)
No, unless my parents were somehow tricked, or kidding themselves, or were local assets for the alien invasion — which wouldn’t surprise me — I feel pretty confident I’m a native.
I’ll have to admit I frequently do look askance at the human race, and I think I may have had an early role model for that — albeit a human one — in the form of the late actor Michael Rennie. One of my all-time favorite science fiction movies is the classic Robert Wise film from 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Rennie’s portrayal of the wise and caring alien emissary Klaatu still stands out in my mind as a wonderful execution of a well-written and directed role.
There are a handful of science fiction films I consider classic. (I suppose if you’re a slumming alien, you have a right to be picky … ) For me, for a science fiction film to warrant being considered a classic it has to do all the things a movie is supposed to do (keep me involved, give me characters that engage me, not get bogged down or sidetracked), and on top of this it needs to provoke thoughtful reflection, a sense of awe, or touch me somehow deeply. The most recent science fiction film that comes to mind which achieved any of these is Contact, the Jodie Foster film based on astronomer Carl Sagan’s novel.
The earliest film I am aware of that fits my picky criteria is in fact The Day the Earth Stood Still.
I have a warm place in my heart for this movie. I don’t recall the very first time I saw it, but I do recall it being regularly shown on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies in the 1960’s. (For you younger folk, this was back before the modern cable TV era, when broadcast television was the only real show in town.) My parents went through a period in the early ’60’s where they would go upstate to the home of some friends to play cards and spend the night. Television was the obvious distraction for me, and it seemed like The Day the Earth Stood Still ran every Saturday evening we went there. It didn’t of course, but it was a very popular film in that venue and it probably did run every few months. I have no idea how many times I’ve seen it.
I have a copy on DVD (including a number of features, such as commentary by Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer), and I will still catch the film every few months or so. Something about this film has always “spoken to me,” and watching it is a little like spending time with an old friend.
You either know this film inside out or you’ve never heard of it.
• I should note here that if you haven’t seen this film and wish to without the story being “spoiled” for you, I suggest you stop reading this very second and run away. Quickly. •
(Still here? Okay. You’ve been warned.)
The story goes something like this —
- A distinguished gentlemanly visitor, Klaatu, lands his saucer in Washington D. C. intent on delivering a message to the peoples of the Earth, is shot by a soldier too edgy for his own good, and then Klaatu’s giant robot Gort shows everyone who’s boss by vaporizing literally every weapon in sight.
- Our visitor is held in a hospital, reveals some of his purpose to the American Secretary of State, heals himself overnight, and learns the State is unable to help gather an appropriate set of world leaders for him to convey his message. He escapes, assumes the name “Mr. Carpenter,” and passes for a local — meaning “Earth man.” He finds a boarding house, and starts to get to know the natives.
- He befriends Bobby Benson, the son of one of the fellow boarders, widower Helen Benson, and spends a Sunday afternoon with Bobby seeing the Washington sights while Helen spends the day with suitor Tom Stevens.
- Klaatu, while out with Bobby, hits on the idea of meeting with the the smartest man in the world, Professor Barnhardt, an influential Einstein-like character. Leaving a literally genius-level “calling card” at Barnhardt’s home office, Klaatu gets his meeting with Barnhardt, and asks Barnhardt to convene a meeting of top world scientists, and Barnhardt quickly suggests including leading figures of all disciplines. Barnhardt asks Klaatu to make a “quiet demonstration” of his power to get the world’s attention.
- That night, followed secretly by Bobby, Klaatu goes to the saucer and verbally gives a set of instructions into some device that will shut off nearly all electricity in the world the next day for 30 minutes. (This, as it turns out, will also make the authorities seriously cranky and all the more driven to find him.)
- Tom Stevens, based on finding an unearthly diamond in “Mr. Carpenter’s” room that Klaatu’s people use for currency, and Bobby’s story that he saw Klaatu enter the space ship, recognizes who Klaatu really is.
- Concurrently, Klaatu, realizing Bobby had followed him and suspecting Bobby has told Helen what he had seen the night before, seeks out Helen at her work, and the two are trapped in an elevator while the electricity is neutralized. Here, Klaatu reveals to her the truth of who he is and what his mission is.
- Helen rushes to find Tom, just as Tom is contacting the military authorities. Tom rejects Helen’s plea to keep Klaatu’s identity secret, and Helen rushes off to warn Klaatu.
- Klaatu is accompanied by Helen in a taxi as he attempts to escape, intending on hiding out in Professor Barnhardt’s home. He gives Helen a verbal command (the famous line “Klaatu Barada Nikto”) to communicate to Gort should something happen to him. The taxi is stopped by an Army patrol, Klaatu runs, and is shot and killed. Helen goes to the space ship, brings herself to convey the command to Gort, and is taken by the robot into the space ship. Gort leaves her and finds Klaatu’s body, brings him back to the saucer, and, to Helen’s astonishment, brings him back to life.
- The meeting of scientists and leaders has gathered at the foot of the space ship and is being told to disperse by the Army when Klaatu makes his last big entrance, and finally delivers his message. The other planets see the peoples of Earth are beginning to develop atomic power and to explore space, and are given an ultimatum: keep your bombs and “petty squabbles” down here or Gort and his kind — a sort of autonomous robotic peace-keeping space police force — will reduce the Earth “to a burned-out cinder.”
- With this, Klaatu and Gort lift off, vanishing amidst a sea of stars.
The “Under” Story
Clearly, this is the Jesus story, given, as they used to say in the film industry “a new haircut.” Klaatu, of course is Christ, this telegraphed early in the film when we see the suit he has stolen from the military hospital cleaning service is tagged for a “Maj. Carpenter.”
We don’t really have the Scribes and Pharisees or Pontius Pilate, but we do have a convincing twentieth century Judas in the form of Richard Carlson’s Tom Stevens, an opportunistic insurance salesman. His twenty pieces of silver is the gleaming opportunity he sees in being able to turn in Klaatu, and “write his own ticket.” Tellingly, when Helen attempts to stop Tom, urging him to understand the world-wide importance of what Klaatu is doing, Tom simultaneously shows his true colors and destroys his relationship with Helen with the line: “I don’t care about the rest of the world.”
We also have a Mary Magdalene, in the form of Patricia Neal’s widower Helen Benson. Bible scholars are quick to note that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute as has become the accepted belief, but was in fact a well-to-do widow, and Patricia Neal brings the modern equivalent of a sympathetic, intelligent, and independent single mother/secretary to life. The chemistry between Klaatu and Helen is clear, and her willingness to trust him despite the tide of fear that threatens to swallow her world makes her worthy of us.
Gort, is of course, God. (In German, the word for God is “Gott.”) He is a technological God, a wrathful God of an atomic age justice, though not the justice of Mutually Assured Destruction (this was before ICBMs had been developed); but more on the order of Unilaterally Assured Obliteration.
A Few Quibbles
Three things stand out in my mind as significant mis-steps in the film:
Once the Army surrounds the saucer, they have literally encircled it putting themselves in the line of their own fire. On top of this, the crowd of curious onlookers are roped off only a few dozen feet back. (I suspect if something like this were really to occur, Washington would be evacuated and we would be told it was a weather balloon or swamp gas.)
A second item, in afterthought, is a major plot hole and logic problem: the media has only been given one photograph of Klaatu, which is of him in his space suit shortly after the landing. Here we are on an “alien hunt,” and the only photo we have is pretty much useless. Clearly, as the narrative explains, Klaatu was examined pretty thoroughly at Walter Reed Hospital after being shot (including a series of X-rays) and one would think a few just plain old normal light photos would be taken — after all, how many space men wind up in your local hospital, bub?
This in itself could have been explained away in a manner that would add a level of otherworldliness of our distinguished visitor. Klaatu demonstrates in the film his ability to disable locks seemingly through some sleight of hand; perhaps he could have been given the ability to make film images of him “fog” at will (which would be reminiscent of the effects of certain kinds of radiation on undeveloped film) or make the camera itself otherwise malfunction.
The last major problem I see with the film is the use of the diamonds for Klaatu’s currency. Early on in the film we are told his people learned Earth languages by listening to our radio transmissions (The old radio favorites Fibber McGee and Molly and The Bickersons would have been quite an education). In the process they would have learned about Earth economics and money. If he were to bring something he could use as currency with him, his people should have understood diamonds would stand out too much, though silver or gold may have been a better choice, and would be easier to trade without being traced or questioned. Of course, if we discard the diamonds we lose a key driver to the storyline and a different suitable solution would need to be found.
Beyond the key events of the film, some truly memorable moments jump out:
• The landing of the saucer itself as it roars through the sky from behind the Capitol Building, witnesses pointing at it in amazement.
• Klaatu, in being escorted incognito around Washington by Bobby, visits Arlington Cemetery, and we see the headstone of Bobby’s father. Later Bobby tells his mother about his day with “Mr. Carpenter,” and ends with the words, “and we visited Daddy.” Helen meets Klaatu’s eyes and says “I don’t know how to thank you.” Klaatu answers with what seems like pride: “I enjoyed every minute of it.”
• Klaatu and Bobby in the majesty of the Lincoln Memorial.
• The convincing otherworldliness of the interior of Klaatu’s space ship.
• The stark, delightful creepiness of the moment Klaatu and Helen are trapped in the elevator when all the electricity in the world goes out.
• After Klaatu delivers his message on the “stage” of his saucer, the silent series of shots capturing the sobered faces of the gathered leaders, what are presumably scientific, religious, and cultural figures of all nations, ending with Helen.
One moment of unintentional humor strikes me every time I see the film: Klaatu in his space ship is giving his instructions verbally to a control panel to some device in what is ostensibly his alien language. He ends with the playful and silly-sounding syllables “bah-rain-gee-dagis.” Every time I hear this I can’t help thinking: and bah-rain-gee-dagis to you too, bud.
Life Imitating Film
The Day the Earth Stood Still was released September 28, 1951, received supportive reviews overall, and was considered moderately successful. The film had nine months to marinate (or, perhaps, well … gestate) in the imaginations of the film-going public, when America — Washington D.C. in particular — was treated to several days of unsettling and unearthly reality.
Dubbed “The Washington National Flap” by UFO buffs, in July of 1952 the nation’s capital saw two separate periods of multiple sightings of unidentified flying objects, both by radar and by eyewitnesses in a few cases, on July 19-20, and July 26-27.
As this article on Wikipedia notes, the positive radar returns of objects entering the airspace of the American capital were taken seriously enough to prompt a “shoot down” order. The historical fact of the event is certain, though the actual nature of the phenomenon is additionally blurred beyond its already mysterious reality, the observed facts disputed in some cases by parties with clear agendas.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, for those who had seen it, had to have seemed like an eerie foreshadowing of this “flap,” and added a disturbing subtext to an already unsettling event. What were these things? Curious visitors? An implied warning? Vanguards to an invasion? Imaginations already overheated by the summer weather and unsettled by the growing Cold War could easily bring the imagery of Klaatu and a patrol of Gort-like robots into the mix … as well as the evocative phrase “burned-out cinder.”
Hoaxers Imitating Life Imitating Film
Another echo of The Day the Earth Stood Still washes over us from the general direction of the UFO world, in the form of George Adamski, a self-professed “philosopher.” Adamski built a small but notorious career on his claims to have met extraterrestrials. Adamski is the one of the first and arguably most famous “contactee,” and would be followed by several others.
Adamski claimed that in November of 1952, in the desert near Desert Center, California, he witnessed the landing of a small “scout ship” and met a man from the planet Venus by the name of “Orthon,” and communicated with him by hand gestures and (yes) telepathically. It is a matter of historical record that Adamski published ghost-written science fiction in 1949 along similar lines as his later contactee material, and to consider him anything but an outright fraud is absurd.
Orthon is literally a Christ-like figure (the Adamski-sanctioned paintings of Orthon shows him as having long, flowing hair and a flight suit not unlike Klaatu’s). Orthon, clearly, was inspired by Klaatu, and Adamski, clever manipulator of the gullible, capitalized on the flying saucer mania of the times, of which The Day the Earth Stood Still had become a part.
The Remake, 2008
When I first learned that a new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still was planned, I was aghast. My concern that Hollywood, in its ongoing need to find anything pre-sold to “re-imagine” and re-sell, would … well … desecrate the film that I frankly hold dear.
I refused to see it in the theaters, but did finally buy the DVD, and saw my concerns were generally unfounded. The 2008 version acknowledges the original and follows the general story to some degree, but is essentially an action-adventure film with a few nods to the source material. The main “driver” to the story in this version is not our obsession with nuclear war, but a tediously fashionable “green” message about our species’ relentless rape of the Earth. Keanu Reeves’ portrayal of this script’s version of Klaatu is wooden, and as presented invokes little empathy. After over 50 years of science fiction film and television since the original, the devices used in the story aren’t much of a surprise — such as Klaatu’s electrocuting his interrogator, and the new version of Gort being a colony “creature” of nanotechnological locusts designed to consume the products of human technology. These are, in science fiction literature terms, actually fairly old ideas, and not particularly new in terms of science fiction media.
Admittedly, by today’s standards the original The Day the Earth Stood Still is a slow paced film, simple and direct, and the special effects are unremarkable. An amateur movie critic I met through social media felt that the original wasn’t worthy of being thought of as “one of the best science fictions films of the 1950s” because it was too much a product of its time. This, in my mind, is a silly argument — what film could not be a product of its time?
No, happily, the original has walked away unscathed by the remake. It is too much of an original, too much of an archetype, to be sullied by the prostitutes of today’s Hollywood.
Simply, a Classic
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a Classic, with a capital Class. Thoughtful, well written, acted, and photographed, it stands as a tribute to the skill and artistry of everyone involved. Beyond this, its twin messages of nuclear disarmament and its quietly understated challenge to the reigning Red Scare xenophobia of the time make it a not only a film of courage but of nobility.
Simply, a beautiful, beautiful film.
This article is extensively expanded from a previous version (no longer
available) which was published on this site November 11, 2006. It was updated July 24, 2014, to include an additional observation in the “quibble” section.
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Copyright © 2011, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.