Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

An intelligent and thoughtful Film


  •        Michael Rennie as Klaatu
  •        Patricia Neal as Helen Benson
  •        Billy Gray as Bobby Benson
  •        Hugh Marlowe as Tom Stevens
  •        Sam Jaffe as Professor Jacob Barnhardt
  •        Frances Bavier as Mrs. Barley
  •        Lock Martin as Gort
  •        Frank Conroy as Mr. Harley
  •        Tyler McVey as Brady


Essentially, The Day The Earth Stood Still is about a man from space who comes to Earth to warn its inhabitants about the consequences that will befall them should they threaten peace in the universe by extending their nuclear arms technology beyond the confines of planet earth. After spending time with humans, it becomes apparent to him that drastic action must be taken to get humanity to pay attention to his message. He decides, therefore, to stop all machinery on Earth for half an hour as a demonstration of his power. 

Will this demonstration succeed in bringing humanity to its senses? Will the earth need to be destroyed to ensure the peace and well-being of the rest of the universe? 

Go to the full Lux Theatre  old time radio presentation featuring Michael Rennie to experience what it was like on..... 


The kind of distrust, fear and hostility that was portrayed in the film is better understood when seen in the context of the times;
  • The dictator Joseph Stalin was still in power in Russia.
  • The Soviets were not far from testing their own hydrogen bomb.
  • In 1949 China had been taken over by the Communists after a civil war.
  • The Korean War was at its height.
  • (See my post, “Sci-Fi on film 1951” for a more complete overview of the times)

Significant Features

  • There is no mistake about the anti-war sentiments being expressed (and expressed they are) through the character Klaatu’s very words when he states that, “ the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all or no one is secure.” He speaks from the stance of someone who comes from a place which has put together “an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression.” This state of affairs is enforced by the creation of “a race of robots” whose “function is to patrol the planets in spaceships.…and preserve the peace….The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises.” At the cemetery Carpenter informs Bobby that where he comes from they don't have any wars. Bobby responds by saying, "that would be a great idea!"

As was pointed out above, the 1950s were a time of fear, suspicion and distrust and the film clearly reflects this. In the film, The Day The earth Stood Still, it is suggested by one character that the saucer is really from (where else?) Russia. The TV / radio presenter further expresses this atmosphere of fear through his assurance that “…so far that there is no reasonable cause for alarm. Rumours of invading armies and mass destruction are based on hysteria and are absolutely false. I repeat, they are absolutely false.” And what happens soon after the saucer lands? It is surrounded by heavily armed soldiers and the spaceman is then shot by one of them soon after he emerges from the ship, despite declaring, “We have come to visit you in peace and good will.” What kind of world has greeted the visitor!? The kind of world that would destroy “… a gift (that we could have used to study) life on other planets.”
  • The pervading sense of fear and insecurity of the times is felt as Klaatu or Carpenter wanders the city and we can hear the urgent and panicked news bulletins coming from the houses he passes. When Klaatu enters a boarding house with a room for rent the occupants of the boarding house don’t notice him as they are focused on the TV bulletin where a warning is being given concerning the alien from space being on the loose. We notice that when Klaatu enters, his outline appears in darkness. The others turn to look at him in fear, and their relief is evident when the lights are turned on revealing just a man looking for a room. The "strange unreasoning attitudes" of the people are further fueled by the media. For example, in one broadcast listeners are told that the spaceman is a "monster" and a "menace from another world" who must be "tracked down like a wild animal." Carpenter is the only one being interviewed who is capable of accurately commenting on what people should be concerned about, namely "substituting fear for reason." Not surprisingly he is cut off mid sentence since what he has to say is not what the media wants to hear. Fear and sensationalism and not reason or thoughtfulness sells.  Yes, it was a time where according to Carpenter "everyone seems so...."  and accurately labelled by Helen "Jittery."

  • Interestingly enough, the film portrays a time that is unimaginable today in terms of attitudes towards personal safety and the safety of loved ones. At one point, Klaatu (alias Carpenter) suggests that Mrs. Benson’s young son, Bobby “might show me around the city.” What mother of today would allow her son to roam around the city with a virtual stranger? We also see a young child who was questioned by the soldiers pursuing Klaatu playing on the streets after dark. Not many parents would feel comfortable with that these days!

  • At Arlington National Cemetery, Bobby explains to Klaatu, “That’s my father. He was killed at Anzio.” Unfortunately, many boys of his age would've been able to say something similar. Too many fathers were away in the army and were killed in war when their sons and daughters were still only babies. We can better understand why this boy takes such a liking to this stranger who is almost like the father he never really had.

Patricia Neal’s single mother character is probably representative of many war widows of the time who were face with very difficult choices and very few options. She is faced with living at a boarding house and supporting herself and her son on her own. She works as a secretary in an office in an era when women were expected give up their war time jobs to returning servicemen, get married and become stay-at-home mothers. To make matters worse, she could have wound up with a selfish, opportunistic and weak fiance (Tom Stevens) who wants to get married quickly as a career advancing selling point and who doesn't "care about the rest of the world."

Whether intended or not, one can’t help but see Klaatu as a kind of Christ-like savior figure who holds out to us the promise of our own salvation. He has come here (from up above!) -“I traveled 250 million miles”- to deliver a message of peace. His attempts are rejected by the world’s leaders who are too caught up with their own petty political squabbles (“Our world at the moment is full of tensions and suspicions.”) Klaatu then determines to understand humanity by living among people and adopting the name “Carpenter.” That he is a gifted stranger with acute powers of observation and insight there can be no doubt. Klaatu even has what seems to us advanced healing powers as reported by one physician who stated that Klaatu had cured his bullet wound with a salve he’d brought with him. Klaatu is eventually betrayed by a Judas-like informer (Stevens) who is intent on being “the biggest man in the country” and is killed by the military, only to be resurrected for a time. Sounds roughly familiar?

There appears to be a rather “old testament” dark and vengeful side to the character Klaatu and what he represents. We have a sense of a “salvation OR ELSE!” message being given if humanity doesn't come to its senses. The kind of power we are dealing with here is evident as Klaatu and Helen are being hemmed in by the military and he states, “I’m afraid of what he (Gort) would do if anything should happen to me. There’s no limit to what he could do. He could destroy the Earth.” The sense of menace to our very survival is so strong that, not only Helen, but we, the audience would “remember those words,” “Klaatu Barada Nikto,” and we wouldn't hesitate to repeat them back to Gort if anything were to happen to Klaatu! The message is quite clear: We act foolishly at our own peril and we if we choose to ignore the message of peace, we will fall to an unimaginable and implacable force that will show us no mercy. This force is revealed to the audience in the form of a large indestructible robot equipped with a powerful laser-like beam able to dissolve tanks, cannons or the entire earth. We will be rewarded if we do good and punished if we do wrong. In short, “your choice is simple: Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”

  • At the Lincoln Memorial, Carpenter is very impressed with the words from the Gettysburg Address on the monument, “That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.” For Carpenter, “Those are great words. He must have been a great man. … That’s the kind of man that I’d like to talk to.” Which leads us to Professor Jacob Barnhardt and those characters like him. He represents those respected individuals and groups who pursue the ideals of knowledge and truth and whose minds are open to unimaginable possibilities. By producing such people, past and present, it is as if humanity has demonstrated its innate capacity to strive for and attain something better, whether it be truth, peace or freedom, despite its capacity for self-destruction.

Points Of Interest

  • Although it worked quite well with Earth vs The Flying Saucers, this is one classic science-fiction I would not want to see colourized. It is almost film noir-like in its use of light and shade and camera-work, all of which would be spoiled by any tampering with aspects of its visual presentation.
  • Bernhard Herrmann’s haunting soundtrack with the use of theremin (actually two theremin instruments and other electronic instruments), combined with images of Gort’s passive and menacing silent presence adds to the film’s chilling and spine-tingling mood and atmosphere.
  • The flying saucer looked quite impressive as it landed, along with the way it splits down the centre to open.
  • What an excellent choice in having Michael Rennie play the part of Klaatu! He portrayed the stranger in a strange world role remarkably well. He conveyed the air of high-moral, all-knowing and benevolent visitor, tinged with an undercurrent of darker possibilities very effectively.
  • The method used of cutting all electricity was "a brilliant idea." Its selective application fit the criteria of being "dramatic but not destructive." Get a pen and paper and jot down all the ways your life would be affected during say the course of a day if all electricity was suddenly cut off. Now extend that list to the effects on you local community, then your country and then the entire world. Our means of power and strength is also our weakness.

The best way to appreciate the 1951 version of The Day The earth Stood Still, is to watch the 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves. After enduring this version featuring Keanu Reeves’ wooden performance punctuated by some fairly impressive special effects, you’ll soon see why the original version stands head and shoulders above that effort. The 1951 film holds up very well even in the 21st. Century. It shows that sometimes you can do more with less…

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

No comments:

Post a comment