Program Notes: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
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Aliens from outer space.
Are they good guys or bad guys?
Well, that depends on the movie. And in the 1950s there were plenty of movies featuring flying saucers: War of the Worlds and Invaders from Mars (both in 1953), This Island Earth (‘55) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (’56), just for starters.
Both films are about a visitor who arrives in a huge rotating disc. Each movie gets much of its inspiration from the flying saucer sightings that obsessed the media beginning in 1947 and from the widespread paranoia generated both by the Cold War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In their approaches to the subject matter, though, the two movies could hardly be different. The claustrophobic, low-budget The Thing... was about a humanoid vegetable that thrives on human blood and terrorizes the residents of an Arctic research station. It was at heart a gut-churning horror movie.
The Robert Wise-directed The Day the Earth Stood Still, on the other hand, was a religious/political parable with a pacifist message, name stars, high production values and elaborate state-of-the-art (for 1951) special effects.
It introduced us to the towering metallic robot Gort (one of the seminal images in all science fiction), and gave the world these immortal (and untranslatable words) in an alien tongue: “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!”
Adapted from Harry Bates' short story by Edmund H. North (Young Man with a Horn, Sink the Bismarck!), Day... is terrifically smart and literate. In an era when sci-fi movies featured more cheese than Wisconsin, here was a class act.
Brit actor Michael Rennie plays Klaatu, an alien emissary who lands his saucer on a ball field in a Washington D.C. park and is promptly shot by nervous soldiers. The wounded Klaatu prevents his robot companion Gort from taking revenge, is taken into custody and then escapes in stolen clothing, calling himself Mr. Carpenter.
In that guise he moves into a boarding house and befriends a widow (future Oscar winner Patricia Neal) and her son (Billy Gray, already a veteran of more than 50 films and TV shows and soon to become a household name thanks to TV’s Father Knows Best).
Klaatu’s message is that Earthlings must give up atomic weapons or face destruction at the hands of the pre-programmed Gort.
But living among us Klaatu/Carpenter realizes humans are not all aggressive saber-rattlers. He contacts an Einstein-like genius (Sam Jaffe, the veteran character actor who played the title role in Gunga Din) and to demonstrate his power shuts down the worldwide electrical grid and brings all traffic to a standstill (although airplanes in flight and hospitals are unaffected).
His goal is to force the world’s leaders to attend a meeting where Klaatu will lay down the law.
Day... was the most prestigious, expensive film so far in Robert Wise’s decade-old directing career... and he made the most of it.
The film could have gone wrong in so many ways, but in Wise’s hands it’s hitting on all cylinders.
It works as a religious allegory. Clearly, we’re to view “Carpenter” as a Christ figure – he’s even betrayed by a Judas (Hugh Marlowe) and resurrected in the last reel.
But this Jesus radiates cool pragmatism rather than celestial love. Klaatu/Carpenter’s outlook is less Christian than karmic – change your ways, he tells humanity, or your destruction is inevitable.
The film makes a strong case that nuclear power coupled with political paranoia is a deadly combination. This was an attitude that in the Red-baiting McCarthy era may have been felt by many but expressed by few. Want to be called a Commie? Just criticize our leaders and our military.
This is all well and good, but it doesn’t make for good drama. And here is where Wise excels. Always a great handler of actors, he draws terrific performances from stars and walk-ons alike.
Certainly Rennie – never a very emotional actor – is nearly perfect as the cool, gently ironic Klaatu, slowly learning what makes humanity worth saving. Plus, his features are so perfectly smooth and polished that he actually looks alien.
Neal takes a potentially colorless role and imbues it with intelligence, compassion and a slowly growing sense of awe (you could think of her character as undergoing a religious conversion).
All in all, a sci-fi movie that delivered back in ’51 and still does so today.
See Bob's general introduction to the Robert Wise film series.
Other films in the series “Robert Wise: Hollywood Journeyman”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- January 2: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Not rated
- January 9: Two for the Seesaw (1962) Not rated
- January 23: I Want to Live! (1958) Not rated
- January 30: The Andromeda Strain (1971) Rated G
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- January 7: Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) Not rated
- January 14: Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) Not rated
- January 21: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Not rated
- January 28: The Sand Pebbles (1966) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.