Essay Review by Glenn Erickson
Possibly the most beloved Science Fiction movie of them all, The Day The Earth Stood Still
was produced before Hollywood got the notion that this kind of picture could be made dirt cheap,
and still draw an audience. After a flurry of top-end product, the space & monster operas
were consigned to the independent ghetto, with only an occasional freak like 20,000 Leagues Under
the Sea or Forbidden Planet emerging from the studios with the grandeur the
genre was capable of providing.
There's a lot to discuss about this appealing, audience-pleasing movie - it's pacifist and fascist at
the same time, so captivating that the Watergate liberal students of the 70s didn't look past
the 'Socialists from Space' angle to see what kind of conceptual rhubarb writer Edmund H. North was selling.
Who cared? The Day The Earth Stood Still pushed the right Cold War buttons, and pulled
us into its post-modern thrills. We can save the world, but only if we can remember
those three magic words.
A silvery flying saucer lands on the Mall in Washington D.C., throwing the government
into an uproar and the citizenry into a panic. From it emerges Klaatu (Michael Rennie) an ascetic,
humorless messenger who wants to speak to all the people of Earth, all at once. Shaking the Army's
attempt to keep him locked up, Klaatu masquerades as an Earthling, and gets to know the residents
of Mrs. Barley's boarding house - especially war widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her
curious son Bobby (Billy Gray). Bobby is the first to figure out that Klaatu is Not of This Earth -
but as a police dragnet closes in, it's Helen's fiancee Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe) who betrays the
stranger from Space. The only problem is, Klaatu has a robot policeman companion named Gort (Lock
Martin). If the trigger-happy authorities kill the spaceman, Gort is programmed to destroy the world.
The Day The Earth Stood Still was one of Cinefantastique magazine's first classic
profile articles of the early 70s; researcher Steve Rubin collected the entire backstory
of its making (conceived before
Destination Moon , Claude Rains first
choice for Klaatu, etc.) and even showed us the first color photos of the production. He also nailed
the movie's three dominant themes - two of them hot-button topics that could only be approached
through the smokescreen of genre filmmaking. Deservedly or not, this is the cornerstone of
Deep-Think Sci Fi of the Liberal Kind.
The first theme is of course the Flying Saucer craze.
The Man From Planet X actually
touched down first, and was also a confused and potentially benign alien - the
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
fans who thought all Sci Fi movies featured hostile invaders, didn't realize that the
initial efforts, like
It Came From Outer Space, that
soft-pedaled the menace. Then War of the Worlds hit, and from then on visitors from the
stars were all ray guns and destruction.
The Flying Saucer hysteria, based on several hard-to-discount sightings in the late 40s, has since been
pegged as a religious phenomenon. Scholars who study belief systems, from Christianity
to phrenology, think that people invested their faith in Flying Saucers because they
had an immediacy missing from their organized churches. Why not believe in something possible - that
civilization of interstellar people, perhaps our root culture from ancient visitations or migration,
would soon come from the skies to solve all our problems? The Day The Earth Stood Still
definitely has that feeling, likening the miraculous landing of a space ship to the biblical
Rapture - an irrationality best mined in Close Encounters.
Then there's the straight-on Church theme - America was in the throes of a strong
revivalist movement, spurred on by electronic preachers like Billy Graham taking advantage
of radio and the fledgling TV to spread their Good Word. It was the widening of a political
fundamentalist streak that has been growing in America for half a century. The revivalists hit the
theme of the Second Coming for all it was worth, and a sizeable segment of the country began living
their secular lives, and casting their votes, exactly as dictated from the pulpits.
Unfortunately, the fundamental messages were mostly isolationist, know-nothing, and backward; based
on a Love that was 9/10ths paternalistic authoritarianism and Fear. Foreigners, non-whites,
non-fundamentalists were all to be considered suspicious, and anybody trying to think freely or
improve the system was a dangerous intellectual.
The Fundamentalists and the Anti-Communists fell right into line - the scholars even list 'Anti-Communism'
as a belief system. An enemy to loathe seemed to be all the faith many Americans
needed - the belief that America had been betrayed to the Russians or the Red Chinese by some
Original Sinners who must be rooted out.
The Day The Earth Stood Still shows us an America with problems, that usually were seen only in
independent movies, the kind that led to blacklisting and witch hunts. 6
Even if they didn't realize what they were watching, audiences of 1951 recognized the America that
greets Klaatu. It's basically a country at perpetual war, railing
at enemies on all sides, fearful that their victory over the Nazis had been betrayed, and that
maybe we had been fighting the wrong enemy all along. Anything that wasn't working right was
blamed on Communists in the government; massive arms, aviation & space research programs were under
way to counter perceived superweapons the Soviets were said to be preparing.
On the streets, people were just plain scared. Bombs might fall at any time. Media pundits gained
popularity by hyping the invisible menace. People were so suspicious then, the joke went that if Jesus
came back, we'd nuke him.
The Day The Earth Stood Still is basically a Sci Fi parable on that theme. The original
short story, Farewell to the Master was an okay thriller with a twist - the 'servant' robot
Gnut turns out to be the dominant alien, and Klaatu merely the living PR person, along for the ride.
Here we get a full-on allegory.
The Christ parallel is very well known. Klaatu comes with a message of paternal authority
from all-powerful superbeings. He's murdered by thoughtless and wicked mankind, but returns from
the dead with final words of hope for our backward race. Further wrinkles have Klaatu fretting over
just the perfect non-violent Miracle to convince mankind of his limitless power; he takes the
name Carpenter, etc. One of the first dialogue lines is, "Holy Christmas!" Not often cited is the
detail, during a nightttime visit to
his ship, of the Army's barbed wire falling across Klaatu's face - a modern crown of thorns.
Klaatu's noble superiority is evident from the beginning; he's only slightly bemused by the
authorities' attempt to keep him under lock and key. Sane and rational, he falls into an immediate
mutual attraction with war widow Helen Benson and her son - Patricia Neal plays the woman with
a perfect sense of dignity and scepticism. She's our surrogate in the story - when she finally buys
into Klaatu's mission, defying the military (which seems to be in charge of everything), she basically
finds a higher truth to follow than official fear. 7
The religious angle is, I think, what deflected the radar of conservatives in and outside of
Hollywood. Except to label leftist writers as traitors, and to regularly rail against Charlie
Chaplin, the press and the government ignored movies, particularly such 'insubstantial entertainment' as
a lowly Science Fiction film. The fundamentalists probably saw the show as a covert acknowledgement
of the rightness of Church over State. And Hollywood was certainly in step with that aspect - the
censors' only objection to the script, was to demand that it be made clear that Klaatu's life was of
In his article, Steve Rubin did a beautiful job of placing The Day The Earth Stood Still in
Graffiti -like perspective, going so far as to extrapolate the characters into the 70s. Bobby
becomes a casualty of Vietnam, the opportunist Tom Stevens runs for congress, basically becoming
Richard M. Nixon. His selfish "I don't care about the rest of the world' might be a mantra for
What he didn't attack head-on was the disturbing Utopia Klaatu brings with him from his 'confederacy
of planets' beyond the stars. Jesus preached Love and forgiveness, and a reprieve from
the blood & thunder of the Old Testament Jehovah, who had already destroyed the world once in anger.
Klaatu doesn't come with a message of enlightenment; he brings no helpful miracles from space, and
his race doesn't seem to be very interested in Earth culture. 1
Nope, he's not here to save the heathen, but to smite the wicked. His final speech, a kind of rebuttal
to Oswald Cabal's Ode to Conquerors of the Universe in
Things to Come, is a final warning, a direct
threat, an ultimatum. 2
Klaatu's spacemen don't care about our petty squabbles, and aren't leaving any monoliths behind to help
us along. We're to get our act together, or we'll be annihilated without a second thought.
Surely the pacifists of 1951 were ecstatic to hear this labeling of America as the aggressor, a
position we of the flaky counterculture cheering section of the early 70s claimed as our own -
we had Easy Rider to assure us that America was Evil, dude, with Vietnam as evidence. But
did anybody think about the society Klaatu describes? It's a Robotocracy of implacable
mechanical policemen who watch over everything, responding to 'aggression' with ruthless force. Klaatu's
race has ceded control over everything to the robots, and all is supposed to be just peachy out there -
no wars, no dissent. Of course, if they ever decide they don't need robotic executioners on every
street corner, they're
out of luck - Gort doesn't have an Off switch. The Day The Earth Stood Still is a good think-piece
for those who promote Law And Order as a universal solution. Whose law? Whose order? 3
What Klaatu's really selling is membership in a dictatorship far worse than anything Stalin or
Mao could dream up - and we're supposed to approve? If what we worship is power, then I suppose so.
A classic and perhaps a masterpiece, The Day The Earth Stood Still is a great parable about
the petty differences between Earthly nations. If we can get along with a total alien like Klaatu,
why can't we just settle our differences with our brother nations and get on with living? Poor
Mr. Harley's protest that things are too complicated to fulfill Klaatu's demands, earns the
spaceman's dismissal, and our scorn. Klaatu isn't much different from the colonists who went to America
or India, couldn't make the natives see things the 'right' way, and started shooting.
It's always about brute force, folks. Behind Klaatu at all times stands Gort, the
enforcer. Just like a government dominated by the military, it's the weapons that speak the loudest,
even when they're just sitting quietly.
As an emotional experience, there's little in Sci Fi that can beat Robert Wise's show. The documentary
surface ups the tension, and Bernard Herrman's sublime score tells the story
in its own operatic way. We have rational, likeable characters to root for like Helen Benson and
the 'savant' Einstein substitute, Professor Barnhardt, and a villain who's doing the wrong thing
(finking on Jesus) for the selfishly right excuse ("Somebody's got to get rid of him!"). 4
Darryl Zanuck's production is sublime. The simple design of the saucer, the robot Gort and Klaatu's
garb do indeed seem the products of alien technology. Robert Wise's mixture of Fox location
semi-docu stylishness mesh perfectly with his Val Lewtonesque touches of personal unease. Bobby's
cross-Mall night walk is as tense as anything in The Cat People; Helen's panic when stalked by a
menacing robot is sheer unthinking terror.
The picture manages warm touches and a lively sense of humor, rare indeed in early Sci Fi. Billy Gray
is terrific as the normal kid-cum-diamond thief. Klaatu's power outage demo has its amusing aspects,
and Professor Barnhardt happily gloats when his secretary admits that she's very frightened.
The sparingly-used but effective optical magic of saucer landings and death rays are superb, greatly
aided by sound effects and Herrmann's quavering theremin. With his visor sliding open to reveal a
living & pulsing light of death that shoots like a bullet (a reverse ricochet sound, actually), Gort
is an inverse Knight of the Round table - one who responds to cold programming instead of a chivalric
The Day The Earth Stood Still is so good, and pulls its audience so firmly into its spell, that
the inconsistencies of the show only become obvious after repeated viewings. Klaatu's wounding
by a nervous soldier gets big gasps and 'boos' from audiences, but the spaceman kind of asked for
it - try reaching into your clothing for an unfamiliar device, and holding it up to a crowd of L.A.P.D's
best, and see what happens. Klaatu tells us our ignorance is no excuse, but that's a
two-way street - and his race could have studied ours if it wanted to. The Army guards the saucer and
limitless weapon of mass destruction, with only two soldiers, and doesn't even restrict access to the
site. At the very least, they'd probably evacuate the city, and bring more troops and firepower around
the saucer. A real flying saucer and alien robot is just sitting out on a baseball diamond in the park,
and nobody seems to care. After the first day or so, there isn't even a reporter hanging around to
see if Gort twitches. If it really happened like this, the Mall would more likely than not be the
destination of a mass exodus - everyone on their way to Mecca or to see the Pope would reroute
themselves to Washington.
Klaatu apparently loses his life, and returns to us as a zombie on borrowed batteries. But nobody frets
over the two luckless Army guards who get dis-zintah-graded (Duck Dodgers-speak) as the aliens vent
their rage. And how about the earlier two soldiers? Are they 'konked out' or were their skulls crushed?
Does Gort respond with violence to every situation?
Klaatu's language is extremely efficient. Gort, Klaatu barada nikto is the message (and a
wrong one - Helen doesn't repeat Klaatu's exact words). If her first two words are names, than
barada nikto translates roughly as, "Stash the lady in the ship and call headquarters for
instructions." Either that, or it also tells Gort to recover Klaatu's body and warm it up in the
Gort, a ten-foot metal Golem, burns his way out of a solid block of plastic, marches across a major
city, burns down the wall
of a jail, and carries Kaput Klaatu back to the Mall - and nobody sees him! That's pretty good when one
considers that Klaatu couldn't escape the Army's dragnet an hour before. 5
Relax, Savant, it's just a movie. All of these objections are hooey in a film that keeps us at the edge
of our seats, eager to hear every detail and catch every nuance. The poor audience for Klaatu's imperious
ultimatum, an international group of scientists, has no power to implement any of his demands. Who
listens to scientists? Our days to becoming a burnt-out cinder are numbered indeed.
more concerned with the walking-dead version of Klaatu. Does his
smile to Helen have a tinge of bittersweet interstellar romance? Has he maybe got a twin brother
who'll come back to spirit Helen away to a galactic Casbah, before the curtain rings down on Earth? Or is
Gort a death ray-packing chaperone, there to roast playboy Klaatu, should he go soft for the Earth
dames, like Captain Kirk?
Also recommended, Mark Bourne's DVD Journal Review
of Day The Earth Stood Still, which stays on topic a bit better than Savant, and says as much or
more using a fraction of the wordage.
Fox Home Video's Classic Collection DVD of The Day The Earth Stood Still continues the slick
video restoration happiness of their earlier titles, especially when it comes to using image
enhancement & cleanup technology without destroying the texture of the old b&w image. Savant saw
only a few scenes here and there (like Gort's blurred cu, turning to face Klaatu's flashlight) that
don't handle the image well. The Day The Earth Stood Still was always an undetailed film: when I
saw it in 35mm for the first time, I was surprised to find there was no more detail in Gort, in
most anything. What we appreciate here, besides the absence of scratches and mottling that marred
earlier videos, are the sparkling highlights in Patricia Neal's eyes, and the forest of wires that
support her when Gort carries her off.
The audio gives a choice of Mono original or a synthesized stereo track. I don't believe there was ever
a stereo recording of the music. Both sound great - this is one picture that's easy to see for the
umpteenth time, just to savor the weirdness of Herrmann's score.
There are a stack of extras on the disc, most of them from the pricey 1995 or '96 laser special
edition (my copy succumbed to laser rot, but I still have it). The docu is long but covers all
the bases, even though almost all the material is repeated in the commentary with director Wise and
host Nicolas Meyer. The most disappointing thing is Patricia Neal's dismissive attitude to the film, which
she clearly doesn't want to be remembered as a high point of her career (sorry, but you're too
darn good in it, Ms. Neal). Robert Wise is on hand to say that, no, those Christ parallels were NEVER
intentional. He can be forgiven for prevaricating, because to say yes would open a can of holy
worms that would have to be explained in detail.
The Day The Earth Stood Still is a blatant telegram movie. Its Christian message is
muddle, but it does communicate some things loud and clear. War is an atrocity to be avoided at all
cost. Interstellar peace begins with treating our friends and relatives and everyone we meet, with
kindness and respect. And true Christians don't allow suspicion and fear to guide their actions, or mask
weakness with blind aggression.
This is one Science Fiction movie that will never fade away.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Day the Earth Stood Still rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Robert Wise and Nicolas Meyer, Making the Earth Stand
Still Documentary, Movietone Newsreel, Restoration Comparison, 5 Still Galleries, Shooting Script,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 15, 2003
1. Klaatu speaks perfect Oxford English, but is ignorant about the
details of how we live - trains, flashlights and locked doors are quaint to him. More importantly,
he is unaware of what our wars are really like.
2. The more sensible Spanish-language title that Savant found in reference
books is Ultimatum a la
Tierra - Ultimatum to Earth. The disc contains a Spanish and a French track, but the Spanish track
gives a literal title up front. It may not be the original release Spanish version, because it was obviously
made from a composite English track: every time someone speaks, the music drops out. A klunky piano and
keyboard cue is crudely inserted over Klaatu's final speech.
3. This became a cautionary message in Colossus: The Forbin
Project, about 16 years later - America and Russia hand over their strategic defenses to computers,
who immediately take over the world, enslaving us to save us from ourselves.
4. As witness
Invaders from Mars and
Them!, little tow-headed American
boys are the darlings and first boosters of our U.S. Army. Tom Stevens is a known rat right from
the beginning. The real Judas of The Day The Earth Stood Still is that jerk kid outside the
boarding house who cheerfully tells the M.P.'s that Klaatu Went Thataway.
5. This record for stealth was only broken by Dean Parkin and Bert Gordon
in 1958's War of the Colossal Beast: a 60 foot giant breaks loose from his confinement in a
hangar at Los Angeles International Airport, and disappears into the city (!) only to turn up later,
22 miles away in Griffith Park! He must have worn quiet tennis shoes.
6. Pictures from the time like Try and Get Me (America is a know-nothing
lynch mob, incited by irresponsible newspapers) and The Prowler (the lure of easy money and comfort will corrupt
anyone, even our police) helped earn their makers one-way trips into exile.
7. I really like the maturity of Patricia Neal's character. Both this film and
The Fountainhead have her in the thrall of a superior super-male. The Ayn Rand character is all sexual
confusion and hysteria, but by the end she's cured to find a glorious destiny as the consort of the
all-powerful Howard Roarke. By contrast, Helen Benson has already lost the love of her life through war. She's
shed her tears and
is simply willing to to what's best for her son, even marrying the unpromising Tom Stevens. There's a strong
sexual undercurrent to her relationship with Klaatu (and his brute alter-ego, Gort), but Helen keeps her
dignity and character intact - she's woman enough to say goodbye to the super-man from space, without as
much as a whimper of personal feeling. It's all in the eyes - Helen's is the kind of love than can save
the world, and ask nothing for herself.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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