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Possibly the most beloved Science Fiction movie of the 50s, The Day the Earth Stood Still was produced when Hollywood could still perceive a movie about a man from space as an 'A' production. After a flurry of top-end product, space and monster operas were consigned to the independent ghetto, with only occasional exceptions like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Forbidden Planet to show the genre's grand possibilities.
Simultaneously pacifist and fascist in its concept, this audience pleaser is so appealing that liberal thinkers don't look past the 'Socialists from Space' angle to see what kind of conceptual rhubarb writer Edmund H. North is selling. The Day the Earth Stood Still pulls us into its post-modern thrills by pushing the right Cold War buttons. We can save the world, but only if we can remember those three magic words.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of Cinefantastique magazine's first classic profile articles; researcher Steven Jay Rubin collected the entire back story of its making. The movie was conceived before Destination Moon, and Claude Rains was the first choice to play Klaatu. Rubin also nailed the movie's three dominant themes -- two of them hot-button topics that at the time 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's confused and potentially benign alien actually touched down first. CE3K fans think that all previous Sci-Fi movies featured hostile invaders, forgetting that initial efforts like It Came from Outer Space soft-pedaled the menace angle. Then The War of the Worlds hit and visitors from the stars became synonymous with ray guns and destruction.
Flying Saucer hysteria, based on several hard-to-discount sightings in the late 40s, has since been pegged as a religious phenomenon. Scholars that study belief systems from Christianity to phrenology think that people invest their faith in the craze because Flying Saucers have an immediacy missing from organized churches. Why not believe that an advanced civilization of interstellar people will soon arrive to solve our problems? The Day the Earth Stood Still's miraculous space ship landing definitely evokes the Biblical Rapture - an irrational idea best mined in Spielberg's Close Encounters. 1
Then there's the straight-on Church theme - in 1950 America was in the throes of a revivalist comeback spurred by preachers like Billy Graham taking advantage of the fledgling TV to spread the Good Word. It was the widening of a political fundamentalist streak that had 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 revivalist 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 considered suspicious; anybody trying to think freely or improve the system was a dangerous intellectual.
The Fundamentalists and the Anti-Communists had much in common - the scholars list some forms of Anti-Communism as a belief system of its own. An enemy to loathe seemed to be all the faith many Americans needed. A cadre of Original Sinners had betrayed us to the Russians or the Red Chinese, and they must be rooted out.
The America that greets Klaatu is a country at perpetual war, flailing at idological enemies. Massive arms, aviation and space research programs were under way to counter perceived super-weapons the Soviets were said to be preparing. People on the streets were just plain scared. Media pundits gained popularity by hyping the invisible menace. The joke was, that if Jesus came back we'd nuke him.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a Sci-Fi parable on that exact theme. The original short story Farewell to the Master is an okay pulp piece with a twist -- Harry Bates' robot Gnut turns out to be the dominant alien. Klaatu is merely his organic PR person, a sidekick along for the ride. The screen version instead gives us a full-on allegory.
The film's Christ parallel is well known. One of the first dialogue lines is, "Holy Christmas!" Klaatu takes the name Carpenter. He frets over the perfect non-violent Miracle to convince mankind of his limitless power. Murdered by thoughtless militarists, Klaatu returns from the dead with final words of hope for our backward race, a message of paternal authority from all-powerful super beings. Not often cited is the detail, during a nighttime visit to his ship, of the Army's barbed wire falling across Klaatu's face -- forming a modern crown of thorns. 7
Klaatu's smug attitude is evident from the beginning; he's merely amused by attempts to keep him under lock and key. The fugitive space man falls into an immediate mutual attraction with war widow Helen Benson and her son. Patricia Neal plays the widow with dignity and skepticism and becomes our surrogate in the story. When Helen finally buys into Klaatu's mission and defies the military (which seems to be in charge of everything), she follows a higher truth than official fear. 2
The religious angle may have been what protected the anti-militarist The Day the Earth Stood Still from the red-baiting media in and outside of Hollywood. The fundamentalists would surely see the Christ parallel and approve the movie's championing of a faith-based morality. Hollywood was certainly in step with that aspect -- the Production Code's only objection to the script was to demand that it be made clear that Klaatu's apparent resurrection is only temporary - "The Almighty Spirit" gives life, not cold alien science.
Steven Jay Rubin's Cinefantastique article placed The Day the Earth Stood Still in American Graffiti- like perspective, going so far as to extrapolate the characters into the 70s. Young Bobby becomes a casualty of Vietnam and 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 America today.
What Rubin didn't investigate was the disturbing Utopia represented by Klaatu's Federation of Planets. Jesus preached Love and forgiveness and a reprieve from the blood and thunder of the Old Testament Jehovah, who had already destroyed the world once in anger. Klaatu doesn't come with miracles or a message of enlightenment and his race has little interest in Earth culture. Klaatu speaks perfect Oxford English but is ignorant about how we live - trains, flashlights and locked doors are novelties to him. More importantly, he is unaware of the nature of our wars.
Nope, Klaatu is not here to save the heathen, but to smite the wicked. He isn't interested in our petty squabbles and doesn't leave any monoliths behind to help us along. We're to get our act together or we'll be annihilated without a second thought. Klaatu's farewell 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. 3
Surely the pacifists of 1951 were ecstatic to see America scorned as the aggressor. But did anybody consider the 'superior' society Klaatu describes? It's a Robotocracy of implacable mechanical policemen that watch over everything and respond to 'aggression' with ruthless force. The Gortian race doesn't hand out tickets or slap hands -- instant disintegration is the only response in their bag of tricks. Klaatu's race has ceded total control to the robots and all is supposed to be just peachy out there -- no wars, no dissent. Of course, if the Federation of Planets ever decides that it doesn't need robotic executioners on every street corner, they'll be 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? What Klaatu is really selling is a place in a dictatorship far worse than anything Stalin or Mao could dream up. 4
The Day the Earth Stood Still works best as a parable about the petty differences between Earthly nations. If we can get along with an alien like Klaatu, why can't we settle our differences with our brother humans? Poor Mr. Harley's protest that complicated politics prevent him from fulfilling Klaatu's demands earns the spaceman's ire, and our scorn. Klaatu isn't much different from the colonists that 'discovered' America or India, couldn't make the uncooperative natives see things the 'right' way and started shooting. Behind Klaatu at all times stands Gort, the enforcer. In any government dominated by the military, the weapons have the loudest voice, even when they're just sitting quietly. It always comes down to brute force.
As an emotional experience, few Sci-Fi films can beat Robert Wise's show. The documentary surface ups the tension and Bernard Herrman's sublime score tells the story in operatic movements. We have rational, likeable characters to root for like Helen Benson and the 'savant' Einstein-substitute Professor Barnhardt. The villain informs on Klaatu (Jesus) with a selfish excuse: "Somebody's got to get rid of him!" 5
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. The Fox studio's location expertise meshes perfectly with Robert Wise's Val Lewton-esque touches of personal unease. Bobby's cross-Mall night walk is as tense as anything in Cat People; when stalked by the menacing robot, Helen's panic is sheer unthinking terror.
The picture manages warm touches and a lively sense of humor. 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 to being frightened.
The sparingly used optical magic of saucer landings and death rays is superb, greatly aided by sound effects and Herrmann's quavering Theremin. Gort's visor slides open to reveal a living and pulsing light of death that shoots like a bullet, a reverse ricochet sound, actually. Gort is an inverse Knight of the Round table, one that responds to cold programming instead of a chivalric code.
The Day the Earth Stood Still pulls its audience so firmly into its spell that its inconsistencies only become obvious after repeated viewings. Klaatu's initial wounding by a nervous soldier gets big gasps and 'boos' from audiences, when in actuality the spaceman kind of asked for it. If the L.A.P.D. has already drawn its guns, try reaching into your clothing for an unfamiliar object and holding it out at them, and see what happens. Klaatu lectures that our bad attitude is no excuse, but ignorance a two-way street. Had they cared enough, his race could have studied ours for a minute or two.
Although it encases him in plastic, the Army posts only two soldiers to guard Gort, a limitless weapon of mass destruction. Access to the site isn't even restricted. At the very least they'd ring the saucer with more firepower and evacuate the city. A real flying saucer and alien robot are sitting 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 this really happened, the Mall would more likely than not become the destination of a mass exodus. Every pilgrim on their way to Mecca or the Vatican would reroute themselves to Washington.
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 microwave.
Gort, a ten-foot metal Golem, scorches 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. 6 Also puzzling is the fact that Klaatu's limitless technology can neutralize all electric power selectively, all over the Earth, yet Klaatu cannot fulfill his mission by simply communicating to the whole Earth, all at once. The benevolent alien Overlords of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End figured out that problem, no sweat.
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 international group of scientists that hears Klaatu's imperious ultimatum has no power to implement any of his demands. Who listens to scientists? Our days to becoming a burnt-out cinder are numbered indeed.
We're more concerned with the walking-dead version of Klaatu, who apparently loses his life and returns only on borrowed batteries. Does his smile to Helen have a tinge of bittersweet interstellar romance? Does he perhaps have a twin brother who'll come back to spirit Helen away to a galactic Casbah? Or is Gort a trigger-happy chaperone, willing to roast playboy Klaatu should he do a Captain Kirk and go soft for an Earth dame?
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a highly successful message movie. Its Christian theme is ultimately a 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, relatives and everyone we meet with kindness and respect. 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.
Fox's new release of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still is the first 50's Sci-Fi classic to be presented in Blu-ray. The restored, remastered B&W film looks and sounds immaculate. The movie's clean lines and simple compositions only improve with the added detail. We can see tiny human figures running away from Klaatu's space ship as it lands on the D.C. Mall, and the imperfections in both the ship and the rubber Gort costume are much more in evidence. Watch Gort's arms and legs carefully and you'll see that more than one shot reveals the large laces on the side meant to face away from the camera.
Snappy second unit photography in Washington, D.C. lends the proceedings a strong feeling of realism. Klaatu lands in broad daylight (he's on a mission of peace, after all) but most of the film's later scenes take place at night, under eerie lighting that complements Bernard Herrmann's sensational music score. The remixed soundtrack is sharper and more defined than I've ever heard it before; in the lossless Blu-ray audio format Gort's ray blasts are a marvel of audio construction, with sound effects nested inside sound effects. In addition to Spanish and French tracks, an isolated score track is included. Much of the film unspools with a documentary-like directness; Herrmann's cues are used almost exclusively in scenes involving alien activity.
Some worthy extras from the previous Studio Classics DVD are not present. Older copies are worth saving for interviews with Robert Wise and contributions by the likes of Bob Burns, Robert Skotak and Joe Dante. The older commentary by Robert Wise and writer-director Nicholas Meyer has been retained, accompanied by a music-centric new commentary with Nick Redman and three music historians. The Trailer Park and Cloverland companies contribute a number of all-new featurettes, several of which are quite educational. The Making of ... is an acceptable overview piece featuring input from Steven Jay Rubin, one of the first writers to research the creation of classic 1950s Sci-Fi films. Decoding "Klaatu Barada Nikto": Science Fiction as Metaphor interprets the film's famous quote. Fat galleries of stills and artwork are included along with an interactive press book.
The Astounding Harry Bates and Edmund North, the Man Who Made the Earth Stand Still are respectful tributes to the film's authors. Jamieson K. Price recites Bates' original short story Farewell to the Master. The best new extra is A Brief History of Flying Saucers, an excellent analysis of the flying saucer craze as examined by cultists, debunkers and the commercial opportunists of Roswell, New Mexico. It offers several famous bits of saucer footage, most of which look terribly phony. The piece concludes by stating Carl Jung's theory that the saucer craze is a form of social hysteria, a search for a new God to replace the old.
The fun continues with three items based on the use of the electronic Theremin in the film's soundtrack. Musician Peter Pringle gives us a rundown on the unusual musical instrument, and then plays the opening theme from the film. Exclusive to Blu-ray is an interactive Create Your Own Score feature that allows one to sequence Theremin notes and then see them played atop a movie scene. A shooting gallery game called Gort Command! is also a Blu-ray exclusive.
On the more serious side is a montage of newsreel clips from the early 'Fifties, showing the media suspicion and contempt for our Communist foes. Contrasting that is Edmund North's 1982 film Race to Oblivion, made for an anti-nuke coalition of doctors. It features doctors and scientists proclaiming the unsurvivabilty of a nuclear war. Activist actor Burt Lancaster interviews a scarred Los Angeles nurse who was a victim of the Hiroshima bombing. Back in the early 1950s, political advocacy films of this kind were considered traitorous propaganda.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Dr. Christopher Cook, ed. Pears Encyclopedia 1988-89, Pelham Books, London. Reprinted in Information Please Almanac, Houghton Mifflin 1990.
2. Patricia Neal's character is both sensitive and mature. 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 love is the kind that can save the world, and ask nothing in return.
3. The more sensible Spanish-language title is Ultimatum a la Tierra - Ultimatum to Earth. The disc contains Spanish and French tracks. The Spanish track is obviously a new concoction 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.
4. This became a cautionary message in 1969's Colossus: The Forbin Project. America and Russia hand over their strategic defense to computers, which immediately take over the world, enslaving us to save us from ourselves.
5. As witness Them! and Invaders from Mars, 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 that cheerfully tells the M.P.'s that Klaatu Went Thataway.
6. This record for stealth was broken only by Dean Parkin in Bert Gordon's 1958 War of the Colossal Beast: A 60-foot giant breaks loose from a hangar at Los Angeles International Airport and disappears into the city. He later turns up 22 miles away in Griffith Park!
7. This exchange on the subject of the Christian allegory in The Day the Earth Stood Still took place between myself and Sci-Fi authority Bill Warren on December 31, 2008. Bill's research into this movie is very thorough:
Bill Warren: You refer in your review to, "Then there's the straight-on Church theme". You'd have to search far and wide among reviews of or articles about Stood Still when it was released to find any mention of this concept. I think it was almost completely missed--including by Robert Wise, who hadn't even HEARD of this theme in his own movie until 1984.
Savant: The Christian symbolism is so on the money and pervasive -- and I still have my 1975 UCLA Bruin article where I blurt out my "discovery" of the 'crown of thorns' shadow symbolism -- that I should think Wise is just doing what any sensible director does, avoiding opening a can of worms on a possibly controversial angle. He certainly did that on West Side Story, dodging all discussion of the glamorization of teen delinquency by talking about little kids not being born with hatred for each other, etc. He's wise to avoid lame arguments, accusations, etc..
I think my take on early Sci-Fi is that contemporary reviewers and the public and generally everybody did not look for deep meanings -- they only did that when an "issue" was at stake. There wasn't a sanctioned anti-nuke press anywhere at the time. You get allusions to pacifism -- although The Day the Earth Stood Still's outer space visitors are not really pacifists. Besides, the producer and writer later stated that the Christian symbolism was very intentional. I guess they could have said that in retrospect, but the pattern is pretty strong to me.
Warren: No, I can absolutely assure you that Wise did not know about the Christian symbolism. In 1984, he appeared at two events with Edmund H. North, one at USC, and one at the World Science Fiction Convention. At USC, someone asked about the Christian symbolism and Wise laughed, saying no, there wasn't any of that -- but then North spoke up. A friend of mine, Craig Miller, who had arranged the event, says Wise was astounded, floored. Later at the Worldcon, we had a panel of Wise, North and Blaustein; the Christian symbolism was brought up again and Wise admitted he hadn't known a thing about that until just a few weeks previously. You probably met Wise over the years, as I did. I never met a more open, less "inside Hollywood" director than him, unless it was Coppola.
I researched the movie extensively for Keep Watching the Skies -- no mention in the 50s anywhere, by anyone, about the Christian symbolism, not by Blaustein nor by North. I think they were hesitant to bring it up -- even to Wise -- for fear that they would be regarded as nearly blasphemous for appending Christ stuff to a "mere" science fiction movie. I don't know who first pointed this out, but I didn't hear about it until well after I moved down here in 1966. The first time I talked to Wise at the Lytton Center for the Visual Arts, he said nothing at all about that aspect of the film -- because, as it turned out, he didn't know about it. His reactions in 1984 were strong enough that I suspect had he known during production that North was slipping that in, he might well have prevented its inclusion. It's like with Forbidden Planet and The Tempest -- nobody said anything about that in 1956, not a blessed word. That came up much later. I think Steve Rubin will tell you the same thing, that the Christ allusions weren't revealed until decades after the film was released.
Savant: Okay, point taken. I'm really happy that people are talking more about the 51 version now -- my kids were showing my Blu-ray to friends that hadn't seen it. They're making more uninitiated potential viewers every year! Wouldn't it be fun to be able to see some gem like this totally fresh -- which has happened to me only two or three times in the last 20 years? Or to walk in to see some humdrum title and get hit by a classic "made just for you?" I guess that's why we do this, looking for those thrills.
Warren: Some years back, someone either said (or wrote) a wonderful phrase that I wished I had originated: He wished he could again experience seeing 2001 for the first time.
Boy howdy me too--and you could add Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still to that list. I first saw Day at the Egyptian Theater in Coos Bay, about 30 miles south of where we lived. My mother dropped me off at the theater while she went shopping. The movie so intensely electrified me I can even remember the momentary delight/fear I felt when the flying saucer disappears into space at the end -- and then from the same vanishing point, "THE END" rushes toward the screen. There was a moment, less than a second, when I thought Klaatu's ship was coming back. That sensation of fear/delight/anticipation was so vividly intense that I can still recall it. Later, I saw the movie again at the local theater in Reedsport; I was so excited about seeing it again that my knees literally knocked (now they can't even make contact), the only time I remember that happening to me.
I'd read the novelization of Forbidden Planet; in those days, I assumed the movie would be exactly like the novelization, and so was surprised when some elements were not there. I assumed they'd been filmed and cut out. But by the end of the movie I was a basket case. I'd gone to see it with a handful of friends for my 13th birthday party. I couldn't possibly have been more pleased; the movie was absolutely and utterly everything I hoped it would be (except for that damned belch by Robby). The only times I can remember leaving a theater so delighted, so fulfilled, were The Day the Earth Stood Still, Isadora, The Wild Bunch and 2001. I wish I could experience seeing each of those again for the first time.
Note, 2.18.09: This issue of whether the Christ parallel was "known" by someone at Fox has become more complicated. Researcher Gary Teetzel came across this quote from page 153 of Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice by David J. Skal and Jessica Rains.
Hello Glenn. Here's the quote from Claude Rains. It's from a New Yorker article called "Gratified Old Revolutionary", from the Feb. 15, 1951 issue. He's speaking about his role in the play Darkness at Noon:
"I find it quite a job. The other Russians I've represented were complicated but they weren't in a class with this one. Today I'd probably regard the mad poet in Tolstoy's "The Living Corpse" or Chlestakov in "The Inspector General" as a fairly light assignment, although when I played them they seemed formidable. As a matter of fact, I'm not too nervous about the prospect of playing a modern Christ, which Darryl Zanuck proposes to have me do this summer."
The timing of this interview leads me to believe that Rains is referencing the role of Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still. So . . . did they send Rains a script, and he grasped the Christ parallel instantly, or did Zanuck or some Fox representative describe the role to him as a modern Christ in order to make it sound more important than some silly "man from Mars" sci-fi hokum for the kiddies? My guess is the latter. Regards, Gary
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