Posted by:
Byron Brewer

Science Flick-tion: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)


(Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of irregularly-scheduled columns by Managing Editor Byron Brewer, mainly dealing with classic and not-so-classic sci-fi/fantasy/horror films and their denizens. Mr. Brewer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect that of He welcomes both raves and opposing views – so get to the CBNforum, for d’ast sake!)   I can still see it now, in my memories of grainy black and white: The power of the robot Gort. The ignorance of mankind. And this guy wasn’t even writing a cookbook (Twilight Zonejoke) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is one of the true genre blockbusters, up there with Forbidden Planet and Aliens, IMO. The film tells the story of a humanoid alien visitor (Michael Rennie) who comes to Earth with a warning, accompanied by his powerful robot. Robert Wise directed the film. Its writer. Edmund H. North, based his screenplay on Harry Bates’ short story, Farewell to the Master (1940). Our visitor, Klaatu, gets off on an unbelievably good foot when he lands in Washington, D.C. (What? Not in rural Arkansas?!) He meets the President's secretary, Harley (Frank Conroy), and reveals he has a message he wants the whole world to hear, to which Harley replies that the divided world leaders would not even be able to agree on a meeting place. (How times change, lol.) When Klaatu suggests he live among ordinary people to get to know them better, Harley informs him that he is in, uh-hem, “protective custody.” Natch, Klaatu escapes to a boarding house, assuming the alias “Mr. Carpenter.” Among the residents are Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), a widow whose husband was killed in World War II, and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). At breakfast the next morning, Klaatu listens to a paranoid radio commentator and to the boarders' speculations about his visit. While Helen and her boyfriend, Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe),  go on a day trip, Bobby takes Klaatu on a tour of the city, including a visit to his father's grave in Arlington, where Klaatu is dismayed to learn that most of those buried there were killed in wars. The two then visit the Lincoln Memorial and the heavily-guarded spaceship. Klaatu, impressed by the inscription of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, is hopeful that Earth may harbor people wise enough to understand his message. When he asks Bobby to name the greatest person living in the world, Bobby suggests a leading American scientist, Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who conveniently lives nearby. Bobby takes Klaatu to Barnhardt's home, but the professor is absent. Klaatu leaves his address with the housekeeper and writes a clue for the solution to an advanced mathematical problem on a blackboard as a means of establishing his credentials. Later, government agents escort Klaatu to see Barnhardt. Klaatu introduces himself and warns the professor that the people of the other planets have become concerned for their own safety after human beings developed atomic power. Klaatu declares that, if his message is rejected, "Planet Earth will be eliminated." Barnhardt agrees to arrange a meeting of scientists at Klaatu's ship. Barnhardt then asks for a demonstration of his power. Klaatu returns to his spaceship the next evening to implement the demonstration, unaware that Bobby has followed him. Bobby tells Helen and Tom what he has seen. At first, they do not believe him, but Tom finds a diamond on the floor of Klaatu's room. The following day, a jeweler tells him it is unlike any he has ever seen. Klaatu finds Helen at her workplace and she leads him to an unoccupied elevator which stops suddenly. Klaatu admits he is responsible, tells Helen his true identity, and asks for her help. An exceptional montage sequence shows that Klaatu has neutralized electrical power everywhere, with exceptions for human safety, making the world “stand still” for half an hour. After the blackout ends, the manhunt for Klaatu intensifies and Tom tells the authorities of his suspicions, the little snitch! Helen and Klaatu take a taxi to Barnhardt's home; en route, Klaatu tells Helen that if anything should happen to him, she must go to Gort and say the now-famous phrase, “Klaatu barada nikto.” When they are spotted, Klaatu is shot by military personnel. Helen does venture to the spaceship and approaches Gort, who awakens and kills two guards before Helen can give him Klaatu's message. Gort gently carries her into the spaceship, leaves and returns with Klaatu's corpse, reviving him. Klaatu steps out of the spaceship and addresses the assembled scientists, explaining that humanity's penchant for violence and first steps into space have caused concern among other space-faring worlds, who have created a race of robot enforcers (ala Gort) to protect them against aggression. He warns that if the people of Earth threaten to extend their violence into space, then the robots will destroy Earth, adding that: “The decision rests with you.” He enters the spaceship and departs. So cool! The Day the Earth Stood Still was well-received by critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1951. The film was moderately successful when released, accruing $1,850,000 in distributors’ domestic (U.S. and Canada) rentals, making it the year's 52nd biggest earner. Variety praised the film's documentary style and the Los Angeles Times praised its seriousness, though it also found “certain subversive elements.” The film earned more plaudits overseas: the Hollywood Foreign Press gave the filmmakers a special Golden Globe for “promoting international understanding.” The French magazine Cahiers du cinema was also impressed, with Pierre Kast calling it “almost literally stunning” and praising its “moral relativism.” The film was attacked from some quarters, due to actor Sam Jaffe’s politics. Jaffe, a liberal, was listed on the Red Channels pamphlet, a self-described listing of performers sympathetic to Communism. The film's explicit message of peace, in combination with its dark outlook regarding human society, struck a chord with audiences, earning it lasting acclaim. The movie is ranked seventh in Arthur C. Clarke’s list of the best science fiction films of all time, just above Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, for which Clarke himself wrote the screenplay. Net time you’re up late at night search your satellite or DVR guide for this great work. And remember: “The decision rests with you.”