Classics: The Day the Earth Stood Still

For decades, science fiction scriptwriters have felt a basic need to either teach morality or lessons in patriotism to their viewers. During the heart of the Cold War, quite a few films masked the “communist” as invading aliens, intent on nothing more than threatening our survival. The 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, based on the Harry Bates short story “Farewell to the Master,” also uses an alien to represent the uninvited communists but does so in a way to make the communists seem proper and the Americans seem foolhardy… or at least some Americans. In its portrayal, the government and general citizens are worthy people. The military and civil security forces are the actual villains.

The movie is, in essence, a huge anti-military protest made long before such protests were acceptable.

The film begins very directly, with an alien saucer circling the Earth to land right in the middle of Washington, DC. An alien humanoid, bringing a message of peace, is confronted by battle tanks, machine gun wielding soldiers, and wary policemen. Before the alien can explain his purpose, he is shot by a nervous soldier.

Then we are introduced to what many consider the real star of the film. Out from the spacecraft lumbers Gort (Lock Martin), the robot defender who immobilizes the puny human military force with a deadly energy beam that lances from his eye. If you ever wondered where the Cylon centurions of the 1978 Battlestar Galactica got their origin, look no further. Gort vaporizes all offensive weapons and assumes guard over the saucer. Cooler thinking civilians rush the alien to a hospital. Before they can learn much about him, he escapes.

This alien, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), appears perfectly human. He soon acquires a room for rent and befriends Bobby Benson (Billy Gray), the young son of the landlady (Patricia Neal). Through Bobby, we learn something of Klaatu’s home before the alien moves to issue demands to the leaders of the world through a group of understanding scientists, led by Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). 

Klaatu’s message is simple. Give up war or face annihilation. Humans have developed nuclear weapons and can no longer be tolerated in their present condition. The peaceful citizens of the galactic neighborhood are issuing them a single choice: Be peaceful or die!

The leaders of humanity resist long enough for the film to demonstrate the petty squabbles of nations and individual men and provide the excuse for Klaatu to enact the films signature event. He shuts down all electrical and mechanical power worldwide, sparing that for in-flight aircraft, hospitals, and other elements required to prevent death or injury. His illustration plunges the population of the planet in fear, preparing all for his speech.

Klaatu ends his visit with a speech and a warning, explaining his premise and properly scolding the foolish mortals. Just to ensure that all will remain peaceful, the alien offers man a choice: Allow the emotions of fear, hate, and revenge to be regulated by all powerful machine centurions like Gort, or be eradicated. Just to make the idea acceptable, he explains that his world is governed by such machines, and there are no wars, no hate, and no fear. Things are peaceful where he came from. Of course, this was before the days of Battlestar Galactica and Terminator, when humanoid machines sought nothing less than the complete destruction of all mankind.

The message is hard to accept in contemporary times. Nevertheless, The Day the Earth Stood Still remains among the top ten science fiction classics of all time. Bernard Herrmann’s haunting soundtrack became the cliché for the waves of space movies that followed. Its script, written by Edmund H. North, provided the scolding tone for dozens of aliens who scowled disapprovingly at the puny humans over the next two decades.

The Day the Earth Stood Still won a Golden Globe award in 1951 as the “best film promoting international understanding”. Audiences of the time, wrapped in the beginnings of Cold War fear, universally believed the on-screen berating delivered by Klaatu was in fact, being delivered to the Godless communists who threatened peaceful Americans. Few realized that the ending speech, delivered with the backdrop of the Washington D.C. mall, was in fact for their ears, not those on foreign soil.

It is definitely a must see, not only for its portrayal of the world in the early 1950s, but also as an absolute landmark in science fiction history.

– written by the Two-Brained Cylon