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The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
An alien (Klaatu) with his mighty robot (Gort) land their spacecraft on Cold War-era Earth just after the end of World War II. They bring an important message to the planet that Klaatu wishes to tell to representatives of all nations. However, communication turns out to be difficult, so, after learning something about the natives, Klaatu decides on an alternative approach.
Michael Rennie ... Klaatu
Patricia Neal ... Helen Benson
Hugh Marlowe ... Tom Stevens
Sam Jaffe ... Prof. Jacob Barnhardt
Billy Gray ... Bobby Benson
Frances Bavier ... Mrs. Barley
Lock Martin ... Gort
Director: Robert Wise
Runtime: 92 mins
Codecs: DivX 3 / MP3
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is such a basic Science Fiction story that many first-time viewers have been stunned by the reverence in which it is held. An alien arrives on earth, is misunderstood and is nearly killed, passes a warning to mankind to not carry the weapons of potential nuclear war into space, or face annihilation, then leaves. The FX are minimal, there are no 'space battles' or 'monsters', even the score, by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, is simple, lacking the bombast of later 'epics'. Yet in it's very simplicity, director Robert Wise has created a tale more timeless and relevant than many other 'message'-driven SF blockbusters that followed.
Based on Harry Bates' short story, "Farewell to the Master", which paints a far less friendly view of our galactic community (Gort, the enforcer robot, is revealed to be the true 'Master' of the story, not Klaatu, thus revealing that machines are controlling the Universe), 20th Century Fox and director Wise quickly butted heads on how the film should be presented. Fox envisioned Spencer Tracy as Klaatu, believing that the legendary star's well-established persona would make the SF elements more 'understandable' to audiences. Wise scoffed at the notion, arguing that no one would ever believe Tracy was an alien, and searched until he found relative newcomer Michael Rennie, a gaunt, sensitive British actor, whom he felt best suited the Christ-like quality Klaatu had to possess (even the name Klaatu adopted to mingle with humans was 'Carpenter'). For earth's greatest scientist (a thinly-disguised Albert Einstein), Wise cast screen veteran Sam Jaffe, which also brought a howl from the studio, as the actor was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, in the midst of their infamous 'witch hunt' and blacklisting of Hollywood's supposed Communist sympathizers. Jaffe proved a perfect choice, however, displaying many of the qualities he would later bring to 'Dr. Zorba' on "Ben Casey".
Rounding out the cast were popular actress Patricia Neal (still recovering from her failed relationship with Gary Cooper), Hugh Marlowe (fresh from the success of ALL ABOUT EVE), and Billy Gray (who would go on to great success in "Father Knows Best").
The true casting coup, however, was finding 7-foot Hollywood doorman Lock Martin to portray the robot, Gort. Encased in foam rubber 'armor' and 'lifts', to bring his height to nearly eight feet (he actually wore two different outfits, as the seam was impossible to hide, and would always have to be on the opposite side to the camera), Martin, who, Wise acknowledged, was not a physically strong man, would occasionally faint from heat exhaustion (if you watch him carefully, during the film, you can actually see moments when he would start to tilt over). The scene where he carries Neal on board the spacecraft was a major achievement for the easily tired giant, and the actress, who was afraid, justifiably, that she might be dropped!
The filming was, by and large, an enjoyable experience for the cast and crew (although Patricia Neal, in later interviews, said that it was nearly impossible for her to say the film's famous 'tag' phrase, "Klaatu Barrada Nikto", without breaking into giggles). Everyone knew the end result would be special; Michael Rennie, ten years later, would call the role the most "important" of his career (NBC would even bring him in to host the network premiere of the film, on "Saturday Night at the Movies").
With it's anti-war stand, the film was the direct counterpart of the year's other 'classic' SF production, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, the first of Hollywood's 'alien invasion' films. In THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, 'Mankind' is the true monster, toying with nuclear weapons, constantly fighting, and willing to kill a peaceful emissary, without allowing him to deliver his message or offer his gifts to the world. "Man must grow up, or be destroyed" was a powerful message, in 1951, particularly when Wise panned his camera over Arlington Cemetery, with it's thousands of headstones, as Klaatu/Carpenter viewed, sadly, the end result of our fixation with warfare.
The message is even more relevant, today, which is why THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL remains a classic.
This science fiction classic is more relevant than ever, and I don't mean its silly message about peace. Yes, yes, we're all violent, silly, war-like humans, and we should all throw away our guns and atomic bombs posthaste if we know what's good for us. Thanks, Klaatu. We'll get right on that. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the chance to watch your story on DVD because we live in an age – yes, of war and cruelty and weapons of mass destruction – but also of Jar Jar Binks and "Alien vs. Predator."
Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is a gentlemanly outer-space alien who comes to earth in his flying saucer to send us Earthlings a very important message. Sadly, we shoot him on arrival and try to imprison him in a hospital room. He escapes, however, and goes out among us to find the basis for our "strange, unreasoning attitudes." He takes a room in a boarding house, where he meets the widowed Mrs. Benson (Patricia Neal) and her young son (Billy Gray). The widow is being romanced by an insurance salesman (Hugh Marlowe), who later displays a lust for glory that endangers Klaatu – and thus the rest of the world. Klaatu is in better hands when he reveals himself to Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), a brilliant scientist and the best hope for the survival of Earth.
It's funny, but I never think about this movie in terms of that plot outline. To me, this film is composed of small moments about people – especially Mrs. Benson. Mention "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to me, and the first thing I think about is that moment where the strange new boarder tells her that he'd like to spend the day with her son. She hesitates a moment and says in a lowered voice, "Well, that's awfully nice of you to suggest it." It's a tiny moment about her concern for her son, her good manners and her intelligent ability to reply quickly and diplomatically. Patricia Neal, not Gort the robot, makes this movie come alive for me.
The real reason this story is so fresh is because – it's a good story. It's not an excuse to slap us senseless with fast-paced cutting or drown us in great globs of special effects. It has an engaging plot with warm, interesting characters. If we stupidly (and as you know, Klaatu, we humans can be so very stupid) limit ourselves to the New Releases section of the video store, we forget that some sci-fi thrillers put story before special effects.
The trick work in this movie is excellent, though. I think the robot looks silly, but when Gort opens its visor and we hear that unnerving theremin music, we don't care that this supposedly metallic creature bends like Styrofoam at the knees. We know those laser beams eyes are about to scorch everything in their sight.
Michael Rennie makes up for Gort's deficiencies. He gives what easily could have been a humorless, sanctimonious character a quiet, graceful authority. His slightly otherworldly looks add to the illusion; and Neal as Mrs. Benson completes it by reacting to him with obvious respect – even when she fears him.
Under Robert Wise's direction, every shot is strikingly composed and brings out the maximum dramatic potential of the story. The sense of rhythm and pacing is beautifully suspenseful. Bernard Herrmann, with the theremin as one of his instruments, gives the movie both a nervous tension and a sense of wonder. And the story is so perfectly constructed that it even gets away with a big speech for a climax.
What's the heart of this movie? There's a bravura sequence where Billy Gray secretly follows Rennie from the boarding house to his spaceship. It's a simple, wordless scene where the entire team of filmmakers – and that goes double for Herrmann – meld the ordinary and the fantastic. You want a special effect? That's it.
It's odd to think that fifty years from now there may only be a handful of movies released in 2004 that will be remembered at all. I don't care to venture any guesses as to what they may be, but it's easy to see why The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the ones from 1951 that remains a classic, while so many others sank into obscurity. The movie deals with a theme that was at the forefront of so many peoples' minds in the early 1950s, in America and the rest of the world, and that is the conflicts between many different nations, and more generally the tendency for humans to fight each other. It was released at the time of the Red Scare and so soon after World War II that international tensions were still high. Also odd is that if you switch the last two words in the title, why, it's not very frightening at all!
Okay, that made no sense, but I couldn't resist. My respect for the movie dimmed sharply when I saw that the alien was not only a man, but a good looking man who spoke perfect English, but then won back my respect completely when it took the time to explain that his culture had learned about humans through intercepting radio transmissions over many years. Unlikely, but it's an explanation, which is more than most science fiction films provide. Granted, not much time should be wasted on the science of science fiction, but in this case something had to be said. The alien didn't give may details as to his physical condition, but scientists hypothesized that since he so closely resembles a human, he must have a similar environment to our own on his planet.
Speaking of which, there is one thing about the science that I'm also curious about. At what stage were astronomical studies in the early 1950s? I'm wondering how far into space scientists were looking, because Carpenter, the alien, states with some grandeur that he has traveled 250 million miles to get to earth, which in astronomical terms is a tiny, tiny distance. Considering that the sun is 93 million miles from earth, this would mean that his planet is within our own solar system. And here's another little factoid – Earth makes a complete revolution around the sun every year, as you know. Pluto, on the other hand, takes something like 248 years to revolve around the sun. That has nothing to do with the movie, but is an interesting digression, I should think.
I found the political backdrop to be one of the most interesting things about the movie, and not only because of what the political landscape was like at the time. It was interesting to watch a movie about aliens that so quickly and completely dissolved into a close examination of volatile human relations, and without ever becoming preachy or devolving into peace propaganda (oxymoron intended). I actually think that a large part of what made up for the lack of aliens in this alien movie was the validity that its argument has.
When Carpenter (who they stopped just short of simply naming Jesus) was greeted with the response that a meeting with all of the worlds leaders was impossible because of tensions between nations, he was genuinely surprised and saddened. He gives as his reason for visiting earth the fact that his civilization has noticed satellites being launched around the Earth's atmosphere and, since humans clearly are unable to get along, he was sent here to tell us to join them and live in peace or face our present course and face obliteration. Most importantly, if we chose the latter, they would be there to ensure that we would not export our violence to peaceful civilizations in space. The descending nature with which he speaks is truly revealing, it makes humans look childish because of our constant battling with one another.
This is also where the movie coincides with some of the themes that Jonathan Swift presented in Utopia, his novel upon which several failed civilizations have been attempted. They have created robots, which we seen in the Iron Man, to prevent the rise of violence in their society. The robots have tremendous power, which cannot be revoked, and at the first sign of violence they react swiftly against the aggressor, which results in a peaceful society. I'm also reminded of Gulliver's Travels, also by Jonathan Swift, particularly the section where Gulliver lives among the Houynymns which, interestingly enough, are talking horses with a remarkable ability to live at peace. When at one point Gulliver describes lying, which does not exist to the Houynymns, one of them responds incredulously with something like, "Why on Earth would one say something that isn't so?" Carpenter displays exactly the same shocked surprise when he learns of some of the awful characteristics of human beings, which seems to suggest that before we look for other civilized worlds in the galaxy, maybe we should work a little more on civilizing our own world.
The famous quote that I've quoted in my summary line is one of the many delights that this film presents, and Evil Dead fans will be thrilled to see the origins of those strange words that Ash had such a hard time speaking in Army of Darkness. The genre of science fiction has a much larger than average ratio of bad films to good ones, and I think the best ones are the ones that have a concrete connection to the real world, as The Day the Earth Stood Still obviously does. Given the political atmosphere here in the first month of 2005, it's obvious that humans have not taken much advice from this movie, but then again, as Arnold stated in Terminator 2, "It's in your nature to destroy yourselves."
* The role of Klaatu was originally intended for Claude Rains.
* The role of Gort was played by Lock Martin, the doorman from Grauman's Chinese, because he was extremely tall, but was unable to pick up Helen because he was so weak and had to be aided by wires. (In shots from the back where he's carrying her, it's actually a lightweight dummy in his arms.) He also had difficulty with the heavy Gort suit and could only stay in it for about half an hour at a time.
* There were two Gort suits: one that laced up down the back for when he had his front to the camera, another that laced up in the front for the shots of his back.
* The phrase "Klaatu barada nikto" has become a popular phrase among sci-fi fans over the years and has been featured in other movies; see also _Army of Darkness (1993)_ ."
* To give the appearance of seamlessness to the space ship, the crack around the door was filled with putty, then painted over. When the door opened the putty was torn apart, making the door seem to simply appear.
* The film was shot on the then Fox backlot which is now known as an office development called Century City.
* To increase the sense of reality, some of the most famous broadcast journalists of the time were hired to do cameos as themselves. These included Gabriel Heatter, H. V. Kaltenborn and Drew Pearson.
* During the early phases of preproduction, 20th Century Fox's studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck suggested that Jack Palance could be used for the role of the robot Gort.
* Originally Klaatu's death and resurrection at the end of the movie was meant to be permanent, reinforcing his God-like powers, but at the time, censors didn't like the ending, suggesting it was too left-wing of a movie, forced the line, "That power is reserved for the Almighty Spirit."
* The screenplay was based on the story "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates. It was originally published in the pulp magazine "Astounding Science-Fiction."
* Patricia Neal has admitted in interviews that she was completely unaware during the filming that the film would turn out so well and become one of the great science-fiction classics of all time. She assumed it would be just another one of the then-current and rather trashy flying saucer films that were popular at the time, and she found it difficult to keep a straight face while saying her lines.
* The name "Richard Carlson" - another leading sci-fi actor of the 1950s - appears at the bottom of the glass door to Hugh Marlowe's office.
* Three years after this was made, it was adapted for the "Lux Radio Theatre". Michael Rennie and Billy Gray reprised their roles. Jean Peters played the role of Helen.
* 'Bernard Herrmann' 's music for the film is scored for two theremins, pianos, harps, different electrical organs, percussion, amplified solo strings and a large brass section including four tubas.
* One of the reasons that Michael Rennie was cast as Klaatu was because he was generally unknown to American audiences, and would be more readily accepted as an "alien" than a more recognizable actor.
* In the original story, the robot, Gort, was the master - Klaatu was merely one of a series of doubles, or maybe clones, that died after a short time.
* In the original story, "Farewell to the Master", the robot's name was Gnut, not Gort.
* In the scene where Gort is seen carrying Klaatu's body (inside the ship), Michael Rennie was actually sitting on a dolly out of camera angle to support his weight during this brief scene, since Lock Martin (Gort) was unable to do so himself.
* In the scenes of Gort carrying both Helen Benson and Klaatu up the ramp and into the ship, light-weight look-alike dummies were used because of Lock Martin's inability to actually carry either actor himself.
* Doubles were used for Klaatu and Bobby in long shots of them walking around Washington, DC. In reality, none of the principal cast ever went to Washington, and the scenes with Klaatu and Bobby at the Lincoln Memorial and at Arlington Cemetary were shot in front of background screens using footage shot by the second unit crew in Washington, DC.
* All of the scenes of Helen Benson and Klaatu in the taxi also feature footage from the second unit of Washington, DC as we see background vehicles in the rear and side windows of the taxi.
* To depict the seamless closing of the ship and its ramp, they just reversed the film of the shot of the ship's ramp and door appearing.
* One scene was cut from the movie before it was released. The original script called for Klaatu to be taken to a police station by the government man who came for him at the boarding house, not directly to Barnhart's home. At the station, men were being dragged in from all over and questioned, and Klaatu becomes upset when he sees how a man was beaten up by some people because they thought he was the space man. They cut the scene because director Robert Wise realized that the audience was interested in the Klaatu/Barnhart meeting and the scene at the police station was unnecessary, but on the DVD there are stills from that cut scene.
* Although he was already signed to play the Einstein-like Professor Barnhardt, the studio wanted to remove Sam Jaffe as a result of the political witch hunts that were then underway. Producer Julian Blaustein appealed to studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck allowed Jaffe to play the role, but it would be Jaffe's last Hollywood film until the late 1950s.
* Because the stationary Gort could not stand on the angled ramp, Lock Martin had to wear the Gort suit in the background during the final sequence. Martin, who was frail, had to wear the suit for so long that he began having spasms in his arms. During Klaatu's final speech, Gort's arms can be seen moving slightly.
* Writer Edmund H. North was a former army officer who wrote his script in response to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Cold War.
* The original choice of actor to play the alien visitor was Spencer Tracy.
* Darryl F. Zanuck was the one who first suggested Michael Rennie for the part of Klaatu, having seen him perform on the London stage.
* Klaatu talking about an almighty spirit having power over all life and death was a Production Code imposition at the time. Both director Robert Wise and writer Edmund H. North hated having to add it in, as it didn't sit well with the notion of Klaatu's race being all-knowing and all-powerful.
* Robert Wise was attracted to the project because of its overt anti-military stance and also because he believed in UFOs.
* In line with the film's Christian allegory, Klaatu adopts the name "Carpenter" when hiding out from the authorities. Robert Wise hadn't considered the Christian implications until it was pointed out to him several years later.
* Harry Bates was paid a mere $500 by 20th Century Fox for the rights to his short story "Farewell to the Master".
* The spaceship was made of wood, wire and plaster of Paris.
* 'Bernard Herrmann' used two Theremins to create his creepy score, one pitched higher, the other lower, making this one of the first films to feature a largely electronic score.
* The Army refused to co-operate after reading the script. The National Guard had no such qualms and gladly offered their co-operation.
* Some reference works state that Superman actor George Reeves appeared as a television news reporter with eyeglasses in one sequence. This is not true. The actor playing the role bears no resemblance to Reeves, and in a 1995 interview with Reeves biographer 'Jim Beaver' , director Robert Wise stated unequivocally that it is not Reeves in the role. It appears that someone jumped to conclusions based on the image of a reporter wearing glasses and thus resembling roughly the image of Superman alter-ego Clark Kent. George Reeves had nothing to do with the film in any capacity.