One of the most influential science fiction films of all time, 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still was a parable for the nuclear age, a warning to earthlings everywhere.
Harry Bates’ story Farewell to the Master served as a basis for the film, which introduced the world to an alien peacekeeper named Klaatu, a 7-foot-tall robot named Gort and a sleek flying saucer from beyond the stars.
What starts out like any other day on planet Earth turns into an international frenzy when a metallic UFO lands in front of the White House in Washington DC. Newscasters, military units and curious citizens surround the landed craft, and once the drama has sufficiently built up, human-looking extraterrestrial Klaatu and his large robot Gort emerge.
Despite Klaatu’s promise that “We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill” a panicky soldier shoots the visitor, wounding him. Gort responds with force, disintegrating the army’s weapons.
After calming his robotic protector, Klaatu is taken to a military hospital, where he announces that he has a message to deliver to the combined leaders of every nation on Earth. When politics get in the way of Klaatu’s delivery, the alien escapes, hiding out as average human Mr Carpenter at a boarding house run by kindly young widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal).
Helen and her son Bobby (Billy Gray) convince “Mr Carpenter” that humans do have a bit of kindness and good sense left in them, but Klaatu still has a message to deliver.
With the help of scientist Dr Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), Klaatu arranges a demonstration of his abilities, shutting down all electrical power in the world (except for hospitals and planes in flight) for a full hour. This only makes the government more worried, and after a betrayal by one of his supposed earthling friends (Hugh Marlowe), the military close in on the well-meaning alien and slay him.
His body is taken to a jail cell and shortly thereafter, Gort – learning of what happened to Klaatu – embarks on a retaliatory rampage of destruction as per his programming if harm ever befell his master.
But Helen, who had been instructed by the dying Klaatu how to avoid the robot’s vengeance, utters the master’s words “Klaatu barada nikto”. Gort then retrieves the body from the jail and returns it to the spacecraft.
All are amazed when sometime later the door of the ship opens and Klaatu reappears. Gort has resurrected his master with the aid of scientific techniques immeasurably more advanced than those on earth.
Klaatu addresses the gathered international audience of scientists and dignitaries, explaining very plainly that if the people of the earth do not change their violent ways, their destructive attitudes could ultimately affect the peaceful coexistence of other planets and races in the universe. “This earth of yours will be reduced to a cinder”.
Klaatu continues, “Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course – and face obliteration.” He pauses. “We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”
The two interstellar ambassadors disappear into their spacecraft and it rises swiftly into the skies above the American capitol, and in the twinkling of an eye, Klaatu and Gort are gone.
Directed by Robert Wise – a former editor (Citizen Kane) who would later helm West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965) – The Day the Earth Stood Still brought science fiction into the mainstream, elevating it above B-movie status with a timely, grave warning for humanity.
The movie was also good entertainment, featuring a memorable score by Bernard Herrmann that helped make the electronic Theremin the instrument of choice in sci-fi music for years to come.
The role of Klaatu was originally intended for Claude Rains but a scheduling conflict opened the part for English actor Michael Rennie, whose angular face and calm demeanour lend a remote gentle superiority to the character. It was Rennie’s first exposure to US audiences and an important career step for him.
Gort was played by Lock Martin, a 7′ 7″ usher at Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.
Burdened by the heavy suit, Martin needed extra help to hold Patricia Neal in his arms, and in some scenes, assisting wires can be easily seen.
To make the spacecraft appear seamless, the door crevice was puttied in and painted with silver. The putty tore open, allowing the door to suddenly appear without visual warning.
The influence of The Day The Earth Stood Still continues today in every flying saucer movie produced, and a gracious nod to the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” can be found in several sci-fi flicks of subsequent years.
A 2008 remake of the film starred Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly, but the new version ultimately failed to illustrate the point of saving humanity and relied too heavily on SFX.
Professor Jacob Barnhardt
Mr George Barley