The Day the Earth Stood Still – Another View
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
What gave The Day the Earth Stood Still its honored place in Science Fiction film history is the movie’s mature theme and message. It came before almost all of the other Science Fiction message movies. It was the height of the Cold War, and the height of the Korean Conflict, and the movie’s message was of ending war and universal disarmament. The film won the 1952 Golden Globe for the Best Film Promoting International Understanding.[i] This article contains spoilers.
[i] U.S. Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043456/awards?ref_=tt_awd)
The Traditional View
A flying saucer circles the earth and lands on the White House Ellipse. The suspicion earthlings surround the saucer with troops, tanks, and artillery. The alien, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), steps out of the space ship and announces he comes in peace and goodwill. When Klaatu takes out a present for The President of the United States a nervous soldier shoots Klaatu. The robot, Gort (Lock Martin), emerges from the saucer and vaporizes rifles, a tank, and an artillery pieces. Klaatu orders Gort to cease and Gort stands motionless. The soldiers take Klaatu to Walter Reed Army Hospital, where he treats himself and the attending physician gets to watch in wonder at the advanced medicine Klaatu has on him. The Mr. Harley, the White House Chief of Staff (Frank Conroy), meets Klaatu and Klaatu asks to have a meeting arranged of all the heads of state. When the Chief of Staff comes to his second meeting with Klaatu he tells Klaatu such a meeting isn’t possible. Klaatu asks to go out and see the people of earth. Mr. Harley refuses his request and Klaatu escapes from the hospital. He finds his way to a boarding house where he meets Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), a widowed mother and her son Bobby (Bill Gray) who is about 13. Bobby shows him some Washington DC sites and when Klaatu asks about the greatest man on earth Bobby suggests Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who also lives in Washington, DC. When Professor Barnhardt isn’t at home Klaatu leaves a calling card in the form of a solution to a Math problem. When Klaatu and Professor Barnhardt meet Professor Barnhardt and Klaatu agree there will need to be a demonstration to get the attention of the world’s scientists and convince them to meet Klaatu. Professor Barnhardt tells Klaatu it should be a non-violent demonstration. When Klaatu returns to his space ship to set up the demonstration Bobby follows him. When he tells his mother and her boyfriend Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe) what he saw they at first think it’s a dream. During the demonstration, a worldwide power outage that shuts off all machinery except those that would cause a catastrophe if they were cut off, Klaatu tells Helen he is the alien. Helen promises to keep Klaatu’s secret but when she asks Tom to keep it a secret he refuses because revealing this information would mean fame and fortune to him. Tom tells the authorities and Klaatu is tracked down and shot dead when he refuses to stop. Helen runs to the space ship and tells Gort, “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!” Gort retrieves Kaatu’s body and takes it to the space ship where Gort activates a machine that temporarily brings Klaatu back to life. Klaatu again emerges from the space ship, this time in the presence of the world’s leading scientists. There he tells them robots like Gort patrol the planets to make sure none of them are planning war. Earth has the opportunity to stop making war and join the planets in peace and productive pursuits. He concludes by telling the audience the other planets will await Earth’s answer. Then Klaatu and Gort enter the flying saucers and take off.
The futuristic technology in the movie is interesting from a present perspective. Klaatu’s space ship orbited the Earth at 4,000 miles per hour before it landed. By the end of the 1950s satellites launched from Earth flew at comparable speeds around the Earth. Klaatu traveled 250 million miles to get to Earth, apparently from somewhere in the asteroid belt. In February 1973 the Pioneer 10 spacecraft successfully crossed the asteroid belt and had travelled more than 250 million miles.[i] Taking an acetylene torch to an object and it not become hot was amazing in 1951. These were the properties of the Space Shuttle heat tiles that were developed in the 1970s. We still can’t match Klaatu’s medical technology but medical science is able to accomplish many amazing things that would have been undreamed of in 1951. When the doctors marveled at Klaatu’s life expectance they were smoking cigarettes and one said he was going out for some heavy drinking. Avoiding these practices can slow down the effects of aging and increase life expectance.
Helen Benson let her son go with a man she just met and knows nothing about. That shows a more innocent time in America. Bobby could best be described as an every boy. He was curious but not fearless. Klaatu helped him with his homework on fractions, not advanced Calculus. Bobby contributed to the plot without making him the plot’s central character.
An armed alien space ship lands on the White House Ellipse, a hostile act. Klaatu comes out claiming he comes in peace and goodwill. He stupidly takes out an unknown object and makes a sudden move with it. Only one soldier shoots and fires only one round. Gort comes out and vaporizes things. In the hospital Klaatu shows his arrogance to the White House Chief of Staff. He has no understanding, interest, or patience with the world’s geopolitical situation. World War II ended 6 years earlier. Joseph Stalin was in charge of The Soviet Union and Mao Zedong was in charge of The People’s Republic of China. The conflict the western nations had with these leaders was not “childish jealousies”. When Klaatu’s request to go out among the populace is respectfully refused he slips away. When he makes contact with Professor Barnhardt Klaatu talks about mass murder as a demonstration. To Professor Barnhardt’s credit he talks Klaatu into a non-lethal demonstration. Professor Barnhardt doesn’t tell the authorities. He clandestinely arranges to get scientists from around the world to meet at the flying saucer to hear Klaatu’s message. Klaatu tells Helen who he is and that if his message isn’t heeded the world will be destroyed. She betrays her fiancée by telling Klaatu Bobby also told him about Klaatu going back to the ship. Tom Stevens does the right thing for the wrong reason. He tells the authorities the whereabouts of Klaatu. Tom’s reason is his personal gain. In another stupid move Klaatu tries to run away and soldiers fatally shoot him. Helen isn’t taken into custody. She runs to Gort and with the words “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!” stops Gort’s killing spree at 2. For all she knew she could have given Gort the order to destroy all mankind. Gort takes Klaatu to the spaceship and reanimates him. Then Klaatu delivers his message, which is an ultimatum. Klaatu explains Gort is one in a series of robots who have the irrevocable authority to kill all the inhabitants of a planet if they detect “treachery”. He claims the only freedom the Earth will lose is the “freedom to act irresponsibly”. He says the choice is to “live in peace or perish in violence.” It is very easy for people in authority to believe those who oppose them are acting irresponsibly. It is unclear if Klaatu is a monster with some authority or a brainwashed messenger who doesn’t know any better. The message he delivered, which is do as we say or we’ll kill you all, is similar to that of earthly tyrants throughout the ages.
[i] NASA, Solar System Exploration (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/profile.cfm?MCode=Pioneer_10&Display=ReadMore)