(1951) Directed by: Robert Wise; Written by: Edmund H. North; Based on the story “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates; Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe and Lock Martin; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.” – Klaatu (Michael Rennie)
“...because of its nature, the fact that it was science fiction, and earthbound science fiction, I wanted to make it as believable as every day, and real as possibly could be…”
– Robert Wise (from DVD commentary)
I’m proud to be a participant in the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, a survey of strong women in the cinema, sponsored by Jo Gabriel (aka: Monstergirl) of The Last Drive In and Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently. Today’s offering is The Day the Earth Stood Still, featuring one of the most indomitable, yet overlooked heroines of ‘50s sci-fi, Helen Benson, played by Patricia Neal.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is among the greatest science fiction films of the 1950s, a decade that was distinguished by many notable genre examples. Based on the short story “Farewell to the Master,”* by Harry Bates, it depicts the events that transpire after a flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C. The filmmakers incorporate the sort of fanciful art designs from the cover of pulp magazines, while remaining grounded in a realistic setting, as fear and paranoia take hold. Despite the D.C. setting, only the second unit footage was actually shot there, while the actors shot their scenes on the 20th Century Fox backlot, in Century City, California.
* The film represents a significant reversal from Bates’ original story, in which the alien visitor served his robot master.
According to Wise, Claude Rains was first considered for the role of the humanoid alien
Visitor Klaatu, although producer Darryl F. Zanuck suggested a relative unknown, Michael Rennie. With hindsight being 20-20, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Rennie playing Klaatu, who’s charming and refined, yet somewhat naïve about the intentions of humans. He emerges from his spacecraft bearing a gift for humanity, but is repaid with aggression. He escapes from a government hospital, and takes up residence in a boarding house to observe human society first hand. Rennie makes a memorable entrance, obscured in shadows, lending a noir-ish feel to the scene. Before the residents can discern his features, his intent seems ambiguous.
Helen Benson stands out as one of the unsung heroes of the movie. She’s bright and perceptive, but tough enough to stand up against Gort, a robot that can level cities. Granted, she lets out a single shriek when she’s cornered by the rampaging automaton, but anyone in her predicament would be suitably warranted. She quickly regains her composure to speaks the famous line, “Klaatu, barada, nikto,” a command for the towering robot to cease further hostility. She displays this same sort of fortitude in her relationship with her boyfriend, insurance salesman Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe). She lost her husband several years ago, was left to raise her son alone, and is reluctant to jump into another marriage. The gentle, patient Klaatu (using the assumed name of Carpenter) is the sort of role model for her son Bobby (Billy Gray) that Tom is incapable of being. When Tom tries to convince her that Klaatu is a menace, she decides to make up her own mind. Although Klaatu seems to be a much better choice for her intellect, Wise and writer Edmund H. North sagely choose to keep Helen’s relationship with Klaatu platonic. She’s content with her independence, a far cry from the passive character typified by many female leads in ‘50s genre cinema. Even with Klaatu, she doesn’t let her guard down, however. She remains wary, weighing the consequences of concealing the identity of this mysterious visitor, who may greatly benefit or harm humanity. Filmmaker Nicholas Meyer, who contributed to the DVD commentary, along with Wise, noted about Neal’s performance, “…you can see the wheels going around in this woman.”
Bernard Herrmann’s theremin-infused score does much to set the otherworldly tone of the film. Although this wasn’t the first use of the instrument, it was likely the first time it had been used so extensively. Following The Day the Earth Stood Still, the theremin became a fixture of science fiction films of the 1950s, but arguably, never to better effect as with this film. From a composer responsible for some of cinema’s most memorable soundtracks, this score is among his very best.
Considering the tremendous leap in special effects over the past several decades, the visuals still hold up remarkably well. One of the film’s most indelible images depicts the powerful, mute robot Gort,* emerging from Klaatu’s spacecraft. Gort appears human in silhouette only, with a featureless face, except for a visor that conceals a deadly ray. He’s a truly terrifying creation, wielding almost unimaginable power, and Gort is a truly imposing, frightening creation. His clean lines mimic the flying saucer, which appears to lack any visible seams. The minimalist design of the ship’s exterior carries over to its interior, containing devices whose function we can scarcely fathom.
** Fun fact: Gort was played by the 7-foot-plus tall Lock Martin,* a former doorman at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Because Martin wasn’t strong enough to carry Neal in one key shot, a rig was constructed with wires to support the actress.
One of the elements that distinguishes a true classic from other films is the timelessness of the story. In a scene, oddly prescient of current trends to garner media soundbites, a reporter asks Klaatu if he’s scared, which prompts the reply, “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” When the reporter realizes he’s not getting the response he anticipated, he abruptly moves on before Klaatu can add anything else. The Day the Earth Stood Still takes a dim view of human nature, and our bellicose, fear-driven tendencies, as exemplified by one of the first scenes, when Klaatu, bearing a gift for the U.S. president, is shot by a soldier with an itchy trigger finger. Human selfishness is illustrated by Stevens’ actions later in the film, when he attempts to turn in Klaatu for his own self-aggrandizing ends.
Some other story elements haven’t weathered quite as well. The film has been criticized for the mixed message central to the film. On behalf of his organization, Klaatu sends an ultimatum: if people of the Earth can’t control their warlike endeavors, they will be obliterated. This declaration is made, despite a previous scene that proved the aliens could stop everything mechanical. They could just as easily have rendered all of our machinery and weapons useless, sending humankind back to the Stone Age. This “might makes right” line of thinking could be likened to current policies that dictate only some nations are “responsible” enough to wield weapons of mass destruction (I’ll step down from my soapbox now). Another interpretation, which I’d prefer, is that no one is responsible enough to wield such power, and if we don’t change our ways, we’ll destroy each other without the need of outside intervention. On a different note, the film represents a simpler time that appears suspect to most modern viewers. A day after Klaatu’s arrival at the boarding house, Helen accepts his offer to watch her son when she goes out on a date. It’s hard to imagine any self-respecting mother allowing a strange man to watch her kid, but I suppose these were different times.
Any deficits are more than compensated by a gripping story, compelling visuals, a driving score, and fine performances by Rennie, Neal and Sam Jaffe (in a small role as an Einstein-like figure). We are left with a hopeful, but cautionary tale, about the promise of alien life (something that Wise felt was an inevitability) tempered by the fear of the unknown. The filmmakers suggest we have less to fear from alien invaders than we do from ourselves. It’s a refreshing dose of cynicism amidst the post-war optimism of the early ‘50s, but told in an accessible, immensely entertaining manner. The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the greats in any genre.