The Day the Earth Stood Still


Released September 28, 1951, by 20th Century Fox, 35mm black and white negative, 1.37:1 screen ratio, mono sound, 92 mins.

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In this science fiction narrative, "an alien planetary federation, disapproving of Earth's policy of atom-bomb testing, despatches Rennie and his robot, Gort (his name changed from Gnut in Bates' story) to warn Earth stop its aggression or be blown apart. Like Ezekiel's biblical wheel sent by God, the duo land in Washington DC at 3:47 EST in an impressive flying saucer with a spiritual message. Rennie (a British actor in his first American film) is gunned down by fearful soldiers. A revengeful Gort kills the soldiers and reactivates him. In a memorable peroration, he warns Earthlings that they must either live in peace or be destroyed by Gort and his kind. What makes the film so successful is Wise's balancing of his ominous allegory with the sub-plot of Rennie's attempts to discover what humans are really like by taking a room in a boarding house where he meets Neal (who gives a superb restrained performance) and her young son (Gray). Fittingly, it is Neal who saves the day, uttering the immortal phrase"Klaatu barada nikto" and so stopping the robot from destroying Earth after Rennie's 'death'." (quote from Magill's)

This film had a strong popular impact due to its neorealism. Strong visual elements and sound created a scenes that were plausible in the historical context of the Cold War. The image of a flying saucer landing in Washington DC, surrounded by familiar landmarks, accompanied by the theremin sound, was strong and believable. The saucer was not mechanical, but elegant and mysterious, the symbol of a civilization so far advanced that it did not require detailed physical rendering. The equation on the blackboard in Barnhardt's office is real, the "three body problem" to account for the location of any three objects in space, but Klaatu mysteriously enters the office just by turning the doorknob. This is a film about imagination, not monsters or space travel (the transgression of body and place). This neorealistic plausibility of the film persisted into the 1980s. Colin Powell tells of the influence this film had on Ronald Reagan, an avid sci-fi fan, who proposed to a startled Gorbachev at their first summit meeting in Geneva that the US and USSR should cooperate if the earth was invaded by aliens from outer space. Ringo Starr put a picture from the movie of Klaatu and Gort on the rim of their saucer on the cover of his "Goodnight Vienna" album. This film was the first sci-fi film chosen for sale on the new Beta home videocassettes in 1978.

Viking photo ca. 1947 from V-2 (N. Short)

It is a film that has many layers of historical meaning. In 1950 when the script was written, the nation was gripped by Cold War paranoia. The country was fighting a losing battle in Korea; Sen. Joseph McCarthy had declared his discovery of communists in government; Parnell Thomas was contributing to the paranoia in Oct. 1947 with HUAC hearings investigating the Hollywood 10; Drew Pearson used his newspaper column and radio show to attack HUAC and Truman administration corruption and revealed the spy network of Igor Gouzenko. The Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in 1949 to try to dispel the paranoia; the cornerstone of the new United Nations building was laid in 1949. Albert Einstein promoted world government and limitation of atomic weapons. the Russians had exploded their first A-bomb in 1949 causing the US by mid-1950 to develop Edward Teller's fusion "superbomb" of unknown destructive power. A Civil Defense campaign began that warned Americans of possible atomic attack. A radar defense network could give warning of danger from the skies. The Jet Age was just starting, with the F-86 Sabre jet deployed in Oct. 1947 just 2 weeks before Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1, and the Flying Wing jet bomber flew in 1947. The White Sands Missile Range was releasing newsreel film from automatic cameras on the first test rockets in the Viking program built by the German team headed by Werner von Braun who had developed the V2 in World War II and in April 1950 became head of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville AL; Edward Ruppelt, the first director of Air Force Project Bluebook, had coined the new term UFO to describe the strange sightings of 9 objects that began in 1947 with pilot Kenneth Arnold that newspapers called "flying saucers"; and Air Force Captain Thomas Mantell died Jan. 7, 1948, when he flew his F-51 without oxygen equipment too high chasing an object at 20,000 feet. Was earth being visited by aliens? Would mankind destroy itself in atomic war? Were we all being robotized by fear and paranoia? And what exactly is KL93?

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revised 11/1/06 by Steven Schoenherr | Filmnotes