The Day the Earth Stood Still: Peace, Love & Understanding


Patricia Neal did her best trying to say her lines without cracking up. The way she saw it she was working on just another silly space movie, the kind that featured flying saucers and had ridiculous special effects. In later interviews, Neal admitted that during the production of The Day the Earth Stood Still, she had no idea that she would be part of one of the great science fiction classics of all time. Well, after all it does have a flying saucer…

One day, Washington D.C. receives a high-profile, but very unusual visitor. A huge flying saucer lands in a field; police and armed forces scramble to face whatever comes out of the spaceship. The alien (Michel Rennie) turns out to look exactly like a human being, and he also speaks English. Due to a misunderstanding, he’s shot by a nervous soldier and taken to Walter Reed hospital. In the meantime, an imposing robot called Gort is watching the spaceship, making it impossible for anyone to go inside. At the hospital, the alien who calls himself Klaatu quickly recovers thanks to a miraculous salve that he used on the wound.

Then he meets with a representative of the U.S. President and tells him that all the wold’s leaders must gather and listen to his message…

Premiering during the Korea War
The film premiered during the Korea War, at a time when the hostility between America and the Soviet Union was becoming worse. Hollywood was about to fall victim to Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt. A story that has an alien looking for peace on Earth but only finding aggression and weapons everywhere seems fitting. There is irony in the fact that the only way to get humans to listen is to threaten with annihilation. For modern audiences it is easy to draw comparisons with the current climate crisis – and that’s exactly the theme for the sadly disappointing 2008 remake.

It’s no coincidence that Klaatu comes across as a Christ figure, and the signs are sometimes anything but subtle; when he escapes from the hospital and assumes a name, it’s ”Mr. Carpenter”. The film’s religious aspects even touched a nerve with the censor who disliked the implication that Klaatu was powerful enough to bring the dead back to life; a line was inserted in the script where the alien explained that ”that power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit”. As ”Mr. Carpenter”, Klaatu finds lodging at a boarding house and makes friends with a widow (Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). That part of the film, where Klaatu essentially becomes Bobby’s babysitter and is provided an education in what it means to be human, as they talk and go sightseeing in D.C., is sweet and amusing, a nice counterbalance to the tension that comes out of the authorities’ search for Klaatu and the alien’s attempt to figure out how to get through to the humans. Rennie was reportedly selected because he wasn’t famous and audiences would therefore more easily accept him as a stranger; there’s something serene over him, even if he’s borderline too wooden.

On the whole, the acting is OK, but not the film’s strongest ingredient. Its direction, design and ideas are far more compelling. Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright was consulted for the design of the sleek spacecraft, and Gort is an awesome doomsday machine, controlled by three words that have now become part of cinema history. 

Bernard Herrmann’s music was unusual for its time, featuring theremin electronic instruments that created such a classic sound that you can’t use it anymore unless you’re doing a parody. Undeniably, a huge influence on future science fiction scores.

The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951-U.S. 92 min. B/W. Produced by Julian Blaustein. Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay: Edmund H. North. Short Story: Harry Bates (”Farewell to the Master”). Music: Bernard Herrmann. Cast: Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier.

Trivia: Several real-life newsmen play themselves. Remade as The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). 

Quote: “Klaatu barada nikto!” (Neal to Gort)

Last word: “I had envisioned Claude Rains for the lead role in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’. Fortunately for us, as it turned out, he was unavailable; he was performing in a play in New York. I got a call from Darryl Zanuck, who was running the studio, and he said, ‘I just signed a talented young actor that I’d like you to consider for the lead role in your picture.’ So I met Michael Rennie, I liked him, and I cast him. That turned out to be a big break for us. Instead of having an actor who had done other films and who people had seen before, we had a brand-new fresh-faced actor to do the film. I actually think the film had much more credibility with Michael than it might have had with Claude Rains.” (Wise, Bright Lights Film Journal)



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