by Ben Haggard. Haggard is an Electrical Engineering major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This review was written for the Spring 2012 class "Folklore and Film."
“Gort, Klaatu barada nikto.” These words, while seeming to be nonsense to anyone not familiar with the classic sci-fi film The Day The Earth Stood Still, are central to the plot of this atomic age fable. Released in 1951, The Day The Earth Stood Still was among the first movies to cash in on the growing Cold War tensions and fears of extraterrestrial visitations that were so prevalent in 1950s America. However, it manages to stay relevant and insightful in more modern times in a way that escapes its contemporaries, movies such as Earth Vs. The Flying Saucer (1956) and Them! (1954).
The film opens with scenes of various media outlets and news agencies around the world reporting the detection of an unidentified flying object, a UFO that soon is seen landing in Washington, DC. An interesting choice here was the decision to use well-known, real-life newscasters to portray the newscasters in the film bearing the news of the mysterious entity. This helps the film be a touch more immersive. Perhaps this technique is less effective now than in 1951, given the fact that newer audiences will not be familiar with these faces or voices, but there is still some effect from having the real people who would have been relaying such news be in the film. The alien craft (and it is indeed a classic, stereotypical UFO, flying saucer shape and all) is quickly surrounded and cordoned off by the military. This is the first chance to see one of the film’s biggest themes: humanity’s war-like and defensive response to an unknown visitor who has made no threats. When the saucer opens, the film’s alien visitor (Michael Rennie) steps forth. He claims to come in peace and walks out to meet the massive array of soldiers and military hardware surrounding him. One of the soldiers shoots him when he produces a strange, somewhat weapon-like object from an inner pocket of his space suit. As they rush forward to examine the wounded spaceman, one of the film’s most iconic characters lurches out from within the depths of the spaceship – Gort. A tall, humanoid robot with one central eye slit, Gort immediately takes action against the arrayed military forces. A beam of energy shoots from his eye and vaporizes the guns in the hands of the soldiers. Soon, several tanks are also destroyed. Only a short command from the spaceman in some alien language stops Gort from continuing his attack. The spaceman then reveals that the object he had been holding was a gift for the President. He is quickly taken away to a hospital and treated for the gun wound. Government officials question the spaceman and discover that his name is Klaatu, and that he has come to Earth to deliver a message to representatives of every nation on the planet.
The conversation in this scene between Klaatu and the government agent is very revealing of the movie’s political tendencies, which are not the typical gung-ho anti-communism symbolism that is prevalent in many other 1950s sci-fi films. The film is, at its core, a warning. Klaatu wishes to meet with representatives of all the nations of Earth at once, or perhaps all their chiefs of state. Mr. Harley, the government agent, is taken aback by this request. He had expected Klaatu to want to meet with only the President, and he is faced with explaining to Klaatu that Earth is a divided world, with many tensions and suspicions. Klaatu reveals that his people have been monitoring Earth’s radio transmissions and know of the United Nations. When Mr. Harley tries to explain the “evil forces” that are working against the United States, Klaatu cuts him off, saying that he is not interested in what he terms Earth’s “petty squabbles”. The message here is clear: the Cold War conflicts facing Earth have the potential to border on madness. “Petty squabbles” could blind the human race to greater issues affecting all who live on Earth, whether those issues are important messages from visiting aliens, or threats a little closer to home.
This theme continues throughout the film, as it shows the failure of an attempt by the United States to hold such a meeting due to the unwillingness of foreign heads of state to meet on any other country’s terms. Klaatu condemns this stubbornness, saying that he has become “impatient with stupidity.” The military refuses Klaatu’s next request, which was to go out among the people of the United States to observe them, instead attempting to keep him in confinement. He escapes, and the film then supplies viewers with scenes of ordinary citizens discussing the sensationalized dangers of this “monster” from outer space, with his killer robot. Klaatu (in disguise) meets a family, who offer him a room to stay in. They talk about the spaceman over a meal, in which various members of the family discuss varied theories on his motives Their thoughts range from musings on the spaceman’s desire to kill them all, the possibility that the communists could be behind the whole thing, and one woman’s opinion that the spaceman might just be afraid of what the government would do to him now, since he was shot the minute he stepped off his ship.
From this point forward, a growing sense of paranoia settles over the film. Klaatu befriends the family’s young boy (Billy Gray), who takes a liking to the friendly spaceman. The boy does not suspect such an ordinary appearance as Klaatu’s to hide an extraterrestrial being. He takes Klaatu to meet one of the world’s greatest scientists, who lives nearby. Klaatu later reveals himself to the scientist (Sam Jaffe), who agrees to try and help Klaatu with delivering his message to all the people of Earth. The boy’s mother (Patricia Neal) and her boyfriend (Hugh Marlowe) begin to suspect that Mr. Carpenter, as Klaatu is calling himself, may be more than he appears.
Klaatu sneaks off one night to visit his spaceship, and the boy follows him. The next day, the boy’s mother discovers Mr. Carpenter’s true identity. They are talking, and walk into an elevator. As they are in the elevator, the power goes out. Klaatu had set his spaceship to disable all electric power in the world for thirty minutes, in order to convey the seriousness of his intent and mission on Earth. Klaatu obtains the help of the boy’s mother in order to stay undiscovered. Her boyfriend feels otherwise, and contacts the military to turn Klaatu in. At this point, all of Washington, DC is under martial law and locked down in an attempt to catch the spaceman. This is another illustration of the film’s vision of what could be, if the Communist scare and Cold War fears that so dominated the era were taken to extremes: paranoia, military rule, and people driven apart in attempts to destroy threats which are more imagined than real.
Eventually, the military closes in and kills Klaatu. This causes Gort to activate and begin killing all the humans he comes across. Before he is killed, Klaatu entrusts the boy’s mother with a message. If he dies, she is to tell Gort the words “klaatu barada nikto”. She manages to use this message to stop Gort’s eminent rampage, and Gort takes her aboard the spaceship. Gort then reclaims Klaatu’s body from the military and brings it aboard the spaceship. Klaatu is there miraculously resurrected. A meeting of the world’s scientists has been organized by the scientist Klaatu revealed himself to earlier. The meeting is being held outside the spaceship, but is interrupted when the newly revived Klaatu emerges. He explains that his people have grown beyond war and violence through creating a race of robot policemen, of which Gort is one. The robots respond with force to any acts of violence. He warns Earth that his people are not concerned with the internal affairs of the planet, but that if Earth should seek to expand its violent tendencies unchecked, there will be terrible consequences. The movie ends with this warning, showing again the central theme of the dangers of allowing Cold War fears to dominate human thinking and drive violent or war-like tendencies.
The movie when taken as a whole works very well. The pacing never seems to drag, helped along by the ever-heightening sense of paranoia and eminent discovery of Klaatu’s identity as the film progresses. Adding to the atmosphere of the film is an excellently understated score, employing the now classic electronic sounds of a theremin alongside more traditional instrumentation. The special effects are typical of the period, but they do not detract much from the film, since this film does not rely on the effects to sell itself to the audience. Other Cold War era sci-fi films more reliant on the fantastic creatures and alien spaceship effects can seem very dated by today’s standards, where The Day The Earth Stood Still draws the viewer in with its story and quality performances. The film also captures the national state of mind at the time rather well, and stands out because, as mentioned earlier, it offers a rather different and not so jingoistic outlook on the conflict and fears of the Cold War.
There is also an interesting subtext in the film relating to the character of Klaatu. Klaatu uses the name John Carpenter while in disguise, and he is resurrected near the end of the film. He brings a message of peace and a desire to see the end of wars and violence. Obviously, the film intends to portray him as a metaphor for Christ. His story parallels that of a Christian savior sent from beyond the Earth to bring peace to the world.
Gort is another interesting character to examine. It is easy to draw a connection between Gort and the atomic bomb. Gort, if left unchecked, can destroy the entire Earth, if the viewer is to believe what Klaatu tells us. The atomic arms race had the same potential in the Cold War era, especially with the adoption by both sides of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Gort also appears to have been inspired in part by earlier film robots, and one can follow this trial of inspiration back to Jewish folklore, and stories of golems. Golems, in the Jewish tradition, are man-like artificial creatures made by magic. They perform tasks as instructed by their masters, but there are stories of golem going mad and threatening human lives. These are essentially exactly the actions Gort is shown to do in the film. Also, golems in Jewish folklore are generally created by religious men, with references to divine power, which fits into the idea of Klaatu representing a divine otherworldly savior.
Overall, The Day The Earth Stood Still is a well-written and well-executed film deserving of its classic status. It draws (but does not lean heavily) on religious symbolism to provide an outlook on world unification and the dangers of human struggles and divisions that would have been novel in the Cold War environment of the 1950s and which is still a relevant message in today’s world.