The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Directed by Robert Wise
Cinematography Leo Tover

An alien (Klaatu) with his mighty robot (Gort) land their spacecraft on Cold War-era Earth just after the end of World War II. They bring an important message to the planet that Klaatu wishes to tell to representatives of all nations. However, communication turns out to be difficult, so, after learning something about the natives, Klaatu decides on an alternative approach.

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Patricia Neal has admitted in interviews that she was completely unaware during the filming that the film would turn out so well, and become one of the great science-fiction classics of all time. She assumed it would be just another one of the then-current and rather trashy flying saucer films, and she found it difficult to keep a straight face while saying her lines.

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Development

Producer Julian Blaustein set out to make a film under the working titles of Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World that illustrated the fear and suspicion that characterized the early Cold War and Atomic Age. He reviewed more than 200 science fiction short stories and novels in search of a storyline that could be used, since this film genre was well suited for a metaphorical discussion of such grave issues. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck gave the go-ahead for this project, and Blaustein hired Edmund North to write the screenplay based on elements from Harry Bates’s 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master“. The revised final screenplay was completed on February 21, 1951. Science fiction writer Raymond F. Jones worked as an uncredited adviser.

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Filming

Principal outdoor photography for The Day the Earth Stood Still was shot on the 20th Century Fox sound stages and on its studio back lot (now located in Century City, California), with a second unit shooting background plates and other scenes in Washington D.C. and at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland. The shooting schedule was from April 9 to May 23, 1951. The primary actors never traveled to Washington for the making of the film. Robert Wise indicated in the DVD commentary that the War Department refused participation in the film based on a reading of the script. The military equipment shown, however, came from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment then stationed at Ft. Meade which supplied the vehicles, equipment and soldiers for the segments depicting Army operations. One of the tanks in the film bears the “Brave Rifles” insignia of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

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The robot Gort, who serves Klaatu, was played by Lock Martin, who worked as an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and stood seven feet, seven inches tall. Not used to being in such a confining, heat-inducing costume, he worked carefully when wearing the two oversize, laced-up-the-front or -back, foamed neoprene suits needed for creating the illusion on screen of a seamless metallic Gort. Wise decided that Martin’s on-screen shooting time would be limited to half hour intervals, so Martin, with his generally weak constitution, would face no more than minor discomfort. These segments, in turn, were then edited together into film’s final print.

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In a commentary track on DVD, interviewed by fellow director Nicholas Meyer, the director Robert Wise stated that he wanted the film to appear as realistic and believable as possible, in order to drive home the motion picture’s core message against armed conflict in the real world. Also mentioned in the DVD’s documentary interview was the original title for the movie, “The Day the World Stops”. Blaustein said his aim with the film was to promote a “strong United Nations

A Peaceful Message in One of the Brightest Science-Fiction Movies

7 March 2004 | by Claudio Carvalho (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) – See all my reviews

A flying saucer lands in Washington, and a man, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), brings the preoccupation of other planets with the use of atomic energy and development of spacecraft by people on Earth planet. Further, he brings a message and also a threaten against the danger Earth could cause to other planets: the planet could be destroyed if the people does not live in peace. Any menace to other planets would cause the destruction of the entire planet.

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This classic is one of the best science-fiction movies I have ever seen. The story is very simple, but the message is wonderful. When this film was made, World War II had finished six years ago only, there was the Cold War and the paranoia of the Americans at that time was against the communists. The special effects are excellent for a 1951 movie. In Brazil, this classic movie was not released on VHS or DVD. It is a shame! I have a VHS, having a version dubbed in Portuguese, full of commercial and with a terrible quality of image that I recorded from TV many years ago. Yesterday I watched this video again, and it is really an outstanding movie. My vote is ten.

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Title (Brazil): ‘O Dia Em Que a Terra Parou’ (‘The Day Which the Earth Stopped’)

Obs: 01 March 2006 – Fox do Brasil finally released this DVD in 2005. After so many years, I was able to see one of my favorite sci-fi in the original language and restored image.

A science fiction classic that beautifully melds the ordinary and the fantastic

10/10
Author: J. Spurlin from United States
17 March 2005

This science fiction classic is more relevant than ever, and I don’t mean its silly message about peace. Yes, yes, we’re all violent, silly, war-like humans, and we should all throw away our guns and atomic bombs posthaste if we know what’s good for us. Thanks, Klaatu. We’ll get right on that. Meanwhile, we’ll enjoy the chance to watch your story on DVD because we live in an age – yes, of war and cruelty and weapons of mass destruction – but also of Jar Jar Binks and “Alien vs. Predator.”

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Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is a gentlemanly outer-space alien who comes to earth in his flying saucer to send us Earthlings a very important message. Sadly, we shoot him on arrival and try to imprison him in a hospital room. He escapes, however, and goes out among us to find the basis for our “strange, unreasoning attitudes.” He takes a room in a boarding house, where he meets the widowed Mrs. Benson (Patricia Neal) and her young son (Billy Gray). The widow is being romanced by an insurance salesman (Hugh Marlowe), who later displays a lust for glory that endangers Klaatu – and thus the rest of the world. Klaatu is in better hands when he reveals himself to Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), a brilliant scientist and the best hope for the survival of Earth.

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It’s funny, but I never think about this movie in terms of that plot outline. To me, this film is composed of small moments about people – especially Mrs. Benson. Mention “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to me, and the first thing I think about is that moment where the strange new boarder tells her that he’d like to spend the day with her son. She hesitates a moment and says in a lowered voice, “Well, that’s awfully nice of you to suggest it.” It’s a tiny moment about her concern for her son, her good manners and her intelligent ability to reply quickly and diplomatically. Patricia Neal, not Gort the robot, makes this movie come alive for me.

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The real reason this story is so fresh is because – it’s a good story. It’s not an excuse to slap us senseless with fast-paced cutting or drown us in great globs of special effects. It has an engaging plot with warm, interesting characters. If we stupidly (and as you know, Klaatu, we humans can be so very stupid) limit ourselves to the New Releases section of the video store, we forget that some sci-fi thrillers put story before special effects.

The trick work in this movie is excellent, though. I think the robot looks silly, but when Gort opens its visor and we hear that unnerving theremin music, we don’t care that this supposedly metallic creature bends like Styrofoam at the knees. We know those laser beams eyes are about to scorch everything in their sight.

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Michael Rennie makes up for Gort’s deficiencies. He gives what easily could have been a humorless, sanctimonious character a quiet, graceful authority. His slightly otherworldly looks add to the illusion; and Neal as Mrs. Benson completes it by reacting to him with obvious respect – even when she fears him.

Under Robert Wise’s direction, every shot is strikingly composed and brings out the maximum dramatic potential of the story. The sense of rhythm and pacing is beautifully suspenseful. Bernard Herrmann, with the theremin as one of his instruments, gives the movie both a nervous tension and a sense of wonder. And the story is so perfectly constructed that it even gets away with a big speech for a climax.

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What’s the heart of this movie? There’s a bravura sequence where Billy Gray secretly follows Rennie from the boarding house to his spaceship. It’s a simple, wordless scene where the entire team of filmmakers – and that goes double for Herrmann – meld the ordinary and the fantastic. You want a special effect? That’s it.

Simple SF Tale with Profound Message…

Author: Ben Burgraff (cariart) from Las Vegas, Nevada
13 January 2004
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is such a basic Science Fiction story that many first-time viewers have been stunned by the reverence in which it is held. An alien arrives on earth, is misunderstood and is nearly killed, passes a warning to mankind to not carry the weapons of potential nuclear war into space, or face annihilation, then leaves. The FX are minimal, there are no ‘space battles’ or ‘monsters’, even the score, by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann,

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is simple, lacking the bombast of later ‘epics’. Yet in it’s very simplicity, director Robert Wise has created a tale more timeless and relevant than many other ‘message’-driven SF blockbusters that followed.

Based on Harry Bates’ short story, “Farewell to the Master”, which paints a far less friendly view of our galactic community (Gort, the enforcer robot, is revealed to be the true ‘Master’ of the story, not Klaatu, thus revealing that machines are controlling the Universe), 20th Century Fox and director Wise quickly butted heads on how the film should be presented. Fox envisioned Spencer Tracy as Klaatu, believing that the legendary star’s well-established persona would make the SF elements more ‘understandable’ to audiences.

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Wise scoffed at the notion, arguing that no one would ever believe Tracy was an alien, and searched until he found relative newcomer Michael Rennie, a gaunt, sensitive British actor, whom he felt best suited the Christ-like quality Klaatu had to possess (even the name Klaatu adopted to mingle with humans was ‘Carpenter’). For earth’s greatest scientist (a thinly-disguised Albert Einstein), Wise cast screen veteran Sam Jaffe, which also brought a howl from the studio, as the actor was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, in the midst of their infamous ‘witch hunt’ and blacklisting of Hollywood’s supposed Communist sympathizers. Jaffe proved a perfect choice, however, displaying many of the qualities he would later bring to ‘Dr. Zorba’ on “Ben Casey”.

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Rounding out the cast were popular actress Patricia Neal (still recovering from her failed relationship with Gary Cooper), Hugh Marlowe (fresh from the success of ALL ABOUT EVE), and Billy Gray (who would go on to great success in “Father Knows Best”).

The true casting coup, however, was finding 7-foot Hollywood doorman Lock Martin to portray the robot, Gort. Encased in foam rubber ‘armor’ and ‘lifts’, to bring his height to nearly eight feet (he actually wore two different outfits, as the seam was impossible to hide, and would always have to be on the opposite side to the camera), Martin, who, Wise acknowledged, was not a physically strong man, would occasionally faint from heat exhaustion (if you watch him carefully, during the film, you can actually see moments when he would start to tilt over). The scene where he carries Neal on board the spacecraft was a major achievement for the easily tired giant, and the actress, who was afraid, justifiably, that she might be dropped!

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The filming was, by and large, an enjoyable experience for the cast and crew (although Patricia Neal, in later interviews, said that it was nearly impossible for her to say the film’s famous ‘tag’ phrase, “Klaatu Barrada Nikto”, without breaking into giggles). Everyone knew the end result would be special; Michael Rennie, ten years later, would call the role the most “important” of his career (NBC would even bring him in to host the network premiere of the film, on “Saturday Night at the Movies”).

With it’s anti-war stand, the film was the direct counterpart of the year’s other ‘classic’ SF production, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, the first of Hollywood’s ‘alien invasion’ films. In THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, ‘Mankind’ is the true monster, toying with nuclear weapons, constantly fighting, and willing to kill a peaceful emissary, without allowing him to deliver his message or offer his gifts to the world.

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“Man must grow up, or be destroyed” was a powerful message, in 1951, particularly when Wise panned his camera over Arlington Cemetery, with it’s thousands of headstones, as Klaatu/Carpenter viewed, sadly, the end result of our fixation with warfare.

The message is even more relevant, today, which is why THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL remains a classic.

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