The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)


Directed by Robert Wise

Written by Edmund H. North (based on a short story by Harry Bates)

Starring: Patricia Neal, Michael Rennie, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray

Tagline: From Out of Space . . . A Warning and an ultimatum

Trivia: The 1970s Canadian prog-rock band Klaatu took their name from this film. At one time many fans believed Klaatu were actually the Beatles performing under a different name.

Companion Film: E.T. (1982)

One of the most memorable Cold War allegories of the 1950s, The Day the Earth Stood Still set a template for the modern science fiction film. The story begins with a flying saucer arriving in Washington D.C. Out steps what appears to be a man and a giant robot. A soldier opens fire.  AND MASS HYSTERIA REIGNS!

Few films better captured the state of America in 1951, a society crippled with paranoia and uncertainty about the future.  With the Korean conflict turning the Cold War into a Hot War and the test explosion of the monstrous Hydrogen Bomb – things looked bleak.  In the movie people dealt with their anxiety by going about business as usual such as playing cards, going to the movies, or watching television.  Beneath the surface lurked a fear over what was to come.

After the human like alien Klaatu recovers he lives in a boarding house where he befriends a young boy named Bobby and learns the ways of American culture.  Their scenes together work wonderfully well. At one point they visit Arlington Cemetery and Bobby points out his father’s grave, telling Klaatu his dad was killed at Anzio and explains that all the graves are for soldiers killed in wars. Klaatu replies, “we too have cemeteries Bobby, but not these kind of cemeteries.”  The bond between the boy and the alien foreshadowed Spielberg’s 1982 classic E.T.

On the run from the authorities, Klaatu seeks the aide of Einstein like scientist Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) to bring his message of peace to the world. Unlike so many other Sci-Fi films of the 50s the aliens are not around to subvert or attack, but to act as a teacher for humanity, albeit one with the power to destroy.

Director Robert Wise established himself one of the great Sci-Fi directors, a pioneer in the genre.  Bernard Herrmann’s  ominous music adds the right amount of suspense and wonder.  A fascinating portrait of 1950s America. Although the look and dialogue are dated, the ideas are more relevant than ever.





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