Saturday, 22 October 2011

Robert Wise's 'The Day the Earth Stood Still", 1951...

Fig. 1 The Day the Earth Stood Stood Still poster.

Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still is still a charming and very well crafted science-fiction film.  Though some elements have aged poorly (such as the heroine falling randomly on to a pile of deck chairs) the general design of the space ship and the alien warmth of Klaatu are just a couple of the reasons this film is still thoroughly enjoyable now.

Fig 2. A peaceful greeting.

The film may seem cliché now with its flying saucer and shiny space-suited alien, but it was the reason for these clichés. Due to its unique story and impressive visuals its influence is still seen in science-fiction films today. However, the film was more than a stylised sci-fi movie. It could be considered a message on the fears of our atomic age, at a time when the Cold War was a terror known too well to the American cinema-goers. It was a time where Americans feared the 'Reds' and their communist ideals, and to top it off they had a much more physical threat to them in the form of a nuclear attack.  Anne Cranny-Francis points out that "It is an interesting film for the period, not least because its major alien figure, presented not as combative and imperialistic but as peace-making.  It is the conflict-ridden Earth that is presented as the potential predator - an unusual story in a Cold War film.(Cranny-Francis, 2005:84)  Despite the country's fears about an impending attack, the narrative is in fact making man (in this case those in Washington D.C.) the threat. It is no one country but the Earth as a whole that is acting thin a threatening manner and Tony Shaw picks up on this by saying "Despite its fantastic plot, the end product patently makes serious well-crafted points about the build-up of nuclear weapons and the Red Scare.  The film conveys the inability of world leaders, including the American president, to compromise(Shaw, 2007:142) This inability to compromise is what leads Klaatu to become impatient with our world. He is a peaceful and welcoming being, with nothing but an important message to send to us, and what is the first thing the American president does? Keeps Klaatu locked away in a hospital to keep him from speaking to anyone else. The Cold War  was an example of a time when ignorance and petty grudges started  up to something drastic and the immaturity shown by the president then is represented in the film here.  It is this disregard for the safety of your people in the name of petty rivalries that will lead Earth to its destruction, in the film it is by alien hands but worryingly in real-life it would be ourselves.Chris Barsanti explains that "Its powerful warning to live in peace or suffer the consequences couldn't present a starker or more ever-timely choice." (Barsanti, 2011:253) The Cold War was a time when one of two things could happen: stand down and negotiate with your enemies, or face annihilation, so Klaatu's message more than resonates with their current climate.

Fig. 3 Klaatu and Dr Barnhardt.
Klaatu's responsibility as a peaceful messenger has many interesting roles.  One of which is the role as the pacifist that befriends another pacifist figure, the scientist Dr. Barnhardt.  Shaw expressed that "Most unusually for films of this era, The Day the Earth Stood Still depicts pacifist intellectuals sympathetically. Klaatu befriends Dr Barnhardt...a well-known non-communist progressive (who would be blacklisted in 1951-2) with a physical resemblance to Einstein." (Shaw, 2007:143)  The befriending of the doctor is very significant, as not only does it show that scientists are not only more open minded but civil than the American government but his physical resemblance to Albert Einstein will remind the audience of his disapproval of atomic weapons.  Both of these men take it upon themselves to do what the world's governments cannot. Nancy Lusignan Schultz divulged that "the men in charge - an alien visitor and a genius mathematician - must create fear in order to "contain" the possibility of future destruction. By making the world "stand still," the film operates as a metaphor for the logic of the use of the bomb at the end of World War II." (Lusignan Schultz, 1999:288)
Though this interpretation is perhaps more 'pro' atomic weapons, it is still an equally valid view.  These pacifist figures must do something drastic themselves to prevent the world from its own demise. However, they do use means that are entirely harmless but still very intimidating for the world's population and though the stillness created is more literal than that of the aftermath of an atomic bomb, the fear created from them is equal.  This fear is used against him in the media storm surrounding his actions. Shaw explains that the film "then shows how easy it is for the media to whip up public hysteria, to the point at which Klaatu is tracked down and killed like a wild animal. A few in the audience might even have seen Klaatu as a Chist-like figure persecuted for carrying a message of peace and willing to die to save the world." (Shaw, 2007:142)  Though this reference is thinly veiled, Klaatu does sacrifice himself so the world can receive his message.  He is hunted down and persecuted, much like Christ was, and his resurrection at the end of the film acts a seal to provide, those aware of Christ's resurrection, certainty that he is there to protect the world and to prevent us from harming ourselves further.

The Day the Earth Stood Still had some great characters that were played so well by the actors that they have not aged at all. The ship Klaatu lands in still looks great and gorgeously sleek, where perhaps his robot, Gort does not.  All things considered though this was a thoroughly enjoyable film that paved the way for a lot of science-fiction movies today.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) The Day the Earth Stood Still Poster. At: (Accessed on: 22/10/11)

Figure 2. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) A peaceful greeting. At: (Accessed on: 22/10/11)

Figure 3. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Klaatu and Dr. Barnhardt. At: (Accessed on: 22/10/11)


Barsanti, Chris (2011) Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know. USA: Adams Media

Cranny-Francis, Anne (2005) MultiMedia: texts and contexts. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Lusignan Schultz, Nancy (1999) Fear itself: enemies real & imagined in American culture. USA: Purdue University Press.

Shaw, Tony (2007) Hollywood's Cold War. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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