“Michael Rennie was ill The Day The Earth Stood Still, but he told us where we stand.” Or so the saying goes anyway, what we do know for certain is that this iconic film from the Golden Age of science fiction, the 1950s, has stood the test of time. It was, and still is, a shining diamond in an otherwise over-crowded sea of fear and hostility.
The 1950s were a glorious time for science fiction, the Earth had just come out of the Second World war, new technologies were being made available to the American households, a sense of optimism was in the air, coupled with a sense of fear that one day everyone in their beds would wake up red. Television was taking hold and the couch potato was just around the corner. Cinema had to entice these very people back to the theatres and they did so with wonderful representations of other worlds, 3-D techniques and some stunning pieces of animation. For me there are five defining science fiction movies from this period in time... Forbidden Planet, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Thing From Another World, The Quatermass Experiment and of course The Day the Earth Stood Still (TDTESS).
Where the majority of films from this period represented aliens really as covert operatives of countries from behind the Iron Curtain, TDTESS took a completely different track and has to be commended for doing so. It was a fraught time in the States, people were seeing those red devils everywhere they looked, darn even Uncle Walt decided to cover his own back and testify at the house Un-American Committee against some of his own employees. Studio writers, actors with left of centre leanings were being blacklisted left, right and centre. Even Robert Oppenheimer, one of the original Los Alamos team who developed the first atomic devices was looking over his shoulder at the rabid hoards wondering if he had so called communist links or not. It was unheard of for a movie producer to produce this type of film, one which showed man and The American public as the villain, the visitor outsider from another world as reasoned and calm.
It was not just though the insular American public that this film was directed towards; all nations were represented to some degree. In other similar films at the time the location and population was purely American, here a large part of the world is played out on this stage, and this was a global initiative not just one confined to the North American continent. This film is almost 60 years old and in my opinion should reside proudly in anyone's collection, also it is nigh on impossible to discuss all its attributes without discussing the final scenes so, please, if you have not seen this film then go ahead and buy blind you won't regret it.
The story is a simple enough affair; a being, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), from another world descends upon Washington, on departure from his craft offering peace to the world he is shot at which point Gort, an eight foot high automaton emerges and lays waste to all the weapons of destruction, mass or otherwise. Klaatu quickly recovers from his wound and whilst the powers that be in Washington would ideally prefer him incarcerated at the military hospital he is recuperating in, Klaatu has different ideas and wishes to wander amongst the population of the world before deciding on its ultimate fate. That fate though is not worth contemplating, if the world does not change its attitude towards war the Earth will suffer the consequences, it will be removed from the heavens.
Adapted from the short story, Farewell to the Master, originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940 by Harry Bates, adapted for the screen by Edmund North and varied director Robert Wise at the helm, TDTESS became a pacifist's dream. This was what originally attracted North and Wise, both of whom felt that the emergence of the atomic age and the distancing of the two super-powers brought a sense of unease to the world and now with this story they had the opportunity to have their own say on the matter. The story of TDTESS is one of peace and because of this it can be said that the character of Klaatu as presented here is a mirroring for the Christ figure, there are so many pointers to this that it is impossible to ignore. A visitor from the heavens comes down offering words of peace, he is interested in preaching to all, not individuals, he gathers around him those who are open to his words, he dies and is resurrected and eventually returns to the heavens again proclaiming his words of peace and forgiveness. Pretty blatant really, and would have been more so had the studios not requested the alteration of one scene where Klaatu indicates that he has in fact returned from the dead. Wise says he was unaware of these subtleties whilst filming but that has to be taken with a pinch of salt, this message really does stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. Alternatively it could be said that he represents nothing more than the commie hoards again trying to subjugate a population for its own ends. Klaatu does in fact put forward a proposition that really cannot be ignored, change or be destroyed; that's rather dictatorial in its leanings hardly words of peace, but taken on the whole this film is certainly nothing other than a warning that continuation on an aggressive path will ultimately lead to one's own destruction.
The message of fear Wise tries to get across here literally smacks the viewer in the face. The American public at the time (and simply enforced and enhanced by most of the other science fiction features of that era) looked over their shoulders at every step. They had the fear of the unknown, amplified by a media encouraging this belief. When Klaatu for instance is interviewed by passing radio commentators about his feelings on the space craft and it's inhabitants they pass him by when he proposes a reasoned response, preferring to record the fearful comments of others in the crowd. The initial shooting of Klaatu and his hunting later on again examples of the fear the society is living in and more media propaganda in the newspaper they read at the breakfast table. Images of death and destruction coming from the minds of the newspaper editors, and the exact opposite of Klaatu's mission on Earth.
Wise went onto direct some excellent features after this one, Run Silent, Run Deep, West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain, all of which had their own take on violence in society either from gang to gang, country to country, or man against himself. In the case of The Sound of Music the violence was on the viewer's ears and sensibilities but the less said about that the better. It was his filmography history, his ability to direct many genres which allowed Paramount to approach him to resurrect the all too meandering initial Star Trek big screen adventure; after that he rightly called it a day only returning to the big screen for a few more trips in the directorial chair. He has left us with a stunning tome and TDTESS in my own opinion has to be top of that list. This one feature has influenced so many, the immortal words “Klaatu Barada Nikto” being used time and again in other feature films, from the deck hands on Jabba the Hutt's sail barge to Ash using it as an incantation to retrieve the Necronomicon in Army of Darkness. This one phrase as well as being used in film is often quoted on television, in music and in comics it has to be one of the most copied phrases in film history and is just testament to the influence this has had on the media since 1951.
TDTESS left us with Gort a robot which is up there with the rest of the iconic, glittering, humanoid machines. Maria from Metropolis, The Tin Man in Wizard of Oz, Robbie from Forbidden Planet, Yul Bryner's cowboy from Westworld and of course the Laurel and Hardy of the bunch, C3P0 and R2D2. Gort holds a position in this list, silent, obedient and foreboding. His presence is felt, his abilities even to this day completely unknown other than what it is potentially capable of doing. Its eight foot seamless form, its only movement being to wander from spot to spot, open its visor and obliterate all who represent some danger to his master. Lock Martin, playing Gort, had the 7'7” frame to fit into the silvery rubber suit created for the role but he had some difficulties, walking proved cumbersome, the heat was unbearable with only limited ventilation and the suit could only be shot from certain angles, anything else and the suit showed up for what it was; a suit. In one scene his movements were so restricted that he had difficulty in lifting Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and a wire frame was employed to assist him. These wires can still be seen in this release and whilst ideally I would have preferred them removed I now only see them as a part of the whole story which is TDTESS.
The technology is exemplary for the time. It doesn't try and blind with science, it's introduced naturally and it never once goes overboard. The ship Klaatu and Gort descend in is elegant, it's self power evident but never needing explained. The eye candy though rests with Gort's visor and the destructive beam which emanates from it. Thin, pencil like, defined and destructive; fans of science fiction now had something to look at on the big screen, a death ray which actually does what it said on the tin. The effects are left there though as they are not needed in the rest of the film, their entrance and exit are the only times these are used to any degree, everything else resides in the message.
For the reincarnation of this film Keanu Reeves was chosen to play the dispassionate alien being and for an actor who has been compared to a plank more often than I care to remember this might not have been a bad choice. For this initial outing though the mantle rests with Michael Rennie and he plays the part perfectly. A reasoned, intelligent man whose patience has finally worn out, he has become exasperated with the path these humans are travelling down. Rennie was selected for the role because he was unknown within the US, only previously starring on the London stage and on some relatively inconsequential movies. Earlier discussions had Spencer Tracey or Claude Reins in the role however Wise put a halt to this early on, he knew this film would have the impact it did if he presented the alien as someone no one really knows; he was so correct in his decision.
Last but by no means least is the score, like the film itself this score has gone down in cinema history, influencing many that followed not just in its composition but the extraordinary musical instrument employed. This instrument really does produce music from the very ether, the hands touching nothing other than air, the alien melodies amplified and emerging from the electronic components contained within its rather large frame. Bernard Herrmann was responsible for this piece of work and although not my own favourite of his (that laurel for me rests with North by Northwest) this piece is instantly recognisable as say is Jaws, or Star Wars. In an earlier review of mine I indicated he was the John Williams of the day, now I go one better. I have to say that of the pieces I have heard, and admittedly recently I seem to have stumbled over more of his work than I previously imagined, I enjoy his variety more than Williams. His scores are bold, yet at times subtle, and it was an inspired choice to use an instrument that few had heard of. For the early 1950s this electronic score was unheard of almost, and adds weight and depth to the escapism of an alien being wandering amongst us.
The Day the Earth Stood Still works on so many levels it's impossible to bypass. Some of the lines do have their cringe worthy moments and whilst these can largely be ignored I'll grudgingly drop a point because of that. More than a product of its time, better than most other films of that era, science fiction or otherwise, and it is a credit that almost 60 years later, not overflowing with the latest CGI with no product placement or toy tie ins this still attracts new viewers from a younger generation; I just hope that the recent incarnation propels more to seek out and enjoy the original; it deserves the place in history it has garnished for itself.
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