“The day the earth stood still” always speaks to us, if we are willing to listen
A free translation of this famous phrase uttered towards the end of the brilliant 1951 film “The day the earth stood still ” (forget the glowing 2008 version, nowhere with Keanu Reeves) would go something like “Gort, Klaatu says don’t cremate Earth – yet.”
Going back in history, Gort is the very large robot made of unknown materials, who stands guard over a flying saucer that has landed on the Mall in Washington, DC within sight of the Capitol, the White House and of the militant obelisk. it is the Washington monument, which here seems helpless.
“The day the earth stood still” is one of the most revealing American films of the Cold War, one of the best in the 1950s space invasion film series, and a picture that speaks to the current condition of mankind may -be more clearly than she did when she left.
On a sunny day in the capital of our country, with only a few minutes of warning on radar screens around the world, a shiny disc – a flying saucer – landed on the mall. Soldiers and police are there in a flash of motorcycles, tanks and jeeps, along with a crowd of curious and fearful citizens.
A tall, slim human being – he identifies as Klaatu – wearing a helmet that covers his face, emerges from the ship. In English with a soft British accent (the actor is Englishman Michael Rennie), Klaatu says he came in friendship. When he takes a small object out of his shirt, a nervous young soldier shoots Klaatu in the arm and shatters the object, which Klaatu said was a useful scientific device that was meant to be a gift for the President.
As soon as the soldier fires, Gort’s visor opens and a beam vaporizes the various rifles and artillery weapons assembled by the army. What Klaatu wants is to talk about peace to all the nations of the world, and Earth is off to a bad start.
Klaatu and Gort have traveled millions of miles to Washington to explain that other planets have been watching Earth for a long time, mostly amused by Terran stupidity and violence. The Klaatu Federation of Planets doesn’t care if Earth blows itself up, but they noticed that the countries of Earth now have nuclear weapons and rockets, which could pose a danger to those planets.
Klaatu tells an emissary for the US president that if Earth threatens these planets, they will reduce Earth to ashes. Gort is one of many robots with this awesome power and they are programmed to destroy anyone who becomes violent – this is how the Klaatu group of planets watch each other and keep the peace.
Klaatu asks the president’s representative to bring all the rulers of Earth together so that they can hear the message. But he soon shows Klaatu a bundle of cables that say things like, âWe’re busy; “” We can only meet in Moscow; “We can only meet in Washington.” Etc.
The army takes control. They deliver Klaatu to Walter Reed Hospital, where he heals himself with a balm and escapes. He wants to go among the people of Washington to see what they look like, and he finds most people fearful, suspicious, easy to accept rumors and naive about almost everything. So he manages to visit Dr. Barnhart, the greatest American and world scientist, played by Sam Jaffe, who looks a lot like Albert Einstein.
The result of the meeting – you have to watch the movie to see this work – is that Klaatu demonstrates the power of the planetary federation of Gort and Klaatu, immobilizing the Earth.
“The day the earth stood still” is a modest production. The main actors Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal were well known actors, but not high profile stars. The film is 92 minutes long, in black and white, which was typical for the time – the color was reserved mainly for westerns and musicals with bigger budgets.
Bosley Crowther, film critic for the New York Times, gave the image a short, modestly patronizing review that appeared in the newspaper directly above Crowther’s review on “Mr. Peek-a-Booâ, A French fantasy about a man walking through walls. Like most other film critics and audiences in 1951, Crowther didn’t realize until a few years later, “The day the earth stood still “ would be considered a fundamental expression of the Cold War – in hindsight, the space invasion films of the time were about the Commies coming to get us.
But the power and insight of this quiet 1951 sci-fi film has only grown over time. Written by Henry H. North from a short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, and directed by Robert Wise – in his humble days before he exploded into extravagances like “West Side Story “ and “The sound of music “ – “The day the earth stood still “ understands why we human beings seem unable to save ourselves.
If Gort, under Klaatu’s command, has the means to shut off all electricity on Earth – while still letting planes land, etc., and making sure no one gets hurt – they can surely incinerate our planet.
Yet despite terrible threats, the Terrans recklessly stir in “The day the earth stood still. “World leaders escape, so Professor Barnhart persuades Klaatu to speak to a gathering of scientists from around the world. They gather in front of Gort and the spaceship, to see the whole affair wiped out by the military, which insists treat Klaatu – despite all the evidence – as an enemy to be destroyed.
The genius of the movie is that it doesn’t talk a lot about visitors from other planets, but rather about actual humans in the world. In 2021, faced with the extinction caused by the Terrans, the peoples of the world are not cooperating for the common good either.
The United Nations conference in Glasgow last month was a discordant mix of politicians, environmentalists, oil and gas representatives and others, all with their own parochial interests and all unable, or unwilling, to deal with the serious threat we create to our own survival. Some trumpeted the deal to admit that fossil fuels contribute to climate change.
Whoops. It’s like agreeing that sometimes – sometimes – matches can cause fires.
On the pandemic front, we still argue over the obvious – that masks and vaccinations can actually slow the spread of COVID-19 and help mankind get back to ‘normal’, which like “The day the earth stood still “ sees it, may not be such a godsend.
For a teacher and film critic, and for other human beings, it is important to realize that not all movies are disposable items, that like all good art some movies speak to us, like this unassuming movie from 70 years ago.
Howie Movshovitz teaches film at the College of Arts & Media at the University of Colorado at Denver and is a film critic at KUNC.
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