February 2015 already! The classic film this coming month at SouthBank is The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), winner of a Golden Globe for “promoting international understanding”. Based on Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates (originally published in pulp magazine Astounding Science-Fiction), it was directed by Robert Wise, and starred Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal and Sam Jaffe. Moreover it has a message that is even more urgent today than when it was made.
When a flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C. the Army quickly encircles it. A humanoid alien emerges to announce he comes in peace but, when he takes a small device from his pocket, he is shot and wounded by the encircling military. A robot appears using an energy ray to disintegrate the soldiers’ weapons before being ordered by the alien (Klaatu) to stop. Klaatu explains that the now-broken device was simply a gift for the President, which would have enabled him “to study life on other planets” where, in matters of aggression, robots have been given absolute power to eliminate warmongering so that destruction of civilization can be prevented. This important message was intended for representatives of all nations, but it turns out to be difficult to communicate and, after learning something about the natives of earth, Klaatu decides on an alternative approach …
Given credence through cameos from broadcast journalists whose faces were well-known at the time and benefiting from a score by Bernard Hermann (North by North West, Psycho, Taxi Driver), this film still garners critical acclaim, though Patricia Neal admitted to expecting it to be another trashy flying saucer film, which were then popular. (She found it difficult to keep a straight face while delivering many of her lines.)
As it turned out, the film was the year’s 52nd biggest earner. Variety praised its documentary style and the Los Angeles Times praised its seriousness, finding in it “certain subversive elements.” It won a special Golden Globe for “promoting international understanding” and a nomination for Herrmann’s score. The French magazine Cahiers du cinéma called it “almost literally stunning” and praised its “moral relativism.”
Imdb reviewers consistently award 8 to 10 out of 10 for this film. (On the other hand, reviews of its 2008 re-make award on average only 1-4 stars out of 10. Proof, if proof were needed, that the Classic film is the best!) So, despite Patricia Neal’s mis-givings, she would no doubt be astounded to know that it has turned out to be one of the great SF classics and is ranked seventh in Arthur C. Clarke’s list of the best Science-Fiction films of all time, just above Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey..
Undoubtedly this is due to it being unfortunately more relevant than ever in a world of terrorism, prejudice, cruelty and weapons of mass destruction.
- You may be expecting an old fashioned “take-me-to-your-leader” type cliché, but this film is nuanced in its treatment of politics and technology. For example, often seen as a threat or something that remains under human (and political) control, technology is here presented as our salvation; it must be left to do the job of protecting us from ourselves.
- If you think the meaning of this film is confined to the cold-war of the 1950s, think back a couple of weeks to the shootings in Paris! Then consider the last lines of the film: “The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. This does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly.”
- When Klaatu escapes from the hospital, he steals the clothing of John Carpenter (JC), who befriends children, and has wisdom and knowledge beyond any human; people are given a sign of his power; he is finally apprehended by the authorities at night and, at the end, rises from the dead and ascends into the sky.
- To appease the censor who objected to this as sacrilegious, a line was inserted to explain that Klaatu has been revived temporarily, not permanently, as “that power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit.” Screenwriter Edmund North said, “It was my private little joke … I had originally hoped that the Christ comparison would be subliminal.” (Perhaps the re-make should have contained some Islamic or further references to religion. That might have given it more stars in reviews.)
Hermann’s score was for two theremins, pianos, harps, different electrical organs, percussion, amplified solo strings and a large brass section including four tubas. It later inspired film-score composer Danny Elfman (Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Nightmare Before Christmas, Mars Attacks).
The studio wanted to remove Sam Jaffe (playing the Einstein-like Professor Barnhardt) as a result of the political witch hunts that were then underway. Producer Julian Blaustein appealed to studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who allowed Jaffe to stay, but it would be Jaffe’s last Hollywood film until the late 1950s.
Robert Wise (1914-2005) had edited Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for Orson Welles and went on to direct Curse of the Cat People (1944), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) and Star Trek: the Movie (1979) among many more. Wise was attracted to this project because of its overt anti-military stance and also because he believed in UFOs.
Harry Bates was paid a mere $500 by 20th Century Fox for his original story.