Classic Movies: The Day the Earth Stood Still

by JUDY DUNGEY
6th September 2021

A MAN COMES down from the Heavens with a message of peace for all mankind.
He lives amongst us as a simple carpenter.
When the powers that be reject his message, he begins to perform miracles to get their attention.
The authorities become afraid and murder him.
An angel opens up the place where his body lies and on the third day he lives again.
He ascends back to the Heavens, promising to return again when the world is ready to hear his message.
Sound familiar?
That is in a nutshell the story of the Day the Earth Stood Still – perhaps made more relevant to more secular audiences when the visitor (Klaatu – Michael Rennie) comes down from the stars in a spaceship (more believable to some than an immaculate birth) and wants to address the United Nations with his message/warning that the world needs to come together to survive.
While he waits for his answer, he lives in boarding house under the name of John Carpenter (Get it? Lives amongst us as a carpenter?).
He befriends a widow, Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray).
His fearsome sidekick, a robot named Gort that speaks in tongues, is his Angel helper and waits on the spaceship until he is needed.
John Carpenter teaches Helen to speak the immortal words “Klaatu berada nikto” and instructs her to give the message to Gort in the event of anything happening to him.
The United Nations rejects his message of Peace and togetherness, so Klaatu warns that he will give them a demonstration of his powers at noon the following day.
And sure enough, right at that time, the power goes off around the world.
Well, that gets everyone’s attention and even the US military become afraid of him.
As he addresses the world, a nervous soldier panics at the sight of his next gift (we will never know) and Klaatu is shot dead and his body stored in a military warehouse.
Mary goes to an offline Gort and utters the message as she was taught.
Gort comes on line immediately, goes to the warehouse and rolls back the doors, emerging with Carpenter’s limp and lifeless body.
He takes him back to the spaceship and Klaatu emerges next day, hale and hearty.
He announces that the world is not yet ready to hear his message and we have all missed our chance, but if we’re good he promises to return one day when we need him most.
Then the spaceship takes off from the Whitehouse lawn and Klaatu ascends back into the Heavens.
This 1951 version of the film is one of the most seminal sci-fi stories of the canon.
The 2008 version starring Keanu Reeves has amazing special effects, but only a fraction of the impact of the low-budget 1951 story.
In fact, when the almighty powers of Klaatu are released in 1951, we are in a lift and see little of the chaos assumed to be going on outside, aside from a few stalled cars.
In 2008 we see it all, plus a raging and angry Klaatu, but somehow, we remain unchanged and disinclined to mend our ways.
Gort, the 1951 robot/angel of the story, has been listed as one of the top five giants of all time.
He is portrayed by Lock Martin, who was actually seven and a half feet tall.
At the time of making the film, the message of Peace was not popular with the government while it was engaged in war with Korea.
Robert Wise, who directed the film, said that it was virtually impossible to obtain any help from the military at that time in the way of tanks, artillery or even uniforms.
So soon after World War Two, peace was already a bad word.
The film begins with Klaatu’s spacecraft circling the earth at unbelievable speeds before landing on a baseball field in Washington, being tracked on WW2-style big table maps with tokens pushed along by long sticks.
With the recent release of the now-famous “tic-tac” UFO footage, the similarities in the accompanying soundtracks are quite marked.
What would happen if a spaceship landed on the lawn in front of Parliament House these days?
Would we immediately assume hostile aliens?
Or would it presage peace on earth?
How many aliens would end up on Manus Island?

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