The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
January 17, 2020 | by Shannon
“Klaatu barada nikto!”
This is unquestionably the most famous line from 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. I’m sure the gibberish above already tipped you off, but this film is of the sci-fi genre, one of the very first actually! The Day the Earth Stood Still, despite nearing its 70thanniversary, remains one of the most respected and admired sci-fi films ever made.
Does Patricia Neal in a science fiction picture seem a little incongruous to you? Pat and sci-fi certainly didn’t match up in my book before I watched The Day the Earth Stood Still. Patricia herself was more than a little surprised when she was offered the female lead in the movie. But I’ll tell you right now—and this is coming from someone who generally doesn’t much care for sci-fi—Patricia rocks this film! I’ll tell you why in a little bit. For now, let’s get to the plot!
The Day the Earth Stood Still: The Plot
The film is set in Washington, D.C., 1951. It’s just an average day in the capital until a flying saucer lands right in the middle of the National Mall. A humanoid man—sci-fi lingo for another life form that looks like a human—exits the aircraft, which by now is surrounded by interested onlookers and US tanks and soldiers. We learn the humanoid’s name is Klaatu (Michael Rennie). Klaatu proclaims:
“We have come to visit you in peace. And with goodwill.”
But then Klaatu proceeds to pull out a weird, weapon-y looking thing from his pocket. So a soldier shoots him. Turns out the object was
“… a gift for your president. With this he could have studied life on other planets.”
Well, better safe than sorry if you ask me. (Although I’m sure this line of thinking is exactly what the film is telling us to avoid…maybe it’s my “mom protection” instinct coming out??!)
A huge, 8-foot tall metallic robot, who goes by the name of Gort (Lock Martin), also exits the spaceship. In reaction to Klaatu’s bullet wound, Gort disables all the US weaponry surrounding the aircraft with a laser beam that he seems to be able to shoot out of his face at will.
As he is carted off to the hospital, Klaatu tells Gort to shut down. Gort freezes on the spot. And then stays that way for days…
A Message for the World
While being cared for at Walter Reed Hospital, Klaatu is visited by the President’s secretary (Frank Conroy). Klaatu says he has an important message to deliver to the whole world. But the President’s secretary tells him that due to the current political climate—the brewing Cold War—getting the whole world together for this mystery message would be impossible.
The Missing "Spaceman"
So Klaatu sneaks out of the hospital to observe humans in their natural habitat. Klaatu finds a suit to wear and adopts the alias “John Carpenter.” He’ll stay at a boarding house under this name while he conducts his observations, and avoids capture by the US government.
At the boarding house, Klaatu sees the paranoia of the other boarders as they all listen to a radio broadcast about the mysterious “spaceman” who is on the loose. Little do they know he’s sitting with them at the breakfast table. Most of the boarders seem to agree with the radio announcer that the missing spaceman
“…must be tracked down like a wild animal. He must be destroyed…everybody agrees, there is great danger. How can we protect ourselves? What measures can we take to neutralize this menace from another world? Destroy it? Of course, but how?”
The only boarders who don’t seem to share this view are a lovely young widow, Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (the wonderful Billy Gray! My absolute favorite child actor! He is fabulous with Doris Day in On Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953) ). Helen tells the other boarders that
“This spaceman or whatever he is, we automatically assume he’s a menace. Maybe he isn’t at all…maybe he’s afraid. He was shot the minute he landed here. I was just wondering what I would do.”
Klaatu befriends Helen and Bobby, and even watches Bobby for a whole day so Helen can spend some quality time with her boyfriend, Tom (Hugh Marlowe).
It’s during this time with Bobby that Klaatu has an idea: if the President won’t help him get an international audience for his message, maybe the smartest man on earth can?
According to Bobby, that man is Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who luckily lives in Washington, D.C. as well. So off Klaatu and Bobby go to see the Professor.
Barnhardt is not at home when they get there, so Klaatu invites himself into the Professor’s study, and corrects a celestial mathematics problem on his chalk board, hoping this will pique Barnhardt’s interest.
When Barnhardt calls for Klaatu later that day, he believes Klaatu’s story, and asks what his message is. Klaatu responds that he and the people of other planets worry that Earth will use its newfound capabilities with atomic energy in space, that humans will build spaceships, which
“…will create a threat to the peace and security of other planets. That of course, we cannot tolerate. I came here to warn you that by threatening danger, your planet faces danger. Very grave danger. I’m prepared however to offer a solution.”
And if Earth doesn’t listen and puts atomic rockets in space? Well, Klaatu says
“…there is no alternative. In such a case the planet earth would have to be eliminated.”
WOW!!! Barnhardt says he can get a whole bunch of his smart buddies from around the world to the National Mall, where Klaatu can then share his message. Barnhardt also believes that Klaatu must do something to scare the people of Earth into listening to his message, something that everyone will be notice, but will not cause harm.
A Harmless and Frightening Sign
So Klaatu neutralizes electricity over the whole world! Trains, cars, phones, lights, laundry machines, blenders (noooooo!!!!), tractors, everything stops working for a full half hour the next day. The only things not affected by the neutralization are hospitals and planes in flight.
During this half hour, Klaatu visits Helen Benson at work. Bobby, who followed Klaatu to his spaceship the night before, and saw him enter the ship and interact with Gort, told his mother and Tom that their friend Mr. Carpenter was in fact the missing spaceman. But Helen and Tom did not believe Bobby. Now, Klaatu tells Helen that Bobby was speaking the truth. Helen believes Klaatu, and promises that she and Bobby will not reveal Klaatu to the authorities so he may deliver his message that night.
On the Run!
But when boyfriend Tom finds out the truth, he realizes that he could be greatly rewarded for turning Klaatu in to the government, so he calls in to tip the military off. They immediately strategize to pick Klaatu up from the boarding house.
Luckily, Helen gets there first! She and Klaatu hurriedly make their escape in a taxi. But the military cars are hot on their trail. !!!!
Klaatu realizes that he may not make it back to the spaceship alive. He tells Helen:
“I’m worried about Gort. I’m afraid of what he might do. If anything should happen to me…There’s no limit to what he could do. He could destroy the Earth. If anything should happen to me, you must go to Gort. You must say these words: ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto.’”
Helen promises to deliver the message. Moments later, Klaatu is fatally shot! Helen knows what she must do.
Helen makes it back to the National Mall, where Gort has broken free from the plastic box the government put him in. With his laser face, Gort kills the two guards watching him, and begins to move in on Helen. Scared out of her mind, Helen finally says,
“Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto. Klaatu Barada Nikto!”
Whatever those words mean, Gort spares Helen, and his laser eyes disappear as he carries her into the spaceship.
Gort’s laser abilities come in handy once more as he uses them to tear through the wall of the jail cell holding Klaatu’s body. Gort takes Klaatu’s body back to the spaceship, where he miraculously brings Klaatu back to life, just in time to deliver his message to the crowd that Professor Barnhardt has gathered. Klaatu begins his speech:
“The universe grows smaller everyday. And the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated…
We of the other planets…have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets, and for the complete elimination of aggression…For our policemen, we created a race of robots…In patterns of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor…
If you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”
So Earth, don’t use atomic energy in space, or the robot police will come and destroy your planet: be peaceful, or the robots will kill you.
And with that, Klaatu gives one last rather loving look at Helen, re-enters his spaceship with Gort, and the two fly back to their home planet.
Not the Next Garbo
By 1951, Warner Bros. and Patricia Neal had parted ways. As Patricia says in her autobiography [aff. link],
“I was becoming an expensive commodity for the studio…Their investment in me had not paid off. The critics had been kind, but I had not hit the jackpot at the box office. I certainly had not become the new Garbo.”
So Patricia signed with 20thCentury Fox to do a three-picture deal. The first film she was offered under the new Fox deal was The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). And Pat was extremely disappointed:
“I was not encouraged in the least, but I did not want to begin my career at Fox by going on suspension.”
So she gritted her teeth and accepted the role of Helen Benson. Once filming started however, Patricia had a blast working with old friends Hugh Marlowe, who played Helen’s boyfriend Tom, and Robert Wise, who directed the picture.
Keeping a Straight Face on The Day the Earth Stood Still
Still, sci-fi was not Patricia’s cup of tea and she shared that:
“I admit that I sometimes had a difficult time keeping a straight face. Michael would patiently watch me bite my lips to avoid giggling and ask, with true British reserve, ‘Is that the way you intend to play it?’”
Hey, if I had a line like “Klaatu barada nikto” to deliver, I’d probably have a hard time keeping a straight face too. But you’d never guess that Patricia struggled to take the storyline seriously based on the brilliance of her performance.
And when she says the now famous phrase, Pat somehow makes that crazy jumble of words sound important, weighty, and meaningful. No wonder Klaatu admires Helen’s ability to listen and sympathize in the film. Patricia may not be the spaceman or the metallic, 8-foot tall robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but to me she is the most intriguing character in the picture. I find myself watching her in every scene she’s in, no matter what extravagance is going on around her.
Patricia's Perfect Performance
I find Pat to be the highlight of the film—she is completely natural as a mother on screen, perfectly playing her scenes with Billy Gray. She’s loving, understanding, motherly, and firm when necessary. Though it would still be just about four years before Patricia had a child of her own, she seems to be an experienced mother in the film.
Patricia is also completely convincing as a woman fearing for her life when the huge, metallic, 8-foot tall robot Gort is coming towards her with his laser ready to strike. Patricia had me in the palm of her hand as I waited for her to say the magic words that would keep Gort from hurting her!
A Few Interesting Facts from The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still is full of really interesting—and rather inconsistent!—messages (extolling the virtues of non-violence, but then promoting non-violence with the threat of robot violence???), and tons of parallels to Christ (Klaatu’s resurrection being the most obvious.) Rather than delve into those, I want to quickly highlight two of my favorite behind the scenes facts before getting back to Patricia:
The awesome spaceship that Klaatu and Gort arrive on Earth in was designed with the help of none other than Frank Lloyd Wright! It’s rumored that the interior of the ship was based off of the Johnson Wax Headquarters, which Wright built in 1936. Wright envisioned for the exterior of the spaceship
“…to imitate an experimental substance that I have heard about which acts like living tissue. If cut, the rift would appear to heal like a wound, leaving a continuous surface with no scar.”
To achieve this, Klaatu’s flying saucer was covered in putty, which would pull apart when the spaceship opened for Klaatu to exit the craft. Whenever the spaceship was to close again, the footage of the ship opening was simply played in reverse. Wright’s vision of a “continuous surface with no scar” was thus made a reality!
The Gentle Giant
Gort, the 8-foot tall metallic robot, was played by a real human, Lock Martin, who wasn’t so far off from being 8-feet tall himself. Lock’s true height is debated. Some sources have him measuring in at 7 feet 7 inches, but according to The Day the Earth Stood Still director Robert Wise, Lock was 7 feet 1 inches tall. Either way, this was one tall guy!
Despite his great height, Lock Martin was an incredibly gentle human being in every way. Dummies were actually used in the film for the scenes where Gort carrries Helen or Klaatu because Martin did not have the physical strength to carry Patricia Neal or Michael Rennie.
Director Wise also made sure that Martin’s scenes were all shot in 30 minute segments to avoid overworking Martin’s delicate health. I’m sure the physical strenuousness of his role was not helped by the thick foamed neoprene suit Martin had to wear!
Lock Martin also had a gentle heart, and enjoyed reading stories to children in his spare time. Awwww how sweet is that?! At one point in his accidental acting career, Martin actually had a television show where he did just that, and officially earned the nickname “The Gentle Giant.”
The End of the Cooper Affair
So back to Patricia. 1951 not only marked the beginning of Pat’s career away from Warner Bros., it also marked the end of Patricia’s relationship with Gary Cooper. Pat was heartbroken, and stated in her autobiography that
“Had there been a way to have this incredible gift of love and still respect his [Cooper’s] marriage vows, I would have touched upon the miracle of my life.”
As I mentioned in my intro post on Patricia, by the end of 1951, she was ready to find a man that would love only her, and start a family. After moving to New York to escape the pain of the end of her relationship with Cooper—and her disappointment with the course her Hollywood career had taken—Patricia found that man in Roald Dahl. The two were married in 1953.
Patricia Does it All!
When you think of how renown Dahl would later become for writing such children’s classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, it’s particularly interesting to note that during the early years of their marriage, Patricia was the breadwinner in the family. (Actually, Pat was the breadwinner until her tragic stroke in 1965.)
When the couple’s first child, Olivia, was born in 1955, Patricia made headlines with her juggling of a Broadway career, motherhood, and role of loyal wife:
“They filled columns on my home life…I was certainly not the only woman who was wife, mother, and professional, but this was long before women’s lib and it made news…
I rose early to bathe and feed my now six-month old, walked her in the park and did the shopping. I made breakfast and lunch for my husband…cleaned the apartment, prepared supper, did the dishes and made it to the theater for an 8:30 curtain. And I made sure there was always plenty of time to discuss my husband’s work with great appreciation. It was an exhausting schedule, but I was having a wonderful time.”
Does that sound like superwoman or what?!!! Go Patricia!
More Patricia Neal Next Week!
And with that, I leave you until next week, when I’ll review Patricia’s Oscar winning performance in 1963’s Hud. The film paired Pat with another of my all-time-favorites, the handsome and talented Paul Newman!
Don’t miss Hud when it plays on TCM on Tuesday next week (check out the TCM film schedule for showtimes), then be sure to read my post for behind the scenes facts and more about Patricia and Paul!
Have you seen The Day the Earth Stood Still? Do you think this sci-fi classic stands the test of time?