Our Enemy, Ourselves: Averting Armageddon in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Released soon after the Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb and the “flying saucer” mania gripping the country after the Roswell, New Mexico incident, Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (Day) is, M. Keith Booker maintains, “a courageous film” and the first “truly important work of American science fiction cinema.”[i] Day critiques nuclear weapons, inflexible Cold War ideology and militarism, advocates for the peaceful application of science to solve problems, and seems to comment on the McCarthy era paranoia overtaking collective reason.[ii] The film begins dramatically when a saucer lands in downtown Washington, D.C. With the world’s cameras trained on the craft, a humanoid figure named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges and offers peace and goodwill, but he is immediately shot by a nervous soldier after revealing an object. Gort, an intimidating, faceless robot staggers out of the saucer and disintegrates guns, tanks, and artillery until Klaatu orders him to desist.

Recovering in a hospital, Klaatu informs presidential aides he must speak to the world’s leaders, but is told this is politically impossible. Klaatu escapes and befriends a young widow (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Bobby volunteers to show Klaatu national landmarks like Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial. At Klaatu’s request, Bobby introduces Klaatu to “the smartest man in the world,” the renowned scientist Professor Barnhard (Sam Jaffe). Klaatu, a representative of an “organization for the mutual protection of all planets” threatened by Earth’s acquisition of atomic bombs, rocketry, and history of violence, tells Barnhard he is here to issue a warning. Klaatu, now the subject of a manhunt, is shot dead.  Gort resurrects Klaatu long enough to lecture the assembled scientists outside the saucer: “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.”[iii] Klaatu and Gort return to the saucer and depart for the heavens.[iv]

Professor Barnhard exchanges ideas with Klaatu

Day does not reference the Holocaust directly other than have Klaatu obliquely condemn war and violence, but the presence of Gort and the film’s heroic depiction of science and scientists influenced subsequent science fiction where Holocaust imagery figures prominently. Gort is not Klaatu’s servant, but a robot “policeman” the confederation created and entrusts with awesome destructive power. The interplanetary police force is empowered to punish “aggression” with extermination.  Earth, with its combative nature and nascent atomic capabilities, is a proven threat to intergalactic peace. Professor Barnhard convinces Klaatu to limit’s Gort’s initial demonstration of power to a worldwide blackout rather than eliminating a city, or something worse. Klaatu implies there will be no second warning. Joshua Pardon notes Gort’s golem-like function “could be a subconscious projection of humanity’s own fear . . . of the destructive power that it wielded over itself.”[v]

Klaatu informs humanity it can either live peacefully or face extermination

As politicians bicker and frustrate Klaatu’s mission, scientists instinctively realize the significance of this unprecedented event and collaborate with the alien visitor. Day depicts scientists as eminently reasonable and noble at a time when many eminent scientists were marked as foreign, Jewish, and perhaps too progressive for the Cold War. However, Day is silent about scientists’ leading role in advocating and profiting from the national security state. Did not Earth’s scientists draw Gort’s ire by building weapons of mass destruction in the first place?  Day also accepts the historically problematic premise that advanced societies should “correct” less advanced ones if their behavior is deemed threatening.[vi] Day captured the imagination of a culture anxious about the volatile mix of unfettered science and politics. Perhaps we yearn for a Gort to do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. Klaatu’s race seems progressive and rational. What happens when deeply flawed and irrational humans build a Gort not to regulate our self-destructive tendencies, but to amplify them? Bring on the Terminator.

[i] Quoted in Joshua Pardon, “Revisiting a Science Fiction Classic: Interpreting The Day the Earth Stood Still for Contemporary Film Audiences,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 36, no. 3 (September 2008), 149.

[ii] Pardon, 142.

[iii] The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise (Twentieth Century Fox, 1951), DVD.

[iv] Interpreting Klaatu as a Christ figure seems obvious. “Like Jesus he is killed by soldiers carrying out the orders of the political and military authorities,” writes Krin Gabbard. Klaatu is killed, resurrected, delivers a sermon telling humans they are not alone and god-like forces will be watching over them, and then disappears into the heavens. See Krin Gabbard, “Religion and Political Allegory in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Literature/Film Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1982): 150-54. Douglas Cowan argues the reason Klaatu is a Christ figure “is not because he is or Robert Wise intended him to be, but because the cultural dominance of Christianity has intruded into the interpretive process to make him so. See Douglas E. Cowan, “Seeing the Saviour in the Stars: Religion, Conformity, and The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Journal of Religion & Popular Culture, 21, no. 1 (Spring 2009), 3.

[v] Pardon, 144.

[vi] Pardon, 146.

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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