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'The Day the Earth Stood Still'

By Matt Slovick
Washingtonpost.com Staff

"Men in Black" and "Contact," two films about aliens, brought people into movie theaters during the summer of '97. And "Independence Day," in which hostile aliens blow up the White House, broke box-office records in 1996. In 1951, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" featured a spaceship carrying a spaceman and a robot that lands on the Ellipse.

Its special effects don't come close to the three films mentioned above, but like "Contact," it makes you think. The movie's pacifist message is just as relevant more than 45 years later. The film, based on Harry Bates's short story "Farewell to the Master," was made during the Cold War and only a few years after mankind witnessed the atomic bomb's devastation. A third world war possibly would mean the first nuclear war and unimaginable destruction.

In the movie, Klaatu and his robot, Gort, come to Earth from a peaceful civilization to deliver a simple message: don't try that violence stuff with us, because if you do, we'll wipe away Earth quicker than you can say Roswell, New Mexico. Although much of the film is dated, some things never change even in '90s movies. As in most sci-fi flicks, people were in a panic, believing the aliens were killers. The good spaceman is on Earth for less than 30 seconds before he is shot — for the first time.

The '50s vs. the '90s: In only one scene is a family sitting in front of a television. Most of the people huddle near radios. A few headlines were shown from newspapers. In contrast, the media frenzy depicted in "Contact" is almost entirely on TV with CNN and talk shows playing a huge role. You never even see a newspaper.

Only in the Movies:

  • Headlines were shown for two newspapers, the Washington Express and the Washington Chronicle. Neither paper ever existed.
  • The phone number on the side of the Yellow Cabs reads LAwrence 6-1212. According to a 1950 phone directory, the number of the Yellow Cab Co. was TRinidad 6-1212.

    Washington Sites: The White House; Washington Monument; Lincoln Memorial; Jefferson Memorial; Capitol; Arlington National Cemetery; Union Station; Supreme Court Building; Smithsonian; People's Drug Store (which no longer exists). The house at 1609 16th St. NW (H. Cornell Wilson House) was the home/office of Dr. Barnhardt. The house is still on the annual Dupont Circle Citizens Association House Tour.

    Local Mentions: 1412 Harvard St. NW; Walter Reed Hospital; Fort Belvoir (Fairfax County, Va.)

    It Wasn't Quite Right: The military tracks a taxi that has Klaatu and Helen Benson as passengers. But the sequence doesn't make sense when you look at a map. North on 14th Street from Harvard Street (that's okay). Heading west on 15th Street (which goes north and south) at Treasury Place (can't find this on a map). Turning west on Massachusetts Avenue (which is pretty far south of Harvard Street from where they went north and west). Northwest to Columbia Road and Connecticut (this intersection does exist, but it's southwest of Harvard). Then the order is given to close off all streets intersecting Connecticut Avenue from Wisconsin Avenue to the park. Again, Wisconsin is a good distance west of Connecticut. And because of Rock Creek, only Q and P streets cross the creek and hit Connecticut.

    Memorable Scenes:

  • As people run in fear, the spaceship flies over the nation's capital and many monuments before landing on the Ellipse.
  • Klaatu pulls out a metal object. A jittery soldier shoots the object from his hand and the bullet hits Klaatu. The visor on the head of the huge robot, Gort, opens. The robot shoots a ray at soldier's guns, which are vaporized. Gort and his ray also melt a tank and two large artillery guns. Klaatu tells them, "It was a gift from your president. With this he could have studied life on the other planets."
  • After Klaatu is shot the second time, Gort begins to melt a special plastic case — "stronger than steel" — that's encasing him. The two soldiers on duty walk toward him. He opens his visor and vaporizes the soldiers with his ray. Helen then shows up. Gort corners her and opens his visor. The terrified Helen follows Klaatu's instructions and utters the words "Klaatu barada nikto." Gort closes the visor, picks her up and takes her into the spaceship.
  • In the final scene, Klaatu addresses the audience of scientists and men at the top of their fields from around the world. He tells them that if their techology enables them to leave Earth, and their violence threatens any other planet, Earth will be destroyed.

    Memorable Lines:

  • Harley: "Perhaps you'd rather discuss it personally with the president."
    Klaatu: "This is not a personal matter, Mr. Harley. It concerns all the people on your planet."
  • Klaatu: "I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it."
    Harley: "I'm afraid my people haven't. I am very sorry. I wish it were otherwise"
  • Mrs. Crockett: "You're a long way from home aren't you Mr. Carpenter."
    Klaatu: "How did you know?"
    Mrs. Crockett: "I can tell a New England accent a mile away."
  • Mrs. Barley: "There's nothing strange about Washington, Mr. Carpenter."
    Klaatu: "A person from another planet might disagree with you."
  • "Klaatu barada nikto": Klaatu tells Helen Benson that if anything happens to him, he must go to Gort, the robot, and repeat those words or Gort might destroy Earth. This line resurfaced in the horror/comedy "Army of Darkness." (1993).
  • Klaatu: "But if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burnt 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."

    Advanced Technology:

  • The spaceship travels 4,000 mph inside the Earth's atmosphere. Klaatu tells Bobby that it goes faster in space. He had told Harley that he traveled 250 million miles in five "Earth" months. That breaks down to 50 million miles a month, 1.7 million miles a day (based on 30 days) or 69,444 mph. Today's Space Shuttle must reach speeds of about 17,500 mph to remain in orbit.
  • Doctors guess Klaatu's age at 35 to 38. Klaatu said he is 78 and that life expectancy on his planet is 130.
  • Klaatu's bullet wound disappears in a day after he applies his medicine.
  • After Klaatu is shot the second time and dies, Gort brings him back to the spaceship and back to life.

    A Few Nit-Picks

  • After seeing the types of crowds that showed up at O.J. Simpson's house after the Bronco chase, a spaceship in Washington would probably bring people from around the world. In the movie "Contact," tens of thousands of people converge in New Mexico, where the signal from space was detected. In "The Day the Earth Stood Still," hundreds of people stand behind ropes to gawk at the space ship. Well, I'm sure the area would have been secured for miles. And at night, with a robot standing outside the spaceship and a spaceman at large, the military leaves just two soldiers to stand guard. And NO ONE else is there. Not one curious bystander. Of course, this made it easy for Klaatu to come and go and keep the plot moving.
  • Klaatu demonstrates his power by turning of the electricty throughout the world for 30 minutes. Cars, trucks and motorcycles technically run on gas, however they do need electricity for the spark plug. Klaatu is nice enough to leave the electricity on in hospitals and allows planes in flight to stay airborne. But what about people in emergency situations who need to get to a hospital by ambulance?
  • After Klaatu is shot the second time, Gort zaps a wall at the jail and carries the "dead" Klaatu back to the ship. Gort walks, well, slowly like a robot. The entire world is looking for them, but they return undetected to the ship, where no one is waiting for them. In "Men in Black," they have a device that erases memory. It seems like Gort should have been equipped with some mechanism that would make people "freeze" for a minute, so he could pass by unnoticed.

    The Plot: A spaceship lands in Washington, D.C. Police, military and a crowd quickly surround it. The news is broadcast around the world. Klaatu (Michael Rennie), in a spacesuit and helmet, emerges and holds out a metal object. A soldier shoots Klaatu, and a large robot, Gort, comes out of the ship. A visor opens on his head and a ray melts the soldiers' guns, tanks and artillery guns.

    At the hospital, Klaatu speaks to Harley, a White House representative. Klaatu tells Harley he has a message for the entire planet and that all world leaders must come together. Harley tries unsuccessfully to satisfy Klaatu's demand. Klaatu easily escapes a locked door, steals a suit and checks into a boarding house as Mr. Carpenter. There he is able to study Earthlings.

    He quickly builds a friendship with Bobby, the son of Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), a single mother. He ends up contacting Dr. Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), one of the "smartest men on Earth." Since a global meeting is impossible, Klaatu says he could arrange a non-fatal display of power. Barnhardt then assembles a group of scientists and men of stature from other fields to see the demonstration and attend Klaatu's announcement.

    Klaatu returns to the ship, and Bobby sees him. Bobby tells his disbelieving mother and her boyfriend, Tom. The next day all electricity on Earth is turned off from noon to 12:30 p.m. At this time he is trapped on a elevator with Helen and tells her the whole story. But fame-seeking Tom calls the authorities, and they follow a taxi in which Klaatu and Helen are riding. At a roadblock, Klaatu runs and is fatally shot. Helen follows his orders, goes to Gort and says "Klaatu barada nikto." Gort takes Helen into the ship, gets Klaatu out of jail and brings him back to life.

    Barnhardt is ready to call off the assembly when Klaatu, Gort and Helen step out of the ship. Klaatu tells the world that any threat of violence to other planets would mean obliteration of Earth. He and Gort enter the spaceship and fly away.

    Rating: Not rated.
    Release Date: 1951 (by 20th Century Fox).
    Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
    Director: Robert Wise.
    Michael Rennie (Klaatu/Mr. Carpenter); Patricia Neal (Helen Benson); Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens); Sam Jaffe (Dr. Barnhardt); Billy Gray (Bobby Benson); Francis Bavier (Mrs. Barley); Lock Martin (Gort); Drew Pearson (himself); Frank Conroy (Harley)

  • © 1997 The Washington Post Company

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