the day the earth stood still

20th Century Fox “Spooktacular” – 1950s: The Day the Earth Stood Still

By Christina Pappous, Walt Disney Archives

With the leaves falling from trees and temperatures getting cooler, we’re getting into the Halloween spirit by continuing our tour through the decades and looking at some of the most haunting films from 20th Century Fox. For the 1950s—the era of milkshakes, drive-ins, and the Cold War—we shall witness for ourselves The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

A loose adaptation of Harry Bates’ 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master,” The Day the Earth Stood Still explores what happens when a mysterious spaceship lands in Washington, D.C., and two even more mysterious figures disembark from it: the humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his silent, towering robot sentinel, Gort (Lock Martin). Klaatu comes in peace and goodwill, seeking an audience with the leaders of the world, but he is instead greeted at every turn by fear, anger, and mistrust from civilians, the military, and government authorities. However, this changes after he disguises himself as a human man, befriending the young widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), her son, Bobby (Billy Gray) and Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), “the greatest living person” in Bobby’s estimation. It is to Helen and Professor Barnhardt that Klaatu divulges the true reason for his arrival: to warn of Earth’s elimination at the hands of other planets should humanity continue its dangerous escalation of atomic power and its unceasing hostility towards each other. With the help of his newfound allies, Klaatu is able to return to his spaceship and to Gort; upon his departure, he ominously intones to the uneasy crowd gathered around him: “Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace. Or pursue your present course—and face obliteration. We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”

The Day the Earth Stood Still reflects the period of world history in which it was made, with Klaatu’s words of warning echoing the very real fears and anxieties that beset a global society in the thick of the Cold War. The film’s score, accented by the eerie sounds of a theremin and the sleek, cool lines of its production design, give it a defined “space race” edge. In fact, the Gort of the film’s source material is described as all green and looking much like an overly muscled human being, while the Gort film audiences see is all atomic era, from his smooth, silvery sheen to the deadly laser beam that emerges from his visor, disintegrating an Army tank in the blink of an eye.

The Day the Earth Stood Still was a modest success upon its release but it is now considered one of the finest science-fiction films ever made, with Klaatu’s iconic command to Gort, “Klaatu barada nikto” engrained in popular culture.

The decision rests with you to experience for yourself The Day the Earth Stood Still.