The Film that Made the Cold War Stand Still

The Day the Earth Stood Still (20th Century-Fox, 1951)
directed by Robert Wise, produced by Julian Blaustein, written by Edmund H. North
based on the shorty story Farewell to the Master, by Harry Bates

Synopsis of The Day the Earth Stood Still (spoiler alert)

An alien (Klaatu) (who is identical in physiology to humans) with his mighty robot (Gort) land their spacecraft on Cold War-era Earth just after the end of World War II when planetary survival is threatened by the nuclear arms race. They bring an important message to the planet that Klaatu wishes to tell to representatives of all nations. However, conveying that message to all of the world’s political leaders proves to be impossible, so, after learning something about the natives, Klaatu decides on an alternative approach. The aliens have understood that earthlings will soon be able to use atomic power for inter-planetary travel, and because they are still warlike, the federation of planets decided that earth must be destroyed if it cannot be convinced to submit to the pact of non-violence that all other planets live by.

Interestingly, Klaatu explains to humans that he has traveled to Earth by an advanced form of atomic power, and this story element reveals that in 1951 even among extreme peaceniks there was a firm belief that nuclear energy had uncomplicated potential for peaceful applications. There was no consideration of the dangers of radioactive fallout, and little thought given to the hazards of uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal, nor to the risks of reactor meltdowns. To the extent that there were any concerns about these, the hazards were deemed to be manageable. This started to change only in the late 1950s.

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Klaatu and Helen, Gort in the background

About the director

For over fifty years Robert Wise has made great movies. He won the Academy Award for West Side Story and for The Sound of Music. But his movies have done more than just entertain us. Working in all genres, he has helped us think about the human condition. Racism, capital punishment, power and purpose in the corporate boardroom, questions of war and peace, the dangers of nuclear and biological weapons—all have been addressed at one time or another in his films, and often ahead of his time. After watching a Robert Wise film, we leave the theater not only entertained but also enlightened by a director who uses his mastery of cinema not so much to leave us conscious of his style as to tell us a story so that we might better understand the world around us.
- From Conversations with History, Interview with Robert Wise, 1998, by Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley

The Story

The Day the Earth Stood Still seemed on the surface to be one of the many typical, low-grade science fiction films cranked out by Hollywood, but critics, historians and the public quickly noted there was more to it. It became a classic, recognized for the brilliant way it managed be very human and realistic, and for the way it managed to criticize both sides in the Cold War at the height of the anti-communist witch hunts that had silenced the American entertainment industry and intelligentsia. Though the film focuses on an alien threat, this device was a veil over the real threat that the audience could understand implicitly. Now that both the Soviets and Americans had large arsenals of nuclear weapons, everyone knew that total destruction could be achieved without the help of aliens.

After being shot in the arm and captured, Klaatu is under guard at a hospital in Washington. He reveals to the President's secretary, Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy), that he bears a message so momentous and urgent that it must be revealed to all the world's leaders simultaneously. However, Harley tells him that it would be impossible to get the world leaders to agree to meet. This scene is carefully crafted so as to not come off as explicitly anti-American or accusing of the USSR. Mr. Harley says only ambiguously that Klaatu must be aware of “evil forces that have produced the trouble in our world.” Those forces might be the atom bomb itself or the enemy against which we, "the good guys" must fight against.

Klaatu escapes from the hospital and lodges at a boarding house, assuming the alias John Carpenter. Among the residents are Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), a World War II widow, and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). While staying at the boarding house, Klaatu visits the famous physicist Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), hoping to convince him of the need to convene the world’s top scientists and politicians to hear his message.

Klaatu eventually finds that it is time to tell Helen who he is so he can enlist her help. He finds her at her workplace where she leads him to an unoccupied elevator which mysteriously stops at noon, trapping them together. A montage sequence shows that, as a demonstration to capture the attention of the world, Klaatu has neutralized all electric power everywhere around the planet, except in situations that would compromise human safety, such as hospitals and airplanes in flight.

After the thirty-minute blackout ends, the manhunt for Klaatu intensifies as Tom, Helen’s fianc√©, informs authorities of his suspicions. Helen is upset that Tom placed importance on his jealousy and ambition to be the hero who catches the alien. She breaks off their relationship and helps Klaatu complete his mission.

During the chase, Klaatu is mortally wounded by army soldiers, but he has instructed Helen that should anything happen to him, she must tell Gort "Klaatu barada nikto". Helen heads to the spaceship and gives Gort the message. Gort leaves her in the spaceship, then goes to retrieve Klaatu's corpse. Gort then revives Klaatu while Helen watches. Astute observers of the film noted that John Carpenter has the same initials as Christ, and in the final scene he rises from the dead, but industry watchdogs forced the writer of the story to make Klaatu explain that his revival is only temporary. Even with advanced medical technology, they cannot overcome death. Like other mortals, he does not know how long he will live. This fix actually helped to make the story more human and "down to earth."

Klaatu steps out of the spaceship and addresses the assembled scientists, explaining that humanity's penchant for violence, combined with its discovery of nuclear energy and first steps into space, have caused concern among other inhabitants of the universe. On other planets, intelligent creatures have created, empowered, and submitted themselves to robot enforcers who deter such aggression. He warns that if the people of Earth voyage into space with their violent tendencies unreformed, the robots will destroy Earth. He finishes by saying, "The decision rests with you." He enters the spaceship and departs.

DVD Extras: Interviews and 1952 Newsreel

The texts below come from the supplementary videos on the 2003 DVD release. The interviews were conducted in 1995, and they reveal how the director and producer were determined to find a way around the censorship and the negative political atmosphere of the era. They also discuss the ambiguous intentions of the film around the question of surrendering national sovereignty to an international entity.

Patricia Neal, who played the role of Helen, said that she couldn’t take the story seriously during filming, and kept laughing during rehearsals. However, she felt differently when she saw the film. It’s just a sci-fi flick, but it had a lasting impact on world culture and on history. The idea of a meeting of world scientists was taken by the writer from Einstein’s 1949 Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, but then perhaps the film had an influence on the Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1956, on the Pugwash conferences that followed from it, and on the entire counter-cultural and anti-nuclear movement that emerged later in the decade. According to President Reagan’s biographer, Reagan liked the notion that extraterrestrial invasion would trump national differences, and he mentioned the scenario upon meeting Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time at Geneva in 1985. [1]

The Movietone Newsreel transcript reveals exactly what US Secretary Harley’s words in the film refer to in the real world. The report on the San Francisco Peace Treaty shows Western leaders speaking with an utter disregard for diplomatic civility toward the Soviet Union. The former WWII ally is here mocked as if by crude, adolescent bullies, and this report from the free Western press makes no attempt to tone down the rhetoric with more objective language. It speaks for government agencies with enthusiasm for vilification, as if it were the product of a wartime propaganda machine, which it was essentially. Ironically, the newsreel includes a report on the film The Day the Earth Stood Still winning a science fiction award. At the end of the newsreel, the male adolescent mentality or the time comes through again in the language used to describe the Miss America and Mrs. America pageants of 1952. Irony upon ironies: the newsreel was distributed by 20th Century-Fox, the same company that produced The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Interviews on the making of The Day the Earth Stood Still, from the 2003 DVD, interviews conducted in 1995

Robert Wise (director) 00:01:16

It was a marvelous way to tell a science fiction film. I liked so much about what it had to say, particularly at this time. This was the early 50s after WWII. We had had the atomic bombs on Japan which caused such a furor, rightly so, around the world, so it was very, very hot subject matter. It's grown hotter over the years of course with all the threat of nuclear war that has gone on up until recent times and maybe still. So, I went back to see Julian and I said, "Listen, I love the film. I think it's a marvelous script and a marvelous way to tell a science fiction film and a marvelous way to get a message over to this world that says, "Let's stop fooling around with this atomic bomb that we've invented... and start being sane about this whole matter."

Robert Wise (director) 01:04:10

The fact that the story of The Day the Earth Stood Still had something important to say was very meaningful to me. I've been anti-militarist my whole life... I made a number of films that say we should stop wars, stop fighting and somehow get along... I made a film called The Sand Pebbles about a gunboat on the Yangtze River in China with Steve McQueen playing the lead in it. It had a message to America saying, "Stop showing your military might all around the world," as we've been doing since the early part of the [20th] century... It's been important for me to have something vital to be said in my films, but never, hopefully, to get up on a soap box and talk about what the message is, or the theme, but to have brought it out and dramatized it through the story itself... except, interestingly enough, in The Day the Earth Stood Still... where Klaatu gets up and delivers [his message] to the scientists and important people there what it is about: stop fooling around with your primitive atomic bombs and warfare or we may have to do away with you.

Julian Blaustein (producer) 00:01:57

The idea for the picture came from a series of newspaper headlines which referred to the phrase "peace offensive." At the time the Soviet Union was trying to talk peace and all the people, obviously, who were enemies of the Soviet Union didn't trust them and it became a "peace offensive" and it seemed like such a contradiction in terms that characterized that whole period that we were living in. The atmosphere and political ambience was so negative, and I wondered if we could do something to say that peace is a five-letter word, not a dirty word. The screen [motion picture industry] has maybe a responsibility. It started that way and then I said I'm never going to find a story that will carry that idea without becoming a tract, without becoming a non-entertainment piece of work that Darryl Zanuck [head of Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation] would never approve. He had the approval of what we did. And it suddenly hit me the science fiction story might be the way to go.

What turns out to be a man steps off the space ship, brings an offering as a gift, but because it's strange and certainly unusual, he's immediately shot at by our military and seriously wounded. That appealed to me. The way that we deal with strange things is with weapons, guns, no effort at finding out how the other person thinks, feels, works. Different from us? Kill him.

And the main idea in that story that was appealing was the fact that peace in the universe had been achieved by sacrificing some sovereignty to a central agency, but irrevocably, so that the United Nations, for us, became the focal point of the way to go to world peace. Give the United Nations full authority to step in, to put down violence wherever they saw it—give them the equipment, the manpower, which we knew was unrealistic. To give up sovereignty is something that is very tough to ask heavily nationalistic entities to do, but it was an idea that was very appealing.

Billy Gray (child actor in the film) 1:06:15

The message is incredibly powerful and it is just as important today, if not more so than then. I don't think the Soviet Union really had ideas of world conquest. That was started by our industrial military complex to fatten everybody's purse primarily... and I think this picture addressed that dilemma and it probably wasn't very popular. It was right around the "red scare" time. This was 1951. The McCarthy hearings were happening. It took a lot of courage to put this movie together.

Julian Blaustein (producer) 01:07:18

The political landscape was scarred by this political attitude in Washington, picked up by that portion of the press and the public that agreed that there were communists under everybody's bed, and if you belonged to this kind of organization or made that kind of comment, you were a danger. And it hurt a lot of people. It was not an atmosphere in which political positions that were unpopular might well have been financed by motion picture companies, but we never had any trouble, as I remember it, except for Sam Jaffe. He was attacked after the picture was made. The picture was attacked because of him, but not because of the subject matter, which is interesting.

Robert Wise (director) 1:09:58

In spite of the fact that it's science fiction, it's very credible... credible situations, credible characters, even though the key character is from outer space.

Narration from:
49 Nations Sign Japanese Peace Treaty, Movietone News Inc., 1952, distributed by 20th Century-Fox

Story 1

In spite of Soviet Russia's attempt to wreck it, the San Francisco Japanese Peace Treaty Conference attended by 52 nations moves to a successful conclusion, [with the] final hours highlighted by John Dulles exposing Soviet plans to make the Japan Sea a Russian lake.

Congressman Armstrong's presentation to Gromyko of a map showing all the slave camps in the USSR, [is] quickly discarded by his aide.

The New Zealand delegate, Sir Carl Berenson [makes a] dramatic statement of a fact the Russians overlook. "The United States, with the full cooperation of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and other members of the British Commonwealth, fought the Japanese for four years! And the Soviet Union fought them for six days!"

A bit of blatant hypocrisy by the Polish delegate getting the treatment it deserves: “A great English man once said, that to preach freedom of discussion is not enough, you have to practice it. If you don't practice it... [laughter erupts in the hall].

The treaty sponsored by Britain and the United States succeeds as the signing begins, a triumph for Mr. Acheson the Russians couldn't bear to witness. They deserted the party. [Signing] for the Argentine, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of Canada, la belle France, communist defeater Greece, the Philippine Islands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and finally Japan. Mr. Dulles and Secretary Acheson deserve the plaudits of their country and the free world.

Five hours later at San Francisco's Presidio, Secretary Acheson and his loyal bipartisan spokesman Mr. Dulles, with premier Yoshida of Japan, compound the diplomatic victory scored at the peace treaty conference. In the hall of the headquarters of the Sixth Army, they assemble to conclude a mutual defense pact between the United States and Japan. Mr. Acheson signs for the United States while his prototype from across the Pacific, Premier Yoshida, signs for his empire, former enemies becoming allies in a security pact against communist aggression in the Far East.

Story 2

Accepting the city's salute in Cleveland, Ohio, General MacArthur makes this observation on Japan: "In this post-war period of general failure to attain real peace, one of the bright spots has been conquered Japan. It is a Japan which may now assume the burden of preparing its own ground defense against predatory attack and thus in short time release our own beloved divisions for a return home.

Story 3

Flash floods that accompany torrential rains make life rugged for this Greek contingent of United Nations forces fighting communist aggression in Korea. Waist deep in water, these veteran red-fighters who've never fled from communist attacks find it strategically wise to pull up stakes now. Nature's a real tough foe. Over northern Korea, rain-filled clouds failed to impede a bombing mission of US Air Force B-29s. A marshalling area at Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, being plastered in spite of occasional flak from red enemy aircraft guns. An emergency truck wheels to the runway to meet a returning sky giant that was slightly damaged by the fire from the ground. The hits were superficial, however, and although the tail of the big ship is pretty well riddled, not even the tail gunner was hit. Just a laugh for these dauntless airmen.

Story 4

Klaatu, the weird Earth visitor in the 20th Century-Fox film The Day the Earth Stood Still, learns a quaint Earth custom. He receives a certificate of merit from the Science Fiction Convention at New Orleans. He is presented by Chairman Moore for the faithfulness of the film to the best science fiction traditions.

Story 5

Pomp and pulchritude on parade in Atlantic City and Miss South Dakota bids for Miss America. Same girl in a bathing suit. Miss Indiana poses a pretty problem for the judges as she seeks the laurels of loveliness. Miss North Carolina, a bright-eyed belle of the South, sir. Right fetchin', I'd say. And here's Miss Utah, five foot 10, eyes of blue, a blonde enchantress whose blooming talent places her in the charmed circle. Colleen Kay Hutchins of Salt Lake City crowned by last year's winner Yolande Betbeze, Miss America of 1952, America's reigning beauty, Queen Colleen.

Story 6

In Asbury Park, New Jersey, more bathing beauties vie for the title of Mrs. America. These wedded wonders are cheered on by happy husbands. Mrs. Virginia. Hmm. And Mrs. Philadelphia. "Atta a girl, mommy." Mrs. California, and another stunning bride, Mrs. New York City, an eye-catcher who catches the eye of the judges. Easy, buster. Mrs. Penny Duncan is Mrs. America, a 5'7" strawberry blonde, 126 pounds of heavenly homemaker, 22-year-old mother of a two-year-old son. Hmm. How about that?

Selected dialog from The Day the Earth Stood Still

Klaatu explains the purpose of his visit to the president’s secretary

MR. HARLEY: Our world at the moment is full of tensions and suspicions. In the present international situation, such a meeting would be quite impossible.
KLAATU: What about your United Nations?
MR. HARLEY: You know about the United Nations?
KLAATU: We've been monitoring your radio broadcasts for a good many years. That's how we learned your languages.
MR. HARLEY: I'm sure you recognize from our broadcasts the evil forces that have produced the trouble in our world.Suely...
KLAATU: I'm not concerned with the internal affairs of your planet. My mission here is not to solve your petty squabbles. It concerns the existence of every last creature on Earth.
MR. HARLEY: Perhaps if you could explain a little...
KLAATU: I intend to explain… to all the nations, at the same time. How do we proceed, Mr. Harley?
MR. HARLEY: Well, we could call a special meeting of the General Assembly. But the UN doesn't represent all the nations.
KLAATU: Then I suggest a meeting of all the chiefs of state.
MR. HARLEY: Believe me, you don't understand. They wouldn't sit down to the same table.
KLAATU: I don't want to resort to threats, Mr. Harley. I merely tell you that the future of your planet is at stake. I urge that you transmit that message to the nations of the Earth.
MR. HARLEY: I will make that recommendation to the president. But I must tell you in all honesty, I'm extremely dubious about the results.
KLAATU: Apparently I'm not as cynical about Earth's people as you are.
MR. HARLEY: I have been dealing in Earth's politics a good deal longer than you have.

Klaatu explains that he doesn’t have power over life and death

HELEN: I thought you were...
KLAATU: I was.
HELEN: You mean... he has the power of life and death?
KLAATU: No. That power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit. This technique, in some cases, can restore life for a limited period.
HELEN: But... how long?
KLAATU: You mean, how long will I live? That, no one can tell.

Klaatu’s final statement to humanity

KLAATU: I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. This does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves, and hired policemen to enforce them. We of the other planets have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets, and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one, and preserve the peace. In matters 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. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises. We do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet. But 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.


[1] J. Hoberman, “The Cold War Sci-Fi Parable That Fell to Earth,” New York Times, October 31, 2008. This article gives a detailed discussion of the film’s cultural legacy, and was written just before the 2008 remake was released. A subsequent reviewer for The Guardian wrote it was “a stupendously dull remake of Robert Wise's 1951 sci-fi classic.” The remake, heavily laden with special effects and a complicated plot, lacked the simplicity and humanity of the original and is a footnote in film history, just like it is in this essay.

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