Did you know that there was a plan for a sequel to The Day The Earth Stood Still, the fine Robert Wise movie (1951) about Earth’s first contact with another civilization? I mention this never-filmed project because the treatment for the screenplay was developed by none other than Ray Bradbury. Nobody digs into science fiction movies like Larry Klaes, and this is just the kind of detail he unearths in the deep dives into science fiction films he regularly produces for Centauri Dreams. The fact that The Day the Earth Stood Still is a product of its time makes it all the more fascinating, for it tells us much about our attitudes toward the unknown as well as the uncertainties of our own human nature and the threat posed by technologies that could destroy us. As always, Larry pulls references out of the air that most of us would never have found and in the process puts The Day the Earth Stood Still into refreshing and clarifying context.
by Larry Klaes
There once was a highly evolved being who descended to Earth from the heavens, bringing a message of peace and salvation to the unwashed masses of humanity sprawled across their planet. These people reacted to this visitor from beyond their world with a mixture of hope, fear, trepidation, suspicion, and eventually outright hostility.
The visitor made an effort to blend in with the natives in order to better understand them and why they thought and acted as they did. The far traveler eventually gathered a small group of human disciples to spread his message to the rest of the population. However, a traitor in his midst betrayed the visitor to the terrestrial authorities, who were always suspicious of his motives for being here.
The visitor was soon captured and killed by those he had come to save. However, this being’s superior abilities and instrumentalities resurrected him, whose return to life was first witnessed by a woman disciple. The visitor made one last appearance before his chosen acolytes to reaffirm his message of salvation. Then he ascended back into the heavens, leaving those on Earth to wonder when he might return and what would happen on that day.
So… is this the story of Jesus of Nazareth as written in the New Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible? Or the plot of the classic 1951 science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still?
If you answered with “both” – you are correct!
Image: The original theatrical poster for The Day the Earth Stood Still. Can you guess which parts of this poster do not match what happens in the film?
The Day the Earth Stood Still, or TDTESS for short, is a deliberately modern (or at least a mid-Twentieth Century) retelling of the biblical story about the Son of God, who was sent to Earth to save the primitive primate natives from their own destructive ways. In both cases, the recipients are largely less than hospitable to their visitor, whom they end up attempting to get rid of despite the immensely serious underlying warning in his message for them all.
As my first of what shall be many asides, this has made me think of one of my favorite quotes from the science fiction novel The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams (1952-2001) and first published in 1979. It sums up in one line, in just a segment of a larger single sentence, in fact, the typical human desire to be saved from our baser selves by others, yet almost instinctively rejecting the very beings we hope will help to change us when they give answers we didn’t really expect or want:
“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…”
Jesus said things that were in direct contrast to the ancient laws and traditions of the land he was visiting, to say nothing of what was long considered to be general common sense, such as love your enemies. Klaatu, the name of the alien visitor in TDTESS, also outwardly expressed his displeasure with those in charge of Earth and their dangerous behaviors. Both beings claimed to be representing much high authorities who had very specific messages for the human race, ones which were to be ignored at their great peril. The reaction to both figures from all this in their times was overwhelmingly less than positive; however, there were a few notable exceptions.
We shall take an in-depth look at this deservedly revered and groundbreaking piece of science fiction cinema in celebration of the seventieth anniversary of its release – seventy years, oy! As is often the case, just because we like and respect something a lot does not mean it is therefore free from questions, comments, and criticism – especially when it is a product of the pre-Cultural Revolution era.
Here are just some of the topics I shall address in this essay, in one form or another:
- Why did the makers of TDTESS choose a savior theme to push what is essentially a warning against nuclear proliferation? TDTESS would certainly not be the last member of this genre to promote this theme, although in many cases such films would go with giant radiation-mutated monstrosities over a clean-cut and well-tailored British actor as their spokespersons (spokesbeings?)
- Would an alien species that has only studied humanity from afar truly understand who we are and what we need? Does pretending to be a human being for a little while, quite literally walking around in our skin, render one qualified to be our judges?
- The message/warning that Klaatu brings with him courtesy of his fancy flying saucer-shaped spaceship: Is it really to the benefit of humanity? Or are the humans in the film just replacing one authoritarian governing body for another? And how can any society ever truly evolve under the system of interstellar civilization described by Klaatu? Assuming that technological, biological, and social progress is the attainable goal here.
- Why are Klaatu and his kind in charge and not the giant robot named Gort who accompanies him? Or are the machines actually running the show and Klaatu is just the front face to appeal and put at relative ease humanity and any other species like us?
I always like to start our reading adventures with an in-depth recap of the story of The Day the Earth Stood Still. It not only makes for a good base of operations for all those questions I just warned you about above, but it also lets me make comments and such during the telling of the story, rather than well afterwards where these items might feel otherwise disconnected.
I strongly suggest that unless you have already seen TDTESS, you should view it before diving into the plot summary; otherwise, you will quickly discover that the story elements are going to be massively spoiled for you. There are several places online where you can watch the entire film uncut for free, the link to one of which I provide in the last part of this essay in the References section.
Among the references in that section are links to the “Revised Final Draft” of the TDTESS film script, authored by Edmund H. North (1911-1990) and dated February 21, 1951. I will be referring to this draft often throughout my presentation of the film plot, as it contains many scene descriptions that flesh out particular situations. The draft also contains scenes and dialogue that were edited out of the film before its public release, or were written about but never filmed. These deleted scenes are of great value in our understanding of the motivations, thoughts, and actions of the various characters.
Our film begins with opening credits that fill the screen and are accompanied with dramatic orchestral music that at first threatens to be overly melodramatic and a product of its era – but, trust me, it works throughout quite effectively! The makers also knew when to hold back on using any music at all in certain scenes, letting them speak for themselves.
Image: The opening title card. You can almost hear the otherworldly dramatic music surrounding it.
The second background image displayed is of a galaxy – the Andromeda galaxy, to be precise, also known as Messier 31, or simply M31, as well as the much lesser used designation NGC 224. Located a mere 2.5 million light years away, it is our Milky Way galaxy’s nearest cosmic neighbor like itself: A vast barred spiral stellar island and a fellow member of the succinctly named Local Group of galaxies. Andromeda is very likely a close representation of how our galaxy appears from the vantage of intergalactic space.
I would like to think the makers of TDTESS showed Andromeda so early in the opening film credits to give the audience context and an idea of the vast arena this story is playing in, which, although focused on Earth, literally ranges across the stars. However, later astronomical errors made in this film make me question whether this context theory of mine is the actual case, or if I am just wishful thinking here.
More real astrophotographs such as the Eagle Nebula are shown in the background as the opening credits and theme continue. They feel like a tour of the galaxy (ours, not Andromeda), thus my earlier comment about the film giving its viewers a quick idea of what is at stake here, despite the later scientific inaccuracies.
Even if the audience cannot identify the celestial objects being presented before them, at the least they know this is not going to be a standard cinematic adventure, especially for those living the in the years just before the official advent of the Space Age.
They might also think the galaxy is filled with visible nebulae everywhere, as someone felt the need to add cloud and fog effects to the borders of these images. This may explain why so many other later science fiction films and television series show space as heavily populated with very colorful nebulae, when in fact most of the real collections of gas and dust out there are often invisible to the human eye. Even real astronomical photographs displayed for information purposes are sometimes “enhanced” with colorful gas and dust, as that is what the general public apparently expects space to look like.
Just before we arrive at the start of our story, we find ourselves in hopefully familiar territory: The planet Earth, as imagined how it appeared from space in the pre-Space Age era. Our collective home is a very clean-looking globe, with almost no clouds covering it. Our singular Moon is also partially framed in this scene, passing by us to the left.
You can watch the entire opening scene of TDTESS here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uyx-451llR8
COMMENT 1: It is interesting how most early artistic depictions of Earth from the vantage point of outer space have not nearly as many clouds covering our world as real satellite images would later show. We did have evidence that Earth is often largely covered in these fluffy collections of water vapor, and not just from looking up at the sky from the ground: In fact, as we approach our planet, the filmmakers use a real photo of Earth from near space taken by one of the early suborbital rocket tests that America had been conducting since 1946. In the chosen photograph, they show but a section of our planet from the rocket, yet half of the image displays a landscape covered in clouds.
COMMENT 2: This whole approach scene, especially the part with Earth and the Moon, reminds me rather strongly of the weekly introductory opening to the television series The Invaders, which aired for two seasons on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) network from 1967 to 1968.
This science fiction series also involved aliens coming to Earth in flying saucer-style space vessels, although in their case it was to take over our planet from humanity by subterfuge, as their world was “dying”, although how or why it was in this state is left to our imaginations. We never even learn the name the aliens give to themselves as a species, for that matter. In addition, their human appearances are but a ruse to blend in with our species as part of their conquest: We only see their true form twice in the entire series, and but briefly in both instances at that.
The series’ narrator also declares that the unnamed extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and their home world reside in another galaxy, which makes me wonder why these aliens could not find a more suitable place to move to much closer to their own galactic origins – unless of course the writers meant to say solar system rather than galaxy, a common astronomical error back then that sometimes still haunts our otherwise scientific fiction.
As the opening narration to The Invaders explains the overall theme of the series, we witness the aliens’ flying saucer-shaped vessels flying past the Moon and heading towards Earth in a manner quite similar to the opening in TDTESS. I am wondering if the television series producers were inspired by the 1951 film. It was definitely one of the most popular motion pictures of its genre, so I consider this thought entirely possible.
Mimicking the TDTESS opening would also make for a subtly ironic contrast, for Klaatu’s mission was meant to save humanity, whereas the aliens of The Invaders simply wanted our species out of the way so they could claim Earth for themselves. Some day we will discover how real intelligences out there may think and feel about us and our world: It would be wise to be prepared for all possible situations.
See the weekly opening to each episode of The Invaders here, for comparison: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEUdsXmCE7g
It soon becomes apparent that this “tour” of the local Cosmos in TDTESS is not just to make for an impressive opening to our film: We the audience have been witness to the perspective of a visitor making a journey across space to our planet, an event which is about to invade the awareness of every character in our story….
On Earth, various military monitoring stations around the globe begin to detect an unidentified craft flying high in the atmosphere at a tremendous speed – four thousand miles per hour, to be exact. This velocity is way beyond anything humanity had in its aviation arsenal at the time.
The sound barrier had been broken by a manned test flight just a few years earlier, in October of 1947, but even the experimental rocket planes of the day could not achieve what this strange vessel was accomplishing. The speed of this unknown craft was enough to make one British military fellow monitoring it exclaim “Holy Christmas!” – though I have to wonder how many, if any, military personnel ever seriously said such a phrase either then or now. Nevertheless, it does give us our first more-or-less subtle indication of the impending visit from humanity’s Space Messiah, as I mention earlier.
COMMENT: If you want to get really symbolic regarding the Messiah theme, the very first words we hear in TDTESS when the craft is initially detected are from an American radio operator in the Pacific: “Holy mackerel! Call headquarters! Get the lieutenant!”
A basic outline of a fish, or ichthys, as it is called (the Greek word for fish), was used by early Christians to represent both their founder and their religion, back when being a member of this faith in the Roman Empire was dangerous for practitioners. Early Christians would mark places with this innocuous-looking fish symbol to alert others that this was a safe zone for them to meet and worship.
The news of this unidentified flying vehicle soon gets out, as we listen to various international news announcers tell their audiences about the vessel moving at supersonic speeds. As one news reporter declares:
“This is not another ‘flying saucer’ scare. Scientists and military men have already agreed on that. Whatever this is – it’s something real.”
Another radio reporter says the craft is now “headed over the North Atlantic toward the east coast of the United States.”
We soon learn the ultimate destination of this vessel: The city of Washington in the District of Columbia (D.C.), the capitol of some obscure terrestrial nation called the United States of America.
Then, to set up a lull before the storm, we hear a D.C. radio broadcaster declaring to his audience that despite the news “here in the nation’s capital, there is anxiety and concern, but no outward sign of panic. As a matter of fact, there are signs of normalcy that seem strangely out of place; the beautiful spring weather, the tourist crowds at the various monuments and public buildings…”
COMMENT: A bit more on that mention of “spring” weather later.
As the story takes us to Washington, D.C., we witness along with many thousands throughout the city the arrival of this mysterious craft and our first look at it: A glowing white disk making a distinctive humming noise, slowly but steadily dropping both its velocity and altitude, as if it were going to land.
And land it does: The ship, which is now visible and looks like a silvery upside-down pie pan with a big lump in the middle on top (how poetic, I know), settles itself between two public baseball diamonds on what is known as The Ellipse, a large open tract of land due south of the White House and north of the Washington Monument.
COMMENT: Look for my later discussion of the “flying saucer” era in this essay and how much it affected depictions of alien space vessels in fictional media.
A citizen is seen running through the streets shouting “They landed! Over on the Mall!” The poor man must have been terribly frightened, however, as The Mall in D.C. is actually located east of the Washington Monument.
Despite this geographically inaccurate cry of alarm, the authorities know the real location of the ship and head towards it as quickly as they can.
The local D.C. police are the first to rush out to meet the visitor in force. They are quickly followed by various branches of the military bringing jeep and truck-driven and heavily armed troops, tanks, and artillery cannons. They converge upon the ship and quickly surround it.
Accompanying the military are swarms of thousands of civilian onlookers who, then as now, must have their curiosity satisfied, even when the potential for personal danger and worse is high.
Image: The alien spaceship on The Ellipse in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. military and throngs of civilians surrounding their new visitor. I am sure this first encounter between two different intelligent species will go just fine.
COMMENT: Despite TDTESS being a film, and therefore a visual as well as audio medium, there were moments when it relied on characters describing the situation at hand. One of these moments involves the scenes when the unknown ship lands in D.C. and the various human responses to it, as you will see.
TDTESS does this through a narrator who is also part of the story, a real-life journalist and columnist named Drew Pearson (1897-1969). His description of what is going on is not only informative but also helps to set the tone for what is happening each moment.
While there is a rule of sorts that a filmmaker should show when they do not have to tell in their art, the situation with Pearson narrating the events do work here and enhance the drama, in no small part because he was a real and very popular (if also often controversial) broadcast journalist. Undoubtedly the first audiences who saw and listened to Pearson while watching TDTESS were even more affected by Pearson’s presence due to his contemporary celebrity status.
Here is what Mr. Pearson had to say about this strange visitor from places unknown:
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is Drew Pearson. We bring you this special radio-television broadcast in order to give you the very latest information on an amazing phenomenon: The arrival of a spaceship in Washington!
“Government and Defense Department officials are concerned by reports of panic in several large eastern cities. I am authorized to assure you that so far there is no reasonable cause for alarm. The rumors of invading armies and mass destruction are based on hysteria and are absolutely false. I repeat: These rumors are absolutely false!
“The ship, designed for travel outside the Earth’s atmosphere, landed in Washington today at 3:47 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. We still do not know where it came from. The ship is now resting exactly where it landed two hours ago, and so far there is no sign of life from inside it.
“Troops have been rushed across the Potomac River from Fort Myer and have thrown a cordon around the ship. They’re supported by tanks, artillery, and machine guns. Behind the police lines, there’s a huge crowd of curiosity seekers. The Army has taken every precaution to meet any emergency which may develop. Every eye, every weapon is trained on the ship. It’s been that way for two hours and the tension is just beginning.”
As Pearson talks, we arrive on the scene cinematically through the screen of the small television set sitting on Pearson’s desk, which zooms in on what he has been talking about: A large and silvery disc-shaped object sitting among several baseball diamonds, completely surrounded by military personnel and civilians alike, with the Washington Monument standing tall in the distance.
Our intrepid reporter continues has just mentioned how the tension at the landing site “is just beginning,” when suddenly…
“Just a minute, ladies and gentlemen! I think something is happening!”
Indeed, something is happening: A long smooth ramp begins to emerge from the bottom edge of the otherwise unmarked and unblemished vessel, stretching out in the direction of the crowd. Seconds later, a seam appears above the ramp in the ship’s dome, spreading apart into a curved triangular gap.
The crowd tenses as they witness what appears to be a man emerging from the opening of the ship. Wearing a copper-colored helmet that covers all but his eyes, with a silvery blue jumpsuit over the rest of his body, the man – or whatever he, she, or it may be – walks carefully down the ramp a short distance before stopping.
COMMENT: Yes, TDTESS was filmed in black-and-white, but some rather rare color publicity stills do show the actual tones used for the alien’s suit, among other characters and props. I also refer you to the famous 1974 record album cover Goodnight Vienna produced by former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr (born 1940).
“We have come to visit you in peace – and with goodwill,” says the figure in clear English with a male-sounding voice, his right hand raised outward in a gesture of (universal?) amity.
COMMENT: Many have wondered if the raised hand on the human male representation of the Pioneer Plaque, now drifting in duplicate into the wider Milky Way galaxy bolted to the deep space probes Pioneer 10 and 11, will be interpreted as a friendly sign by any recipients of humanity’s first “ambassadors” into interstellar space? Especially since it is more than possible that the species who may find these probes one day will be little like us in either physical appearance or mental thinking.
The being then descends the rest of the way down the ship and off the ramp onto the outfield of the baseball field, now turned into an impromptu landing site. As he moves towards a cluster of highly alert soldiers, the stranger reaches into his tunic with his left hand and then extends his arm toward the humans.
In his hand is a small tubular device with a conical cover at one end. As the man approaches the soldiers, a section of the device he is pointing at them suddenly extends and fans open into “petals” of thin dark metal with a decisive snapping sound.
Image: The alien visitor, who says he comes to Earth “in peace – and with goodwill” extends what could be a gift for humanity… although it could be mistaken for some kind of a weapon.
No doubt thinking the being is about to activate some kind of weapon, an anxious soldier standing halfway out the top hatch of a tank impulsively fires his pistol at the stranger. The crowd screams in horror at the unexpected noise and action.
The resulting bullet hits the visitor in his left shoulder and breaks the device he was holding (either that or it somehow broke apart when landing on the grass just a few feet below). Both fall to the ground.
A few of the soldiers move away from their main group and carefully approach the prone stranger, who is attempting to get up, but is in some obvious discomfort.
One of the soldiers leans down towards the being to see if he can help him, while also being ready to move in case the visitor is unhappy about being shot and has a less than positive reaction to those around him.
A reaction does come, but not from the injured being laying on the baseball field.
The crowd shouts again, but this time their attention is directed towards the ship. Standing just outside the opening of the vessel is another being – but this one is nothing like the first.
A nine-foot-tall android of gleaming metal slowly begins to make its way down the ramp. The civilian crowd, instinctively sensing that this being may be coming to rescue his smaller companion and then take retribution on his attackers, collectively scream and run away in panic almost at once.
Image: Another being emerges from the strange vessel. This tall and imposing robot will soon make it clear to the humans that he is not to be trifled with.
COMMENT: The film draft script I mentioned before the start of this plot description details the robot, who we will come to learn is called Gort, as envisioned during production. As you shall see, the design has important differences from the final product, when the filmmakers were still considering the descriptions of the robot from the original short story that TDTESS was based upon (more on that later in this essay):
…as Klaatu falls to the ground wounded. The object he was holding has dropped from his hand and smashed. The soldiers start to gather around Klaatu excitedly when suddenly there appears in the entrance to the space ship a huge robot. There is a gasp of amazement from the crowd and the solders draw back at sight of him. The robot is ten feet tall, is made the almost-perfect image of a man. He is to be played by an actor and his flesh appears to be made of a greenish metal. His eyes flash as though lighted internally. His perfectly-fashioned, muscular body is covered only with a loincloth. This is GORT.
By the way, even though Gort really is an android as he is in the general form of a human, since everyone has been calling the mechanical alien a robot from the start, I am going to stick with the label of robot for Gort, at least for the most part. This is also why Robbie the Robot from another classic science fiction film, Forbidden Planet (1956), is always referred to as a robot even though he too has the essential shape of a bipedal human.
COMMENT 2: Gort was played by actor Lock Martin (1916-1959), who stood either 7 feet and 1 inch or 7 feet and 7 inches tall. However, he was not a body builder and in fact had trouble both with carrying people, as his character would be required to do later in the film, and staying in that very confining and not very breathable Gort suit for more than thirty minutes at a time. The price of art.
Now back to the action already in progress…
The android stops at the base of the ship. The military troops stare at it, wondering what it will do.
The answer comes in a narrow and intense beam of light emanating from the android’s face through an open plate.
First the beam takes out five rifles being held by individual soldiers. Once they see their weapons glowing, they immediately drop them, where their rifles vaporize on the ground. The silvery walking machine then takes aim on a nearby tank (the one holding the fellow who shot the visitor), which also glows white hot until it is turned into a puddle of metal (the men in that tank escape its destruction just in time).
Two artillery cannons are the next targets of the metal visitor, joining the tank as briefly glowing blobs of metal. By now the soldiers likely realize that the rest of the weaponry circling the ship are going to share the fate of the first armaments, followed by themselves. No one has dared to fire on the android yet, but that might change as the situation becomes desperate, even if it may be ultimately futile.
Thankfully, none of the soldiers have to find out if this possibility might become a reality, as the stranger tries to sit up and shouts out a command to the android in an unrecognizable language.
“Gort! Deglet ovrosco!”
The giant machine immediately stops firing on the soldiers’ weapons, closes its faceplate, and stands absolutely still.
COMMENT: Although I know the visitor had been hit by that bullet badly enough to be knocked to the ground, I have to wonder if he might have deliberately held off ordering his companion to cease its attack just long enough so a “lesson” could be made to the military that they were not to be trifled with, without having to take their point to the next level. I also must wonder if this is a standard established action when dealing with hostile and otherwise less than cooperative species: If the natives show any unprovoked malevolence, the android is programmed to first take out some of their weapons as a show of force, moving to targeting individual natives only if the first action fails to convince them.
The visitor gets back on his feet. He picks up the damaged tubular device and hands it to one of the soldiers who initially came to his aid. As the visitor is handing the soldier the instrument, the latter automatically goes for his side pistol, but then thinks better of it.
“It was a gift for your President,” the stranger states with a measured tone. “With this, he could have studied life on the other planets.”
COMMENT: Of course, it is unfortunate for the human race in the film that they have just destroyed their first chance to learn about extraterrestrial life, especially since until that moment there had only been largely rampant contemporary speculation on the topic. Nevertheless, one has to wonder if the visitor had extra copies onboard his ship, or could easily manufacture a replacement? One also gets the feeling that the being either could not procure another “data tube” or would not after the barbaric treatment he received merely from trying to present it as a token of “peace – and with goodwill.”
However, I must question the wisdom of the form they choose to present their gift in: A long, pointed instrument with a rapidly and noisily expanding section that could easily be misinterpreted as a weapon and a threat to a collection of beings that might seem primitive and savage to one who has come a long way in a highly advanced vessel.
Have these beings never visited another world with similar inhabitants? Wouldn’t they make some kind of preplanned effort to reduce the chances for being perceived as a threat as much as possible? Or has their society been so sophisticated for so long that they did not even consider the potential for a negative reaction? If so, then why did the visitor even bother to salute the crowd with a gesture of peace in the first place?
One thing we do know from this first encounter, their society has no Prime Directive protocol such as made famous by the Star Trek franchise, where civilizations of the United Federation of Planets (UFP) which have faster-than-light (FTL) propulsion technologies for their starships are told not to interfere with those who do not. Or if they do, it has obviously been suspended in this situation for reasons that will become clear later.
QUESTION: I wonder how that tubular device operated? Would it project holographic images with sound? Would it have tapped right into a person’s mind with its information? Could the person operating it choose what they wanted to look at and at what rate? I cannot imagine it being compatible with any kind of 1951 terran technology, unless the device is capable of reconfiguring virtually any suitable instruments it comes across, no matter how alien and primitive.
This page further shows and describes the device, making similar points about its aesthetic design, fragility, and usability:
I also wonder just how much information about extraterrestrial life it would have provided: The visitor said it was “a gift for your President” and not for any one scientist or scientific organization. If this were purely for an exchange of information, scientists would be the far more ideal profession to give such a “gift” to, as most political leaders are often amateurs at best when it comes to understanding science or have any real training in the relevant fields.
Therefore, I conclude that this is more of a token present meant as a formal courtesy and introduction to the top leader of the recipient nation from the societies and cultures where our visitor comes from. Of course, considering how very little humanity knew about real life forms beyond Earth in 1951 (or now, for that matter), any decent scientist would be thrilled to have even the equivalent of a tourist’s brochure on the subject.
Back to our story…
Mr. Harley Comes from Washington
A jeep pulls up with a higher-ranking officer, who immediately tells his subordinates to get an ambulance to bring the visitor to Walter Reed Hospital right away.
COMMENT: Less than one month before the cinematic release of TDTESS in 1951, Walter Reed General Hospital (WRGH) had its name changed to Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC). This facility, originally built in 1909, was the Army’s flagship medical center until 2011. WRAMC then merged with the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland, to form the tri-service Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).
We find ourselves in a sitting room at the aforementioned Walter Reed, where a number of military officials are ironically standing around talking. A civilian in a business suit and hat enters this room, where he is greeted as Mr. Harley. A general points the gentleman towards another door, beyond which their special visitor is currently residing.
We enter this adjacent room, where we and Harley find the shadowed figure of a man in profile sitting up in a hospital bed. Harley speaks first.
“My name is Harley, Secretary to the President,” says he by way of introduction. “I’ve been told you speak our language… and that your name is Mr. Klaatu?”
“Just Klaatu,” the man politely corrects him in an accent that could be British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) English.
Image: Mr. Harley, Secretary to the President of the United States of America, makes human history as he meets with the alien visitor, who calls himself Klaatu (just Klaatu), in his room at Walter Reed General Hospital.
The alien is now fully in view for the audience: He is tall and thin, with dark hair and handsome features. He could easily walk down the street of any of Earth’s Western Hemisphere cities or towns and not draw any unusual attention to himself.
COMMENT: I like how Klaatu is described in this scene in the “revised final draft” of the film script, authored by Edmund H. North and dated February 21, 1951. As you will see, the initial plan was to show Klaatu full-on right away; I am glad they did his reveal more gradually instead. It keeps the audience interested and waiting to know what a “real” alien might look like:
INT. HOSPITAL ROOM – FULL SHOT
As Harley enters, closing the door behind him. Klaatu no longer wears his helmet and we see his face clearly for the first time. Even sitting up in bed, with his shoulder strapped in bandages, he is a figure of great authority. His face reflects inner dignity and assurance. Harley, who is a hardened diplomatist, can’t help being impressed by his present assignment and a little awed by Klaatu. Harley obviously has been sent by the President to find out what he can. Klaatu’s eyes study him, cool, penetrating, reserved.
Harley tells Klaatu how deeply apologetic the President is for what happened to him, to which Klaatu merely asks him to sit down. The Secretary then asks Klaatu if he had been traveling long.
“About five months… your months,” is the traveler’s reply.
COMMENT: So Klaatu’s people have their version of months it would seem. Does that mean they base their calendar(s) on the lunar and solar cycles of a particular star system? Is that a feasible/logical time-measuring setup for an interstellar civilization? Or is Klaatu going strictly by the calendar system of his home world? Do months even mean the same to his people?
“You must have come a long way,” Harley responds.
“About 250 million of your miles.”
COMMENT: The travel distance stated by Klaatu, 250 million miles from Earth in space, puts one smack dab in the Main Planetoid Belt between the planets Mars and Jupiter. Unless he came from a monitoring base located by his society among our planetoids, that distance would not even begin to reach the very nearest stars to our Sol system: That honor belongs to the Alpha Centauri system, in which I include the red dwarf sun Proxima Centauri. Those three stars are located 4.3 light years from Earth, or about 25 trillion miles. On the celestial scale, 250 million miles is basically a long stroll in a nearby park in comparison.
During their conversation, Harley says – using the royal we – “are very curious to know where it is you come from.” Klaatu only says he came “from another planet. Let’s just say that we’re neighbors.”
COMMENT: You certainly are being a bit coy there, Klaatu. Maybe he felt the humans would have no real idea where their world is really located, so it would make little point to give him its name. Or maybe he was concerned down the road we might find them, if our descendants were still hostile and now more advanced? Was Klaatu concerned that we might even surpass their technology? However, I might think Klaatu’s people would find a way to keep us down, as it were. More on that later. In any event, we never do learn where Klaatu came from or much of anything about his interstellar society. We will get a few more details in dialog/scenes that were cut from the final print, but still much is left to our conjecture.
Now there was a time when certain astronomers speculated that the many objects in the Main Planetoid Belt were once pieces of a much larger planet that somehow came apart. There was even speculation that an actual whole and intact world might exist somewhere in that region of our Sol system. However, modern astronomy has concluded that there are no really large bodies between Mars and Jupiter, due to the constantly moving bulk of the gas giant world having kept such worlds from forming during the very early days of our star system’s formation.
We can also presume it is more than doubtful that a civilized collection of intelligent beings could have evolved anywhere among the planetoids. A few of the larger bodies, such as Ceres, might be home to some forms of simpler native life deep under their surfaces, but not ones such as Klaatu. We can also excuse the artificial base idea as Klaatu specifically said he came from another planet – unless he meant that is where he came from originally, as in born there.
Anyway… let us get to the most likely real reason for the use of 250 million miles. The film’s writers picked this distance number because it sounded very big to them and they presumed it would as well to a general Earth-bound viewing audience of their day.
Did none of the writers or producers know about the real scale of space? It would not have been difficult at all to look up such facts even in that pre-Internet era, or perhaps make a call upon an observatory or university to speak with a professional astronomer.
So as not to accuse the film’s makers of being completely ignorant of basic astronomy, I will harbor the guess that they thought contemporary audiences were not aware of and could not handle such cosmic measurement scales as the light year, the distance that light can travel in one year at 186,000 miles per second, or nearly six trillion miles. Therefore, they plucked a number out of the air and added many millions to it, hoping it would sound big enough to the viewers who have spent all their lives on one little planet and seldom consider the incredible vastness beyond.
Now in terms of the film plot, Klaatu could have been merely lying to Mr. Harley to throw off him and any other nosy humans to keep them from learning the true location of his home world. However, even in 1951, any decent amateur or professional astronomer – or precocious school kid, for that matter – would have known that 250 million miles in space didn’t get you even halfway out of the Sol system, let alone to any star systems. In any event, no one in TDTESS ever questions this distance number, at least on screen.
Back to the conversation…
When Harley asks Klaatu where he comes from and the alien merely says, “another planet,” adding the comment of “let’s just say that we’re neighbors,” the Secretary responds that it is “rather difficult for us to think of another planet as a neighbor.”
COMMENT: No doubt of that, in this pre-Space Age era where 250 million miles sounds like a lot and astronomy was not actively taught in most public schools, at least in American ones – but I digress.
“I’m afraid, in the present situation, you will have to learn to think that way,” replies Klaatu.
Harley picks up on the words “the present situation” and wants to know what Klaatu means by this. The visitor says he means the reason for his arrival on Earth. Naturally, Harley is very interested to know why Klaatu is on his world, to which the alien says he would be glad to talk about it – but neither to Secretary Harley nor the United States President alone.
“This is not a personal matter, Mr. Harley,” Klaatu explains. “It concerns all the people on your planet.”
Harley does not quite understand why, so Klaatu expands that he wants “to meet with representatives from all the nations of the Earth.”
Harley tries to explain to Klaatu how difficult it would be to put such a gathering together, where he says such a meeting would be “without precedent,” while emphasizing the “practical considerations… the time involved,” and the “enormous distances” required to make it happen.
“I traveled 250 million miles,” Klaatu counters, impressing all non-scientists who have yet to convert to the metric system everywhere.
Mr. Harley replies that he appreciates this gesture from the alien, but finally the Secretary feels the need to state more plainly that current humanity “is full of tensions and, uh… and suspicions. In the present international situation… such a meeting would be quite impossible.”
COMMENT: While World War 2 had been officially over for six years upon Klaatu’s arrival on Earth, there was a new major conflict underway in 1951: The Korean War, a ‘subset” of the larger Cold War that had developed between the major global superpowers.
The northern and southern halves of the Korean peninsula were engaged in a battle for domination of that section of Asia. The northern side was supported by the People’s Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), while the United Nations (UN) organization backed the south, led primarily by the United States.
The Korean War had been raging for over a year, with genuine concerns that the battles might escalate into a nuclear one. In 1951, the US had about 300 nuclear weapons, while the USSR had perhaps only five such devices (China would not become a nuclear military power until 1964).
A nuclear war in this era might not have been able to outright destroy all of civilization and ruin the global ecology, but it would have been enough to seriously disrupt society and still kill millions of people in the process. Eventually, enough death, destruction, and chaos could have resulted to destabilize humanity and set us back centuries in several major ways.
Thankfully, this war did not “go nuclear” and officially ended in 1953. However, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons continued at an alarming rate, eventually reaching a peak of over 61,000 such devices by 1985. When the Cold War officially ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the numbers would start reducing, dropping down to “just” over thirteen thousand nuclear devices by 2020. Still, more than enough to decivilize humanity and push us to the edge of species extinction.
Now back to the conversation…
Klaatu inquires with Mr. Harley if the United Nations (UN), headquartered in New York City, might be able to facilitate such a wide meeting. Harley expresses his surprise that the alien knows about the UN, to which Klaatu replies that they have “been monitoring your radio broadcasts for a good many years. That’s how we learned your languages.”
COMMENT 1: One of the main ways an ETI with sufficient technology might be able to discover if intelligent technological life exists on Earth is through our electromagnetic signals (via radio, television, radar, etc.), which we have been emitting into space – the majority of them incidentally – since the invention of radio in the late Nineteenth Century. This means there is a “bubble” of electromagnetic radiation of varying intensity emanating from our planet currently about 200 light years across, as these signals move at the same speed as light.
This would indicate that Klaatu’s interstellar society must have some aspect of being able to detect a civilization like ours – an inhabited planet, a remote listening post, a deep space probe – within a radius of roughly 60 light years from our Sol system at the time of Klaatu’s arrival on Earth to pick up our transmissions.
Now it is possible that Klaatu’s more advanced society could have first determined that there is life on Earth from much greater distances by being able to detect our planet’s biosignatures via other methods such as spectroscopy. Having detected signs of life in this manner, from there they could have investigated our world further to discover our human civilization and began monitoring us to see what kind of creatures we are like and if we would make a good fit in their culture or not.
COMMENT 2: In the revised final draft of the film script, there is additional verbiage in the exchange between Klaatu and Harley regarding the aliens monitoring human broadcasts that did not make it to the cinematic release version of TDTESS:
Klaatu: “We’ve been monitoring your radio broadcasts for a good many years. That’s how we learned your languages. Lately, we’ve been getting your television also.”
COMMENT 3: The first true experimental television broadcast took place in 1926. However, the medium did not really start to take off until after World War 2 and hit its stride in the 1950s. Television signals would not have started seriously “leaking” their way into space until the first commercial broadcasts in the 1930s. There is a famous (or rather infamous) example of this in the 1997 science fiction film Contact, a scene taken almost directly from the originating 1985 novel written by astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996), when some very advanced ETI send back to us a slice of the first strong terrestrial transmission they detected: The opening of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games held in Berlin, Germany, being presided over by none other than Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler (1889-1945).
Harley: (wryly) “You must have a rather strange impression of us.”
Klaatu: (smiling) “The first two years of television we were convinced that all you did was wrestle.”
COMMENT 4: Oh, Klaatu, you haven’t seen anything yet. I also find it sadly amusing that even at this early date, most of the program offerings of television were considered to be less than erudite.
Mr. Harley continues the conversation…
“I’m sure you recognize from our broadcasts the evil forces that have produced the trouble in our world,” Harley tries to explain. “Now, surely you’ll agree…”
Klaatu cuts off the Secretary abruptly.
“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.”
COMMENT: Well, Klaatu, humanity’s “squabbles” may seem “petty” to you from your lofty perch literally up on high, but perhaps you should be more aware that they are rather large to a species that is primarily confined to one planet and has only quite recently become aware that it is but one part of a much larger cosmic whole. Even then most humans remain quite tribal in their cultural behavior, though many in the so-called civilized world would not see themselves as part of what they would consider to be a primitive social organization.
This is not the first time I will question just how well trained Klaatu is in dealing with less sophisticated societies. You might think he would be considering how important understanding cultures and species are to his tasks at hand. Yet Klaatu is genuinely puzzled and often disgusted by how violent and uncooperative humanity is with each other, to say nothing of anyone outside their group. Earth natives cannot possibly be the first time that Klaatu’s civilization has had to deal with “lower” societies in need of being put into line in order to become “good” galactic citizens, yet Klaatu acts as if no one else in the Milky Way has even been this hostile and recalcitrant. Which leads me to wonder just how much his society is concerned about the welfare of the inhabitants of Earth over how well they respond to following the orders of their new overlords.
We humans might be inclined to think that a being who comes from the stars in a fancy shiny vessel complete with an ominous big robot automatically equals superior and all-knowing. However, the fact that Klaatu makes it very clear how confused he is by human behavior betrays that notion. Not that I think Klaatu is unintelligent, just the opposite. Still, the fact that he doesn’t quite grasp why the natives are not more rational and – dare I say – civilized like he and his kind are shows they are not gods, despite all the trappings a human might expect from one. Then again, most folks in antiquity viewed their deities as powerful yet flawed versions of themselves, so Klaatu might still be seen as some sort of god or other supernatural entity. In the biblical narrative, even the Judeo-Christian God had to become human in order to better understand the creatures He created so that they have a chance at redemption.
Harley again tries to get the visitor to explain why he is here, to which Klaatu repeats his strong desire to speak only with representatives of all terrestrial nations at once and wants this particular human to tell him how to proceed.
Harley says “we could call a special meeting of the General Assembly. But, of course, the United Nations doesn’t represent all the nations.”
“Then I suggest a meeting of all the chiefs of state,” counters Klaatu.
Harley in turn says these chiefs would not even sit together in the same room, let alone cooperate with each other or Klaatu.
“I don’t want to resort to threats, Mr. Harley,” Klaatu replies rather ominously. “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.”
Harley tells Klaatu he will pass along the alien’s urgent message to the President but confides that he is “extremely dubious about the results.”
“Apparently, I’m not as cynical about Earth’s people as you are,” says Klaatu.
“I’ve been dealing in Earth’s politics a good deal longer than you have,” retorts Harley, not unkindly, as he readies himself to leave Klaatu’s room. “Good night, sir.”
The scene switches back to The Ellipse in the very early morning of the next day, where Klaatu’s starship and metallic companion rest exactly where we left them when Klaatu was shot and taken to the hospital.
Our news reporter serves as the film’s narrator yet again as he speaks to his undoubtedly eager and anxious audience…
“It is now 2:00 a.m., and the giant robot still hasn’t moved. Engineers from nearby Fort Belvoir have failed to budge him… and metallurgical experts have found his huge body impregnable. They’re now concentrating on the ship itself, but so far with no results.”
A collection of military engineers, officers, and enlisted men are seen milling around the alien artifacts. Some of them are trying to penetrate the hides of both the ship and Gort, with negative results despite using “everything from a blowtorch to a diamond drill.” Even the area on the vessel where Klaatu and Gort emerged from is now completely seamless.
When a civilian metallurgical expert on the scene named Carlson says “this is the toughest material I ever saw, General. For hardness and strength, it’s out of this world,” the General quips back “I can tell you officially that’s where it came from.”
COMMENT: Too bad industrial lasers were not around in 1951, but that probably would not have worked on them, either. I am reminded of the line in the 1984 science fiction film 2010: The Year We Make Contact, where Dr. Heywood Floyd explains to his Soviet counterpart how they “tried lasers” and “nuclear detonators” on the ancient alien black Monolith they discovered on the Moon and brought back to Earth to get the enigmatic artifact to give up its secrets, but “nothing worked.” These sophisticated ETI are certainly smart and capable enough not to let a bunch of primitives monkey around with their technology or acquire abilities they are certainly not mature enough to handle properly.
If you want to learn more about the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, see here:
I Told the Witch Doctor…
We switch back to Walter Reed Hospital, where we find two human Medical Corps officers, a Major and a Captain, standing across from each other in the sitting room just outside Klaatu’s hospital room. They are discussing the results of examining their very special guest. One of them holds up several x-rays taken of Klaatu.
The doctors note how Klaatu’s “skeletal structure is completely normal,” along with his heart, liver, spleen, and kidneys. They also see how his lungs “are the same as ours,” which means Klaatu and his species must live and breathe in an atmosphere similar to the one surrounding Earth’s surface.
The two humans then ponder the age of Klaatu. The Major guesses 45 (Earth) years old. The Captain replies that Klaatu says he is 78 years old, to the genuine surprise of his companion.
“Their life expectancy is a hundred and thirty,” says the Captain.
“How does he explain that?” prompts the Major.
“He says their medicine is that much more advanced,” the Captain relays. “He was very nice about it. But he made me feel like a third-class witch doctor.”
At this point our two human physicians of the mid-Twentieth Century start to light up some cigarettes in their possession. The irony of this action may have been lost on contemporary audiences, who would not start being widely told by someone called the Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service until 1964 that smoking dried tobacco leaves laced with numerous chemical additives are both addictive and very bad for you.
However, to more modern audiences, this scene seems like nothing less than a simultaneously comical and hazardous behavior from none other than members of the medical profession – and right outside where an actual and more advanced alien being lays recovering from an injury caused by another human!
Just then the door to Klaatu’s room swings open. Emerging from it is not the alien, but another terrestrial doctor, a Major White.
“I removed a bullet from that man’s arm yesterday,” White announces to his colleagues, who are quite curious as to what resulted from both the injury and the operation.
“I just examined the wound, and it’s completely healed.”
The other Major and the Captain query White on whether Klaatu has a reason for this. Major White produces a small cylindrical container. The application of the pliable material inside it, a “salve”, is what Klaatu said fixed his injury.
When asked what he was going to do with this alien biotechnology, White replies he is going to “take it downstairs and have it analyzed. And I don’t know whether to just get drunk or give up the practice of medicine.”
COMMENTS: I know that TDTESS had a relatively limited budget – 1.2 million US dollars in 1951, or inflated to almost $13.5 million in 2022 – and that computer-generated imagery (CGI) special effects were non-existent then, but in a film attempting to capture a realistic response by humanity to an alien visitation, shouldn’t there be a whole team of doctors and scientists monitoring Klaatu? Should not Klaatu be held in a special room in a special facility not only for the proper medical examinations, but also to ensure that he would not contaminate Earth with any potentially dangerous germs he might carry – or vice versa. There should also be major security concerns, both for the safety of Klaatu from rogue natives and the potential for Earth’s rather unique visitor and/or his imposing metallic companion to create their own havoc.
Instead, we witness just a few doctors looking Klaatu over, not to mention at least one visit by a politician, none of whom seem to be wearing so much as a face mask and gloves.
I was also a bit disappointed at the reactions from the three doctors in the scene I just described – and not only from the fact that two of them were smoking right in the hospital just outside a patient’s room.
I know that every human being has a different reaction to events and situations based on their upbringing, education, and so forth, but I admit to being rather disappointed with the three doctors we meet who perform the initial examinations with Klaatu. I might think that medical professionals being offered the chance of a lifetime to examine a highly intelligent being from another world would be ecstatic, honored, and thrilled, at least more so than other feelings such as fear, trepidation, and intimidation.
Perhaps this is too much to ask for men and women from the year 1951 encountering such an unknown. Undoubtedly if they ever did previously consider the possibility of life elsewhere, most of them would have blown off the subject as fantastical nonsense, relegated to the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials and comic strips popular in that day, or maybe even the magazine “pulps” if their thinking was a little more expansive towards this genre.
The subject of Unidentified Flying Objects, or UFOs, as the space vessels of alien visitors was also often a subject of public and official ridicule, despite the otherwise intense interest in the topic, particularly by various militaries. This mockery and disbelief were often especially aimed at those who reported seeing these strange objects. This resulted in most people either dismissing or avoiding the concept of ETI as interstellar explorers coming to Earth, except perhaps at social gatherings or the occasional news item.
To be fair, one of the concerns scientists and other authority figures have had for decades now is that the discovery of a more advanced intelligent species in the galaxy would have a negative effect on humanity. In this case, I am not referring just to the fear of either an invasion or outright extermination by such beings, but rather that the mere knowledge such superior species exist would affect our cultural and emotional view of humanity’s place in the wider reality.
This is due to several factors: Humanity has told itself for generations that it is special, ordained by the gods to be the apex inhabitants of a world made just for them. Although the idea of extraterrestrial life has been around for several millennia, that there is no definitive scientific proof of them combined with a population that largely sees aliens as everything from improbable to childish, leaves humanity psychologically unprepared for a real encounter. This is still the case even decades into the Space Age and our long exposure to many fictional versions permeating our cultures.
Combine all this with several centuries of science “demoting” our place in the vast and ancient Universe and you get the possibility that humans may not take the news of a real ETI, especially one far more advanced than us and capable of making a physical trip to Earth, very well. People often naturally respond to the unknown with fear and hostility, not only towards the object in question but also against each other, be it with physical or emotional weapons.
This was a major theme in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the discovery of an alien artifact on the Moon – a mysterious large black slab dubbed the Monolith – was treated with utmost secrecy by authorities for the reasons one of those in charge, Dr. Heywood R. Floyd, gives to his colleagues at a meeting on the very topic:
“Now, I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation if the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning.”
On a related note regarding Klaatu’s physiology, in the 2008 cinematic remake of TDTESS, the character was not a naturally evolved humanoid species but rather a bioengineered being deliberately designed to appear human in order to better interact with the native intelligences. That Klaatu would just happen to be very much like us in appearance and evolutionary development as he is in the 1951 film version is considered a scientific longshot, but the reality of some ETI may give us a surprise someday.
One more observation, in this case regarding the first Captain’s specific comment about Klaatu making him feel like a “third-class witch doctor.” You know that term would not go over well today, as he was implying that those who practice medicine outside the standards of modern Western science would be considered far less sophisticated both in terms of knowledge and dispensement of medicines and procedures.
We are now much more aware and appreciative of how many indigenous peoples possess an innate understanding and practice of regional medicine, often going back thousands of years in their histories, which many medical groups and individual professionals in the West have only recently begun to realize and appreciate how important and valuable they are to humanity’s overall database of medicine.
Unfortunately, the cultural bias which the Walter Reed Hospital doctors living in 1951 America possess in full would not only cause them to miss the insensitivity of the term used by the Captain, it also ironically produces a negative effect on themselves when directly faced with what they see as an all-around superior civilization.
Now back to our story, already in progress…
As Major White leaves the waiting room to possibly make good on his “threat” to either get drunk or give up medicine altogether, Secretary Harley enters, accompanied by a member of the MP, or Military Police, who takes his guard position just outside Klaatu’s hospital room.
Harley enters Klaatu’s current quarters. The alien visitor is now out of bed and standing by the window, wearing a very dark “Medical Corps” robe and pajamas. After exchanging some very brief social pleasantries, Klaatu inquires of his human visitor what news he brings from his superiors.
“Not very good news, I’m afraid,” Harley answers Klaatu. “The President accepted your suggestion and cabled the invitations for a meeting. Let me read you some of the replies.”
Producing a collection of short papers, Harley then proceeds to relay to Klaatu a sampling of the responses to the U.S. President’s invitation, all of whom demand that such a meeting could only be held in their specific nations. The Secretary even tries to hand the printed cables to Klaatu to further prove to him these responses are genuine. Klaatu merely stares briefly at the papers in Harley’s outstretched hand.
Retracting his “offering” and presuming the matter is now settled, Harley reiterates to the extraterrestrial his original suggestion of talking only with his boss.
Klaatu remains unmoved.
“I will not speak with any one nation or group of nations,” says the ETI, repeating his earlier demand. “I don’t intend to add my contribution to your childish jealousies and suspicions.”
Harley tries to explain the situation using his diplomatic skills.
“Our problems are very complex, Klaatu. You mustn’t judge us too harshly.”
“I can judge only by what I see,” responds Klaatu.
Harley says he understands the visitor’s impatience with humanity. Klaatu doesn’t give in to the Secretary’s capitulation.
“I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”
“I’m afraid my people haven’t,” Harley fires back with a relatively calm and honest bluntness. “I am very sorry. I wish it were otherwise.” Perhaps feeling a bit frustrated at this diplomatic stalemate, the Secretary turns away for a moment.
Klaatu uses this pause in their conversation to stare out the window of his room, which looks down upon the hospital courtyard. He sees various specimens of the human race walking about conducting their own private business. The alien is encouraged by this scene with a suggestion.
“Before making any decisions,” Klaatu starts with Harley. “I think I should get out among your people and become familiar with the basis for these strange, unreasoning attitudes.”
COMMENT: Again, really, Klaatu? You don’t seem all that different from Earth humans physiologically, it was just confirmed in the film. Later on, you will admit that your people and others in the galaxy were also once warlike and destructive, therefore tribal. So how hard is it really to understand the natives? I would think your kind would send someone who is schooled in multiple fields such as anthropology and sociology, unless you really are just a mouthpiece whose purpose is to get the message across successfully and leave, whether the humans really get you or not. Because when you have such big powerful “guns” as represented so dramatically by Gort, I guess you don’t need to be all that nuanced and diplomatic.
I am even willing to entertain such a paranoid thought that you do understand humans well enough that you know when they are threatened, at least some of them might deliberately attempt exactly what you tell them not to do, just to show you they won’t be cowed. That way, when the first nuclear missile is flying towards a Gort, or one of your starships, or even just heading up into space, you can have your excuse to exterminate humanity and claim you just saved the civilized galaxy from a future marauding race.
And if Klaatu really is that clueless about human behavior because he is so above it all, does that make him a good person to send to Earth to get them to stop their warlike ways? Perhaps not.
This scenario/attitude reminds me of the advanced and yet still warlike Martians in H.G. Wells (1866-1946) novel The War of the Worlds, first published in 1898: These beings and their ecology were so far along in their evolution that their world no longer had any dangerous microorganisms and thus were unaware of and therefore susceptible to Earth germs as they attempted to conquer our planet. Personally, I never quite bought that Mars would be devoid of all microbes while still having higher life forms, but then again, I have well over a century of accumulation and access to biological knowledge on author Wells.
An even better example is the Krell in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, an alien species who had evolved so high they developed technologies that could produce thoughts from their minds into physical reality. Yet somehow, they forgot that their ancient primitive ancestral selves still lurked deep within their subconscious, so their inventions unintentionally released “monsters from the Id” that went wild and destroyed their entire race in a single night.
Now Klaatu has none of these so-called excuses. So, is he: Truly clueless, aloof to the behaviors and needs of lesser species, or on Earth as a form of bureaucratic rubber stamp to make his kind look good when the humans are provoked into revealing their more primitive natures and do exactly what they expect them to do so that Klaatu’s society can appear justifiably clean when wiping out humanity? A later scene will indicate that Gort might not just exterminate humans but every other living thing on Earth, rendering our entire planet dead – and a great place for resettlement?
Back to the conversation, already in progress…
“Under the circumstances, I’m afraid that’s impossible,” is Harley’s answer. “I must ask that you don’t attempt to leave the hospital. Our military people have insisted on this. I’m sure you understand.”
COMMENT: Why isn’t Klaatu now being held on a military base? Yes, they wisely rushed him to the nearest hospital after he was shot, I get that. However, since he is essentially healed (mainly by his own efforts), why wasn’t Klaatu then transferred to a much more secure facility? As we will soon see, my question has merit.
Harley leaves and after he closes the door, it is audibly locked by the accompanying MP. Looking at the door, Klaatu realizes what the humans are doing – although I must assume this cannot be the first time the door to his hospital quarters have been secured in this manner since his occupancy. Klaatu has a look of bemusement on his face, basically saying “You locked me in a standard hospital room with a wooden door using a single bolt. How cute.” Or as the film draft script describes Klaatu here: Realizing they’ve locked him in, he smiles with tolerant amusement.
COMMENT: A bit more on Klaatu’s levels of understanding of less developed cultures – or lack thereof. I realize it is the filmmakers are the actual ones calling humanity literally stupid, and they may not be wrong in a sense, but does such a label really help to change the minds of the audience by shaming them, or does it just turn them off and make them double-down on holding on to their beliefs and actions, however barbaric and stupid they may be? Besides, no one likes being called stupid and most people do not tend to consider their actions to be either dumb or wrong, or both, regardless of the reality.
Are there no other species in the galaxy of this universe that evolved with tribal behaviors and patterns? As we will later learn in this essay, Klaatu and his kind certainly did have these exact traits long ago; is he really so far advanced that he can no longer relate to such types? If so, why was Klaatu chosen to be the spokesman and diplomat of his society to Earth? Or is his species of such a mindset that they see their way as the only way and everyone else must capitulate, or else? Even if they feel they are being in the right, is forcing another species to become “civilized” at literal gunpoint the right thing to do, rather than let humanity evolve and learn on its own – or destroy themselves, which would solve their problem.
To further inquire: Is Klaatu’s society really in danger from humanity? In 1951 there were rockets that could and did reach into space but were not yet developed to orbit Earth, where one needs to be moving at a minimum of 18,000 miles per hour to keep circling, or more precisely falling, around our planet. Both global superpowers were working on long-range ballistic missiles – rockets that could carry a nuclear weapon from one continent to the other. In the meantime, all nuclear bombs were carried to their enemy targets by long-range bomber aircraft – none of which could certainly reach space let alone another planet.
Later that same evening…
… a nurse carrying a tray of medication and an accompanying Military Policeman (MP) arrive outside Klaatu’s room.
COMMENT: There are no security guards in the waiting room? I hope they at least had a couple posted at the outer door in the hallway, not to mention extra security throughout the hospital, not only to keep Klaatu in but also to keep unauthorized nosy and potentially dangerous humans out. Perhaps this was a “changing of the guard” situation?
The security officer goes to unlock the door to the alien’s room – and discovers it is already unlocked. Afraid of what this means, he rushes into Klaatu’s room and finds that the alien is gone!
What follows is a montage of the MP anxiously reporting Klaatu’s missing state to his superior, who in turns grabs the telephone on his desk and sounds the general alarm. This leads to scenes of other members of the military scrambling into action, while higher-ups assemble in hastily made meetings to consult with each other on what to do with what they see as a crisis.
Soon the media are informed (formally or otherwise) and they waste no time in alerting everyone in their reach that the alien has somehow escaped from Walter Reed Hospital, in a mélange of radio and television broadcasts, along with good old newsprint. Interspersed with this is a collection of various citizens attending to this news, while an anxious mother quickly ushers her children into their home to somehow protect them from the “monster”.
As this tumult grows and swirls about, a lone male figure in a business suit carrying a suitcase is seen walking up a typical neighborhood sidewalk in D.C. as other citizens rush past him, paying no particular attention to this stranger. As he strolls along, we hear these radio and television news broadcasts emanating from the surrounding brownstone homes in his path…
“The authorities at Walter Reed Hospital refuse to comment on how he managed to escape or what measures may be taken to apprehend him.”
COMMENT: If nothing else, this news comment solves the problem of having to explain to us the viewers just how he managed to get past the guards outside his room. Did he perform the Klaatu equivalent of the Jedi mind trick from Star Wars? I can imagine Klaatu intoning to the guards “I am not the alien you are looking for,” then slipping past them as they echo his mantra in a hypnotic state. Or can Klaatu somehow turn himself invisible? For that matter, how did Klaatu pick his door lock without making a sound? Perhaps that last one is the easiest to consider. In any event, once he has passed these initial hurdles, Klaatu could easily blend into the hospital crowd, as very few among them have seen his actual face.
I am also pretty certain that in 1951 there were no security cameras in place in Walter Reed Hospital that could have otherwise helped in monitoring Klaatu. While security cameras were used as far back as 1927 under Joseph Stalin’s rule to observe visitors coming to the Kremlin in Moscow, and later in 1942 at Peenemunde in Nazi Germany, to monitor the launches of their V-2 rockets (and keep staff aware of when to stay away when a rocket was set for liftoff), such camera systems were rather expensive and cumbersome, so often only big institutions had them. Camera surveillance did not take off more widely until the late 1960s.
As Klaatu continues to walk and undoubtedly plan his next moves, we hear more news broadcasts from different reporters floating through the night air…
“Descriptions of the creature are denounced as rumor by Police Chief Walter Baxter. He’s not eight feet tall as reported, nor does he have tentacles [although if the film had the budget and the special effects technology…]. There’s no denying that there is a monster at large, that we are dealing with forces beyond our knowledge and power. The public is advised to take ordinary precautions and to remain calm as we await further…”
“Government officials have come to the inescapable conclusion that this ship and its occupants come from some other planet. Thus far, scientists have refused to speak officially on just which planet until they’ve had an opportunity to study the ship [they haven’t been examining the vessel already?!]. They seem to agree, however, that either Venus or Mars is the most likely possibility. Not only are these the closest planets to Earth, but all research to date indicates that they are the only two planets capable of sustaining life as we know it. However, all reputable scientists warn against jumping to hasty conclusions. Professor Havermeyer of M.l.T., for example, points out that it’s entirely possible, in light of our meager knowledge…”
COMMENT: In 1951, the rather nearby planets Venus and Mars would have indeed been taken rather seriously by both the general public and a number of scientists alike as potential candidates for supporting a society of intelligent beings. While most scientists of the time actually doubted that more advanced organisms could survive on the Red Planet, not all were convinced. Some even considered the possibility that a high civilization could have arisen on Mars long ago and moved underground when conditions there changed out of their favor.
One thing most contemporary scientists would have told you with some confidence is that Mars could at least support some simpler life forms, such as the equivalents of lichen and moss, as well as more complex plants and perhaps even certain animals. After all, Mars had an axial tilt and rotation rate quite similar to Earth’s. The planet also had definite white polar caps which grew and shrank in size with the seasons. There were large swaths of light and dark regions visible through telescopes, some of which turned distinctly green in color during the Red Planet’s much longer summers. Prior to the Space Age, astronomers thought the Martian atmosphere was relatively dense and composed mainly of nitrogen. Considering all this, it would have seemed almost illogical not to assume our celestial neighbor had some kind of life forms on it.
As for Venus, that world was an outright enigma in the era before interplanetary space probes due to its perpetual covering of thick yellowish clouds. Nevertheless, that mantle of mystery also served to fuel a wide – and wild – range of speculation on who or what could live beneath them on the planet’s surface. While a few experts thought Venus might be an unbearably hot desert world, it was much more exciting to think of our celestial neighbor as inhabited by humid jungles and swamps filled with exotic creatures right out of the Age of Dinosaurs.
Some went further and said Venus wasn’t just wet, it was positively soaked with an entire global ocean of everything from liquid water to seltzer to oil! The planet’s relentless veil left the door open for Venus being an even better world than Mars for harboring intelligent tool-making natives – perhaps ones sophisticated enough to construct and pilot a disc-shaped spaceship all the way to Earth.
As the one reporter comments on the speculation about which planet Klaatu may have come from, we see our escaped visitor come to a stop on the sidewalk and notice something small attached to the right sleeve of his suit jacket. It is a dry cleaning tag with the following inscription:
Walter Reed General Hospital
Post Exchange Cleaners
Washington 12, D.C., 7-18, 1951
Name: Maj. Carpenter
Cleaned & Pressed (with a check mark below this category)
So Klaatu somehow “borrowed” the clothing and suitcase of one Major Carpenter from the hospital they both stayed at and conscripted them as part of his cover. It is interesting to note that the date on the tag is July 18, 1951: Early on in our story, a reporter commented on the beautiful spring weather in the nation’s Capital, where in the Northern Hemisphere the spring season officially lasts from on or around March 21 to June 21 each year. We have also seen at certain points how the trees in the city had yet to bring forth any of their leaves or flowers as they would have in abundance by the time the month of July arrives.
With a mild smile, Klaatu removes the tag, crumples it up, and tosses it away (littering!). He then looks up and sees a lit sign that says ROOM FOR RENT. Recognizing this as an opportunity, Klaatu picks up the suitcase he had placed down on the sidewalk during his pause – where we see it bears a name plate with the initials of its original owner, L. M. C. – and carries himself over to the building supporting that sign.
The scene switches to the inside of this dwelling, where we find a group of people standing and sitting in a living room, which the film script draft describes as being “done in average boardinghouse style – antimacassars and all.” Their complete attention is focused on a newscaster speaking through a television set…
“The President has urged all citizens to be on the alert for any information about this man and to transmit such information immediately to the police, the Army, or the F.B.I. While the President made no effort to minimize the crisis, he urged people all over the country to remain calm. And I might add that though this man may be our bitter enemy, he could be also a newfound friend. Unfortunately, for identification purposes, the only photographs we have are similar to this one and do not show the man’s face. The President said the entire facilities of the F.B.I… and every other federal agency… are being brought to bear. He pointed out, however, that this is no ordinary manhunt. He warned we may be up against powers… that are beyond our control.”
As we watch the television news with these folks, a young boy sitting on the floor starts to turn to a particular woman in the group to ask her a question. Suddenly his attention is caught by something behind them.
“Hey, who’s that?” exclaims the boy. Everyone immediately turns in the direction the youth is staring at: A tall and mysterious figure is standing in the shadows not far from the entrance door. Placing down his suitcase, the stranger silently walks a few steps towards the group, his features still in darkness.
Image: A mysterious figure suddenly appears in an average Washington, D.C., boarding house, initially frightening its already jumpy boarders by dramatically remaining in shadow.
One of the other women shuts off the television and carefully walks towards the man, where she turns on a nearby lamp. The light illuminates Klaatu’s very human looking face.
“What is it you want?” this same woman asks nervously of the stranger.
“My name is Carpenter. I’m looking for a room,” the man replies. Everyone present visibly relaxes.
“Are you an F.B.I. man?!” the boy impulsively asks Klaatu, ne Carpenter.
“No, I’m afraid not,” answers Klaatu with a smile.
The young man is undeterred by the reply.
“I’ll bet he is, Mom!” the boy counters, turning to a woman whom we rightly assume is the person who brought him into this world. “I bet he’s looking for the Spaceman!”
“I think we’ve all been hearing too much about spacemen,” the woman replies in a manner that makes it clear she is not only the boy’s mother, but a mom in general.
We learn that the older woman who first approached this new arrival is one Mrs. Crockett, the landlady of the boarding house. She gives everyone present a brief introduction to Mr. Carpenter and then lets him know they “have a very nice room on the second floor. It has two large windows and gets the sun all day long.”
COMMENT: So apparently one did not need references for renting a room in 1951, or have to show some identification to prove who they say they are? I am not going to even ask about requiring first and last month’s rent at this point.
As Mrs. Crockett begins to escort Mr. Carpenter towards the stairs that lead to his prospective new room, the little boy, whose name is revealed to be Bobby Benson, does not let up on his theory of Mr. Carpenter being an FBI agent looking for the “Spaceman.”
“Hey, mister!” Bobby says to Carpenter excitedly. “Can I help you look for the Spaceman? I know just what he looks like. He’s got a big square head with three great big eyes!”
Bobby’s mother, whose name is finally revealed as Helen, tries again to dissuade her son from his potential to annoy Mr. Carpenter with his continual probing questions. Mrs. Crockett is even more direct, telling Bobby to stop bothering Mr. Carpenter “or he won’t want to stay here.” Her comment is shown to be a sincere concern, for Mrs. Crockett immediately tries to convince Carpenter that Bobby is “really a dear little boy and quiet as a mouse.”
As they march up the stairs in single file, Mrs. Crockett observes to Carpenter that he is a “long way from home.” Klaatu/Carpenter becomes both surprised and concerned at this statement, asking her how she knows this – even without mentioning the 250 million miles travel distance.
“I can tell a New England accent a mile away,” responds Mrs. Crockett with confidence. Klaatu displays a wry smile out of her view, with a definite sense of relief that his true identity has not been exposed.
COMMENT: There are several external reference sources that refer to Klaatu’s full human cover name as John Carpenter. However, not once does Klaatu refer to himself as John, just Carpenter. On the luggage he took from its real owner, there are the engraved initials of L. M. C., with no letter J in sight. Perhaps Klaatu did not want to use an identity that could be traced, thus he substituted L. M. for John. He might also have had no idea what those two first initials stood for. In addition, the dry cleaner’s tag on Klaatu’s suit jacket only referred to a “Maj. Carpenter”, with no other names.
It is at least obvious that someone wanted Carpenter’s first name to start with the letter J, to further the connection of the alien as a savior of humanity: John Carpenter and Jesus Christ. In any event, so far as I know, that first name was not used in the film, nor could I find it anywhere in the film script draft.
FYI: In the final draft script, Carpenter is referred to as Dr. [Doctor], not a Major, on the dry cleaner’s tag. Also in the same script, the little name plate on Mr. Carpenter’s suitcase is described as having L. M. C. on it, just as it is shown in the final film version.
Okay, enough with the name calling.
The next morning, all of Mrs. Crockett’s adult boarders are sitting around the common table downstairs eating breakfast while listening to a portable radio. Once again, the on-air reporter is played by a real American newscaster, Gabriel Heatter (1890-1972), who came to fame reporting on events during the Second World War.
Unlike the reporter of the previous evening, who was doing his best to assuage public fears and quell overblown rumors, Mr. Heatter is stoking the very primal fires of anxiety about Klaatu and promoting very uncivilized actions to stop this alien “menace” …
“And now we take you to Miami Beach, Florida, for a report from Gabriel Heatter. Mr. Heatter…”
“And now on this Sunday morning, we ask some questions that have been haunting the entire nation for two whole days. This creature: Where is he? What is he up to? If he can build a spaceship that can fly to Earth and a robot that can destroy our tanks and guns, what other terrors can he unleash at will?
“Obviously, the monster must be found. He must be tracked down like a wild animal. He must be destroyed. But where would such a creature hide? Would he disappear into the north woods? Would he crawl into the sewers of some great city? Everybody agrees. There is grave danger. The question remains, what can we do to protect ourselves? What measures can we take to neutralize this menace from another world? Destroy it? Of course! But how? And if we do destroy it, what do we face in retaliation?”
While the radio voice stirs up provocative ideas, we find one boarder, a Mrs. Barley, reading a newspaper. On the side of the paper facing us and away from her is a bit of lurid artwork accompanying an article titled “Are We Long for this World?”: The piece depicts fairly accurate versions of both Gort and Klaatu’s spaceship, but they are otherwise displayed as coming to Earth as an invading force, with both the vessels and giant robots destroying everything in their sights with deadly ray beams.
Image: The news media doing its usual best to keep the populace calm and accurately informed regarding the visiting aliens.
Klaatu is also reading a newspaper. His attention is drawn to an article with the headline of SAVANT CALLS MEETING TO STUDY SPACE SHIP. The piece talks about one Professor Jacob Barnhardt, “world-famous scientist and Nobel Prize winner, who has invited fellow scientists from all over the world to meet with him in Washington and study the recently landed ‘Space Ship’.”
COMMENT: I know things have happened pretty fast and unexpectedly regarding the arrival of Klaatu and Gort, but I am still surprised that scientists were not dispatched to the vessel’s landing site and its occupants as soon as the military had gotten things relatively secured, if not sooner. Or perhaps I am just the type to expect everyone to drop everything if a real alien visitor really did show up on our planet, benign or otherwise.
Annoyed, and undoubtedly more than a little agitated by what Mr. Heatter is spewing, I mean saying, from the radio, Mrs. Barley demands that her husband, George, turn off that noisy contraption sitting right next to him on the table so she can concentrate on her newspaper, which he promptly does.
Husband George responds with his own demand, that the government “do something” about the alien. When another boarder, Mr. Krull, questions whether the authorities can do anything because, after all, “they’re only people just like us,” Mr. Barley shoots back “People, my foot! They’re Democrats!”
COMMENT: This little bit of political humor was made during the era of Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), who became the Democratic President upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945 and ended his tenure in 1953 when he declined to run for the office again. Although the essential characteristics and goals of the two main political parties of the day were still somewhat the reverse of what exists now, Truman was more liberal than often attributed to his party at the time, such as supporting what would eventually become civil rights legislation. In any case, politicians are always ripe for satire and social commentary, no matter the era.
One side of the little breakfast group echo what they have been hearing on the radio, with Mr. Krull saying how Klaatu has “got that robot standing there, eight feet tall, waiting for orders to destroy us!”
Bobby’s mother, Helen, then chimes in with her own views on the subject of the moment as she pours herself some coffee:
“This Spaceman, or whatever he is. We automatically assume he’s a menace. Maybe he isn’t at all.”
Another responds by asking why the alien doesn’t just come out into the open then. Helen suspects that Klaatu might be afraid himself. “After all, he was shot the minute he landed here. I was just wondering what I would do?”
Klaatu, aka Mr. Carpenter, gives Helen and the group his take on the matter.
“Perhaps before deciding on a course of action, you’d want to know more about the people here, to orient yourself in a strange environment.”
“There’s nothing strange about Washington, Mr. Carpenter,” Mrs. Barley breaks in, almost defiantly of Klaatu’s opinion and showing that her world view doesn’t extend much beyond her own life experiences and mindset.
“A person from another planet might disagree with you,” replies Klaatu with an underlying air of trying to get this particular human to see his point of view.
“Well, if you want my opinion,” says Mrs. Barley, without really asking if anyone does, “he comes from right here on Earth. And you know where I mean,” she adds with a knowing look to her audience.
“They wouldn’t come in a spaceship,” Mr. Krull argues. “They’d come in airplanes.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” replies Mrs. Barley, without explaining further her supposed insights on this topic.
COMMENT: The Day the Earth Stood Still arrived at a time during the Cold War when there was strong anti-Communist fear and sentiment. The Soviet Union had just detonated its first atomic bomb two years earlier. The rival superpower had also snagged its share of rocket scientists and engineers from Nazi Germany at the end of World War Two and were developing their own means of delivering nuclear weapons via missiles and rockets. There was also a powerful campaign by the U.S. Government to flush out Communist spies and sympathizers. As expected, things were getting out of hand and many innocent people were swept up in what was labeled a “witch hunt.”
Many Americans also imagined and feared that the USSR had their own variety of technological programs to rival and best them for the purposes of ideological global domination. These fears would be confirmed just six years later when the Soviets placed the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit, Sputnik 1, shocking much of the world and spawning what would be known as both the modern Space Age and Space Race.
As for Mrs. Barley’s comment about the possibility of the Soviets invading America in spaceships, one of the prevailing theories at the time about such UFOs or “flying saucers” is that they were not built and piloted by beings from other worlds, but rather advanced technologies made by rival nations on this planet, the USSR in particular. This is one big reason why the U.S. military was so interested in learning about them, a trait that has lasted to this day as recent news attests.
Mrs. Barley’s husband then makes his own interjection.
“Stands to reason that fella wants something, otherwise he wouldn’t be here.” Ironically, Mr. Barley then turns directly to Klaatu. “That right, Mr. Carpenter?”
“I must admit, I’m a little confused,” replies Carpenter/Klaatu, perhaps to avoid the potential for giving himself away.
The discussion abruptly ends when Mrs. Crockett enters the room to inform Helen that a Mr. Stevens has arrived to see her.
It quickly becomes clear that Tom Stevens and Helen are dating (Helen is a war widow, as we will learn more about later). Tom has everything set to take her on a picnic, complete with transportation that has a broken radio so they “can forget about the Spaceman for today.”
Helen throws a potential wrench into their plans when she informs Tom that she doesn’t have anyone to look after her son and wonders if Bobby could come with them on the picnic. Tom agrees that they could bring her offspring, but it is rather clear that he is less than thrilled at the prospect.
“There’s always someone here, but today, of course, they’ve all got plans,” explains Helen regarding her usually ready-made staff of boarding house babysitters.
Just then, a certain gentleman chimes in to the rescue.
“I haven’t any plans,” states Klaatu. “I’d be happy to spend the day with him, if you’d let me.”
Tom is so eager to have Helen to himself for the day that he doesn’t even hesitate to accept Klaatu’s offer to take Bobby off their hands, despite the boarding house’s newest resident being a complete stranger to him.
Helen diplomatically tells Klaatu that it is kind of him to suggest watching Bobby, then apologies for not introducing the two men to each other first.
Klaatu shows his willingness to watch Helen’s son by informing her that he and Bobby “had a fine time yesterday afternoon. We talked and listened to the radio. I thought today he might like to show me around the city.”
Helen is understandably hesitant, but she also senses she can trust this man, despite only having met him yesterday evening and therefore knowing so little about him. Besides, the plot needs Klaatu and Bobby to pal around Washington, D.C., to make certain future story events and social messages happen in short order.
Washington, D.C., on Two Diamonds a Day
We follow Klaatu and Bobby as they take a tour of various places in and near the Capitol of the United States. The first stop we see is the Arlington National Cemetery, an important and historical burial site for those who fought and died in various conflicts going back to the American Civil War (1861-1865).
The two companions stand in front of one grave in particular. On the grave marker is a name, one 1st Lieutenant Robert Benson of Virginia.
“That’s my father,” explains Bobby, whom he was obviously named after. “He was killed at Anzio.”
COMMENT: The Battle of Anzio was part of the Allied retaking of Italy from the fascists during the first six months of 1944, between January 22 to June 5, to be exact. If Bobby is 11 years old in 1951, then this means he was around age 7 when his father fell in battle.
The grave marker states that Lt. Benson died on January 29, 1944 (and says he was born on April 10, 1916), so his father was killed in action rather early in this conflict.
Looking around thoughtfully at the sea of nearly identical white gravestones in this vast cemetery, Klaatu asks Bobby if all these people died in wars. Bobby affirms this, then asks Klaatu if he knew about Arlington National Cemetery. Klaatu replies in the negative.
“You don’t seem to know much about anything, do you, Mr. Carpenter?” Bobby asks, though more like a statement of fact.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Bobby,” Klaatu replies honestly to the boy, if not in any detail. “I’ve been away a long time. Very far away.” A whole 250 million miles far away, no less.
“Is it different where you’ve been? Don’t they have places like this?” asks Bobby, referring to Arlington.
“They have cemeteries, but not like this one,” answers Klaatu. “You see, they don’t have any wars.”
Bobby ponders this and replies succinctly but memorably:
“Gee, that’s a good idea.” [If only the solutions to such major issues could be implemented that easily.]
Klaatu then asks Bobby what he would like to do next on their excursion. Bobby suggests going to the movies and is excited when his new friend readily agrees to the idea. Then Klaatu asks yet another question which would arouse the confusion and suspicions of any competent adult.
“Bobby, tell me, do you have to have money to go there?”
The boy reaches into one of his pockets and produces two dollars for the cinema, given to him by Helen.
COMMENT: As Arlington National Cemetery is across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., in the state of Virginia, I wonder how these two got there from the boarding house without requiring currency for some means of public transportation? This scene appears to be the first time our characters bring up the issue of money between themselves.
Technically, they could have walked to Arlington, but it would have been quite a hike (“Everywhere is walking distance, if you have the time,” once said comedian Steven Wright). The rest of their adventure takes them back into D.C., which again, would require that they either utilize a bus or a taxi, or they end up walking. Just how far would two dollars get one in an urban setting in 1951, especially after going to the movies?
Klaatu kindly offers to pay for both of them to see a film. He produces from his pocket a collection of rather large and beautifully cut gemstones and asks Bobby if the cinema would accept them as payment.
“Gee, they look like diamonds!” exclaims the boy.
“In some places, those are what people use for money,” explains Klaatu. “They’re easy to carry and they don’t wear out.”
COMMENT 1: So now we know that Klaatu’s society has an economy with a currency quite similar looking to terrestrial diamonds. This is interesting, as often in both future human settings such as Star Trek and those depicting superior extraterrestrial species, the concept of having to purchase goods and services is either foreign to said cultures or is known to them but looked down upon as archaic at best. From our perspective, if one is going to use money, they might prefer something less cumbersome and seemingly easy to lose as pea-sized diamonds, despite their high physical durability and intrinsic value. Perhaps some form of electronic identification chip embedded in their skin, or even a credit card.
FYI: While credit cards as we know them did exist in 1951 and were conceived of as far back as 1888 by author Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) in his utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000 – 1887 (you can read the work online here: https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/work?id=olbp518390), they did not start to become more commonly used by the general public until the late 1950s.
COMMENT 2: How did Klaatu hang on to those diamonds? While he may have had them in his outfit when he first stepped off his spaceship, Klaatu subsequently had his uniform removed from his person after he was shot and upon being admitted to Walter Reed Hospital. Do not tell me the authorities did not examine every square inch of his alien outfit and everything on and in it. Granted, they might have given Klaatu access to some items such as the balm which healed his bullet wound in such short order, but the diamonds?
Then again, Major White did not have the balm analyzed until after Klaatu used it on his wound. For a bunch of supposed professionals who had direct access to the patient of a lifetime, they slipped up in a number of big ways.
Yes, I know they had never encountered an ETI before and were not really prepared for such a meeting, but still, some logical protocols should have been enacted, such as taking Klaatu’s uniform (including the helmet) and keeping it in a secure location in case it contains any potentially deadly weapons or dangerous microorganisms. The authorities had no problem quickly surrounding Klaatu’s spaceship with platoons of armed soldiers, cannons, and tanks upon its first landing, so why not take further precautionary steps in this regard?
I guess we will just have to assume the humans who took and studied Klaatu’s uniform later gave it back with all the items he carried in it and let the visitor keep it in his hospital room closet. When Klaatu was making his escape from Walter Reed, he grabbed the diamonds in case he needed something to trade with the natives while among them.
“I’ll bet they’re worth a million dollars!” cries Bobby (hmm, what is the exchange rate between alien diamonds and American dollars?).
“Would you give me your two dollars for two of these?” asks Klaatu as he proffers a couple of his diamonds to the boy. Bobby readily agrees but asks Klaatu not to tell his mother what he has done as “she doesn’t like me to steal from people.”
The next scene takes place at the Lincoln Memorial, a Greek temple-style structure completed in 1922 to honor U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Klaatu and Bobby read together the famous Gettysburg Address carved into the side of the seat that the giant white statue of Lincoln sits in at the center of the memorial (you may read the full Address and its fascinating history here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettysburg_Address).
Upon finishing the inscription, Klaatu remarks to Bobby that “those are great words. He must have been a great man.” Bobby agrees, with a definite tone of “He’s Abraham Lincoln. Why are you once again so unfamiliar with prominent American history and culture?” in his voice.
Image: Klaatu and Bobby Benson visit the Lincoln Memorial. Impressed with the Gettysburg Address speech carved into the side, the alien says he wants to meet someone as wise and caring as the Sixteenth President must have been.
Inspired and even hopeful from his visit to the Lincoln Memorial, Klaatu says that he would like to meet a man very much like the Sixteenth President – which I find a bit ironic in one sense as earlier when Secretary Harley offered Klaatu the opportunity to speak to the current President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, the alien turned him down flat, wanting to deliver his message only to the leaders of all Earth nations. Was the film making a veiled jab at Truman by comparing him less favorably to Lincoln?
COMMENT: Could it be that even advanced ETI races such as the one Klaatu comes from are gender biased when it comes to designating leadership and intellectual skills in people? Either that or Klaatu recognizes how culturally limited humanity is in the middle of their Twentieth Century and assumed our gender roles accordingly.
Keep in mind that until late into the last century, the term “man” often referred to human beings and humanity in general. However, although it was supposed to include both men and women, “man” was more often than not aimed at the male gender. One can suppose Klaatu was simply mimicking human speech references to avoid confusing the natives. I am assuming this here, for since his kind are like us in most ways physiologically, but more advanced culturally as well as technologically, they would also be more sophisticated when it comes to genders and their societal roles. By this I mean the various genders in their cultures are on a much more equal footing with each other than one would have found on Earth in the year 1951.
“Bobby, who’s the greatest man in America today?” asks Klaatu as they look out over the rest of Washington from the Memorial.
“Oh, I don’t know. Spaceman, I guess,” offers Bobby.
“No, I was speaking of Earthmen,” corrects Klaatu. “I meant the greatest philosopher, the greatest thinker.”
Bobby realizes Klaatu means “the smartest man in the whole world” and suggests one Professor Barnhardt, “the greatest scientist in the whole world.” We learn that not only does the Professor live right in D.C., but he is also not far from where the boy’s mother Helen works, at the Department of Commerce. Bobby proudly adds that his mother is a “real” secretary there, not that man they call a secretary (presumably Mr. Harley).
Bobby asks Mr. Carpenter if they can now go see the spaceship, in a way that makes you realize he probably requested that being part of their tour to Klaatu more than once (hey, what normal kid or sensible grownup would not want to see in person a real live alien spaceship, especially one sitting in their own hometown, complete with a giant robot that shoots intense light beams from its face that melt whole tanks?!). His adult companion agrees, and they make the trip to the Ellipse.
At the spaceship, Klaatu and Bobby stand among the throng of onlookers watching the human activity of the military outside the silvery vessel. Gort is still there, standing immobile on the grass.
Staring at the scene and Gort in particular, Bobby declares “I’ll bet that iron guy’s strong. I’ll bet he could knock down a whole building!” Klaatu agrees knowingly.
Bobby turns his attention to the space vessel and wishes out loud to Klaatu that he could get inside the ship to “see how it works.” Bobby then inquires to Klaatu as to what he thinks “makes it go?”
“Well, a highly developed form of atomic power, I should imagine,” replies the guy who has actually been inside that craft.
“I thought that was only for bombs.”
“No,” says Klaatu. “No, it’s for lots of other things too.”
COMMENT: As much as nuclear power has long been associated with civilization-destroying weaponry, there was also an early push to make it much more user-friendly. Throughout the 1950s, there was an effort to promote the positive aspects of splitting (and fusing) the atom for humanity, for everything from powering our towns and cities to medical wonders to transportation via land, sea, and air to the exploration of space. No less a cultural force than Walt Disney promoted the benefits of nuclear technology and physics in a 1957 series titled Our Friend the Atom, which can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/77888289
Disney also produced a companion book, which may be found online in full here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/02/18/our-friend-the-atom-disney/
Klaatu’s singular statement is a relatively early measure of support for turning atomic swords into multiple types of plowshares, backed up by the alien’s presumably peaceful and sophisticated society using atomic power “for lots of other things too.”
Bobby asks Klaatu if he thinks the spaceship can go faster than the F-86, officially known as the North American F-86 Sabre. This was a prominent jet fighter being used in the Korean War against the MiG-15 jet of the Communist forces. At the time, the F-86 was one of the fastest aircraft then being flown.
“Yes, I should think so,” replies Klaatu, who is correct, as the Sabre’s top flight speed was a mere 650 miles per hour [FYI: The contemporary Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 rival fighter jet could go a bit faster, at 668 mph.].
“About a thousand miles an hour?” guesses Bobby, upping in the ante.
“Maybe 4,000 miles an hour,” counters Klaatu. “And outside the Earth’s atmosphere, a good deal faster.”
COMMENT: The fastest any crewed aircraft (not spacecraft) has yet attained is the X-15 hypersonic rocket plane, which achieved a speed of 4,520 mph during its 199 flights between 1959 and 1968. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird would later achieve the top recorded speeds for a non-rocket powered flight vehicle of roughly half the velocity of the X-15.
The boy then wants to know how the vessel could make a safe landing if it can go so fast? Klaatu starts to answer Bobby in earnest, explaining that “the basic problem is to overcome the inertia and…”
Klaatu suddenly stops talking when he realizes his attentive audience includes more than just Bobby. Turning around, he finds several men in the crowd just behind him, grinning at his technical comments in a less than respectful (or comprehending) fashion.
“Keep going, mister. He was fallin’ for it!” derides the one in the hat. The two human males laugh and walk off, leaving Klaatu feeling somewhat sheepish for being caught in this manner. Fortunately for Klaatu, though, these particular natives were also not aware enough to realize he was indeed telling Bobby the truth. This could have led to their suspicions being aroused and subsequently place the alien in danger. I presume that Klaatu saw no real harm in telling Bobby how his spaceship functioned, as there may have been little the boy could do with such information or be believed if he did tell anyone else.
COMMENT: In a form of karma, it is my hope that the “gentlemen” who were bemused at and belittling of Klaatu’s on-the-spot lesson in spaceship dynamics would later discover via the news that the man they mocked in the crowd turned out to be the alien “monster” himself! Seeing their shocked reactions would be priceless. However, it would also hardly surprise me if they never learned just how close they were to Earth’s most distant visitor any more than they ever bothered to check up on spacecraft physics.
Meanwhile, a bespectacled reporter with a microphone is making his was along the periphery of the crowd, asking folks at random their thoughts and feelings on the alien visitor along with the giant robot and gleaming domed spaceship before them.
We catch the end of one brief interview he just had with a Mrs. Robinson, commenting “I’m sure we’ve all shared your fears during the past few days.” The reporter then spies Klaatu and Bobby.
“I see a gentleman here with his little boy,” declares the reporter, presuming they are father and son. “What do you think of the spaceship, son?”
“It’s the biggest spaceship I ever saw!” cries Bobby, in typical kid fashion, amusing the reporter. The microphone is then aimed at Klaatu.
“And you, sir, mind telling us your name?” inquires the reporter. Klaatu gives the human his cover name and is then asked to “say a few words,” with the reporter assuming Mr. Carpenter is “just as scared as the rest of us.”
“In a different way perhaps,” Klaatu beings. “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason. In fact, I would like…”
Realizing that he isn’t going to get the sound bite he was hoping for from Klaatu, the reporter suddenly cuts him off with a brief thank you and quickly moves on in search of a better prospect in the crowd.
As Klaatu and Bobby leave the crowd of gawkers, they find themselves assaulted by headlines about the Spaceman in the form a shouting newspaper boy selling papers:
“Extra! Extra! Spaceman eludes police! Army put in charge! Read all about it! Spaceman eludes police! Extra! Extra! Five new Spaceman suspects! Get your paper here! Army put in charge! Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”
“You think they’ll ever find him?” Bobby asks Klaatu about the Spaceman. The Spaceman replies that he has his doubts on that matter. Bobby then switches subjects.
“Mr. Carpenter, what does ‘inertia’ mean?”
“Inertia is the property of matter by which it remains in uniform motion, unless acted upon by external force,” answers Klaatu, apparently unable to parse it down for an 11-year-old boy to comprehend.
COMMENT 1: This Law of Inertia is more frequently called Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion. This and two other “laws” were written up by Newton (1643-1727) in one of the landmark works of Western physics, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (translation: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), first published in 1687 and written in what was then still the language of science, Latin. You can read an online edition of the Principia in English here: http://www.17centurymaths.com/contents/newtoncontents.html
COMMENT 2: Although this is one of the better-known articles of physics, it is obvious that someone looked it up to make sure it was accurately relayed in the film. So how come they could not do the same when it came to how far Klaatu had traveled across the galaxy in his spaceship, that infamous 250 million miles? I know encyclopedias existed in 1951, as did physicists and astronomers.
“Oh. I’ll bet that’s just the way Professor Barnhardt talks!” Bobby says to Klaatu, politely trying to get across to his new friend that the response went sailing over his head like a highly advanced spaceship.
Using this as a segue, Klaatu suggests to Bobby that they should pay a visit to the Professor to “find out how he talks.”
At first Bobby is surprised and thinks Klaatu is pulling his leg. After all, Professor Barnhardt is this reality’s equivalent of Albert Einstein (1979-1955) in terms of both personal intelligence and academic social status. When the boy realizes his adult friend is quite serious, he bets that Klaatu would actually be scared to meet such an important person as a way of deflecting his own fears about such a personal encounter.
“Maybe we can scare him more than he can scare us,” says Klaatu without elaboration.
“I like you, Mr. Carpenter. You’re a real screwball,” states Bobby gleefully.
Eventually our two characters arrive at the brick home of Professor Barnhardt. Bobby rings the doorbell, but no one seems to be there. Peering into his window paned office French doors, they and we see inside a large prominent blackboard with many rows of equations chalked across it.
COMMENT: The residence number attached to Professor Barnhardt’s home adjacent to those French doors happens to be 1609. This is also the year that the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) became one of the very first people to observe and record what he saw in the night sky through a telescope. His discoveries revolutionized astronomy and science in general. Coincidence? I think not (see below).
FYI: Always a very good self-promoter, in 1610 Galileo wrote and published a popular-level work on what he observed through his modest hand-made telescopes in a landmark treatise he titled Sidereus Nuncius (Sidereal or Starry Messenger). An English translation may be found and read here: http://www.f.waseda.jp/sidoli/Galileo_Sidereus_Nuncius.pdf
Klaatu looks carefully at the numbers and other mathematical symbols on the long upright slate and shakes his head with some bemusement.
“What’s that stuff on the blackboard mean?” asks Bobby.
“It’s a problem in celestial mechanics,” answers Klaatu.
“I’ll bet he’s the only one in the world that knows the answer.”
“He doesn’t know the answer,” Klaatu declares “and he’ll never get it that way.”
Bobby pulls at the twin door handles multiple times, but the office is obviously and wisely locked. Disappointed, Bobby starts to walk away, declaring that they “probably couldn’t get to see him even if he was home.”
Klaatu then places his hands on the door handles. Bobby turns around and sees that Klaatu has somehow been able to open the locked doors and begins to step inside the professor’s office.
“Hey, where are you going?!” exclaims a very surprised Bobby.
“If he’s that difficult to see, perhaps we ought to leave a calling card,” Klaatu replies calmly and proceeds directly to the blackboard. Picking up a piece of chalk in the blackboard tray, Klaatu checks off the parts of the equation he knows are correct. The alien then adds a line of figures to one particular part of this complex mathematics.
“Did he do it wrong?” inquires Bobby.
“He just needs a little help.”
COMMENT: The mathematics on the blackboard were not some random scribbles designed merely to look important and “cool”. The site, Mathematical Fiction, which examines math shown in various works of science fiction celluloid and literature, has this to say about the equations shown in TDTESS:
Contributed by Peter Armstrong
I can shed some light on this. The equations on the blackboard were developed and written by Prof. Samuel Herrick of UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles). He was hired by 20th Century for the then-sizeable sum of $75 per day to come up with something for the blackboard.
The book Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema tells quite a bit of Herrick’s involvement. The author writes:
“Herrick reasoned that an equation related to celestial mechanics would be most appropriate, specifically an equation related to his own work on the ‘three body problem’ in astronavigation. The equation itself was so complex that Herrick provided the director with a list of ‘confusable symbols’. Note in figure 4.4 the presence of signs saying ‘Don’t Erase’ and ‘Don’t Touch.’ Once Herrick left the set there was no one who could put it back together outside of a scientist (or a higher alien intelligence).”
This also brings up the question of whether mathematics would be a truly universal language for us to communicate with sophisticated ETI. Scientists have long assumed that an intelligent species which uses science and technology would have to know mathematics to create and sustain such a society in the first place: It only seems logical that one plus one equals two everywhere in the Universe.
In Contact, we witness the aliens getting humanity’s attention by transmitting the first one hundred primes – numbers divisible only by one and themselves – since no natural cosmic phenomenon is known to do this. Main character Ellie Arroway later explains to a visiting senator when he asks why the ETI didn’t just message us in English that over seventy percent of the human species speaks a different language as their main tongue. Arroway concludes their brief conversation by declaring that “mathematics is the only true universal language.”
Is this the case, though? Of course, we will not start gathering definitive answers to this question until we start encountering actual ETI. Nevertheless, the site Herts for Learning tackles this subject:
“To start with, mathematics does not have a clearly defined, universally accepted definition. However it is safe to say that anything that studies the interaction between quantities, variables, structure, and change, is mathematics. Mathematics is not a tangible thing, but actually an abstract concept. There are a great many ways of expressing mathematics; the one you are probably most familiar with is the base ten Arabic format that permeates science right now. The base, the symbols, the structure, and the methods used to express mathematics can all be radically different and yet, it is still mathematics. Other civilizations have made other ways of expressing mathematics, and if we ever run into alien intelligence, it is likely that they will use a different system than we do. But the system is not the thing.”
Of course, in TDTESS, Klaatu and his kind do learn to understand and speak our languages by monitoring our electromagnetic broadcast leakage from space. The visitor is also able to communicate some rather important things with the professor via the complex mathematics chalked on the human’s conveniently accessible blackboard. In film one must keep the plot moving along; we shall one day learn if this is the case in our reality.
We now return to the scene at Professor Barnhardt’s office already in progress…
At that moment a woman in a dark hat and wearing a tan coat and long skirt walks up the steps to Professor Barnhardt’s house. Noticing that his office doors have been swung inward, she heads in, where she finds Bobby and Klaatu, who is still busily scribbling on the board. Her shadow falls across the blackboard.
“What are you doing in here?” the woman demands to know. “How dare you write on that blackboard! Do you realize the professor’s been working on that problem for weeks?” The woman points at the board with her hand purse.
“He’ll solve it in no time now,” answers Klaatu, as if this is a good enough reason for being there.
The woman angrily asks how the two intruders got into this office and what they want. Klaatu replies that they came to see Professor Barnhardt.
“He’s not here, and he won’t be back till this evening. I think you’d better leave now,” the woman demands.
Seemingly unperturbed, Klaatu takes some note paper on the professor’s desk and writes upon it his false last name and the real address of the boarding house he is staying at. Klaatu hands the note to the woman.
“Would you give this to the professor? I think he’ll want to talk to me.”
Klaatu and Bobby exit the office without another word. The woman walks over to the blackboard. Picking up an eraser, she is just about to remove the equations Klaatu had added to Professor Barnhardt’s work when the alien suddenly pops back in through the windowed doors.
“I wouldn’t erase that,” Klaatu states to the woman. “The professor needs it very badly.”
Klaatu finally departs. Shocked at such audacious behavior, the woman immediately rushes to the professor’s desk and makes a telephone call.
COMMENT 1: The scenes quoted next come from the film draft script, but they did not make it to the final edit. I will discuss afterwards why I think this happened and why I transcribe them here.
Scene Description: And [Klaatu] disappears, leaving Hilda to glare after him in impotent rage. Deciding that this man is either a crackpot or a menace, she goes to the telephone on the desk and starts dialing a number.
EXT. BARNHARDT’S HOUSE – MED. SHOT
As Klaatu and Bobby come down the steps and turn into the sidewalk. They are talking and laughing together, but we can’t hear their conversation. CAMERA PANS with them as they move on up the sidewalk, revealing two kids playing hopscotch. Klaatu watches, fascinated, as he walks by. Then, having passed the kids, he tries the one-footed, then two-footed hop that characterizes the game.
INT. BARNHARDT’S STUDY
Hilda is talking on the phone.
“—no, Sergeant, there was no classified material around, but I have instructions to report anything unusual to the police… Yes – I’m Professor Barnhardt’s secretary.”
(consulting the paper in her hand)
“The man’s name is Carpenter – and he lives at 1615 St. Street, N.W… Yes, that’s right—” [the address we see Klaatu write on the paper in the film is actually 1412 Harvard St. N. W. (North West)].
COMMENT 2: This fellow in the following link did a detailed survey of the locations shown and mentioned in the film and where there were as of 2012, at least for the places which actually existed:
Among his many interesting bits of information, we find that “in the 1954 radio adaptation of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu finds Mrs. Crockett’s boarding house at 1615 M St. NW, which is considerably farther from Walter Reed but actually makes more sense on a symbolic level. 16th and M would be roughly midway between the White House and Professor Barnhardt’s house. This location is now the site of a mid-rise office development that incorporates older brick structures.”
I also learned from this site that the brownstone standing in for Professor Barnhardt’s residence is a real place as is the number we saw on the brick exterior: 1609 16th St. NW. This makes me wonder if the filmmakers chose this home specifically because of its street number and relevant symbolism (see above regarding my comment on Galileo).
COMMENT 3: These extra scenes may have been filmed but were then cut out due to pacing. This is unfortunate in one sense as we would have learned much sooner both the woman’s name and why she is in Professor Barnhardt’s office, although I am sure we might be able to guess her occupation based on the time period and her familiarity with the place and its owner.
We also find out that part of Hilda’s job description is to report “anything unusual” to the authorities. Once again, while I am sure most viewers could figure out who Hilda might have been calling after Klaatu and Bobby left the professor’s office and why, it would not have hurt to have this confirmed. Her comments also reconfirm just how important Professor Barnhardt and his work are to the nation and its security.
The scene with Klaatu playing hopscotch may have been removed (assuming it was filmed in the first place) perhaps because watching an adult male jumping around for a kid’s game was too “cutesy” and/or strange for 1951 audiences, even if he is supposed to be from another world entirely. The scene would have had the benefit of giving us another example of Klaatu’s growing understanding and admiration of humanity through the innocent actions of children, which I grant has long since become a trope of science fiction.
The scene fades to later in the evening just outside the boardinghouse. A dark sedan pulls up in front of it, disgorging a fellow in a dark suit who walks up to the dwelling.
Bobby answers the door. The gentleman bruskly asks the boy if Mr. Carpenter lives here. Bobby replies in the affirmative and lets the stranger right into their home without further ado.
Klaatu happens to be sitting in the living room as the stranger enters, as if he has been waiting for such an arrival. Once again, this fellow, who appears to have a limited sense of humor at best, asks Klaatu if his name is Carpenter. The alien replies in the affirmative, adding that he supposes Professor Barnhardt has been looking for him as well. The man simply answers that he has been looking for Mr. Carpenter all afternoon.
The scene suddenly switches back to the exterior of the boardinghouse, where we see yet another automobile – a convertible – pulling up to it. The occupants are Helen and Tom, who clearly had an enjoyable day by themselves on their picnic.
After an extended kiss, Helen thanks Tom for a wonderful day. Tom reminds her that she still hasn’t answered his question, which we quickly gather is a marriage proposal. Helen is reluctant to answer him right away and wants to “think it over.”
“The boss is leaving for Chicago tomorrow,” Tom throws in. “If I could tell him that I was getting married and had two dependents.”
Nothing like adding some pragmatic business reasons into what should be a romantic proposition, ay, Tom?
Helen counters that Tom is “a good salesman,” but she still wants to think about his offer.
“A good insurance salesman wouldn’t give you time to think about it,” Tom replies. Helen responds with one more kiss, then removes herself from her paramour’s vehicle and enters the boardinghouse.
As Helen walks in the door, she encounters her son, Klaatu, and the aforementioned stranger all moving together towards her in the process of leaving.
The four people engage in the usual brief opening pleasantries, with Bobby introducing the stranger as one Mr. Brady.
“Mr. Brady’s a government agent!” Bobby declares to his mother, in his usual way of being straightforward about both what he does know and what he thinks he knows. Helen’s facial expression belies her suspiciousness and concern over this news, but she deflects this by nonchalantly asking Bobby how his day was.
Bobby tells his mother they had a swell time, which Klaatu confirms.
“We went to the movies and had some ice cream cones. And then we went to see Daddy.”
COMMENT: In the draft script, Klaatu and Bobby’s adventures around the Capitol region were originally conducted in a different order from their final film version. Bobby’s brief recitation is a leftover from that series of events which the script writers obviously forgot to revise – unless Bobby simply was not overly concerned about conducting an accurate recitation of the proper chronological order of these events to his mother.
Klaatu leaves with Mr. Brady, promising Bobby he would finish a story he was telling the boy before both the government agent and his mother showed up. Helen informs her son that it is his bedtime.
As Helen and Bobby start walking upstairs towards their respective rooms, the boy asks why Mr. Carpenter had to go with that Mr. Brady. Helen simply answers that she doesn’t know, adding that “maybe it was a mistake.”
Bobby continues to share with his mother the excitement of his day with Mr. Carpenter, telling Helen that “we sure had fun today. We saw the spaceship, and we went to see Professor Barnhardt.”
Helen is quite surprised at this last admission and repeats the professor’s name to Bobby as a question, to which her son confirms. Bobby then quickly switches gears and asks his mother if he has to go to school tomorrow. Helen confirms that he does, and Bobby expresses his disappointment, as he would rather keep hanging out with his new friend, Mr. Carpenter.
COMMENT 1: Yet the date on the dry cleaning tag attached to Klaatu’s “borrowed” suit jacket said mid-July, a month when most children are on summer vacation from school. However, early on a newscaster commented on “the beautiful spring weather” in D.C. Who to believe?
COMMENT 2: The next segments of the story were filmed but ultimately edited out by Director Robert Wise (1914-2005). They showed Klaatu being taken to a police station by Mr. Brady to join a varied group of men who were suspected of being the escaped alien. Lacking any form of identification, Klaatu is almost sent to a place called G-2 where the Army doctors he met at Walter Reed Hospital were assigned to identify the alien, since they knew what Klaatu really looked like. Only Professor Barnhardt’s clout, plus his very strong desire and request to see Klaatu, saves our visitor from being revealed and imprisoned by the authorities.
Wise said he removed these scenes as they slowed the film’s pace. The director also felt the audience wanted to see Klaatu’s meeting with Barnhardt sooner rather than later. While all this may be true, I think these scenes might have added some story tension, as there was the real possibility of Klaatu being captured and likely having his mission curtailed.
Klaatu also got to see some further examples of humanity – in this case vagrants and criminals – including the results of one case of mob mentality: A prowler who was nearly beaten to death when he was mistaken for the alien while casing a joint through a window. Klaatu expresses surprise at how this man was treated by his supposed fellow human beings, in yet another example of how much Klaatu does not fully comprehend human behavior.
Back in the final film, we see Klaatu being escorted to Professor Barnhart’s residence by a Military Police Captain, who took over from Detective Brady back at the police station on General Cutler’s orders. Hilda lets the two men in and informs them that the Professor is in his study.
Klaatu and the Captain find Barnhardt busily focused on a corner of his blackboard, scribbling away at the large equation written upon it which started this part of our saga.
The Captain introduces Klaatu as “the man you wanted to see, Professor.” Barnhardt thanks the officer, who announces he will wait outside in the hall until the professor either confirms or denounces the stranger.
“You wrote this?” ask the professor, gesturing at the chalk-covered black slate while staring intently at Klaatu.
“It was a clumsy way to introduce myself,” Klaatu explains “but I understand you’re a difficult man to see. I thought you’d have the solution by this time.”
“Not yet. That’s why I wanted to see you,” replies Barnhardt with a definite sense of eagerness about his guest.
“All you have to do now is to substitute this expression at this point.”
“Yes, that will reproduce the first altered term,” agrees Barnhardt. “But what about the effect of the other terms?”
“Almost negligible,” answers Klaatu. “With variation of parameters, this is the answer.”
“How can you be so sure?” inquires Barnhardt. “Have you tested this theory?”
Klaatu’s face is barely holding in his delight as the human has given him the opening to drop his big reveal to the Professor.
“I find it works well enough to get me from one planet to another.”
Professor Barnhardt stares wide eyed at Klaatu as he realizes exactly who and what he is.
Image: Professor Barnhardt realizes the man who corrected his arithmetic homework is no ordinary math genius.
“I am Klaatu,” the alien begins. “I spent two days at your Walter Reed Hospital. Room 309. My doctor’s name was Major White. And if you’re not interested, or if you intend to turn me over to your army… we needn’t waste any more time.”
COMMENT: The number of the room Klaatu was confined to at the hospital was shown as 306, not 309. Perhaps Klaatu confused these two similar-looking digits, as his people undoubtedly did not use Arabic notation to express their numbers. Or, more likely, someone forgot to revise the film script. Or simply did not pay close enough attention to what room number was written there.
Another item in the script that did not make it into the final film in this scene just after Klaatu mentioned his doctor, Major White, was this: “…and I had a very attractive nurse called Ruth, who’s getting married next Wednesday.”
Interesting that Klaatu found a human woman attractive, although considering how similar he and undoubtedly his species look like us, perhaps not too surprising. Klaatu then reveals that he is familiar with the concept of marriage. That his society also has cemeteries and currency makes me wonder just how “alien” his species really is compared to humanity, advanced spaceships and robots aside – and why he would then seem so perplexed and frustrated with the primitive behaviors of the natives on Sol 3.
Professor Barnhardt walks over to the door of his study and opens it just a bit. The Captain, still waiting in the hall, peers back at him.
“You may go now, Captain,” Barnhardt requests. “Please thank General Cutler and tell him… tell him that I know this gentleman.” The Captain nods and the Professor quickly shuts his door.
Klaatu is clearly relieved and pleased.
“You have faith, Professor Barnhardt,” compliments the alien.
“It isn’t faith that makes good science, Mr. Klaatu. It’s curiosity,” replies the Professor, rather boldly if accurately for an American film from 1951.
“Sit down, please,” offers Barnhardt as he walks around to the chair at his desk. “There are several thousand questions I’d like to ask you.”
“I would like to explain something of my mission here,” says Klaatu.
“That was my first question.”
COMMENT: At this plot point, the dialogue in the film has some key differences with what is found in the script drift. In particular, comments made by Klaatu that might have answered some questions about his motives and his civilization were removed, for reasons that feel hard to truly appreciate. I am including them here now due to their importance and commenting on them where necessary.
KLAATU (with some bitterness): “It was my intention to discuss this officially – with all the nations of the Earth – but I was not allowed the opportunity. I have come to realize since that your mutual fears and suspicions are merely the normal reactions of a primitive society.” (gathering his thoughts)
So now we finally know why Klaatu seems so surprised at humanity’s reactions to him. However, that he would be flabbergasted by our behavior to begin with begs the question why his kind would send a representative who is apparently no expert anthropologist. We get that his society is far superior to humanity, with no wars and so forth, but are they really so aloof that they could not comprehend us even on an academic level? One would think these ETI might send someone who is a better diplomat and more knowledgeable on less sophisticated cultures – unless the point here is that Earth and its inhabitants are just another lower place and species that need to be dealt with in a standard fashion and they feel no need to be so specialized. Klaatu would then be just a glorified messenger and Gort is his brute enforcer, or muscle. In that case, we can add bureaucracy to their list of traits similar to humanity’s.
This reminds me in some respects of the encounter with the ETI in Carl Sagan’s Contact, his 1985 novel version in particular. For humanity, our discovery by and contact with an alien intelligence profoundly affects our society. For the ETI, it is essentially just another mission to deal with a new species to prepare them for membership in the wider civilization that spans multiple galaxies. In fact, these ETI have incorporated a division for handling young societies just becoming aware of the wider Cosmos, while the majority of these multicultural alien species are engaged in many other activities. Is the cultural setup with Klaatu’s civilization arranged in a similar fashion?
KLAATU: “We know from scientific observation that you have discovered a rudimentary kind of atomic energy. We also know that you are experimenting with rockets.”
BARNHARDT: “Yes – that is true.”
COMMENT: In addition to nuclear weapons, which had first been developed and used to bring about the end of the Second World War in 1945, the first nuclear reactor began generating electricity in 1948. A second larger version went online in late 1951. By the end of the decade, nuclear power stations were starting to deliver electricity to communities on a regular basis. Nuclear reactors were successfully first installed in military submarines in the 1950s and would later be used to power aircraft carriers by the start of the next decade.
As for rockets, by 1951 V-2 rockets captured from Nazi Germany were regularly being utilized by both the USA and USSR for upper atmosphere research as well as helping them design, build, and test their next generations of rockets. A good number had already reached outer space, although none were yet quite powerful enough to place a satellite into Earth orbit: One V-2 flight in 1949 sent a smaller WAC Corporal rocket placed atop it to a record altitude of 244 miles before our planet’s gravitational well pulled it back home. Attaining altitude is one thing, getting a vehicle to continually circle our planet is another.
Naturally their militaries were heavily involved in turning certain rockets into missiles that could carry nuclear weapons. At the time, large aircraft called bombers carried whole nuclear arsenals that could reach their targets in enemy territories within a few hours. The much faster missile could deliver nuclear payloads anywhere on Earth in a matter of minutes, a definite strategic advantage. The first of what became known as ICBMs, or Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, were in place and ready to be used shortly after the official Space Age began in 1957.
KLAATU: “In the hands of a mature civilization, these would not be considered weapons of aggression. But in the hands of your people – (he shrugs and shakes his head). We’ve observed your aggressive tendencies, and we don’t trust you with such power.”
BARNHARDT (puzzled): “If you mean that you are afraid of us –“
KLAATU (with cool impressive emphasis): “We want to be sure you don’t make – let us say – an unfortunate mistake. We know the potentiality of these developments and we are disturbed to find them in the hands of children…”
COMMENT: Here’s the thing: Everyone has to start somewhere, right? And as we have seen throughout our species history, technology often springs up before our wisdom. It may be easy for an outsider to say don’t develop or progress anything until your conscience matches your technical knowledge. However, on a world where multiple dangers in multiple forms are constant, one often needs to protect oneself first if they ever want to live long enough to become wise.
Is this the case with intelligent beings throughout the Universe? Or is it unique to Earth life? In the realm of TDTESS at least, there is one answer, as Klaatu further explains in a dialogue that did not make the final cut, but should have…
KLAATU: “You see, we’ve had atomic energy for five thousand of your years. (indicating the telephone) We discarded instruments like this many centuries ago. (he paces thoughtfully) So long as you were limited to fighting among yourselves – with your primitive tanks and planes – we were unconcerned. But soon you will apply atomic energy to spaceships – and then you become a threat to the peace and security of other planets. That, of course, we cannot tolerate.”
BARNHARDT (thoughtful and impressed): “These other planets – do they have peace and security?”
KLAATU: “We had our atomic wars – thousands of years ago. (he smiles wryly) After that we fought with bows and arrows. Then, slowly, we learned that fighting is no solution – that aggression leads to chaos.”
BARNHARDT (with deep conviction): “We scientists understand this. Even we primitive scientists. (Straightforwardly) What exactly is the nature of your mission, Mr. Klaatu?”
COMMENT: So, had the previous dialogue been left in the film, audiences would have learned that Klaatu’s society had atomic energy for the last five thousand Earth years. At some point they actually went where humanity still has not, thankfully: A full-scale atomic war. They did manage to survive and recover well enough eventually to surpass humanity both culturally and technologically at some point well before Klaatu’s arrival on Earth. Obviously that era of “bows and arrows” was sufficiently long enough in the past that Klaatu could not directly relate to less sophisticated societies, at least until he began to interact with the natives of Sol 3.
We also learn Klaatu’s people were “unconcerned” (his words) if humanity wanted to cause death and destruction amongst themselves “with your primitive tanks and planes.” This strikes me as rather callous. If this is the case, then it can be legitimately questioned just how sophisticated and empathetic Klaatu’s society is towards others, assuming we can properly judge a supposedly alien mind and culture.
One might throw in as a counter argument that these ETI have some equivalent of the Prime Directive as utilized in the Star Trek franchise, where the United Federation of Planets (UFP) neither contacts nor interferes with alien societies they encounter if they are below a certain technological threshold. In their particular case, it is whether the society has developed the faster-than-light (FTL) method of interstellar travel called warp drive. This ability also implies, at least in theory, that the culture which can move among the stars is also of a certain level of understanding and behavior that falls into line with the Federation.
Of course, this is not always the situation in their reality as much as ours, for plenty of species in Star Trek which are otherwise considered technologically and intellectually sophisticated still manage to retain their warlike ways. Even highly advanced cultures such as the Borg, who see themselves as benevolent “uplifters” of lesser species while adding their “biological and technological distinctiveness” to their own, assimilate other societies throughout the Milky Way galaxy (and sometimes beyond) in a direct and brutal fashion, which the recipients cannot help but view as a genocidal assault on their civilizations.
Klaatu’s society has a kind of reverse Prime Directive: You don’t get to join their galactic country club until you are smart enough to become a potential threat. Then they drop in to lay down the law of their land – but more on this later.
Carl Sagan had his own take on developing societies in a galactic setting: Malevolent civilizations tend to destroy themselves before they can achieve serious interstellar travel. There is a point to his idea, but it does not fully account for the possibility of species that may be different from humanity due to how and where they evolved. Even humanity has shown in its history that the most advanced societies are not necessarily the most peaceful: If anything, they use their technology to defeat and eliminate others while justifying their actions with everything from self-preservation to they are only trying to enlighten and uplift their counterparts so that they might enjoy their way of life.
Now back to our dialogue between Klaatu and Professor Barnhardt as it appeared in the film, unless otherwise noted…
KLAATU: “I came here to warn you that, by threatening danger, your planet faces danger – very grave danger. I am prepared, however, to offer a solution.”
BARNHARDT: “Would you care to be more specific?”
KLAATU (evenly): “What I have to say must be said to all concerned. (with a suggestion of deference to Barnhardt) It is too important to be entrusted to any individual.”
BARNHARDT: “I gather that your efforts on the official level were not entirely successful.”
KLAATU (sternly, as this unpleasant episode is recalled): I come to you as a last resort – and I confess that my patience is wearing thin. (with Jovian annoyance) “Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing?”
BARNHARDT (uneasily): “What – what sort of action do you mean?”
KLAATU: “Violent action – since that seems to be the only thing you people understand. (quietly) Leveling the island of Manhattan, perhaps — or dropping the Rock of Gibraltar into the sea.”
COMMENT: First Klaatu refers to humanity as “you people” – ouch. Never a good sign. Then, in the actual film, he threatens to level all of New York City, not just one borough. As for the Rock of Gibraltar, Klaatu merely “offered” to sink the really big stone as yet another potential way to get his point across to “those” people.
Klaatu likely picked the Rock of Gibraltar as a target for it has long been perceived as a global symbol of strength and stability. The insurance company Prudential Financial, Inc., is famous for using the Rock as its chief symbol for the same reasons. Destroying this monolithic land mass might unsettle the humans and make them realize who and what they are up against.
For what this is worth, the Rock was also seen by the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans as one of two landmarks known as the Pillars of Hercules denoting the end of the known world, so far as these Mediterranean cultures were concerned. Certainly, the human race in this reality of the mid-Twentieth Century is entering their own version of the unknown, and on a scale far vaster than the Atlantic Ocean.
Barnhardt stands staring at him for a moment, passes his hand across his brow. Then, as Klaatu watches, Barnhardt paces the floor, trying to digest what he has heard. After a moment, he turns to Klaatu.
BARNHARDT: “Would you be willing to meet with the group of scientists I am calling together? Perhaps you could explain your mission to them, and they in turn could present it to their various peoples.”
COMMENT: As you may recall from earlier, we and Klaatu learned from a newspaper headline that Professor Barnhardt was already gathering a meeting of fellow scientists to study and discuss the alien spaceship sitting between those baseball fields in the Ellipse.
KLAATU (quietly, evenly): “That’s what I came to see you about.”
Barnhardt flings him a glance, then looks momentarily sheepish. But his own eagerness carries him on. He paces the floor thoughtfully.
BARNHARDT: “It is not enough to have men of science. We scientists are too easily ignored – or misunderstood. We must get important men from every field. Educators – philosophers – church leaders – men of vision and imagination – the finest minds in the world.”
COMMENT: Oh, Professor Barnhardt, how I would love to tell you that the situation you describe with the scientists of your day has changed for the better over seventy years later, but at the moment we seem to be in a definite lull when it comes to science and its practitioners in certain places, despite all the improvements and new knowledge in the seventy-plus years since you uttered those words to Klaatu. Or perhaps we just notice this more due to the proliferation of social media that is far more widespread than it was in 1951.
In addition, the Professor’s listing of some of the types of “finest minds in the world” he desired to attend his meeting was cut out, but thankfully the editors left in the need for “leaders from every field,” not just a few disciplines.
KLAATU: “I leave that in your hands.”
COMMENT: This next bit of dialogue, which did not make it into the film, has the two men discussing the personal safety of Klaatu before the proposed meeting.
BARNHARDT: “You’d have no objection to revealing yourself at this meeting?”
KLAATU: “No – not at all.”
BARNHARDT: “What about your personal safety in the meantime? What about the Army – and the police?”
KLAATU: “My name is Carpenter and I’m a very earthy character living in a respectable boarding house.”
BARNHARDT (smiling, but a little concerned) “I’m afraid I can’t offer you any real protection. I have no influence in cases of inter-planetary conspiracy.” [Interstellar conspiracy, Professor – interstellar.]
KLAATU: “I’m sure I’ll be quite safe until the meeting.”
BARNHARDT (he suddenly pauses, thoughtfully): “One thing, Mr. Klaatu. Suppose this group should reject your proposals. What is the alternative?”
KLAATU (with a sense of quiet, inescapable power) “I’m afraid you have no alternative. In such a case, the planet Earth would have to be – (he looks for the right word) – eliminated.”
COMMENT: The whole planet, Klaatu? Even all the innocent animals and plants and the physical globe itself? Not just the humans you and your bunch are so worried about? If so, talk about literal overkill. What purpose would that serve to destroy Earth and everything on it – other than to really bring home with a sledgehammer a “message” to the rest of the galaxy about who is in charge. Even in the subpar 2008 remake, that Klaatu and his kind were at least making efforts to preserve some of the terrestrial flora and fauna.
The implications of this statement leave Barnhardt speechless, his keen mind reeling.
BARNHARDT: “Such power exists?”
KLAATU: “I assure you such power exists.”
Barnhardt stands silent for a moment, trying to collect his shattered thoughts. Klaatu watches him as he starts pacing again.
BARNHARDT: “The people who came to the meeting must be made to realize this. They must understand what is at stake. (after a thoughtful moment, he looks up) You mentioned a demonstration of force —”
BARNHARDT: “Would such a demonstration be possible before the meeting?”
KLAATU: “Yes – of course.”
BARNHARDT: “Something that would dramatize for them and for their people the seriousness of the situation. Something that would affect the entire planet.”
KLAATU (with a nod): “That can easily be arranged.”
BARNHARDT (frightened by his easy assumption of infinite power) “I wouldn’t want you to harm anybody – or destroy anything.”
KLAATU: (easily) “Why don’t you leave it to me? I’ll think of something.”
BARNHARDT (with a nervous half smile): “Maybe a little demonstration.”
KLAATU (thinking about it) “Something dramatic – but not destructive. (intellectually amused) It’s quite an interesting problem. (Barnhardt nods vaguely) Would the day after tomorrow be all right? Say about noon?”
FINAL SCENE DESCRIPTION: Klaatu’s bland manner leaves Barnhardt shaken, almost wishing he’d never started this business.
We leave Professor Barnhardt’s office, with both the scientist and the audience wondering with intense curiosity and not a little bit of trepidation as to what Klaatu might “demonstrate” to humanity to show that he and his people mean business.
The Grass Was Kind of Wet
Later, back at Mrs. Crockett’s boarding house, we find the residents engaged in the card game called gin rummy. The radio is droning on again in the background; the announcer is of course talking about the latest developments, such as they are, with the “Spaceman”. Of note from the broadcast is that the “…police and the F.B.I. are tracing every possible clue and rounding up all possible suspects.”
Meanwhile, Klaatu is watching this human game with interest. Noticing Klaatu observing them playing cards, one of the players asks the alien if he would like to “take a hand”. Klaatu almost says something to the effect that his kind don’t go in for this sort of entertainment, but then quickly stops himself and just politely declines the invitation.
Nearby, Mrs. Crockett notices Helen getting ready to go out. Bobby’s mother confirms Mrs. Crockett’s inquiry that insurance salesman Tom Stevens is indeed coming to pick her up for another date.
“Well, personally, I wouldn’t go out after dark these days,” informs Mrs. Crocket, “but, uh, then I’m not courting, am I?”
Mrs. Crocket begins to walk off and almost bumps into Mr. Carpenter. Startled and seemingly nervous around this handsome and mysterious gentleman, the older woman can’t even get out a proper standard apology before quickly walking off to attend to some other business.
Klaatu walks over to Helen.
“Everyone seems so…” Klaatu begins saying to her. Unable to find the right word in English to complete his sentence, the alien makes a wavering gesture with one of his very human-looking hands.
“’Jittery’ is the word,” Helen answers.
“Bobby’s the only person I know who isn’t… jittery,” notes Klaatu.
“Well, he has his homework to keep him occupied,” Helen responds.
COMMENT: I know Bobby’s character is designed to be what his contemporary society expected a “good” white American boy to be like. If so, that also means Bobby may be dutifully doing his homework to please his mother and teachers at school, but Helen is kidding herself if she thinks that such a typical, almost every day chore is foremost on Bobby’s mind and therefore keeping him in line. Not with an actual alien roaming somewhere outside and a cool new friend (and growing father figure) living with him and his mother.
Klaatu compliments Helen on what a “fine boy” Bobby is, to which Helen naturally agrees. Klaatu adds that he considers her son to be “warm, friendly, intelligent.” The woman then takes this part of their conversation as an opening to satisfy her curiosity to ask why that Mr. Bradley showed up at their boardinghouse last night looking for Klaatu.
“Oh, they just wanted to ask me a few questions,” Klaatu replies, not lying to Helen, yet not revealing anything in detail. “Bobby and I tried to see Professor Barnhardt in the afternoon, and he wasn’t in. Apparently, they thought I was looking for secrets of some kind.”
The two are interrupted with the arrival of her beau Tom Stevens. Helen quickly rushes to the front door to let him in. Tom immediately queries Helen if she’s ready. Replying she will be so in a minute, Tom reminds her with an air of concern in his voice that “the picture starts at 8:50.”
Helen explains that she was “just talking to Mr. Carpenter.” Tom retorts that he hopes “Mr. Carpenter won’t think I’m intruding.” Realizing that Klaatu is approaching them, Helen shushes Tom.
“Good evening,” says Klaatu. “Excuse me. I was just going up to my room.” The alien wishes the couple to have a good time on their latest date as he heads up the stairs.
As Klaatu moves out of sight and hearing range to his room, Helen admonishes Tom for his behavior and the probability that Klaatu heard what he said.
“I’m sorry,” replies Tom, not really sorry at all. “I guess I’m tired of hearing about Mr. Carpenter.”
“I don’t like the way he’s attached himself to you and Bobby. After all, what do you know about him?”
COMMENT: But, Tom, you had no problem whatsoever when you agreed to dump off little Bobby with Klaatu when you wanted to take just Helen on a picnic and had even less of a clue about the man then. Granted, you didn’t see Mr. Carpenter as quite the threat to your securing two dependents then as you obviously do now.
Frustrated, Helen excuses herself to go get her “things” from her room. Tom stares after her with his own frustrations, with the added gesture of looking at his watch to see if they will make it to their movie on time.
Helen briskly enters her room and grabs a few items off her bed, then turning off the lights and closing her door. She walks into Bobby’s room to wish him good night before heading out; Helen discovers that Mr. Carpenter has interrupted his journey to help Bobby with some of his math homework and is just about finished with his tutoring.
Klaatu is getting ready to leave for his own room when Helen tries to make an apology for Tom’s attitude towards Klaatu but finds she cannot bring herself to say the words. They merely exchange more good night pleasantries and Klaatu heads off to his room.
Helen tells Bobby it is time for bed and gives him permission to finish his homework in the morning. As Bobby starts doing what he is told, Helen decides to add something to their conversation.
“Bobby. I think it would be better… if we didn’t see quite so much of Mr. Carpenter.”
“Gee, why, Mom?” Bobby asks her in earnest. “He’s my best friend. And he’s awful good in arithmetic. He even helps Professor Barnhardt.”
“Did you and Mr. Carpenter really go see Professor Barnhardt?” asks Helen, still a bit surprised that her own son and his new buddy actually went to visit the smartest known human being on their Earth.
“Sure we did,” Bobby confirms. “He wasn’t there, but we went to see him. Mr. Carpenter showed him how to do his arithmetic.” Pausing for a moment in reflection, Bobby asks his mother if she thinks there is “something wrong with Mr. Carpenter” on account of his being briefly taken away by the authorities.
“You think he’s a bank robber or a gangster maybe?” Bobby suggests, now feeling a bit concerned.
“No, dear, of course not,” Helen answers to reassure her son. “He’s a very nice man. I just think that he might prefer to be left alone, that’s all. Now, you go to bed and forget about it.” Helen kisses her son on his cheek and grabs her purse in anticipation of leaving for her date.
Still not quite grasping the potential depth of the situation, Bobby asks his mother why Mr. Carpenter “would he want to be left alone?” Helen deftly deflects his question by reminding Bobby to brush his teeth as part of his usual nighttime ritual. The boy receives several affectionate touches on his nose by Helen before she exits Bobby’s room and closes his door on her way out.
Bobby looks at the door thoughtfully for a moment, then moves off his bed and begins to kneel by its side. However, instead of saying his nighttime prayers as one is being led to suspect, Bobby kneels so he can reach under his bed and pull out his electric train set, which resides on a large flat base not too much smaller than the dimensions of his bed.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the boy switches on the power and watches his mechanical toy start moving around the oval metal track with a metallic clacking sound. The little engine toots its version of a typical train proximity warning to no one in particular.
As Bobby plays with his train set, Klaatu stops by his room again.
“Bobby, have you a flashlight?” asks the alien.
The young man dutifully gets up from the floor and goes to the top drawer of his bureau, where he produces an angled flashlight, which Bobby proudly declares to Klaatu is “a real Boy Scout one.”
Klaatu studies this sample of “primitive” technology alien to him. Sensing that his friend might not understand how it works, Bobby shows Klaatu how to turn the light on and off with its push button.
“What do you need it for?” inquires Bobby about his flashlight.
Klaatu hesitates for only the briefest moment, then tells Bobby that the lights in his room “went out.” Bobby accepts his friend’s story as is.
Looking down at Bobby’s electronic toy, Klaatu declares that he must tell him
“sometime about another kind of train… the kind that doesn’t need any tracks.”
COMMENT: The visitor is probably referring to some type of magnetic levitation, or maglev, train technology. On Earth, variations on this concept go back to the very early years of the Twentieth Century. Actual use of maglev trains began in the latter decades of that same century, although they have yet to replace the tradition types with wheels upon tracks.
Bobby is fascinated at the concept, which Klaatu promises to tell him about in detail in the morning. Bobby eagerly accepts the offer. Klaatu leaves the boy’s room and closes his door. Still dwelling on what Klaatu said, he restudies his train set by tipping up the engine to stare at its underside and says out loud in amazement “No tracks?”
His interest and curiosity peaked and unable to wait until morning, Bobby goes to talk some more with Klaatu about what the man just told him. However, the boy halts in his tracks as he enters the hallway when he sees light coming from Klaatu’s room – lights which his new best friend said weren’t working.
Suspicious, Bobby slips back into his room and starts to close his door, just enough so he can watch Klaatu leave through the narrow opening, until the boy notices the man is heading in his direction. Bobby gently closes his door the rest of the way so as not to be noticed.
Klaatu glances around at the doors of the other rooms, then heads down the stairs to the front door of the boardinghouse, which he also exits through. Klaatu moves down the front steps and heads off up the sidewalk with purpose.
Moments later, Bobby follows Klaatu not far behind up the fairly darkened street, being careful not to let Mr. Carpenter spot him. The boy is both anxious and excited contemplating what Klaatu may be up to, his imagination no doubt going wild with ideas, yet somehow remaining in the terrestrial sphere of possibilities.
We soon discover Klaatu’s destination: The spaceship on the Ellipse. By now the military had erected a tall barrier wall around the alien vessel. This was undoubtedly done to keep the crowds away from the ship and its silent metal guardian still standing outside it, though it is rather surprising there aren’t at least a few groups of determined onlookers camped out nearby regardless, unless everyone was so law-abiding in 1951.
COMMENT: In the TDTESS draft script, the military had assembled an actual structure around both the ship and Gort adorned with warning signs, described as either “a large Quonset hut or B-29 [Superfortress bomber] hanger.” It was probably easier to show scenes with a widely spaced wall instead rather than hide away two of the premiere artificial items of the film.
Klaatu uses a nearby tree as cover to assess the situation. We and he discover that at a large gap in the wall serving as the main opening, there are two armed military guards on duty watching the alien site.
Yes, two. Just two.
COMMENT: Maybe the authorities felt they had done enough to keep the general public at bay, combined with the display of prowess Gort had put on earlier to get the warning across. Maybe they privately realized that, if Gort decided to go on a rampage, their tanks and guns would be useless, so what good would a platoon of soldiers do against a big alien robot with a powerful ray beam for a weapon. Therefore, they decided to have in place just enough security on watch to scare away any potential terrestrial troublemakers and to alert the rest of the military if anything unusual happens. These are my justification thoughts on why so few security personnel are at the spaceship.
Bobby soon arrives and sees Klaatu straight ahead of him surreptitiously watching the ship. A jeep pulls up to the two soldiers at the makeshift entrance and a brief if unheard conversation takes place before the same vehicle drives off again.
Studying the wall, Klaatu notices a few places on it have small rectangular windows covered in mesh screens. Avoiding the guards, the alien picks one of these rough openings away from the entrance. By now Bobby has moved in closer and is also using the tree as a visibility shield.
Looking through the screen, Klaatu sees Gort across the baseball field, facing away from his direction. Further off the guards are pacing back and forth.
Using the Boy Scout flashlight given to him by Bobby, Klaatu flashes its light on the opposite wall, creating what is known as a hotspot, a center circle of intensely bright output made by such a light beam.
COMMENT: Want to know more about the properties of a flashlight beam? While writing this segment describing how Klaatu communicated with Gort using Bobby’s genuine Boy Scout flashlight, I wanted to get the descriptive terms correct, so I turned to Google for assistance and I came across the page linked below. If nothing else, it is amazing and wondrous how so many things have actual labels to go with their properties and functions.
Gort detects this silent optical signal and begins to quietly turn towards Klaatu. Soon facing his alien companion, Klaatu shines a coded message directly onto Gort’s faceplate. In response, the robot aims his body in the direction of the two guards.
Klaatu walks off further behind the wall as we see Bobby watch what happens next: Gort moves silently towards the two soldiers, who are conveniently no longer pacing the grounds and are instead turned away from the spaceship to converse with each other. Bobby’s facial expression changes from surprise to that of shock when he (but not we) witnesses what happens next: Gort knocks the two unsuspecting men unconscious, their bodies sprawled on the grass.
COMMENT: In the draft script, an unused scene would have had Gort reach out with his arms from the entrance of the temporary structure to “grab the two guards and drag them back inside the building.” Here too Gort would have rendered the soldiers unconscious.
Klaatu emerges at the wall entrance and walks towards the spaceship and its own guardian.
“Gort! Berenga!” Klaatu orders to the robot in his native tongue. The ship splits open from the top of its silvery dome to its base while the ramp on the lower half of the disc extends forward, just as it did when Klaatu first emerged from the vessel the other day. Klaatu marches inside the spaceship while Gort resumes his guard position just outside the ship hull. The vessel seals itself up seamlessly.
We turn back to Bobby, who is clearly frightened by what he has just observed. The boy decides to quickly leave the scene for home, stumbling a bit in the slippery wet grass along the way before regaining his balance.
Returning the audience focus to Klaatu, we receive our first look at the interior of the alien craft, where one gets the definite impression that Klaatu’s society is fond of their equivalent of art deco when it comes to designs.
Klaatu moves swiftly through a curved hallway with a gridded floor lit from below before standing in front of one section of the cylindrical core of the ship. The section moves aside to allow Klaatu into what must be the vessel’s command center.
Once inside, Klaatu waves his hands at various strange instruments which light up in response. Presently the alien finds himself standing in front of a large circular screen, which has its own grid pattern and flickering lights. Klaatu begins to speak at the screen in his native language.
Image: Inside the spaceship, Klaatu converses with his bosses back home via some fancy alien technology with a definite art deco flair.
We are not told what Klaatu is saying, but it can be guessed the alien is asking his superiors back at their home base for permission and perhaps even assistance in coming up with the “little demonstration” that will get humanity to pay attention and heed what Klaatu has come all the way to their little corner of the galaxy to proclaim.
COMMENT: I am guessing that Klaatu’s superiors are residing in another nearby star system and not in some base ship or other form of headquarters hidden in our Sol system, despite his earlier infamous “250 million miles” comment. If so, unless Klaatu was actually talking to his ship’s presumed AI system to set up the demonstration (for which there is no evidence), then his civilization has the means to communicate at superlight speeds for everything to happen so quickly. Perhaps they tap into some kind of “subspace” network as is done in Star Trek to really cut down on interstellar communications times (do they know how to utilize cosmic wormholes to transmit from one star to another? If so, shall we presume they cannot send starships through these same “shortcuts” in space?). None of this is ever explained, so we can only guess it is yet another form of advanced alien technology, like the propulsion method of the spaceship itself.
We may also assume that unless Klaatu’s people can manipulate things on Earth from far across the galaxy, an unsettling prospect in itself, that Klaatu’s single ship is equipped with the means to put on a global-scale show for humanity. As we have seen and will continue to see, these kinds of details are not the major focus or concern of the filmmakers, only the results and the messages throughout.
We now return to our story, back at the boarding house…
Helen and Tom return home from their late evening movie date. Helen is quite surprised to find her son greeting her at the door rather than asleep in his bed, as she expected him to be.
“Bobby, what are you doing up at this hour?” exclaims Helen.
“I couldn’t sleep, Mom. I had to tell you,” Bobby starts to explain. Helen asks her son what it is he wants to tell her so urgently.
“Well, after you left, I followed Mr. Carpenter, and where do you think he went? Right into the spaceship!”
Helen is incredulous at Bobby’s claim.
“Now, Bobby, wait a minute…”
“Honest, Mom. I saw him,” protests Bobby. “It opened up, and he walked right in. And that big iron fella was walking around too.”
Helen insists that Bobby has “been dreaming again,” to which her offspring vehemently denies and insists he is being truthful.
Much more curious than dismissive, Tom asks Bobby where he saw what he said he saw.
“On the lawn,” answers the boy. “Down at the Mall, in that place with the soldiers out in front.”
COMMENT: Yet again the Ellipse is mislabeled as the Mall in this film, but I guess we can chalk it up to Bobby being a combination of overly excited, frightened, and likely tired.
“Where were the soldiers all this time?”
“That big iron guy grabbed ’em and knocked ’em out.”
Turning to Helen, Bobby says “I like Mr. Carpenter, Mom. I’m kind of scared.” The boy instinctively moves into the reassuring comfort of his mother’s arms.
“Now, don’t be frightened, darling,” Helen says, looking down affectionately at Bobby. “It was only a bad dream. We’ll prove it to you.”
Helen turns to her beau and asks him to find Mr. Carpenter, whom she presumes is up in his room which is next to hers, to come down and clear up this whole matter.
As Tom heads upstairs as he was asked, Helen focuses her attention on Bobby.
“Now, think back hard,” she begins. “You didn’t follow Mr. Carpenter at all, did you? You haven’t even been out of the house.”
Bobby immediately protests: “Yes, I have!”
“Now, you didn’t really see a spaceship, but you thought you did,” Helen insists.
Understandably indignant and hurt, Bobby bluntly tells his mother he would never call her a liar. Helen is taken back a bit by her son’s reaction to her words, along with just how serious her son is being about this matter.
Upstairs, Tom knocks on the door to Klaatu’s room. Receiving no answer, Tom carefully opens the door and turns on the lights. He looks around briefly to confirm that Mr. Carpenter is not there and begins to leave when something on the floor catches his attention.
Tom kneels in front of a tall bureau and picks up a small object, which the camera zooms in to show it is one of the multifaceted diamonds Klaatu uses for currency. Tom continues to examine it with intense curiosity as he leaves Klaatu’s room and heads back downstairs.
COMMENT: Klaatu unintentionally drops and loses an item he considers to be of great value and is left unaware of its absence. A small bit of evidence that while he and his kind may be more advanced than humanity, they are nevertheless not perfect.
Almost running up to the seated Helen, Tom reports that Mr. Carpenter is not home and urgently shows her the diamond he found, kneeling in front of her to present it.
Staring at the multifaceted gem, Helen inquires if it is real, to which Tom responds that it looks real to him.
“Mr. Carpenter’s got lots of diamonds,” declares Bobby. “He gave me a couple of them.”
“He gave these to you?” Helen asks with some surprise.
“Well, not exactly,” replies Bobby. “I gave him two dollars.”
Tom looks intently at the boy, then stands up, still staring at the diamond in his hand.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Tom declares. “I think the guy’s a crook. I never did trust him!”
COMMENT: But, Tom, to remind you yet again, just a short while ago you trusted Carpenter/Klaatu with babysitting Helen’s only child when you barely had a clue about the man. I guess we can assume things have changed since you now consider him a threat to your future and this evidence might resolve your problem, not to mention perhaps even turn events in your presumed favor.
Despite all that Bobby has witnessed with his friend, he wonders to his mother if Mr. Carpenter is a homegrown diamond smuggler.
“Gee, Mom. You think maybe he’s a diamond smuggler?”
A combination of worry, maternal protectiveness, and undoubtedly feeling genuinely tired causes Helen to deflect her son’s own concerns and inquiries about Mr. Carpenter by telling him get “up to bed now.”
Tom, not being an actual parent (so far as we will ever know), tries to press the issue but Helen gives him a reproving look and declares that she and Bobby “have had enough excitement for tonight.”
Tom wonders if it is safe for Helen and Bobby to stay at their boarding house tonight, to which she assures Tom that she has “a good lock on my door” and that, for an extra measure, “Bobby’s gonna sleep in my room tonight.”
Helen ushers her son up the stairs, only to then notice that his “shoes are soaking.”
“Yeah,” Bobby replies almost nonchalantly. “The grass was kind of wet.”
Tom and Helen stare at each other as the boy continues onward to his room, and the scene fades.
All Over the World
The next day, we see Helen at her secretarial desk at the Department of Commerce. Helen acknowledges a coworker who tell her she is leaving the office for lunch. This prompts Helen to look at her own wristwatch and silently decides it is a good time for a break as well.
Helen gets up from her desk and grabs her black handbag. She is almost out of the open office when she suddenly receives an unexpected visitor right in her path.
Image: Klaatu confronts Helen Benson, wondering if she knows he is not really from New England.
“Hello. May I see you for a minute?” inquires Klaatu, standing right before the woman.
Clearly uncomfortable, Helen tries to deflect Klaatu by saying she is “just going to lunch.”
Undeterred – or perhaps even unfamiliar with the concept of lunch – Klaatu asks Helen if he may walk out with her.
Helen starts to consider a reason why she would prefer not to be in this particular man’s company when the telephone on her desk suddenly rings. Helen turns and walks back to her desk, where she picks up the phone’s handset to answer the call.
It is Tom Stevens on the other end of the phone line. Tom tells Helen he is at a jewelry store called Bleeker’s where he hopes to get an appraisal on that mysterious “diamond” he found on the floor in Klaatu’s room last night. Tom also adds in his hope of having lunch with Helen afterwards.
Deftly responding to avoid revealing to either Klaatu or Tom the presence of one to the other, Helen simply asks Tom if she can talk to him later and hangs up.
Helen attempts to continue her original plan of simply going to lunch, passing by Klaatu with a glance but no words and walking into the hallway. Klaatu follows her.
“I saw Bobby this morning before he went to school,” states Klaatu, continuing their conversation as they walk together down the corridor. Looking straight ahead, Helen tries to be nonchalant as she puts on a pair of white dress gloves.
“I’d like to know what he told you last night,” asks Klaatu with urgent eagerness in his voice and manner.
Continuing her charade of indifference, Helen merely tells Klaatu that she didn’t pay much attention to what her son said, as Bobby “has such an active imagination.” The pair stop together at a nearby elevator, where a lunch crowd is already collecting in front of it to foster their exit from the building.
“Did you believe what he told you?” Klaatu inquires with growing intensity. “I have a reason for asking this… a very important reason.”
Helen can see that Klaatu is being quite earnest now; neither is he going to drop the subject any time soon. Helen also knows deep down where all this may be heading, despite not wanting to admit the truth to herself.
Seeing that the collection of lunch-goers is not going to subside at this elevator, Helen tells Klaatu there is another elevator they can use and starts walking towards it, with Klaatu following close behind her.
They turn the corner and find the “small, automatic elevator” as the film script draft describes what I presume is a service elevator. No one else is about except for a single server pushing a wheeled tray cart who is just exiting the elevator as they arrive. They quickly slip inside once the man leaves on his errand.
Entering the empty cage-like structure of the elevator, Helen pointedly asks Klaatu what he wants.
“Before I ask you to be honest with me,” Klaatu begins “perhaps I should be completely honest with you.”
Suddenly the lights go out and the elevator jolts to a halt, rocking a bit. The interior of the car “is illuminated faintly and eerily [only] by light that seeps through the ventilating grills from a skylight in the shaft,” as the script draft describes the scene. The two characters are covered in shadows resembling the bars of a cage.
“What happened?” Helen asks Klaatu, already shaken. The alien asks her another question in return.
“What time is it?”
“Just twelve,” Helen responds, looking at her wristwatch.
“We shall be here for a little while,” Klaatu states. “About thirty minutes.”
“Well, we can try pushing the other buttons,” Helen suggests and begins to do just that.
Klaatu informs Helen that her actions will have no effect on the elevator. When she asks him why not, Klaatu tells her simply.
“You see, the electricity’s been neutralized… all over the world.”
Helen no longer bothers to hide her true thoughts and concerns from either Klaatu or herself regarding the presumed man standing in front of her.
“Bobby was telling the truth, wasn’t he?” Klaatu answers her with just one word: “Yes.”
Our scene switches to the streets of Washington, D.C., where, accompanied by dramatic and intense music that punctuates each new visage, we see a nearly wordless montage of what Klaatu’s demonstration of power has done to human civilization:
- Cars at a complete standstill in the roads, with their drivers getting out and wandering around in surprise and concern.
- A police officer repeatedly tries to kickstart the motorcycle he sits upon, but to no avail.
- The scene shifts northward to Times Square in New York City: Usually bustling with vehicles and people, the former are all immobile at once. We see several people looking at the engine of their automobile in what will be a vain effort to get their car started again.
- We then move clear across the Atlantic Ocean to witness a similar scene of immobility and fear in the civic center of London, England, complete with Big Ben in the background. A “cockney” man standing in Piccadilly Circus declares to his friend “it’s that Spaceman, that’s what it is!”
- Our view turns south to Paris, France, where powerless cars are left circling the roundabout surrounding the Arch de Triumph. An older French woman on a nearby sidewalk is seen holding both flowers and a rosary, nervously saying a prayer out loud to herself.
- We then head east to the capital city of the Soviet Union, Moscow, showing the exterior of the Kremlin. A group of people representing both civilians and the military are murmuring worries to each other in untranslated Russian.
- Back in the United States, we see men scrambling to restart the generators of a large electrical power plant that has gone silent.
- A huge newspaper printing press that is no longer printing. Talk about stop the presses!
- A train fully dead in it tracks, the engineers looking outside in bewilderment.
- A housewife having to pull very wet laundry from her inactive washing machine and throwing the unfinished clothes into a nearby basin, the day’s chores disrupted by a global alien force.
- A fisherman out on a lake trying desperately to start the outboard motor of his small boat.
- Perhaps the most frightening scene of all: A soda jerk unable to make a malted milkshake for her undoubtedly thirsty customer!
- A dairy farmer unable to milk his cows using automation. Clearly this farmer will have to find udder means to complete this process. A mooving experience, to be sure.
- A bunch of young ones out enjoying the day at an amusement park (more evidence this film takes place in the summer?) suddenly stuck in a roller coaster train near the top of one of the ride’s hilly tracks, frantically waving to any and all park attendants for help. Talk about a day having its ups and downs!
- An immobile automotive manufacturing plant, with a car frame left hanging in midair.
- One of those bridges that splits in half to open upward and out to allow tall ships to pass beneath, caught in mid-divide high in the air.
- Yet another train just sitting there on its tracks. Not sure why we needed to see two different stuck versions of the same kind of vehicle, but if you are into mid-Twentieth Century diesel trains, then this is a bonus treat.
- And finally, a guy who was trying to cut the grass on a lawn near the U.S. Capital building, now left mowerless to complete his task.
Image: You know these aliens mean business when they deliberately mess with Laundry Day.
COMMENT 1: Some clever folks have pointed out that this montage shows the European scenes in daylight when Klaatu shuts down nearly all the power everywhere starting at noon Eastern U.S. Time, focused on Washington, D.C. They say that London, Paris, and especially Moscow would not simultaneously be lit up by the Sun, being hours ahead of the American capital, not to mention all while existing on a spherical world circling a single star, thus having various levels of illumination and lack thereof, depending on which side of Earth is facing the Sun.
However, if this story takes place in mid-July as discussed earlier in this essay, there could still be daylight in London and Moscow, as the montage shows. For if it is noon in Washington, D.C., it is 8 p.m. local time in Moscow, while London local time is 5 p.m. In mid-July, the Sun sets at roughly 8:30 p.m. in D.C., and around 9 p.m. in Moscow. Therefore, there could still be sufficient daylight in the skies across Europe when Klaatu knocks out the power world-wide at noon on the U.S. Eastern seaboard. However, if the film really does take place sometime in the spring, that may be a different matter depending on what point in the season it is. In any event, I presume the filmmakers may have felt that showing a foreign city at night without power and therefore no artificial lights might be too dark for most American audiences to properly recognize, thus diminishing the impact of that scene.
COMMENT 2: During this event there is one scene described in the script draft that did not make it into the final film cut which deserves to be quoted here:
EXT. SHOT – NEW YORK STREET
Cars, taxis and busses are stalled, their frenzied drivers unable to figure out what’s happened. A junk peddler with a broken-down horse and wagon moves grandly and leisurely through the stalled vehicles. The peddler bears a happy grin of superiority. This is his moment of triumph over modern civilization.
As this montage comes to an end, we stop by Professor Barnhardt’s office again during the middle of the demonstration, where his secretary Hilda is rather distressed about what Klaatu has done – and I can just imagine her reaction when she will eventually learn who Mr. Carpenter really was and remembers how she first reacted towards him.
“You should see it, Professor Barnhardt. You should go out and see it for yourself,” Hilda exclaims to the gentleman sitting rather complacently at his desk.
“Thanks,” the professor replies as he looks out his window. “I am enjoying it right here.”
“The whole city has stopped! People are running around like ants!”
“What a brilliant idea,” Professor Barnhardt says aloud into the room. “I never would have thought of it.”
Turning to Hilda, he asks about the status of all the scientists he has invited to discuss Earth’s newest visitor and his incredible flying machine.
“Yes,” Hilda dutifully replies. “Here’s the list. And I talked to most of them on the phone this morning. They’re all very curious about the meeting.”
“Good,” replies the professor. “Did you speak to our friend Mr. Carpenter?” Hilda acknowledges that Mr. Carpenter will be at the spaceship at 8:30 pm.
Then Professor Barnhardt poses a personal question to his employee.
“Tell me, Hilda. Does all this frighten you? Does it make you feel insecure?”
“Yes, sir, it certainly does,” his secretary responds, her feelings made evident in her voice and frantic motions.
“That’s good, Hilda. I’m glad,” Professor Barnhardt replies as he looks away, the seeming callousness of his words shocking his poor secretary and probably members of the viewing audience, although we should quickly realize he is only glad to see that Klaatu’s plan is working, to frighten but not outright harm humanity.
Our scenery then becomes a situation room at the Pentagon, where a group of military officials are gathered around a long table while their subordinates run about frantically following various orders. The man at one end of this table is briefing the rest on the situation at hand.
COMMENT: The script draft gives this description of the scene, for clarification:
Seated at a conference table are high-ranking officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. There is the uneasy tension of people dealing with unknown forces. An Army Major General, who’s Chairman of the meeting, is speaking.
“As far as we can tell, all power’s been cut off everywhere,” the unnamed Major General begins “with a few exceptions, and even these exceptions are remarkable: Hospitals, planes in flight. That sort of thing. I wish I could give you more information, but as you know, all communications are out. Telephones, radio, cable. Everything!”
COMMENT: While this demonstration of power by Klaatu’s people certainly shows their superior abilities and their potential to cause great harm if they so desired, the fact that they deliberately did not disrupt vital human services displays two aspects in particular: They give humanity a sense that these aliens do possess a degree of mercy and also that these beings could infiltrate and manipulate terrestrial civilization to even higher degrees well beyond just shutting off the electricity.
As he is relaying this update, the Major General is handed a piece of paper by an underling, which he studies quickly.
“Gentlemen,” he begins. “I can tell you the President… is prepared to declare a state of national emergency!” The other officials at this table begin to converse with each other, their faces showing growing concern.
The scene shifts to Helen’s “beau” Tom Stevens, who is spending his time during the blackout at a local jewelry store owned by one Mr. Bleeker, who is trying to get his assistant, Eleanor, to contact someone to fix the store’s power outage. Mr. Bleeker does not appear to appreciate the magnitude of the current situation, being otherwise occupied with Tom and his business.
“Oh, Eleanor, did you call the electrician?” Mr. Bleeker asks his assistant.
“I tried, Mr. Bleeker, but the phone doesn’t work either.”
“Well, call the phone company.”
“But the phone doesn’t work,” replies Eleanor in frustration at her boss’ lack of grasping the concept, where she promptly walks out the shop’s front door.
Mr. Bleeker turns back to his customer, the aforementioned Tom, who is proffering the gemstone he found on the floor in Klaatu’s rented room. Tom asks the jeweler if this multifaceted mineral is worth anything.
“I have never seen such a stone in all my life,” exclaims Mr. Bleeker, who has a small black magnifying glass attached to his forehead by a thin black band around his skull. “Will you please tell me where it came from?”
“That’s what I want you to tell me,” demands Tom.
“But there are no diamonds like this anyplace in the world that I know of.”
“Are you sure of that?” Tom replies.
Mr. Bleeker responds in turn by asking Tom if he wants to sell his most unusual gem. Tom turns the jeweler down and heads out the door, even as Mr. Bleeker says he will give Tom “a very good price” for this object, for Helen’s boyfriend is seeking what he considers to be much larger rewards.
COMMENT: I know I complained earlier about the doctors at Walter Reed Hospital not seeming to fully appreciate the fact that they are the recipients of the first intelligent being from beyond Earth, but they are practically acolytes in comparison to Tom Stevens: He holds a gem from an alien race, yet all he can think about are what this “diamond” and its owner from another world will bring him personally, as we shall soon see.
We return to that particular elevator at the Department of Commerce, where two very familiar people are still stuck inside that steel cage and engaged in a quite serious conversation. It becomes clear that we have just missed something important the man has imparted to the woman.
“I’ve already told you more than I told Professor Barnhardt… because, in a sense, my life is in your hands,” Klaatu explains to Helen. “I thought if you knew the facts, you’d appreciate the importance of my not being apprehended before the meeting tonight.”
“Of course. Of course I do,” says Helen, her eyes alone speaking volumes. “You hold great hope for this meeting.”
“I can see no other hope for your planet. If this meeting should fail, then I’m afraid there is no hope.”
As if on cue for dramatic effect, the elevator suddenly comes back to life, jolting slightly. The car’s single light source starts glowing again, washing away the cage-like shadows that covered Helen and Klaatu just moments before.
“It must be 12:30,” says Klaatu almost to no one in particular.
Helen glances at her watch, which is apparently powered by a means other than electricity.
“Yes. Just exactly,” she answers.
The scene shifts to the Capitol outside, where all the vehicles that had remained stuck in place for the last half hour have been allowed to come back to life. With horns blaring and engines revving, the machines and people of D.C. waste no time in moving once again.
We return to Helen and Klaatu, who emerge from the elevator.
“Where are you going now?” Helen asks Klaatu.
“Back to the boardinghouse,” Klaatu replies. “I’ll be safe there for the afternoon. And I can keep an eye on Bobby. He’s the only other person who knows anything about – ”
“No. Wait a minute,” Helen says with sudden realization. “There’s someone else.”
“Tom,” answers Helen. “He was there last night when Bobby told me what he saw.”
“Do you think he’d tell anyone?”
“Well, I think he’d talk to me first anyway, before,” Helen replies, without complete confidence, however. “Well, we can’t take any chance. I’ll get in touch with him right away to make sure.”
Helen walks off to try to reach Tom. Klaatu looks after her with an expression of concern on his face.
COMMENT: Only recently has it dawned on me that Klaatu could have remained inside his spaceship after he contacted his superiors for that demonstration of their power until his meeting with the Earth scientists later that evening. There he would have remained safe with almost no one continuing to know of his whereabouts. Klaatu had no real reason to leave his vessel, other than we needed more drama for the rest of our story.
We next see Helen doing exactly as she promised Klaatu, making an urgent call to Tom from her desk.
Using a nearby telephone booth, Helen reaches Tom’s secretary at his insurance company, an older woman named Margaret, who tells Helen that “he left before noon… before that awful electric business.” The secretary adds an unsolicited comment that she is “scared to death” about that awful electric business before telling Helen she doesn’t know where Tom went, only that he said “it was something personal.” Helen asks the secretary to please have Tom call her “the minute he gets in” before hanging up the telephone and exiting the booth.
Our cinematic attention is then returned to that meeting with the officers at the Pentagon. The Major General is still holding court with his subordinates at that long table.
“Before we start discussing plans, I want a report from Colonel Ryder. What about the robot, Colonel?” the meeting Chairman asks.
“When it was discovered last night that the robot had moved, I was directed by the Joint Chiefs to find a means of immobilizing him,” explains Ryder. “We accomplished that this morning by encasing him in a block of KL-93. It’s a new plastic material stronger than steel.” Ryder further demonstrates by holding up a small sample of this very material to his rapt audience and passing it along the table members to the Major General.
“Isn’t it possible he’s broken out of this stuff?” the Major General asks Ryder, not without good reason.
“No, sir,” Ryder replies. “We just checked on that. He’s locked up tight as a drum.”
COMMENT: What’s that phrase? Famous last words, I believe. I also find it interesting that from this report Gort does not react to this restraining action taken by the humans in any apparent way. Does this show that the robot only responds to Klaatu either through his direct commands or when the alien is in some form of trouble? Or that Gort is so impervious to anything that human beings might try against him that the robot has no need to respond to being encased in a plastic “stronger than steel.”
Note also how the military brass refer to Gort as a “he” even though, as with another famous robot of that decade’s science fiction films, Robby from Forbidden Planet (1956), any gender label in both their cases is “totally without meaning.” If nothing else, this shows that they have some form of respect for Gort by not calling the robot an “it,” even if it is largely based on fear at what the machine can and could do.
Satisfied that Gort has been taken care of, the Major General says they will now “concentrate on the man,” namely Klaatu.
“Up till now, we’ve agreed upon the desirability of capturing this man alive. We can no longer afford to be so particular. We’ll get him, alive if possible, but we must get him. Is that clear?”
COMMENT: While in one sense I can understand the authorities wanting to capture Klaatu and restrain him in one form or another, once you get past that visceral reaction, do they really think that stopping Klaatu will have no repercussions whatsoever? Yes, those in charge currently think they have restrained Gort, which in its own way is foolish enough, but do they honestly believe that no one else from Klaatu’s world will come to follow up on their representative, especially if he has not been heard from? At the very least, humanity should expect them to attempt to rescue Klaatu.
Beyond that, the humans should be very concerned that these ETI may perform some type of retribution: After all, they shot Klaatu mere minutes after he emerged from his space vessel and had just told the natives that he came “in peace – and with goodwill.” Klaatu’s bosses are also aware of how difficult the humans are proving to be from the alien’s call to them requesting for a demonstration of their power. Whether the ability to shut down all of humanity’s electricity for a precise time was performed either from Klaatu’s ship or somewhere off Earth, any rational human should be rightly concerned about what these aliens could do in response – and this definitely includes the possibility of a platoon of Gorts as part of this package, although it seems that just one such robot may be sufficient for the task.
Returning to our story, we are shown the fronts of two newspapers with headlines in huge block type normally reserved for major, urgent stories: “Step-Up Hunt for Space Man” and “Washington Quarantined: No One Permitted to Leave City”.
A montage backs up the veracity of the latter headline, with numerous well-dressed citizens trying desperately to leave the Capitol via trains, busses, airplanes, and their own automobiles, only to be blocked and made to turn back by armed military personnel.
We then head back to Tom’s office, where we find his secretary, Margaret, talking on the telephone to someone named Mary about the so very recent global power shutdown.
“Honest, Mary, I’m so scared, I can’t sit still,” Margaret confesses. “I’d like to run someplace, but I don’t know where to go.”
Just then, Tom comes bursting into the office and immediately demands that Margaret call the Pentagon. Tom wants to “find out who’s in charge of this Spaceman business. Whoever it is, I want to talk to him.”
Margaret informs Tom that “Mrs. Benson’s been trying to get you all afternoon. She says it’s important.” However, Tom is more interested in contacting the Pentagon. As Tom heads into his office, Margaret reaches for the thick bound Yellow Pages on her desk.
Just then, Helen makes a personal appearance in Tom’s office, where she is greeted by Margaret, who informs Helen that Tom has just returned.
“Are you nervous too?” Margaret adds to Helen, trying to find some form of solidarity and comfort from what Klaatu has accomplished over human technology. Helen confirms that she is, more than Margaret or just about anyone else on Earth can imagine at that moment.
Tom suddenly emerges from his office, where he quickly escorts Helen inside and closes his door, while Helen attempts to explain to her man that she has “been trying to get you all afternoon.”
Leaning on his office doorknob, Tom declares to Helen that he has “some terrific news about your friend, Mr. Carpenter!”
“What about him?” asks Helen with definite anxiety.
“Helen, he’s the man from the spaceship!” Tom exclaims. “I had that diamond checked at three different places. Nobody’s ever seen a stone like that. After what Bobby told us, that’s enough for me. Why is it nobody knows anything about him? Why hasn’t he got any money?”
COMMENT: Note how one of Tom’s very first questions regarding Klaatu is why doesn’t he carry any money on his person? Bobby never did exactly explain that his friend did say the “diamonds” were used as currency in “some places.” Nevertheless, it is one more bit of evidence just where Tom’s thoughts and priorities lie and they most certainly are not on a cosmic level.
Helen decides to confirm Tom’s suspicions with a confession.
“All right, Tom. It’s true. I know it’s true.”
Tom is taken aback, asking her how she knows such a thing.
“Never mind about that,” is Helen’s curt response. “But you’ve got to promise me you won’t say a word to anybody.”
“Are you crazy?!” Tom exclaims. “After what happened today?”
Helen tries to further constrain her beau’s reaction by telling him he doesn’t understand or realize “how important this is” not to report Klaatu to the authorities.
“Important?” answers Tom, focusing on that one word. “Of course it’s important. The point is we can do something about it!”
Helen keeps trying to sway Tom not to act on this, emphasizing that she knows what she is talking about, while not expressly saying how she knows Klaatu is an extraterrestrial or why Tom must not contact the humans looking for the visitor.
Tom is neither swayed by Helen’s pleas nor interested in responding in any other way towards Klaatu.
“He’s a menace to the whole world. It’s our duty to turn him in.”
Helen realizes she has to be a bit more forthcoming with Tom.
“But he isn’t a menace. He told me why he came here.”
Tom is taken aback again.
“He told. He told you?” Tom is outright stunned. Then, realizing he is a white Alpha male in early 1950s America, Tom dismisses Helen.
“Oh, don’t be silly, honey, just because you like the guy.”
Having perceived and dismissed Helen as an overly emotional and easily swayed woman, Tom continues with his original agenda for Klaatu.
“You realize, of course, what this would mean to us,” Tom tries to explain to Helen. “I could write my own ticket. I’d be the biggest man in the country!”
“Is that what you’re thinking about?” Helen asks Tom with evident growing dismay and disgust.
“Why not?” replies Tom, as if there were no other options. “Somebody’s gotta get rid of him.”
Helen tells Tom she won’t allow him to stop Klaatu, but just then his office telephone rings: Margaret has connected her boss to a General Cutler at the Pentagon.
“Tom, you mustn’t,” Helen pleads, in one last attempt to reason with Tom. She even attempts to take the phone receiver away from him. “You don’t know what you’re doing. It isn’t just you and Mr. Carpenter. The rest of the world is involved!”
“I don’t care about the rest of the world!” Tom declares, showing his true colors. “You’ll feel different when you see my picture in the papers.”
Upon hearing this self-centered response from the insurance salesman, Helen’s entire demeanor changes.
COMMENT: Here are the interesting stage directions from the script draft on this scene:
It is as though he had slapped her across the face. Suddenly he has revealed himself, naked and distasteful. Feeling guilty as he sees the contempt and revulsion in her eyes, he tries the old charm, holding his hand over the phone.
“I feel different right now,” says Helen, playing on Tom’s words. However, Tom remains largely oblivious to her reaction.
“You wait and see. You’re gonna marry a big hero!”
“I’m not going to marry anybody,” Helen responds with finality and walks out the door and out of Tom’s life. She emerges onto the street and immediately hails a taxicab for home to warn and rescue Klaatu.
Tom starts to make another attempt with the vanishing Helen to get her to appeal to his reasons for going after Klaatu, but he quickly drops the effort by the wayside when an aide to General Cutler starts speaking with Tom on the phone. Tom makes it clear, however, that he wants to speak only with the General himself “about the Spaceman.”
Tom eventually connects with the General, telling him he knows exactly where he is. General Cutler thanks Tom for the information but then has to cut our insurance salesman “hero” short so he can order a colonel to deploy “all Zone 5 units according to Plan ‘B’ immediately.” We are then shown a brief scene of a convoy of military transports carrying soldiers executing this Plan B as ordered.
COMMENT: Plot momentum aside, what convinced this General Cutler that Tom of all people was telling him the truth about the location of The Spaceman? I have little doubt that the Pentagon and other authorities from all over have been receiving thousands of calls from citizens about the alien, many of which would be either hoaxes or just plain wrong. However, there would probably be enough tips that sound legitimate enough to warrant further investigation lest they miss a real opportunity to nab the alien “menace”.
Arriving home, Helen runs up the stairs to her brownstone. She passes by some kids playing on the sidewalk, one of whom addresses her and she replies with “Hello, Sammy.” A friend of Bobby’s perhaps? Although he seems a bit younger than her son and age differences between children often really do matter to them in terms of socializing.
Helen quickly emerges from her dwelling with Klaatu in tow, where both hop into the waiting taxicab.
In the moving vehicle, Klaatu tells Helen that he is “sure Barnhardt can arrange to hide me until the meeting.” Helen asks where this meeting will be held, which Klaatu responds with “at the ship.”
Meanwhile a group of soldiers pull up to the Benson residence in their jeeps. The boy named Sammy tells the men that Helen and Klaatu “got in a taxicab and went off down that street.”
COMMENT: Interesting how the innocent actions of children in TDTESS are both an inspiration to Klaatu and a deterrent to his mission on Earth. The alien is educated and inspired by Bobby and that cut scene of some young folks playing hopscotch outside of Professor Barnhardt’s home. Yet Klaatu is also inadvertently exposed when Bobby tells his mother and Tom about seeing his new friend enter the spaceship and how Klaatu gave him some unusual gems in exchange for two dollars. In addition, little Sammy tells the military about Helen and Klaatu escaping in a taxicab and which direction they went. Perhaps I am reading more into these events than they were ever meant to be by the filmmakers, but it is an interesting contrast just the same. I am also trying to take on Klaatu’s messiah angle, which includes these well-known words by the one Klaatu is modeled upon.
From the King James Version of the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 18):
“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying: ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said: ‘Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’
“Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.”
Bobby and Klaatu liked each other right away, even though there were times early on that the boy thought his new best friend might be either a diamond smuggler or a government agent looking for the Spaceman. It was obvious that Klaatu felt a level of trust and even respect towards Bobby that he did not entirely share with the grownups of the human species. Even when Bobby innocently reports to his mother and Tom that Klaatu is the Spaceman, the alien holds no ill will towards him, only an understandable concern that what Bobby said would be believed by the adults.
As the Zone 5 military lookouts follow and report on the whereabouts of the taxicab Helen and Klaatu are riding in, license plate number H0012 by the way, the two are engaged in a rather serious conversation.
FUN FACT: In the draft script, the license plate number was originally W 4936. Why the change? I do not know, but while trying to find out, I did discover an incredibly well documented Web site devoted to the complete history of Washington, D.C. license plates! Here is the page for “License Plates and Registration Numbers from April 1950 to March 1960”: http://dcplates.com/Numbers50s.htm
As Helen tries to reassure Klaatu that they are only a few blocks from the Professor’s dwelling, the alien says he is worried about Gort.
“I’m afraid of what he might do if anything should happen to me.”
Helen is surprised at this concern being so forefront in Klaatu’s mind at this particular moment.
“Gort?” she exclaims. “But he’s a robot. Without you, what could he do?”
“There’s no limit to what he could do,” Klaatu responds. “He could destroy the Earth.”
Klaatu gets even more serious.
“If anything should happen to me, you must go to Gort,” Klaatu insists. “You must say these words: ‘Klaatu barada nikto.’ Please repeat that.”
Helen slowly and carefully repeats these strange words of the alien’s language. Klaatu tells her again that she “must remember those words.”
COMMENT: Yes, my friends, this is when we first hear what is probably the most famous sentence from a fictional language ever. What does it mean? Now of course anyone can deduce certain things based on what we see later when the command is used again. The scriptwriters themselves said the words did not really mean anything. If you think that admission was going to stop some fans from trying to decipher Klaatu’s language, including the other words he said throughout TDTESS, think again:
While a number of sites attempt to decipher what Klaatu tells Helen to say to Gort in case something goes wrong, none match the depth and sheer chutzpah of this one, taken from the April, 1978 issue of Fantastic Films, in an article titled “The Language of Klaatu”:
Another notable one:
And this one from the DVD edition of the film…
Steven Jay Rubin (December 2, 2008). Decoding “Klaatu Barada Nikto”: Science Fiction as Metaphor (DVD). Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Event occurs at 0:14:55. Retrieved July 15, 2010.
We get more scenes of the military watching the cab with Klaatu and Helen in it driving through D.C. and their reporting on its current locations. The officer in charge eventually issues orders to start closing off certain city streets in order to hem in the cab and its occupants.
Suddenly the unaware taxi driver finds his way blocked by a row of jeeps ahead and behind him. Realizing he is cornered, Klaatu bursts from the vehicle and attempts to make a run for it up the street.
A single sound of gunfire cuts through the air. Klaatu abruptly stops running while his body jolts forward for a moment, before collapsing onto the street – into the pose of Christ on the Cross, no less.
Helen emerges from the cab and reaches the prone alien just moments before the military vehicles start to pull up. She kneels and cradles Klaatu’s head in her left hand.
Using his last bit of strength, Klaatu pleads with Helen to “get that message to Gort… right away,” before his head falls back onto the street and he apparently dies from his gunshot wound.
The Zone 5 soldiers begin to crowd around the Spaceman, along with a growing collection of curious civilians. Helen quietly and quickly slips away and down the stairs of a nearby “pedestrian underpass” before anyone can identify and restrain her for questioning. The camera lingers on the soldiers, one of whom is asked by a superior to see if they have a stretcher available at a nearby police station.
COMMENT: In the draft script, it is explained that Klaatu is the military’s “first and all-important concern, and Helen finds herself pushed out of the way, toward the edge of the growing crowd of soldiers.” Helen then takes advantage of the “milling confusion in the dark” to get away.
“Klaatu Barada Nikto!”
The scene changes to the Ellipse where the alien spacecraft still stands (or lies) on the ground with Gort in front of it. We see that the robot is covered in a block of that KL-93 substance the U.S. military is so certain will keep the alien machine both in place and harmless. Just beyond Gort are rows of wooden chairs set up for the meeting of the international scientists planned for later that evening.
Suddenly, the block of KL-93 begins to glow from its top as an ominous sizzling sound is heard. Two soldiers (again, just two!) posted at the entrance to the surrounding fence hear the noise and turn to look inside.
The transparent block is slowly but steadily melting away, exposing first Gort’s head. We note that Gort is not using his lethal ray beam to remove the restricting material, as his faceplate is closed, yet somehow the robot is vaporizing the KL-93 around him just the same.
The two guards cautiously approach Gort with their rifles in hand. We watch as Gort’s faceplate slides upward, displaying that fluctuating luminous glow we saw when the robot was taking out the Army’s surrounding weaponry with his ray.
This time Gort is not aiming just for any terrestrial weapons to destroy. The beam flies out in a thin, steady line from Gort’s face and envelopes the soldiers in a pulsating aura of energy before they disappear completely without so much as a cry of anguish or surprise.
Just then Helen arrives on the scene. She hesitates for a moment outside the perimeter fence before gathering up her courage to enter.
Standing at the entrance, Helen witnesses Gort continuing his removal process of the KL-93, the dissolving material now below his torso. The frightened woman slowly moves inside towards the robot.
As she walks past the rows of chairs towards Gort, the last of the restraining substance is vaporized, freeing the mechanical sentry.
Gort detects Helen’s presence and begins to move towards her. Helen instinctively begins to back up, but instead of heading out the entrance, she discovers she has backed into the fence. As Gort’s menacing shadow looms over her, Helen lets out a primal scream and trips as she tries to run, falling to the ground.
Gort effortlessly wades through the wooden seats to reach Helen, who is sitting up against a support beam on the fence and staring at the robot with palpable dread. She knows she is trapped.
The faceplate on the tall robot begins to slide up again; Gort prepares to take out his next human target. Despite her fear, Helen remembers the words Klaatu urged her to say, which she does so now with deliberate enunciation.
“Gort. Klaatu barada nikto!”
Nothing changes with the robot. He still seems intent on vaporizing the woman lying before him. Helen repeats the command: This time it works, as the pulsing glow on Gort’s face disappears and his faceplate slides down again.
The machine then continues moving towards Helen. He disappears from our view for a moment behind some of the fence structure to emerge with Helen in his arms. Although she is obviously frightened, Helen neither screams nor struggles to escape Gort.
Image: Patricia Neal may have thought those alien words sounded funny, but Helen Benson saved herself and all of Earth with them.
COMMENT: Two items to note: It is interesting that Gort does not simply vaporize Helen with his ray beam upon her mere appearance as he did with the two soldiers. Besides the fact that such a response would have kept the human woman from delivering her all-important message and thus dooming Earth, it may be that Gort would have made such an action only if Helen had been carrying a weapon, as the guards did.
The actual scene where Gort lifts up Helen is not shown. As mentioned earlier in this essay, the actor inside the robot costume, Lock Martin, had back issues which prevented him from picking up and carrying his fellow actor, Patricia Neal (1926-2010).
Gort steadily marches towards his ship with Helen. As the robot approaches, the vessel hull begins to split apart and its ramp slides forward to let Gort enter.
Inside the alien craft, Gort carefully sets Helen down in the control room where we earlier saw Klaatu communicate with his superiors to plan their little “demonstration” with Earth’s electricity. Without a word from either party, Helen watches Gort activate that circular “viewscreen”, which momentarily pulses a mysterious pattern of light that flashes on the robot’s metal exterior.
Having received some kind of instructions, perhaps including the location of Klaatu, Gort turns from the viewscreen and leaves the control room with Helen still present. She rushes to the doors as they close together behind Gort, but the woman cannot stop them from keeping her inside.
Helen leans against the seal of the doors, trying to hear the robot. However, Gort has already departed the spaceship and walks out of the park without any interference as the ship automatically seals itself up again.
Locked Up Tight as a Drum
The scene switches to a local D.C. police station where the Zone 5 soldiers took the body of Klaatu for safe keeping. We find the Colonel in charge of capturing the Spaceman talking on a telephone to his superior in front of a police sergeant’s desk, surrounded by other Army officers.
“Yes, sir. Yes, we have the body here now, locked in a cell,” the Colonel explains into the phone. “There’s no question about it, General. He’s dead, all right. I understand. I’ll be right there, sir.”
Hanging up the phone, the Colonel orders the Lieutenant next to him to “bring in a squad of men…. Place a guard around that cell.” He then tells a Captain not to “let anyone in or out of the building” before ordering the rest of the party to come with him on other business.
We are taken to the precinct jail cell where Klaatu’s body lies on a cot covered with a blanket. A mere moment later we see Gort’s head appear in the barred cell window. The robot wastes no time in using his ray beam to make a large and roughly cut hole in the cell wall. Gort then marches into the cell and bends down to remove Klaatu from his terrestrial confines.
COMMENT: In the dialogue above we are told that a “squad of men” are assigned to guard Klaatu’s very mortal remains until, one assumes, he can be taken to a more secure location for study and such. However, we do not see anyone about when Gort arrives outside the cell and takes out a big chunk of its wall to retrieve Klaatu’s body. Neither do we see anyone trying to stop Gort when he subsequently returns to the ship with his companion. There may be people, military and civilian, trailing behind the robot, but no one seems to be doing anything to even slow him down or deflect him into another direction by this point. At the very least, there is no way Gort could have walked from the Ellipse to the police station and then all the way back to the ship unnoticed. Yet again, no humans seem to be around.
This issue was addressed to a degree in the script draft: The squad of armed soldiers do show up at the cell and fire upon Gort as he is retrieving Klaatu’s body. As expected, their bullets have no effect on the alien robot’s metallic skin and Gort leaves with Klaatu as planned. There are also stage directions which mention the sounds of gunfire outside the police station, which means there was some kind of pursuit of Gort, at least in the vicinity.
My guess for the absence of these scenes is budgetary and perhaps even pacing, but it is highly implausible that a giant alien machine carrying his organic companion, who have dominated the international news and disrupted all of D.C. along with the rest of the world, could have walked about the city without attracting attention. Perhaps the filmmakers assumed we would be content with imagining the reaction to such a sight by citizens kept off-camera, but it still comes across as highly unrealistic, especially for a film that aimed to be a realistic depiction of how humanity would react to a visitor from another planet.
On the Third Day…
Apparently unmolested, Gort returns to the spaceship with Klaatu and enters it in the same fashion that he left the vessel. The robot returns to the control room, where we find Helen anxiously standing at the far end staring intently at Gort and what he is carrying.
Gort places Klaatu on a small table surrounded by instruments. The robot activates one of them, which causes the table beneath Klaatu to light up and glow, accompanied by a shrill buzzing sound that gets louder with each passing moment.
Meanwhile, outside the vessel, the scientists are gathering for their meeting headed by Professor Barnhardt. We see the Professor arrive with several others in a four-door sedan at the fence entrance.
Just then a military jeep pulls up. A Colonel gets out and approaches Barnhardt.
“Professor Barnhardt?” the officer inquires. The scholar acknowledges him.
“I’m very sorry, but I have to ask you to call off this meeting.”
“Call it off?” Professor Barnhardt exclaims, obviously surprised. “But I had permission from the Army.”
“I know you did, sir,” the Colonel answers. “But the robot’s on the loose now, and it’s not safe around here. You’ll have to get your people out of this area.”
COMMENT: The Colonel’s comment is one more reason why I bring up my skepticism that a large, slow-moving robot like Gort could somehow walk around Washington, D.C., in 1951 without either being noticed or draw attention, even in the unlikely event that no one was expecting or looking for him. The military does not seem to know where Gort is and it sounds like none of the scientists are aware of Gort’s absence, either, even though I might imagine the news media would be blaring it from every source at their disposal. Perhaps an earlier version of the film script might have had an explanation for this that was not entirely edited out in later drafts. Otherwise, we have to accept that a being like Gort could walk around a major city that has been agitated for days about menacing monsters from outer space and not have mobs of humans of all stripes chasing him, even if they could do nothing to harm or stop Gort.
The scene immediately switches back to the spaceship interior, where Klaatu is still being attended to with this strange, instrumented table. Standing over Klaatu, Gort manipulates another device with his right hand. A beeping tone begins and starts to rise in pitch, becoming so loud that Helen has to turn away and cover her ears.
Image: When traveling the galactic wilds, it never hurts to have the finest in medical resuscitation equipment that advanced alien technology can provide.
The piercing noise from the table stops abruptly and the illumination both below Klaatu’s body and over his head vanish. Helen removes her hands from her ears and turns back to face Gort, while remaining well across the room.
Helen watches in astonishment as Klaatu opens his eyes and then sits up on the table. Gingerly she walks towards the now mobile alien.
“Hello,” says Klaatu to Helen, almost as if he had just woken up from a nap.
“I… I thought you were…” she began.
“I was,” Klaatu replies with a strange straightforwardness.
Turning to look at Gort, who is now standing equidistant from the two people in the room, Helen asks Klaatu, almost assuming, if the robot “has the power of life and death?”
“No,” Klaatu replies. “That power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit. This technique, in some cases, can restore life for a limited period.”
“But how long?” Helen enquires.
“You mean how long will I live?” Klaatu asks in return. “That no one can tell.” Without another word, Klaatu leaves Helen and walks out of the control room.
COMMENT 1: As the story goes, the film’s producers were leery of any indication that anyone outside of God or His Equivalent could bring the dead back to life, not even – or perhaps especially – an advanced alien race for “a limited period.” Thus, Klaatu makes it clear to Helen (and the audience) that only the Almighty Spirit has such abilities and no other. His people are neither gods nor God, even though Klaatu is ironically playing the role of what could be considered a particular supernatural Savior.
We hear nothing more about this Almighty Spirit, so we are left to assume it is an all-powerful, all-knowing deity similar to, if not exactly the same, as the Judeo-Christian God of humanity. Do Klaatu and his people also worship this deity on faith alone, or do they have empirical evidence for its existence? Again, this question remains unanswered. All we can be certain of is that the terrestrial powers-that-be circa 1951 would allow in their mass entertainment neither a godless intelligent species nor one with godlike powers based on science and technology alone.
COMMENT 2: There were some follow-up scenes in the script draft that added details and dialogue between Klaatu and Helen. They give a bit of closure to certain earlier characters and events, in particular regarding Helen’s son, Bobby, whom I felt got short-changed in the latter half of the film after being so prominent and integral to the story earlier. Klaatu and Helen’s talk and stage descriptions also show how there was supposed be more depths of feeling between them than was ultimately shown, though this was not entirely taken away. We also would have learned how Klaatu and Gort were able to monitor any activities outside their spaceship despite the vessel having no visible physical windows.
In addition, there is an extra scene with Professor Barnhardt and a description of the kinds of people who are in attendance at the science gathering along with what they hope to gain from this meeting. None of this made it onto the final screen presentation, nor do I know if any of it was filmed. While these scenes were not critical to the plot, I can see why they might have been left out due to story pacing and possibly budget issues. In any event, I include them here exactly as written in the 1951 draft script.
INT. SPACE SHIP – TWO SHOT – KLAATU AND HELEN
As Klaatu steps out from behind the sliding panel where he has changed into his “other world” tunic [having removed his human business suit “borrowed” from Major Carpenter at the hospital].
KLAATU: “Gort and I will be leaving soon.”
Helen is genuinely upset at the thought of his leaving and the knowledge that he is to die. There is a compelling warmth of feeling between these two.
HELEN: (simply, sincerely) “We’ll miss you very much – Bobby and I.” (smiling to conceal her real feelings) “He won’t have anyone to play with.”
KLAATU: “He’ll have you – and Tom.”
HELEN: (quietly – definitely) “No. That’s all finished.”
KLAATU: “I’m sorry.”
HELEN: (she is sensible and objective, but not unfeeling) “I think I’m very lucky. You don’t always get a chance to recognize a mistake before you make it.”
Klaatu looks at her in warm, considered admiration. Then he moves to one side of the cabin and flips a switch. Suddenly an entire section of the side wall is made transparent.
Through it, as through a screen, we can see out into the building [originally the spaceship was supposed to be enclosed by a protective structure quickly put together by the military]. Most of the chairs are already occupied, and latecomers are still moving in through the door.
Facing the group, on a little dais, is Barnhardt. As Klaatu and Helen watch, Barnhardt raps for order and begins to speak. His voice comes in the ship through a speaker.
BARNHARDT: “Ladies and Gentlemen—”
INT. BUILDING – MED. CLOSE SHOT – BARNHARDT
He addresses them gravely, with a note of terrible disappointment in his voice.
BARNHARDT: “I called you from your work and from your homes all over the world because we were to meet here tonight with a man from another planet — the man who came here in this ship.” (there are audible exclamations of surprise and disappointment) “As you all know, this is no longer possible. I can only say that I share the bitterness of your disappointment.”
INTERCUT with the above are group and individual shots of the people in the meeting. They are the cream of Earth’s intellectuals – scientists, churchmen, educators, leaders of social and political thought. There are several women among them. There are turbaned Indians, Chinese, Japanese, several Negroes. All religions are represented. Every important world power is represented.
INT. MAIN CABIN – SPACE SHIP
Klaatu and Helen are watching and listening, as the last sentence of Barnhardt’s speech above comes over the speaker. Klaatu flips off the switch, which cuts off the view of the meeting and also Barnhardt’s voice. At this moment Gort moves across the cabin and Klaatu speaks to him.
KLAATU: “Gort – berengo.”
Gort moves off obediently.
COMMENT 3: Most interesting that among the devices on that starship, they include a mechanism which can restore an organic member of the crew back to life temporarily in the event of their death – and that it takes up a decent amount of space in the main control room, no less. Is it present because the potential of getting killed by the natives is a part of the risks one takes when encountering primitive cultures? Or just in case a crewman like Klaatu could have a fatality from any number of possible reasons while venturing among the stars and this reanimator is part of their sophisticated medical equipment? Or both?
We now continue with what was shown in the cinema…
Outside on The Ellipse, we find Professor Barnhardt standing behind a table on a platform addressing the crowd of scientists he assembled. In the immediate background dominates Klaatu’s silvery smooth spaceship.
“Under the circumstances, the Army people have asked us to leave,” announces Barnhardt. “And since their concern is for our safety, I can do nothing but suggest that we comply.”
The crowd of international scientists (the script draft says there were 150 chairs set up for this meeting) begin to rise to comply when the spaceship’s dome begins to open up, revealing its lit interior followed by Gort walking out onto the vessel’s hull.
The scientists all stand up in astonishment at Gort’s unexpected appearance. The military, hovering at the perimeter fence entrance, start moving in, undoubtedly anticipating some kind of offensive action by the gleaming robot. One lead officer even brandishes his pistol. The troops stand at alert behind the scientists.
Klaatu and Helen follow through the ship’s opening next: Helen walks down the ship’s extended ramp and stands next to Professor Barnhardt. As Gort remains steadfast by the vessel entrance, Klaatu moves halfway across his ship’s exterior to stand before the assembled humans, wearing an outfit identical to the one he first appeared in to the natives of Earth, sans the full head-covering helmet.
Looking over his rapt audience, Klaatu begins his final speech, the crux of the very reason he came to the third world of the star Sol. Needless to say (but I am anyway), I transcribe it here in full, with relevant scene descriptions when required. A fuller analysis of what the Spaceman says comes later in this essay.
Image: As Gort stands dutifully by the spacecraft opening, Klaatu tells the gathered humans why he came 250 million miles from out of space to Earth.
“I am leaving soon,” Klaatu begins. “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. Now, 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.”
Klaatu turns his head to the right to indicate Gort standing behind him.
“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.”
At the uttering of this statement, the scientists all look at each other with a combination of surprise and concern.
“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.”
Klaatu walks back towards the entrance to his ship, where he stops and turns to his robot companion and says “Gort, berenga.” Gort immediately turns and heads inside, wordless to the end.
Klaatu faces back towards the humans still watching him intently. He focuses his gaze on Helen. Klaatu smiles and makes a gesture of farewell to her with an outstretched hand that seems to convey more than just a simple act of goodbye. Helen smiles in return; she herself seems to want to say more but stays in place.
Klaatu pivots about and briskly follows Gort into the ship. The vessel seals itself tight and the ramp disappears into the hull.
Mere seconds later, the alien craft begins to glow and hum. It is obviously about to take off. The scientists, many still standing so very close to Klaatu’s ship, begin to panic a bit when they realize what is happening and quickly back off towards the fence perimeter.
The hum turns into a much louder sound as the spaceship rises into the air, the glow of its hull pulsating. The gathered humans watch from a presumably safe distance as the ship rises almost vertically into the heavens, where it is soon lost among the countless stars of the night sky.
As the vessel vanishes into the void, the words THE END zoom in from the ship’s vanish point: Is it a large and redundant message from Klaatu et al to humanity that his particular mission is over? Or one for the film audience to make it clear that The Day the Earth Stood Still has completed?
Image: Later science fiction films loved to add the words “… of The Beginning” to their The End title cards. This would have been most appropriate for TDTESS.
The Film Itself
The Day the Earth Stood Still deserves its recognition as a classic of science fiction. For such an early film of the genre it was ahead of its time and set many cinematic standards that have lasted to the present day.
As I relayed during my in-depth retelling of the film plot, TDTESS certainly has some flaws in terms of several drops in logic and a few inconsistencies, but nothing that seriously detracts from the overall story quality. For a film that is now over seventy years old film, it manages to keep your attention, in no small part due to the filmmakers keeping a tight pace on the story – although sometimes I felt they sacrificed a few scenes in the name of expediency that could have added to our understanding of Klaatu and his society’s motives for coming to Earth. as they were aiming for authenticity in terms of how humanity would react to an alien landing on Earth.
TDTESS also strove for displaying realistically how a contemporary humanity might respond to a physical visitation from an extraterrestrial being. That director Wise et al made the conscious choice to be inclusive in terms of race and cultures at least with secondary characters is also generally palatable to modern audiences. Compare this to the cast in another science fiction film released just two months after TDTESS, When Worlds Collide, about the end of Earth via a colliding rogue star: The few survivors who escaped the impending doom via rocket from the United States were all white, although it was mentioned that several other unspecified nations were building their own launch vessels to attempt to reach the conveniently terrestrial-type world that accompanied the rogue star and would miraculously end up in a Goldilocks orbit about Sol.
The soundtrack for TDTESS is another plus for the film. Although its sound and style would later become a cliched trope of the genre thanks to numerous lesser-grade science fiction cinema that copied it, the music created by American conductor and composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) works here most effectively throughout.
Regarding the type of musical instruments, used “Herrmann chose unusual instrumentation for the film including violin, cello, and bass (all three electric), two theremin electronic instruments (played by Samuel Hoffman and Paul Shure), two Hammond organs, a large studio electric organ, three vibraphones, two glockenspiels, two pianos, two harps, three trumpets, three trombones, four tubas, and extensive percussion including cymbals and tam-tam.”
If you want the real “nitty-gritty” about the TDTESS’s soundtrack – and seldom do I use that term, but it fits here – check out the Film Score Rundown by Bill Wrobel here:
As for the selection of the actors for the various TDTESS roles, the filmmakers did an excellent job. Michael Rennie (1909-1971) was ideal as the alien Klaatu: Just different enough in his looks, mannerisms, and voice (Rennie was British) from the so-called norm to give that affectation of being a first-time visitor from another world who was trying to pass for one of the natives. It is hard now, over seven decades later and with the film in well-established iconic status, to imagine anyone else in this role (sorry, Keanu, though you did pull it off fairly well).
Patricia Neal (1926-2010), who played Helen Benson, was also very good in her role – even if she did not take it or the film very seriously at the time: Neal laughed every time she had to say those now immortal commands from Klaatu to Gort, “Klaatu barada nikto!” As Helen, Neal gave her character a gravity in a society that often saw women as little more than housewives and secretaries. Ironically, while she was both types at once in TDTESS, Helen displayed a high level of inner strength and independence, first as a widow and a single mom, then as a confidant and friend to Klaatu, and finally as a savior of Earth in her own right when she bravely confronted Gort to keep him from destroying the planet with nothing more than three little words.
As Bobby Benson, actor Bill Gray (born in 1938) did a believable job as a young boy in mid-Twentieth Century America who gets to make a new friend in the interesting and often unusual form of Mr. Carpenter, better known off Earth as Klaatu. There are times when such young actors can come across as unpolished in their skills and annoying in general, but Gray held his own with the surrounding adults. As the main child character, Bobby got to ask Klaatu questions that most adults might have passed on out of social courtesy, thus allowing us some insights into the alien’s thoughts and his remote world.
I only regret that the script didn’t find a way to have Bobby and Klaatu share some form of farewell the audience could have witnessed, especially considering how much his character was on screen in the first part of the film, not to mention how Klaatu was becoming a surrogate father figure to the boy.
As for Hugh Marlowe (1911-1982), who played would-be suitor and self-labeled hero Tom Stevens, the actor did a fine job as his character made one feel both dismissive of his obvious motives with the others he interacted with and outright reviled when Tom declared to Helen and the audience that he didn’t “care about the rest of the world!” when Bobby’s mother tried to warn him about Klaatu’s urgent mission to Earth. Tom represents what happens to a person who never looks past their nose or sees any other perspective than what’s in it for them.
Lastly, while there were relatively few special effects in TDTESS compared to previous and especially later science fiction films, with most of them being about Klaatu’s starship, they were largely well done and worked with and for the story. They did not become the overbearing “stars” of the show, at least not deliberately. If there were any “creaky” moments, it had to do with the Gort costume, which sometimes came close making it obvious there was a human actor inside a suit. Despite this, the filmmakers were able to make us think that Gort was indeed an ominous alien machine who seemed ready to mow everyone and everything down with his glowing ray beam at the first misstep.
From Eggs to Saucers
If you ask most people who are the aliens presented in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the majority will likely mention only the humanoid Klaatu and the robot Gort. However, there was a third alien presence that viewers are well aware of but don’t think of as a conventional character: The interstellar vessel that transported Klaatu and Gort to Earth.
The alien spacecraft was clearly influenced by the UFO phenomenon dominating the culture at the time, having taken off just a few years earlier in 1947 when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold (1915-1984) reported seeing nine strange objects flying over Mount Rainier in Washington. Their general description by Arnold and subsequent news reports was that of a flat disc and also “like a saucer if you skip it across the water.” Thus, the term “flying saucer” was born and after that, most reports of UFOs were of disc-shaped objects. It also became rather quickly assumed that these flying vessels were visitors from other worlds complete with alien crews, although some groups like the military considered the possibility of them being advanced craft from other terrestrial nations, the Soviet Union in particular.
Hollywood wasted little time in presenting cinematic alien ships as some form of flying disc, although the very first film to do so, a less-than-sterling 1950 work titled The Flying Saucer, had its ship in question come not from ETI but the mind and hands of an American inventor. The plot involved Soviet agents trying to get their communist hands on this technology, only to be thwarted by two brave Americans in the end.
Side Bar: There was another cinematic release that same year which also involved disc-shaped spacecraft, and these were of alien origin: Flying Disc Man from Mars, a twelve-part serial from Republic Pictures involving the advanced beings of the Red Planet deciding they would be better able to handle the various atomic energy devices recently developed by their neighboring inhabitants of the third planet from Sol. Thus, they arrive on Earth in their flying saucer-type vessels to make sure the humans don’t do anything foolish with such power. This plot seems familiar….
It is hardly surprising that Klaatu’s starship was made to look like the height of imagined alien transportation fashion in 1951, as so many believed then as now that UFOs were the vessels of distant visitors from elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy. Whether a disc shape is the best means for interstellar (and probably superluminal travel), one may be left to speculate on a hopefully informed level. One thing is certain, the current terrestrial design plans for real possible starships look nothing like the craft that Klaatu came in on. However, we have only been seriously developing (as plans) realistic interstellar vessels for the last few decades. Perhaps “flying saucer” style starcraft are no more plausible than the take by countless examples of science fiction that intelligent species look and behave rather much like humanity.
Cinematically, the design of Klaatu’s ship was most effective. It was just out-of-the-ordinary looking enough to catch attention; it was also quite shiny, fast, and loud. The profound lack of exterior markings and any sign of external equipment such as propulsion units only added to the vessel’s mysteriousness. As a bonus, the ship was invulnerable to all human efforts to crack it open. Only Klaatu and Gort could access their ship, allowing visitors onboard only when they desired to do so.
The UFO era influence is obvious when you compare the description of the spaceship from the short story that TDTESS is based on: “Farewell to the Master”, written by Harry Bates and first published in the October 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. In that work, the vessel has a “perfect smoothness” and a “curving ovoid [egg-shaped] surface.” The hull was composed of an “unknown greenish metal” that was impenetrable by all methods later employed upon it by the humans who tried to get inside the craft.
A fellow named Jeremy Lightcap has put together his artistic interpretation of the spaceship from the original story here:
To see the rest of his artwork on “Farewell to the Master”, go here:
That other prominent cinematic fictional alien star vessel of 1951, The Thing from Another World, had also undergone a transformation from its story of origin, “Who Goes There?”, published in 1938 and authored by John W. Campbell, Jr., under the pen name of Don A. Stuart.
In the film, the alien’s ship was clearly saucer-shaped, even though we could only deduce this from the outline pattern it made from melting into the Arctic ice (the 2011 prequel film very clearly depicted the ship that the Thing arrived upon Earth in as a flying saucer design). However, in the Campbell story, the spaceship had a rather different physical appearance:
Something came down out of space, a ship. We saw it there in the blue ice, a thing like a submarine without a conning tower or directive vanes. 280 feet long and 45 feet in diameter at its thickest.
For a more in-depth discussion on science fiction spaceship designs and their influence by the UFO era, see my essay “An Intellectual Carrot – The Mind Boggles!” Dissecting The Thing from Another World in the section titled “Doesn’t Every Alien Drive a Flying Saucer?” here:
In the late 1970s, there was a television advertisement whose product name escapes me in the mists of time; however, I definitely recall that it was either a drain cleaner or general house cleaner. The ad itself showed a housewife of the era who is being told by her house via a seemingly disembodied voice (just go with me here) that it wants this particular product in no uncertain terms.
The woman is shown looking up at the ceiling/sky seeming a bit apprehensive while her house reverberates with this booming male voice telling her what to do. The ad did not make it explicitly clear that it was the physical structure around the actor who was somehow now sentient and talking to her. Instead, one could easily have gotten the impression, as I did at first, that it was God Himself who was telling this mere mortal what kind of cleaning product to buy for her domicile.
Now you might think that anyone aware and rational enough to have watched this television advertisement and not take it as a real event would be smart enough to know that a deity was not in fact telling her – and the audience – what to purchase for a house. However, whoever made this ad were likely counting on the subliminal effects their creation would have on the viewers’ subconscious and their emotions, especially when they went grocery shopping.
In the Judeo-Christian culture, one way God has been depicted is as a powerful and disembodied male voice coming from the sky, where Heaven is traditionally if vaguely located, making demands of the faithful and unbelievers alike. Naturally the advertisers could publicly claim they had no deliberate intention of making it seem like God was actually selling a cleaning product, that this is just an interpretation. However, I would have to disagree with such a claim, as I have seen more than a few studies – to say nothing of my own experiences – that show just how often both subtle and overt messages are indeed placed in our media, from “mere” advertisements to our television and film entertainment, trying to win us over to one ideology or another.
As I have claimed often enough in my other essays on science fiction cinema, to dismiss even lightweight fare as being “just a movie/TV show” when many millions of dollars and hours are invested by an industry worth billions is far too simplistic an answer.
So what does this have to do with a science fiction film made over seven decades ago about an alien visitation to Earth? Plenty.
It is no secret that the story of Klaatu and his journey to our planet and brief time among its people was meant to parallel the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. The screenwriter Edmund North considered it his “private little joke.” North added: “I never discussed this angle with Blaustein or Wise because I didn’t want it expressed. I had originally hoped that the Christ comparison would be subliminal.”
The makers of The Day the Earth Stood Still recognized the wide-reaching educational powers of cinema and turned their creation into far more than mere entertainment for the masses. They were obviously concerned about the Cold War of their era turning hot: The Korean War had begun just the year before, and military officials were seriously pondering the use of nuclear weapons on the enemy. Granted the Soviets only had a mere handful of such weapons and China was over a decade away from test donating the first of their radioactive arsenal, while the United States had the bulk at several hundred.
Nevertheless, it was hardly a secret that the communist nations were working on increasing their stockpiles and many other nations wanted in on the Nuclear Club. You did not have to be a genius to realize what might happen if just one nation with a nuclear bomb decided to use it against another.
There was an interesting and unsettling dilemma, however: The powers that held the most of these weapons, namely the United States Government and its branches of the military, told the general public well into the 1960s that not only was radiation not nearly as fatal as some were led to believe (the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have something to say about that, not to mention those who were irradiated by all those above-ground nuclear bomb tests), but that a nuclear war could be a winnable one, even though there would be serious losses of human life and property.
This is why filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) in his 1964 dark satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb had the character General Buck Turgidson say the following about the number of American fatalities in the event of a nuclear attack by the USSR:
“Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say… no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh… depending on the breaks.”
This comment may sound both horrific and absurd, but it was based on real studies into global thermonuclear war circa 1960 which attempted to determine how many human casualties, in terms of what they actually labeled megadeaths, the nation might endure in such an event and still be able to recover.
Of course, by the time Dr. Strangelove appeared in theaters nearly thirteen years after TDTESS, the number of nuclear weapons and the nations that had them had jumped precipitously: The US had over thirty thousand such devices, the USSR over six thousand, and the United Kingdom, France, and China had joined the Nuclear Club with their comparatively small but growing collections of bombs. An all-out nuclear war that might have been devastating but survivable in 1951 was but a morbid fantasy as the Cold War marched on, with international numbers peaking at well over sixty thousand by 1985.
Seeing where the Cold War was likely heading in the coming decades and how it could mean both the end of human civilization and the species itself, it is little wonder that the makers of TDTESS decided to invoke the Number One Deity of the American culture to convince the public and their leaders to stop the madness of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, before it became all too real.
They utilized what science fiction does best: Smuggle in social themes and messages that might otherwise be rejected by the powers that be, which at the time considered the genre to be largely “kids’ stuff” and therefore nothing to worry about.
Not only did TDTESS successfully get its main message in and across, but they also added the icing on the cake of making it seem like the Judeo-Christian God was endorsing it via a handsome alien and his big shiny robot.
How well did this strategy work? Well, it may have gotten many viewers to become aware and subsequently agree with the film’s messages, but as for the nuclear stockpiling itself, that did not start abating until the official end of the Cold War in 1991, when the communist government of the Soviet Union was attacked by an internal coup and subsequently collapsed into the Russian Federation, with the former Soviet provinces becoming their own independent nations.
This is hardly the film’s fault, though: Throughout the Cold War there were countless protests and other methods of social awareness regarding the dangers of nuclear war, as well as many other films which addressed these issues directly. Many of them made their contributions to bringing awareness to the populace about just how deadly a global thermonuclear war would be, but it took a regime change and economic downturn to really start bringing down the numbers of these weapons of mass destruction.
Sadly, though, three decades later, humanity still has more than enough nuclear weapons to certainly destroy our civilized society and render extinct many terrestrial species. So far, it would seem, we are the only ones who can decide what to do with this terrible power and not any external forces, alien or otherwise. As we have yet to detect any extraterrestrial intelligences and our various supernatural deities seem to be sitting back, metaphorically speaking, or are occupied elsewhere, perhaps this is why such messages as proffered in TDTESS can only be taken so seriously, no matter how well-intentioned and important they may otherwise be.
For an in-depth look at all the religious analogies in the film, see this three-part piece by Anton Karl Kozlovic from the Spring 2014 issue of KINEMA.
Part 1 – A Religious Film?
Part 2 – Klaatu as Alien Messiah:
Part 3 – Klaatu’s Holy Associates and Rival Religious Readings:
Klaatu’s Plan – Would It Work?
We already know that the real underlying message of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that nuclear weapons are bad for Earth and everyone on it, their growing numbers will only make things worse, and that only a governing body like the United Nations representing all peoples across the globe can manage such destructive powers.
Whether the film’s ulterior solution would work in our reality then or now is a matter for debate elsewhere. There have also been numerous papers and discussions on this very topic, some of which I will link to in the References section of this essay.
What I am primarily here to examine is this: If an ETI really came to Earth like Klaatu did and informed us not only that there is a kind of United Planets running things in the wider Milky Way galaxy, but that it uses a police force of incorruptible and indestructible machines to ensure the peace with a policy that includes utterly destroying what they see as threatening species, would it be a type of society that humanity would or could accept? And would it work as an interstellar civilization overall?
These are not mere academic questions. If we do expand our civilization into the wider galaxy, and especially if we encounter other intelligent beings who have interstellar capabilities, what may we find out there in terms of organized entities? If there are no ETI in our cosmic neighborhood, or at least not ones relatively nearby, how shall we set up a system for the mutual benefit of all those expected human settlements scattered throughout deep space? Will such a system even be possible, or will the speed of light barrier render a United Planets, or a Galactic Federation or even Empire, for that matter, far less than so many science fiction societies have imagined?
Such a construction may have seemed purely fantastical to many if not most viewers in the pre-Space Age era of 1951; however, as we move deeper into the Twenty-First Century ready to take our first tentative permanent steps on the nearby worlds of our Sol system and are seriously planning robotic interstellar exploration vessels, we can no longer afford to deflect these concepts to some distant future age. We may well see them happening in our lifetimes or certainly our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes.
I shall begin by examining and parsing what Klaatu said to the scientific representatives gathered near the end of the film just before the ETI departs in his spaceship back to his celestial civilization.
“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.”
Just as technological advances in communications and transportation have shrunk the travel time of our information and in-person journeys across Earth, it is apparent that Klaatu’s interstellar civilization has also become much closer in space and time with their superluminal communications and starships. As a result, they can no longer rely on the otherwise very far natural distances between star systems to serve as a form of buffer protection from aggressive behavior by any other civilizations. As Klaatu says, therefore “there must be security for all… or no one is secure.”
“Now, 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.”
We know that Klaatu’s race was once seemingly not all that different from ours; in fact, in a cut dialog when Klaatu first met with Professor Barnhardt, he replied, when the scientist asked if “these other planets… have peace and security”:
“We had our atomic wars – thousands of years ago. After that we fought with bows and arrows. Then, slowly, we learned that fighting is no solution – that aggression leads to chaos.”
It seems that Klaatu’s ancestors and some societies on other worlds had multiple large-scale nuclear conflicts long ago, when humanity was perhaps just starting to become civilized. These wars were severe enough that these cultures were knocked back to their equivalent of the stone age and recovery took a long time. This obviously made a huge impact on their collective psyches, so much so that they did not even trust themselves, let alone others, to self-govern without a major backup system, the “race of robots” represented by Gort.
Returning to his final speech, Klaatu goes into some detail about the reasons for Gort and his kind:
“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.”
This part of Klaatu’s speech brought up multiple questions for me, for which I hope the humanity in the world of TDTESS would later be able to ask themselves:
- So the Gorts have “absolute power” which “cannot be revoked.” When they were first put together and programmed with these features, did the makers assume the possibility that one day their society might change down the road and become enlightened enough that they no longer needed these mechanical wardens? Were the Gorts designed to recognize this and either stand down or reprogram themselves to fit into this new and presumably better society?
- Klaatu’s comment that their powers “cannot be revoked” concerns me. I get that when it comes to species which could suddenly turn dangerous one might need a response that is incapable of being bribed, fooled, or destroyed. Nevertheless, what happens when or if Klaatu and his fellow planetary members evolve to where they would never harm each other or anyone else ever again? Let us hope and assume Klaatu simply forgot to add that the Gorts would revoke their offensive powers when the organic species become saints, or otherwise change in such a way that the robot security system is no longer required.
This particular bit reminds me of what happened in another Cold War-infused science fiction film from 1970 titled The Forbin Project: The United States and Soviet Union independently develop an intelligent automated system to secure their nations’ nuclear arsenal and ensure that neither human error nor human vice could trigger a nuclear war. The two artificial intelligences (AI) in charge of humanity’s nuclear weapons, named Colossus and Guardian, respectively, detect each other and soon merge into one global unit and fulfill their programming with machine logic by not allowing any human to ever gain control of such power. The primate designers also made sure that Colossus could not be turned off by giving it a nuclear power source and placing it deep within a mountain. Thus, humanity found itself under the rulership and guidance of their own creation which threatened nuclear annihilation if disobeyed, with the added irony that Colossus was only doing exactly as it was programmed to do.
- Klaatu mentions that “at the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor.” Who determines what type of violence sets off the Gorts? Do they have a programmed list of “acceptable” aggressions that do not activate the robots, such as dealing with a natural disaster where the need for force is required but is not the type that would harm others? I get that Klaatu was trying to be direct here and make an impression (a rather aggressive one, please note) upon the primitive inhabitants of Sol 3, plus I am sure the filmmakers did not want him to give a long-winded speech complete with footnotes and extended explanations and caveats.
Klaatu carries on:
“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.”
I hope at some point Klaatu or a similar representative will send humanity the details for how their system works, including their imperfections, so that there is more than the alien’s words and the intimidation of the giant robot standing behind him to go on. I would also like to know what these “more profitable enterprises” are exactly, and who determines which ones the inhabitants of these united worlds can pursue without fear of being destroyed.
Then Klaatu says this:
“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.”
I noted this attitude earlier in this essay, but I will repeat it here, for I think it is important: Klaatu and his more sophisticated society are not concerned if, in the process of being an evolving civilization, we humans decide to kill ourselves off. Their true main concern involves us leaving our planet with the intent of messing with their shining galactic civilization.
Since they already know we humans are far from perfect and will need time to adjust and grow to this new reality, why not guide us now so they can ensure we would be good little galactic citizens when we finally do achieve spaceflight? Thanks to Klaatu, humanity is well aware beyond a doubt that intelligent beings exist beyond Earth, so any concerns about disrupting our society with the knowledge of more advanced civilizations are well past.
Otherwise, knowing how humanity does not act as one monolithic unit no matter what the potential consequences may be, they are essentially setting us up for automatic failure.
Klaatu may have shown some surprising ignorance regarding less sophisticated societies like ours, but I have trouble imagining the rest of this galactic civilization would be unaware of all the potential pitfalls, especially since they were once very warlike themselves.
As for this reducing Earth to a “burned-out cinder,” I will ask again as I did earlier, why would you punish all the lifeforms on our planet when it is only one species that threatens your near-perfect existence? This not only seems deeply unfair but the very kind of aggressiveness that I thought the Gorts were supposed to stop? Or are punishments for aggressive acts only for other species not in the club?
Klaatu ends his speech thus:
“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.”
SIDE NOTE: I found it rather interesting how Klaatu took off in his spaceship mere moments after he finishes addressing the crowd on the Ellipse. The alien gives no overt warning that his ship is about to launch upward, unless you count when Klaatu started off his speech with “I am leaving soon.” The ship merely starts glowing underneath accompanied with that growing loud mechanical sound we first heard when it arrived on Earth. The vessel then levitates upward and rapidly climbs into the starry night sky.
As the ship took off, the scientists, the nearest of whom were mere feet from the silvery disc, became understandably frightened and quickly started backing away, knocking over their wooden folding chairs in the process. No one appeared to be visibly harmed by the ship’s actions, even though Klaatu had earlier told a questioning Bobby Benson that it operated on “a highly developed form of atomic power.”
Now for me, atomic power means there would be radiation present, perhaps even a lethal amount to anyone very close to the vessel with its propulsion system active. Then again, these advanced beings may have solved this otherwise major issue with nuclear power. At least I would like to think that Klaatu would never be so cruel as to irradiate a bunch of humans, especially such a supportive group as the scientists.
Physics and technology aside, I could not help but think that Klaatu was giving one final blunt “warning” to the natives by frightening them with such a deliberate show of his kind’s superior technology, even if he and Gort were just leaving town. This action bears similarities to the decision made earlier in the film when Klaatu conversed with Professor Barnhardt over how to demonstrate to humanity that he and his society mean business with “something dramatic – but not destructive.”
Image: Klaatu uses his spaceship one final time to “impress” the natives of Earth to get his message across that his people are not to be trifled with.
Humanity in the world of TDTESS, which until just a few days ago had no clue there were any other intelligences or even life in the Cosmos, let alone Klaatu and his bunch – not to mention is in the middle of a major Cold War – is now given two main choices for its future: Either join a society of more sophisticated worlds and follow their ways – or else – or remain confined to Earth and probably end up destroying themselves, or so declares Klaatu.
Well, there is a third option, but that involves humanity steadfastly remaining independent, doing as it darn pleases, start launching its members into space, and probably end up being wiped out by some Gorts. Again, these are some quite confining choices, all in the name of a particular brand of peace and security that is backed up by a system that cannot be either modified or stopped if triggered, leaving the so-called offender species with no second chances for redemption.
As we have seen in all-too-recent history, humanity seldom acts as a unified whole, even when it is considered to be in everyone’s best interests to do so. Even threats of obliteration can fail to sway certain groups; in fact, there are those who will actively seek out their own destruction if it is seen as part of some divine destiny or the loss of their way of life.
As one who gets the strong impression that all the alien species in Klaatu’s labeled United Planets are either very much like humans or at the least behave like our species in terms of biological evolution and psychology, I am both surprised and suspicious that Klaatu’s society would just assume the natives of Sol 3 would automatically cooperate to avoid extermination, even after he witnessed firsthand how very tribal global humanity was in 1951 – and still is.
Although I am certain the filmmakers honestly considered that humanity both in the film and in this world would seek out the United Nations as their new governing body to end all wars, I cannot help but wonder if a part of Klaatu’s society expected humanity to fail and therefore face destruction in one form or another, thus solving the potential danger of the hostile species without looking like the initiating aggressors. However, if they are the top dogs in the Milky Way as the film leads us to believe, who do they need to look good to and for, besides themselves?
Why are Klaatu’s people worried about the primitive Terrans when they could and did shut us down with ease, and with just one starship at that? The humanity of 1951 had both nuclear bombs and rockets, with some of the latter being able to briefly reach space (but could neither orbit nor escape Earth), but they would not start to successfully combine the two elements as one working unit until later in that decade. Even so, what would a technologically advanced society that is thousands of years older and encompasses multiple worlds have to really fear from us?
Perhaps they are thinking long-term, as any society which has lasted for millennia and exists across many light years of space would have to do in order to survive for so long in the first place. They may have conducted their own calculations of potential futures and determined that humanity might be one of those rare species that could keep advancing technologically right into space while remaining aggressive towards anyone outside their tribes. Thus, the visit by Klaatu and Gort to pre-emptively avoid any messy (and resource-intensive) conflicts down the proverbial road.
Peace and Security… at the Cost of Individual Freedom?
Is having a system where you need incredibly tight control worth having, even if it keeps the peace? Being controlled by others is one way to become stagnant and even unable to defend yourself because, in the case of Klaatu’s people, a bunch of mechanical nannies have been doing it for them for so long.
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, based on a 1962 science fiction novel of the same name by author Anthony Burgess (1917-1993), the government of a now retro-future Great Britain attempts to control the more violent and antisocial members of its society with an experimental technique that makes the recipient physically ill at even the thought of performing any aggressive acts, let alone performing them. Even being attacked by others initiating the aggression leaves the recipient helpless with pain. As Kubrick noted, ACO is a film-length debate on whether a society is better off on its own devices or under control from a higher authority.
Perhaps I am just emoting Twenty-First Century cynicism here, but as I said, I am also trying to look at the messages of TDTESS from a realistic viewpoint – and it is very safe to say that humanity rarely acts as a singular collective on anything. When or if our species will ever become what Klaatu might hope is up for debate, especially so long as we remain largely organic in nature. Is it even a good thing for humanity to ever act and think as one, in terms of our creativity and cultural evolution? Are Klaatu’s people truly free and progressive with such a powerful self-imposed Sword of Damocles over their collective heads?
For more on these ideas, see my section titled “Why Aren’t the Gorts in Charge?” later in this essay.
A Humanoids-Only Club?
Among the many unanswered questions left in The Day the Earth Stood Still is what kind of species make up this United Planets that Klaatu comes from? Is Klaatu an example of what the majority of beings look like in his society? Or was he chosen specifically because his particular species was the closest to humans?
Since evolutionary biology predicts that species developing on different worlds in different environments will come forth with their own unique attributes, we may assume that not many others if any in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond will look and behave like humanity, or at least not as close in resemblance as witnessed with Klaatu or the majority of species in the Star Trek franchise.
Going on this assumption, it is quite possible that Klaatu’s interstellar society has or will encounter intelligent beings that are neither humanoid looking nor acting. In this event, what does this society do with truly alien species? How can they determine if such beings are benevolent or a threat, especially if their society does not progress in the way humans have often assumed most species would, which means pretty much like themselves?
Or is Klaatu part of a “Humanoids-Only Club” in part to maintain their type of order and any ETI outside of these parameters is merely avoided and excluded? We will also assume, if the latter concept is the case, that the Gorts are utilized to both enforce this separation of species and to “take care” of any such ETI who either cannot or will not respect their boundaries. After all, Klaatu publicly admitted that they “do not pretend to have achieved perfection,” whatever that may actually mean.
This attitude is certainly quite evident in the Star Trek polity known as the United Federation of Planets, or UFP. While the main criteria for admission in the UFP is having the ability to come up with and successfully build starships capable of warp drive, the majority of members are decidedly humanoid as were all of the founding species.
When we do start expanding among the stars, whether in person or via various communications and other technological methods, we may not have the “luxury” of encountering aliens who are similar to us. If such beings are very different from humans, there may be no real issues of conflict only because the parties may either be either unable or unwilling to connect with one another. Then again, there is always the possibility that major differences could lead to conflict based on fear and misunderstandings. We just won’t know until the day this actually happens.
On the other hand, if ETI are not too widely scattered among the star systems of the Milky Way (yes, I am assuming intelligent species do exist beyond Earth here) and we can relate with one another to a sufficient degree, would a United Nations-style society work, especially if a means for FTL propulsion and communications are never found? Perhaps, if the societies do not mind long response times and the organization is more like a “mutual admiration with occasional assistance” society. Such an interstellar culture may not work for our entertainment purposes, but reality seldom bothers itself with what humans prefer. The distances alone plus the vast resources of a galaxy with over 400 billion star systems may also naturally prevent the very threats that Klaatu and his people are oh so worried about.
Why Aren’t the Gorts in Charge?
In the 1940 story whence evolved TDTESS titled “Farewell to the Master”, the Twilight Zone-style plot twist at the very end reveals that the giant green robot which accompanied Klaatu from outer space (named Gnut in the story) is the real one in charge and not the humanoid alien as most everyone on Earth naturally assumed.
From the story:
Of all the things Cliff had wanted to say to Klaatu, one remained imperatively present in his mind. Now, as the green metal robot stood framed in the great green ship, he seized his chance.
“Gnut,” he said earnestly, holding carefully the limp body in his arms, “you must do one thing for me. Listen carefully. I want you to tell your master – the master yet to come – that what happened to the first Klaatu was an accident, for which all Earth is immeasurably sorry. Will you do that?”
“I have known it,” the robot answered gently.
“But will you promise to tell your master – just those words – as soon as he is arrived?”
“You misunderstand,” said Gnut, still gently, and quietly spoke four more words. As Cliff heard them a mist passed over his eyes and his body went numb.
As he recovered and his eyes came back to focus he saw the great ship disappear. It just suddenly was not there any more. He fell back a step or two. In his ears, like great bells, rang Gnut’s last words. Never, never was he to disclose them till the day he came to die.
“You misunderstand,” the mighty robot had said. “I am the master.”
When Harry Bates wrote this story and even when TDTESS was released, the idea of our machines taking over the world was not unknown in science fiction but was still a fairly new concept to the general public. After all, robots were something seen as little more than an exotic amusement, such as the one displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. Computers were heavy monsters with blinking lights and vacuum tubes which could only be afforded by a few major business corporations and the military. It was too soon to “marry” the two technologies in any serious way.
While some wondered if computers could indeed one day actually think like a human, the contemporary machines could at best calculate numbers and collate data faster than any one person. There was no actual consciousness inside any of these “electronic brains”, however.
This is probably one strong reason why Gort was portrayed as a powerful yet still obedient servant to the organic humanoid Klaatu. The robot even obeyed orders relayed by a human woman through Klaatu. There may also have been a measure of disbelief and/or cultural fear of having a “race of robots” be the real ones dominating the biological intelligences as seemingly unnatural. Yet somehow it was acceptable to make them an unstoppable police force with planet-destroying powers.
For the longest time, interstellar adventures were viewed in the same respect as traditional maritime expeditions on Earth: As a massive ship containing a large human crew functioning as a Navy-style military hierarchy. There were often automated systems assisting the organic members, including an electronic brain which could be just as aware as a human being and often much smarter and faster. These Artilects, as I like to use the term (for artificial intellects) were either just as obedient as any other mechanical equipment on the ship, or they would go rogue and have to be dealt with. Far less often seen was an Artilect who ran the entire spaceship and mission on its own, using its speed and strengths for the benefit and increased data returns.
As several groups are now working to develop real automated interstellar vessels that could reach the nearest star systems in a matter of decades, the concept of Artilects voyaging among the stars and being the next evolutionary steps in intelligent species has gained wider acceptance by both science fiction folks and professional scientists alike.
For just one example, take this quote from an interview with Dr. Sara Seager, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), discussing what the most suitably advanced species would be for interstellar travel and exploration:
“My personal opinion about life that could traverse the galaxy, if we are now talking about life that could come to Earth, or in the future, if we’re able to travel to a distant star system, is that it probably has to be nonbiological because space is very harmful for people. We can barely survive on Earth, if you think about it, and Earth is a very safe, well-designed place for us, or rather we are adapted to our environment. So I think for us initially as human beings to find life elsewhere, it’s bound to be biological, since that’s all we can see; it’s all we know how to do. But if we ever think of traveling through the galaxy or of alien life coming here, then I believe on a personal level that it will be nonbiological.”
You may read the full interview here:
In light of our recent knowledge, would it be more plausible to have fleets of Gorts exploring the Milky Way galaxy while the organic species stay on their worlds, unless they so desire to venture bodily into space? Or perhaps they wish to migrate in person to other worlds for settlement?
Or if the previous is not imaginative enough: Instead of smaller mobile machines occupying larger interstellar crafts, why not have the starship itself be the intelligent being: The computer would be its brain while the ship is its body. Robots could serve as appendages to fix any technical issues and conduct remote explorations of interesting celestial objects.
Perhaps we do not require a scenario where one species dominates another, mechanical or organic. Rather, it just becomes more logical that an Artilect surrounded by advanced technology would be best for handling the rigors of outer space and alien worlds, as Dr. Seager said above. The biological species could use their knowledge to become cybernetic organisms or transform themselves into other types of organic species entirely. In this case, evolution would not be a competition but numerous levels of success with an entire Universe to expand into.
The Decision Really is Ours
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a product of its time in many respects, a natural consequence of being over seventy years old and arriving on the big screens when humanity had ended a second world war just over a half decade earlier and was then deeply involved in a rather new and different kind of international conflict. Human culture was also about to radically change how it dealt with a number of important traits and issues that had dominated our civilization for centuries. TDTESS hinted at what was to come in these social arenas and what needed to be done.
Nevertheless, the film was also a major pioneer both for its genre and inspiring others how to think about the Cosmos, along with looking at different ways to deal with a major human crisis we have yet to move on from, global thermonuclear war.
In this essay I have indeed been critical of Klaatu’s concept of peace and security. My main objection is that their way of preventing major conflicts will ultimately corral in human nature and spirit, eventually resulting in our extinction either literally or culturally. We have seen all too well what happens when anyone or any institution tries to press overt control on humanity, even if it is meant with good intentions.
So long as we remain primarily biological creatures, we will always be imperfect and limited. Would being controlled by a race of machines be a viable solution? Do we need to find some other way to evolve out of our barbaric pasts? Or do we just need to fracture off and move on, as social groups of all levels have done for ages on Earth – only this time into the much wider realm of space?
Unlike our long experiences with a singular, finite planet, there should be plenty of room and resources for many species throughout the Milky Way galaxy and beyond. Will we discover this in person, or will they come to us before this? And what will their reasons for being on our planet be?
We can thank The Day the Earth Stood Still for being one of the early and well done cinematic efforts to expand our cosmic consciousness. Whether there are Klaatus and Gorts in the galaxy, or aliens that are utterly different from terrestrial life, or no neighbors at all, TDTESS played its part in making the public aware of the myriad possibilities that exist beyond our pale blue dot.
Cosmic level awareness is a very important and vital step in our cultural and individual growth as an intelligent species. As Klaatu said in his final words to humanity, the decision of how we take our next steps together truly does rest with ourselves. We just need to leave our cradle and start growing up, accepting all the consequences and benefits this collective maturation entails.
The following hyperlinks take you to selected articles, news, and other media for your further appreciation and enjoyment of the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. These links were functional at the time of this essay’s publication.
This is the original theatrical trailer for the film. I love how the makers of trailers in those days emphasized the drama and excitement of these films, even if it does seem rather overwrought now:
TDTESS was certainly no exception to this style; if anything, its rather uncommon story and imagery for the era lent itself to descriptions that literally filled the screen, such as: “They came 250 million miles out of space… to hold the world spellbound with new and startling powers from another planet!” Gort was described thusly: “The screen has never conceived a creature like this!” This was true enough in terms of serious depictions of these automatons, with the one famous exception of the robot named Maria from the 1927 German science fiction film Metropolis.
I also like how the trailer borrowed a page from the 1938 Mercury Theater radio play version of The War of the Worlds by starting off with a television newscast featuring the real-life journalist and columnist Drew Pearson describing to his audience in a serious and urgent manner about the arrival of an alien spaceship to Earth. Pearson would later be seen doing this reporting in the film itself.
The complete film is available online for free and uncut at this site:
The original short story that inspired the film may be read at either of these two spots:
An interesting artistic interpretation of “Farewell to the Master” by Jeremy Lightcap may be found here:
Here is an essay on the original story by Zuleyha Cetiner-Oktem titled “The Apocalyptic Chronotope in ‘Farewell to the Master’ and The Day the Earth Stood Still” published in 2019 by the Mediterranean Journal of Humanities:
The paper abstract reads:
Mythic and religious narratives that envision the end of the world position the apocalypse in a futuristic time where certain events would sequentially occur finally building up to the inevitable end. Speculative fiction that depicts near-apocalypses do not however, prefer unconceivable futures but favour the current time of the narrative, depicting them as events happening now. Operating within the apocalyptic chronotope, science fiction bonds present day concerns with possible catastrophes. One such narrative is Harry Bates’ short story “Farewell to the Master” (1940) which also generated two film adaptations entitled The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, 2008). While Bates’ short story relates how humanity is prone to act imprudently during a relatively peaceful period, the 1951 film turns to that of the Cold War and its repercussions, and the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still centres around the theme of nature. As environmental concerns dominate our era the 2008 film reflects humanity’s ever-growing consumption and destruction of its natural surroundings. As the source text and its adaptations provide possible apocalyptic visions or scenarios adjusted to their respective audiences, this essay analyses these narratives through the apocalyptic chronotope, exploring and building on Bakhtin’s theory. In doing so, this essay attempts to discern the ways in which adapted near apocalyptic scenarios shift and change to accommodate contemporary concerns within a temporal and spatial framework.
These next hyperlinks take you to sites detailing the iconic soundtrack of TDTESS. This one is from the blog Cue by Cue: Film Music Narratives…
The very detailed Film Score Rundown by Bill Wrobel is here:
This next article displays and discusses the soundtrack sheet music. Titled “Waging the Peace: Bernard Herrmann and The Day the Earth Stood Still,” it is authored by Anthony J. Bushard and was published in 2009:
The introductory text by Bushard is worthy of reproduction here:
The movie that gave us the phrase, “Klaatu! Barada! Nikto!” is not only an important science-fiction film, but also arguably one of the most significant films of the 1950s. Furthermore, it elevated the emerging genre of cinematic science-fiction above “junk or kiddy fare”1 and addressed more mature themes than one would normally encounter at a Saturday matinee. Producer Julian Blaustein, while in the early stages of creating The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), recalled reading about a government-led “Peace Offensive.” To him, the plan seemed to be contradictory: How could peace be obtained through a military offensive? The 1950s were dominated by such conflicting ideologies. U.S. foreign policy fought for freedom across the globe in the hopes of halting the spread of Communism. Conversely, in battling domestic Communism, liberties were sacrificed, loyalties called into question, and promising careers extinguished. The portrayal of the suburban lifestyle as the ideal place to raise a family lured many people from the cities to increased security in the suburbs. However, the homogeneity of race and social class, the repressive expectations of gender roles, and the cultural isolation left many suburbanites still searching for domestic utopia. When these social and political dualities converged, the results reflected what are often cited as side effects of U.S. foreign and domestic policy during the 1950s: fear, paranoia, and alienation. Hollywood experienced an equally transitional era in its history following World War II. The competition with television, destabilization of the studio system, and the specter of House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations in 1947 and 1951 produced a sense of negativity and skepticism throughout the film industry. Consequently, several filmmakers produced movies that reexamined important social issues and confronted the aforementioned conflicting ideologies. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was such a film that became renowned for both its critical success as well as its controversial socio-political message.
As the spaceship lands, the first instinct of humans is to panic and act irrationally. Director Robert Wise captures this in the man running down the street screaming, “They’re here! They’ve landed on the Mall!”2 One does not know specifically who “they” are, let alone what “their” intentions might be. Because of this frightening event, there are no certainties, only ambiguities. The composer for the film, Bernard Herrmann, echoes this feeling through virtual harmonic stasis in “Danger”.
The final draft script date February 21, 1951, utilized multiple times throughout this essay (with gratitude), may be found online at these Internet locations:
These next two links are from the site Script to Screen, which compares two different scenes from TDTESS between how they were written and then filmed:
Here is the transcript of the released version of TDTESS. Note that it only contains the film dialogue with neither names to accompany the quotes nor any stage directions:
In January of 1954, Lux Radio Theater produced a play for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Radio Network based on the 1951 film. Michael Rennie reprised his role as the voice of Klaatu, although this time it was Jean Peters (1926-2000) who played Helen Benson. The play closely followed its cinematic origins throughout.
The radio play is transcribed here, complete with all accompanying advertisements and an interesting “interview” with the two main stars afterwards by the program’s host and producer, Irving Cummings Jr. (1918-1996):
Host Cummings asked Jean Peters if she had ever “seen any flying saucers?”, to which she replied: “Oh, actresses aren’t interested in such things, Irving. We prefer King of the Khyber Rifles. After all, who cares about spacemen when you can see Tyrone Power and Michael Rennie in their latest picture? Co-starring with Terry Moore.”
Just before this scintillating “news”, the host asked Rennie if he had “ever seen any U.M.O.s?” to which the actor explains is “an Unidentifiable Moving Object. Yes, I saw several years ago in London.”
HOST: “You mean during the war?”
RENNIE: “No, when I was a very young actor. But the flying objects were later identified as ripe tomatoes and eggs and cauliflower. …”
In the early 1980s, there was a plan to create a sequel to TDTESS. Simply titled The Day the Earth Stood Still II, the film was commissioned by Hollywood but never made. You may read a “revised treatment” written by none other than Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) dated September 11, 1981, here:
A detailed analysis of the commands Klaatu gave to Gort:
There are other pages from this 1978 site on the film, including the spaceship’s design and the various story meanings. The screenwriter said that Klaatu’s alien words did not really mean anything. However, they have to make some kind of sense in the narrative of the film, so it harms nothing to make some educated guesses at his language, as the author does above.
This is an excellent page analyzing the functionality of the main alien devices in TDTESS and how well they work as designed, with lots of images of the spaceship interior:
What would rulership under Klaatu and Gort’s kind mean for humanity – A discussion:
These next few links go to pages looking at where TDTESS was filmed:
This site makes some interesting observations about TDTESS including a review of it on DVD. I also add two quotes from this page after its link:
“In the threatening situation of the world today, when people are beginning to see that everything is at stake, the projection-creating fantasy soars beyond the realm of earthly organizations and powers into the heavens, into interstellar space, where the rulers of human fate, the gods, once had their abode in the planets…. Even people who would never have thought that a religious problem could be a serious matter that concerned them personally are beginning to ask themselves fundamental questions.”
— C. G. Jung, in Flying Saucers, 1958
“Michael Rennie was ill/The day the earth stood still/But he told us where we stand.”
–The opening lines from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
These sites go into various depths on TDTESS which should add to your enlightenment and enjoyment of the film:
An impressive-looking pressbook of TDTESS from 1951 with all 24 of its pages may be found online here:
This video is from 2009, Behind The Big Screen: The Day The Earth Stood Still:
This video is Part 1 of 6 of Making “The Earth Stand Still” from 1995:
Quoting from the video introduction:
Part 1 of “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (1951) documentary. A classic sci-fi film from the ’50-s directed by Robert Wise, starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. The documentary is about the movie itself with scenes from it and interviews with most of the cast and crew, including the director, the producer Julian Blaustein, actress Patricia Neal and Bob Burns, a world well known horror/sci-fi historian and archivist and prop collector. In the interviews also take part famous horror directors Joe Dante and William Malone. All they discuss and talk about making the film that turns to classic.
Here is a look at a French cinema poster of TDTESS when the film was rereleased into theaters circa 1967 or 1968:
Note the following: As with the original film poster, the frightened woman being held in the clutches of the “menacing” Gort is a long-haired blond in a slinky red evening dress. No such person was ever held by the robot in the film, only Patricia Neal’s character Helen Benson – and she was a short-haired brunette who dressed modestly. Even worse, look at the spaceship flying behind Gort: That is the alien vessel from the 1955 science fiction film This Island Earth! If one wanted to get really picky, one could also say that the planet Saturn, shown to the left of Gort, made no known appearances in the film, either.
Forbidden Planet’s original film poster had a similar issue: Robbie the Robot was also prominently displayed holding an attractive blond woman, who in that case was unconscious, perhaps out of terror from being captured by the metal menace from outer space! Once again, the only human being this robot ever carried in his arms was a dying Doc Ostrow, who was not an attractive blond woman and probably would not have sold as many tickets if the poster artist decided to strive for cinematic accuracy.
Was TDTESS made or promoted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to acclimate humanity to the future arrival of real aliens?
As conspiracy-laden as this piece sounds, the film did play an early role in the start of waking up the general public to the concept of alien life, even if that was not its primary intention.
In 1954, the British put together and released a low-budget remake (or re-envisioning) of TDTESS titled Stranger from Venus, known as The Venusian in its American release. Patricia Neal is the lead female actor in this film, this time playing an American named Susan North. As you may have guessed from the title, an alien with no given name comes from the planet Venus to warn humanity about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the consequences if we don’t mend our ways.
You may watch the entire film here:
A fun and informative review of Stranger from Venus is here: