"There's nothing strange about Washington, Mr. Carpenter."
"A person from another planet might disagree with you."
For some time, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was my favorite film above all others. With puberty, I came to appreciate the romance in Casablanca (1941), giving it the edge on the number one spot in my cinematic affections. But I can still remember the first time I saw TDTESS. I still remember the power of the opening montage of news broadcasts around the world as the progress of the spaceship is reported. The landing of the spaceship -- not much of a special effect by todays standards but striking for its day. The first appearance of the robot. The suspense as the spaceman and Helen Benson try to evade the military. My shock when the spaceman was killed by a soldier's bullet. The somber final message. It was memorable and it still stands up to viewing today. Compared to it, the recent remake is flash with little substance and no suspense.
TDTESS was directed by Robert Wise, who had previously edited Citizen Kane (1941) and who would later direct West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). The screenplay by Edmund H. North was based on the story "Farewell to the Master," wriiten by famed SF editor John W. Campbell under his pen name of Harry Bates. The memorable score by Bernard Herrmann helped make electronic music (and the theremin in particular) the standard choice for sci-fi music until 2001: A Space Oddessy (1968) made classical the new choice.
The film begins with the arrival in Earth's atmosphere of a classic flying saucer, which lands on the Ellipse, behind the White House in Washington, DC. A crowd gathers, held back by soldiers and police. Then a ramp slides out of the seemingly solid side of the ship, the side parts to create a door, and a humanoid figure in a shiny spacesuit and helmet emerges. When he raises a metal object, one of the soldiers panics and shoots him.
In response to this act of violence, a nine-foot tall robot (Joseph Lockard Martin, Jr.) comes out of the ship. The robot's visor opens and a that beam shines out from beneath the visor vaporizes the soldiers' guns, a tank, and two artillery pieces. The spaceman speaks to the robot and it halts and its visor closes. He then tells the soldiers, "It was a gift for your president. With this he could have studied life on the other planets." The soldiers help him away from the site.
The next scene opens at an Army hospital, where the spaceman is being treated. One of the physicians reports that the spaceman's wound had healed overnight following the application of a salve the spaceman had with him.
Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy), the President's representative, visits the spaceman, who we learn is named Klaatu. Klaatu is a tall, slim, handsome man who appears to be around 40. Klaatu is played by British actor Michael Rennie, who was unfamiliar to most Americans at the time, adding to his effectiveness as the mysterious spaceman.
When Klaatu refuses to divulge the nature of his mission to him, Mr. Harley suggests that perhaps he would prefer to discuss it personally with the President. Klaatu replies, "This is not a personal matter, Mr. Harley; it concerns all the people on your planet." He tells him that he has a message for the entire planet and that all world leaders must come together to hear it.
When Harley describes the impossibility of bringing the world's leaders together in one place given the rivalries and distrust rampant at the time, Klaatu snaps in annoyance, "I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it." Harley replies, "I'm afraid my people haven't. I am very sorry. I wish it were otherwise."
Klaatus suggests that it might be useful to get out among the people of Earth to learn of the reasons for their mistrust. Mr. Harley tells him that this is impossible but Klaatu easily escapes the locked door of his room. He steals a suit and goes out to meet the people.
The residents of the rooming house ran by Mrs. Barley (Francis Bavier) are nervously discussing the newspaper reports of the spaceman and speculating about where the spaaceman is from and what he is up to. They are startled for a moment by the arrival of a stranger who identifies himself as Mr. Carpenter and rents a room. It is, of cousre, Klaatu. One of the tenants comments, "You're a long way from home aren't you Mr. Carpenter." Mr. carpenter/Klaatu replies "How did you know?" "I can tell a New England accent a mile away," she says.
Mr. Carpenter makes friends with Bobby (Billy Gray), the son of single mother Helen Benson (Patricia Neal). Babysitting Bobby while Helen goes on a date with her fiance Tom (Hugh Marlowe), he and the boy visit the Lincoln Monument and Arlington Cemetery, then take in a movie. He asks Bobby who the wisest man in the world is and Bobby tells him that Prof. Barnhardt, who lives nearby, is the "smartest man on Earth." Mr. Carpenter and Bobby go to the professor's house, where Mr. Carpenter completes an equation Barnhard had left unfinished on his blackboard.
A federal agent comes to the boarding house because of the equation. He takes Mr. Carpenter to meet Dr. Barnhardt -- played by Sam Jaffe in a performance clearly modeled on Einstein. Since a meeting of the world's chiefs of state is impossible, Klaatu asks Prof. Barnhardt to assembles a group of scientists and men of stature from other fields to hear his message. The Professor advises that he should arrange a demonstration of his of power, but urges that it be non-destructive.
Klaatu returns to the ship, followed by Bobby. Bobby tells his mother and Tom, but they think it was a bad dream. The next day all electricity on Earth (with the exception of that in hospitals and planes in flight) is neutralized from noon to 12:30 PM. During this time Mr. Carpenter is trapped in an elevator with Helen and tells her what he is on Earth to do. Tom calls the authorities, despite Helens attempts to convince him not to. Attempting to reach the spaceship in a taxi, Klaatu and Helen are pursued by military police. Klaatu gives Helen instructions in case he is captured or killed. At a roadblock, Klaatu exits the cab, runs, and is fatally shot.
Aware by some means of Klaatu's death, Gort begins to melt the plastic block -- "stronger than steel"-- that is encasing him. Two soldiers on guard duty walk toward him. He opens his visor and vaporizes the soldiers with his energy beam.
Following his instructions, Helen goes to the spaceship in search of Gort. Gort corners her and his visor begins to open. The terrified Helen follows Klaatu's instructions and utters the words "Klaatu barada nikto." Gort closes his visor, picks her up and takes her into the spaceship. He then goes to the jail, crashes through the wall and carries off Klaatu's corpse. Returning to the spaceship, he brings Klaatu back to life. Klaatu tells an amazed Helen that it is sometimes possible to restore life temporarily in this fashion but that for how long is uncertain. [This description of the technique as being temporary was added at the insistence of the censorship office, lest it offend anyone's religious sensibilities.]
In the final scene, just as Barnhardt, thinking Klaatu dead, is ready to call off the assembly, Klaatu, Gort and Helen step out of the ship. Klaatu addresses the audience of scientists and tells them that the other sentient species in the universe have long observed Earth's warlike ways. Now that Earthmen have the atomic bomb and are beginning to explore space, we have become a potential threat to all beings everywhere. "If you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burnt out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you." Having delivered his message, Klaatu and Gort enter the spaceship and fly away.
The antiwar message of TDTESS was ahead of its time, contrasting sharply with the simplistic anti-communist messages of most political films of its day. With its serious message, sophisticated plot, and quality performances, TDTESS brought science fiction into the mainstream of cinema -- elevating it above B-movie status.