The Day the Earth Stood Still came out in 1951, just as the Korean War was grinding to a stalemate. Korea is never mentioned in the movie, although the film’s Washington DC certainly has a very high military presence that indicates this is a “wartime” setting.
As seems to be popular with movies of the era, the film has plenty of famous locations shown. The monuments and sights of Washington DC are featured prominently, even though the actual filming took place elsewhere. Similarly, the reaction of “the World” to events is show by flashing people in London, Paris, etc., set against some landmark scenery from each location. At least, all of the place except one. The shot of Moscow is an obvious fake, for obvious reasons.
In general, the cinematography is a mixed bag. Along the same lines as above, the film opening shot is a descent from outer space. It’s meant to, I’m sure, dazzle the film-goer with sights he’s probably never seen outside of the theater. Today, the “special effects” shot from space looks pretty hokey. Once actual footage from aircraft is mixed in, it begins to look a lot better. From a technical standpoint, that pretty much sets the stage for the whole film. The special effects are frightfully bad. The shots of regular people look considerable better. Particularly closeups stood out with that genuine style that seems unique to the black-and-white medium.
The film’s story also improves once in moves away from the space man and laser beams of the opening. I initially found the alien pretty annoying as he smirked at the petty humans around him, but once he decides to hide himself among the hoi polloi, the character and the story improve.
I’m quite sure I watched this at least once as a kid, but I honestly didn’t remember anything except the space man and laser beams. If you also don’t remember the story, I’m going to go ahead a ruin it for you. He dies.
The concept is that this man from outer space comes to our planet with a warning. As our warlike species is developing the technology for intergalactic travel, the various aliens in our vicinity who, up to this point have been content to leave us alone, now grow very concerned about our ability to threaten them via nuclear and space technology. They’ve developed a Doomsday Machine, of sorts, that we risk triggering, resulting in the annihilation of our species if we don’t find within us the capacity for peace and love. Or something like that.
The suspension of disbelief for the 1951 audience may have been fairly high when it comes to science fiction. I like my science fiction hard, as I like my… well, never mind that. Point is, I like the “science” to make some sense. This one has a lot of holes, some of which significantly distract from the story. As an example, there are some things the aliens know with perfect knowledge, and other things they don’t understand at all. Is there any possible logic to it except that it made for clever dialog?
Another incongruous detail to my sensibility, likely generational, is the portrayal of the military. First off, there are men in uniform everywhere. Street scenes almost always feature a soldier in uniform as one of the bystanders. This may have been normal and/or expected in post-World War II America, or at this phase of the Korean War. It may even be normal for Washington DC today – I tried to avoid that wretched hive of scum and villainy if at all possible. I was also impressed with the eagerness and rapidity that martial law could be declared and implemented. Furthermore, the portrayal of martial law is as an unequivocal common good. The populous and the audience accepts the quick intervention of the military as the right and proper defense against an unknown threat – this despite the fact that it is ineptitude by members of the same that escalate the crisis in the first place, several times throughout the film shooting alien Klaatu.
By comparison, the source for the story, a magazine published short story “Farewell to the Master” is written (and set) before the U.S.’s entry into the Second World War. In that version, it is a “lunatic” who murders Klaatu. He is killed, in fact, before he can do anything to explain his presence. Thus the message of “Peace and Love or Die!” is not part of the story. Also, the resurrection of Klaatu by the robot, included in both the movie and the book, has a little more SciFi continuity in the book form. In that, the robot simply struggles to recreate Klaatu (from his voice? well, OK) and, ultimately fails to be entirely successful. Klaatu is regenerated, but imperfectly, and quickly dies again. No such explanation, except for some pseudo-spirituality, surrounds the movie Klaatu’s recovery from his second and fatal shooting.
The simultaneous acceptance of martial law and criticism of the military (the shootings plus the failure of the “brass” to appreciate Klaatu’s mission) is in fact in line with the message of the filmmaker. If not already obvious, it is a post-World War II call for increasing the role of the United Nations in world affairs, and the deemphasization, if not elimination, of nationalism.
It also explains what, to me, looks like a contradiction. Even to the most imaginative, it is hard to understand how any process of the United Nations could approach Gort’s Doomsday Machine. The best the U.N. was capable of was (and remains) bringing in a “coalition of the willing” on the side with the casus belli. The more comprehensible analogy is the submission of the individual and his freedom to the power of the State. Thus the State, as just ruler, deserves deference when mobilizing to protect us. It deserves scorn when it acts the self-centered individual, and squabbles with other States.
The filmmaker may or may not have fully thought through this analogy, beyond what was necessary to make his point. The ability of the State to annihilate the individual who breaks his “social contract” is not only valid, but necessary. Without the, as modern parlance would have it, “nuclear option,” there will remain insufficient motivation to accept the social contract except when it is convenient. That may seem extreme, but 65 years of experience with U.N. intervention has not lead to the realization of that ideal, peaceful world. The Superpowers may not (as of yet) started World War III, but it unlikely that the U.N. has been a particular deterrent. Where the U.N. has intervened, questions do arise about the judgment, effectiveness, and motivation of that intervention. Furthermore, wars between minor countries continue, and the major powers continue to bypass the U.N. when global politics make it necessary.
The film may be dated and the sentiment may be naive, but the debate over the benefits of an omnipotent but benevolent overlord continue apace. In the U.S. we continue to fight against the ever-growing power of our government. In places like England, the extent of control that the government exercises over the populace would have been unthinkable in 1951. Similarly, the push towards one-world government and the dissolution of national boarders continues to gain momentum.
Perhaps “Klaatu barada nikto” is the only real answer.