Last weekend, the BlatherGHQ TV was accidentally powered-up and tuned on to The Day The Earth Stood Still, a 1951 extraterrestrial contact movie directed by Robert Wise and adapted by Edmund North from Harry Bates’ 1940 short story, Farewell to the Master.
We relaxed, enjoyed it, and casually prepared to note any motifs which may have influenced today’s interest in UFOs, alien abduction, and extraterrestrial life. All the typical material was there – the classic saucer shape, the silver space suits, terror on the streets, silvery robots carrying panicking female leads into spaceships, and the usual ‘save the planet’ kinda jazz. All the usual style of US movies from the era of the Cold and Korean Wars was represented in the film, and the accompanying baggage communist paranoia, but is in this case somewhat anti-military, while gently ridiculing the ‘reds under the beds’ mindset.
However, it was uncanny how closely the film stuck to the story of the life and death (and afterlife) of one J.H. Christ. A tall and severe-looking, yet handsome human gentleman, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) comes from the heavens, offering a ‘choice’ between peace and salvation, or the Earth’s destruction – at the hands of greater (and apparently wiser) powers elsewhere in the Universe.
Klaatu is immediately demonised by the authorities, and shot while reaching for a gift to give to the US President. He escapes from a military hospital, and begins to lead a secretive life, rooming with a Washington family as a rather quiet bachelor whilst using the name Carpenter (Representative of the Holy Family?).
He conducts a rather civilised existence, befriending the widowed daughter of the family, Helen (Patricia Neal) – who has influential connections – and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray), while the world outside goes berserk searching for the ‘monster’. Bobby leads Klaatu to Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), “the smartest man on earth”. To cut a long story short, Klaatu demonstrates his power by neutralising out all electrical power world-wide, including cars and telephones. But no one is harmed – aircraft in flight and hospitals are unaffected. This is a display of Klaatu’s (or rather his superiors’ miraculous power.
Barnhardt, suitably convinced, gathers together disciples — scientists from around the world — but before Klaatu arrives at his meeting with them, he is betrayed by Helen’s rather irritating boyfriend, and gunned down in the street by the army (Klaatu throws his arms in the air as he is pierced by the bullet…crucifixion?) His dead body is moved across the street to a police station, where it locked in a cell, and protected by an armed guard (the tomb of Christ perhaps?)
Helen has already been told to use the words “Klaatu Barada Nikto” to prevent Gort – Klaatu’s tall silvery robot sidekick, a faultless policeman of the universe (holy spirit, angelic being) – from destroying everything. She manages to convey this message before Gort gets a chance to zap her, and ‘he’ carries her into the saucer, presumably for her own safety. Gort then blasts a hole in the side of the police station, and removes Klaatu (disappearance of the body from the tomb, luminescent figure responsible). Back at the saucer, Klaatu is temporarily resurrected by Gort, and addresses his disciples – scientists and leaders of the world – explaining to them what they must do to avert impending doom. He then ascends into the heavens, leaving them to complete his work on earth. Sound familiar?
It was only when only on reading Mark Pilkington’s Screen Memories that I found out that scriptwriter Edmund North had admitted to somehow hiding the Christian aspect of the story from the director and producer: “It was my private little joke. I never discussed this angle with Blaustein (producer) or Wise because I didn’t want it expressed. I hoped the Christ comparison would be subliminal.” (Mark Pilkington quotes from Seeing is Believing by Peter Biskind).
Mark P rounds off his treatise by pointing out that ‘…human looking aliens who live amongst us on Earth, and the aliens’ fears for the Earth’s destruction have become staple elements in the abduction scenario of the 1990’s. It is possible that these may have their roots in the science fiction of the fifties, but such themes have been central to myth, religion and visionary thought since time immemorial, their recurrence in The Day the Earth Stood Still and other films being intrinsically connected to the collective fears of the time. Then it was the threat of nuclear destruction that hovered over the West; today it is mankind’s destruction of the environment, not just a threat but a reality, that brings the other down to Earth.’
As The Day the Earth Stood Still is one the first movies to propose UFOs as spaceships, it is rather ironic that our modern UFO culture should be fueled by a ‘private little joke’ involving the New Testament.
While asking about on the Fortean email list for information on writings about The Day The Earth Stood Still, list members came forth with a plethora of subtle or synchronistic connections. . .
Apparently ex-Beatle Ringo Starr released an album called Goodnight Vienna, the sleeve of which features a superimposition of his face and Klaatu’s, with Gort in the background. This lead to speculation that a band called Klaatu were really the Beatles, a situation not helped by the lack of information about the band on their record sleeves, and the fact that they actually sounded a bit like the Beatles. The band remained anonymous, and Capitol Records (also the Beatles’ US label) released their album without meeting the band. Klaatu originally recorded a song called Calling Occupants, which was later covered by The Carpenters (back to Jesus of Bleedin’ Nazareth again!)
The ever amazing Snopes has pointed out that:
1) When Klaatu is asked where he is from, he says, “Venus and Mars.” This, of course, is also the title of a 1974 McCartney/Wings album.
2) At the end of a concert in Boston during his 1976 tour, McCartney told the crowd: “See you when the earth stands still . . .”
3) The inside of George Harrison’s “33 & 1/3” album includes a drawing quite similar to the cover of the Klaatu album.
4) One of Klaatu’s songs (“Sub Rosa Subway”) ends with a backwards tape loop. When this section is played backwards, the words “It’s us, it’s us, it’s us . . .” repeat.
In the movie Army of Darkness (Evil Dead III), ‘”Klaatu Barada Nikto” is the shibboleth needed to negate the demonic forces of evil, or something’. Lead actor Bruce Campbell (Ash) can’t quite remember it; “Klaatu Barada. . . necktie!”
In Return of the Jedi, we’re told, three of Jabba’s entourage were Klaatu, Barada and Nikto.
[Note, 7th January, 2000: Also recently noticed – when satellite problems are becoming noticeable in the movie Independence Day, scenes from The Day The Earth Stood Still flash across the screen ]
Many thanks to Mark Pilkington, Kelly McGillis, Snopes, the incredibly Reverend Joe McNally (Gentleman Consultant and supplier of the Army of Darkness and Empire Strikes Back stuff), Stephen Dewey, Tim Chapman and the rest of the Fortean mailing list!
Screen Memories – An Exploration of the Relationship Between Science Fiction Film and the UFO Mythology – Mark Pilkington
TDTESS SiteGuide (source of photos)
SOUNDTRACK TO THIS ISSUE
Pixies’ Bossanova and Fun Lovin’ Criminals’ Love Unlimited single, on repeat.
(Special thanks to Barry White, for saving my life)
Strange Magazine has just published Kurt Burchfiel’s The Serpent’s Tale which is about the recent GUST Norwegian lake monster expedition, also documented by this Blatherskite in Gubu Norge.
Dave (daev) Walsh
2nd October 1998