Saturday, 26 October 2019

'The Day the Earth Stood Still' - Entertainment or Education

While looking through the DVD section at the local Walmart, I recently found a copy of
he Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) bearing a production documentary and a commentary by Robert Wise, the film’s director. While I already had a videotape, I confess I am a sucker for commentary tracks and was able to persuade myself that I had to have this. While listening to Wise reminisce about the problems of making the film, he mentioned that the army equipment in the film was not provided by the real army. He had to send the military a copy of the script and they decided they wanted no part of it. Someone on the staff of Twentieth Century Fox was able to get the equipment from a nearby National Guard facility outside of Washington, D.C. Though Wise wasn’t formally told why his request was rejected, he felt somebody upstairs didn’t like the message of the film.

That seems easy to understand. Early in the film, a benevolent-looking alien is shot down by one of the military by accident - not exactly a testament to good training or restraint. The film is also a thinly disguised advertisement for the United Nations. Conservatives in the military were not supportive of the idea of the United Nations. It smacked of world government and threatened intrusive oversight.

Reminded about this, I thought back to claims by some UFO authors that The Day the Earth Stood Still was intended as a tool by the government to prepare the public for the shocks forthcoming from the coming of aliens to our world. Does this refusal to provide a few tanks and jeeps to Wise make sense if the film was government-backed?

It had been a few years since I encountered these claims, so I dug into my library to check them over again. Considering them at leisure, armed with my recent viewing of the film, I realised I had the elements for an amusing sceptical romp.

Claims that Hollywood and the US government are partnered for various conspiratorial aims are a repetitive presence both in the culture of paranoia and, more particularly, UFO culture. They range from fragmentary rumours to whole books. My focus shall be on the treatment given The Day the Earth Stood Still in two books most focused on seeing a Hollywood/government UFO conspiracy: Michael Mannion, Project Mindshift: The Re-Education of the American Public Concerning Extraterrestrial Life, 1947-Present (M. Evans and Company, 1998) and Bruce Rux, Hollywood vs. the Aliens: The Motion Picture Industry’s Participation in UFO Disinformation, (Frog, Ltd., 1997)

Claims involving The Day the Earth Stood Still are more central in Michael Mannion’s book than Bruce Rux’s. While Rux sees government influence in virtually every alien film ever made, Mannion is more selective and chooses The Day the Earth Stood Still as a showcase piece of evidence of how a relationship between Hollywood and Washington could be exploited to get information about aliens into the public realm. Mannion begins by stating it remains one of the best flying saucer movies ever made. He correctly observes, “The film has a message unlike the other science fiction films of its day.” The technology in it is far in advance of the technology present in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials.

Some of the elements of The Day the Earth Stood Still may cause some to wonder how those who made the film were able to present a technology that not only was unlike other films of the era, but also resembles technology that has actually been developed over the past half-century.

Moving into specifics, Mannion observes that when Klaatu prepares to neutralize the earth’s electricity,

He does not push buttons, pull levers, or turn knobs to activate the craft’s equipment. Instead, he uses the energy field of his body to turn on and work the energy technology of the spaceship. This is a sophisticated concept, far beyond science fiction movies of the time - or the science of the day, for that matter. How did filmmakers come by inspiration or information so far ahead of their time? [Mannion’s emphasis]

Though Mannion means the question to be rhetorical and unanswerable, the truth of the matter is that Klaatu’s mode of control was not beyond the science of his day. There was a device invented in 1920 that responded to the movement of a person’s hands in the air before it without any use of touch. It was a musical instrument. The location of hands relative to a pair of antennae alters capacitance in a pair of high-frequency electronic oscillators and that changes pitch and volume of a sound in an amplifier and speaker. 

The inventor was a Russian physicist by the name of Leon Theremin. He gained some popularity in Russia and by 1927 was touring Europe and America. He patented it in America, giving manufacturing rights to RCA. Over the next ten years he developed some variations that incorporated dance movement. He also trained people in its use. Some of these students performed in concert settings. Eventually theremins found their way into filmwork and can be found in scores for Spellbound and The Lost Weekend.

During the 40s, Bernard Herrmann was an emerging composer and he was hired to score a number of movies in his career - movies that included Citizen Kane and All That Money Can Buy. In 1951, Herrmann was selected to score The Day the Earth Stood Still. Herrmann immediately thought of theremins to provide the unearthly electronic tonalities announcing the arrival of Gort. Paradox solved. Klaatu’s gestures clearly mimic theremin performances.

This wireless style of prompting the activation of instruments would recur in several films, notably the beamer and shutter controls in Forbidden Planet and several episodes in the Lost in Space series - "The Derelict", "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension", and Michael Rennie’s famous two-parter "The Keeper". Theremins weren’t the only source of non-pushbutton interfacing. There is a scene in the film Things to Come (1936) where a rebel enters a room and seemingly activates a broadcasting studio by a downward motion of his hand. The motion looks like he is activating a photo-electric cell by breaking a series of light beams. The Day the Earth Stood Still most clearly uses this method when Klaatu passes his hand in front of a vertical series of lights to open a door within the saucer. Photo-electric cells came to be called electric eyes and were quite popular in the Fifties, particularly as a way to open doors at grocery and department stores. They were famously parodied in cartoons, notably Duck Dodgers in the 24½ Century, (1953) where huge eyes looked down at approaching pedestrian traffic.

Mannion continues his argument by observing the resuscitation of Klaatu at the climax involves “an advanced alien energy medicine machine” utilising ever-increasing levels of radiation head-to toe. This seems to Mannion to be like what is happening now “at the threshold of functional energy medicine”. People are already readily resuscitated after heart stoppage in mechanistic medicine. Zero-point technology “will yield equally astonishing results”. He proposes that MJ-12 prevailed upon filmmakers to leak this information.

There are problems with this notion on several levels. First, Mannion’s description of the resurrection scene is quite odd. While there is some illumination from underneath the body at the beginning, it is rather subtle and there is nothing in the scene to indicate it is supposed to represent radiation. It’s not like a blazing light engulfs the body. What does engulf the scene is a noise. There is a loud pulsing drone that rises in intensity. The Patricia Neal character - Helen Benson - covers her ears in clear discomfort. And it is also notable that there is a plate and coil in the region of the head. It suggests the resuscitation procedure involves the brain.

Second, the procedure in the film does not truly resemble any of the present resuscitative procedures developed in medicine in the past half century. It is not even clear it resembles any of the procedures performed by aliens in the UFO literature. Mannion does not cite any specific cases and the cases that occur to me seem merely similar, not exact.

Third, if this procedure was given by MJ-12; it was not given at the beginning of the writing process. The shooting script of 21 February 1951, penned by Edmund North, contains a significantly different description of the resurrection. Gort lays Klaatu on a long counter then fiddles with some knobs, switches, and dials - the wireless innovation is also absent from this script - and then attaches strange-looking electrodes to Klaatu’s wrists and ankles. “From a socket in the wall he pulls a strange-looking hypodermic needle on the end of a cord or tube and gives Klaatu a shot in the arm.” 

Gort fiddles with the dials again and there are electrical cracklings and sputterings. Suddenly he flips a switch and all sound ceases. Gort removes the electrodes. Klaatu’s eyelids flutter and he is conscious. The questions of if he was dead and if they have the power of life over death are unchanged from the final form, but Klaatu’s explanation is slightly longer. While that power is only had by the Great Spirit, they “can restimulate life for a limited time. It’s a refinement of scientific principles known to your own people.” [scenes 316, 319, 321-2 on the script archived on the DVD]

Actually, it is more properly regarded as a refinement of the scene in the Boris Karloff horror classic Frankenstein (1931) where electricity is used to animate a stitched together corpse. Why else the electrodes and electrical crackling? This resurrection went through another revision before filming, obviously, but this revision actually jumps back to the original 1940 story by Harry Bates.

In that story, the murdered Klaatu is recreated using sound recordings done just before death. The literary justification is that sounds are unique to each living being, thus if you have the soundprint you can create the being that made it. However, these recreations only last a few minutes. While the film cannily omits this justification - people would surely balk at the absurd reasoning used in Harry Bates’s work - it retains resonance by having the temporary resurrection accompanied by an extreme sound. As the Bates story existed seven years before the alleged establishment of MJ-12 (24 September 1947; according to lore - Friedman & Berliner, p. 64) any potential link of the precise procedure seen in the final film to MJ-12 is severed.

Fourth, even if we blindly accepted Mannion’s interpretation of the scene as demonstrating radiation being used as a resuscitative technique, this is not a dramatic departure from cultural mythology of the era. 

Cranks had touted remarkable curative, even aphrodisiacal, properties for radium in the 1930s. Some had even proposed the existence of radiations that were the essence of life energies, notably mitogenetic radiation and Wilhelm Reich’s orgone energy. Not long after Hiroshima, there was a campaign to show “The Sunny Side of the Atom” which showed people who were able to walk due to the use of radioactive isotopes. Infamously, one advertisement showed a paraplegic up from his wheelchair with a mushroom cloud superimposed. (Boyer, 1985 & Weart, 1988)

Mannion concludes his argument by speculating,

Is it possible that the makers of The Day the Earth Stood Still were given this information, either officially or unofficially, by people with knowledge of the technology of advanced alien civilizations? In any case, this film shaped public perception of intelligently extraterrestrial life in the 1950s and, through its availability on videotape, continues to exert its influence today. (It is interesting to note that, as this book was being written, The Day the Earth Stood Still was featured in the “Employee Picks” section of Channel Video on Manhattan’s Upper west Side, indicating that a new generation holds the film in high regard nearly fifty years after its release.)

    What is curious is why this should be a subject of speculation at this late date. People have repeatedly done retrospectives on The Day the Earth Stood Still in film magazines since the 1950s. Virtually everyone of consequence connected with the film has been re-interviewed. Shouldn’t Mannion be able to quote testimony proving government involvement from any of these interviews? Did he even look? Why has neither screenwriter Edmund North or director Robert Wise spoken of governmental involvement especially as they seem entirely open with virtually the whole of the story of the creation of the film, even bringing attention to minor faults noticeable only to themselves because they know the tricks used. Wise admits to being a UFO believer, so why would he deprive himself of the pride of being able to say the government regarded him as helping their aims? Instead, he expresses his annoyance with the military for refusing to lend him the few tanks and jeeps he needed.

The Day the Earth Stood Still occupies a smaller role in Bruce Rux’s conspiracy theorising than Michael Mannion’s, but Rux makes more aggressive claims.

20th Century Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, [contained] Top Secret realities that would not be discovered until many years later. [Along with The Thing] both of these movies were drastically changed from their original source materials due to tampering on the executive level by Intelligence-connected men, and changed in accord with legitimate secret UFO facts. (Rux, p. 65)

Rux phrases it to sound like this is a fact, but WHO were these Intelligence-connected men? Rux never says. The claims for tampering are also unsourced. There were script changes, but Rux forgets to show how it could be the work of anyone other than Ed North or Robert Wise. Rux escalates his claims:

Most remarkable about the film in terms of this study are the facts we can see it presenting that were not publicly available in 1951 - nor were they in the short story on which the film is based. It is perhaps also of note that screenwriter Edmund North co-wrote the militarily patriotic Patton and the later Meteor, a cosmological collision story not as fictionally removed as it may once have appeared (based on an actual 1968 MIT-proposed planetary defence system called “Project Icarus”), and that director Robert Wise is a UFO believer. Could someone in Hollywood have had an inside track? Or either knowingly or unknowingly, been in connection with with someone who did?

There is no question that producer Darryl Zanuck was considered unlikely to have chosen The Day the Earth Stood Still for a project. It was a low-budget picture, surprising as that seems today upon viewing its superb craftsmanship, and science fiction was far too new a genre to attract anyone’s attention on its own merits.

While Rux notes that Ed North was militarily patriotic, doesn’t the fact that the Army refused to provide army equipment suggest this inside-track had little consequence? The paradox should have been obvious to Rux for, later in the book (Rux, p. 516) he has occasion to see the Army’s refusal to provide equipment. There he laconically accounts for it by stating the Intelligence community’s educational campaign “is not always in accord with the military.” Wise, on the DVD, observed that Zanuck bankrolled the film for basically capitalistic reasons.

Bottom Line was Darryl just thought it was a damned good piece of entertainment and that’s what he was interested in. He wasn’t concerned about the politics and policy in it. He thought it would make a good film, an interesting film. And away we go.

Zanuck’s judgment proved correct. We must add that the risk was not trivial for Zanuck for the film was not truly low budget. It was an A-budget production costing $960,000. (Rubin, p. 22) For the Fifties, this was a pretty big chunk of change to throw away on what Rux wants us to believe is surreptitiously intended as an educational film. Rux continues,

The Day the Earth Stood Still has so many coincidences with actual UFO facts that the question is unavoidable, especially given the year it was made. A classic flying saucer, bearing a human being and a robot - and the human being initially appears dressed in identical fashion to what was recognized for well over another decade as being a standard UFO occupant look - arrives from an unstated planet that is most probably Mars, which is even directly hinted at.

Rux gives no details on what he thinks the “standard UFO occupant look” constitutes. I may be able to fill in the blanks here, but there are problems. Alice K. Wells did a drawing of the Venusian she saw, through binoculars, visiting George Adamski during a November 20, 1952 desert encounter. It was published in the 1953 book by Desmond Leslie.

`Both display a loose one-piece snow-suit with a cummerbund around the middle, set slightly high, and bound close around the feet and neck. Adamski called them one-piece ski-trousers, and emphasized their inappropriateness in the desert environment. It lacked zippers, buttons, buckles, fasteners, pockets and seams. There were also no ornaments like wristwatches or necklaces. 

The primary disparity is an absence of bulging elbows to the suit of Adamski’s Venusian. It also needs to said that Klaatu sports a haircut normal to earthly diplomats and businessmen. Adamski’s Venusians had long, flowing hair more appropriate to a beautiful woman. (Leslie & Adamski, pp. 196, 209) Though these are not trivial differences, the look of the suits still seems close enough to regard them as probably related. If accepted, however, the educational value is dubious, since the Adamski case is widely doubted to be an authentic alien encounter not least because Venus is a hellish world no scientist believes could be a home to any form of life. For other doubts, consult Moseley and Stupple.

The other best match occurs during the 1973 Humanoid Wave. A lady driving Interstate 75 near Ashburn, Georgia encountered a small metallic man whose head moved as if programmed by a robot. (Webb, p. 13: October 19, 1973)

The match is compelling in this instance because of similar rectangular eye-slits in a globular helmet on top of a loose-fitting suit that has the bulging elbows. While the presence of a relationship seems probable, the idea that The Day the Earth Stood Still was intended to prepare the populace for this particular encounter, an obscurity placed 22 years after the film and well south of Washington, D.C., needless to say sounds dubious. Perhaps I’m sounding tongue-in-cheek there, but the stronger point carried within the observation is that no humanoid case in the intervening two decades honestly bears close comparison to Klaatu’s appearance. It is easier to believe these two cases were ‘inspired’ by the film, than that the film prepared the public for humanoids that so rarely match the film with accuracy. Returning to Rux’s claims:

Its occupant is concerned with our military, and threatens force to keep us in line, much as actual UFOs have monitored our atomic developments and sabotaged our military bases.

The notion that aliens were monitoring military bases and atomic experimentation was present in Keyhoe’s writings from 1950 and can even be found in Project Sign’s papers. That feature of the UFO mythos was widely known before North put pen to paper. So that is hardly prophetic. Next, Rux claims,

Failing to achieve direct contact, the alien visitor goes underground and gets to know the locals on a one-to-one basis, which appears to be a motivation for the UFO abductions that have been going on since at least 1957 (and probably a great deal longer) two actual abductions (performed by a robot, no less) even occur in the movie, one of them including medical procedures performed on the abductee by the robot. Who would have known about these things in 1951? More lucky guesses? Like The Thing? Are these movies isolated incidents, or are there other examples? (Rux, pp. 183-4)

Here we have problems of the very worst sort. The person who has the operation is Klaatu. He is not abducted by the robot. Klaatu’s body - he’s dead - is rescued from jail. He is the robot’s companion and an alien, so it is sublimely strange to say there are two abductions here. The Patricia Neal character is taken up by the robot and carried into the ship and held there while he retrieves Klaatu, probably for her own protection.

There are no notable similarities to later UFO abductions. Certainly we see no paralysing mindscan by black eyes or the harvesting of sexual essences. Gort has to dissolve a wall with a ray to get at Klaatu. He does not pass through it like a ghost as modern aliens do. Neither does Klaatu ever magically teleport through a door or wall. He opens them via a doorknob or activates a sliding panel by passing a hand in front of detectors.

Most medical operations aboard UFOs are not blatantly done by robots. The robot in the Pascagoula case may be an implicit allusion on Rux’s part, but as a later ancestor of Gort, the resemblance does not impress. Worse, though, Rux may have forgotten that the robot was a feature of the original Bates story of 1940. And, in that story, the robot performs numerous experiments involving sound, not exactly typical stuff in present-day abductions.

The idea that The Day the Earth Stood Still displayed “accurately related UFO facts” (Rux, p. 69.) is hard to sustain when considering things at anything more than the most superficial level. And it is very striking how few observations Rux offers given his belief that “many coincidences” have been found by ufologists. He is very short on specific details, specific cases, and he gives no references to any discussions by UFO buffs about the “legitimate secret UFO facts” exposed by the film (Rux, p. 65). I’m not saying these discussions don’t exist, but I have to doubt they are worth digging up if neither Mannion or Rux could pull together better evidence than this nonsense to put into their books.

I feel the treatment of The Day the Earth Stood Still in Mannion and Rux is fairly described as symptomatic. The way they deal with this film classic is not appreciably different in quality or style than the way they deal with other films supposedly proving a UFO conspiracy exists linking Hollywood to clandestine Government groups. They are amazingly lazy; often failing to verify whether they have described the films accurately, and often comically vague about the material in the UFO literature allegedly paralleled by the films.

Ultimately, the arguments are too lightweight to balance against the heavier doubts. Hollywood would dish against the government as readily as Wise did against the army. How many screenwriters have ever stayed quiet when film directors and producers and board executives changed their stories? They always seem willing to discuss the sources of their stories. And, if the government did want to prepare the public, there are better ways to do it than works of fiction.

As I exit, stage left, I offer one final opinion. Doing things by committee and government edict is not going to get you a quality film with the stature of The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was WAY too good to be government issue.


Harry Bates, “Farewell to the Master” Astounding, October 1940; reprinted in Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, Adventures in Time and Space: An Anthology of Science Fiction Stories, Ballantine Books, 1975 (Random House, 1946) pp. 779-815

Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, University of North Carolina, 1985, pp. 119-20, 156, 299-300

Stanton T. Friedman & Don Berliner, Crash at Corona, Marlowe, 1994, p. 64

Bart Hopkin, Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones, Ellipse Arts, 1998, pp. 54-8

Desmond Leslie & George Adamski, Flying Saucers Have Landed, British Book Centre, 1953, pp. 196, 209

Michael Mannion, Project Mindshift: The Re-Education of the American Public Concerning Extraterrestrial Life, 1947-Present, M. Evans and Company, pp. 178-182

James Moseley’s Special Adamski expose issue, Saucer News #27, (October 1957)

Steve Rubin, “Retrospect: The Day the Earth Stood Still”, Cinefantastique, 4, #4 (1976), pp. 5-22

Bruce Rux, Hollywood vs. the Aliens: The Motion Picture Industry’s Participation in UFO Disinformation, Frog, Ltd., 1997, pp. 65, 69, 177-85, 516

David Stupple, “The Man Who Walked with Venusians” Fate 32, #1; January 1979, pp. 30-9

Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear - A History, Harvard University, 1988, pp. 49-50

Tom Weaver, “Years After Stillness” Starlog, #211, February 1995, pp. 24-7

David Webb, 1973 - Year of the Humanoid: An Analysis of the Fall 1973 UFO/Humanoid Wave, David Webb, 1974, p. 13

On the DVD commentary Robert Wise's precise comments were: “Interesting thing about - coming up, you’re going to see some -- All this equipment is not the real army. When you want some help with some of the personnel of the armed services, you have to submit a script to them. Well, they turned us down on this. We didn’t need much from them, but we thought we’d get some jeeps and tanks from them. And I guess they didn’t like the message.” He indicates Twentieth Century Fox had a good lobbyist and “…he went over to the National Guard with Washington and they had no problem with it. And so all the equipment you see in the picture are all from the National Guard outside of Washington.

First published in MAGONIA Supplement, No. 52, 14 September 2004