Science-Fiction Films of the 1950s: The Day The Earth Stood Still

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Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still_1951

https://en.wikipedia.org

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) was a brilliant science-fiction film that set the standards, in many ways, for other following films.  One of the great strengths of the genre of science-fiction as well as horror and fantasy is its ability to comment on direct issues in contemporary society.  In this 20th Century Fox film, the director, Robert Wise uses the arrival of an alien spaceship on earth as a cautionary message about the potential of the human race to cause its own self-destruction through atomic warfare.

Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still,_1951_-_trailer.ogv

https://en.wikipedia.org

The core plot element is that beings from advanced civilizations on other planets have found people on earth have developed both nuclear weapons and a space program. They have sent an emissary, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, to deliver a gift and a warning to the people of Earth.  The gift, a small box, was destroyed by a frightened soldier who thought it was a threat. In reality, it was a device that would have allowed humans to study the universe. With the gift gone, what is left is a warning that if human beings insist on bringing their atomic weapons and violence into space with them, then earth and its inhabitants will be destroyed utterly. This message is a quietly subversive challenge through what was seen as just a movie to the nuclear states of the world.

Hydrogen-Bomb-Posters

http://highlandcoldwar8.wikispaces.com

A staple of science-fiction, both cinema and television is the robot.  This kind of machine will figure into film in many ways from the earliest days to recent film.  The Day The Earth Stood Still has such a machine in Gort, a robot that serves as an aide  to the alien Klaatu.  Earth people view it as a threat, as they do everything alien, which is yet another point to the movie.  Xenophobia and bigotry, unfortunate human capacities, were at the forefront of American society in the late 1940s and 1950s.  If someone was different from the so-called norm, then they were somehow bad and immoral.  This will be the main point of the next movie I will examine in this series: Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The Day The Earth Stood Still was a critical success and has been named by several film organizations as one of the most important films of American cinema.  If you have not yet seen this movie, and I am NOT talking about the remake, then I recommend it highly.

 

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38 thoughts on “Science-Fiction Films of the 1950s: The Day The Earth Stood Still

  1. As someone interested in both contemporary literature (film included) and Cold War historiography, this film has always been a crucial part of my studies. Its commentary, I think, still holds true today, and its value for understanding the many diverse voices in the Cold War on the American front alone cannot be understated. It’s a true classic. Thank you!

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  2. Films like these are exactly why it’s time to stop staring straight ahead at the next potential blockbuster and rediscover where we’ve come from…especially now that we have a younger generation more interested in film studies and actual Literature than the last few…Most of the best contributions in film AND Lit were oozing from the genres even then. What power it is to experience the electricity of real creativity! What a challenge to try to build on that tradition without imitating it!

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    • Thank you for an excellent comment! You are completely correct–we need to understand the past creations and then build future writings and films that are based on that foundation of imagination and creativity.

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  3. I think it is our nature to dislike other beings that do not look the same as us. If monkeys start talking to us one day, I think we will have war with them (there are movies about this but I think that could be true).

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  4. Sarah

    Great review. It’s a wonderful film. It’s so interesting to consider what threat is being represented by the ‘other’ in films like these, as well as the way the future is envisioned. It’s very telling.

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  5. I have to watch this again. Do I have the same comment about all of the movies you highlight? Ha. And, as always, I have a question. Is this the movie where the aliens do something to humans who then have some kind of Mark on the back back of their necks?

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  6. We rented The Day The Earth Stood Still quite a while back, back when the remake was out on DVD. The original was on one side of the DVD and the remake was on the other.
    I have found, time and time again, that I would MUCH rather watch the original even if the special effects aren’t what we see in cinematics today.
    Barb, you’re combining two movies :).
    This one is just one alien here on earth during a very short time frame. I think it was a week but it’s been a while send I saw it….Hmmmm, Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh Netflix!

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  7. The original was a true classic to me, along with non-sf movie, ‘The Birds’, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘The Great Escape’. I saw these four movies as a child at home on our color console on ‘Sunday Night at the Movies’. Mom thought I’d like these and made a special point to know they were coming on, and made popcorn. ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ and its message and its structure made powerful impressions upon me. I think the remake completely misunderstood these original aspects — or ignored them.

    And the fifth one (of course) was the original ‘War of the Worlds’. Enjoyable post. Cheers

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