In Robert Heinleins masterful science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, first published in 1961, Captain von Trompe of the Federation ship Champion introduces us to the main protagonist during a heated conversation with the science minister in which he declares Smith is not a man. He is an intelligent creature with the genes and ancestry of a man, but he is not a man. Hes more a Martian than a man....He thinks like a Martian, he feels like a Martian. Hes been brought up by a race which has nothing in common with us....Hes a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment.
This description of Valentine Michael Smith, the lone survivor of the first scientific expedition to the red planet in Heinleins novel, could well apply to Klaatu, the space emissary from an unknown dimension in Harry Bates 1940 novella Farewell to the Master and the central character in the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), directed by Robert Wise (The Haunting, The Body Snatcher) and scripted by Edmund H. North (Meteor, 1979). Like Valentine Michael Smith, Klaatu is a highly intelligent being who physically appears to be a man but is not a man, due to his origins in a completely alien environment outside of our terrestrial Earth. Also like Smith, Klaatu belongs to a race of beings who have nothing in common with usa race with the technology to construct spaceships capable of traveling the vast distances between the stars and with social systems devoid of war, money, stupidity, death and power-hungry tyrants who wish to rule the world, or better yet the entire universe.
From Klaatus point of view, the people of Earth appear to be puppets dangling by the strings of their own insecurities based on emotional and psychological trauma and the need to control and manipulate the thoughts and actions of others in order to sustain self-imposed hierarchies. And then there is the military, which Klaatu sees as the ultimate form of paranoia, for his race lives in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war, the result of placing all authority on the metallic shoulders of Gort (or Gnut in Bates novella) and his cosmic policemen. These insecurities, as far as Klaatu is concerned, are based on strange, unreasoning attitudes completely beyond his understanding. When Klaatu casually places himself into human society to discover why these attitudes exist, he comes away knowing that human taboos are to blame for the self-alienation in humankinds absurd civilization.
Since the theatrical release of The Day the Earth Stood Still in September of 1951, various interpretations of Klaatu, usually with religious overtones, have been given by many sci-fi scholars and film criticsKlaatu is God, the Messiah, the devil or simply an envoy from a highly-advanced civilization. But the most compelling portrait comes from screenwriter Edmund H. Norths original outline for the film in which Klaatu is described as being in every way completely human in appearance. He is a man of forty-fivea man of great dignity and presence. He has the intolerant superiority that comes with absolute knowledge.
The comments written by film critics just after the release of The Day the Earth Stood Still at the beginning of the Cold War, are quite laughable, due in part to a lack of appreciation for sci-fi films which, in the early 1950s, were only just beginning to be seen as a viable film genre.
According to the cinematic wisdom of Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, Klaatu is a super emissary, sent from one of the planets to counsel peace who hands out lukewarm philosophies, an amusing trait for a man from Mars, while John McCarten of the New Yorker says that Klaatu resembles a kind of high-class funeral director. In contrast, from an unidentified reviewer for Time magazine on October 1, 1951, Klaatu is no villainous monster; he is an ultra-civilized being who makes earthmen....look like a monstrous race of Yahoos.
A pivotal scene in The Day the Earth Stood Still provides some confirmation that Klaatu, like his sci-fi counterpart Valentine Michael Smith, is indeed a stranger in a strange land. On the morning following his arrival at Mrs. Crocketts boarding house and fresh from his escape from Walter Reed Hospital, Klaatu (Michael Rennie)in the guise of an ordinary, well-dressed businessman named Mr. Carpenter (as a tag on the sleeve of his coat reveals)sits at the dining room table with his fellow boarders while having breakfast and coffee. As the conversation centers on the appearance of the spaceman in the Mall area of Washington, D.C., Mrs. Barley (Frances Bavier) tells Klaatu, Theres nothing strange about Washington, prompting him to smile and reply, A person from another planet might disagree with you.
When we turn our discussion to Gort, the robot companion in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the picture changes radically and becomes even more ambiguous. Although Gort appears at first glance to be some type of mechanized machine, his ambulations are quite unlike a conventional robot and his overall appearance is atypical of most, if not all, 1950s cinematic robots, a prime example being Robby from the space opera Forbidden Planet (1956).
But screenwriter Edmund H. North, in his original outline for the film, gives the most accurate description of Gorta giant robot ten feet tall....He is not a metallic, clanking robot, but is made in the almost perfect image of man, a reference to Harry Bates idea of Gnut as a humanoid endowed with the emotional responses of its assumed creators.
The fact remains, however, that the true identities of Klaatu and Gort reside in the realms of the unknown and in the once-thriving imaginations of Edmund H. North and Harry Bates, pure fictionists with a gift for the dramatic and a talent for creating truly perplexing yet memorable characters. But since we are human beings with a perverse need to question the obvious, let us proceed to dissect these strangers in a strange land.
Klaatus external appearance is clearly that of a human being and his emotions are based on human attributes, such as benevolence, gentility and empathy. Yet when viewed from an anthropological standpoint, Klaatu becomes an anomalyhe simply does not fit the evolutionary role of a true human being, due to his alien origins. In the film, the curious doctors at Walter Reed Hospital take X-rays of Klaatus body and discover nothing unusuala pair of normal lungs, a four-chambered heart, spleen, liver, kidneys, etc. This shows that Klaatu is native to a planet with an atmosphere and gravity similar to the Earth which makes carbon-based lifeforms possible. However, as any astronomer will attest to, such a planet does not exist in our solar system, except for our own terra firma. So, as North points out, Klaatu is in every way completely human in appearance, a sign of his true identityan alien disguised as a human being.
From his first appearance in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu is depicted as an obvious threat to humankind, and this threat is nowhere more powerful than at the conclusion of the film when Klaatu admonishes the gathered scientists at the spaceship: It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. This image of Klaatu seems to apply in a more menacing way to Gort, the cosmic policeman who manifests an aura of utter doom in several key scenes.
As Gort lumbers out of the spaceship after Klaatu is shot by a paranoid soldier, he commences to melt the guns with a very effective beam of energy blasted from behind his visor, a clear-cut threat of annihilation by a superior technology, or as Drew Pierson so aptly put it, We may be up against powers beyond our control.
After the military officials encase Gort in a specially-designed plastic (Bates refers to it as glasstex), he subsequently dissolves it in order to escape and collect the now-deceased Klaatu stretched out in a jail cell. Upon arriving at the jail, Gort disintegrates the outside wall and returns to the spaceship with Klaatu cradled in his massive arms. Here is another serious promise of doom, for despite the armys efforts to contain him, Gort negates their supposed mastery which amounts to an admission of defeat.
With his return to the spaceship, Gort places Klaatu on a very strange-looking device similar to a modern-day computerized MRI, and with a simple wave of his mittened hand restores him to life. This conjures up the image of Gort as an all-powerful being who operates by pure logic without being distracted by human emotions. In his Sermon on the Mount during the meeting of the minds with Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) at the spaceship, Klaatu implies that Gort and his policemen have been given absolute power which cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, he declares, they act automatically against the aggressor; the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk, a warning not only from Klaatu but also Gort, his cybernetic mandroid who proclaims to an astonished Cliff Sutherland, the central character in Bates novella, that I am the Master.
Another major scene in The Day the Earth Stood Still utterly removes any doubt as to Gorts true nature. Upon sensing that Klaatu has been mortally wounded, shot in the back by several machine gun bursts, Gort melts the glasstex which contains him and proceeds to vaporize two soldiers standing guard. This is not the reaction of a machine programmed like a modern-day computer, but that of a living, sentient being, a reflection of the Almighty Spirit which governs Klaatus alien civilization.
As of this writing, fifty years have passed since the release of The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951. At that time, it would have been considered pure nonsense to suggest the existence of a high-tech, extra-terrestrial civilization somewhere in the cosmos. Yet in todays world, such an idea is not beyond the realms of possibility; in fact, with all the advances in astronomy and cosmology, it now appears to be almost certain. How would the people of planet Earth react today if beings from another world landed in Washington, D.C. and proclaimed We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill? The most probable response, due to our innate fear of the unknown, can be summed up by a question posed by Nora Sayre in Running Time: Films of the Cold WarThe Day the Earth Stood Still. She asks, How would we behave if Christ returned to Earth? The answer, stressing the violent nature of our society, is that we would shoot him.
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- Brosnan, John. Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction. NY: St. Martins Press, 1979.
- Crowther, Bosley. Emissary From Planet Visits Mayfair Theatre in Day the Earth Stood Still. New York Times Film Reviews. September 19, 1951: 2551.
- Loban, Lelia. The Day the Earth Stood Still: Farewell to the Master. Scarlet Street. October, 1997: 42-59+.
- McCarten, John. The Current Cinema. The New Yorker. September 22, 1951: 107-08.
- Macek, Carl. The Day the Earth Stood Still. Magills Survey of Cinema: English Language Films. Ed. Frank N. Magill, et al. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1981.
- Rubin, Steve. Retrospect: The Day the Earth Stood Still. Cinefantastique. Vol. 4 no. 4. (1976): 5-22.