“Klaatu barada nikto!”
This is unquestionably the most famous line from 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.
As the film passes its 70th anniversary, The Day the Earth Stood Still remains one of the most respected science fiction films ever made. It was also one of the first.
Fans of Patricia Neal may be surprised that she signed on to do the film: Pat and sci-fi seem a little incongruous. Pat herself was more than a little surprised when she was offered the female lead in The Day the Earth Stood Still. But her realistic performance anchors the film. It’s Pat’s performance that keeps our disbelief suspended throughout The Day the Earth Stood Still, no small feat considering the onscreen happenings.
Let’s get to the plot, then go behind the scenes of the film, and all about how Patricia Neal managed to juggle movie stardom, marriage, and motherhood.
The Day the Earth Stood Still: The Plot
The film is set in Washington, D.C., 1951. It’s just an average day in the capital…until a flying saucer lands right in the middle of the National Mall.
A humanoid man—sci-fi lingo for another life form that looks like a human—exits the aircraft, which by now is surrounded by interested onlookers and US tanks and soldiers. We learn that the humanoid’s name is Klaatu (Michael Rennie). Klaatu proclaims:
“We have come to visit you in peace. And with goodwill.”
But then Klaatu proceeds to pull out a weird, weapon-y looking thing from his pocket.
So a soldier shoots him.
Which is too bad, because, as it turns out, the object was:
“… a gift for your president. With this he could have studied life on other planets.”
A huge, 8-foot tall metallic robot, who goes by the name of Gort (Lock Martin), also exits the spaceship. In reaction to Klaatu’s bullet wound, Gort disables all the US weaponry surrounding the aircraft with a laser beam that he seems to be able to shoot out of his face at will.
As he’s carted off to the hospital, Klaatu tells Gort to shut down. Gort freezes on the spot. And then stays that way for days…
A Message for the World
While being cared for at Walter Reed Hospital, Klaatu is visited by the President’s secretary (Frank Conroy). Klaatu says he has an important message to deliver to the whole world. But the President’s secretary tells him that due to the current political climate—the brewing Cold War—getting the whole world together for this mystery message would be impossible.
The Missing "Spaceman"
Klaatu decides to sneak out of the hospital to observe humans in their natural habitat. He finds a suit to wear and adopts the alias “John Carpenter,” an obvious reference to Christ. He’ll stay at a boarding house under this name while he conducts his observations, all the while avoiding capture by the US government.
At the boarding house, Klaatu sees the paranoia of the other boarders as they listen to a radio broadcast about the mysterious “spaceman” who is on the loose.
Little do they know he’s sitting with them at the breakfast table.
Most of the boarders seem to agree with the radio announcer that the missing spaceman:
“…must be tracked down like a wild animal. He must be destroyed…everybody agrees, there is great danger. How can we protect ourselves? What measures can we take to neutralize this menace from another world? Destroy it? Of course, but how?”
The only boarders who don’t seem to share this view are a lovely young widow, Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Helen tells the other boarders that:
“This spaceman or whatever he is, we automatically assume he’s a menace. Maybe he isn’t at all…maybe he’s afraid. He was shot the minute he landed here. I was just wondering what I would do.”
Klaatu befriends Helen and Bobby, and even watches Bobby for a whole day so Helen can spend some quality time with her boyfriend, Tom (Hugh Marlowe).
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It’s during this time with Bobby that Klaatu has an idea: if the President won’t help him get an international audience for his message, maybe the smartest man on earth can?
It’s a genius idea.
According to Bobby, the smartest man on earth is Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). Luckily, the professor lives in Washington, D.C. as well.
So off Klaatu and Bobby go to see the Professor.
When they arrive at his home, Barnhardt is not there. So Klaatu invites himself into the Professor’s study, and corrects a celestial mathematics problem on his chalk board, hoping this will pique Barnhardt’s interest.
When Barnhardt calls for Klaatu later that day, he believes Klaatu’s story, and asks what his message is.
Klaatu responds that he and the peoples of other planets are worried that Earth will use its newfound capabilities with atomic energy in space; that humans will build spaceships which:
“…will create a threat to the peace and security of other planets. That of course, we cannot tolerate. I came here to warn you that by threatening danger, your planet faces danger. Very grave danger. I’m prepared however to offer a solution.”
And if Earth doesn’t listen and puts atomic rockets in space, Klaatu says:
“…there is no alternative. In such a case the planet earth would have to be eliminated.”
The worried Professor Barnhardt says he can get a whole bunch of his smart friends from around the world to the National Mall, where Klaatu can then share his message.
Barnhardt also tells Klaatu that he must do something to scare the people of Earth into listening to his message; something everyone will notice, but will not cause harm.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Klaatu thinks that’s a good idea, too. So he neutralizes electricity over the whole world.
Trains, cars, phones, lights, laundry machines, blenders (nooo!), tractors, everything stops working for a full half hour the next day. The only things not affected by the neutralization are hospitals and planes in flight.
During this half hour, Klaatu visits Helen Benson at work. Bobby, who followed Klaatu to his spaceship the night before, and saw him enter the ship and interact with Gort, has already told his mother and Tom that their friend Mr. Carpenter is, in fact, the missing spaceman. But Helen and Tom don’t believe Bobby.
Now Klaatu tells Helen that Bobby told her the truth. Helen believes Klaatu, and promises that she and Bobby will not reveal Klaatu to the authorities, keeping the way clear for him to deliver his message that night.
On the Run
But when Helen’s boyfriend Tom discovers the truth, he realizes he could get a reward for turning Klaatu in to the government. So he tips off the military. They immediately strategize to pick Klaatu up from the boarding house.
Luckily, Helen gets there first. She and Klaatu hurriedly make their escape in a taxi.
But the military cars are hot on their trail!
Klaatu realizes that he may not make it back to the spaceship alive. He tells Helen:
“I’m worried about Gort. I’m afraid of what he might do. If anything should happen to me…There’s no limit to what he could do. He could destroy the Earth. If anything should happen to me, you must go to Gort. You must say these words: ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto.’”
Helen promises to deliver the message. Moments later, Klaatu is fatally shot.
Helen knows what she must do.
Helen makes it back to the National Mall, where Gort has broken free from the plastic box the government put him in. With his laser face, Gort kills the two guards watching him, and begins to move in on Helen. Scared out of her mind, Helen finally says:
“Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto. Klaatu Barada Nikto!”
Whatever those words mean, they do the trick. Gort spares Helen, and his laser eyes disappear as he carries her into the spaceship.
Gort’s laser abilities come in handy once more as he uses them to tear through the wall of the jail cell holding Klaatu’s body. Gort takes Klaatu’s body back to the spaceship, where he miraculously brings Klaatu back to life, just in time to deliver his message to the crowd that Professor Barnhardt has gathered.
Klaatu then begins his speech:
“The universe grows smaller everyday. And the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated…
We of the other planets…have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets, and for the complete elimination of aggression…For our policemen, we created a race of robots…In patterns of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor…
If you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”
So Earth – don’t use atomic energy in space.
Or the robot police will come and destroy your planet. Be peaceful, or the robots will kill you.
And with that, Klaatu gives one last, rather loving look at Helen, re-enters his spaceship with Gort, and flies back to his home planet.
And that’s the end of the film.
Not the Next Garbo
“I was becoming an expensive commodity for the studio…Their investment in me had not paid off. The critics had been kind, but I had not hit the jackpot at the box office. I certainly had not become the new Garbo.”
So Patricia signed with 20th Century Fox to do a three-picture deal. The first film she was offered under the new Fox contract was The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Pat was extremely disappointed with the studio’s choice:
“I was not encouraged in the least, but I did not want to begin my career at Fox by going on suspension.”
Reluctantly, Pat accepted the role of Helen Benson. Once filming started however, she had a blast working with old friends Hugh Marlowe—Helen’s boyfriend Tom in the film, and director Robert Wise.
Keeping a Straight Face on The Day the Earth Stood Still
Still, sci-fi was not Patricia’s cup of tea:
“I admit that I sometimes had a difficult time keeping a straight face. Michael would patiently watch me bite my lips to avoid giggling and ask, with true British reserve, ‘Is that the way you intend to play it?’”
Pat’s performance is so believable in the film, you’d never guess she struggled to keep a straight face behind the scenes.
Behind the Scenes of The Day the Earth Stood Still
Pat’s difficulty keeping a straight face is just one of many fascinating behind the scenes facts of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Though it is debated, according to architect and artist Paul Laffoley, the spaceship that Klaatu and Gort arrive on Earth in was designed with the help of none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. According to Laffoley, the interior of the ship was based on the Johnson Wax Headquarters, which Wright built in 1936.
Also according to Laffoley, for the exterior of the spaceship, Wright wished:
“…to imitate an experimental substance that I have heard about which acts like living tissue. If cut, the rift would appear to heal like a wound, leaving a continuous surface with no scar.”
To achieve this, Klaatu’s flying saucer was covered in putty, which pulled apart every time the spaceship opened for Klaatu to exit the craft.
Whenever the spaceship was to close again, the footage of the ship opening was simply played in reverse, achieving the sought after illusion of a “continuous surface with no scar.”
The Gentle Giant of The Day the Earth Stood Still
Gort, the 8-foot tall metallic robot, was played by a real human, Lock Martin. Martin wasn’t so far off from being 8-feet tall himself.
Lock’s true height is debated. Some say he measured at 7 feet 7 inches, but according to The Day the Earth Stood Still director Robert Wise, Lock was 7 feet 1 inches tall.
Despite his great height, Lock Martin was an incredibly gentle man in every way. Dummies had to be used in the film for the scenes where Gort carrries Helen or Klaatu because Martin did not have the physical strength to carry Patricia Neal or Michael Rennie.
As Gort, Martin had to wear a thick foamed, neoprene suit in all of his scenes. Director Robert Wise, aware of Martin’s fragile health and conscious of this uncomfortable suit, ensured that all of Martin’s scenes were shot in 30 minute segments to avoid overworking him.
Lock Martin truly was a “gentle giant,” the nickname he earned when his accidental acting career led to a television show that revolved around Martin’s favorite past time: reading stories to children.
The End of the Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper Affair
1951 not only marked the beginning of Patricia’s career away from Warner Bros., it also marked the end of her relationship with Gary Cooper.
Pat was heartbroken:
“Had there been a way to have this incredible gift of love and still respect his [Cooper’s] marriage vows, I would have touched upon the miracle of my life.”
By the end of 1951, Pat was ready to find a man who would love only her. And she wanted to start a family. After moving to New York to escape her heartbreak over Cooper and her stagnant film career, Patricia found that man in Roald Dahl.
Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl married on July 2, 1953.
Patricia Neal Does it All
When the Dahls married in 1953, it was Pat who was the breadwinner. Roald would not contribute to the family’s income as significantly as his wife until 1965, after Pat’s tragic stroke.
When the couple’s first child, Olivia, was born in 1955, Patricia Neal made headlines with her juggling of a Broadway career, motherhood, and the role of loyal wife:
“They filled columns on my home life…I was certainly not the only woman who was wife, mother, and professional, but this was long before women’s lib and it made news…
I rose early to bathe and feed my now six-month old, walked her in the park and did the shopping. I made breakfast and lunch for my husband…cleaned the apartment, prepared supper, did the dishes and made it to the theater for an 8:30 curtain. And I made sure there was always plenty of time to discuss my husband’s work with great appreciation. It was an exhausting schedule, but I was having a wonderful time.”
Patricia Neal could literally do it all.
And as the coming years would prove, Pat would do it all no matter what tragedies came her way.
More Patricia Neal
That’s it for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Read the rest of my Patricia Neal series in the articles below:
As I Am by Patricia Neal, 1988.
Behind the Big Screen: The Day the Earth Stood Still interviews https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zRGgZQJNmY.
Disco Volante by Paul Laffoley, 1998.
The Films of Robert Wise by Richard Keenan, 2007.
Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the 1950s, Vol I: 1950-1957 by Bill Warren, 1982.
“Sam Jaffee, a Character Actor on Stage and Film, Dies at 93,” by Peter B. Flint, March 25, 1984 article in The New York Times.
“The Screen in Review; Emissary From Planet Visits Mayfair Theatre in ‘Day the Earth Stood Still’” by Bosley Crowther, September 19, 1951 article in The New York Times.