Aliens Invade: The Day the Earth Stood Still and and The Thing

The Day The Earth Stood Still did not depict communists or communism directly, but the fears of nuclear annihilation and communism were linked. 
Image courtesy of EmoviePoster

By far the most popular type of science fiction film in the 1950s were the alien invasion films.  The peak of their popularity was in the early to mid 1950s which also matched the most unsettling time of the cold war.  The cycle of alien invasion films began in earnest in America with two films in 1951, The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  These films were remarkably similar in structure but contain almost diametrically opposed ideas.  The tension in the films clustered around the relationship between the scientists, military and alien invaders.  The scientist was depicted in both films as being allied with humanitarian or liberal groups and being allied with humanitarian or liberal groups and being in conflict with the military in how to deal with the aliens.  In The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien flying saucer landed in Washington with an important message to the people of the world.  The politicians didn’t want to talk to the alien as a group because of mutual suspicions and hatreds, while the military just wanted to blast him.  The alien Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, seemed to be a sober non-threatening being with exceptional intelligence.  He had great power at his command and with a few twirls of the dial of the saucer could bring the world to a momentary halt.  The military reacted to this demonstration by wanting him destroyed, while the scientists wanted to hear his message.  Klaatu’s message was that the world must stop the spread of nuclear of weapons or face destruction.

Screenwriter Edmund H. North and director Robert Wise played on the sympathies of the American audience by showing Klaatu admiring the Lincoln monument.  He told a child that Lincoln looked like a great man, the type of man who would listen to his important message to the world.  The child replied that there was a man like that working in Washington called Dr Barnhardt.  By using the icon of Lincoln in the film, the screenwriter and director were indicating to the audience that Klaatu’s message was important and correct.  North and Wise then linked the wisdom of Lincoln to the scientists.  The scientist Dr Barnhardt was obviously based on the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein, who was another icon of scientific and philosophical wisdom in the 1950s.[1]  By combing the icon on Einstein, who represented scientific wisdom with Lincoln, who represented political wisdom, the filmmakers were packaging their message for an American audience.  Even further, Klaatu was brought back to life when killed by the military, perhaps indicating a spiritual dimension to his message as well.

The Day The Earth Stood Still did not depict communists or communism directly, but the fears of nuclear annihilation and communism were linked.  Communism was not only a political threat to the United States, but since the development of nuclear weapons, it carried the threat of physical extinction.  The liberal vision of a planetary United Nations protecting common interests was one of the few positive images of the science fiction films of the 1950s.  The Day The Earth Stood Still belonged with the brief flowering of liberal films of the early 1950s.  It argued that nations should meet to thrash out their differences before it was too late.  Time and time again, it referred to the world’s ‘petty squabbles’ with a tone to suggest that they were adolescent temper tantrums.  The world should grow up and put aside nuclear weapons as ways of resolving disputes.  This would mean negotiation and discussions with the Russians which was brave suggestion in 1951.  Despite its popularity, The Day the Earth Stood Still did not begin a cycle of science fiction films with liberal leanings.  Although It Came From Outer Space (1953) was a notable exception, the vast majority of aliens in popular science fiction films of the 1950s were hostile towards the aliens.

Made at the same time as The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing had a quite different view of the world.  The alien was a pure and simple menace which would not be negotiated with and had to be destroyed.  A saucer landed in the Arctic near the North Pole and the military outpost stationed there was sent out to investigate.  They discovered flying saucer under the ice and a frozen alien.  The saucer was accidently destroyed, but the alien was taken back to camp encased in ice.

The crucial conflict in the film was not with the alien but between the military and the scientists over how to deal with the alien.  The scientists wanted to communicate with the alien in order to benefit mankind, while the military wanted to destroy it in order to save mankind.  The scientists headed by Dr Carrington believed that ‘There are no enemies in science, just phenomenon to study.’[2]  He didn’t realise the enormous threat from the alien, although he described it in chilling terms.  IT was a creature without ‘pain or pleasure’ which Dr Carrington envied for having ‘no emotions and no heart’.[3]  The communist system in Russia was also viewed as ‘scientific’, a system which worked along rational principles but ignored the role of the individual.  Carrington represented all these fears.[4]

Near the conclusion of the film, the tensions between the scientists and the military came to a head as Dr Carrington approached the rampaging alien to talk of peace.  Carrington was killed by the alien which then meets its doom at the hands of the military.  Screenwriter Ledered and Director Nyby – with the assistance of veteran Howard Hawks – were saying that in times of threat such as during the Cold War, scientists must defer to the military.  Scientists had to be geared to national interests.  When the scientist joined forces with the military, then the alien forces could be destroyed.

Made at the same time as The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing had a quite different view of the world.  The alien was a pure and simple menace which would not be negotiated with and had to be destroyed. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The image of Dr Carrington being knocked aside was one which constantly recurred in films of the 1950s.  Horror writer Stephen King believed The Thing was the first movie of the 1950s to show the scientist in the role of the misguided appeaser.[5]  He wrote that for the average America, the scientists were deservedly vilified in American cinema in the 1950s as it was this group which had developed the atomic bomb and ushered in the nuclear age.  According to King, when Dr Carrington faced the alien, the image that would have come into the minds of the American audience was Hitler and Chamberlain.[6]  Appeasement by the United Kingdom had led to a dreadful war with Nazi Germany which had almost been lost.  It was better to fight than to appease.  When the alien pushed Carrington aside, an American audience could only see it in political terms.  Enemies had to be dealt with using a firm hand from the military.

The alien in The Thing was a popular depiction of communism.  It was a mobile vegetable and its seeds were planted in soil at the laboratory and they quickly grew.  If the alien escaped to more fertile ground, such as the Untied States – it could threaten the world.  This alien must be contained and stopped from going any further.  In other words, if the alien was not stopped at any early stage, then the threat would simply grow until it became impossible to resist.  This was the logic of Cold War containment which drive the United States into the Korean War and later to the Vietnam War.  To reinforce the point, after the alien had been destroyed, newspaperman Scotty warned people to remain vigilant: ‘Keep watching the skies.  Keep watching the skies.’[7]

It was the message and the images contained in The Thing that really dominated American science fiction cinema for the next six or seven years.  Appeasement meant destruction and appeasers were either traitors or fools who ended getting killed.  Despite its low budget, The Thing was one of the most successful science fiction films of the year, narrowly edging out The Day the Earth Stood Still.[8]  The success of these two films reflected an uncertainty by Americans on how to deal with the Russians.  One film argued that the nuclear threat needed to be addressed and the world should stop its petty squabbles, while the other said the appeasement caused destruction.  The popularity of both films indicated both the importance and the uncertainty of the issue in the American mind.


[1] Ronald W Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, Avon, New York, 1984, pp. 659 – 710 discusses Einstein’s political role in post-war United States.

[2] The Thing RKO/Winchester (Howard Hawks), (d) Christian Nyby, (w) Charles Lederer.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Other films latched onto the fear of a society based on scientific principles.  In The Street With No Name (1948), gangster Alec Stiles, played by Richard Widmark, wanted to ‘build an organisation along scientific lines.’

[5] Stephen King, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, MacDonald, London, 1981, p.173.

[6] ibid, p. 174.

[7] The Thing op cit.

[8] The Thing (1951) made $1.9 million profit, while The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) made $1.85 million.  See Hardy, Science Fiction, p. 387.

The evangelical nature of When World's Collide

When Worlds Collide (1951) which dealt with the destruction of the planet Earth.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Nuclear fears of annihilation haunted the 1950s. This depressing view of world destruction continued in George Pal’s next film: When Worlds Collide. Many science fiction films had dealt with the destruction or breakdown of society, but the physical end of the planet was virtually a new area.[1] Cecil B. DeMille had originally been slated for the film in a much earlier period. The rights to the story by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer were originally bought in 1933 by Paramount, when director DeMille was planning a related project called “The End of the World.” DeMille had hoped to rush the project into production after filming wrapped on This Day and Age (1933), but the script was never even written and the studio scrapped the project.

In When Worlds Collide scientists discovered that a new sun and its planet were spinning across the galaxy toward earth.  The planet would move close to the earth, causing tidal waves and mass destruction, and then the new sun would engulf the earth.  The only hope for civilisation was a small spacecraft which could hop planets just before the fatal collision.  The film opened with biblical saying:

And God looked upon the earth and behold it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth … And God said unto Noah, ‘The end of flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and , behold I will destroy them with the earth…[2]

This was remarkably close to the vision of evangelist Billy Graham who, after President Truman had announced a nuclear weapon had been exploded in the Soviet Union, had preached in 1949 that the choice for America was now between religious revival and nuclear judgement.  The choice was between western culture founded on religion, and communism which was against all religion.  The country had abandoned the ten commandments and faced judgement for its misdeeds.[3]  In 1949, he delivered a sermon on the fate of the United States which rang with biblical doom.

Let us look for a moment at the political realm.  Let’s see what is happening – not only in the city of Los Angeles, but in the western world.  The world is divided into two sides.  ON the one side we see so-called Western culture.  Western culture and its fruit had its foundation in the bible, the Word of God, and in the revivals of he Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.  Communism on the other hand, had decided against God, against Christ, against the bible, against all religion.  Communism is not only an economic interpretation of life – Communism is a religion that is directed and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against almighty God.  Do you know that the Fifth Columnists, called Communists, are more rampant in Los Angeles than any other city in America?  We need a revival.[4]

Just as God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, Pompeii, and the Roman empire, he would destroy the United States, and Los Angeles in particular, if it strayed any longer or further from the moral path.  The nuclear threat was a biblical judgement for moral failings.  These speeches were the catalyst which launched Graham to become a nationwide media celebrity.

Graham’s apocalyptic vision of nuclear judgement resonated throughout When Worlds Collide.  The conclusion of the film showed the earth burning as it approached the surface of he new sun.  Nuclear-like explosions ripped from its surface as it was absorbed.  This image must have terrified the American public of the 1950s with its connotations of nuclear destruction.  The most chilling part of When Worlds Collide was the inevitable nature of the destruction of the earth, just as the cold war promised an inevitable nuclear conflagration.  The film may have reassured an American public at one level by showing that life would continue in some form after nuclear destruction.  However, with its biblical judgement of corruption and the inevitable nature of the world’s destruction, it was an uncomfortable film to watch.


[1][1] The theme had been used before in a film called The Comet (1910) and two German films Himmelskibet (1917) and Verdens Undergang (1916).  The two German films probably reflected some of the gloom as the First World War dragged on.  A few science fiction films saw the collapse of society such as the British film Things to Come (1936).  See the introduction to Phil Hardy, (ed.). Science Fiction: The Complete Film Sourcebook, William Morrow, New York, 1984 for a discussion of the trend.

[2] When Worlds Collide Paramount (George Pal), (w) Sidney Boehm, (d) Rudolp Mate.

[3] Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics: Religion and America since World War II, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1988, p. 65.

[4] William Graham, Revival in Our Time: The Story of Billy Graham Evangelistic Campaign Evangelistic Campaigns, Including Six Of His Sermons, 2nd edn enl. Van Kampen Press, Wheaton, Illinois, 1950, pp. 72-73.