The Day the Earth Stood Still

An article in today’s New York Times traces this summer’s crop of doomsday movies back to the 1951 classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that movie an alien named Klaatu travels to Earth with his robot companion, Gort, to issue a warning about how humanity was on the verge of destroying itself. This movie was remade in 2008 with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu. Where the 1951 film was a plea for world effective global cooperation to alleviate the threat of nuclear war, the 2008 remake had an environmental message. Receiving largely negative reviews, it’s actually one of the more intelligent and thoughtful reworkings of a classic Cold war science fiction film—for the most part, anyway. Worth seeking out is the three-disc DVD edition that contains both versions of the film, along with some nice extras and interesting commentary.


The 2008 remake was actually the fifth version of this story. The 1951 film was based on a short story called “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, published in the magazine Astounding Stories in 1940. “Farewell to the Master” is now in the public domain and available online or as a free ebook. Edmund H. North wrote the screenplay for the 1951 film and the Hollywood Radio Theater adapted the 1951 film as a one-hour radio play a couple of years later. The radio play stayed close to the film in terms of plot and characters, and featured most of the same actors, though Patricia Neal is absent.

The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still by the Hollywood Radio Theater

Marvel comics published a comic book adaptation of “Farewell to the Master” for its Worlds Unknown series in 1973 with Bates’s blessing.

With so many versions of the same story, it’s interesting to trace how the adaptations have changed over time. For example, the female presence in each version of the story differs markedly. Women are largely absent from Bates’s original story. In the 1951 film and the 2008 remake, Helen Benson is a war widow caring for her young son. In both versions, she is heroic and ultimately saves humanity, but where Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) is a nurturing homemaker in the 1951 film, she is recast (Jennifer Connelly) as a scientist with highly specialized knowledge who has difficulty connecting emtionally with her son (actually her step-son, played by Jaden Smith) in the 2008 remake. Marvel’s 1973 comic book adaptation of “Farewell to the Master” includes an intrepid gonzo photojournalist Amy O’Hara who goes to great lengths to get her story.

The elements that are consistent to all versions of the story are: 1) the Earth is visited by an alien named Klaatu, who is human in form with technology that is far beyond our anything on Earth, 2) the spacecraft lands in a very prominent location in the United States, even though the purpose of the visit is global in nature, 2) Klaatu is shot almost as soon as he steps out of the spacecraft, 3) A very large robot follows Klaatu out of the space craft, 3) the robot appears to become stationary once Klaatu has been moved and is subjected to a variety of experiments, 5) Klaatu dies, 6) the robot reactivates, 7) Klaatu is not ultimately in control of the robot. Despite these similar elements, the themes of each version are quite different.

Harry Bates’ original short story is about the limits of technology. The focus of the original story is on Gnut (as the robot is called called in this version of the story), and Klaatu has only a minor role. Klaatu is shot and killed as he steps out of his spacecraft, and the robot, watched closely by a photojounalist Cliff Sutherland, tries to restore life to Klaatu. While he is able to revive Klaatu for a time using a recording of his voice, the recording is not perfect, which results in only a temporary resurrection. In Bates’ surprise ending, the robot reveals that he, and not Klaatu, is the master, Despite his great power, however, the inherent limitations of technology mean that Gort cannot the power to give life.

The 1951 film directed by Robert Wise, recast Klaatu (Michael Rennie) as a messianic figure, who comes to Earth with a stern warning to the nations of the Earth to stop building nuclear bombs or else the Earth will be destroyed (seems to be a contradiction here, but I digress). It would have made more sense for the 1951 to travel to New York to address the United Nations, as the 2008 Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) tries to do, but the film chose to retain the location of the landing as told by Harry Bates. In the original short story, the ship lands close enough to the Smithsonian Institution that they were able to build an adjoining wing to enclose the spacecraft and Gnut, but in the 1951 film, Klaatu’s spaceship lands near the White House on the Ellipse on a baseball diamond. After surviving being shot, Klaatu escapes and assumes the identity of “Mr. Carpenter” and ventures out to learn about human culture, or at least young Bobby Benson’s (Billy Gray) version of it. The Christ imagery extends to his resurrection after being gunned down yet again. Despite the messianic portrayal of Klaatu, he expresses an Old Testament message of wrath when the scientists of the world are finally assembled. He threatens destruction and informs the people of Earth that the only hope is to turn over control to peacekeeping robots with great power, destructive and otherwise.

The development of Klaatu’s character in the 2008 remake, directed by Scott Derrickson, goes in the opposite direction. Klaatu starts out as more with more of an Old Testament outlook, threatening to destroy humanity for defiling creation. As his interacts with people, however, he develops a more sympathetic view of them, which causes him to call off his mission of wrath. He ultimately commits an act of self-sacrifice to save humanity. While Gort (or rather the nano-Gort swarm) wreaks havoc on New Jersey, Klaatu makes his way to his ship to send out an electromagnetic pulse, which renders Gort harmless but also disables most of the technology on Earth. In effect, Klaatu pushes the reset button on technological development, giving humanity another chance to get it right. The day referenced in the title of the film is an act of self-sacrifice to save humanity, rather than a demonstration of overwhelming technological force, as in the 1951 film. Either way, though, the destruction of humanity is averted.

Gort Revisits DC 60 Years After The Day the Earth Stood Still

The 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still tells the story of an alien named Klaatu who travels to Earth with his robot companion Gort to warn us against continuing down the path toward self-destruction. The opening sequence of the movie shows images from all over the world, indicating that the arrival of Klaatu is an event that affects the everyone on Earth. Still, this movie went to some lengths to locate itself in Washington DC, often providing very specific local references. I thought it would be interesting to find the locations used in this movie and see how they have changed in the 60 years since The Day the Earth Stood Still–and Gort came along for the ride. One note, the time of year is not well established in The Day the Earth Stood Still. In one of the news reports early in the film H.V. Kaltenborn mentions “the beautiful spring weather,” but the date on the dry cleaning ticket in Major Carpenter’s suit is July 18, 1951. I took these pictures on  December 13, 2011, an unseasonably nice day in Washington DC but not the same season depicted in the film.

The Ellipse

The Day the Earth Stood Still establishes its location in Washington DC by tracking Klaatu’s ship as it passes by several instantly recognizable landmarks as it descends upon the city. The ship flies over the Capitol, then the Smithsonian, past the Washington Monument, and finally landing in the outfield of a baseball diamond on the Ellipse just south of the White House. The army surrounds the ship when Klaatu (Michael Rennie) finally emerges.

Today the Ellipse looks like this.

Most of the grounds of the Ellipse are currently closed for “turf restoration,” but the National Christmas Tree is in its traditional location. The height of the National Christmas Tree has varied over the years and this year it seems smaller than in years past, but I’m not sure about that. This area still looks much the same as it did in 1951, though the baseball diamonds are gone. The major change in this area in the past 60 years is the increased level of security around the White House. Only authorized vehicles are allowed to enter the area not only around the Ellipse, but also all around the White House and the Treasury, which is adjacent to the White House. On the other side of the White House, Pennsylvania Ave. has been closed off to all cars since the Clinton years.

Walter Reed Hospital

After being shot (the first time, that is) Klaatu was sent to Walter Reed Hospital, which was the U.S. Army’s premier medical institution through most of the twentieth century. From the time it opened in 1909, this facility, located at Georgia Avenue in upper NW DC, provided medical care for thousands of servicemen, as well as Presidents and other high-ranking officials.

In 2007 the Washington Post ran a series of articles exposing serious problems at Walter Reed, including poor treatment of wounded soldiers and excessive bureaucracy. The Georgia Avenue facility ceased operations in August of this year and Walter Reed Hospital has now been consolidated with The Bethesda Naval Medical Facility in Maryland. Plans are now in the works to redevelop the campus along Georgia Ave.

Mrs. Crockett’s Boarding House

After escaping from Walter Reed, Klaatu wants to learn more about the people of Earth so he goes to live among them. after walking through the city, he decides to rent a room in a boarding house run by Mrs. Crockett. It is here that he meets Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Mrs. Crockett’s boarding house at 1412 Harvard St. NW, which would mean that Klaatu had to have walked at least three miles from Walter Reed Hospital. 14th and Harvard is in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, an area that has experienced tremendous changes in the 60 years since The Day the Earth Stood Still. The 14th St. corridor was devastated by the riots that took place in 1968 and the area was blighted for many years after that. In 1999 the Columbia Heights metro station opened just one block north at the intersection of 14th and Irving. I moved to DC in 2000 and I vividly recall the first time I took the escalator up to the street at the Columbia Heights metro station. The sight of vacant lots, derelict buildings and several homeless people sleeping on benches and grates was striking. Within a few years, however, this area had been completely transformed. The metro station spurred redevelopment on a large scale and the area around the metro station now has high-density housing and a large shopping center, as well as several new shops, bars and restaurants. This area has experienced a lot of gentrification but the population remains diverse.

Where most of the exterior shots for the locations used in The Day the Earth Stood Still were actually taken in Washington DC, that is not the case for the area around Mrs. Crockett’s boarding house. This movie set looks very little like the area around 14th and Harvard Streets.

The housing along Harvard St. between 14th and 15th Streets is mainly large townhouses along with some multi-unit apartment buildings, most of which were built before World War II. I don’t know what sort of building was at the corner of 14th and Harvard when The Day the Earth Stood Still was filmed, but it has since been replaced by a bland multi-unit apartment building.

In the 1954 radio adaptation of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu finds Mrs. Crockett’s boarding house at 1615 M St. NW, which is considerably farther from Walter Reed but actually makes more sense on a symbolic level. 16th and M would be roughly midway between the White House and Professor Barnhardt’s house. This location is now the site of a mid-rise office development that incorporates older brick structures.

Arlington National Cemetery

Bobby Benson takes Klaatu to Arlington National Cemetery to see the grave of his father, who died in World War II. While many of the locations used in The Day The Earth Stood Still have experienced great change since 1951, Arlington National Cemetery has changed very little. It was easy to find the location shot used in The Day the Earth Stood Still. This shot was taken just beside Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s plantation house that now serves as the focal point of the expansive cemetery.

The view looking toward Washington from Arlington House is much the same today as it was in 1951.

Professor Barnhardt’s House

After giving Klaatu a tour of Washington DC, Bobby takes Klaatu to visit the Einstein-like Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). The house used as Professor Barnhardt’s house in The Day the Earth Stood Still is located at 1609 16th St. NW, which is between Dupont Circle and Logan Circle.

In 2008 this house was the site of “Labradoodles for Obama,” whose support proved to be decisive in the closely fought DC vote for president in 2008 (kidding! DC voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the 2008 election, with Obama getting a whopping 92.9% of the votes cast). The Dupont Circle area also experienced a decline after the 1968 riots, but gentrification began earlier and has been more thoroughgoing in this part of the city. The Dupont Circle area is now one of the largest gay and lesbian communities in the country. Like most everywhere else, property values have declined in the Dupont Circle area since the housing market crash, but this part of the city remains a sought-after location. According to Zillow, Professor Barnhardt’s house peaked in value at about $2 million, and is now valued at about $1.5 million.

The Bizarre Cab Ride Through “Zone 5”

In the climactic sequence of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu hops into a cab with Helen Benson at Mrs. Crockett’s boarding house. He is clearly in a hurry to get to Professor Barnhardt’s house, and according to Google maps the trip from 1412 Harvard St. NW to 1609 16th St. NW should have taken four minutes, involving no more than three turns (south on 14th St. NW, west on U St. NW, and south on 16th St. NW). The cab driver, however, perhaps sensing that Klaatu is an alien and unfamiliar with the streets of Washington DC, takes him on a sightseeing of our nation’s capital.

Executing “Plan Baker,” the army in hot pursuit of Klaatu arrives at Mrs. Crockett’s boarding house just after Klaatu and Helen leave in the cab. Bobby’s friend Sammy tells the soldiers that they headed north on 14th St. (which would be the wrong direction) but shortly after that we see the cab pass by the Capitol building, which is well to the south. What started out as a 1.3 mile trip lasting four minutes is now going to be at least five times as long (according to Google maps this would be a 6.7 mile trip lasting 24 minutes). The next place we see the cab is when it passes in front of the Warner Building, which is at 1299 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. This actually makes some sense given the huge detour they’ve already taken. The commanding officer then asks the men to report the position they see the cab. “Heading west on 15th Street at Treasury Place,” is the first report. Well, this doesn’t really make sense since 15th St. runs north-south, but 15th St. does go by the Treasury, so let’s just give the soldier the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant that the cab had turned north toward Prof. Barnhardt’s house. The next report is that, “the target vehicle is turning west into Massachusetts Avenue.” OK, well Massachusetts Ave. goes northwest, but close enough in this case. Turning (north)west onto Massachusetts Ave. from 15th St. would mean that they are just a block away from Scott Circle. The cab driver should then take 16th St. NW from the Scott Circle, and then it’s just four blocks to Prof. Barnhardt’s, making up for that crazy idea of taking Helen and Klaatu to the Capitol. But then… “Yellow cab heading northwest at Columbia Road and Connecticut.” Oh wow, where is this cab driver going? Heading northwest at Columbia Road and Connecticut Ave. would mean they not only stayed on Massachusetts Ave. through Scott Circle, but they’ve also gone through Dupont Circle and are now the better part of a mile away from Professor Barnhardt’s house about to head across Rock Creek Park. At that point the commanding officer gives a puzzling order, “Block off all streets intersecting Connnecticut Avenue on a line from Wisconsin to the park”. I assume he means Wisconsin Ave. and Rock Creek Park, but he might just as well be referring to the state of Wisconsin for the confusion this order would no doubt have caused. Wisconsin Ave. is several blocks to the west of Rock Creek Park and several of the streets intersecting Connecticut Ave. west of the park do not go through to Wisconsin Ave. No matter, though. Immediately after that he gives the order, “all vehicles close in.” The next time we see the cab it is going through the Connecticut Ave. underpass at Dupont Circle, so the cab driver must have turned around at some point. When they emerge from the underpass they are surrounded by military vehicles and Klaatu takes off on foot only to be gunned down a second time. Had they made it to Professor Barnhardt’s house, the route would have looked something like this:

Farewell to the Master

The Day the Earth Stood Still was based on a short story by Harry Bates entitled “Farewell to the Master,” which was also set in Washington DC. In Bates’s version of the story, Klaatu’s ship materializes on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall in Washington DC. The ship is so close to the building that they build a new wing around it. The initial sequence of The Day the Earth Stood Still shows Klaatu’s ship descending over the Smithsonian, but then goes off in its own direction, so to speak.

It’s interesting to note that the film version of The Day the Earth Stood Still misses the point of Bates’s story entirely. In both “Farewell to the Master” and The Day the Earth Stood Still it is revealed that Gort, not Klaatu, is the master. But where Bates’s story is about the limits of technology, The Day the Earth Stood Still presents a naive faith that technology can solve the conflicts of humanity.