How the CIA Learned to Worry About UFOs and Love Hollywood

The first UFO movie to feature a human-looking extraterrestrial came in 1951 with The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which the enlightened alien Klaatu and his indestructible robot Gort land their flying saucer in Washington D.C. Their mission: to warn of the dangers atomic weaponry poses not only to humanity, but to the denizens of other worlds in the universe.

The plot

How the CIA Learned to Worry About UFOs and Love Hollywood01The movie opens with Klaatu’s flying saucer being tracked on radar at high altitude before it lands on the President’s Park Ellipse in the nation’s Capitol. Not quite the White House lawn, but close enough, and hence the popular question: “If aliens really are visiting us, why don’t they just land on the White House Lawn?” The obvious response is that aliens are unlikely to model their diplomatic strategies on Hollywood entertainment.

No sooner has Klaatu’s craft touched down than it is encircled by US soldiers with itchy trigger fingers. As he steps out of his craft, Klaatu announces: “We have come to visit you in peace and with good will.” But the military doesn’t buy it, and, when the alien reaches into his flight-suit and produces a peculiar-looking device, a jittery soldier presumes it to be a weapon and opens fire on poor Klaatu, wounding him and destroying the object he was holding. In response to this act of aggression, Gort, Klaatu’s humanoid robot, emits a powerful beam from his visor which he uses to systematically disintegrate any and all military hardware on the scene – much to the horror of the military and civilian onlookers. Gort continues his defensive actions until Klaatu utters the phrase: “Gort! Deglet ovrosco!” at which point the robot ceases its attack and returns to its formerly placid state. Klaatu then explains to the military that the destroyed object was intended as a gift for the US President – a viewing device through which he could have glimpsed the wonders of life on other planets.

How the CIA Learned to Worry About UFOs and Love Hollywood02After Klaatu is taken into custody, the military attempts to unlock the secrets of his craft (which is still ‘parked’ just a stone’s throw from the White House). But these efforts prove futile as the metal skin of the alien saucer is utterly impregnable, withstanding cutting torches and even diamond drills. Soon enough, Klaatu escapes from his captivity and decides to lodge at a boarding house under an alias: “Mr. Carpenter.” It is at the boarding house that Klaatu befriends Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), a World War II widow, and her son Bobby (Billy Gray), both of whom are – initially, at least – oblivious to his extraterrestrial nature.

When Klaatu asks Bobby who is the greatest person on Earth, the young science fanatic tells him it’s the leading American scientist professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who happens to live in D.C. This leads to a meeting between Klaatu and Barnhardt in which the former tells the latter that the people of the other planets are deeply concerned about our recent development of atomic power and its destructive potential both on Earth and on other planets.

Klaatu tells Barnhardt that if his anti-nuke message goes unheeded “planet Earth will be eliminated.” This promps the professor to arrange a meeting of scientists at Klaatu’s ship; however, in order that the scientists take Klaatu seriously, Barnhardt suggests that the alien first give a demonstration of his power. Thus, Klaatu arranges for a thirty-minute worldwide power black-out, essentially bringing planet Earth to a standstill.

When the blackout ends and the military finally catch up with Klaatu, he is shot and fatally wounded. Gort takes Klaatu’s corpse back to the saucer where Helen (now fully aware of Klaatu’s alien nature) watches as the alien is brought back from the dead through the use of advanced technology. Klaatu’s revival is only temporary, however, as even his science cannot truly conquer death; this power, he tells Helen, is reserved solely for the “Almighty Spirit.”
How the CIA Learned to Worry About UFOs and Love Hollywood03In the film’s closing scene, Klaatu steps out of his saucer and addresses the scientists that Barnhardt has assembled at the scene in what is today regarded as one of the silver screen’s most memorable speeches:

“I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure… 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. 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.”

CIA involvement?

The depiction in The Day the Earth Stood Still of a human-looking extraterrestrial warning against the use of nuclear weaponry came two years before controversial contactee George Adamski claimed to have received his own anti-nuke message from the human-like alien, Orthon. Throughout the 1950s, and in every decade since, UFO experiencers claimed to have received similar eco-pacifist messages from human-like alien beings. While it is very tempting to conclude that the experiencers were simply taking their cue from Hollywood fiction, it is important to remember that The Day the Earth Stood Still contained factually accurate UFOlogical detail, some of which was, in all likelihood, inserted by the US government.

Consider, for example, the testimony of Linda Moulton Howe. The Emmy award-winning filmmaker and journalist claims that, while conducting research for a UFO documentary in 1983, she was told by Air Force Intelligence officers that The Day the Earth Stood Still was “inspired by the CIA,” and was “one of the first government tests of public reaction [to an alien landing].”

It is notable that the screenwriter of The Day the Earth Stood Still – Edmund H. North – was a Major in the Army Signal Corps prior to being selected by 20th Century Fox to pen the script. During his time in the Corps, North had been in charge of training and educational documentaries, and later established himself as a Hollywood scribe of patriotic war films including Sink the Bismark! (1960) and Submarine X-1 (1968), as well as Patton (1970), for which he received an Oscar – all of which raises the possibility that he maintained an official or quasi-official role in the government’s cinematic propaganda campaigns throughout his career.

Robbie Graham - Silver Screen Saucers