Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL – Bernard Herrmann


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Original Review by Craig Lysy

Producer Julian Blaustein had long sought to make a film that would serve as a metaphor for the dark pall of fear and suspicion, which had fallen over humanity following the onset of the Atomic Age. Unfortunately after reviewing over 200 scripts he was unable to find one that suited him. He managed to obtain backing from Fox Studio Executive Darryl F. Zanuck to hire screenwriter Edmund North to adapt the short story Farewell to the Master (1940) by Harry Bates. From the story Blaustein saw opportunity arise for thoughtful moral commentary against armed conflict. He also hoped that the story’s nuanced subliminal parallels between the alien visitor Klaatu and Jesus Christ would help drive home the message. Veteran director Robert Wise was brought in to manage the project, and a fine cast was selected, including; Michael Rennie as Klaatu, Patricia Neal as Helen Benson, Billy Gray as Bobby Benson, Hugh Marlowe as Tom Stephens and Sam Jaffe as Professor Jacob Barnhardt.

The story offers a potent social commentary on the intensifying Cold War born from the aftermath of the Atomic Age. The world is astounded by an alien spaceship, which enters Earth orbit, finally landing on a grass mall in Washington D.C. When a request to meet with all Earth leaders is rejected as impractical, Klaatu attempts to better understand humanity by escaping and integrating himself into society. He bonds with a widow and her son, and succeeds in meeting renowned scientist professor Barnhardt. He is convinced by Barnhardt to instead meet with a group of the world’s leading scientists, and to offer a ‘harmless’ demonstration of his power. Klaatu arranges for a worldwide blackout for 30 minutes and secures his meeting. Klaatu however is killed before the meeting can occur. Thanks to Helen’s intercession, the robot Gort secures his body and reanimates him. The film closes with Klaatu addressing the scientist with this warning; “the people of Earth can join us in peace, but should you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder”. He adds, “We will be waiting for your answer”. Klaatu and Gort then enter their spaceship and depart. The film enjoyed moderate box office success, and although it received world wide critical praise for its thoughtful and intelligent science fiction, this praise in the end did not translate into Academy Award nominations.

Alfred Newman was Director of Music at 20th Century Fox and chose to assign the film to Bernard Herrmann, his first project following his relocation to Los Angeles. Wise and Herrmann forged a good friendship while collaborating on The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942 and gave him free reign to do something special. Herrmann was not a traditionalist and so chose to fashion a unique soundscape to juxtapose the strangeness and unsettling nature of the aliens from humanity. He removed the acoustic string and woodwind sections of the orchestra, and expanded the horns to 30 members! He then augmented the remaining orchestra with an electric violin, cello and bass, two Theremins, two Hammond organs, a large electric organ, three vibraphones, two pianos, a celesta, two glockenspiels, bells, chimes, marimba, tam-tam, two bass drums, three sets of timpani, electric guitar and four tubas.

Herrmann chose to eschew formal thematic identities and instead created six motifs, believing that their shorter form would provide him with greater flexibility. Four motifs are provided for the aliens; first we have the Alien Motif, which informs us of the alien. The motif expresses itself as rising and falling waves by four multi-tracked Theremin, tuba, three sets of chimes and two suspended cymbals, one large and one small. Remarkably a dubbing of backwards tape play of three vibraphones was the crowning touch in establishing the strange otherworldly sound of the aliens. The Space Motif offers a mysterioso, which shimmers with a twinkling metallic brilliance. Its arpeggiated 16-note statement is kindred, and often joined with the Alien Motif. This motif was used to support the flight of the space saucer, but also to speak to outer space itself. It is articulated by piano arpeggios, two crystalline harps, horns mysterioso, two Hammond organs, a studio organ and an ensemble of electric string instruments; violin, cello and bass. Gort’s Motif was used to instill fear, but also to support the movement and actions of the massive robotic behemoth. Theremin waves, low register horns of doom and electric bass impart an otherworldly terror, which unnerves us. The final alien motif is the Ray Motif, which supports the firing of Gort’s disintegration ray. The metallic motif expresses itself in a rapid-fire manner carried by overdubbed chimes, cymbals and pianos. For humanity, two motifs were provided. First we have the Army Motif, which supports the American military presence in the film. It is a straightforward martial construct born by Bb trumpets, trombones, Hammond organ and electric bass. The final motif is the Memorial Motif, which in the macrocosm speaks of humanity, and in the microcosm Helen and her son Bobby. The motif is offered as a warm and inviting pastorale, an old fashioned Coplandesque Americana born by salutary horns. So, let us begin our journey.

Alfred Newman’s fanfare for the 20th Century Fox logo opens the film. “Prelude and Outer Space” is a magnificent score highlight where Herrmann demonstrates his genius in capturing the film’s emotional core. We are immediately unsettled by an eerie descent against the backdrop of a vast galactic star field. The opening credits soon roll against a shifting panorama of star fields; our point of view is that of the saucer as it approaches Earth. We bear witness to resplendent interplay of the Alien and Space Motifs, which rise and fall like waves born by four multi-tracked Theremin and tuba, juxtaposed by shimmering piano arpeggios, horns mysterioso, crystalline harp, and an ensemble of electric string instruments; violin, cello and bass. The crowning touch is the dubbed backwards tape play of a vibraphone. This cue is a masterpiece cue in conception and execution, one of the finest Main Title openings in cinematic history. “Radar” offers another amazing cue, which demonstrates Herrmann’s compositional gift. It reveals a stunned world sounding the alarm as the space ship is detected soaring rapidly across the skies. An eerie harp glissando ushers in a tête-à-tête between two pianos soli, one with bass and one with vibraphone, which contest octaves apart.

In “Danger” the saucer makes a grand landing on a grass mall, which initiates public panic and deployment of police and military units. Herrmann supports the deployment with repeating horn phrases of the Army Motif. “Klaatu” reveals Klaatu emerging from the saucer to a stunned and frightened crowd. Herrmann supports his progress with eerie high register Theremin phrases juxtaposed by foreboding low register horn and organ phrases. We bear witness to the spaceship opening a door and the appearance of Klaatu, who calmly descends a ramp. He states “We have come to visit you in peace and with good will”, yet as he activates a strange hand device (gift), a soldier panics and shoots his hand, wounding Klaatu and shattering the gift. In “Gort”, the glistening robotic behemoth emerges from the ship, which causes a now panicked crowd to flee. Herrmann introduces his Gort Motif, a classic illustration of how to sow palpable fear. The motif is slow and purposeful in its grim articulation, carried with dark, menacing Theremin waves, low register horns of doom and electric bass, which imparts an otherworldly terror.

“The Visor” reveals retribution by Gort as his visor ascends and he unleashes repeated blasts of his disintegration ray, which disarms the troops and melts their weapons of war. Herrmann scores the retribution with interplay of the reprised Radar cue music and the metallic Ray Motif, which expresses itself in a rapid-fire manner, carried by overdubbed chimes, cymbals and pianos. In “The Telescope” a disappointed Klaatu explains to the commander that the now-destroyed hand device was “a gift for your President. With this he could have studied life on the other planets.” The scene is supported simply with abyssal low register organs and tuba phrases, countered by eerie Theremin figures. In “Escape” Klaatu’s request to meet with all the world’s leaders are not accommodated, rejected as being politically impractical. He resolves to escape and infiltrate society so as to better understand humanity. Discovery of his escape precipitates a furioso born of the Army and Space Motifs as his now panicked captors deploy troops and desperately seek his recapture.

“Arlington” reveals Klaatu and Bobby spending a day together exploring the city. He takes Klaatu to the grave of his father in Arlington National Cemetary and they discuss the futility of war. Herrmann supports the scene with muted reverential trumpet calls and the salutary horn fare of the Memorial Motif. In “Solar Diamonds” they resolve to go to a movie and Klaatu asks Bobby if his diamonds could be used to buy movie tickets. He trades two of them for Bobby’s two dollars. Vibraphone chimes subtly support the scene. “Lincoln Memorial” reveals Bobby and Klaatu visiting the Lincoln Memorial. Klaatu reads the monument words, is inspired and relates, “That’s the kind of man I’d like to talk to”. Herrmann supports the poignant moment with an extended rendering of his Memorial Motif. Trumpet solenne and kindred salutary horns nobile bring a perfect synergy to the film’s narrative and imagery.

“Nocturne” offers a textural cue where Herrmann creates a mysterioso as Bobby follows Klaatu at night to the space ship, where he sees him enter. High register organ figures with chimes and harp adornment dance over horns. Once at the spaceship, a secondary line carried by organ emotes low register figures over horn with bell accents. In “The Flashlight” Klaatu signals Gort with a flashlight to take out the two guards so he can access the ship. Herrmann creates a scary ambiance using two Theremins playing over tam-tam, electric cello and electric bass. “The Robot” reveals Gort knocking out the guards and Klaatu entering his ship. Bobby panics and flees. A timpani glissandi and low register horns create an ambiance of menace with a Ray Motif stinger sounding when the guards are knocked out. We conclude with a diminuendo by dark, low register horns and timpani, which carry Klaatu’s progress as he reenters his ship. In “Space Control” we are treated to an exceptional ambiance cue. Klaatu enters the control room of the saucer and issues verbal instructions to the computer in his language. Herrmann again creates a twinkling, mesmerizing, otherworldly ambiance with Theremin, which dances over high melodic ostinato patterns by celeste, piano, harp, and electric guitar.

“The Elevator” reveals Klaatu and Helen trapped in an elevator after all electrical power is disabled worldwide. Herrmann sows unease and tension with an eerie milieu of Theremin, organ, chimes, cymbals and piano modulated with a reverberation effect. In “The Magnetic Pull” we see panic worldwide as all life comes to a stop after the loss of electricity. Tubas and electric bass join with chimes, cymbals, organ and the reverberation effect to create a dark mysterioso packed with tension as we view a montage of fear in the many capitals of the world. “The Study” reveals an impressed Professor Barnhardt reacting in his study to Klaatu’s demonstration of power. Herrmann supports the scene simply with a mysterioso born of two Theremins, two Hammond organs, vibraphone and electric bass. In “The Conference” military officers meet to discuss the power outage, which Herrmann supports with two Theremins, horns and piano ostinato duel. “The Jeweler” reveals Tom getting one of the diamonds he took from Klaatu’s room appraised. The Jeweler relates that he has never seen a diamond such as this and offers to buy it. Tom is alarmed and declines. Herrmann creates a dark mysterioso with repeating phrases by two organs, a vibraphone, and three trumpets

“12:30” As power returns, Klaatu explains to Mrs. Benson that the fate of the world is at risk if he is unable to meet with the scientists of the world that evening. He asks that she not turn him in to the police. Repeating eerie phrases by Theremin, organ and horn swells create a surreal ambiance. “Panic” offers a tension cue as the authorities mobilize a desperate hunt for Klaatu. Herrmann supports the scene with an energetic restatement of the Space Motif joined with organ. In “The Glowing” Gort unleashes hell after the army shoots Klaatu dead. He begins melting away the crystalline enclosure that the army placed around him. Dark organ, Theremin, cymbals, tam-tam, chimes and timpani launch the Gort Motif in all its mechanized power. The Ray Motif erupts violently as disintegrates the two guards. “Alone” reveals Helen approaching Gort to issue the command Klaatu ordered her to say. If she fails, Gort will destroy the Earth. Dark timpani and Theremin and tam-tam inform us of Gort’s menace.

In “Gort’s Rage” Helen is terrified and fearful of Gort as he walks towards her. She panics, screams and falls. We bear witness to a powerful and menacing rendering of Gort’s Motif with horns of doom and a dreadful Theremin. It will soon be all over in “Nikto” as we see Helen is now fully aware that Gort has opened his visor to disintegrate her. She summons her strength and shouts “Gort! Klaatu Barada Nikto! After repeating the command Gort lowers his visor. The tense repeating phrases of the Radar ostinato join with muted horns and the Theremin to carry the scene. In “Captive” Gort picks up Helen and carries her into the ship’s control room. Piano and low Theremin figures carry their progress. “Terror” reveals Helen being locked in the control room and Gort departing to secure Klaatu’s body. Herrmann creates a dark mysterioso for the frightened Helen with a funereal organ, muted horns, Theremin, tubas, electric cello and a small bass drum. In “The Prison” Gort disintegrates the prison wall and retrieves Klaatu. He returns to the saucer and revivifies Klaatu using the ship’s advanced technology. Dire horns usher in the Ray Motif as the prison walls are melted. Dark low register timpani carry the Gort Motif as he returns to the control room.

“Rebirth” reveals that Klaatu has been revived. A started Helen states “I thought you were…”, which Klaatu counters “I was.” Herrmann creates a mystical mysterioso ambiance born on dark timpani and horn solenne declarations, which shift to a solo electric violin and Theremin as Klaatu is revivified. In “Departure” Gort emerges from the saucer followed by Klaatu and Helen. Klaatu issues a final ultimatum to the scientists and military surrounding the saucer. He declares that his people have created an army of robots like Gort who are programmed to destroy anyone who shows aggression. He exhorts the assembly to “Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer.” Herrmann joins the Hammond organs with the studio organ, and muted electric cello and bass to create a surreal otherworldly ambiance. “Farewell” reveals Klaatu signaling Gort that they are leaving and waves goodbye to Helen. Muted trumpets and salutary horns reprise phrases of the Memorial Motif as Klaatu returns to his ship. In “Finale” we see Klaatu’s space ship depart, returning to the cosmos. We conclude musically as we began, with a dramatic rendering of the Alien Motif, which culminates with a hopeful major modal chord.

I commend Robert Townson and Varese Sarabande for this wonderful rerecording of Bernard Herrmann’s classic score “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” The conducting under the skillful baton of Joel McNeely was excellent and the sound quality of the recording, superb. Bernard Herrmann was a consummate innovator who always sought to bring new and dynamic methods to scoring films. His decision to remove the acoustic instruments of the string and woodwind sections of the orchestra and to augment his ensemble with the alien, otherworldly sounds of the Theremin, vibraphone, and celesta was a masterstroke. His six motifs were all carefully conceived and expertly applied, fully supporting in scene after scene the film’s narrative. In my judgment it was Herrmann’s motif for Gort, not his metallic form, which informed us of his menace, terror and lethal power. From the first notes to the final hopeful chord Herrmann’s music enhanced Wise’s story telling, propelling his creation into the hallowed ranks of classic films. I believe this score to be a testimonial to Bernard Herrmann’s genius and one of the 100 greatest film scores of all time. I highly recommend you purchase this score for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a suite comprised of the brilliant Prelude, Main Title and Radar cues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ULhiVqeF5U

Buy the Day the Earth Stood Still soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude and Outer Space (1:42)
  • Radar (2:06)
  • Danger (0:24)
  • Klaatu (2:08)
  • Gort (0:45)
  • The Visor (1:10)
  • The Telescope (0:43)
  • Escape (0:57)
  • Solar Diamonds (1:00)
  • Arlington (1:22)
  • Lincoln Memorial (2:10)
  • Nocturne (2:47)
  • The Flashlight (0:53)
  • The Robot (2:08)
  • Space Control (1:11)
  • The Elevator (0:30)
  • The Magnetic Pull (1:36)
  • The Study (0:45)
  • The Conference (0:31)
  • The Jeweler (0:47)
  • 12:30 (0:30)
  • Panic (0:46)
  • The Glowing (1:01)
  • Alone (1:03)
  • Gort’s Rage (0:43)
  • Nikto (0:35)
  • Captive (0:32)
  • Terror (1:48)
  • The Prison (1:43)
  • Rebirth (2:03)
  • Departure (0:55)
  • Farewell (0:35)
  • Finale (0:37)

Running Time: 38 minutes 26 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6314 (1951/2003)

Music composed by Bernard Herrmann. Conducted by Joel McNeely. Original orchestrations by Bernard Herrmann. Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen. Album produced by Robert Townson.

  1. Richard
    March 20, 2017 at 11:44 am

    Nice choice Craig.

  2. March 20, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    I wonder just how many scores by this genius composer are in this list of100 scores?

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