Robert Wise Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Wise Touch; Conversation with filmmaker Robert Wise, by Harry Kreisler, 2/28/98

Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 7 of 10

Wise Films: The Day the Earth Stood Still

Another of your important movies is The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is a different kind of science fiction film, one in which friendly aliens come to warn the nations of the world about the dangers of a nuclear arms race. The movie was made in what year?

1951.

Let's talk about that. How did it come about that such an important message was delivered in this film, so early, at the height of the Cold War? Did you anticipate the dangerous road that we were going to go down during the Cold War and what it would take to resolve the issues?

Right. I was at 20th Century-Fox and I got a call from Darryl Zanuck one day. He said, "I wish you'd go over and see a producer named Julian Blaustein. He's got a script I think you might find interesting." I was between pictures and I went over to meet Julian, whom I'd never met, and he handed me the script. I went away and read it. Fell in love with it. I thought it was an absolutely marvelous science fiction film. I liked so much what it had to say: the warning to the world to get along, to start getting along; let's have peace. So I went back immediately to Julian and called Darryl and said I'd like to do this one very much, I think it's great, it will be very strong in its message. And then we got a lucky break. It turned out to be lucky.

We were thinking at the time that Blaustein would be the producer and Eddie North the writer and Claude Raines as the man to play the part of Klaatu. And fortunately for us, as it turns out, he was tied up in a play in New York, not available. About that time we got a memo from Darryl Zanuck saying "I've just come back from London where I saw a young man on the stage there and I was very impressed by him. I thought he was a good actor and he was attractive, handsome, a good leading man. And I've signed him to a contract, I think you should see him as a possibility for the lead in your picture." It turned out to be Michael Rennie, who was just marvelous for us of course, having somebody brand new to the screen, never been seen in a picture before so much more believable as the man from outer space. And of course also he was tall and thin. Some people read a religious connotation into the thing, the resurrection and all. If you want to put a beard on Rennie and all he could be a Christ figure. So that's one of those lucky breaks that happened, so much better for us than having a known actor like Claude Raines.

Was it possible to do that movie because it was science fiction? Had it not been science fiction, the message about war and peace delivered another way, would it have been politically possible at that time, do you think?

I don't see why it wouldn't have been. It seems to me that underlying almost everything is a universal desire for peace, it doesn't matter which country. I imagine even Saddam Hussein, at some place along the line, would like to have peace and stop warring. So I don't think it would have been a problem.

And was there anything technically challenging in that movie?

Well one thing was very interesting. If you want something from the War Department in Washington, equipment that is, they have to approve the script. Well we sent it to them and they turned us down. We wanted some tanks for them and some jeeps and some uniforms, things like that. They said no. So Fox had a very smart lobbyist in Washington at that time. He got a brilliant idea, he went over to Virginia and got the National Guard. And they didn't have any problem with the script so all the equipment and everything that we had, the tanks, On the set of 'The Andromeda Strain' all came from the National Guard of Virginia, not the War Department. They didn't approve of our message of peace I guess.

I see. So there was a little political controversy.

Yes. There was that, sure. Only from the army, the Defense Department.

Later in your career, you picked up this issue of war and peace indirectly, in a way, in The Andromeda Strain, because the implicit message is the danger of biological war. Interesting that both of these movies were before their time, in a way. In other words, they precede the political debate. Because it's only now that we're really being sensitized, in a way, generally about the issue of biological weapons with Saddam Hussein.

Right.

Next page: Other Wise Films: Somebody Up There Likes Me; Executive Suite

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