Classic Movie Themes: The Day the Earth Stood Still
Film producer Julian Blaustein had a long-standing desire to make a film that addressed the fears and concerns of the post war Atomic Age. With the backing from Fox Studio Executive Darryl F. Zanuck, he hired screenwriter Edmund North to adapt the short story Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates. The screenplay provided a moral commentary about the ongoing arms race and featured an alien visitor with Christ like qualities who delivers an apocalyptic message. Veteran director Robert Wise was brought in head the project and a fine cast of established characters actors such as Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal Hugh Marlowe and Sam Jaffe was assembled. The finished movie has proven to be one of the greatest science fiction movies ever; it is The Day the Earth Stood Still made in 1951.
Alfred Newman was Director of Music at 20th Century Fox at the time and decided to assign the project to Bernard Herrmann, who has recently relocated to Los Angeles. Director Robert Wise had worked previously with Herrmann on The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942 and the pair had a good working relationship. So, he effectively gave him an open remit to create something different and special. Herrmann was far from a musical traditionalist and chose to craft an innovative soundscape to highlight the differences between the Alien Klaatu the bellicose and bombastic nature of humanity. He therefore elected to remove acoustic string and woodwind instruments from the orchestra and expanded the horn section. He then further embellished the sound of the film by adding such diverse instruments as an electric violin, Theremins, Hammond organs, vibraphones, and a celesta.
“Prelude and Outer Space” is a magnificent opening cue which highlights Herrmann genius in capturing the narratives emotional essence. The opening credits roll against a shifting panorama of stars and the sumptuously eerie main motif, featuring multi-tracked Theremin and tuba, juxtaposed by piano arpeggios, horns and crystalline harp. Herrmann further embellishes this portentous theme with a vibraphone played backwards. This cue is a masterpiece in both conception and execution. “Radar” offers another incredible track, which demonstrates Herrmann’s compositional aptitude. As the world watches on at the alien space ship, a harp glissando preludes a rapid duet between two pianos, one with bass and the other with vibraphone, which are octaves apart.
Bernard Herrmann was one of the most innovative composers of his generation who endeavoured to bring new and dynamic methods to the process of film scoring. His decision to remove the acoustic instruments from the string and woodwind sections of the orchestra and to augment his score with the abstract otherworldly sounds of the Theremin, vibraphone, and celesta was a bold move. Yet it proved to be a genre defining decision and adds another layer of subtlety to the storytelling. Over the years, many of the unique aspects of the film score have become standard genre tropes. You only have to listen to Danny Elfman’s main them for the 1996 Tim Burton movie, Mars Attacks to hear the reach of Herrmann’s influence.