Scientist of the Day - Gort
The Day the Earth Stood Still, a science fiction film, was released Sep. 28, 1951, with a poster almost no one could resist (first image). Among sci-fi films, it is notable on many levels: the script was written by someone with more than a 9th-grade education; three exceptional actors played the leads (Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Sam Jaffe); it exhibited some cultural diversity (exceptionally, for a 1950s film); and it had a thoughtful message about the need for the Earth to mend its warlike ways, a message we have yet to take seriously.
The Day the Earth Stood Still also featured a memorable robot named Gort, an 8-foot-tall menace in a seamless suit of some unknown and impenetrable metal. Gort was not the first on-screen robot, being preceded by Maria, the machine-Mensch in Metropolis (1927). And like most early film robots, Gort had a non-speaking role. But he packed a mean laser, before lasers had even been invented, as you can see in this clip from the film (the first person out of the space ship is Klaatu, Rennie’s character; Gort soon follows). He even had the touch of a miracle-worker, as he brought Klaatu back to life, near the end of the film, after he had been shot again, this time fatally. But compared to his successor, Robby the Robot, of Forbidden Planet (1956), who had lots of moving parts that whirred and clicked, and who spoke a few hundred languages and exhibited a playful personality, Gort mostly just stood there, raising his visor now and then to zap a gun out of the hands of some poor soldier who came too close, but coming up somewhat short in the charm department.
Still, as a cosmic enforcer, Gort had quite a screen presence, and it is not surprising that he was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame in 2006. The Hall of Fame had been established in 2003 at the Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh. Gort and Maria were among the class of inductees in 2006, joining HAL, Robby, and C-3PO. For years the Robot Hall of Fame had no physical home, but they are now situated in the Carnegie Science Center at the Institute and apparently set up for visitors, as a photo shows (third image), with Maria, Gort, and Robby neatly lined up to greet you. I have never visited the Robot Hall of Fame; I believe they only have 10 replicas on display, although there are 34 current members of the Robot Hall of Fame. Not all the members are film robots; Gort and Robby are joined by Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars explorers (in replica, of course), quite a few industrial robots, and Roomba, the original robotic vacuum cleaner.
For the collectors among you, there is a 14” Gort model that regularly comes up for auction on eBay. An auction was in progress while I was writing this piece, offered at a reasonable opening bid, so I joined the bidding. But the auction just ended yesterday, hammered down at nearly $200, so I will probably not be adding Gort to my collection any time soon.
I watched The Day the Earth Stood Still again last night, after a lapse of at least a decade; I was curious if it still held any appeal for the modern viewer. I am several generations removed from the younger generation, but I must say I still found it to be a powerful film. It does require that you take your mindset back to 1951, when the Cold War was beginning with a vengeance, and no one was sure what the Atomic Age was going to bring. A visit from an other-worldly Klaatu was probably sorely needed.
In closing, I give you the words, passed along by Klaatu to Mrs. Benson, that she in turn whispered to Gort to keep him from reducing the earth to a cinder at the end of the film: Klaatu barada nikto. It saved us then; perhaps it might get us out of a jam again someday.
William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to email@example.com.