Fail-Safe (1964)


A Situation Nobody Wants…

Nuclear war. Nobody wants one. And a lunatic just might start one. But in the early sixties it was a very possible reality. Released in October 1964, it showed us in gritty black and white just how easily the end could come to this planet. The film was based on the book Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler which was released in serial format at the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Fail Safe Novel

What makes this film stand out is what it hasn’t got. There’s no soundtrack at all. There are no laughs. Its all deadly serious. If you’ve dealt with any kind of computer for the last ten or fifteen years you will have noticed how much sophisticated new computers are compared to their ten year old counterparts. I’m writing this blog post on a four month old laptop. And it’s so much better than a computer 20 years old. Yet it can’t do what a twenty year computer can do. The mistakes in this new laptop are so subtle compared to its electronic ancestors. Tiny errors slowly pile up, until they cascade down making life very, very, difficult. And that’s what happens this film. A computer develops a tiny error and  sends a signal to a bomber group to target and destroy Moscow. The Russians, who you never see, test a new radio jamming technique. Machines designed to protect us do the opposite – doom us.

Doctor Strangelove and Fail Safe were put out by the same studio. Because of lawsuits it decided to release Doctor Strangelove first. Doctor Strangelove was a dark comedy which did very well at the box office. Fail Safe, a more down to earth suspense/drama, got rave reviews but did poorly at the box office. Its a sad commentary on our society when a comedy about the end of the world is received better than a film that really tries to depict things as they really exist.

The actors in the film deserve all the accolades. For almost all of the film scenes are confined to the presidential bunker, the war room in the Pentagon, Strategic Air Command in Omaha, and the cockpit of a Vindicator bomber. Please see the film.


Henry Fonda as the President of the United States

Henry Fonda is one of only a handful of actors who actually look like they could play the role of the President. Fonda played the secretary of state twice, and the president twice.


Larry Hagman as Buck the translator

Although many sources name this film as Larry Hagmans film debut they are incorrect. It may have been his break-out role, but he first appeared in the The Enemy Below with Robert Mitchum in 1957.


Dom Deluise as Sgt. Collins in a rare non-comedic role had only a handful of lines in the film.


Edward Binns as Col. Jack Grady worked with Fonda on the film 12 Angry Men. In this film he plays a soldier who follows his orders, and almost kills us all.


Walter Matthau as Prof. Groeteschele

The film is special as it is one of the very few filmed performances of Walter Matthau in a rare dramatic role. His role is that of advisor to the Pentagon. Used mainly because of his height (6 foot 3 inches), he is a sinister character with his own agenda.


Fritz Weaver. He made his film debut as Col. Cascio, who tries to be the perfect soldier, and fail because he forgets how to a person.

The Day The Earth Stood Still–Part 2

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The Plot

Any text in brown comes from

The film begins with radar crews all over the globe tracking an unidentified flying object – a UFO. American and British crews track the UFO. Excitement grows as the UFO goes deeper and deeper into our atmosphere. As it descends it slows, eventually flying over Washington. It eventually slows enough to where it can land. People in the area where it appears to be landing stampede to get out its way. It eventually lands an area reserved for games of

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baseball. After it lands nothing happens prompting television and radio commentators to simply speculate as to why the UFO is here. Commentators of the day such as Drew Pearson, H.V. Kaltenborn, and Elmer Davis are either shown or heard. As Drew Pearson recounts events for the umpteenth time the UFO begins to open, and a human looking person wearing some sort of helmet emerges. The Army (it’s actually the National Guard) is by now pointing every weapon in their arsenal at the mysterious visitor from outer space. He

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extends his arm in peace to show he doesn’t carry any kind of offensive weapon. As he reaches into his spacesuit he slowly pulls out  a strange looking device. It suddenly expands, and he’s shot by some mildly terrified military type. He collapses. It’s now that a robot named Gort appears. Everybody is astounded as Gort is 8 feet tall.

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The extra-terrestrial stranger, now lying on the ground, struggles to stay conscious. Gort comes closer to the soldiers, and when he does his visor rises up to to reveal a roving, deadly eye. A beam of light shoots out of his helmet and destroys all offensive weapons. The rifles, machine guns, tanks,

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and other methods of destruction are quickly enveloped in Gorts beam, and quickly vanish to be replaced by smoldering heaps of molten metal. The alien sees what he has done and says “Gort! Deglet ovrosco!”. Gort ceases firing his deadly ray of death, while the alien struggles to stand. He informs the army platoon leader that the object that was shot and destroyed “It was a gift. For your President. With this he could have studied life on other planets.”.


As the alien stands a jeep comes roaring onto the scene where a colonel asks how badly the alien is hit. When he’s informed by the platoon leader about the shoulder wound he barks that the alien should be taken to Walter Reed Hospital.

Klaatu gets an education in Earth politics

The next section shows just how child-like the human race still is. The head honcho of the hospital and an unnamed General are discussing the aliens  physical and metal state. Nothing of great import is exchanged except this one line. Most of it is pretty boring small talk, or chit-chat.

General to the major – “How is he?”. “He’s all right, General… Blood pressure’s a little high, but it could be aggravation”. General “Can’t blame him. I always get mad when somebody shoots me”.

Apparently he has been requesting to see the president rather insistently. Hoping to avoid an interplanetary incident the White House sends a secretary to the president over to the hospital. They send a Mr. Harley played by Frank Conroy. Frank Conroy does a splendid job of portraying someone who is nothing but a high priced courier in wing tipped shoes. It is in this sequence we get our first good look at the man from outer space.

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After entering the room Mr. Harley looks right at the man from outer space, and says “My name is Harley — Secretary to the President. I’ve been told that you speak our language — that your name is Mr. Klaatu.” Before Mr. Harley can continue the person in the hospital bed corrects him. “Just Klaatu”. At this point Mr. Harley looks decidedly uneasy. No doubt he’s been informed about Gort, and is wondering if the metal behemoth will come lumbering into the room. Gripping his hat he apologises to Klaatu. “The President asked me to convey his deepest apologies for what has happened. We all feel—”. Klaatu asks him to sit down. Mr. Harley does his best to engage Klaatu in small talk, and to a certain degree Klaatu reciprocates. At the same time the army is trying to gain entry into the saucer with spectacularly dismal results. Back in the hospital Klaatu is growing visibly impatient with Mr. Harleys endless questions. Finally lays his request in Mr. Harleys lap. “I want to meet with representatives from all the nations of the Earth.”. Mr. Harley gets flustered, and gives Klaatu a boatload of excuses, to which Klaatu says “My mission here is not to solve your petty squabbles. It concerns the existence of every last creature who lives on Earth.”. His candor piques Mr. Harleys interest and asks him to elaborate. “ I intend to explain. To all the nations — simultaneously. How do we proceed, Mr. Harley?”. Mr. Harley suggests calling a special meeting of the United Nations, but adds that not all nations are members. Klaatu counters with a meeting for all chiefs of state. Mr. Harley shoots that idea down by stating some nations won’t even sit at the same table. Growing more than a little impatient at the child-like attitude of some nations Klaatu states very matter of factly “I don’t want to resort to threats, Mr. Harley. I simply tell you bluntly that the future of your planet is at stake… I suggest you transmit that message to the nations of the Earth”. Mr. Harley gathers up his hat and briefcase and says he’ll let the president know what has been said, but that he’s very pessimistic about a positive outcome. Klaatu expresses a certain degree of optimism, and yet must wonder about this planet.

After Mr. Harley leaves the hospital floor some hospital personnel are discussing Klaatu. The major points to an x-ray and says that most of the skeletal system is the same as the human system and most of his internal organs are basically the same too. He asks the captain for an estimate of his age. The captain responds that he thinks Klaatu is about forty-five. The major says Klaatu says he’s seventy-eight. The major continues “He says their medicine is that much more advanced. He was very nice about it. But he made me feel like a third-class witch doctor”.

A Major White approaches the pair shaking is head. “I just examined the wound and it’s all healed.” When asked to explain Major White says “Said he put some salve on it — some stuff he had with him. Asked what he going to do with the small tube contain the salve he says Take it downstairs and have it analyzed. Then I don’t know whether I’ll just get drunk or give up the practice of medicine”. Major White goes through some doors and continues to shake his head.

           Stay Tuned for part 3 !






The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)–Part 1

One of the films that holds a treasured place in my heart is the original “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. It was made in 1951 and used the fears of ordinary people of that time period to achieve its goals. And it scared the socks off of me when I first saw it on the TV in the early sixties. For me, the fact that it was science fiction, centered on an alien from outer space, who had his own robot…well I was heaven ( it really didn’t dawn on me that the actor in the robot costume was over seven foot tall. When you’re a little kid everybody’s tall ).


The story first appeared first appeared in the October 1940 edition of Astounding Stories as the story “Farewell To The Master”. Klaatu is in the story as is the robot (a slight change was made for the movie. The robot was originally called Gnut in the story. This was changed to Gort for the movie). But that’s where any similarity between the story and the film ends.  The producer of the film read over 200 hundred short science fiction stories and books looking a “nugget” of a story that could be used to create a fantastic film. Mankind was fearful and suspicious of the new Atomic Age, the Cold War, and pretty well anything else that could threaten the American way of life. Julian Blaustein, the producer, found the “nugget” he was looking for in the story “Farewell To The Master”. With the blessing of Darryl F. Zanuck, Blaustein commissioned Edmund North to write the screenplay. The final screenplay was ready February. 21, 1951.

The Cast

The word around the 20th Century Fox lot was that this was going to be a very important picture. Claude Rains and Spencer Tracy both expressed great interest in playing the lead role. In the case of Claude Rains it turned he would be doing some work on stage at the same time of the shooting schedule so he was quickly out of the running, but when it came to Spencer Tracy producer Julian Blaustein had to put his foot down, and threaten to leave the project. This was the way he put it: “When Klaatu comes down the ramp, and takes off his helmet, people are not going to see Klaatu. They’re going to see Spencer Tracy”. In the case of Claude Rains it would be very hard to explain an alien with an English accent.  And Spencer Tracy carried similar baggage. Their reputations would precede them making believability in the role of Klaatu near impossible. The solution was rather simple, and in this case, very easy to do. They needed someone completely unknown to the vast majority of the film going public. Darryl Zanuck had just come back from England where he saw an actor that was very, very, good. Always on the lookout for new talent 20th Century Fox signed Michael Rennie to a contract. They now had someone eager to do the film, someone the public was not familiar with, as well as make a name for himself. Michael Rennie was a rather thin fellow. He was described by Julian Blaustein as “being almost skeletal”.

tumblr_mphhv7f7ZW1rkgpyfo1_540  Michael Rennie in a publicity shot for the film

fe9364cd563e365a59e9de710defcc05--patricia-neal-the-day Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie

Patricia Neal portrayed a woman widowed by World War II, with a young boy to raise. And it turned out she was the only person who seems to truly understand Klaatu. Her son, Bobby, understood Klaatu almost as well. Her characters name is Helen Benson and Billy Gray portrays her son Bobby Benson. In the film the love interest of Helen Benson is Tom Stephens and he’s portrayed by Hugh Marlowe. I found him a rather unpleasant person who sells insurance. He seemed more interested in himself, and improving his lot in life, and not caring about what circumstances his actions may bring to others.

A very important component of the film was the appearance of the army. And they totally hated the script. They did not come off looking well. After all, they were of the opinion that aliens and UFOs did not exist. So they decided to withhold any and all assistance with the film. This almost brought the shooting schedule to a hair raising crash. Somebody, nobody has claimed credit for this, suggested using the National Guard in place of the army. After all they looked the same, and they used the same equipment. And the National Guard relished showing off for the cameras. It certainly didn’t hurt recruitment any. So the National Guard were shoehorned into all the spots vacated by the army.


The robot Gort was portrayed by Lock Martin. His height is in dispute, as his own Wikipedia page lists him as being seven foot seven inches, director Robert Wise says he was seven foot one inch, and the American Film Institute states Lock Martin was 7’7”.

When Lock first came to the directors attention he was working as an usher at Graumann’s Chinese Theater. He wasn’t a very strong man and had to carry dummies of Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie. There were two Gort costumes. One that laced up the front for shots from the rear, and one that laced up from the back for shots of the of the front. A bust of the head of the costume exists in the collection of Bob Burns. Robert Wise was aware of Locks discomfort in the costume, and the two agreed he would only be in the costume in thirty minute segments. He was also in The Incredible Shrinking Man as a giant, but his scenes were deleted. He was nicknamed “the Gentle Giant” as he liked reading stories to children and for a time had a local show devoted to that.



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