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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The day the movies stood still (1914-2005)

If Robert Wise had stopped working in 1942, we would probably still remember him and honor him. And up to that point, he had never even directed a film on his own.

The reason is that Wise (who died this week, four days after his 91st birthday) edited one of the most celebrated and admired films of all time and which was known for, among other things, its editing. That film was Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. By law, Citizen Kane is required to be included on every major movie critic’s list of the top ten all-time great movies, and its legendary status extends to everyone who worked on it.

But Wise had a successful career as a filmmaker that went for nearly four decades more after Kane. His amazing achievement was to be both honored by his peers (winning no fewer than five Academy Awards, including Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1966) and to be a crowd-pleaser, making movies that were hits with audiences. He wasn’t exactly an auteur. He worked in every genre possible and didn’t particularly develop any obvious style that made his films distinctive and recognizable as his own. His biggest fans have undoubtedly been those that love musicals and those that are into science fiction.

In the end, the musicals are the ones that have been getting mentioned in the news headlines. And, really, only two of the five musicals he made are highlighted. That is, of course, because those two account for the four Oscars (Best Picture and Best Director, in both cases) his peers voted him to receive. 1961’s West Side Story combined the talents of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins and brought a Broadway classic to the masses. 1965’s The Sound of Music impressed audiences more than critics with its Rodgers & Hammerstein songs and cemented Julie Andrews’s image as the big screen’s nanny for the ages. Less remembered are 1957’s This Could Be the Night (starring Jean Simmons, Paul Douglas and Anthony Franciosa) and 1968’s Star!, which re-teamed Wise with Andrews, who played real-life stage star Gertrude Lawrence. Wise’s final big screen project was 1989’s Rooftops, which revisited the themes of West Side Story, much less successfully.

Also memorable among his two score films are the 1948 western Blood on the Moon (starring Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Gedddes and Robert Preston), the 1952 comedy Something for the Birds (with Victor Mature and Patricia Neal), the 1953 war movie The Desert Rats (starring Richard Burton), the 1953 soap-opera-ish drama So Big (with Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden), the 1953 corporate drama Executive Suite (with William Holden, June Allyson and Barbara Stanwyck), the 1955 epic Helen of Troy (with Bridgette Bardot in the title role), the 1956 biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me (with Paul Newman as boxer Rocky Graziano), and the 1958 submarine drama Run Silent, Run Deep (starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster).

Somebody Up There Likes Me picked up two Academy Awards (for art decoration and cinematography). Other Wise films that received Oscars were the 1958 drama/biopic I Want to Live! (Best Actress for Susan Hayward) and the 1975 historical disaster flick The Hindenburg (special achievement for sound effects and visual effects). Wise was nominated for (but didn’t get) Best Director for I Want to Live! He was also up for a Best Picture Oscar for 1966’s The Sand Pebbles (a war adventure movie with a cast that featured Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna and Candice Bergen), but that movie didn’t get any of the eight Academy Awards it was nominated for. (It was the only Oscar nomination Steve McQueen ever received.)

All of the aforementioned movies, on their own, would make for a prolific and accomplished filmmaking career. But there’s more. A good litmus test for what kind of person you are would be the question: what kind of movie do you think of when you think of Robert Wise? For many of us, we wouldn’t even think of any of the high-profile movies listed above. For many of us (and I suppose that “geeks” isn’t too strong a word), Wise is a science fiction director. If you broaden the category a bit to include fantasy and horror, Wise has an impressive little list of classics in the genre.

His first movie as sole director (he is sometimes credited as a co-director with Orson Welles and Freddie Fleck on 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons) was The Curse of the Cat People, a sequel to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. He worked again with producer Val Lewton the following year to direct 1945’s The Body Snatcher, adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson story and which bears the distinction of being the last movie to feature both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Other Wise entries in the sci-fi/horror category include 1963’s The Haunting (based on a Shirley Jackson novel and starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom), the 1971 thriller The Andromeda Strain (adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel), and the 1977 reincarnation thriller Audrey Rose (starring Marsha Mason and Anthony Hopkins).

But the single Robert Wise sci-fi movie (and perhaps any of his movies) that inspired the most devotion among its fans was the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. This movie is such a landmark that it has been quoted in numerous other films, sometimes by people who don’t even know they are quoting it. A notable homage to it in recent years was paid, fittingly, by our planet’s dominant sci-fi franchise. The climactic scene of Star Trek: First Contact where the Vulcan emerges from a spaceship and appears before the incredulous earth people was nothing if not a reverence to Wise’s masterpiece. The funny thing is that if Wise had made a movie about Jesus Christ, most of us sci-fi geeks probably wouldn’t have noticed or cared. But, by retelling the Jesus story as a flying saucer parable, he caused us to realize at some inner level the draw that the Christ story has for our civilization. At the same time, it is a virtual liberal political manifesto. It went against the grain of 1950s flying saucer movies by having the aliens be the good guys and the earth people be the dangerous ones (presaging a bunch of similarly themed movies, including Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). It posited the notion of a federation of planets, a hopeful universal government suggested by the United Nations and which was carried forward in Star Trek. Moreover, the hero Klaatu (played hauntingly by Michael Rennie) came to deliver a warning that humans would have to change their warlike ways or else face their own self-destruction. In hindsight, this may now sound like far-left rhetoric, but it is also Christian teaching. Among the many things this wonderful movie explains to us, looking back at it with the perspective of time, is that the supposedly anti-religious left is actually more religiously grounded than anyone realizes or acknowledges.

The above-mentioned homage from Star Trek brings our discussion of Wise’s legacy full circle. After all, Wise directed the first big screen version of Star Trek. And that movie pretty much sums up the contradiction of Robert Wise as a filmmaker. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in 1979 we stood in line to see it the very first day. We marveled at the special effects and wallowed in the fact that they were so much better than in the TV version. We rejoiced at seeing our beloved Star Trek characters again in a new adventure. But, after we got used to the excitement of re-acquaintance, we realized that not an awful lot actually happened in the movie. In fact, an awful lot of time was expended just admiring the Enterprise. A dozen Star Trek movies later, we look back and wonder at the fact that one of the best sci-fi directors of all time actually made one of the weakest entries in the Star Trek movie series. But he brought Star Trek back to us and that was appropriate and fitting. That the director of The Day the Earth Stood Still gave us a Star Trek movie with a story as ordinary as any weekly episode of the original series was no odder than the fact that the director of The Sound of Music could also make films as mundane as Criminal Court, Mystery in Mexico and Two Flags West.

When you make as many movies as Robert Wise did, no one could possibly expect that all (or even most) of them could be masterpieces. In the end, just having made The Day the Earth Stood Still is really enough. Movies like The Haunting, West Side Story and The Sound of Music are merely the icing on the cake.

Klaatu barada nikto, Mr. Wise.

-S.L., 15 September 2005

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