The Day the Earth Caught Fire

BFI Restored Blu Ray

by Mark Penny Volume 20, Issue 12 / December 2016 6 minutes (1388 words)

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961)
Dir: Val Guest
Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz and Val Guest

With a relatively new (2014) Blu Ray release on the shelves, it is time to revisit this somewhat subversive science-fiction film from the early 60’s set at the height of the cold war, The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The British Film Institute has released a fantastic Blu Ray of this very important Val Guest production. The framing is at an accurate 2.35:1 AR and the B/W cinematography by Harry Waxman is a revelation for such a small budgeted film thanks to the BFI restoration department’s meticulous job of transferring various elements from different sources to weave together a seamless and as complete as possible version of this film.

The cautionary story revolves around the results of a simultaneous explosion of two H-bombs (one American and the other Russian) which disturbs the axis of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, sending the earth on a sun bound orbit. The effect of this is being felt worldwide as disturbances in weather patterns change all over the globe; seaside towns are being submerged by the melting of the ice caps, massive tornadoes are born out and one hits London which is unprepared for its gale force winds. Two Daily Express reporters are assigned to follow the story and dig deeper into the government’s apparent reluctance to discuss the matter. The science desk writer, Bill Maguire (played by a great Leo Mckern of “Rumpole of the Baily” fame) and his associate, Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) take up the task with relish. Maguire is trying to get his fellow writer, who is a divorced father of a 10 year old son, and a drinker, to stay the course in order to clear his mind and carry on with life and his career.

Leo Mckern

Stenning meets up with a young lady who is working in the typing pool of the government office of which he is desperately trying to extract information from. Jeannie Craig (played by Janet Munro, fresh from playing Katie O’Gill in the “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color TV Series,” 1959-1961), decides to help Stenning. In the process of getting to know him better, and after many attempts at rebuking his advances, Jeannie warms up to Peter’s cynicism and falls in love, forming a classic case of love in a dying world. The story does seem to follow the usual tropes of romantic love developing within a disaster scenario, but there is much more to her character and to the relationship with Stenning than in your usual romance. For one, Stenning is sensitively portrayed as a lost soul wandering his shattered surroundings before encountering Jeannie, and she does valiantly maintain a reluctance to get involved with him throughout much of the picture. Their relationship splinters quicker than a flash when Jeannie informs Stenning –only after he has promised he will not run the story in the Express— that the earth is moving towards the Sun. The news of this cataclysm is first made public by the Russians on a local broadcast on a wireless transmission. (A significant point to mention is that although the Russians are considered untrustworthy enemies it is the British government which tries to hide the story from its citizens.) In full knowledge of his promise to Jeannie, Stenning feels that the story must come out anyway, albeit from a non-disclosed source, so the population is aware of what the British government is trying to hide from them. Once the story comes out, Jeannie is arrested as the possible source of the leak, and Stenning blames himself for this.

Janet Munro

While the investigative reporting is being researched at a Howard Hawksian pace —the overlapping dialogue is a distinct influence, as is the almost all male newspaper milieu— Guest shows the results of the climate change affecting England, and by virtue of cables coming into the Daily Express newsroom, around the world: heat mists, cold freezing weather where once there was only heat, winds, tidal waves, and a rising temperatures of 148 degrees F.

Peter Stenning (Edward Judd)

To safeguard against dwindling water supply, London rations water (echoes of WW2 rationing for the British Isles), and sets up “Public” Washing areas around various boroughs. The Prime Minister succumbs to giving a statement outlining the truth as the Express reported, and the population reacts wildly; riots and looting take place over supplies, a group of beatniks clamber down a road in Lambeth, eventually crashing into Jeannie’s flat. The youngsters behave in some kind of sexual, orgiastic frenzy as the end of the world approaches. Stenning makes it back to Jeannie’s flat (who has been released after a week’s incarceration) to find her being attacked by the ravaging crowd in her bathtub. Stenning fights them off, causing one to fall backwards into the lift shaft. Desperation can be felt at every corner of the world it seems.

World leaders are forced to try a desperate measure to try and right their foolish wrongs by announcing to the world (as one global voice) that four powerful nuclear bombs will be detonated simultaneously in a far reaching area of Siberia which, it is hoped, will restore a stable orbit around the Sun. McGuire, Stenning and Jeannie await the moment in their local pub while toasting the survival of the human race (that they decide to wait out the end of the world in a pub is a good indicator of the importance of the local pub to English culture); in a wonderfully subtle gesture, the only evidence of the massive detonation is a small dust falling from the ceiling of the pub. The film ends on two possible futures as two different front pages of the Daily Express are glimpsed waiting to be printed, one heralding the success of the detonation, the camera moves back revealing the other, “detonation fails as nation prays.” The film then ends on a panoramic view of London’s recognizable sites moving into a close up shot of the cross over St-Paul’s cathedral; fade to black and no credits.

I’ve seen this film a few times already and my love of it continues to grow. It is definitely a left leaning politically accented script, especially if one considers that the film came out at the time of the Profumo affair which pretty much turned the public against the government; the citizens were never trusting of their leaders after that debacle (Kim Newman talks about this in the great accompanying “Making of…” extra on the BFI disc.) Guest’s direction of the actors (including an ex-chief editor of the Express, Arthur Christiansen as Jeff, the newspaper editor in the film) is superb and the set design created from actual plans and photographs of the actual Fleet Street paper in a studio at Shepperton is fantastic. Les Bowie’s process shot of a devastated London surrounded by heat mist is also a highlight of what could be achieved with SFX on a low budget in the pre-CGI days. In another of the extras, a 1998 Q & A between Val Guest and moderator, it is revealed that the remake rights had been sold to Twentieth-Century Fox, but apparently the studio has been too busy making inferior films with whatever script/s they find lying on a dusty shelf somewhere.

This BFI BLU RAY deserves to be in the collection of any serious student of film culture/studies as it repays multiple viewings. It is a region B “locked” release which means you will need a region free player to access its contents; luckily such devices are now available at low cost across the web. Happy viewing.

While The Third Man, 1949, takes place at the beginning of the Cold War (usually marked as 1947) and deals with political reality, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, from 1961, is set in the thick of the Cold War and deals with speculative reality. But from today’s perspective it feels more science fact than science fiction, at least in terms of the cause of the catastrophe. With talk of climate change, natural disasters, climate change deniers, and Russia and America in conflict (though they ultimately work together to search for a solution), the film’s subject feels prescient and feels contemporary.

Waiting for the end, in a pub…where else?

_The Day the Earth Caught Fire_

Mark Penny is a Concordia University Cinema Graduate who is presently employed in Instructional Technology at a Canadian University, and is a Hammer films scholar extraordinaire.

Volume 20, Issue 12 / December 2016 Film Reviews british cinemascience fiction