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April 2012

The Day The Earth Caught Fire DVD

cast: Edward Judd, Leo McKern, Janet Munro, Bernard Braden, and Arthur Christiansen

director: Val Guest

96 minutes (15) 1961
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Network DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Andrew Darlington




The Day The Earth Caught Fire poster




"Mankind is so full of wind it's about to out-blow nature." - Peter Stenning

The Day The Earth Caught Fire

The Cold War superpower confrontation might have been bad for the world; and bad for the human race in general. But it was wonderful for science fiction. This taut Brit-flick thriller has a John Wyndham 'cosy disaster' quality about it, snatched direct from the headlines, as nuclear profligacy dooms to world to a fiery cataclysmic plunge into the Sun. Too smart and angsty by far for the drive-in creature-feature shockers, its dark monochrome newsreel documentary style gives it layers of authenticity, enhanced by a tight cast of convincing character-actors.

It is 10:41 and 19 minutes before the final countdown. The film begins with effective scenes of a heat-blasted London and the dry Thames, looking down towards Tower Bridge. With the screen tinted burnt ochre in some prints, Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) is lurching down a deserted and microwaved Fleet Street, the dome of St Paul's behind him. Employed at the news-hub of big old broadsheet the Daily Express, he goes into the empty 'family newspaper' offices, across the mosaic crusader-logo on the foyer floor. There are unmanned manual typewriters, and fans spinning on every desk; black dial-telephones with switchboard connections.

He screws a sheet of paper into the platen, but the overheated machine has seized up. So he phones Jeannie to dictate his final story. "Man has sown the wind... and reaped the whirlwind," he narrates. "The final fire was kindled," and the world is about to be "blasted by a great wind towards oblivion..." This is "the end... or another beginning." Then he reels back 90 days to the start of it all - the editorial conference batting stories of rain and floods. "Putting bits and pieces together that might add up to a very big story indeed." The Ascot racecourse grandstand has collapsed. Exeter is marooned. There are aircraft navigation problems, steam-radio interference and poor TV-reception messing up the already crappy shows. An earthquake in Jakarta: 'QUAKE TERROR GROWS'.

Newspaper offices were different creatures in 1961. As the journalists write-up their stories there are no terminals or flat-screens. Instead, they click-clack their copy in with a heavy Remington typewriter, and no Tipp-Ex; if you make an error you use the eraser, or you xxxxx it out for speed. At the end of each line the carriage pings, and you yank the return lever back. The blank sheet you wind into the platen, or the rejected sheet you crumple into a ball and lob at your colleague at the next desk, is not A4, but strange shapes with names like Foolscap, Crown or Imperial. You use crinkled blue carbon-paper if you need a copy. And it's all done within the mildly intoxicating spirit-duplicator aroma from the hand-crank Gestetner in the corner.

But Stenning looks cool in dark shades, loosened tie, and cig. Perhaps 'cool' is the wrong term, but you know what I mean. Toasting this "battered and benumbed world of sweating moles and radio static, you can take it," he makes for a singularly modern protagonist. Touchily defensive, a cynically wisecracking hard-bitten alcoholic, out of control, resentful of his ex-wife's new partner, fearful of losing his seldom-seen son, Mike. When he does get to meet him at Battersea Park funfair they're chaperoned by a tetchy nanny. His writing suffers. Colleague Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) covers for him.

Edward Judd's patchily uneven career had taken in a small early appearance as an un-credited 'soldier' in sci-fi shocker X: The Unknown (1956), also with Leo McKern, plus soon-to-be pop star Anthony Newley. Then he was in Carry On Sergeant (1958) - the first of the long-running comedy series. Although The Day The Earth Caught Fire constitutes his first starring role, and his finest movie, he could be seen in a number of other SF oddities around the same time, including the uniquely weirdo Invasion (1965), with the alien Lystrians played by Orientals. He was in Nigel Kneale's First Men In The Moon (1964), and Terence Fisher's Island Of Terror (1966) with Peter Cushing. But despite the moody potential and charisma he invests in the character of Stenning, he was unable to capitalise on its high profile; perhaps due to his own stated preference for the craft of acting over stardom? Whatever, his career never recovered its momentum.

Stenning, meanwhile, is tasked with chasing up a tedious meteorological lead about sunspots, riling switchboard girl Jeannie (Janet Munro) in the process. While random event-strands slip by in the background: an American Antarctic nuclear test, "the biggest experimental bang yet," according to seismographic spikes. No - two near-simultaneous tests, a Soviet one in Siberia too, "two for the price of one." There's snappy repartee dialogue. Stenning suggests they "make a quick-film" of the nuclear blasts played in reverse... mushroom-cloud curling back into the bomb, the bomb retracting back into the plane, the plane backtracking to the airfield... anticipating Kurt Vonnegut's prose by years.

Another sequence shows a CND demonstration in Trafalgar Square - "the world today is imperilled by nuclear anarchy. Nuclear weapons no longer threaten the enemy but the whole of mankind," declaims the spokesman. As the demo turns into a riot it is halted by a sudden ten-day premature eclipse, "that certainly wasn't on the schedule." And the mercury rises and temperatures soar. 'PHEW!' says the Daily Mirror - with saucy swimsuit girl cover. '85!, 88!, 90!, Brighton at 95 degrees!' Peter meets Jeannie as she sunbathes near the embankment, although after the switchboard misunderstanding he doesn't yet know her name, she's still just "Miss er..?"

They banter, what's with his "battered caveman... look at me I'm so tough" act, she teases. He calls her "cute, sort of boyish." "Just remember you're normal," she flirts with scant regard for gay innuendo. "As well as being normal, I'm human," he adds, with prurient intent. Does she suffer from "marriage, divorce, or any other similar virus?" No, she doesn't. They're just in time to witness the Thames evaporating into a 'freak mist' opposite Battersea Power Station, and London is enveloped in low-level heat-haze. Underground trains are halted. They're down to an 80-yard visibility at Heathrow. In the ensuing chaos he escorts her home to her Embankment Terrace flat, "is it more expensive? An apartment above the mist-line?" he quips. Stranded, he shacks up with her overnight. Crawls off to sleep in the bath, but ends up in her bed anyway. Overnight there are hurricane-force winds tossing cars about and wrecking hoardings, leaving a debris-trail in its wake. "Like the old blitz days, isn't it," as they clear up. 'CYCLONE HORROR' blare the headlines. "I think our British police are wonderful," he gags, heavy with irony.

It's Maguire who first voices the theory of axial tilt. "It amounts to the biggest jolt the Earth's taken since the Ice Age started," he says. But it remains just guessology, until Jeannie calls Peter, they meet at 12:30 at Battersea Park boating lake and, seated side-by-side in a chair at the top of a funfair ride, she shares confidential information she's gleaned from her work at the Met centre, on the promise he doesn't use it. Naturally he does use it. How could he not use it? He passes on the information. In 'Harry's Pub', Maguire does the 'stupid crazy irresponsible bastards, they've finally done it' speech, anticipating Charlton Heston's final Planet Of The Apes revelation.

So has Pete been using Jeannie as a mole all along? 'WORLD TIPS OVER: EQUATOR MOVED' yells the headline. At first it's just that the reckless concatenation of H-bomb tests have skewed an 11-degree east-to-west tilt in the Earth's axis, a displacement causing 'new climatic zones'. In a whistleblower Julian Assange wikileaks moment, Jeannie is dragged into 'protective custody'. And there's climate-change denial as the PM makes a reassuringly soothing broadcast appealing for calm.

Cue stock insert-clips of floods and blizzards, fires at Epping, Nottingham and the New Forest; dry reservoirs and dead livestock; and riots. Then a top Russian scientist breaks the imposed international news-secrecy by blurting out at a press conference that no, it's worse than that. The dual-detonations have shifted the planet out of its orbit and set it spiralling in towards an imminent crash with the Sun. "It's all science fiction," jives one office-cynic. "So were rockets to the Moon and manned satellites," snaps back Maguire.

John Clute's Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia (1995), seems to agree with the office-cynic that "this is fiction without science." and "The premise is Velikovskian rather than scientific," confirms David Pringle's The Ultimate Encyclopaedia Of SF (1996). Yet this is a movie that perfectly encapsulates and amplifies the fears of its time. It's incontrovertibly true that there were nuclear tests being carried out as the arms-race escalates. And a fact that there were attendant fears; justified fears, of fallout effects: Strontium 90 irradiating the rain, the effect of shockwaves on weather-systems. And, despite the overkill central premise, the action throughout is understated and well-modulated, the tension and undoubted power built up by using crisp secondary reports in a pseudo-documentary manner, as seen through the tight perspective of a convincingly-normal group of protagonists rather than through directly witnessing the events.

Oddly, mainstream media is kinder and more sympathetic to the film. It was listed in The Observer's 'Fifty Lost Movie Classics' (17th December 2000), which correctly identifies it as "a classic example of period sci-fi cinema." With much of the action set in the actual Daily Express Fleet Street HQ - in those hot-metal pre-Internet days, more a power than the shrivelled right-wing revenant it is today. It's also "a brilliant London film, and a great journalist movie," with former editor Arthur Christiansen thoroughly enjoying playing himself. Val Guest, who wrote and directed for the BBC as well as Hammer studios, had already made The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), and its sequel Quatermass 2 (1957), both of which anticipate the gritty monochrome realism he gives to The Day The Earth Caught Fire as producer as well as director.

By coincidence, Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone's season-three episode The Midnight Sun, in which the Earth has also "fallen out of its orbit" and is "drawing closer to the Sun" screened just as the film premiered in the United States. While the novel Wolfbane (1959) by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth reverses the process, with the Earth growing colder as it's gradually drawn out of its orbit away from the Sun, by alien forces. Yet Guest's movie persists in seeming more prescient with every passing year.

As the man who discovered the ultimate in global warming, McKern catches exactly the correct crumpled tone of weary resignation and irascibly spry humour he would bring to his turn as Number Two in The Prisoner, to his part in the Beatles' Help, but more iconically as Rumpole Of The Bailey. Janet Munro, direct from Disney roles and her part as Anne Pilgrim in Brit-horror flick The Trollenberg Terror (1958), is elfin-attractive, bringing grace and smart authority to her part, with a direct intelligent gaze. Her career would end tragically early, as she was destined to die of a heart attack, aged just 38, in December 1972.

Also, for movie-obsessives, there's an early cameo from Michael Caine as a policeman ushering crowds out of the city, in a scene eerily looking forward to his later Alfonso Cuarón movie, Children Of Men (2006). While even Clute's SF Encyclopaedia is forced to concede that Les Bowie's special "effects are good," as he manages to produce some gripping sequences despite thrift-store budgetary restrictions, largely by skilfully integrating stock-footage and matte paintings, including the effectively evaporating Thames, or the helicopter shots cruising over misted London, with the Houses of Parliament standing like isolated islands in the surrounding whiteness.

The filmic consequence of this Cold War superpower confrontation could not be worse for the world as things go rapidly downhill. "I suppose it couldn't be a mistake?" suggests Stenning tentatively. "It is, the daddy of all mistakes," retorts McGuire, grumpily. In four months there will be the "delightful smell in the universe of charred mankind." How does a journalist report the on-coming heat-death of the world? In a downbeat nihilistic tirade Stenning accuses "the filthy self-destructive force humanity carries around rotting in its belly," adding "the human race has been poisoning itself for years with a great big smile on its fat face." An existential outburst neatly rounded off as the editor shrugs, "what else is there to do? I've written my will."

Such bleak fatalism is rare in movies of the time. "Evacuation by spaceship?" suggests Stenning sarcastically, "all aboard for the Moon! You want the best dead planets... we are them!" although he's pretty weak on his astrophysics. "I'm not up on my sci-fi," he queries about the coming Sun-smash, "how many billion light years..?" Jeannie is released without charge, and employed by the Daily Express as water rationing is imposed, with a parallel profiteering in furtive black-market sales; resulting in a typhus outbreak. There's looting and roadblocks. As he heads for Jeannie's flat, Stenning runs into a riot of "teenage kids kicking up a bit," who up-end his car, so he's forced to walk. They're smashing shop-windows, sloshing around stolen water, and dancing in the street to blazing torches, and trad jazz (the 'beatnik music' provided by Monty Norman).

Some critics have seen this as dated. To me, it perfectly captures the time. Before Bob Dylan invested rock with an articulate voice, trad was the music of protest and rebellious youth, as anyone familiar with those vital tomes of the time - Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture and George Melly's Revolt Into Style, will know. 'Beat' culture was based around the 'we didn't ask to be born' philosophy, the live for the moment 'cos 'we're on the eve of destruction' concept. So yes, the film catches it all exactly to rights.

Meanwhile, Stenning fights his way through the rioters - one of them lurching down into an open lift-shaft. "They've all gone insane," wails Jeannie. "It's the new fashion," he quips. Stenning and Jeannie are reconciled. Now he's found her, he suddenly has an urgent need to stay alive. He even stays civil long enough to say goodbye to his son, to ex-wife Angie, and to her new guy as they flee the city and head for the hills. Big Ben's chimes precede the Prime Minister's Churchillian oratory in a statement of national importance. Opening with a doomy 'this is London'. Four thermonuclear bombs are to be detonated, deployed in Siberia 100-miles apart, in an attempt to counter and correct the effects of the first dual-explosions. It will happen Wednesday, 11am...

Stenning, McGuire and Jeannie adjourn to 'Harry's Pub' to hear the countdown. As moments tick by global images flash up of the cracked and dry Thames, deserted Berlin, Paris, Moscow's Red Square, India's Taj Mahal, and New York. Until the distant detonations happen, with only an understated slow silt of particles falling from the ceiling to show it. The 'correction bombs' have been exploded, and the future is undecided. Will 'all the works of man be consumed in the great fire out of which he was created..?'

There are alternate prints of the film in circulation - the one with the colour-tinted intro and outro sequences, plus a US version with peals of joyous church-bells dubbed-on over the final fade, preferring to imply a more positive outcome to the ambiguous ending intended by Val Guest. I prefer the open-ended closing scenes of the movie, with two alternative dummy newspaper front-pages made ready, with headlines for the next day's issue shown as 'WORLD SAVED!' or 'WORLD DOOMED!' It's five minutes to midnight...



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