(1961) Directed by Val Guest; Written by Wolf Mankowitz and Val Guest; Starring: Edward Judd, Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Michael Goodliffe, Bernard Braden and Arthur Christiansen; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Region 2)
“When I had written the original treatment of the story, I sent it to the Daily Express, where we shot the film. I sent it to the Daily Express science correspondent…And he came back about a week later with a little note saying, ‘Riveting story, but bloody balls.’ …He’s been proved wrong, because everybody else has proved me right about global warming.” – Val Guest (from DVD commentary)
“They’ve shifted the tilt of the Earth. The stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards. They’ve finally done it.” – Bill Maguire (Leo McKern)
Our hubris dictates that we can do whatever we want with our planet with no consequences. We carelessly ignore the signs of Earth’s fragile state, with the naïve conceit that everything will somehow work out. Director/producer/co-writer Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire takes us out of our comfort zone, imagining a nightmare scenario where we have damaged the world beyond repair, and facilitated our own extinction. Guest, who previously worked on some notable Hammer science fiction films (including The Quatermass Xperiment and The Abominable Snowman), took five years to get his story produced. Several film companies, cold to the concept of a fiery worldwide calamity, passed on his script. Eventually, he used the more commercial Expresso Bongo (1959) as “collateral,” to get his film financed, for the miserly sum of 200,000 pounds.
In the opening scene, we’re introduced to a newspaper reporter in an abandoned newsroom. Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) dictates what could be the final news story of his career and an epitaph for humanity. The story flashes back 90 days, tracing the beginning of the environmental catastrophe. On separate corners of the globe, the U.S. and Soviet Union perform tests of the most powerful nuclear warheads ever devised, subsequently knocking the Earth off its axis. The climate becomes progressively inhospitable, as the polar caps melt and temperatures soar to unprecedented levels. Stenning soon discovers that the future of the Earth is worse than originally feared, as the planet’s orbit has also changed, sending it closer to the Sun. In a final gambit to set things right, the Soviet Union plans to detonate bombs to correct the course. Will humanity prevail, or is it too little, too late?
The film works so well because it maintains a consistent sense of immediacy. Guest, who started out as a journalist, captures the hustle and bustle of a fast-paced newsroom,* as reflected by the characters’ overlapping dialogue and rapid-fire delivery. The distinct “you are there” atmosphere is reinforced thanks to a documentary-style feel. At Guest’s insistence, there is no musical score (the only music is organic to a handful of scenes). We’re caught in the middle of the commotion (other than a few stray shots of cities around the world), with the action confined to the streets of London.
* Fun Fact #1: Guest added a level of veracity by casting Arthur Christiansen, former editor for the Daily Express, basically playing himself as the paper’s head editor, Jefferson.
The special effects may appear primitive by today’s standards, but they do the job. Given the limited time, money and resources the filmmakers had at their disposal, the visuals never fail to get the point across. Les Bowie’s matte work features some impressive paintings, including shots of a bone-dry Thames and the Taj Mahal with skeletal cattle in the foreground. One of the most striking visuals in the black and white film are the yellow-tinted opening and closing scenes,* depicting a planet that’s burning up. Water is at a premium, limited to strict rationing. Everyone looks perpetually hot to the point of exhaustion, drenched in sweat. Tempers flare and inhibitions, as well as excess clothing, are discarded.** In a moment of unbridled revelry, a group of beatniks tears through a town, creating an orgy of chaos, toppling cars and splashing water on each other.
* Fun Fact #2: Some prints of the film didn’t include the tinted scenes, which added another dimension. For the movie’s home video restoration, the BFI referenced the original yellow dyes utilized for the initial release.
** Fun Fact #3 Janet Munro’s brief topless scene earned the film an “X” rating in the U.K. and was omitted altogether from the U.S. version.
Nothing sells humanity’s dire predicament as much as the exemplary performances by the main cast members. Stenning (Judd) isn’t our typical hero, but an alcoholic burnout (pardon the pun). He’s fallen into a creative and personal slump, but finds hope for his career in what might be the scoop of the century. He finds additional inspiration in a tempestuous relationship with Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) a strong-willed government worker. Although Edward Judd was the featured player, Leo McKern* merits special notice as the film’s true star, Stenning’s irascible, sarcastic science editor, Bill Maguire.** McKern inhabits the role as a flesh and blood individual obsessed with reporting the truth. We get the feeling that he practically lives in the newsroom, outside of a few scenes in his favorite local bar (filmed in an actual pub on Fleet Street).
* Fun Fact #4: Fans of the BBC TV series The Prisoner might recognize McKern as one of the most memorable incarnations of Number Two.
** Fun Fact #5: In one scene Maguire facetiously comments about his glass eye melting, a direct reference to the actor’s glass eye.
Janet Munro is another revelation, as Jeannie Craig, who holds a low-level position, but harbors some critical information that affects the entire world. She’s an independent woman, more than a match for Stenning’s sexist, bullying tactics, forcing him to play by her rules. Munro accepted the role as a conscious choice to shed her wholesome Disney persona (establishing herself in films such as Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Swiss Family Robinson), adopting a more grown up image. She succeeds in her nuanced performance, managing to be headstrong, yet alluring and vulnerable. In an overtly sexual scene that must have given the censors pause, she shares a smoldering (in more ways than one) moment with Judd.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire takes a dim view of the people in charge, questioning their ability to make the right decisions or willingness to disseminate information to the masses. It’s a timeless message that hasn’t lost its relevance. The film ends on an ambiguous note. While the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, the camera pans across the Daily Express printing room, revealing two opposing newspaper headlines with opposite outcomes. Although the appearance of a cathedral and ringing bells seem to suggest a positive conclusion, the screen fades to black before we can be sure. The filmmakers seem to leave everything in our court, suggesting our final chapter hasn’t been written, and it’s up to us to decide our fate. The Day the Earth Caught Fire is an exceptional example of a “what if” film, which deserves to be regarded as a classic.