Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is, as its name suggests, an end-of-the-world movie. This time the threat isn’t aliens or meteors, it’s the atomic bomb.

Both the Americans and the Russians have carried out their largest ever H-bomb tests, and this simultaneous detonation seem to have had some rather disturbing effects. There are floods in New Zealand, cyclones in London and Greece, airports closed down by fogs unprecedented in history. Perhaps most disconcerting of all, there’s an unscheduled solar eclipse. The government assures the populace that there’s nothing to worry about.

Th story is told through the eyes of three people. Two are reporters on a London newspaper, the third works for the government’s Meteorological Office. Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) was once a promising journalist. A bitter divorce has caused him to crawl inside a whiskey bottle. He keeps his job on the paper because his friend Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) covers for him. Bill is your basic hardbitten middle-aged journalist with a heart of gold.

Stenning encounters Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) when he tries to talk his way into an interview with Britain’s top meteorologist, Sir John Kelly. He’s not looking to get involved with another woman but he and Jeannie hit it off pretty well, and there’s a definite attraction. Jeannie leaks important information to Stenning, information that suggests that the government’s assurances that everything is under control may be a long way from the truth.

Bit by bit the truth emerges. The earth has been knocked off its axis, causing cataclysmic global climate changes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the planet’s orbit has also been altered, and we are now heading closer and closer to the sun.

The three main characters are essentially just observers. They don’t make the important decisions. They’re not in a position to try to save the world. Their efforts to uncover the truth don’t change anything. They might know a little more about what’s going on than the average person but it doesn’t do them any good. The governments of the world have adopted a bold plan devised by the scientists, a plan that might just possibly avert disaster. Like everyone else our three protagonists can only wait and hope.

This is a fairly effective technique. When combined with stark black-and-white cinematography and a semi-documentary feel it adds to the feeling of a world at the mercy of forces beyond the control of ordinary people.

The three central characters could easily have been mere stereotypes but Edward Judd and Leo McKern in particular are able to bring their characters to life, to add some light and shade, and to make us care about them. Janet Munro is good as well although her character isn’t developed to quite the same extent.

There’s one rather surreal moment, when a bunch of beatniks run riot through the streets of London, causing mayhem. But it’s pretty mild mayhem. Their idea of rioting is dancing in the streets and throwing buckets of water (water is now strictly rationed by the government) over bystanders, accompanied by the sounds of crazy beatnik music.

Writer-director Val Guest is one of the unsung heroes of the British film industry. From the 40s to the beginning of the 80s he made countless movies in a variety of genres, and his filmography includes some extremely good movies (including quite a few for Hammer). He was always very good at building a sense of tension and impending disaster and even his lesser movies were rarely less than entertaining. He does a very skillful job with The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

One thing I especially liked was the use of tinting at the beginning and the end, a common practice in the days of silent cinema but rarely used in talking pictures. It works well in this production.

Network DVD have done a fine job with the transfer. The total absence of extras may disappoint some purchasers. A well-crafted and gripping movie.

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