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The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Director: Val Guest
review by Tony Lee
With recent freak storms, droughts and recurring floods, and the gloomy prospect of global warming fast becoming unavoidable reality, a new generation of film fans will surely find this 40-year-old British disaster movie far more eerie, frightening, and unnervingly prophetic than it was on its original release. Then, it was applauded as another gripping SF thriller - produced in the wake of success stories like Quatermass. Today, The Day The Earth Caught Fire seems like a masterpiece of wholly understated screen apocalypse, capturing a simply chilling end-of-the-world melancholy which recent US blockbusters like Armageddon are unable to match. Set in the offices of the Daily Express newspaper, this ironic tale of mankind's folly unfolds in flashback - as a reporter stumbles through the litter and rubble strewn streets of London, waiting for the outcome of a final desperate attempt to avert catastrophe...
The Day The Earth Caught Fire gave a big break to TV actor Edward Judd, and the first adult role for Disney player Janet Munro. However, the brains of the affair is undoubtedly Leo McKern, who plays the newsroom's brusque know-it-all with a deft, pointed wisdom that adds impact to already realistic features, like sets copied from genuine locations on Fleet Street. By choice, there is no background score at all in this film (except for snippets of radio music, and players in a street parade), which glues in place the documentary style adopted by the producer and director, Val Guest (maker of The Quatermass Xperiment, The Abominable Snowman), so effective here in generating tension in the busy city streets, and moody anxieties between the main characters. The judicious mix of newsreel footage of natural disasters, cut together seamlessly with visual effects shots by veteran Les Bowie, ensure this film hits the right emotional notes of alarm, bewilderment and despair, precisely on cue. And, of course, these emotions are shared by the bright intelligence of the fine cast. Judd's alcoholic newshound makes for a sympathetic movie hero, going through a believable character arc while courting Munro.
The main plot concerns ill-timed American and Soviet nuclear tests, which tilt the planet 11 degrees off its axis, and send it spiralling in towards the Sun. Is there any hope of survival from more atomic bombs, detonated in a position that may correct the orbital decay? Meanwhile, a sweltering heatwave brings drought, and water rationing to London. Sheets of blinding fog sweep inland (causing even taxi drivers with 'the knowledge' to get lost!) and the River Thames runs dry. We also see antinuclear protests in Trafalgar Square, while CND march on Downing Street! There's lots of convincing little details, like the retrofitted cars adapted to conserve water supplies, an unexpected eclipse warning everyone that something is very wrong with the Earth's orbit, and the behavioural changes that range from the traditional solidarity of the Blitz, to gang violence and rioting when all public order breaks down under pressure of the impending cataclysm.
Making few concessions to sci-fi movie conventions, and with authentic news media patois worked into the script (co-written by Guest, with Wolf Mankowitz), The Day The Earth Caught Fire deserves reassessment as one of the greatest genre films of all time. Trivia: the newspaper editor's name is Jeff (though he is often credited as just 'Editor'), and real-life Express editor Arthur Christiansen, then retired, plays the role with a brisk monotone signalling no previous acting experience. A young Michael Caine appears as a policeman directing traffic.
This excellent DVD release features a 2.35:1 ratio widescreen presentation of the black and white photography, and restores the rare orange-tinted start and end scenes. Disc extras include a revealing audio commentary by Val Guest and US journalist Ted Newsom, original trailer, TV and radio spots, photo gallery, director biography. A four-page insert has film notes by Mark Wickam, and repro of the original poster. Shame there's no English subtitles to help follow the plot during director's audio commentary, but this lack does seem to be the case on most Region 1 discs. Ironic that it's an American company releasing this classic British film on DVD, though.
previously published online, VideoVista #32
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