The average citizen and his problems are the last concern of most science fiction movies, which would rather concentrate on monsters and fancy technology. When the common man does appear, he's usually an anonymous victim fleeing in panic from some outrageous threat with only a symbolic relation to anything real. Val Guest's The Day the Earth Caught Fire, one of the best science fiction films made anywhere by anybody, turns the world topsy-turvy and gives
us a glimpse of what it might be like to have to live through it. If Sci-Fi really is about 'future shock', huge pieces of this film will still resonate for audiences 40 years after it was released to critical acclaim and good boxoffice. With electric and gasoline crises threatening while governments protect their 'economic interests', the dysfunctional world pictured here is very familiar.
Hardboiled reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) is drinking too much and letting his job go to pot because he's
depressed over his divorce. Colleague Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) covers for him as best he can, as the news of minor catastrophes and major climactic aberrations start to gel into a sinister pattern. This is verified by a snitch in a government office, Jeannie (Janet Munro), who has fallen for Peter: simultaneous nuclear blasts at the poles have knocked the Earth off its axis and pitched it from its orbit -- in the direction of the sun. Civilization begins to crumble as the Thames dries up, cyclones hit London and Jeannie and Peter find romance ... while the temperature climbs to the 140 degree mark.
For once the credibility of a premise is not the only issue in a Science Fiction movie. Two bombs tossing the Earth out of kilter would seem as juvenile as the orbit-shift in Gorath, if it weren't treated as just another official secret the newspaper heroes must ferret out of stodgy and irresponsible government officials. Actual newspaper editor Arthur Christiansen served as a technical advisor as well as playing a major role, and there are scenes where the unflappable newsmen twist the truth from uncooperative sources as did the heroes of All The President's Men. The necessity of a free press has never been as well expressed, and this movie can join President's Men and Park Row as epitaphs for real journalism. If the events of this film occurred today, our 'news' media would simply figure out how to use them to promote Movies of the Week.
Wolf Mankowitz' crisp, intelligent writing style would be welcome in any genre, and here he constructs an absorbing group of characters with which we immediately identify. The assembled newsmen have jobs, families, regrets and quietly lust after the bartender's wife. Bill Maguire helps his alcoholic best friend keep his job with a veiled affection similar to that of Edward G. Robinson in Double
Indemnity. Hero Peter Stennings' advances toward fetching working girl Jeannie are met with a complex mix of reproach, good humor, and adult teasing.
With good production values and Guest's fluid direction bringing out every aspect of the script there isn't a scene that doesn't work, a compliment indeed considering the phenomena the actors must react to. A rising trend of bizarre weather starts with an unseasonable heat wave that brings out a strange mist, culminating in a typhoon that rips through London. Les Bowie's ambitious use of mattes and especially painted cycloramas, is quite successful: CGI artists should study what one man did on his own with so few resources. With the exception of one shot of the mist rolling up the Thames the views of empty riverbeds, fog - enshrouded cities and scorched landscapes are superb. Savant has never seen stock footage of fires and storms used so creatively, to such good effect. At the height of the story one gets the feeling that pandemonium is indeed breaking out all over the world, the mood our television news likes to engender. The newspaper editor cagily caps the doomsday news from the Russians by saying he doesn't see what they have to gain by lying. It's a good question to ask oneself about most everything one hears on the tube.
Once a candidate for James Bond, Edward Judd is a strong hero who handles the often-racy dialogue well and is a good match for the wonderful Janet Munro, here graduating from Disneyland into an adult role. Leo McKern is best at delivering the wisecracking, overlapping patter at a machine-gun rhythm and the rest of the cast keeps the pace as fast as The Front Page - without sounding a bit artificial or forced.
Although underreported here, England held massive 'Ban the Bomb' rallies in the late 50s, and Guest actually put Edward Judd in the middle of one to add to the realism. It's surprising to see the 'peace sign' we associate with Vietnam protests ... our peaceniks lifted it from the banners of English peaceniks, it seems. Guest and Mankowitz envision the breakdown of society as starting with the rationing of water, which is definitely not science fiction to those who've gone through gasoline rationing: in short order, people are hoarding, and black-market H20 starts an epidemic of typhus.
It's a cliché of Sci-Fi that mass populations are a mob waiting to happen. Doomsday movies often jump straight into riots and other social havoc at the drop of a scare headline. Many revel in exploitative chaos, e.g., No Blade of Grass to the detriment of making a coherent point. Here we have a water riot backed by Monty Norman's very Dixieland-sounding 'beatnik music' that works well without turning Edward Judd into an action hero or the movie into a show of brutality.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire has a flashback structure framed with visually jolting orange-yellow bookend scenes. These do a good job of expressing the idea that London has become a furnace that melts the rubber on typewriter
carriages. Some reviewers have criticized the unresolved ending but Savant thinks its poetry is both sobering and uplifting. Edward Judd's final newspaper copy should be up there with Robert Scott Carey's soliloquy at the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man, as
classic Science Fiction words. If it wouldn't spoil the show, I'd print them here. Because it's about people and not warfare or wholesale slaughter, this is the most thoughtful and persuasive of the doomsday films. It's also not a morbid soap opera, like the excellent On the Beach or Testament.
Not too many people have seen The Day the Earth Caught Fire and this is going to be a special treat for them. Val Guest's earlier Quatermass 2, Joseph Losey's These are The Damned and this film are the classics of British Science Fiction. You don't want to miss this one.
Anchor Bay's DVD of The Day the Earth Caught Fire is visually immaculate. Savant had never seen the film in its proper aspect ratio and it looks simply stunning. The effects are better when not blown up and cropped, and the 'scope screen is always crowded with characters and visual interest that were lost before. Savant was worried for a bit; on one monitor the soundtrack was very difficult to hear, but I played it on a second, smaller television and the problem went away. There is a lot of talk in this film and it's very frustrating not being able to make out the great dialogue all the time, so I hope my speakers or ears were the culprit. My monitor didn't want to decode the closed captions for some reason ... Nathaniel Thompson says they play fine on his television, so I'm relieved it's only me! They're an extra that's a big help - Savant uses subs all the time for mumble-mouthed English movies and Shakespearean shows. It's also a shame that hearing-impaired people can't get full enjoyment from all DVDs.
The disc has some nice extras. Film historian Ted Newsom hosts a very good commentary with Val Guest, who is clearly proud of this film that he produced as well as directed. Together they relate the facts behind every new scene and point out dozens of actors, even a young Michael Caine with his distinctive voice. A trailer and several television spots are included, amusingly altering McKern's word 'bastards' into 'bunglers'. A trim set of liner notes by Mark Wickum provide an appropriate introduction to the world of Val Guest, for 'civilians' who don't frequent sites like the Mobius Sci-Fi and Horror Cinema Discussion Board
The R2 cover art
A clean certificate 'X' card is still on the front of the show. The commentary implies that this uncut English version is longer than the American release, but the changes must be minor for the scenes with Janet Munro don't seem more explicit. She makes perspiration look sexier than anything in Body Heat, even fashionable! The thorough and engaging stills section includes color cheesecake shots of Munro standing in front of a set that looks identical to Mark Lewis'es setup in Peeping Tom made the year before. So captivating in
The Crawling Eye and so wasted as a grinning pixie in
Disney movies, Munro was obviously a game gal, but it was very ungallant to print the nude candids of her at the sink washing her hair. She was a remarkably expressive actress who must have been disappointed that her career didn't blossom, and it looks as though she was unaware a cameraman was grabbing some cheap shots.
Instead of peeping at Janet, the still man should have been searching for the image with which to convey the complex theme of this movie. Deprived of compelling graphics (as a still, even the empty Thames doesn't impress much) Anchor Bay has put a cover on The Day the Earth Caught Fire that looks like a bad copy of the art for Meteor. Take my word for it, there's a great movie in that package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Day the Earth Caught Fire rates:
Supplements: Commentary with Val Guest and Ted Newsom, Trailer, tv & radio spots, still gallery
Packaging: Keep Case
Reviewed: May 15, 2001