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High on the list of science fiction classics ripe for major reappraisal is this eerie, prophetic tale of an ecological apocalypse caused not via an atomic war but by atomic testing. Susan Sontag said that the core attraction of science fiction movies is imagining disaster on a giant scale, and Val Guest's The Day the Earth Caught Fire dramatizes a worldwide apocalypse on a personal scale. Is our extreme global weather of the last few years just a normal variation or is the world's climate truly being altered? Screenwriters Guest and Wolf Mankowitz use a preposterous story hook to depict English civilization grinding to a halt. Just over a half-century later, we've already experienced some of the show's scary content - shortages of vital resources, the breakdown of civil services in times of disaster. The Day the Earth Caught Fire is one of the best science fiction films made anywhere by anybody. With energy crises threatening while governments protect their 'economic interests', the dysfunctional world pictured here closely resembled our own.
The British Film Institute has given Val Guest's best film renewed attention. Their new Blu-ray (Region B, I'm afraid) corrects all the shortcomings of Anchor Bay's old disc from 2001. It includes three vintage documentaries about England's bomb tests of the 1950s that provide some of the context for the film's call of warning.
Guest and Mankowitz's screenplay borrows the fast pace and snappy talk of American newspaper movies. Depressed over his divorce, cynical reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) is drinking too much and letting his job go to pot. Colleague Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) covers for him as best he can, as the news of odd weather catastrophes and major climactic aberrations begin to gel into a disturbing pattern. Peter uncovers the truth through Jeannie (Janet Munro), a girlfriend who brings him classified information from a government office: simultaneous nuclear blasts at the North and South 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 cyclones hit London and the Thames dries up. Jeannie and Peter find romance ... while the temperature climbs to the 140° mark.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire goes against the grain for science fiction movies, with their fantastic monsters and futuristic secret weapons. Two bombs tossing the Earth out of kilter would seem as juvenile as the orbit-shift in Toho's Gorath if it weren't treated as just another official secret the newspaper heroes must ferret out of stubbornly unresponsive 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 just as did the heroes of All The President's Men. 'Ordinary' Sci-fi may depict rancor between scientists and soldiers, or soldiers and the public, but Caught Fire sees the free press as the only institution that can keep the government honest, that speaks for ordinary people. 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 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.
Guest's fluid direction more than does the script justice. There isn't a scene that doesn't convince, a compliment indeed considering the phenomena the actors must react to. The bizarre events begin with an unseasonable heat wave that brings out a strange mist, culminating in a typhoon that rips through London. Effects expert Les Bowie's ambitious use of mattes and especially painted cycloramas is quite successful: CGI artists should study what a small outfit accomplished with so few resources. With the exception of one shot of the mist rolling up the Thames, the views of empty riverbeds, fog-enshrouded streets and scorched landscapes are superb. Savant has never seen newsreels of fires and storms used so creatively, to such good effect - Guest's clever matching shots tie-in with the stock footage. One gets the feeling that pandemonium is indeed breaking out all over the world. The newspaper editor caps the Soviets' doomsday announcement by saying he doesn't see what they have to gain by lying. It's a good question to ask about most everything one reads on the Internet or hears on the radio.
In addition to his realistic scenes of disorder and desolation, Guest stages his own large-scale 'ban the Bomb' demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Although underreported here, England held massive 'Ban the Bomb' rallies in the late '50s. It's surprising to see the peace symbol we later associated with Vietnam. We kids in America thought, 'why are the English concerned about this but not us?' The disaster in Caught Fire is a political think-piece about the real world. What does the news really mean? What aren't we being told, 'for our protection?' 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 launches an epidemic of typhus.
It's a cliché of Sci-Fi that society is just a mob waiting to happen. At the drop of a scare headline, doomsday movies often jump straight into riots and other social havoc. Some 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 'beatnik music'. Once a candidate for James Bond, Edward Judd smacks a couple of kids around but doesn't turn into an action hero. He also handles the often-racy dialogue well. He's a fine 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, giving the film a pace as fast as that of The Front Page.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire uses a flashback structure framed with bookend scenes tinted a visually jolting pale yellow. 1 The tints put across the notion that London has become a furnace that melts the rubber on typewriter carriages. Some reviewers have criticized the unresolved ending, which leaves the film on a thoughtful and poetic note. As classic Science Fiction oratory, Edward Judd's final dictated newspaper copy should be up there with Robert Scott Carey's soliloquy at the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man:
"So Man has sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind. Perhaps in the next few hours there will be no remembrance of the past and no hope for the future that might have been. All the works of man will be consumed in the great fire out of which he was created. But perhaps at the heart of the burning light into which he has thrust his world, there is a heart that cares more for him than he has ever cared for himself. And if there is a future for man, insensitive as he is, proud and defiant in his pursuit of power, let him resolve to live it lovingly, for he knows well how to do so. Then he may say once more, 'Truly the light is sweet, and what a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to see the sun.' "
The better part of two new generations of fantastic film fans haven't had the benefit of seeing The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The ecological angle makes it more relevant than ever -every new unusual or extreme weather situation (like our own present drought here in Southern California) reminds me of Val Guest's movie. 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. 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.
The British Film Institute's Blu-ray of The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a new restoration presently available on Region B discs that won't play on domestic U.S. players. The new transfer is terrific -- sharp and clear, adding detail and texture to the rain and fog, not to mention close-ups of Janet Munro. She makes perspiration look sexier than anything in Body Heat. The sharper picture does make the effects techniques more transparent -- could Les Bowie's giant backdrops be photographic blowups, the kind where an emulsion is painted on large flats? Some scenes show distortion in the anamorphic lenses. When Ms. Munro makes her entrance to the extreme left of screen, her image is horizontally squeezed. A clean certificate 'X' card is still on the front of the show.
The audio is improved 100%, allowing us to hear the very dense dialogue without distortion.
The BFI give the disc a long list of interesting and desirable extras. Film historian Ted Newsom's 2000 commentary with Val Guest has been repeated here. He prompts Guest to relate the facts behind every new scene and point out scores of actors, even a young Michael Caine with his distinctive voice. A trailer and several television spots are included, that amusingly censor McKern's word 'bastards' into 'bunglers'.
The half-hour docu Hot Off the Press: Revisiting the Day the Earth Caught Fire features excellent input from a number of qualified spokesmen, especially explaining the film's touchy political context. Kim Newman reminds us that Mankowitz's snappy newsroom banter is heavily stylized. The movie is compared and contrasted with other, more conventional atom-scare movies of the day. Although we're told that the response of one scientific expert to the film's technical feasibility was a curt, "It's all balls", the interviewees admire the way the film addresses nuclear and ecological issues without being about an actual nuclear war. The "how it could happen here" reality of Caught Fire points out modern society's illusion of stability. The film asserts that official channels hide information from the public, lie when pressed about it and dissemble when caught in their lies. That's a very radical agenda for 1962.
Leo McKern appears in a pleasant interview, commenting on his fellow actors and the filming. Critic Graeme Hobbs offers his take on the movie in a 9-minute audio item. A stills gallery contains seemingly every scrap of ad art for the film, along with Janet Munro's sexy photo shoots. The Guardian Lecture: Val Guest and Yolande Dolan sees the director and his actress wife interviewed after a screening. And Edward Judd's motorbike safety Public Service announcement shows him an effective television communicator.
Three vintage English movies about nuclear weapons are very different from American Atomic Cafe- style propaganda pieces. 1952's Operation Hurricane is half an hour in length and shows the preparations for a 1952 nuclear test off the coast of Western Australia, with hundreds of scientists and engineers devoted to the manufacture of dozens of complex instruments to measure the bomb's effect. The final voiceover makes clear England's desire to go nuclear, so as to 'have a say' in the global power games conducted by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
The H-bomb from 1956 is a mind-boggling explanation showing how much more powerful and destructive a ten-megaton hydrogen explosion would be in a British city, illustrated with charts and graphic animation. The narration remains calm even as it becomes obvious that these weapons make civil defense pointless. Armies of rescuers and medics couldn't deal with the scale of destruction and injury calmly calculated in the narration. Were these films shown to the general public (were they?) I'd expect the response to be confusion, anger, and panic. Anything might happen -- people might start asking questions.
Absurdity reaches to Dr. Strangelove levels in the final official film, The Hole in the Ground. Its dramatization of the workings of Britain's warning system for atomic war is bureaucratic nonsense of the kind detested by Peter Watkins' suppressed BBC show, The War Game. Just as during the Blitz, local battle operations rooms collect information about atom strikes, with scientists and weather specialists providing accurate information about where fallout is expected. Hundreds of local spotters man radiation detectors, sending in data that can be used to warn civilians and even peaceful neighbors across the channel. The movie isn't clear whether what we're seeing is a civil defense plan, or a claim that this enormous network is up and running. These hundreds of posts are manned by thousands of unpaid 'civil servants' volunteering their time... including hundreds of technical experts, all doing nothing but waiting for an atomic attack in peacetime. Adding to the madness, Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra theme opens and closes the show. The gap between what we're shown and how it is interpreted by the narration is frightening. The official message is, 'be aware but rest easy' while the evidence before our eyes is that the government doesn't know what it's doing. We're all going to end up in "a hole in the ground".
The BFI thoughtfully provides a fat booklet crediting all of the extra contents and adding new essays from John Oliver and Marcus Hearn.
All in all, this is a spectacular disc... it's now more obvious than ever that The Day the Earth Caught Fire's relevance extends far beyond Sci-fi fandom. In late interviews, Val Guest was pleased that the film's ecological message -- and its thematic application to Global Warming -- was being recognized.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Day the Earth Caught Fire Blu-ray
1. In the Anchor Bay disc of 2000 these scenes were rendered in a bright orange. Savant UK correspondent David Carnegie projected Day the Earth Caught Fire in England when it was new and verifies that the original tint was yellow. Neither of the illustrations above reflects the correct color as seen on the disc.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.