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Day the Earth Caught Fire (Special Edition), The
Val Guest, who co-wrote the script with Wolf Mankowitz, directed The Day The Earth Caught Fire, which was released in 1961, and this modestly budgeted piece of British science fiction holds up remarkably well, particularly given today's current climate in regards to nuclear weapons and concerns over the effects of global warming.
The story introduces us to Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), a hardworking reporter employed by a newspaper called The Daily Express. When we're introduced to him, he makes his way from his apartment to the office, stepping carefully on his way through what was once London and which is now, at least partially, a wasteland. When he makes it to his desk and finds that the typewriter his quite literally melted, he asks someone to jot down his tale, and he then proceeds to tell it.
As he does, we jump from the finale to the beginning, where Peter and the rest of London seem to be enjoying a typically rainy season. Peter and the rest of the city's population do notice that the weather seems a bit odd, but they go on with their life. Peter, recently divorced, shows a particular interest in a beautiful government worker named Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro), and while their relationship doesn't instantly click, it isn't too long at all before they're carrying on together, their romance becoming increasingly more intense as the story goes on. Jeannie lets loose to Peter what she's learned, however, and that's that the weather issues aren't just a natural occurrence, but rather the result of both the United States and Russia setting off atomic bombs at the same time and quite literally knocking the Earth off of its regular axis. This may have resulted in the planet's orbit getting shifted, and with that comes the not insignificant issue of the Earth getting increasingly closer to the sun…
Very well made on somewhat limited means, The Day The Earth Caught Fire is interesting for quite a few reasons, the first of which is the fact that it does not use allegories or metaphors like radioactive monsters and the like to tackle the subject of nuclear war, rather, it deals with it head on, leaving nothing to the imagination in that regard. It's also atypical of so many other sci-fi films because it focuses not the people trying to save the world from burning to a crisp, but on the people who are trying to figure out just what exactly the first lot is doing. Stenning, and then Craig, are out not to save the world themselves, but to uncover the truth about what's really happened here and what the various government factions are doing about it. This makes the film stand out from the pack quite a bit already, but then there's the way that Jeannie Craig is portrayed in the film. She's a headstrong and independent woman in charge of her own destiny and not dependent on Stennnig much at all. When she's with him, it's because she wants to be, not because she has to be. That might sound funny to point out in 2020, but watch a few other science fiction films made around the same era and see how many of them you can say that about.
Edward Judd makes for a good lead. His portrayal of a very imperfect man is believable enough to work, we wind up liking Peter while still very much recognizing his flaws. The lovely Ms. Munro, who had previously spent most of her career in Disney movies (and who passed away far too young at the age of only thirty-eight) like Darby O'Gill And The Little People and Swiss Family Robinson, really comes into her own here. She's quite good in the part, better perhaps than her male counterpart, and she makes her Jeannie Craig a genuinely interesting character, playing the part with enthusiasm and authenticity.
Guest, whose own background was in journalism, directs the film very well. The pace is controlled and deliberate but the movie never feels slow. He knows not to overreach and fill the film up with effects work that wouldn't have been convincing, and goes for a more subtle approach here, using colored tints to make the black and white picture feel appropriately hot during two key moments. It's a reasonably stylish film, nicely shot with a good eye for detail by Harry Waxman and it benefits from a good score courtesy of Stanley Black.
The Day The Earth Caught Fire comes to Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.35.1 widescreen, taking up just over 31GBs of space on the 50GB disc. Taken from a new 4k restoration and opening with a credit for the BFI and Studio Canal (preceding the British censorship classification card), indicating that this was sourced from the recent restoration completed by them, this picture quality here is excellent. The tinted sequences look surprisingly sharp, while the rest of the transfer, which is in traditional black and white, shows great contrast and is in very nice shape. There's a bit of dirt noticeable in a few optical shots but otherwise the image is basically spotless, and the transfer is given a nice, strong bit rate here which helps to keep compression artifacts out of the way. A natural amount of film grain appears and there are no noticeable issues with noise reduction, edge enhancement or sharpening. All in all, this is a very impressive and filmic presentation.
The only audio option on for the feature version of the movie is a 16-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track in the film's native English language and it sounds good, properly balanced and affording the score a good bit of depth. Dialogue is clear throughout, there are no problems with any hiss or distortion to gripe about. This all sounds just fine. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.
Extras start off with a new audio commentary by Film Historian Richard Harland Smith that details how the history of the nuclear bomb clearly had a huge influence on this film and pop culture in general, detailing different events that had taken place before the movie was made before then going on to talk about Val Guest's career for a while. He covers the film's sharp dialogue, some of the stock characterizations that appear in the newspaper office, where various cast and crew members have done other work in the film and entertainment industries with lots of background on Munro, why some of those supporting players might look familiar, some of the locations that are used in the film like Battersea Park and how the film interfered with the Queen (!!), 'end of the world' books that were written before this movie was made and their significance, whether or not Munro was objectified here or not and how this contrasts with her portrayal as an independent woman, how the events in the film roll back the clock and humble the city of London and harken back to what happened during the Second World War and loads more. Smith knows his stuff and he does a fine job of packing this track with information and opinions.
Kino has also included the archival audio commentary by co-writer/producer/director Val Guest, moderated by Ted Newsom (who sadly passed away just a few short days before this review was written), that originally appeared on the old Anchor Bay DVD. When this track was recorded, Guest hadn't seen the picture in quite a while but Newsom keeps him on point and engaged. They talk about why the black and white film is tinted in a few spots and how they did it, little details about how the newspaper office operates and how accuracy was very important to this aspect of the movie, what it was like working with the main cast and crew members in the picture like Janet Munro (and the details of her nude scene, not restored for this release) and Leo McKern, the film's use of newsreel footage protest marches versus what was shot specifically for the film, the framing and cinematography, how the film was received theatrically, Guest's own thoughts on science fiction in general, how some of the effects were pulled off and lots more. It's quite an interesting commentary, rest in peace Ted.
On top of that, we get four TV spots, four radio spots, a trailer for the feature, two bonus trailers (The Quatermass Experiment and The Earth Died Screaming) as well as menus and chapter selection.
The Day The Earth Caught Fire is a very well-made science fiction film, a chilling look at what could happen that mixes up drama and suspense quite nicely. The performances are strong across the board and Guest directs the film with a keen eye and a good pace. The Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber looks and sounds great and the two commentary tracks are both very worthwhile. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.