THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE
THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE
Running time: 106 minutes approx
Pete Stenning - Edward Judd
Jeannie Craig - Janet Munro
Bill McGuire - Leo McKern
Directed by Val Guest Written by Val Guest & Wolf Mankowitz
The world suffers a series of strange, freak weather events and a group of reporters struggle to find out what is going on and what the authorities are keeping from the public.
No, this is not a global warming film taken from the very current headlines and concerns. It is, in fact, THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, a British science fiction film rooted in the fears of the fifties around the potentially disastrous effects of the Cold War and its Mutually Assured Destruction-fuelled nuclear politics. The fact is that the scientific cause of these strange weather effects is utter nonsense and based on fears that have somewhat subsided over time doesn't matter one whit because the effects of the heating up of the planet are something that is most definitely on the minds of today's politicians and populace. In fact, if you take the tilting of the Earth's axis and disturbance of its orbit out of the equation, then this really could be as relevant to today as, say, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW.
This being a British science fiction movie of the 60s, money wasn't exactly sloshing around the production, so the story and the characters take centre stage rather than the special effects. The effects have suffered immensely over time with the obvious matte lines and model work likely to bring hoots of derision from audiences brought up on near-flawless CGI creations, but the effects are used sparingly and only serve the human story. The global catastrophe is seen through focusing on a small group of characters who are not so removed from the audience. This is not the group of scientists struggling to come up with a last minute escape route, nor the politicians and planners trying to manage the situation in full knowledge of what is going on. The cast here are working class reporters trying to uncover the cover-up and lowly administrative workers who come into more information than is good for them. And that brings up another very topical issue. The film may deal with the print media almost exclusively, but central to the relationship story between Pete Stenning and Jeannie Craig is the way that the reporter uses the information that he has come into possession of by 'dubious' means. How much more current could that subject be?
Considering that the film focuses closely on its cast, the performances are key. Val Guest is a great, often overlooked director, and he gets good performances out of the inevitably wonderful Leo McKern and the notoriously difficult Edward Judd. Janet Munro's character may only be a working girl, but she's an independent, strong-willed and incredibly sexy working girl and helps immensely to soften the sometimes stiff-upper lipped star turn by Judd. Guest's decision to cast real newspaper people in some of the secondary roles doesn't work nearly so well and Arthur Christiansen struggles quite noticeably in a significant role. There's even a tiny role for a young Michael Caine whose voice is instantly recognisable despite his face being shrouded in fog.
Guest centres his direction around the reality of the situation. Everything here is designed to create an almost documentary feel about the story. The stock footage used actually adds to this rather than detracts from it. There is a notorious lack of music beyond incidental uses (everyone listens to the radio whilst few watch television) and real settings are used to underline that verité effect. This near-documentary approach also adds to the chilling events that start to take place. The initial weather changes are dealt with almost humorously, but as the Thames dries up and communal washing centres are introduced, the true scale and potential terror of the catastrophe start to become clear. Disease outbreak is dealt with in typical low-key manner, but is scary all the same. When the potential end of the human race is mooted, it doesn't come off as false. Hope proves to be in short supply as the scheme thought up by the authorities is not so much scientific improvisation as sheer desperation. The famous cliffhanger with its two headlines on display is notable for the reason that it sums up the mood of the piece perfectly.
Global catastrophe has been in vogue in recent decades (think 2012, DAY AFTER TOMORROW, DEEP IMPACT) thanks to the ability to put global scale destruction on the screen, but it was being done 40 years ago with more intelligence, wit and invention.
The British Film Institute and Studiocanal have produced a Blu Ray with a 4K scan of the original negative (plus some other bits according to the accompanying extras) that makes the film look better than ever. The tinted beginning and end stands out, but the picture quality is brilliant throughout. Far more important than that is the fact that this Blu Ray release finally gives us a chance to talk about one of our favourite British science fiction films of all time. THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE may be of its time, but it remains relevant, entertaining and fascinating even so, mainly because of the quality of the people involved, from writers and performers to the director.