|Day the Earth Caught Fire, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 12 June 2001|
Nowadays, "science fiction movie" has largely come to be defined as "big-scale action movie with lots of effects," but that's just an artifact, a by-product, of the general dumbing-down of American movies. Studios aim the majority of their medium-to-big-budget releases at boys between 14 and 20, since they make up the bulk of moviegoers. A low-key, quietly intelligent movie like 'The Day the Earth Caught Fire' wouldn't even get past the first reading at a studio, much less actually get made.
Fortunately, 'twas not always thus. Even though, as he reveals in the commentary track, Val Guest actually tried for years to get it made in the first place. He conceived of the idea around 1954 or so, when he was shaking off his long-standing reputation as a director of pretty cheesy British comedies (few of which crossed the Atlantic) by directing 'The Quatermass Experiment' ('The Creeping Unknown') and 'Quatermass 2' ('Enemy from Space'). But he couldn't convince a production company to back the film until 1960.
Guest co-wrote the movie with Wolf Mankowitz, and their script is a model of sharp dialog, realistic characterization and believable situations. The balance between the gripping story and the more emotional, "human" side of things is nearly perfect: each is told through the other. The only flaw the film has, really, is a somewhat slow pace -- but that's an almost unavoidable byproduct of the tale being told.
The central character is London Evening Standard newspaper reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), whose tendency to drink has been aggravated by a recent, messy divorce. He's now regarded as something of a joke at the (fictional) newspaper office, but is still given assignments, mostly by science editor Bill Maguire (Leo McKern), who's gruffly fond of the younger man.
In the course of investigating some mildly unusual weather patterns and sunspots, Peter meets and is attracted to Jeannie (Janet Munro), who works for the official meteorological office. As their relationship, which is intense but somewhat rocky, develops, Peter uncovers more and more upsetting information.
Meanwhile, the weather gets stranger -- storms strike out of season, a solar eclipse occurs off-schedule, a strange, thick fog sweeps up the Thames. Meanwhile, government officials are beginning to get scared, which attracts Bill Maguire's increasingly worried attention.
Eventually, the reporters learn the frightening truth: by sheer chance, a huge nuclear test by the Americans was detonated at precisely the same time as an equally large Soviet nuclear test -- and the powerful blows have swung the Earth out of orbit. It is spiraling toward the sun.
Guest and Mankowitz made a key decision that resulted in the film's unsettling but understated aura of realistic menace: their protagonists are journalists. In almost all other movies of this general nature, the central characters are the scientists involved, who must find a way to escape ('When Worlds Collide') or otherwise deal with the problem ('Crack in the World'). By centering on journalists, Guest leads us gradually to an understanding of what has happened; these people are required to uncover the truth. They occupy the same position we would under these circumstances, but just a few steps nearer the center.
The story then becomes the tale of what happens to people, not what happens to the world itself. It's not an epic; it's a drama about the possible end of the world. About the only concession made to big-scale disaster is the opening and closing scenes, printed with a vivid bronze tint (in theaters, it was more yellow). This does create a sense of overpowering heat; the streets are deserted, everyone is sweating. It's hot enough that the platen on Peter's typewriter has melted. But it's disaster on an immediate human scale even in these scenes. There are a few newsreel shots of storms and the like, but again, it's not about the weather, it's about what the weather does to people.
Of the cast, only Leo McKern (and a briefly-glimpsed young Michael Caine, as a policeman) is familiar to Americans, mostly from his later role as Rumpole of the Bailey. Janet Munro had just made three Disney movies, 'Third Man on the Mountain,' 'Darby O'Gill and the Little People' and 'Swiss Family Robinson,' and enjoyed the chance with 'Earth Caught Fire' to play a more mature role. (She even has a very brief nude scene.) She had a strong personality, and was extremely attractive, but personal problems, including heavy drinking, caused a swift decline in her career. She died much too young.
Edward Judd is still working, or was up until a few years ago; his brief period of stardom stretched from 'Earth Caught Fire' to one or two films past 'The First Men in the Moon' a few years later. His somewhat coarse features are sensitive; he looks like a blend of Rock Hudson and George C. Scott. He's excellent here, with a low-key performance that matches the style of the film.
McKern is excellent. He was always excellent. Solid, amusing, realistic, ingratiating without working at it. He could vary from comic roles, as in the Beatles' 'Help' to straight drama, as here, to one-of-a-kind parts as in the series 'The Prisoner,' in which he was the most memorable Number Two.
This DVD from Anchor Bay is long overdue. Universal initially released 'The Day the Earth Caught Fire' in the United States, but let the rights slip away. Someone was wise enough to pounce on them, and to find the crystal-clear, anamorphic print included here. The one drawback is in the area of sound; of course, it's mono -- stereo was reserved for the biggest movies back then -- but it's also somewhat muffled. I had to turn it up well past the usual db setting for the feature as well as for the commentary track.
That track is the best of the somewhat skimpy extras. There are a few trailers, both theatrical and television, some radio spots, and a biography of director/co-writer Val Guest (which includes the remarkable word "longevous"). The track, conducted with film historian/video producer Ted Newsom, is good, though it might have been better if the film itself had been more of a focus.
Do not expect visceral thrills from 'The Day the Earth Caught Fire;' it's simply not that kind of movie. But it is a solid, believable drama with well-drawn characters, good dialog and a well-told story. The movie was a major success when first released, as well as a critical favorite; it even won the best British screenplay at the British Academy Awards in the year of its release. But it gradually disappeared from view and memory; only a few recalled just how good it was. Thanks to Anchor Bay, it's now available in excellent form; hopefully, it will now achieve the recognition that it has long been due.