The Day the Earth Caught Fire (UK, 1961)

Unfortunately ahead of its time

I hadn’t seen this classic UK SF film for over 40 years and it actually seems more modern now than during the 1970s when the Cold War had cooled a little. Now, of course, the Earth is catching fire because of global warming and the film’s presentation of authorities as stupid and patronising still holds true as political leaders deny we’re destroying ourselves and the UK government manages to produce, this week, a budget that doesn’t even mention the biggest threat of our time.

In the film nuclear bomb tests, which were commonplace in the late 1950s, have shifted the Earth’s axis and orbit with catastrophic results. It is a slow burner as the protagonist, Edward Judd’s journalist Peter Stenning, slowly discovers the truth. His developing relationship with Janet Munro’s Jeannie is almost equally important. Scriptwriters Val Guest (who directed) and Wolf Mankiewicz parallel Stenning’s alcoholic cynicism with the existential threat of the dying planet. By doing this the abstract idea of extinction can be more readily understood: it matters little whether he loves life or not if we are all doomed. Munro’s character, though politically naive, is wise to Stenning’s initially predatory motives and she shows herself entirely able to look after herself. As I.Q. Hunter says, in an excellent piece in British Science Fiction (which he also edited), her character is far less misogynist than many in the New Wave films of the time.

The version of the film shown on Talking Pictures is the recently remastered print that looks great though why the channel insists on blurring out nudity eludes me; the showing I saw was after the watershed. It’s the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety prevalent to the time anyway and I remember seeing Mai Zetterling’s bum in Only Two Can Play (UK, 1962) as a teenager on afternoon TV; that too was blurred by Talking Pictures. Clearly it’s a channel aimed at older folk but are we really so prudish? There’s more flesh observable in an ad for a kinky dating service that runs on the channel.

The widescreen compositions work very well in the busy-ness of the newspaper office, giving more than a whiff of authenticity which is enhanced by the casting of Arthur Christiansen, an ex editor of the Daily Express, as the newspaper’s editor. Widescreen also heightens the impact of the apocalyptic montages of London and other parts of the world. As Hunter points out, authenticity informed Guest’s direction in contrast to the staple creature-features that were popular at the time. The CND demonstration in Trafalgar Square features Judd in the crowd and found footage of disasters are interpolated with skill. The only crummy special effect, acknowledged as such by the supervisor Les Bowie, was the fog flowing up the Thames; they didn’t have the budget to reshoot. And the focus on Jeannie’s and Peter’s developing relationship also serves to give a human dimension to the very real threat of nuclear Armageddon. The film’s in black and white except for a sepia tint for the framing of the narrative which is very effective in giving an uncanny atmosphere to the images.

The only false note for me was the portrayal of young people whose ‘beatnik’ music seems to have unhinged them. Though Hunter makes a good case for the film showing that their reaction is reasonable in comparison to the older generation who draw upon the ‘Blitz spirit’ to deal with the events in a low key manner. This spirit is very much part of English (British?) myth making and many Brexiteers refer to it as evidence we can deal with the disastrous economic and social consequences of leaving the EU. No doubt the spirit was very real during the War but why self-harm ourselves so it needs to be used again? Indeed, why self-harm ourselves by continuing the ruinous policies that are destroying the planet?

2 Responses

  1. […] She’s given top billing and later became familiar in Disney films; she also appeared in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). She died in 1972, apparently from an alcohol related illness. Strikingly the film is shot […]

  2. […] a recent post on The Day the Earth Caught Fire I suggested that British new wave films had a tendency to be misoygnist and two films I’ve […]

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