The Day The Earth Caught Fire

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Edward Judd in The Day The Earth Caught Fire
"Lines like “Funny how when the chopper falls everyone just accepts it” are disturbingly prescient."

A lone man staggering down a deserted city street. It has become an iconic image in apocalyptic cinema. Though Val Guest’s 1961 thriller wasn’t the first film to use it, it was one of the most powerful, thanks in part to Edward Judd’s physical acting in the role of journalist Pete Stenning. His weariness and the beads of sweat standing out on his skin tell us that something is very wrong even before we hear that distant voice over the loudspeaker: “Nineteen minutes before countdown. 19 minutes.”

Inside the (real) offices of the Daily Express, Scott Slimon’s set design contributes to the eerie atmosphere. There’s a slickness about surfaces that just looks wrong for London. Thick dust becomes apparent when Pete moves a phone. At the other end, a lone sub-editor reluctantly agrees to process what he has to say, despite arguing that there isn’t much point. It becomes clear that we have arrived at the end of the story. With the world poised on the brink of disaster, Pete wants to give his account of the last few days.

Copy picture

There had been films exploring the possible downsides of nuclear weapons before this but they had mostly been allegorical, like 1954’s Godzilla, or focused on misuse, like 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly. Whilst the science in The Day The Earth Caught Fire is pretty dodgy – it’s hard to imagine any mechanism whereby a surface explosion, even if it used all the fissile material we have, could skew the planet’s orbit – it gets one crucial thing right, which is to say that it reminds us that drastic things we do can have unforeseen consequences. Because its underlying idea concerns the poles and equator moving, it also goes on to explore the consequences of a major disruption in climate and weather patterns – which is, naturally, still more relevant today than it was when the film was made. Lines like, “Funny how when the chopper falls everyone just accepts it” are disturbingly prescient.

It’s difficult to tell a story on this scale without a strong personal narrative to anchor it. Guest and co-writer Wolf Mankowitz finds this in Pete, a once admired reporter who has fallen into alcoholism in the aftermath of his divorce and who is trying to keep it together enough to continue seeing his son. His editor (played by real life Express editor Arthur Christiansen, much admired in his time and the last to treat that paper as a serious news-gathering venture) has some sympathy for his circumstances but can’t afford to deal with his unreliability, so has put him on the silly stories - which means he’s first on call when sunspots start appearing in great number and there’s an unexpected total eclipse.

At around the same time, Pete meets savvy young copyist Jeannie (Janet Munro) and things finally start looking up for him. Jeannie is cautious, no doubt used to dealing with sleazy men, but at time quite brazenly flirtatious herself, and one gets the impression that she usually gets what she wants. Their developing relationship plays out against a background of bizarre happenings, such as a heavy fog that blankets London, and steadily rising temperatures, whilst their professions give us access to reports and rumours of similarly odd changes around the world. Earth’s sudden precarity mirrors Pete’s own, and the fact that he now has something to live for encourages us to root for humanity as a whole.

It’s worth keeping in mind that many Londoners going to see this film in cinemas when it first came out would have strong memories of the Blitz only a few years before. Indeed, many of the extras running from the strange fog would have run from bombs and clouds of smoke in those same streets. The city’s experience of trauma adds something powerful to the mix, and the film also addresses concerns about the Baby Boomer generation, whom Guest’s generation were beginning to realise had been spoiled. Here they are seen treating impending disaster as a reason to party, drinking in the streets and engaging in petty vandalism. As older people try to take what control they can over the situation, evacuating cities, these young people provide a visual representation of the chaos that the worsening disaster inspires.

There’s a great deal to take in here and despite the occasional minor slip (such as getting the name of a disease wrong), Guest delivers a remarkably cohesive, hard-hitting piece of work. It may be fantastic in theme but it’s journalistic in form and this makes it easy to accept. Perhaps most notably, its style really hasn’t dated. It’s easy for modern viewers to engage with and it has plenty to say to them.

Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2020
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The Day The Earth Caught Fire packshot
A worldwide panic is sparked when the US and Soviet Union simultaneously detonate nuclear devices.

Festivals:

Glasgow 2020

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