Val Guest was at the forefront of Britain’s science fiction cinema boom in the 1950s, directing both of Hammer’s Quatermass adaptations as well as a further Nigel Kneale effort, The Abominable Snowman. Each of those films was notable for a gritty sense of realism that belied the fantastical nature of the story, and so it is no surprise that when making a science fiction film that had what seemed to be an altogether more plausible narrative – one that played very much into then current fears of nuclear annihilation – he would come up with something that transcended anything the genre was doing at the time. Stripped of bug-eyed monsters or alien invaders, The Day the Earth Caught Fire instead feels like a contemporary thriller that just happened to be about the end of the world. The result is possibly the best British science fiction film ever made (and yes, I’m including 2001 in that list). It’s also a film that remains as timely as ever, with the doom-laden predictions of climate change protesters suggesting that the scorched Earth theme of the film is just around the corner, if not already with us (and as I write this on the hottest day of the year, who can argue?).
The premise of the film is simple, even if the science is probably a bit suspect. The USA and USSR both – by chance – carry out simultaneous nuclear tests, the power of which is enough to cause the Earth to shift from its axis and start moving towards the Sun. It takes a while for this to become apparent in the story, with the knowledge that something is wrong coming slowly through increasingly extreme weather conditions that result in a massive heat wave across Britain. Investigating this is Daily Express reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), who has been drinking in the last chance saloon – as well as every other bar in town. Bitter about a divorce and custody battle, he’s boozing away a once promising career, being bailed out from missed assignments by colleague Bill Maguire (Leo McKern), but a routine visit to a government office in search of a silly season story about sun spots puts him onto the fact that there may be more to the odd weather than the government is letting on. A testy first meeting with switchboard operator Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) leads – rather more convincingly than in most films – to a love affair between the two, and when she tells him about a conversation she overheard about the earth’s axis being tilted, he betrays her trust and reports the story, leading to her arrest. But soon, everyone has much more to worry about than government department leaks, as it turns out that the world has mere months left unless the unbalance can be corrected. As the superpowers prepare to explode unprecedented amounts of nuclear bombs simultaneously in an attempt to reverse the effects of the earlier explosions, water runs out, society explodes into anarchy and Stenning and Jeannie rekindle their affair. In the end, it’s left to Stenning to chronicle what could be either a new beginning or the beginning of the end.
Tightly written by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz, The Day the Earth Caught Fire feels unlike any other British science fiction film, with the possible exception of Guest’s own Quatermass 2, with which it shares a naturalistic style that makes the fantastical nature of the story all the more believable, Not that this would’ve seemed too fantastical at the time – the threat of nuclear destruction hung over everyone throughout the second half of the 20th century, and it wasn’t so hard to imagine that the end could come just as easily from nuclear accidents as from war. At a time when ever-more powerful weapons were still being regularly tested, this story probably didn’t seem such a stretch for any viewers.
The sense of realism is helped by the fact that the film plays more like a newspaper story and conspiracy thriller than science fiction most of the time. While the cynical reporter was not exactly an unfamiliar character in cinema, here the portrayal of the newspaper world feels entirely authentic. The fact that it is set around a real newspaper (and hard as it is to imagine now, there once was a time when the Daily Express actually was a newspaper of note) brings a certain gravitas to the story, and the sets, perfectly recreating the Express newsroom, give the film a documentary realism. So to do most of the performances, with characters overlapping dialogue, dropping quips and generally seeming like real, rounded people. McKern is on top form as the science editor who puts it all together, having a natural style that barely feels like acting at all. Judd is also impressive as the reporter who is saved from his own self destruction just as the world is coming to an end, and even Arthur Christiansen – an actual Daily Express editor drafted in to give the film even more realism – seems somehow right. He can’t act as such, but careful editing gets a performance out of him, and he at least sounds the part when barking out orders to his newsroom.
It’s Janet Munro who is most impressive though. Her character is fascinatingly out of time – a modern woman in a 1961 film, sexually confident (Stenning doesn’t so much seduce her as get seduced) and smart. She pulls the film together and has some of the most impressive moments. She’s also at the centre of the film’s surprisingly frank sexuality. Guest had already shown that he was willing to push the boundaries of censorship in sexual matters in Hell is a City, and here he features a teasing topless scene (more explicit in the publicity shots included the blu ray gallery) and has Jeannie sleeping nude, barely covered and soaked in sweat. That she is happy to sleep with Stenning on their first date is also unexpected in a film made just after the end of the 1950s.
While the film is let down by a few ropey special effects, on the whole it looks impressive – scenes of devastation, people lining up to use public washing facilities, carefully placed stock footage of destruction and chaos and the smart use of tinting in the opening and closing scenes to emphasise the heat give the film a sense of style and grandeur. This is a film that feels high class. And for a movie that is mostly dialogue driven, it remains gripping and exciting. There are a few action set pieces – traffic chaos and car crashes, for instance – yet these are mostly low key in nature. It’s only in the climatic scenes of beatnik rioting (scenes that immediately date the film but are also rather fantastic) that we get real action. Yet the movie remains utterly compelling throughout.
Given its cult status, it might seem odd to say that The Day the Earth Caught Fire is underrated. But I think it probably is – I suspect that a lot of mainstream critics will still lump the film in with other science fiction of the era, which they haven’t watched, of course, and dismiss it as a pot boiler. But this is a movie that feels as potent and vital now as it ever did, and ought to be hailed as one of the best British films ever made.