When the USA and Russia test their nuclear bombs simultaneously, the Earth is knocked off its axis by 11 degrees and becomes set on a collision course with the Sun. As the planet slowly heats up and society begins to fracture and break down, disenchanted newspaper journalist Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) breaks the story with the help of Jean, an administrator at the Ministry of Meteorology, and then sets about investigating the government cover-up.
As things start hotting up with freak weather events - pea-souper heat-mists and cyclones rolling and rumbling throughout London - things begin to hot up between our two leads and they soon have an on/off romantic tryst that at times proves to be almost as peculiar (to modern viewers) as the weather outside.
Finally, as four thermonuclear bombs are detonated in Siberia, in order to try and correct the Earth’s angle of tilt, the rationed and rioting population stand-by to see if this really is the end of days or if the Earth will adjust itself and take a course away from the by now closely raging Sun.
Made at a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation, due to the Cold War, loomed larger than it does today, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a wonderfully atmospheric (in more ways than one) film that demonstrates how intelligent sci-fi should/can be done.
The film boasts a BAFTA-winning screenplay, which was, for many years, a pet project of director Val Guest’s. And it’s clear that he did a fair bit of research and spent time talking to real newspaper journalists in order to create a very authentic cinematic experience. It also helped that many scenes were filmed on location, and even those which weren’t were exact copies of the original locations, for example, the Daily Express offices on Fleet Street. Guest had even persuaded real-life reporter and Editor Bernard Braden to play a version of himself as overall Editor of the newspaper in the film.
While at first Peter Stenning comes across as being a self-centred alcoholic jerk, as the Earth warms up so do we, the viewer, warm towards the guy as he tries to uncover the truth behind these catastrophic weather changes and to possibly find some redemption by helping out the distraught Jean, especially when she’s later attacked and humiliated in her own flat by beatnik rioters.
The film is very well shot, and although some of the effects shots are rather basic, at least by today’s standards, they’re still very effective in helping to tell Guest’s story. And, while some of the reporter’s dialogue is a bit too snappy and Hollywood idealised, the scenes in the newsroom are pretty well realised and give the audience a decent idea of what it’s like to work in the world of fast-turnaround news coverage. One of my favourite lines in the film has your over-worked, highly stressed, and somewhat typically very cynical Editor exclaiming: ‘There’s nothing I can do; I’ve already written my will!’
The timeline of events also feels pretty authentic in how the system would try to manage the population during such a crisis, with rationing, water bowsers, and later community washing centres all coming into play at different times to save our most precious commodity, that of clean, potable water.
The film ends on a rather ambiguous note with the paper producing two front pages, one declaring the end of the world and the other stating that it has been saved from cataclysmic catastrophe. But as the bells of St Paul’s cathedral chime, I’d like to think it is the latter; after all, why would campanologists bother to be ringing in the new day if it was to be one of their last?
The Day the Earth Caught Fire has recently been released on DVD and is being distributed by the BFI. There were loads of special features on the disc, and a booklet with quite extensive notes about the film. The extras include:
Hot off the Press: Revisiting the Day the Earth Caught Fire (32 mins): an interesting newly-created documentary which features contributions from the likes of film journalists Kim Newman and Marcus Hearn, and BFI archive curators John Olivier and Jo Botting. We get to find out some behind the scenes facts about the film such as that it took nearly seven years for Guest to get the film off the ground and it cost in the region of £200,000 to make. The archivists also talk a little bit about the remastering process whereby 90% of the original negative was used.
An audio commentary with Val Guest and Ted Newsom – I haven’t listened to this yet.
The film’s trailer, which utilises some very cool imagery from the film and from documentaries about the bomb.
An interview with actor Leo McKern (8.5 mins), where he talks about Val Guest being an excellent director and how much he was impressed by his fellow actors and the sets.
Think Bike – a one minute road safety film featuring Edward Judd, the star of the film.
An illustrated booklet which features extensive credits and some recently commissioned essays from John Oliver and Marcus Hearn, which are very informative.
There’s also a stills gallery, draft screenplay and TV and radio spots.
An audio appreciation study by journalist Graeme Hobbs (8 mins), originally from 1961, where he chats about the film, but doesn’t really say anything new.
And finally there are three nuclear films from the BFI National Archive, which are all as fascinating as they are frightening. These include:
Operation Hurricane (31 mins) which is a film made by the Ministry of Supply back in 1952 and made with the cooperation of the Commonwealth of Australia where the documentary is set. It basically follows the preparation and fulfilment of a nuclear bomb test on the island of Montabello, off the NW coast of Australia.
The H-bomb (20 mins) is a Home Office produced documentary aimed at the home guard and what they might face and have to deal with should a H-bomb go off in a British city; disturbing and depressing stuff.
The hole in the ground (28 mins) is a documentary by the UK Warning and Monitoring Organisation that shows how the government would deal with the threat of a nuclear attack from the depths of an underground bunker.
The BFI have really excelled themselves here, with the extras adding excellent value for those buying the DVD or Blu-ray.