Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Tim Lucas recently reported on his Video Watchblog that director Val Guest had passed away on May 10 at the age of 94. Guest was a British writer/director with such films to his credit as The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass 2, Casino Royale, and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, among many others. Guest's end of the world masterpiece The Day the Earth Caught Fire, has long been a personal favorite.

Guest humanizes his apocalyptic tale by eliminating the genre stereotypes. The end of the world epics of the 1950s usually featured a scientist, a square jawed man of action, and a damsel in distress/love interest. The Day the Earth Caught Fire is told in the form of a newsroom drama, from the point of view of Pete Stenning (Edward Judd of Island of Terror and First Men in the Moon), a reporter for London's Daily Express. Stenning, once a great reporter, has given in to alcoholism and despair in the wake of his divorce.

The film opens with ominous images of a drought-stricken and seemingly deserted London, made all the more effective by two brilliant touches of subtlety. This portion of the otherwise black and white film is tinted orange, giving the viewer a vivid sense of the extreme heat, and even as the opening credits roll, we hear not a single note on the soundtrack. The world seems to be ending with not a bang, but a whimper.

Stenning makes his way from the sun blasted streets into the offices of The Daily Express. His typewriter has succumbed to the heat, so he gets a copy boy on the phone to take his story as he dictates it. “It is exactly thirty minutes since the corrective bombs were detonated,” he says. “Within the next few hours the world will know whether this is the end or another beginning.”

As Stenning speaks, the screen wavers into flashback, the orange tinted film giving way to glorious black and white. In the offices of The Daily Express sunspot activity and earthquakes fill recent issues, while the U.S. Hydrogen bomb test in the Antarctic ten days earlier has become old news. Some are blaming an unnatural increase in natural disasters on the bomb, though such ideas are dismissed as poppycock, that is until news comes over the wire that the Soviets have detonated a bomb in Siberia that is 20% more powerful than its U.S. counterpart. A quick comparison of dates shows that both nuclear tests were conducted more or less simultaneously, which makes for one hell of a news story.

Amidst all this, Stenning makes a new contact at the Meteorological Center. Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro of The Crawling Eye and Disney's Swiss Family Robinson), who first finds Stenning an overly aggressive boor eventually sees a worthwhile man beneath the booze and the bravado. The romance between Jeannie and Stenning provides both hope and tragedy in the face of humanity's possible extinction.

Conditions around the world worsen with rampant flooding, droughts, tornadoes, and a solar eclipse that occurs several days ahead of schedule. Science editor Bill Maguire (Leo McKern, star of the TV series Rumpole of the Bailey) has a hypothesis, backed up by information leaked from the Meteorological Center by Jeannie. The combined force of the twin nuclear tests have shifted the earth's axis, creating a new equator and shifting climates worldwide. The situation becomes even more grave, when Russian scientists announce that not only has earth's axis changed, but its orbit has also been altered, and the planet is heading toward the sun.

The distrust of authority seen here is not the sort of thing one would have seen in an American film from the period. Films in which the U.S. government lies to its citizens would not become common until the post Watergate period. The rapid fire speech common to newspaper films (His Girl Friday comes to mind) combined with the variety of British accents can make some of the dialog difficult to make out, but that's why you have a rewind button. Adding greatly to the realism is the casting of Arthur Christiansen as the editor of the Daily Express. Christiansen, though not an actor, was a recently retired London newspaper editor.

Special effects are minimal, with many of the worldwide catastrophes being portrayed with stock footage. It's the characters that sell this story, and they sell it well. The film's climax is haunting and is guaranteed to stay with you.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire's entry at IMDB.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...