The Day the Earth Caught Fire
Director: Val Guest / Screenplay: Val Guest & Wolf Mankowitz / Editing: Bill Lenny / DP: Harry Waxman
Cast: Janet Munro / Leo McKern / Edward Judd / Michael Goodliffe / Bernard Braden / Reginald Beckwith / Gene Anderson / Arthur Christiansen
Hot Off the Press…
Watch enough Science-Fiction movies from the Fifties & Sixties, especially those of the nuclear-tinged variety and you’ll soon be scratching your head and wondering how we made it through unscathed… The Day the Earth Caught Fire, is amongst the front-rank of entries in this small sub-genre, with a sharp script, a willing cast and a Director well-versed in the genre.
Val Guest began his directorial career during World War Two, producing public information newsreels. Post-war, he continued with a string of Will Hay & Just William comedy vehicles, along with an array of simmering features for studios such as Hammer, all to little acclaim. Things turned with 1955’s The Quatermass Experiment and its sequel two years later. Now, Guest had a genre – Sci-Fi – in which he could explore deeper subjects and reach an audience increasingly pre-occupied with Science and the fantastical ramifications for its misuse. He wasn’t alone: Japanese Cinema of the period, would content itself with Godzilla; the West, got Forbidden Planet: go figure….
In 1959, Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, became a surprise hit. Its tale of post-nuclear catastrophe in Australia, struck a chord with audiences, keen to see material that reflected then-common concerns, e.g. how easily the Cold War might ‘turn hot’… As a result, Guest was able to proceed with an original idea of his own: The Day the Earth Caught Fire. By the time production began in 1961, the idea had been in limbo for seven years, awaiting finance. Now, thanks in-part to Kramer’s success and that of his own adaptation of hip musical Expresso Bongo, Guest had the funds to co-produce this passion project.
The overall theme of ‘Fire is straightforward. Simultaneously (yet unknown to each other) both the USA and the USSR have tested Hydrogen bombs at opposite ends of the globe, with unforeseen consequences. The Earth’s axis has tilted and its orbit skewed, to bring it closer to the Sun, with inflammatory consequences. While the underlying science & feasibility of Guest’s Big Idea might be fundamentally flawed, as a premise for a Sci-Fi disaster movie, it’s no less bonkers than Armageddon (1998) or 2012 (2012). However, unlike a typical Hollywood blockbuster, ‘Fire was always going to be limited in-scope, thanks to its tight budget. No grandiose show-boating, here. Instead, Guest & co-writer Wolf Mankowitz, would have to find an angle into the story that minimised the need.
In the event, they found one in then-emblematic British newspaper The Daily Express. Owned by a proprietor keen on the free publicity, ‘Fire would end-up being both a British Sci-Fi classic and one of the great newspaper movies, thanks to this collaboration. As we watch The Express’ resilient staff first struggle to comprehend, then cover, both the biggest story ever told and the last, Guest’s cinema verité style remains fresh over the decades.
‘Fire opens with an iconic shot of Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) walking through an empty London street, littered with debris. A lone police-car trundles past; its P.A. warning of a countdown. All is desolate ruin. Guest even bathes these opening shots in a warm sepia tone, to emphasis the idea of heat – a primal force – that now suffocates this familiar city and, by extension, The World. It’s highly effective. If this is Guest at the top of his game, then I’m content to watch him play.
Stenning enters what we guess is the abandoned newsroom in which he works, modelled ‘down to the last scrap of paper on the floor’ on that of the Express’ office (the real thing being too busy & cramped for shooting). Stenning dictates down to the print room, what he expects to be his last copy. There, in the Stygian depths wait a few (shirtless) last souls for their final orders: like stokers & boilermen aboard Titanic.
The World’s about to burn to a crisp, so let’s get a Final Edition out, before all the newsprint goes-up as well…
Guest then dissolves this heartfelt scene to a flashback of a few months before, in the same office: now in familiar B&W, it’s a buzzing scene. A place where Men are Men and Women have been pushed out to the margins of the archive or the typing pool; back in 1961, women’s lib was barely a glint in Erica Jong’s eye. It was another world.
It’s also raining – heavily – and the talk is of how the paper’s going to cover the flooding.
Leo McKern is Bill Maguire, the paper’s Science Editor; perhaps the one actor here, who most convincingly inhabits their part. Maguire’s tired. Harassed. Schlubby, like any self-respecting, stereotypical-hack, but also loyal. Look at the ease with which he covers for the alcoholic Stenning, who sashays casually into the place, after one of those fabled liquid lunches. There’s tolerance here, from Maguire, if not love for his fellow man. You get the sense that, had things been different, his own path might’ve gone the same way, so he owes the Universe to look out for others…
By contrast, I think Judd’s Stenning is a little simplistic. Too much anger bottled-up within at the outset, dissipates to leave him fatalistic and spouting the kind of heartfelt prose that got him the job in the first place. I’m not buying it. I think the more realistic response for a character like this, would’ve been to keep drinking until the lights went out. As-written, the character is too flawed to be credible. On a related note, I was struck by the optimism shown by the Express’ staff. It’s perhaps a sign of the film’s era – as much as Guest’s desire to turn a profit – that tougher themes weren’t explored. Later in the Sixties, as the full nihilistic horror of war in Vietnam seeped into the culture, it might’ve been possible, but in the Great Britain of 1961? Not a chance.
The plot picks-up steam, as leads are followed and hunches pay-off. Stenning pays a visit to an old colleague at The Meteorological Office in search of a quote for his article. Instead of a chummy reunion, he’s met with a stonewalling from both his friend & the Met’s Director and quickly reaches the obvious conclusion: that something is going on. Whilst there, he meets Jeannie Craig in the Press Office. That’ll be Janet Munro, in a role designed to break her free of a career defined by a starring role in Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People; well, it worked for co-star Sean Connery! You see, Dear Reader, the man who recommended Connery to producer Cubby Broccoli as the perfect Bond? Val Guest…
Munro’s alright here, as it goes. According to an interview with Guest, she sought his help in ‘growing-up on-screen’ and, with sparky dialogue that lifts Jeannie above ‘pliant love-interest’ fodder, I’d say she achieved her goal. Aside from giving Stenning hope that he might climb out of misery, Jeannie’s character also brings a note of tenderness to a movie that’s often too bleak for its own good.
Talking of dialogue, the film’s loaded with quotable zingers. Collectively, they lift the picture above the genre’s low baseline, but come at a cost, particularly in coverage of the newsroom. Here, the quips come too easily; the pithy rejoinders, too smooth to pass for ‘real speech’. While Guest & Mankowitz include accurate slang, their polishing-out of the swearing & banter undoubtedly observed, somehow robs the piece of its grit. At times, I feel I’m watching a piece by David Mamet and not a Sci-Fi movie about the End of the World.
I mentioned before, that Guest’s budget was less-than-generous and that has a knock-on effect with the efficacy of the FX he was able to deploy, in depicting a world-gone-wrong. Credibility is undermined by terrible matte work and watching toy boats and vehicles ‘destroyed’ by the unconvincing cyclone that hits London. But, we’re not here for the spectacle. It’s the human drama that matters and ‘Fire repays our faith. As the inevitable consequences for humanity are spelled-out, our empathy for these characters only deepens. Arthur Christiansen was himself, Editor of The Express until a few years before Guest’s film was made, so was a credible piece of casting as its filmic equivalent. Although uncertain on-camera, I was moved to see him call home, on being told of Earth’s likely fate. A clever scene, that, as Guest withholds the crucial news until the staff assemble for an impromptu conference in his office. The paper’s proprietor, sits at the other end of a ‘phone line. All learn, at the same time we do.
So, there’s a lot here if you look for it. The first stirrings of a deep mistrust in The Establishment and what their hubris had delivered (the Profumo scandal was unfolding during the shoot, which could only have reinforced the scepticism). A rose-tinted glimpse of Fleet Street in its pomp. A hokey premise, the pips of which are squeezed by a tight budget until they squeak, yet somehow echoes our current headache of Global Warming. A flat, documentary tone, mated to a diegetic soundscape, rounded characters and a knowing sense of its doom-laden era.
It’s therefore almost a disappointment to learn that, despite the film turning a profit, this was to be Guest’s last foray into the genre. The Sixties’ spy-movie boom was to consume him from this point on, along with various TV shows. His biggest earning film? Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974)… Oh, well.
In his work ‘Seeing is Believing’, author Peter Biskind writes: ‘[in the movies] where science caused the problem, science often solved it, too.’
The Day the Earth Caught Fire is one of those rare movies where you’re almost inclined to believe its premise. Then you come to your senses and realise, that only the first half of Biskind’s sentence really matters: and that’s always been our problem…
STENNING: ‘Listen, your job is to pass on messages when you’re asked!
CRAIG: ‘My job, is to do what I’m told by the people who gave me the job, and anyway, this isn’t my job. I’m from the Pool.’
STENNING: ‘Well, then. Why don’t you dive back in and drown?’