Most of the United States is enduring record high temperatures this summer, and even England in the last couple of weeks has seen the thermometer rise above 90°F. What better time, then, to watch a great old British science fiction film in which the earth is sent hurtling towards the sun?
I’m pretty sure my Dad took me to see The Day the Earth Caught Fire when it came to the Lincoln Theatre. He loved science fiction, and I had inherited that love from him, along with a number of books he had bought when he was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club in the mid-1950s. It’s an impressive film, and it certainly impressed me, but I probably didn’t see it again until watching it on DVD a few nights ago.
If you missed the first couple of minutes of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, it might take you quite a while, maybe a half hour, before you realized what kind of film it actually is. Most of the characters work at the London Daily Express newspaper. The principal character, Peter Stenning, is a reporter whose career is on a downward slide, helped along by alcoholism and a nasty divorce. News that the United States has been carrying out nuclear bomb tests at one of the earth’s poles sends Stenning to the British national weather service to get some statistics; there he meets and eventually falls in love with an attractive young woman named Jeannie.
For a while we follow Stenning and the others at the Express, including his best friend Bill Maguire, going about their daily duties, gathering data and writing articles and putting out a newspaper every day. And dealing with the heat – England is going through an unexpected heat spell, with temperatures up around 90 degrees. (Sound familiar?)
Then another bit of information comes in: the Russians exploded some nuclear bombs at the same time as the USA, at the opposite pole. Maguire realizes that these explosions have altered the earth’s rotation by 11 degrees, causing drastic climate changes around the world.
And then things get worse. In one quietly terrifying scene, the editor of the newspaper calls the staff into his office and explains to them what he has learned from a governmental scientist: it’s not just the earth’s rotation that has been affected. Our planet is heading towards the sun.
All of this is done with the minimum of special effects, although those are generally extremely well done (especially a sudden, shocking view of a dried-up River Thames). The script, by Wolf Mankowitz and director Val Guest, is first-rate, with intelligent, sophisticated dialogue and three-dimensional characters. It won a BAFTA award (the British equivalent of both the Oscar and the Emmy).
The opening and closing minutes of the film are set after the world’s governments have decided, as a last-ditch effort, to detonate thermonuclear bombs in Siberia in hopes of rocking the earth back into its proper orbit. The rest of the film is in black-and-white; these sequences are tinted orange, partly to encourage the illusion that the temperature in London is well over 100 degrees.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a prime example of British, as opposed to American, science fiction. British sf, for me, is exemplified by H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, published in 1898. Earth is invaded by creatures from Mars, and neither scientific know-how nor superior firepower can conquer them (as they would in typical American sf). The story is told from the point of view, not of those trying to defeat the threat, but of those simply trying to survive it – another difference from American sf. In the end, the aliens are destroyed by a passive weapon: the common cold. There are no heroes.
The acting is uniformly excellent. This was the first starring role for Edward Judd, who plays Peter Stenning; he’s good enough to make one wonder why his subsequent career was limited mostly to second-rate horror films. He quit the business in 1990 and became a credit officer at a bank; he died in 2009. Janet Munro, who plays Jeannie, starred in a few Disney films (including one of my favorites, Darby O’Gill and the Little People) before this. She died of a heart attack at the age of 38 in 1972.
The role of the editor of the Daily Express was played by Arthur Christiansen, who was not a professional actor. Until shortly before making the film, he had been the real editor of the real Daily Express, and some of the film was shot in the newspaper’s building on Fleet Street.
Almost the only reasonably well-known actor in The Day the Earth Caught Fire is Leo McKern, a short, stout actor with a deep, loud speaking voice who found television fame as Horace Rumpole in the British series Rumpole of the Bailey. He also played the chief villain in the Beatles’s second film, Help!, and Thomas Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons, and he was Patrick McGoohan’s antagonist in the legendary final two episodes of The Prisoner. (I saw him about 20 years ago on the London stage as the lead in Hobson’s Choice.)
About ten minutes before the film ends, Peter Stenning has a short conversation with a lanky blonde policeman. The policeman has a very distinctive Cockney voice, and it takes only a few seconds to realize that we’re watching one of the early film roles of Michael Caine.
The film has no musical score; the only music we hear is casual background music, usually coming from someone’s radio. It is, however, the only film I can think of which has a separate credit for “Beatnik Music”.