The Day the Earth Caught Fire
One of the all-time-great science-fiction films. It isn’t so much the specifics of the end-of-the-world premise, the science of which is easy to tear apart, or the heightened dialogue – someone in the accompanying documentary on the Blu-ray release had the temerity to suggest it’s a bad thing – that make it sing. Rather, it’s the manner in which the unfolding events are treated as real and immediate, the way mundane life continues apace as a horror overtakes the everyday. The Day the Earth Caught Fire still packs a punch.
Going by BBC Genome, I suspect I first saw The Day the Earth Caught Fire in 1987, although I’d assumed it was earlier. Doomed planet movies tended to make a big impression on me – Crack in the World (1965) was another – and one such as this, set in a recognisable milieu, even more so. Crack in the World bottled actually destroying the planet, something Don Houghton may have noted when he was penning Doctor Who story Inferno four years later, a script in which the Earth is also threatened by a drilling project gone awry. He could have his cake and eat it there by setting half the story on a parallel Earth.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire comes about as near as it can to the apocalypse without descending into a complete downer; it presents an open ending, courtesy of a panning shot of two Daily Express headlines. The world waits to hear whether the corrective nuclear detonations (also the cause of the problem, and also causative in Crack in the World) have succeeded in returning Earth to an orbit that doesn’t spell doom (after first appearing to have shifted on its axis eleven degrees, thanks to Russians and Americans undertaking simultaneous bomb tests, it is learned that the entire trajectory has veered towards the Sun). One headline reads “WORLD SAVED” the other “WORLD DOOMED”, although the final shot of the Bells of St Pauls ringing out admittedly gives the nod to the more hopeful resolution.
The spectre of the bomb inevitably looms over The Day the Earth Caught Fire, as a cautionary epistle on man’s unchecked progress. Along the way, it also makes for something of ecological harbinger; I’m less convinced it amounts to a screed against the ruling classes as “bungling idiots” (as suggested on the Blu-ray), although that surely is in there, than a then-common warning against scientific advance for the sake of it. Such underpinnings are absent from Ben Cross’s recent BBC series Hard Sun, which posits a not dissimilar scenario of imminent doom. Although he, Bowie-inspired, has given the Earth five years until it suffers heat death, as opposed to Day’s four months.
That allows Cross to take the pressure off a tad, and also pump out additional seasons should the show be favourably met. Unfortunately, being a police show, it engages with exactly the kind of distraction that shrouds the stark, unavoidable nightmare of certain destruction (so much so, I gave up after the second instalment, the procedural approach proving less than scintillating).
In contrast, The Day the Earth Caught Fire focuses inexorably in on the uncomfortable truth. Through its status as a small-scale picture, set largely in the confines of the Daily Express newsroom (yes, the Express apparently once meant something in journalistic circles), it reveals an understated, unyielding verisimilitude in the face of the gradual unveiling of sobering facts. A situation that has first been regarded casually through its variously announced signs – first the biggest nuclear blast yet, then sunspot activity, earth tremors, navigation trouble, floods, and then the clincher clue that the Russians also undertook a test – becomes ever more earnest as the temperature rises, and sweaty desperation becomes the norm.
Bill Maguire: If that’s true… I’d say there’s about… four months.
Peter Stenning: Before what?
Bill Maguire: Before there’s a delightful smell in the universe of charcoaled mankind.
There are undoubtedly elements of The Day the Earth Caught Fire that could be held against it. I don’t think really think it’s either here or there that the science doesn’t hold up, however; it’s how it’s treated that matters, and since the characters regard matters so convincingly, so do we.
As for the heightened dialogue, the modern inclination towards “realistic” exchanges over sculpted, memorable lines is more often than not a disheartening one. As such, I have no problem with the heavily editorialised, alcohol-fuelled cynicism of Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), his every line sounding like he’s been tucking into hard-boiled pulp fiction for breakfast. Apart from anything else, it fits his character’s penchant for slightly pompous journalese, culminating in his mooting the “rebirth of man or his final obituary”.
Director Val Guest also has an eye and ear for vérité that ensures the stylistic choices blend together, from overlapping phone conversations in the newsroom to the use of handheld camera. Guest had earlier adopted a successful, semi-documentary approach to a series of Nigel Kneale film adaptations, but the rigours of The Day the Earth Caught Fire made it the most difficult film he would worked on (also the best, as he would later be reduced to sexploitation comedies such as Au Pair Girls and Confessions of a Window Cleaner; there was also, most ignominiously, his last movie The Boys in Blue, a Cannon and Ball remake of the 1939 Will Hay comedy Ask a Policeman, for which he had co-written the screenplay).
The evident use of backdrops for exterior scenes, far from diminishing the overall effect, rather enhances the sense of an intensified environment, one where the everyday has spun out of control; it’s particularly effective during the yellow-filtered bookend scenes of unbearable heat
Guest also filmed in London itself (early on Sunday mornings), a decision that lends the familiar a particularly uncanny quality (an effect repeated in subsequent TV and movie fare, from The Dalek Invasion of Earth to 28 Days Later). Later pictures, such as No Blade of Grass, also portray the collapse of society, but the further they get from the familiar (gangs of bikers marauding the countryside become the norm), the less impactful they are.
Peter Stenning: I’d keep to the main roads. The water gangs are pretty busy.
Angie’s Husband: All seems pretty ridiculous now, doesn’t it?
Peter Stenning: Yeah, pretty ridiculous. Look after the kid.
Indeed, one of The Day the Earth Caught Fire’s strongest suits is the manner in which it compellingly envisions a world trying to carry on as normal, for as long as possible, as irrevocable events implant themselves. Stenning may be chasing skirt, but he’s also an ex-husband attempting to juggle responsibilities as an estranged parent, coming alive when he takes his son to the fairground.
Stenning’s boss (Arthur Christiansen) suggests of his son “I’d get him to the country if you can. I don’t think things in the cities are going to be pleasant”, leading to a scene in which whatever (uncatalogued) unpleasantness went on between Stenning and his ex-wife’s new husband is recognised for the small beans it is. It’s a powerful little moment, because while the brash Stenning doesn’t actually go soft, he sees the futility of such domestic warfare.
Journalist: But you have to be injected.
Peter Stenning: Against what? The end of the world?
Particularly effective is the manner in which changing conditions pass as mere facts to be dealt with, the new status quo, from “WORLD RATIONS WATER” headlines to the institution of community washing centres, to the appearance of black-market suppliers leading to outbreaks of typhus, and references to water gangs (very Mad Max).
When the decisive deadline is reached, it isn’t so surprising that the reckless youth are having water parties, the now most precious substance there is treated frivolously (and also that they should be behaving towards one indulging prizing clean water to bathe in with apparently malign intent). Guest also ensures everyone in the newsroom is believably sweaty (or, in Munro’s case, sultry), sporting permanently soaked-through clothing.
Sir John Kelly: I felt it necessary to speak to you all if only to stop the many wild and irresponsible rumours precipitated by a general lack of facts. There has indeed been a displacement in the direction of the polar axis, but It is not a catastrophe, nor is it the millennium. Geologists and astronomers have long had evidence that the tilt of the Earth has been altered more than once in the history of its evolution and it has survived them all. Now, what does this mean to us in our daily lives? Well, some of the seasons as we know them may be disturbed, and change their intensity. Displacement has undoubtedly brought some regions nearer to the polar circle, whilst others have been carried further from it. But I have the upmost confidence the world’s scientists can produce solutions for any of the climatic problems we are likely to meet. I know that many of you are blaming the combined effects of nuclear tests for this disturbance to the motion of the Earth. I must tell you that the majority of the world’s scientists deny that this is the cause. However, I would be failing in my duty if I did not admit to you that there are many others who believe it could have been. But whatever the rights, or whatever the wrongs, the four major powers have now reached unconditional agreement to cease all further tests, experiments, manufacture and work on nuclear projects… I ask you now to face the future calmly and constructively, remembering that, here in Britain at least, the weather is something we are used to coping with.
In presenting journalists as bastions of truth and decency, The Day the Earth Caught Fire precedes All the President’s Men, another film in which the figures of authority cannot be trusted to do or say the right thing (of course, one might see this as extending to the promotion of the entire nuke theory – or “lie” as such a take has it – itself, in which case, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is merely fuel to the, er, fire).
As such, it also contrasts with the earlier Ace in the Hole, in which the profession is most definitely not the shining light of virtue (illustrating, if illustration were needed, that a vision of a corrupted media is nothing new). We’re constantly reminded of the need for balance and responsibility in what is printed (“Keep the tone reasonably optimistic” instructs editor Jeff Jefferson, even though they know the reality is anything but. In response to Stenning commenting “I know what I’d like to write”, Maguire retorts “You can’t, this is a family newspaper”).
Bill Maguire: It’s a beautiful thing to watch a woman reform a man. It only needed the Earth to catch fire.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire wouldn’t work if you didn’t credit the characters and relationships. Judd embodies Stennings’ hard-drinking antihero with exactly enough heart to make you invested in him despite himself (Judd was reportedly a pain in the arse to work with), while his shorthand badinage with McKern’s Maguire, on peerless form as the more experienced and responsible colleague who has his back, is entirely believable.
I could maybe do without Maguire’s “father knows best” attitude to Jeannie (Janet Munro), expecting her to accept Stennings acted for the best and resume their courtship; this after he betrayed her confidence, resulting in her being taken into preventive custody. Nevertheless, there’s a surprising and relatively uncensored treatment of Stennings and Jeanie’s relationship, pushing the boundaries of what was deemed permissible as much as Psycho the year before.
Peter Stennings: A lot of people don’t want to live. It’s too difficult. They’re tired, they’re frightened. They’d rather it was all over than go on worrying, being frightened. Losing a bit more hope every day. So they want it to finish.
Munro reportedly asked Guest to make her grow up on screen, after years consigned to playing an innocent teen in Disneys such as Swiss Family Robinson and Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and there’s no doubt he did exactly that (Jeannie’s also presented as a rounded, wilful personality, rather than simply functioning as Stennings’ love interest). However, it was the subject matter and occasional tough language that earned the picture an X certificate, rather than the partial nudity. Munro, who died in 1972 at only 38, is terrific.
Indeed, it’s only Arthur Christiansen, the actual ex-editor of the Express playing the editor of the Express, who lets the side down. If he doesn’t fluff his lines, neither does he imbue them with any conviction or naturalism. He isn’t a deal breaker, but he basically has the Jason Robards Ben Bradlee role, and you know how crucial and impactful that performance was. Michael Caine also appears as a friendly policeman. Although, if it weren’t for his distinctive cadence, you’d probably miss him.
Peter Stennings: So man has sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind.
It’s worth mentioning the eerie sound design too, and the dearth of (non-diegetic) music (again, one wonders if the makers of Inferno were taking notes, as that story is also entirely devoid of music). This is particularly effective as the world enters its knife-edge stages.
The screenplay was co-written by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz and won them a BAFTA. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Mankowitz asked for his name to be removed from Dr. No; after seeing the rushes, he thought it would bomb and damage his reputation. Regardless, it’s a rare example of science fiction garnering critical and peer respect. And rightly so (getting recognition that is, rather than science fiction being shunned). You can count the number of great British science-fiction films on the fingers of one hand, but one of those fingers is undoubtedly reserved for The Day the Earth Caught Fire.
Addendum 28/07/22: Obviously, suspension of disbelief in The Day the Earth Caught Fire’s conceit is less about ignoring its failure to stack up against official science than requiring the viewer to buy into (a) nukes* and (b) globe Earth. But that’s why they call it science fiction.
*Addendum 24/06/23: I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with that one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response).