The Day the Earth Caught Fire

I haven’t seen The Day After Tomorrow, and given its scathing reviews, I don’t intend to any time soon, but seeing Rialto’s new print of the original Godzilla (1954) last night (certainly a much smoother, dramatically cohere film than its American makeover), I found myself pondering end-of-the-earth films in general, and one my own favorite entries in the genre, Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), in particular.

Available as a superb DVD from Anchor Bay (with a beautiful widescreen transfer and Guest commentary), the movie is an unusually literate and thematically nuanced genre film. Peter Stenning (a sardonic Edward Judd) is a reporter for a major London newspaper who tries to work through emotional turmoil as a result of his recent divorce. His fast-talking coworkers, in a milieu not unlike a Hawks picture, critique his new drinking habit and diminishing job performance while quietly cutting him some slack and offering help whenever they can. As Stenning navigates his inner life and begins a new relationship with a sympathetic but independent woman, Jeannie Craig (Janet Monro), the newspaper staff begins to piece together evidence regarding London’s dramatically-shifting weather patterns that point toward nuclear testing and imminent worldwide disaster.

Val Guest co-wrote and directed the film. He was a competent craftsman within the British studio system with his share of successes (the Quatermass series) and flops (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth), but his early experience working in the London office of the Hollywood Reporter clearly must have inspired the authentic newsroom atmosphere in the film. The award-winning script was co-written by screenwriter/playwright Wolf Mankowitz, and the dialogue is surprisingly witty. When Stenning returns late to his office, his friend, science reporter Maguire (Leo McKern) sarcastically quips, “If you borrow my car at lunch, why bother to hurry back at 6:30?” “I saw my kid today,” Stenning muses. “She lets me see him from time to time, itís my legal right, you know.” Maguire nods, “Sandyís been screaming for you.” “Heís a nice kid, too,” Stenning continues, “remembered me after ten minutes.” Maguire proclaims, “The biggest experimental bang of all time is ten days old, but instead of being proud the public demands we stop it.” “Oh, I donít know,” Stenning shrugs, “the best science man on the street ought to be able to pull off a job like that. Make a trick film, maybe. Yeah, you know, the mushroom goes back into the bomb, the bomb goes back into the plane, which flies backwards over the task force, streaming back into the Antarctic.” “You better start climbing backwards to Sandyís office,” Maguire suggests.

But Guest also manages some visual flair. The film was shot in anamorphic widescreen, and the extended frame is always perfectly balanced with groups of people, city vistas, or detailed settings, whether bustling newsrooms, congested streets, or humid apartments. Although the film’s special effects aren’t particularly noteworthy, matte paintings and the incorporation of real London locations work to good atmospheric advantage (heavy rains buffet the windows; thick, unexpected fog wafts through the city; a raging hurricane crashes into the British coast). Guest also cleverly incorporates stock footage to depict floods and meteorological disasters worldwide. The visual style of the film is straightforward and classical, but each scene is rendered with a great degree of realism and sense of place.

The disaster genre is not generally known for its insights into characters or its clever dialogue, but The Day the Earth Caught Fire is an admirable exception. Its attention to the inner and outer lives of its protagonists makes its physical doom an externalized metaphor for Stenning’s personal life, off-kilter and spinning out of control, both fates equally weighted between hope and despair. My advice for those seeking end-of-the-world entertainment? Skip the multiplex this weekend and rent this intelligent and bittersweet film, fully deserving of a rediscovery.

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