Today I watched a digitally restored version of a superb old sci-fi / disaster film. Directed and co-written by Val Guest “The Quatermass Xperiment”, “Expresso Bongo”), “The Day The Earth Caught Fire” was originally released in 1961.
Although mainly presented in black and white, the film begins with the picture infused with an orange tint. The action starts with a man, Peter Stenning (Edward Judd – “Island Of Terror”, “First Men On The Moon”), walking through deserted and uncomfortably hot streets of London and into the almost empty offices of the Daily Express newspaper where he begins dictating a story.
The story take us back ninety days to find, via the stories being worked on at the newspaper, that the US had detonated the biggest atomic bomb yet in a test at the South Pole.
Meanwhile journalists are looking into reports of strange weather conditions taking place around the globe. There is torrential rain for days in the UK followed by a heatwave leading to bikini clad young women around London. There’s flooding in the Sahara, tornadoes in Russia, snow in New York…
When the Russians announce that they, too, have tested their largest atomic bomb to date – at the North Pole – and the journalists realise that, taking into account the effect of tome zones, both bombs went off more or less simultaneously, science editor Bill Maguire (Leo McKern – “Rumpole Of The Bailey”, “Ladyhawke”) and his colleague Stenning are tasked to look into it in more depth.
Stenning, an alcoholic divorcé, calls the Meteorological Centre and manages to upset the young telephonist Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro – “The Trollenberg Terror”, “Third Man On The Mountain”). Turning up at their building Stenning is unable to get any information from the officials about what they think is going on.
Soon the rivers are running dry, reservoirs are empty and the authorities are setting up community washing stations as the pipes dry up.
Having managed to charm his way into Craig’s good books, Stenning is the person she turns to when she overhears at work that the earth has shifted on its axis by 11% as a result of the dual atomic test explosions, causing massive climate change practically overnight – and far worse is to come unless the world’s scientists and governments can come up with a solution, and fast…
Shot in almost documentary style, with clever dialogue that addresses the issues whilst giving a human insight into the characters, and interspersed with real-life disaster footage and infrequent but effective special effects, this is a really good drama and holds up well despite its age.
On the acting front, I felt that Judd, Munro and McKern were all excellent in their respective roles. The attitudes of the men and women depicted are interesting in this day and age. Sexist would be the conclusion I imagine, with camera shots lingering on the occasional female derrière (though it seemed fine to me!)
With regard to the film itself, I think that with the conditions we have witnessed during the past few years the message on the consequences of climate change is even more pertinent today. The planet may not be knocked out of alignment but can anyone really know what effect the human race is having on Mother Nature?
The film ends, as it began, with an orange infused picture after Stenning has arranged two alternate morning headlines for the Daily Express – one reading “World Saved” and the other “World Doomed” leaving us to speculate as to what happened next…