The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) ****

A more prescient picture you couldn’t find, tapping into a contemporary audience’s greatest fear – global warming. Its bold cliff-hanger ending would also appeal to a modern audience often left dangling at the climax of a blockbuster. And it cleverly skims on the special effects, relying on the more easily achieved downpours, thick fog, constant sweating, newsreel footage of natural disasters, water rationing and end-of-the-world riots than anything bigger.

But what surprised me more was the sheer pace. Not just a story moving at a frenetic pace but the British characters acting like they had been injected with a heavy dose of New York zap, talking over each other, hardly getting a complete sentence in before interruption, like Howard Hawks had taken command instead of a mere Englishman like Val Guest (Assignment K, 1968), a former journalist.

Front cover of the Pressbook.

It channels the director’s experience into creating the most realistic newspaper office you will ever come across, beating out All the President’s Men (1974) in its representation of how journalism really works, as concerned as much with the general fodder of unheralded stories as the scoops that normally drive such a narrative. And for a story that started off as pure pulp, the dialog is superb, so good it won the Bafta award.

It certainly helped that an actual newspaper editor, Arthur Christiansen (of the Daily Express) lent a guiding hand, playing the role of the editor of this downmarket daily. The summoning of copy boys (actually grown men), the demand for 500 words, the printers ready to switch the front page at a moment’s notice, the inevitable diet of pie and pint, and the emotional casualties as marriages crumble under the strain of a husband more concerned with this next story than wife or children, all serves to ground the film.

And yes, the narrative plays into the usual journalistic tropes, ambitious newspaperman Peter (Edward Judd), career on the line, uses typical wiles, duping lowly scientific secretary Jeannie (Janet Munro) into revealing more than she should. It’s a meet-cute of the old-fashioned variety, she hates him on sight.

Peter is as off-kilter as the world, knocked off its axis by the simultaneous explosion of nuclear devices, unable to come to terms with his divorce, finding solace in the time he spends with his child, and it seems fitting that much of that is spent diving into the darkness of the ghost train ride, the fog equally thematic as he wanders round in circles in that, as aimless as in his life, while a bath is just as cinematically important, not just for the obvious semi-nude scene but as a place of refuge from impending terror.  

These journalists know how to sniff out a story, how to separate the what from the chaff of the official line, digging deeper, and with global connections able to put two and two together far swifter than officialdom. It helps that Peter’s guardian angel Bill (Leo McKern) has a scientific brain and is able to work out the source of the infernal rising temperature.

It’s axiomatic of how clever the screenplay is that Peter and Jeannie come together over a lost child, although Peter, cynical and bitter, but more vulnerable than most, remains a conniving character, happy to risk their burgeoning relationship for the sake of a scoop.

Like Quatermass and the Pit (1967) it’s one revelation after the other as the world hurtles towards oblivion, though not before ending up as the biggest barbecue of all time. The film acknowledges the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the time before piling on proof that man has sown the seeds of destruction on a four-month countdown to doomsday.

We have been here before with end-of-the-world scenarios but this story unfolds not in scientific or official offices, and there’s no President around to add gravitas or take the blame, but in the minds of the dogged journalists, soon appalled by their discoveries, and for once a scoop is unable to save the day or give the villain his just deserts. Whoever is behind the catastrophe remains nameless, although the outcome of superpowers duking it out for supremacy is never in doubt.

Edward Judd (First Men on the Moon, 1964) delivers a star-making performance as the jaded, jagged, journo capable of emotional depths while Janet Munro (Hide and Seek, 1964) escapes Disney tomboy servitude with a very adult role. Leo McKern (Assignment K) has the solid acting chops that would, two decades before television fame as Rumpole of the Bailey, see as a formidable heavyweight addition to any film and a threat to any co-star through jis charismatic ability to steal scenes.

But the film belongs to Val Guest, who constantly turns up the emotional heat and the terror scale, getting the most out of the riveting, sparkling screenplay he co-wrote with Wolf Mankowitz (The 25th Hour, 1967).  

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