There’s only one thing better than a crackpot sci-fi notion. And that’s two crackpot notions. The first one might have contemporary appeal – the need to find a cheaper source of sustainable energy. Come to think of it, the second one is even more contemporary – saving the world. Although this is achieved not by cutting back on nuclear power but by doubling down on it.
With so much resting on the special effects it’s a shame producer Philip Yordan lacked as indulgent an employer as Samuel Bronston for whom he was the go-to-guy on a string of epics like El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Had Bronston been involved this would have had world-shattering special effects. Even so, Yordan was way too smart to fall into the trap that awaited many producers of disaster movies, that the special effects would save a movie weighted down with a clunky script.
Here at least Yordan shows his pedigree. Dr Sorensen (Dana Andrews) isn’t so much the mad scientist as a guy overwhelmed by his own cleverness, his insanity of possibly a worse kind, driven by ambition and arrogance. And he’s a heck of a manipulator. When pitching the notion to Sir Charles Eggerton (Alexander Knox) and sundry political and military types he ensures his doubter Dr Rampion (Kieron Moore) isn’t around to spike his theory.
He’s got history in getting Rampion out of the way, ensuring he was in a lofty position thousands of miles away, making the coast clear for Sorensen to woo his rival’s lover Maggie (Janette Scott) to whom he is now married. Sorensen isn’t just a flawed human being, he’s a dying specimen, gradually taking on the appearance of a mummy he’s so clad in bandage one way or another as the story progresses.
Of course, it all goes wrong. Who could have foreseen there would be a pocket of hydrogen down there in the earth’s crust to knock for six Sorensen’s carefully calculated calculations. A ring of fire begins to spread around the globe, threatening to split the world in two. Of course if you drop a nuke down a volcano, as one might expect, that could possibly reverse the process.
Sorensen’s way too ill by now to take on such a physical endeavor so it falls to Rampion, naturally immune inside his Hazchem suit to the heat inside a volcano. But this proves an emotional miscalculation because it throws Maggie and Rampion together and you only need to see the look on her face when he enters the danger zone to realize that their love has only been temporarily buried not extinguished.
Oddly enough, it’s the flaws of character that hold this picture together. Sorensen determined to win his second Nobel Prize at any cost, the politicians pure suckers to anyone who can promise a new source of energy, Maggie deceiving her dying husband, Rampion principled enough to challenge Sorensen but betraying his trust to win back his former lover.
And it’s all delivered with enough believable scientific jargon snapped out in a staccato of confidence that you hardly question the concept. And Sorensen is pure scientist to the end and at least given to accepting he was wrong.
A modern audience might laugh at some of the special effects. The volcano looks like a toy and the inevitable train heading towards destruction, as though Yordan had boarded a Cinerama vehicle (which he would later do), also looks like something you’d buy in a shop. But you need to cut it some slack. This was before anyone (Fox with Fantastic Voyage, 1966, MGM on 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) was happy to back imagination to the tune of millions of dollars in sfx. The pressure cooker is kept on tight with the flawed characters, a traitorous romance, the fire circling the globe, Sorensen at first denying his experiment was causing earthquakes, and a simplifying of the scientific.
There’s a great scene at the start when Sorensen demonstrates the pros and cons of his scheme with the use of two panes of glass. And various maps are all we need to keep up to speed on the disaster spiralling out of control.
But if you ever want to humanize a barmy scientist call on Dana Andrews, clipped delivery, handsome, carefully coiffed silver hair, correct in every calculation until now, even emotional ones, realizing that in the September of his life he deserves romance. Astonishingly, this was his first picture in four years and he still dominates the screen.
Kieron Moore is clever casting, too, for he falls into the jutting-jaw category of handsome actor, not the bespectacled, wizened boffin, tough enough to take on Sorensen, handsome enough to challenge him romantically. Janette Scott and Moore played a couple in Day of the Triffids (1963) and she does well enough as the romantic prize. Director Andrew Marton (Texas: Africa Style, 1967) holds it all together.