February 02, 2009

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961) - global warning

(1961, UK)

Altogether an enjoyably adult sci-fi thriller, verging on apocalyptic and ringing remarkably true during our anxieties over global warming. This film shows us what it could all look like...

The day after watching this tale of
an apocalyptic heatwave and its effects on London, we had the worst snowfall in the capital in 18 years. There was an eerie synchronicity between the movie's freak weather disasters, and the actual city in chaos.

Despite being in black and white, the movie still feels very modern, and far more believable than recent Hollywood disaster movies, like The Day After Tomorrow, where global catastrophes become a series of dramatic obstacle courses for the heroes.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire uses a more believable approach, showing the gradual effects of a world that keeps getting hotter, triggered by a series of nuclear tests. Currently it rings true with many modern anxieties about global warming and abnormal weather. When I saw this on TV in the 1970s, it just felt like pure science fiction, When it was made, the worry centred on the unknown side-effects of nuclear testing.

The film, is greatly helped by a snappy, unstereotypical cast of characters, mainly the staff at a London newspaper, hearing the news first and trying to uncover what's being withheld. The dialogue is even faster than modern films, to match the hectic environment of daily newspaper deadlines, but the boy/girl banter is just as fast and frequently witty. It's a telling sign that director Val Guest was balancing the doom with verbal parrying between the characters. Guest had previously written film scripts for a long line of British comedians, including Will Hay, Arthur Askey and The Crazy Gang. Though this is suitably more high-brow humour.

Besides a solid science-fiction premise, strongly defined characters, an endearing cast (with the exception of Edward Judd’s boozy, stroppy malcontent), it's a gritty and realistic look at the effects of a few months of non-stop global warming. There are many special effects to sell the cyclone, drought and freak fog hitting various London landmarks. Fairly tight on budget, Les Bowie and his team, which included future special effects wizard Brian Johnson, convincingly use matte paintings, blow-up photographs and crisp back projection, plus some spectacular stock footage.

Though the visual effects occasionally look impressionistic rather than real, the story is sold by the consistently sweaty cast. As temperatures soar, lawlessness breaks out and passions rise. I was surprised at how risque Janet Munro actually gets to look in this. Not revealingly nude, but very nearly almost… and complemented by subtly fruity dialogue.

Left to right: Edward Judd, Janet Munro and Leo McKern

You may have also seen leading man Edward Judd as the star of the Ray Harryhausen’s First Men In The Moon (1964), as well as the considerably lower budget Island of Terror. Leo McKern as a fellow reporter is a well-loved British comedian and actor, most famous as top TV barrister Rumpole of the Bailey. But I prefer to watch him in his zany comedy roles, such as the chief villain chasing Ringo and The Beatles in Help! (1965), and as Moriarty chasing Gene Wilder in The Aventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975). You’ve probably seen him in the first two films in 1970s The Omen series as Bugenhagen, the frazzled archaeologist, where he coincidentally appeared with Janet Munro’s second husband, Ian Hendry. Munro should have had many more good parts, but you may have seen her in Walt Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson, or singing with Sean Connery in Darby O’Gill and the Little People (hopefully you haven’t) or even battling crawling eyes in The Trollenberg Terror.

Keen eyes might even recognise a couple of the reporters, Michael Goodliffe also appeared in Hammer's The Gorgon and To The Devil A Daughter, and Edward Underdown starred in The Hand of Night. There's even a young Michael Caine in a bit part as a policeman, just before his movie career took off.

The only blot on this landscape is the casting of the real life editor of the Daily Express newspaper. No doubt this allowed the crew to shoot in and around the actual Fleet Street building and around the printing presses, but Arthur Christiansen is an editor and not an actor, which makes for a few bizarre scenes. Though the main set of the newsroom is a faithful studio replica of the actual thing.

This is also an example of the mini-genre of British apocalypse movies where everyone takes refuge in a pub, rather than a church (see also Devil Girl From Mars and The Earth Dies Screaming). Trivia fans take note that one of the main exterior shooting locations is London's Battersea Fun Fair, which was also central to the action during the story of the giant monster Gorgo (1960).

Director Val Guest of course masterfully directed the Hammer versions of The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2, as well as the recently released (on DVD) caveman vs dinosaur flick When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth.

I got the DVD in order to finally see this in 2.35 widescreen, an unusual experience in monochrome, but was surprised that it was a far better film than I’d remembered - repeated 1.33 'pan-and-scan' TV viewings certainly didn't do it any favours. The region 2 PAL DVD, from Network, has remastered this with a fine-looking picture and sharp audio, and also restores a hot red monochrome tint, that I’d never seen before, to some scenes. Together with the extras – a recent interview with Leo McKern, trailers, behind-the-scenes photos and background notes, plus a commentary track from the late director, this is a very welcome, well-rounded release. Looks like Australia also have a DVD out as well.

Here's the trailer on YouTube, complete with correct aspect ratio, tinting, and spoilers!

1 comment:

  1. A very good film I thought with a very dense script, there's not much room for air between dialog.