Monday, 15 August 2016

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1961)

(originally written in 2009 and published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems. I also read it as an audio piece that can be found on the BFI's 2014 DVD and Blu-ray release of the film.)

Summer floods at Ascot, roads under 6ft of water in Devon, Exeter marooned, dense heat mists, wildfires, water rationing, and a heatwave so severe that the Thames dries up: the only certainty about the world’s weather is its unpredictability and unexpected severity – all of which sounds rather close to our own meteorologically uncertain times. However, this is 1961, and the cause of the trouble in The Day the Earth Caught Fire is rooted in the cold war.

The setup is far-fetched: simultaneous American and Russian nuclear explosions at the polar caps have caused a displacement in the direction of the polar axis (or ‘World Tips Over’ in headline speak), skewing the Earth off its orbit and sending it towards the sun (‘riveting story but bloody balls’ said the Express’s then-science correspondent Chapman Pincher of the screenplay). However, the veracity with which the story is treated is gripping. Director Val Guest, himself an ex-reporter, knew well how to capture the crackle and snap of the newsroom, its urgent clamour and chaos fed by the continual buzz and ring of telephones and the clatter of typewriters, and he said that he tried to make these scenes as ‘documentary’ as possible. This is also the reason why – barring Monty Norman’s ‘beatnik music’ for the doomsday revellers, indulging at the end in their watery orgy of wanton destruction – there is so little music in the film, so as not to clash with its tone of reportage. The Shepperton set was copied meticulously from the Daily Express’s newsroom: ‘IMPACT! Get it in your first sentence..!; Get it in your headlines..!; And in pictures – most of all!’ implores the banner above the hacks’ desks, while the ‘Daily Express for BIG news’ poster, with BIG in an explosive burst, lends a heavily ironic touch.

The film also benefits from its use of authentic locations such as Fleet Street (including the Express’s own offices), a reporters’ watering hole, Trafalgar Square and Battersea Park, while library footage of an eclipse, drought, and even the Aldermaston peace rally reinforces a tone of urgent uncertainty. It’s ‘not so much science-fiction as it is a dramatic and imaginative extension of the news,’ said Hollis Alpert, writing about the film in Saturday Review.

It begins with Big Ben bathed in a brick red tint, the cracked mud of a dried-up Thames, and evacuated London streets into which Edward Judd wanders, dazed with heat and slicked with sweat, trying to summon the energy for one final article. In his breakthrough role, Judd takes the lead as the erstwhile writer and demoted columnist Peter Stenning – ‘one-time ace reporter, striving to make a comeback in life and love’ as the trailer has it – who has turned to the bottle after his divorce and is trying to hold on to the shreds of a relationship with his increasingly estranged son. Balancing Judd’s nerviness is the solid, sympathetic presence of Leo McKern’s hard-bitten hack-with-a-heart Bill Maguire – ‘the science editor who unearths the deadly facts’ who also shoos the film along nicely with his news room banter. And Janet Munro –  ‘the girl on the Government switchboard’ – brings a candid, unaffected and thoroughly seductive naturalism to her role as Jeannie Craig. In fact, Munro, weary of having her breasts bound down in Disney productions such as Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Swiss Family Robinson, and by way of a recent risqué Harrison Marks photoshoot to help rid herself of her cutesy image, said ‘please help me grow up in this’ to Val Guest before filming. A scene of Stenning admiring her tightly skirt-hugged bottom as she leans over to reach a press release in her office certainly signals this intention early on, and later there’s a sense that bed sheets were being lowered to an ‘acceptable’ limit – and then tugged down just a little more to try it on a bit with the censors. As the mercury rises, so the clothes drop, with a few frames of a topless towel drape meriting the film an ‘X’ certificate, though the uncommon and highly suggestive sight of Stenning relaxing on Jeannie’s bed and casting an appraising eye over her underwear while she is drying her hair in the bathroom helps to steer it firmly in that direction as well.

The film also features newly-retired Daily Express editor Arthur Christiansen – who is also credited as a ‘technical advisor’ – as the newspaper editor, and although the many cut-arounds in his scenes are testament to his lack of acting ability, Guest knew he was on to something by using him. His presence shows its worth through his use of customary gestures – the picking up of a telephone, the issuing of orders, the curt commands and dismissals, all of which would have been lost in some slick portrayal of the part.

Val Guest and Wolf Mankiewicz’s script, which won a Best British Screenplay BAFTA in 1961, features a healthy cynicism regarding official pronouncements, whether these come from the ‘chief weathercock’ at the Met Office or the Prime Minister, who, in measured tones, addresses the nation on the emergency thus: ‘I felt it necessary to speak to you all, if only to stop the many wild and irresponsible rumours precipitated by a general lack of facts.’ He goes on to say that he has ‘the utmost confidence that the world’s scientists can produce solutions for any of the climatic problems we are likely to meet,’ reminding concerned listeners, in a glib send-off, that ‘here in Britain at least, the weather is something we are used to coping with.’ No wonder that some of Maguire and Stenning’s lines carry the tang of genuine frustrated disgust: ‘now they want to read about the filthy, self-destructive force humanity carries around, rotting in its belly,’ says Stenning, adding ‘the human race has been poisoning itself for years with a great big smile on its fat face’.

‘Is this the end – or another beginning?’ ran the film’s all or nothing tagline, and although the sky might be tinted a few tones lighter as the bells of St Pauls ring at the end in a celebratory nod towards a successful conclusion (mercifully without the heavenly choir of angels that Guest was prevailed upon to include), the telling shot is the one we have seen a few moments beforehand, with the clocks set at a few minutes to twelve and the two alternative front pages for the next day’s newspaper clipped to the printing machinery: World Saved – H-Bomb blasts succeed – A Nation Prays / World Doomed – H-Bomb blasts fail – Now Nation Prays. That’s the real ending.

Oh, and being the Daily Express that was the newspaper of choice for the scoop, it also inspired a Giles cartoon from Nov 28th, 1961. Appearing in his 16th annual, between cartoons on BEA strikes, Sunday licensing, drizzly Christmases, the Berlin wall, CND protests and power cuts, it shows Father, who, reading the film title in the newspaper from the depths of his armchair says, unhelpfully, ‘Give ‘em all fire extinguishers’, as the rain pours outside the window and Mother doodles on her Christmas present list.

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