The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Directed by: Val Guest
Starring: Edward Judd, Leo McKern, Janet Munro, Michael Goodliffe
Admit it: Deep inside you’ve always wondered what His Girl Friday would be like if it had been a disaster movie. Well, here’s your chance to find out. The Day the Earth Caught Fire is largely set in a newsroom, and features lots of quick-fire witty banter between our hero and his love interest. Plus it has the cyclones that Hawks’ classic sadly lacked.
OK, maybe I shouldn’t make too much of that comparison. But The Day the Earth Caught Fire is well worth watching in its own right as a fine British take on end-of-the-world scenarios.
Our hero is reporter/alcoholic Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) of London’s Daily Express. Stenning is a world-weary cynic who spends more time drinking than doing any actual work. (I don’t think we see him write one word in this film: every time he sits down at his desk he gets annoyed about something, rips the paper out of the typewriter and crumples it up.) As the movie opens, Stenning stumbles through a deserted, heat-struck London to the newspaper offices and starts dictating a story.
We flash back to 19 days earlier. Strange meteorological phenomena seem to be going on all around the world. Stenning is dispatched to the Met Office to find information about sun spots. He doesn’t. What he does find is the pretty Ms. Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro). She blows him off, meaning they will fall in love sooner or later. We don’t have to wait too long, as an impenetrable mist seizes London, and Stenning ends up spending the night at Jeannie’s apartment.
The weather-related anomalies are soon thought to be somehow related to the recent nuclear bomb tests performed by the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only that: it turns out that both tests were performed at exactly the same time, giving Earth a big enough shock to actually tilt the planet’s axis and alter our orbit. So, not only is the climate changing — the planet is headed dangerously close to the Sun itself…
Jeannie overhears this info at the Met Office, and tells Stenning, who brings the scoop to the Express, despite promising Jeannie that she was off-record. Jeannie is taken into custody for breaching confidentiality, but is later released and given a job in the archives at Stenning’s newspaper. Authorites have imposed strict water rationing, the cities are being evacuated, and chaos grips London as raging “water gangs” make the streets unsafe.
Meanwhile, Earth’s governments have come up with a common plan, and since this is a disaster movie you have probably already guessed what that plan is. Yes: detonate some more nukes! It is thought that a number of nuclear detonations in western Siberia might nudge the planet back into a safer orbit. There are no guarantees, though.
We return to present time and a deserted London. The countdown has begun. Two Daily Express front pages have been prepared, one proclaiming success, the other doom. Which one will it be…?
While audiences accustomed to the Emmerich school of disaster epics may find this film too talky, too boring or too black-and-white, the rest of us can enjoy good acting, rapid-fire dialogue, some nice visuals and a story that is admittedly a tad slow to begin with, but grabs a hold of you as it progresses.
The newsroom is a good background milieu, and even though Stenning is a pretty miserable bastard I found myself actually coming to like him as the story unfurled. Janet Munro as Jeannie projects some remarkable sensuality right through the lens in a couple of scenes (though this is 1961, so don’t expect anything smutty, you perv). The cynical newsman banter is gradually replaced by a more somber tone, and the end of the movie features some quite memorable matte shots of desolate cities.
As for actual disaster scenes, this one is not the thrill-a-minute ride some may hope for. The part where the mist descends on London are built more on atmosphere than suspense, and a little later the city is hit by a cyclone in a short sequence with some acceptable model-work. Towards the end of the film, director Val Guest relies mostly on stock footage for the various catastrophes befalling the planet.
So, while not a nailbiter, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a nice, atmospheric and largely credible disaster-drama that develops a good, eerie end-of-the-world vibe. I’m almost surprising myself by giving it a 4/5 rating, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.