What a pleasure to return, by chance, to an age of cinema when visual trickery, emaciated plot and stereotypical non-characters were not the norm! Scanning the shelves at the local video store recently, I was beginning to get that insidious, defeated, feeling that I had seen everything of value these racks had to offer. Preposterous of course, but you know that feeling I’m sure. All the covers begin to look the same. A scantily clad woman is superimposed about the gleaming barrel of a pistol or dead in a bathtub or held at knife point by a blood thirsty attacker who must surely deserve the disembowelling our hero has in store for him.
I retreated into the Science Fiction area and found her again; superimposed on the shiny barrel of a ray gun or , her space suit torn strategically to reveal sufficient flesh to attract the slobbering, horned alien, whose previous victim is still hanging in tatters from his blood stained fangs. Video viewers despair!, I thought. We’re finished. But wait! What’s this? The Day The Earth Caught Fire. No monsters, no murderers, no aliens and no semi-nude victim. Hurray!
I had seen this film on television twenty years ago, when I could not really appreciate it, but finding it on video started a nagging sensation at the back of my brain and I felt compelled to give it another, adult, viewing.
The basic situation of the story, the most improbable element of the film, is that two nations have simultaneously detonated nuclear bombs in their Cold War induced weapons testing hysteria, and have shifted the axis and orbit of the Earth with the result that the planet is headed for collision with the Sun. This premise unfolds gradually. Today, we would be shown, during opening credits, a slick computer generated graphic of mushroom clouds and the Earth from space, sailing through the cosmos toward destruction.
It is of little significance that no such technology was available to this particular film maker in 1961. He would have had no use for it, anyway. The film so cleverly acknowledges its limitations and adapts to them, that it rises above its shortfalls and still delivers one of the most gripping, and accessible science fiction stories on film.
In his first leading role, Edward Judd plays Peter Stenning, a world weary , disenchanted newspaper reporter. Peter’s once promising career is fading and he must be frequently rescued from dismissal by his older colleague, Bill Maguire; played with characteristic quality by veteran Leo McKern. Maguire, like the custodial older brother, often does double duty, writing Stenning’s articles for him while Peter dries out from a binge or rolls in late from an all night assignation with a young woman. At first, these characters play as stereotypical and shallow. Peter smokes and drinks too much. Maguire is bored with his work and avoids his wife. But they are delivered so well and with such consistency by the actors and the dialogue that they quickly become familiar and tangible. This is aided further by the gradual unfolding of the narrative that they populate. We regard them as real people before we are invited to share in their crises.
In a film whose resources are limited, or whose writer/director is really using their talents to the fullest, the narrative must be treated as the most important element. We all crave story. No matter if we watch film to see the special effects or our favourite actors, if the story is poor, we feel it. How often do we enter a theatre with a feeling of nervous expectation and leave it with a vague undefinable yearning for something more?
Val Guest produced, directed and co-wrote The Day The Earth Caught Fire. His single strongest effort here was in finding its point of view. It can not have been by accident that the main characters work for a newspaper. In 1961, newspapers were still the most widely used method of delivering current information. Like this film, the most effective news story is not about actual events, but the effects of each event on people. Guest recognised that The Day the Earth Caught Fire would be much more interesting as a story about the characters than one of atomic bombs or the mathematics of gravitational dynamics.
Ironically, narrowing the view to one newspaper office, broadens the reach of the film. As it becomes known, gradually, that the Earth is not only leaning over at a greater angle than before, but that it is also slipping out of its orbit around the sun, the reporters and editors of the paper begin to show the stresses they share with the rest of the world. Their personal concerns begin to compete with their professional ones. We are hooked by our human connection to the characters and they keep us in the world of the film through their commitment to deliver to a news hungry public.
With a sound film maker’s instinct, Guest places the camera and characters where drama is served best. The motif of limited access is one which builds tension toward the climax. Doorways seem forever blocked or locked. Characters are kept apart by walls, doors or obstructions. Stenning frequently calls a broken elevator. Panicked crowds of weekend picnickers are turned away from a subway entrance by a police officer as thick fog envelopes England (a side effect of violently changing global weather). In a fit of decorum, while taking refuge at her flat during the fog, Peter sleeps apart from Jeannie, the object of his affections, separated from her by a bathroom door. Guest keeps his characters, and his audience, deliciously unaware of critical information with the same instinct for suspense that characterises the films of Alfred Hitchcock or John Frankenheimer.
The climax of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, is one of its weaker components. Here Val Guest returned to the original flaw. He based the resolution of the story on the initial, and improbable (even to those with only a limited grasp of physics) premise; that Earth could be shifted in space by bombs detonated on its surface. But again, he knows his strength. The film gives its attention to the stresses felt by the small group of familiar characters.
Tensions grow as fresh reports of severe climatic changes and public distress filter in to the newspaper office. Finally, and ironically, Earth’s only hope rests with the strategic detonation of further bombs to correct the orientation and orbit of the planet. Here, again, our distance from the critical events allow the film maker considerable power to hold the attention. We are shown the fear, anxiety, expectation of the entire planet through those we already know in London. As the time draws nearer to the detonation of the bombs, characters begin to re-evaluate their relationships, and question the nature of their lives. Finally, the climax is left to us. We decide what outcome we desire most or think the world deserves, and if the film maker has done his job well, as I believe he has, we must be satisfied with the ending we choose.
See it soon. See it before you watch the next slobbering demon from Planet X invade the space ship and devour the unsuspecting Earthlings. The Day The Earth Caught Fire will show how drama and character have a place in science fiction, and how these are gravely absent from much of the science fiction films of today.