The Day the Earth Caught Fire Review

As London swelters in a heatwave, the world waits to see if it is about to end or if it can be saved. Journalist Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) relates how he and his colleague Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) and Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) discovered the truth after months of freak weather and rising temperatures. Simultaneous nuclear tests have altered the tilt of the Earth's orbit and have moved it closer to the sun, promising the end of life on earth in under four months...

Val Guest (1911-2006) began his career in British cinema as an actor, with four known film roles in the early 1930s. Later the same decade, he moved over into screenwriting at Gainsborough Studios, with his best-known work in that capacity being for Will Hay's comedies, especially Oh, Mr Porter! (1937). In the 1940s, he became a director and worked as such in the cinema and, from the 1970s, television as well, until his retirement in 1984. He worked in many genres, and would no doubt consider himself a craftsman, but he was a more than proficient one. Needless to say, in a long and prolific career, he made his share of duds: his final big-screen feature, The Boys in Blue (1982), a vehicle for TV comedians Cannon and Ball, has become a byword for British cinema abjectness from its decade. No-one would make many claims for Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974), though it was the biggest British hit of its year at the local box office. But if his roots were in comedy, he could do tough thrillers such as Hell is a City, and horror, making The Abominable Snowman, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 for Hammer. He claimed no special affinity for science fiction, and after the present film at hand never returned to it other than in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and the Olivia Newton-John musical Toomorrow (both in 1970). But on the evidence of The Day the Earth Caught Fire that may have been the genre's loss. While the 50s Hammer films at the very least crossed over with horror, and the 1970 entries were more lightweight fantasy, The Day the Earth Caught Fire takes pains to be as realistic as possible. Horror isn't far away, and the mood is increasingly bleak. In many ways, while it's Bomb-related concerns are certainly of its time – the film was made around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, possibly the nearest that World War III came to breaking out – it anticipates the disaster films that were popular in the following decade and would be so intermittently afterwards. In its day, its warning was against reckless nuclear testing, but nowadays it seems particularly prescient in dealing with a form of global warming.

Also more of its time than ours is the fact that the heroes of the film are newspaper journalists, the men (and a few women) endeavouring to dig out the truth behind official lies and smokescreens. We now live in a world where the image of the newspaper journalist has been degraded, and print is no longer the primary source of news. The film was made with the cooperation of the Daily Express and art director Tony Masters's studio set scrupulously copied the paper's offices. This is one of the great newspaper films of its time, even if the lines given to the characters by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz's script are a little too polished to quite ring true – clearly the writers had drawn on the newspaper films of the past. Adding to the documentary feel are some good use of London locations, and library footage: it's not the film's fault that this Blu-ray transfer does make the grain differences of the stock shots (not to mention a couple of shots edited in from The Quatermass Xperiment) and some rear-projection a little too obvious. Les Bowie's special effects are also excellent, especially given the low budget the film was made on. Also, the film is in black and white, which for many filmmakers was the choice if you wanted low-key realism instead of colourful spectacle, at a time when black and white was still viable in commercial cinema and monochrome films were still being made as a matter of course. To convey the effect of the sweltering heat of the opening and closing scenes, before we go into flashback, Guest had the laboratories give the black and white film a yellowish tint, which meant that the first half of the opening reel and the second half of the final one had to be printed on colour stock, an effect which has been reproduced on this Blu-ray. Harry Waxman's cinematography, in CinemaScope, is excellent.

In the cast, Janet Munro, twenty-four years old, had the lead role. She was best known for the Disney film Darby O'Gill and The Little People and was desperate to prove her talents in more grown-up fare...even to the extent of appearing briefly topless in one scene, a contributing factor to the film being given a X certificate, restricting it to over-16s. (It's now a PG.) Leo McKern was an expatriate Australian, who – like quite a few Aussie actors of his generation – was working in the UK because the opportunities there were greater than they were at home. He had been working in England (he didn't work in Australia until he made Travelling North in 1987) since just after World War II and had become a prominent character actor which he remained so for the whole of his career. However, the real lead role goes to Edward Judd. Judd is given an "Introducing" credit – he'd mostly been working in television up to the late 1950s - and he acts as if, like his character, he has something to prove, giving Peter an agreeable abrasive edge, which does soften in the scenes with his son and his ex-wife (Renée Asherson in a one-scene role). All are fine, as are the smaller roles. Arthur Christiansen was a Fleet Street legend and the recently-retured editor of the Express. Guest persuaded him to play the editor (called "Jeff" Jefferson) in the film. Christiansen is clearly awkward among the professional actors but he's not embarrassing, and Guest helps by cutting round him. Further down the cast is Michael Caine, playing a policeman: you can't see his face but his voice is unmistakable.

There are inevitably some dated aspects, and you do have to make allowances for youth rebellion taking the form of water fights and playing what the opening credits refer to as "beatnik music" (by Monty Norman). But as a film The Day the Earth Caught Fire holds up very well. It's not a comforting film and it leaves us on the hook, no music, no end title, an unsettlingly open ending.

The Disc

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is released by the BFI on Blu-ray, encoded for Region B. The film itself has a PG certificate. One extra, or more specifically some topless shots of Janet Munro in the stills gallery, raise the certificate of the package to a 12. This is the full original version of the film. For US release, along with cuts of about ten minutes, the censors removed Janet Munro's semi-nudity and redubbed one use by Leo McKern of "bastards" to "bunglers". You can hear the "bunglers" version of the line in the trailer - see below.

The film was shot in 35mm CinemaScope and the Blu-ray is in the correct ratio of 2.35:1. There were previous DVD editions from Network in 2001 and 2009, and some of the extras from those have been carried over to this new edition. Since then, however, the film has been the beneficiary of a 4K digital restoration from the original negative and other materials. The results are excellent, finely detailed with solid blacks and crisp whites and the greyscale and contrast vital to black and white are spot-on. The transfer begins with a restoration caption before leading into the BBFC X certificate from 1962. One noticeable difference between this Blu-ray and the earlier DVD (I had a copy of the 2001 release) was that the colour tints at the beginning and end are now yellow-ochre rather than the more lurid orange they had been on the earlier editions. Unfortunately an incompatibility with my PC means I can't provide a screengrab: the image above is a publicity still.

The soundtrack is the original mono, presented in a single-channel LPCM track, and there's nothing untoward to report. Audio synch varies in a few scenes, but as far as I'm aware that's due to the original film. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.

The commentary is reproduced from a 2001 Blue Underground DVD release. In it, Val Guest is interviewed by Ted Newsom, who does an able job of filling in details where Guest's memory wasn't up to it (he was eighty-nine or ninety at the time) but what he does remember, once prompted, is a lot. It's a very informative chat. Guest, along with his actress wife Yolande Donlan, also appears, interviewed by David Meeker, in an 1998 Guardian lecture at the National Film Theatre (now the BFI Southbank) in London. Guest, then well into his eighties, is sharp and on good form with plenty of anecdotes about his career, including one about mutual practical jokes between him and Alfred Hitchcock. This runs 62:20, though it's shortened from the original due to film extracts being edited out.

"Hot Off the Press" (33:20) is a new featurette, more an appreciation of the film and its place in British SF and cinema of its time, featuring Jo Botting, Marcus Hearn, Kim Newman, John Oliver and others. It also includes a section detailing the film's recent restoration. Also appreciative is a short piece by Graeme Hobbs (8:45), audio-only over film stills, originally produced for Moviemail.

The film's principal cast are all now dead: Janet Munro in 1972 aged only thirty-eight, Edward Judd in 2009 and Leo McKern in 2002. Reused from the Network DVD (and given new credits) is an interview with the actor the year before he died (8:56) in which he talks about the film and his fellow castmembers. He touches on Judd's later career in public safety films and voiceovers, and we see an example (of which more later).

Also on the disc are the theatrical trailer (letterboxed, running 2:38), four TV spots (1:03, 0:20, 0:11, 0:20 with a Play All option) and four radio spots, audio over production stills (1:00, 0:31, 0:30, 0:17). Oddly, the TV spots are full-screen 1.78:1 and the first three are tinted, which is odd given that television was at the time 4:3 and (other than in the US) black and white at the time. A stills and collections gallery (6:52) contains as well as publicity stills, a Harrison Marks photoshoot done by Janet Munro, pages from the publicity and press book and pages from the first and final draft screenplays.

The remaining items on the disc are short films which are not directly linked to the main feature except thematically. Operation Hurricane (33:03) is a documentary account of Britain's first nuclear test off the coast of Western Australia in 1952. It shows how this was simply an aspect of scientific progress at the time, when only ten years later The Day the Earth Caught Fire shows similar testing as the path to disaster. This was shot in 35mm black and white, with some colour used in the depiction of the mushroom cloud. The H-Bomb (1956) was made for the Home Office in 16mm black and white as a training item for the event of a nuclear blast. The Hole in the Ground (29:46), also 16mm but this time in colour, was a Ministry of Defence film from 1962, dramatising a possible nuclear attack. Finally, Think Bike (0:49) features Edward Judd in public safety mode, exhorting car drivers to take extra care when pulling out at junctions.

The BFI's booklet features two essays, one by John Oliver and one by Marcus Hearn, the former the longer but both very detailed on the film's making but tending to overlap in content. For a bit of contemporary context, the booklet reproduces John Gillett's not-exactly-enthusiastic review from the December 1961 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. Also in the booklet are credits for the film, credits and notes for the extras and two pages about the remastering.

8 out of 10
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8 out of 10
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out of 10

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