Jaded London journalist Peter Stenning is stumbling through the wreckage of his life, his marriage on the rocks, along with his liquor. But his latest story is a big one – the big one. The end of the world.
Made in 1961, and directed by the renowned Val Guest, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is truly a science fiction classic. The plot is exciting, the acting exemplary, and the visuals stark and arresting, as the earth veers too close to the sun, and literally starts to melt down.
The movie was made at the height of the Cold War, when Russia and the USA rattled nuclear rockets at each other and kept everyone on edge, waiting for The End. But it wasn’t nuclear war that was the real threat, according to the script by Guest and Wolf Mankovich. It was the nuclear testing that might cause an irreversible change in the earth’s orbit.
What happens sounds not unlike the latest scare over 2012 – floods, cyclones, earthquakes and the heating up of the planet. Heating up is an understatement though – the UK is suffering punishing heatwaves and unheard of drought – oh wait, wasn’t that in the news recently?
The most memorable thing about this film, from a 60s sci fi point of view, was its disturbing reality. With not a silver jumpsuit, tentacle waving alien or flying saucer in sight, Guest and his actors gave audiences a terrifying vision of the future. Ordinary people coping with ordinary day to day problems are suddenly confronted with a very inconvenient truth that world governments have been trying to hide.
Edward Judd gives a fine performance as Stenning, an ordinary journalist, whose career is on the slide, and whose biggest fear is that his ex wife will never let him see his son again. He uncovers the whole horrifying story, with the help of his mentor (Leo McKern), and a girl who works for the Met office (Janet Munro), with whom he falls in love.
There are no dazzling special effects, no self sacrificing heroes, no Bruce Willis charging in to save the world. Using just color masks over the black and white, and stock disaster footage from the cinema newsreels, Guest would barely get a showing at an indie film carnival today. Yet with the most effective of film devices – a sure director’s hand, fine performances and an intelligent script – he crafted a film that will always be a classic of the genre.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire