It’s not easy to make the Earth catch fire

Some years back, I finally bought the DVD for 1961’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire. I’d wanted to see this British film ever since reading about it in Bill Warren’s Keep Watching the Skies, the definitive book on 1950s/early 1960s SF movies. It lived up to that book’s reviews, and after watching I realized what a remarkable feat that was — much harder than the movie makes it look.The story opens on Fleet Street, which was to British journalism what Wall Street is to stocks. After a rash of freak weather, reporters Stenning and Maguire (Edward Judd and Leo McKern) prod the government meteorological service for explanations; could two recent nuclear bomb tests detonating simultanteously have caused it, for instance? The “Met Service” stonewalls the guys but the freak weather keeps a’coming and the reporters keep digging. Eventually they learn the tests tilted the Earth on its axis, changing the climate (Skies says this was an actual concern about nuclear tests at the time), and shifting Earth’s orbit to boot. Four months down the road, we’ll be too close to the sun to live.

As the weather goes increasingly wild, the government tries to cope — total water rationing for instance — and London slides into anarchy, violence and hedonism. Stenning, previously burned out, finds new life working on a big story and romancing the Met Service’s Jeannie (Janet Munro). At the end of the film, the leads await the outcome of a Hail Mary play, detonating four nukes to restore Earth to its rightful place. We’re left hanging on the outcome, but it’s strongly implied the tactic succeeded.

As Keep Watching the Skies says, making the protagonists reporters was a genius move. If they’d been scientists it would have looked like every other SF movie. If they’d been ordinary bystanders, it would be a disaster movie. As reporters, Stenning and Maguire aren’t on the inside but it’s their job to find out what those on the inside are doing. It’s a journalism movie ( very good one) about a science fictional problem. What I find remarkable is that mixing genres like that so often goes off the rails.

This could easily have turned into what my longtime friend Ross calls a “just enough” film, where the fantastic elements could be cut out and replaced without affecting the plot much. A couple of decades back, for instance, I came across a novel about an elven rock group. It sounded interesting but after a few chapters it was obvious that the band being elves didn’t affect the story at all; it was a generic novel about rock and roll with elves shoehorned in. With Day the Earth Caught Fire that’s not an issue. The SF is woven into the story and replacing it with a mundane government secret wouldn’t work.

Another potential pitfall is what the Science Fiction Writers of America calls the Squid on the Mantelpiece: the story loses the balance between personal drama and the epic SF element. The movie Crack in the World, for instance, has a botched attempt at drawing power from the Earth’s core threatening to split the planet in two. The story comes off much more concerned with the romantic triangle between two scientists over Janette Scott. Raymond Feist’s Faerie Tale tries to ground its occult horror in the real world but the result is that the protagonist seems just as concerned over mastering Word as he is about the supernatural attacks on his family. Day The Earth Caught Fire manages to get the balance right.

The film could also easily have turned into “drawing room SF” where everyone sits around and talks about the danger or the amazing implications of the awesome experiment and the writers forget to have anything happen (Crack in the World spends a lot of time with worried white guys sitting around a boardroom table). Instead the movie has lots happening and a decent personal arc for Stenning. Plus of course, the leads are good actors and there’s lot of shooting on location, at a London newspaper and around the city.

It could have gone wrong, but instead everything works. Well done, chaps.

#SFWApro.

3 Comments

  1. David107

    The editor of the Daily Express in this film was played by Arthur Christiansen who, from 1933 to 1957, was editor of the Daily Express. His only other film appearance was in 80,000 Suspects, also as an editor. Both films were directed by Val Guest, who made some great films.

    80,000 suspects is a tense film about the search for a carrier of smallpox, before he infects half a city.

    Hell Is A City is a tough-as-nails noir with great location work, a great performance from Stanley Baker, and a thrilling rooftop chase/fight at the end.

    Then there are two Quatermass films, Yesterday’s Enemy, Expresso Bongo, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth,They Can’t Hang Me, Jigsaw, and others.

    Val Guest has a back catalogue well worth exploring but be warned, he was a working director who would take on work-for-hire jobs, and his seventies output isn’t worth considering but, when he fired on all cylinders, and was writing as well, he produced a lot of great films.

  2. Le Messor

    This could easily have turned into what my longtime friend Ross calls a “just enough” film, where the fantastic elements could be cut out and replaced without affecting the plot much.

    I saw a weird one a couple of years ago: Wastlander Panda, which was named literally just for the rhyme (it rhymes in Australia). The whole movie was a post-apocalyptic (or, possibly, pre-historic) story of a guy on the run from his tribe.
    The fact that the guy was a panda – he and his family were the only pandas in the mini-series – was entirely irrelevant, and the story could’ve been told without that element and nothing would’ve changed. (At one point – one – he’d’ve needed a knife instead of his claws.)

    So it was absolutely a spec-fic story; but it had one major element, right there in the title, that was “just enough”.

    Also, I’m sorry, but – there’s panic and hedonism in the streets, everything’s on fire…
    What are the science fiction elements you speak of?

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