Given the recent unseasonably warm spell and the continuing discourse on global Warming, Val Guest’s 1961 sci-fi drama The Day the Earth caught fire – fresh from the BFI archive – takes on an eerily prescient quality. First Guest and Wolf Mankowitz’s London suffers an unseasonably warm spell, then cripplingly thick heat fog which segued its way into the Earth spiralling closer to the sun with each passing day. In the alternate history the film adopts, both Russia and America test atomic bombs at the same time knocking the planet off its rotational axis, while the science may be far-fetched the fears that the film taps into are not. While riffing on the fear of nuclear annihilation the script frames its central apocalypse with a lucidity that could just as feasibly have been released last year, making for a much more frightening concept.
A big notion to translate from page to the big screen, the film copes with its limited resource with an invention that continues to make independent cinema such a rich world. Communicating Earth’s b-line for the sun is achieved through means that call back to the heyday of silent cinema. There are no seas of flames or visual bombast; instead a bronze filter and matte paintings are employed for the apocalyptic scenes – an elegant solution to the films grandiose centrepiece. Of less elegant stock is the filmmaking tag team of camera work and cinematography, both are equally free of excess echoing the minimalism of the era TV production. A great British tradition too.
Unlike the apocalyptic films that came in The Day the Earth Caught Fire’s wake, Guest’s film stands out due to the hopelessness the viewer is burdened with. We do not follow the movers and shakers or the scientific effort to quell the fallout of America and the USSR’s activity; instead we follow the journalists trying to get the truth behind a series of strange events. At first the select journalists of the Daily Express pursue an exclusive whatever the cost until an eclipse happens 10 days early, changing that competitive edge into a simpler survival instinct. On that note, siding with the helpless leads the film towards the elusive perfect ending. All that needs to be mentioned here is that the film leaves it denouement wide open in a way that compliments the preceding build-up with grace.
The centres of this global disaster are 3 players: Janet Munro’s phone operator at the MET office, Leo McKern’s science editor at the daily express and Edward Judd’s renegade reporter. McKern is pivotal to the disaster element as the man who correctly theorizes the planets fate, Munro and Judd have a fast talking and quick-witted back and forth that provides the film with its emotional foundation. The most fruitful genre works aren’t about their central concept instead they focus on core aspects of the human psyche. In the case of The Day the Earth caught fire the film is about pride and infidelity, all within the comfy timeless sci-fi.
The package that BFI have put together for this release is rife with contradictions. Upon putting the disk into the player one is greeted with a crude presentation and options that are barely visible on certain televisions. On the other side of the fence is a strong restoration job and surprising array of extras that have been afforded by BFI’s access to the national archives and the gems it houses. Even if the film opts for the type of fast witted dialogue that is a thing of the long past, the core mechanics of The Day the Earth Caught fire will ensure it will remain relevant, fascinating and terrifying real for a long time to come. A must buy for sci-fi fans both classic and current.
- Brand new 4K transfer by the BFI National Archive
- Hot Off the Press: Revisiting the Day the Earth Caught Fire (John Kelly, 2014, 32 mins): a newly filmed documentary
- Audio commentary with Val Guest and Ted Newsom
- An Interview with Leo McKern (Paul Venezis, 2001, 10 mins)
- The Day the Earth Caught Fire: An Audio Appreciation by Graeme Hobbs (9 mins)
- Original trailer, TV spots and Radio spots
- Stills and Collections Gallery
- The Guardian Lecture: Val Guest and Yolande Dolan interviewed by David Meeker (1998, 61 mins)
- The H-bomb (David Villiers, 1956, 21 mins): civil defence information film demonstrating the damage that might be expected from a ten megaton bomb
Operation Hurricane (Ronald Stark, 1952, 33 mins): a documentary exploring the work involved in, and the research behind Britain’s first atomic bomb tests
- The Hole in the Ground (David Cobham, 1962, 30 mins): a dramatization of a nuclear attack demonstrating the operation of Britain’s warning system for atomic war
- Think Bike (1978, 1 min): road safety film with Edward Judd
Fully illustrated booklet with extensive credits and newly commissioned essays from John Oliver and Marcus Hearn
THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE IS OUT ON BFI BLU-RAY AND DVD FROM MONDAY 17TH NOVEMBER