*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge -My 40 Favourite Movies: 21 – The Day The Earth Caught Fire


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21: THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE: 1961. Director: Val Guest. UK. Science fiction. Edward Judd. Janet Munro. Leo McKern. Arthur Christiansen.
The INCREDIBLE becomes Real! The IMPOSSIBLE becomes Fact! The UNBELIEVABLE becomes True! So said at least one poster.
Screenplay by Val Guest (Valmond Maurice Grossman, 1911-2006, director, screenwriter) and Wolf Mankowitz (1924-1996, writer, playwright and screenwriter), for which they received the 1962 BAFTA award for Best Film Screenplay. The editor was Will Lenny. It was made in black and white, with certain scenes tinted orange-yellow. Cinematography was by Harry Waxman. Running time was 98 minutes. The budget was £190,000. It made a profit of £22,500. It was originally released as ‘X’-rated, only over-16s allowed. In the UK the distributor was British Lion Films Ltd., and in the USA by Universal Pictures. Typically, the US version had church bells dubbed at the end, implying the world was saved. The original Guest/Mankowitz ending was deliberately open-ended and ambiguous. Val Guest had difficulties trying to persuade British Lion to finance the project, eventually offering to put his profits from his 1959 movie Expresso Bongo as collateral.
At the end of the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s, UK film and television saw another upsurge in science fiction. The BBC ran Fred Hoyle and John Elliott’s A For Andromeda and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough in 1961-62, the former still believable in its subtle remix of a potential alien takeover from within, exploiting our petty thirst for power, prestige and knowledge. Several other serials followed (all, of course, still in black and white), almost all the examples being earthbound and UK-centric, with intelligent, character-driven scripts. I would argue this was a difference between much of the UK and US science fiction films from the 1950s onward. The British stories put the emphasis on the depth of characters. The Day the Earth Caught Fire might be the usual hyped title, but, not only is the newspaper office setting interesting and rather unusual (if not unique) for this genre, but the three main characters are believable, especially Edward Judd’s character, Express journalist Peter Stenning, made bitter and rather cynical by his divorce and separation from his son, teetering on becoming an alcoholic. He has a past, he has emotional baggage, whereas in so many American movies (not just in the sci-fi genre, notably in crime dramas also) the characters appear to be without any back-history or past – they just seem to exist in limbo for the duration of the movie. For me, a classic example of this is the murder mystery Laura (1944), where the 35-year-old New York detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), apparently just falls in love with the Gene Tierney title character – totally unbelievable! More modern movies have what, again for me, is another flaw – often the so-called ‘hero’ characters are simply unlikeable. British science fiction writer and sci-fi ‘New Wave’ advocate Brian Aldiss preferred the apocalyptic novels of J.G. Ballard and Sam Youd (pen name: John Christopher, not to be confused with the movie director), to that of John Wyndham, but I found the Christopher and Ballard characters utterly unlikeable. I found myself having no interest in them, whether they lived or died. Again, the three central characters of The Day the Earth Caught Fire are such that we can relate to them; we, the audience, can care about them, wish them to survive – even Stenning, who starts to discover new hope, a new purpose to his life. Edward (‘Eddie’) Judd (1932-2009) was born of an English father and Russian mother in Shanghai, China (so just two years younger than Ballard, whose childhood was also associated with that city), and his filmography was from 1948 to 1988. In 1964 he played the character Bedford in the UK adaption of H.G. Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon. He also featured in the oddball UK sci-fi movie Invasion (1966), as Dr Mike Vernon, where the ‘invading aliens’ were apparently two, rather attractive, Japanese females in tight rubber body-suits. He also appeared in the 1973 Lyndsay Anderson movie O Lucky Man! However, it would seem that off-screen he had certain elements of the Stenning character, as he was described by others as “a pain the ass”, “self-opinionated” and “his own worst enemy”.
Australian-born actor Reginald ‘Leo’ McKern (1920-2002), played the equally cynical Express science editor Bill Maguire, perfect casting, and who has the immoral line about politicians – “The stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards!” Born in Sydney, NSW, he lost his left eye at age 15 whilst training to be an engineering apprentice. He moved to the UK in 1946 when he married fellow Australian actress Jane Holland. One of their daughters, Abigail, later played ‘Liz Probert’ in the Rumpole stories. His acting career was from 1944 to 1999, moving from Shakespeare to movies and television. He appeared in the British television series The Adventures of Robin Hood in the 1950s, and The Prisoner in 1967, but his most famous, best-loved role was that of Old Bailey barrister and QC Horace Rumpole, in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey – originally a BBC Play For Today in 1975, then over another 44 episodes for Thames Television: season 1 (1978), season 2 (1979), season 3 (1985), season 4 (1987), season 5 (1988), season 6 (1991), and season 7 (1992). John Mortimer (1923-2009), was himself a barrister, as well as playwright, dramatists and author. He had originally wanted Alistair Sim for the part, but unfortunately “he was already dead”, and afterwards he admitted eventually McKern made the part his own. Apparently, McKern was frightened of flying, so travelled to and from the UK to Australia by cargo-ships, giving him time and peace to read scripts!
Janet Munro (1934-1972), was born Janet Neilson Horsburgh, but took her acting surname from her Scottish comedian father’s stage-name of Alex Munro. Her acting career was from 1957 until 1972. Her early filmography was with Disney in 1958, and she played opposite Tommy Steele in 1959. Her first marriage was to actor Paul Anthony (‘Tony’) Wright, from 1956 to 1959. In 1963 she married actor Ian Hendry (1931-1984), who played Dr David Keel in the original, first season television series The Avengers – his part, playing opposite Patrick Macnee, was later taken by Honor Blackman. Janet and Ian had two daughters, Sally and Corrie, and Janet took a break from acting 1964-68 to be with her family. She and Hendry divorced in 1971. She died a year later of a heart attack. Val Guest remarked “Janet’s life was a disaster. She didn’t became an alcoholic until she met Ian. She tried too hard to keep up with him.” The Day the Earth Caught Fire is perhaps her best remembered film, playing Jeanne Craig, typist/temporary telephonist at the British Met Office, who Stenning meets there whilst trying to obtain temperature data, and who eventually helps him reveal the real cause for the freak climate conditions. Their relationship begins rather brittle, eventually developing into affection and love. Out of several memorable episodes together (for instance, having a picnic in Battersea Park just as the fog rolls in over London), probably the best is her in the bath, rescued by Stenning from the apartment invasion by crazed pre-hippie beatnik types. Janet is big-eyed and sexy, seen alternatively in striped two-piece top and shorts; in a towel only; in a clinging sweat-soaked dress; and several internet film stills (claiming to be deleted footage) showing her naked breasts (in shadow).
Playing the Express editor – named as ‘Jeff’ Jefferson in the movie (was that a nod to Hitchcock’s photographer hero in Rear Window, or just coincidence?) – was Arthur Christiansen (1904-1963), who was the real-life Express editor from 1933 to 1957. He also starred in another Val Guest movie 80,000 Suspects, in 1963. Also featured was a young Michael Caine – all 30-odd seconds of him – playing a London policeman trying to direct traffic away from rioters – but uncredited. As I remarked when I watched it again in the 1980s, I wonder how much he got paid for that?
I personally think it is one of the two best UK early 1960s sci-fi movies – the other being The Village of the Damned (1960), directed by Anglo-German Wolf Rilla, from the 1957 John Wyndham novel The Midwich Cuckoos. However, there is still a critic’s snobbery towards such movies. Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die doesn’t include either, but does include such mind-numbing ‘gems’ as The Nutty Professor (1963), A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and the Muppet Movie (1979). Val Guest wanted the movie to be as “documentary[-like] as possible. I wanted it to be authentic.” To that end he apparently recreated the Express office interiors in precise detail at Shepperton Studios (Christiansen was adviser on authenticity), while the scenes actually filmed outside the Express Building in Fleet Street (depicting a semi-derelict London teetering on breakdown), necessitated the police closing the street for periods of two to three minutes at a time, meaning “scenes had to be rehearsed and shot with military precision”.
One website remarks it is the “most accomplished of all British science fiction films [and] one of the great London films.” And, indeed, both on location, and hinted at in studio mock-ups, we get delightful, tantalising glimpses of 1961 London. The Express Building, at 120-129 Fleet Street, between Shoe Lane and Poppin’s Court, was – and still is – one of the most distinctive in the locality. It was built in 1932, by Herbert O. Ellis and W.L. Clarke, in the Art Deco/Streamline Moderne style, comprising a black vitrolite and clear glass street exterior. The Express eventually left in 1989, and later Goldman Sachs were there until 2019. It contrasts in style and mood with its near-neighbour the Telegraph Building (formerly known as Peterborough Court), at 135-141 Fleet Street, which dates from 1927-28, but built in a heavier, monumental Art Deco/Classical style, looking much more old fashioned. While some of the matte images might seem rather fake and unsatisfactory to today’s audience, used as they are to computer graphic imagery, some of the location sequences are still masterful – the wrecked cars, broken or boarded-up windows, DANGER signs on the pavement, barriers blocking the side-street outside the Express office, are still impressive achievements. The film footage of Battersea Park funfair (opened in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, but closed in 1974), are now a wonderful visual record of what was once a major London attraction. Filmed between May and July 1961, ironically – given that in the story by then (with the earth tilted 11º off its axis by the two simultaneous American and Soviet H-bombs at the two poles) the thermometer already supposed to be up in the 90s Fahrenheit, on the day of filming temperatures suddenly became unseasonably colder, so cast and crew were freezing, not sweltering! There followed the fog scene, with batteries of fog-machines around the park – then cut to views of the Thames, Battersea Power Station, and an ariel shot of the Houses of Parliament, shrouded in thick ground mist. Another scene is Trafalgar Square during a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) rally. Guest combined then-recent news reels with a staged demo featuring Judd present. The then Broad of Trade building in Horse Guards Avenue stood in for the Metrological Office, but other views included the BBC Broadcasting House; people praying in the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral; Chelsea Bridge; the Cenotaph in Whitehall; Piccadilly Circus; Hampstead Heath Underground station; Richmond Park and Epping Forest (with clever genuine black and white footage of forest fires and fire-engines). The water queues, supposedly at a parched Hyde Park, was filmed in the studio. Some of the matte backgrounds worked better than others – the view along Fleet Street towards Ludgate at the beginning works quite well. The view of the River Thames reduced to a trickle was perhaps less successful. But, given the limitations of special effects at the time and – more important – the budget (this wasn’t Hollywood), the movie still delivers its punch. One interesting location sequence features Stenning and Bill Maguire walking along an alleyway which leads out into Fleet Street, immediately opposite Shoe Lane and the Express Building. In the film this is the location of ‘Harry’s Bar’, the journalists’ favourite ‘watering hole’. This was in the rather grandly named St. Bride’s Avenue, actually a short pedestrian-only thoroughfare leading to St. Bride’s Church. On some maps this second alleyway, running eastward, but parallel to Fleet Street, is known as St. Bride’s Passage, a much more logical name, given its narrowness. Guest said that they did interior shots actually in Harry’s Bar, which seems to imply it really existed. The more famous El Vino, another Fleet Street watering hole, is further west, opposite Fetter Lane. It would be interesting to try and access a street directory for the 1960s. If Harry’s did exist, it’s long since gone.
60 years on, it’s not just the “cracking dialogue and believable characters” that makes this film still so watchable, but just how topical it still is. In the Guest/Mankowitz story it is the foolish consequences of Cold War nuclear rivalry that causes the earth to tilt on its axis, and generate a world-wide climate catastrophe. With our own man-made climate change, we may yet see London sweltering in endless Sahara-like temperatures and Royal Parks going the way of Australian and Californian forest fires, but one thing the movie seemingly got wrong was the increased temperature would have melted the ice at the North and South Poles and Greenland (even if the H-Bombs hadn’t already done so), so Fleet Street would actually be vanishing under a fast-rising sea level – the Thames, far from drying out, would be swallowing up the low ground from Essex to Heathrow. The science, then, was a bit iffy, but the idea was good. The orange-yellow tint to the views of desolate London at the beginning and end serve to remind what the title said – we were doomed to die in fire.
One excellent assessment is from Joel Blackledge, on the website Little White Lies, date August 2016. He remarks how, over half a century later, the film still stuns today. “Once deemed too strong for general consumption, this apocalyptic sci-fi is as relevant and powerful as ever.”
He continues: “Though 21st century science fiction cinema has shown us many imaginative and terrifying possibilities for how the world will end, one of the most compelling apocalyptic visions ever arrived in British cinemas 55 years ago. At first, the premise of The Day the Earth Caught Fire sounds as schlocky as its title: simultaneous nuclear weapons tests have sent the Earth spinning towards the sun. However, veteran genre director Val Guest tells the story with authenticity that is striking even today. The film explores Atomic Age cynicism about the consequences of the Cold War, which was typical of disaster movies of the time. But instead of worried scientists or noble fire fighters, we see things from the perspective of Peter Stenning…a jaded journalist stumbling between a failed marriage, an alcoholic addiction and his exasperated bosses at the Daily Express. This choice of protagonist speaks to the films cynical sideways glance at the end of the world.
“When Stenning starts investigating strange meteorological events he uncovers the scoop of the year, along with a renewed sense of purpose – just as London starts getting very hot very quickly. At first the capital’s response is the same as it is any summer: slap on sun cream and fill every last patch of green space with boozy picnics. But when the water starts to run out and mist covers the city, panic sets in. Anyone who has experienced a British heat wave will recognise the trajectory: celebration turns to exhaustion and we are reminded that there is only so much hot weather than this island can tolerate. The [film] remains a fascinating and frighteningly believable depiction of London caught in a climatic and bureaucratic nightmare. Miserable queues for water rations line a dried-up Thames, while impassioned CND protests descend into violence. A mixed use of real locations and matte painting track a swift and slippery descent from bustling metropolis to hopeless wasteland.
“The business of journalism is told with authentic verve, from the perfectly recreated Daily Express offices to the smoky Fleet Street bar where the hacks spend most of their time. Real-life Express editor Arthur Christiansen even plays a version of himself, and while his acting ability brings to mind David Lerner more than anyone else, he certainly lends an urgent credibility to the newsroom briefings. In 1961 London had not quite settled into its ‘swinging’ identity, and the film evidences anxiety about the decade ahead. The city’s hip youth are dangerously unpredictable; their reckless abandon is so fierce that they have water fights in the middle of a draught. Yet there is a similar scepticism towards politicians, denounced by one character as ‘stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards’. Pig-headed in their militarism and reductive in the euphemistic platitudes they use to calm the populace, the off-screen establishment are disdained in a manner that undoes the patriotic trajectory of British cinema of the 1950s. In general, Britain is depicted as a fragmented place where threads of togetherness are fragile, and the lie of nationhood can come apart in the face of disaster. Heroism is in small supply, but it does quietly persist in some cultural traditions: keep your cool, maintain perspective, and hold your drink despite insurmountable forces of catastrophe. It is a smaller, snarkier, and more British take on disaster than film audiences have become accustomed to.
“Perhaps understandably given its age, certain aspects of the film have not dated well – namely the gender politics – but a warming world still has much to learn from it. It is grimly appropriate that the film’s 55th anniversary should fall in 2016, a year when madness, crisis and intolerable heat have returned to Britain with aplomb. It’s also the year that the British parliament decided to renew the controversial nuclear programme, Trident, and though their decision may not throw us spinning towards the sun, the consequences of nuclear war are no less terrifying than they were half a century ago. In its final scenes, The Day the Earth Caught Fire turns from monochrome to a scorched yellow tint, as if the sun is burning up the film itself. A chilling ambiguous climax ends unusually without a single credit or title card. Instead there is just a fade to black, ushering in a future that could spell deliverance or destruction for the entire planet.”
Another six years on, in 2022, and the chaotic political madness is even greater, the pompous nationalistic flag-waving more prevalent, the effects of climate change more obvious (yet still being denied or ignored by so many of our so-called decision-makers), and even the nuclear issue is back – the British government – despite facing an economic crisis – wants to double our nuclear weapon capacity. Blackledge is right: this was a film ahead of its time, intelligent and grown-up, a complete contrast, not just to its contemporaries, but actually to so many, much-praised movies before and since.
Time Out magazine, by contrast – perhaps because of their aversion to the more right-wing Daily Express connection – were rather sniffy in their review: “Thoroughly old-fashioned disaster film about a Daily Express reporter who learns that the earth has been tilted off its axis by the impact of two simultaneous H-bomb tests. Its ‘authentic’ newspaper setting looks quaint now, but there’s some effective atmospheric build-up to the big one as London swelters in fog and heat. Perhaps inevitably, given the period and the film’s medium budget, the ending is a cop-out.”
One would hardly expect a 1960s newsroom to look anything other than old-fashioned now – even pre-electric manual typewriters were still in regular use ten or fifteen years later in many offices – so the “quaint” comment is rather silly – one could make the same remark about any period drama – Jane Austen or Dickens – but I would question the ending being a ‘cop-out’. The Americans always liked a ‘happy’ ending – even in the 1950s movie adaption of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and tacked on the ringing church bells – which George Pal had used in his awful adaption of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1953) – was probably par for the course, another example of that American fantasy that the USA will always triumph – send Bruce Willis up with a few H-bombs to drop on the sun! Better the ambiguous ending.
Given a great piece of marketing potential, I do vaguely remember the Express actually serialised a novelised version at the time. Even with the British movie version “World Saved/World Doomed” ambiguous ending, it must have a sold a few extra copies!
My comments dated 15/11/1987.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) was actually one of the better science fiction films, British made, of course, and I wonder how much they paid The Daily Express to use their name and even their [former] editor! That was in the days when The Express was still a half-good newspaper with readership! In fact I can remember when this first came out, the serialisation in the Express with illustrations by their resident artist, whose name I forget. A younger, pre-Rumpole Leo McKern (with his Aussie accent more pronounced) plays the science editor and Janet Munro doing her 1961 near-nudity bit. Impressive special effects for the time, even if in the final shots of London the wreckage was confined only to the streets it seemed – and a true cliff-hanger of an ending – world saved or world doomed? Rather like The Italian Job, we have to guess what happens next. Of course you can shoot holes in it – the earth is crashing towards the sun, but what happened to all the ice at the Poles? Wouldn’t London have been flooded rather the Thames bone dry? If it had all vaporised into cloud, that in itself would have speeded up the ‘greenhouse effect’. Also when water is rationed, can people still have a tub full in their bath? Well, Janet Munro does. In Tudor times a bath once a month was sufficient. It must have been a Tory government. One final goodie – young Michael Caine in a pre-Zulu/Alfie bit-part as a London policeman gets about 30 seconds and two lines. I wonder how much they paid him?