Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

This is another of those films that I watch and immediately think "How come I've been watching old films for so long, but I've never seen this before?" I look back to all those Saturday afternoons watching films on BBC2, or the Tuesday evening when the BBC would offer a short series of Sci-Fi films, but this film just never seemed to appear. At least not when I was watching.
Still, I've caught up with it now: And it's wonderful.
Following two simultaneous atom bomb tests, the earth's axis shifts, altering its orbit, wrecking the weather and sending the planet spinning ever closer to the sun. The only way to correct are more controlled explosions that it is hoped will correct the balance and save the planet.
Which newspaper headline will be printed for one of the final edition's of the Daily Express?

It might be surprising to modern viewers but the Daily Express newspaper is actually one of the stars of the film. The story centres on Express journalists (played by Edward Judd and Leo McKern) ...
Edward Judd (left) and Leo McKern
... as they try to uncover the truth about the changing weather that brings a solar eclipse ...
... unexpected mists surging up the River Thames ...

... storms that bring destruction to the city streets ...

... a heatwave ...
Bikinis on London streets

Janet Munro sunbathing in Battersea Park
... and inevitable water shortages ...

... followed by 'beatnik riots' ...
... with their own score by Monty Norman:
 I suppose the modern viewer might not actually be surprised that the Daily Express is at the heart of breaking what is a weather story: Have you read the Daily Express in recent years? Ever since the public tired of stories about the death of Princess Diana, they seem to focussed almost incessantly on the weather.
However, this film actually offers a fascinating insight into the workings of 'Fleet Street' in the days before the industry was changed forever by big business taking over shifting the offices all over London, leaving the street a shell of its former self (and leaving the pubs half empty).
Edward Judd, Leo McKern & Janet Munro outside the Daily Express offices on Fleet Street.

Fleet Street looking east towards Ludgate Hill and St Pauls Cathedral

Edward Judd

George Merritt

Peter Butterworth

The presses roll
And we get to see journalists in their natural environment, the pub ...
... located in an alley beside the journalist's church, St Bride's:
At the end of the film the journalists, as they wait to find whether the world has been saved, do the obvious thing ...
... they head to the pub for a last drink.
Having worked in press agencies in London in the late 1980s - just as the newspapers were leaving - this is a world that is familiar to me. I can still remember the hectic newspaper offices, filled with ageing hacks, piles of paper, cuttings files (no access to Wikipedia to fill in their knowledge gaps), and ancient telephones sharing space with newer technology like fax and telex machines. The film provides an effective reminder of a world long time passed.
Another star of the film is London itself. A combination of location filming and impressive special effects gives the audience a nightmarish vision of London as it prepares for its end, with scenes that far outweigh its low budget.
As a fan of the German director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, 2012, White House Down etc) this is a film he must have watched. The story of the man outside the corridors of power (Judd as the journalist) uncovering the truth, is echoed by Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day.  And its views of the world's major landmarks as they face destruction ...

... reminds the viewer of the many montages of cities being destroyed in Emmerich's films. As is the message about mankind being responsible for its destruction. All that was missing was a view of the White House being destroyed which remains a favourite feature of Emmerich's films. If he hasn't seen it, he should. Then he should remake it. Although I doubt if Hollywood would allow him the ambiguous ending that leaves the viewer to wonder whether the world has been saved.
Here's who to look out for:
Arthur Christansen:

Austin Trevor:

Bernard Braden:

Janet Munro:

Edward Judd:

Edward Underdown (who had another onscreen brush with the end of the world when he played Frank Garner is series 3 of BBC TV's Survivors in the late 1970s):

Michael Goodliffe:

Renee Asherson:

And a uncredited Michael Caine as a policeman:
This is certainly a film worth buying. Fortunately it's available from 'Movie Mail':

No comments:

Post a Comment