This is your daddy's Armageddon.
In general, the best of science fiction films are firmly anchored within the possibilities of scientific fact. Originally released during an era of cold wars and nuclear scares, 1961's The Day The Earth Caught Fire was a cautionary, apocalyptic vision of doomsday paranoia hypothetically unbound and unleashed in the wake of such atomic bomb testing throughout that time. Four decades later, the film still retains a prescient nightmarish quality that justifies its continued popularity on the cult revival circuit. Its timeless social commentary into mankind's foolish compulsion to bleed its planet dry, regardless of potential consequence, certainly entrenches The Day The Earth Caught Fire near the upper echelon of classic science fiction cinema.
Facts of the Case
The United States and Soviet Union, testing their nuclear arms, unwisely set off simultaneous atomic explosions. The combined thrust of these explosions changes the tilt of Earth, altering its climatic regions and causing a total, devastating change in the world's weather. Oh yeah, this resultant shift in the Earth's axis also veers our beloved planet onto a one-way course into the blazing heart of the sun. As mankind inescapably heads toward its doom, the Powers That Be conveniently opt to keep this pertinent info strictly hush-hush and classified on a "need to know" basis.
In the meantime, it slowly starts to get hotter and hotter. As the temperatures rise to record highs, it becomes obvious that something is amiss. Enter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd, in his first starring role), an alcoholic, down-and-out London Daily Express journalist looking for a return to respectability; he's the down-an-out loner looking for one last shot at personal redemption and moral truth, albeit before that character sort became the stereotypical archetype and mainstay of the genre. It's the end of the world as he knows it, but ole Petey boy doesn't feel so fine. With reluctant help from a switchboard operator with inside info, Jeannie Craig (the late, lovely Janet Munro) and fellow intrepid reporter Bill Maguire (fine character actor Leo McKern, probably best known as Bugenhagen in The Omen film series, or as Number 2 on The Prisoner television series), Peter discovers the devastating truth: in an estimated four months flat, the planet's entire population will be burnt toast.
Soon a mysterious fog moves in, encompassing the entire landscape in a thick, impenetrable heat mist. Traffic is halted and productivity comes to a standstill. Paralyzingly powerful winds and rising floods engulf the world's regions, carving a path of destruction throughout all cities in its wake. Then the fires begin erupting…and pesky beatniks go on the rampage. Will humankind find some way to subsist, or will this truly be the day the Earth caught fire?
Even as I now type this, our nation is in the firm grip of a stifling heat wave, with temperatures abnormally hovering near 100 degrees in my region alone. Watching The Day The Earth Caught Fire gave me momentary pause, making me wonder if perhaps we were on that quiet trajectory towards the blazing sun. Of course, I don't really believe this cerebral supposition, but that point exemplifies the effectiveness of this movie, especially in today's state-cynical climate. Watch it now and see if it doesn't work its grim little magic on you too!
What's really fantastic about this movie is the way it takes its time to build up the tension. As it mysteriously gets hotter, the world citizenry first soaks it all up—joyously going to the public pools, beaches, amusement parks, making an extended summer holiday of it all. Then the good times slowly turn to dread, until finally there is no private water source available, and the remaining water supply must be selectively rationed out by the state. This leisurely storytelling pace is wholly effective; we go through the cyclical human emotions along with these characters until, before we know it, we really care about the plight of these individuals, all making for a genuinely intense ending sequence.
Originally made in an era where science fiction films typically meant rubber-suited monsters engaging in scaly alien earth invasions, The Day The Caught Fire adds a dash of intelligence and realism to the genre. Director Val Guest (The Quartermass Xperiment, The Abominable Snowman) hits all the right dramatic and stylistic notes. Guest cleverly inserts stock newsreel footage of actual droughts and natural disasters from around the world, giving the entire film a documentary-like feel that really adds immeasurably to the realistic nature of the onscreen action. Combined with the chillingly effective black and white cinematography of Harry Waxman (The Wicker Man, Vampyres), it all adds up to a fully realized apocalyptic visualization.
Largely shot on location in London, Waxman's cinematography is simply gorgeous, full of imaginative use of the camera, and nice little stylistic flourishes juxtaposed throughout. Without a doubt, this B&W film is most noted for one particularly nifty gimmick—the opening and closing sequences were colored with orange gels, signifying the extreme heat engulfing a world on the brink of solar meltdown. This orange-hot tinting acts as a logical artistic extension of the story, and adds an extra visual element of excellence to this already-memorable production. Though the special effects in this black-and-white production are certainly not as glamorous as today's CGI extravaganzas, Les Bowie used great imagination in crafting his brilliantly economical effects, and they still look impressive today. Bowie utilized miniatures, models, and matte painting combined with foreground studio shots to create a dizzyingly imaginative vision that far exceeds its low-budget limitations.
Co-written by Wolf Mankowitz and director Guest, here is a script full of sly double entendres, biting zingers, chillingly ironic humor, and yes, even a scintilla of realistic intelligence. Playing like a vintage episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone cross-bred with a touch of dry British wit, its sharp dialogue is firmly paced somewhere in between the way everyday people regularly talk in real life and the way fictional characters converse in overblown cine-speak when thrust into staged, surrealistically nightmarish scenarios like this. Not surprisingly, The Day The Earth Caught Fire earned Guest and Mankowitz the British Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1961.
Indeed, as a special treat for fans, Anchor Bay has included a running commentary track with Val Guest. The 90-year-old Guest shares anecdotes about each of his actors and the entire production process. He comes across as that kindly old grandfather figure with whom you'd gladly shoot the breeze and listen to for hours on end. While the delightful Guest has a keenly sharp memory, he still needs a little prodding along at times, and that is where journalist Ted Newsom comes in. Newsom came very prepared for this occasion, and he effectively leads Guest along with timely questioning, keeping the conversation flowing in a convenient interview-style format.
In addition, Anchor Bay slapped a few extras on the disc to create an even more attractive package. There are four TV spots included, all of which are in surprisingly good condition. Next up are four brief radio ads, fine for archival purposes only. Plenty (over 90!) of nice production stills are here too, even containing a few nude shots of the attractive Janet Munro, so they are well worth checking out. Finally, a long, textually detailed Val Guest biography is included, letting everyone learn a little more about the respected British filmmaker. All in all, this is a wonderful collection of supplemental material.
For this DVD release, Anchor Bay completely remastered The Day The Earth Caught Fire from original vault materials. Furthermore, those stunning tinted sequences that bookend the film, not seen since its original theatrical release some 40 years ago, have been fully restored. The whole 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is gorgeous. The print used is sharp, remarkably clean, and relatively dirt-free. There is a little grain and some minor shimmering apparent in a few scenes (note the speaker cover on the television airing the news conference), but nothing overly distracting. Make no mistake—this is one amazing transfer, especially when you consider that this is a somewhat obscure, 40-year-old movie!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the audio arrangement is not nearly as good as the gorgeous visual presentation. In fact, the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundscape included is fairly atrocious. While I applaud Anchor Bay for wisely including the original mono soundtrack, this flat mono mix is muddled, full of nearly unintelligible dialogue at times, and plagued by a near-constant hiss. With its constant, rapid-fire British dialect delivery, especially in the manic, hectic newsroom sequences, character conversations are regularly difficult to follow and decipher. Adding insult to injury, Anchor Bay has once again elected not to include an English subtitles option. This shameless shortsightedness mars an otherwise commendable DVD package.
Also, today's audiences, seduced into craving more overt violence on the screen, may be bored by the slow, deliberate pace of it all, and instead will likely find solace in the easy superficiality of lightweight, imitative, empty-headed doomsday fare of today, films like Armageddon and Independence Day, with their contrived melodramatics and eye-boggling yet mind-numbing special effects. Legions of multiplex moviegoers have been numbed by what author David Foster Wallace terms "effects porn," deriving viewing pleasure only from constant spurts of bombastically violent action set pieces, narrative discourse be damned. Open up that closed mind and discover a forgotten gem of nuclear paranoia at its finest in The Day The Earth Caught Fire.
Leave it to the DVD medium to deliver something all too rare today—an intelligent science fiction film that still manages to entertain. Fans of cerebral, vintage sci-fi, do not miss out on this gloriously restored The Day The Earth Caught Fire disc. Kudos to Anchor Bay for uncovering yet another buried jewel of the cinema past, now ripe for re-discovery, with a marvelous overall presentation to boot. Given our contemporary nuclear and global warming concerns, The Day The Earth Caught Fire is a presciently cautionary parable that has not lost one iota of its riveting storytelling bite. This is one that's not to be missed, folks.
Come on baby, light my fire…The Day The Earth Caught Fire is hereby acquitted of all charges, and this court applauds Anchor Bay for lovingly restoring this timeless classic and releasing it upon the undeserving masses. Court is adjourned; now let's all go burn something.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary Track With Director Val Guest and Journalist Ted Newsom
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