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Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Day The Earth Caught Fire

Concerns over global climate change suddenly become a hot topic for film makers in 1961. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (DECF) is the British view. It will be followed by the American version in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and a multinational european effort in The Day the Sky Exploded. DECF is written and directed by Val Guest, famous for the Quatermass movies. Global disaster movies would become popular periodically. Each era would pin the blame on whatever grand evil was in vogue at the time. A hole in the Ozone layer, a meteor or even global cooling. In 1961, it was nuclear weapons.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The film starts near the end of the story. The earth is gripped by searing heat. Only minutes remain in the countdown. A sweating newspaper reporter dictates his story to a typesetter. The story shifts to flashback. Pete is a reporter who has fallen an personal hard times. His divorce has broken him. Drink now consumes him. As a result, his career has sunk from star reporter to obscure assistant. His friend Bill, the science editor covers for him. Amid all this drama we learn that two huge nuclear tests were conducted by the US and USSR, at the exact same moment. A record heat wave grips London. A lunar eclipse occurs 10 days early. Strange fog envelopes London. Bill theorizes that the blasts have altered earth's orbit. Earth is now spiraling towards the sun. Pete befriends a switchboard girl in the government Meteorological Office. Drought causes water rationing, which sparks riots. Pete and Jeanie's romance, and the global crisis, give Pete a new professional resolve. We learn that scientists plant to detonate more nuclear blasts in an effort to repair earth's orbit. Hence the countdown. Back to real time, people await news as to whether the blasts saved earth or if everyone is doomed. Pealing church bells suggest that earth is saved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The notion of global climate upheaval is very topical even nearly 50 years later. It is interesting how Guest reveals the larger off-camera story via tidbits and news leaks, much as a layman might learn of such things. Janet Munro does an excellent job as Jeanie.

Cold War Angle
Rivalry between the US and USSR are taken as the culprit that causes the crisis. Nukes cause the problem. Interestingly, it is also nukes which save the earth -- a very Cold War way of thinking.

Layman's View -- There is no all-knowing scientist to narrate in all the back story. There is no omniscient camera to watch the big events for us. Val Guest effectively reveals his story much as any of us might experience it. A news story here, a rumor there, but especially the inarguable consequences. The Daily Express newspapermen are only a tiny bit better informed than the lay public. This viewpoint makes DECF feel fresh.

Gray Yesterday -- Although all shot in black and white, the beginning few minutes of the movie are tinted sepia. This certainly conveys the scorching heat. When the flashback begins, the world becomes black and white again, but after the searing sepia, plain gray feels almost cool. This was a nice visual effect. When at the end, the story catches up to real time, the sepia returns.

Munro Magic -- Janet Munro had an on-screen innocence and charm. She plays a more adult character in DECF, but projects a mix of confidence and vulnerability. She provides the reason to live, a new life, for the Peter Stenning character who feels there's nothing left to live for or care about. She saves him from his own self-destructive orbit. This is, perhaps, an analogy for the bigger picture. The earth will be saved too, just as Peter was.

Early Peace Signs -- Viewers will note the conspicuous presence of the "peace sign" on placards in the protesting crowds. The peace sign gained more fame in the late 60s as an anti-Vietnam War symbol, but it began as a British Nuclear Disarmament, anti-Cold War symbol in the late 50s.

Nukes to the Rescue -- Like so many Cold War films, nuclear weapons have a Jekyll and Hyde existence. Nukes are usually to blame for what went wrong. Curiously, nukes also play the hero in just as many films. In DECF, nuclear tests knock the world out of its orbit, but properly apply a few more blasts (presumably) sets it right again. In the confused logic of the Cold War era, nuclear weapons were both a demon and a savior. The subtle message was: we need our nukes.

Ambiguity Avoidance -- Guest had intended his movie to end on a more ambiguous note. Did the extra blasts do the job, or not? The newspapermen were ready for either. One press was set up to run "World Saved", while another press was set up to run "World Doomed". The American release, handled by AIP, added the pealing church bells at the end, perhaps on the model of how War of the Worlds ('53) ended. For American audiences (not usually fond of ambiguous endings), the suggestion was positive.

Bottom line? DECF is an excellent film, well written, well paced and well directed. It might be frustrating for people who need to see the primary action first-hand. For them, the human drama might seem annoying. For fans of mystery stories, the subtle way in which Guest reveals the story can be captivating. DECF is definitely worth watching.


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