Why The Day the Earth Caught Fire still stuns 55 years on

Once deemed too strong for general consumption, this apocalyptic sci-fi is as relevant and powerful as ever.

Words

Joel Blackledge

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 (Edward Judd), a jaded journalist stumbling between a failed marriage, an alcohol addiction and his exasperated bosses at the Daily Express. This choice of protagonist speaks to the film’s 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 scream 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 Day the Earth Caught Fire 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 paintings 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 Dean 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 drought. Yet there is 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.

Published 16 Aug 2016

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