Starring: Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd
Director: Val Guest
Perhaps because his other credits include such dubious titles as Confessions of a Window Cleaner and Au Pair Girls, Val Guest’s most ambitious film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) has never quite received its due as a classic of British science fiction. Yet over 50 years on, it remains a surprisingly plausible picture of a doomsday scenario.
Starting with a topaz-tinted vision of a capital city deserted and sizzling in the heat, it then flashes back ninety days to a London experiencing unseasonal floods and to a busy Fleet Street newsroom which begins to suspect that something is up with the British weather. Under the avuncular eye of the newspaper’s science editor (Leo McKern), a sulky, alcoholic reporter named Peter (Edward Judd)investigates and runs straight into a White Hall cover up. This being the Cold War era, soon the suspicion builds that the odd climatic conditions have got something to do with the nuclear testing being carried out by the Russians and Americans.
Guest – a reporter himself in his younger days – is at pains to present all of this with the utmost verisimilitude. Harry Waxman’s superb widescreen black-and-white cinematography delivers documentary-style scenes of London descending into chaos and melting in the heat. The newsroom set was meticulously copied from the offices of the Daily Mail, its fictional editor played by a real former editor of the Daily Express, Arthur Christiansen (the amateurishness of his performance has come in for some stick, but he has one of the best moments of the film when he reacts to the news of the world’s imminent demise with an understated slump of the shoulders).
Integrated carefully into this docu-drama approach are some surprisingly classy (given the film’s modest £200,000 budget) special effects, culminating in Les Bowie’s beautiful matte painting of a dried-up Thames. Although individually some of these sequences have their drawbacks, what they capture with uncanny foresight is the feel of a climate teetering out of control, the weather throwing one anomaly after another at the bemused British public – a gale, a cyclone, fires, an impenetrable heat-mist that comes rolling up the Thames past Battersea Power Station to bring London to a standstill.
The other way in which the film feels very modern is in its scepticism about those in power, whose bungling has allowed the disaster to occur. When the Prime Minister makes a vaguely reassuring speech over the radio, the journalists listening to it in the pub react with chortles of cynicism.
With the film’s plucky Londoners displaying the same sport of spirit they showed in the Blitz, social collapse is gradual. But there’s a psychological dimension too, as the soaring temperatures begin to loosen up social mores. Witness the frisson of sexual permissiveness in the scene – daring for British cinema of the time, and still quite titillating even today – where Peter takes shelter in the flat of a switchboard operator called Jeannie (Janet Munro). While he’s skulking in the bathroom, she’s lying in bed in the nude with just a thin sheet on top of her. She then calls him in to answer the phone, and the ensuing erotic tension is thicker than the heat-mist that has left Peter stranded. (There’s no sign in this cut of a completely topless scene by Munro which was filmed for the continental market, although several stills from it are reproduced in the extras.)
There’s only one thing that mars the pleasure slightly, and that’s Peter. Conceived in the Angry Young Man mould that was then fashionable, he now seems obnoxiously boorish and self-pitying and a bit of a sex pest. Luckily, Janet Munro more than compensates as the crop-haired, assertive Jeannie. Fed up of doing goody-goody parts in Disney films, Munro was apparently eager to tackle a more adult role. Almost unbelievably, her sultry performance failed to make her a star and in fact alienated what fanbase she had.
This Blu-ray features a 4K scan taken mainly from the original camera negative, reinstating the yellow tinting to the beginning and ending of the film that was omitted in many cinema prints. It’s an absolutely stunning, flawless, silky smooth transfer. The detail is incredibly sharp – after Jeannie has washed her hair, you can see a tiny bead of water trickling down the back of her neck. You feel the movement of the camera lens, and the visuals have a hyper-real, almost 3D quality which is actually enhanced in some of the scenes by the gigantic backing photos of London locations that Guest used as a cheaper alternative to live sets.
The disc also comes with some very enjoyable extras. There’s a 33-minute documentary which looks at the film’s origins (Guest had been nursing the idea since 1954, but was only to realize his ambitions after the success of Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of Neville Shute’s post-nuclear novel On the Beach), as well as its themes and the restoration process. There’s a nice, gossipy 9-minute chat with Leo McKern, and a trio of Cold War oddities, including a half hour documentary about something called the “United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring System” – people in a bunker like something out of Dr Strangelove. There’s a one hour video of a Guardian Lecture with Val Guest at the NFT in 1998, with the director sporting a dashing goattee. Guest is a great interviewee, meticulous with dates and facts. He talks about his early career writing comedies for Will Hay, and his time at Hammer where he was given a pile of Nigel Kneale scripts to adapt into a film.
We hear from him again in an audio commentary, in which he mentions Judd’s difficult personality – “like an annoying gnat.” He also refers to Janet Munro’s early death in surprising terms, remarking that she drowned when she fell out of a boat, which is not what it says on IMDb and Wikipedia.
Just to show that the BFI has left no stone unturned for this release, we also get “Think Bike”, the bluntly menacing road safety ad for which Judd was best-known later in his career, and a collection of stills and various other bits and pieces, including some raunchy publicity shots that Guest arranged for Munro to take with cheesecake photographer Harrison Marks, whose wife, ’50s pin-up Pamela Green, has a small bit part in the movie as a nurse on duty at the gates of Battersea Park. With excellent extras and an amazing transfer, this has to count as one of the releases of the year for SF fans, and it should do a lot towards reclaiming The Day the Earth Caught Fire as one of British science fiction’s finest moments.