The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Whether you are a fan of Sci-Fi or general movie history The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a must have to complete your collection

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

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Science fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. Like many, it was my first favorite genre. As a boy I would watch any Sci-Fi film that appeared on TV.

There was a TV movie show called ‘Million Dollar Movie’ that attempted to emulate the theater experience. It was on that show I first saw ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’. Even at my tender young age I recognized something special about this film. This film is part of a series of incredible British Sci-Fi of the early sixties. Like many Sci-Fi films of that era the world’s fears of nuclear war pervaded the themes presented in the flick. The difference between British and American movies of the time is the British movies depended less on a monster borne of radiation and more on the human reaction to a world in crisis. ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ is one of the best representatives of films depicting this time and place. Younger audiences may react a bit differently to this film. Untouched by the Cold War paranoia many of us grew up with, the quality of the film will impress audiences of all ages. The film presents the story of a London investigative reporter, Peter Stenning (Edward Judd). Stenning is bitter and disillusioned. A thorn in the side of his friend and editor, Bill Maguire (Leo McKern), once Stenning gets his teeth into a story he will not let go. London and the rest of the world is in the grips of an unexpected heat wave. The temperature rises without letup as the population wonders as to the cause. Stenning’s path crosses a switchboard operator in a Ministry department, Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) whose helps Stenning discover that the world governments are withholding a terrible secrete from the public, simultaneous nuclear tests by the Americans and the Soviets have pushed the Earth off of its normal axis and tilted it over disrupting the normal weather. The world was on the brink of burning up. As the news is revealed to the public they react with hedonistic riots in the streets. The Day the Earth Caught Fire contains the feel of the cold war, the worries over the then unknown effects of radiation and the ever popular theme of governments withholding vital information. While some of this may be somewhat dated now the story still holds together as gripping.

While the only actor in The Day the Earth Caught Fire that will be readily familiar to the American audience is McKern (the most popular Number Two in the Prisoner) don’t let this put you off. The performances may verge on over the top but they are excellent. Judd plays the paranoid reporter to the hilt. He has a code of behavior, which mandates his actions. Stenning is a ladies man in his always hitting on Jeannie yet gentleman enough to never take advantage of her. He is the sixties rough and ready hero. Munro plays Jeannie more than the usual hapless female of the day. The Day the Earth Caught Fire was made at the very beginnings of the feminist movement and it is reflected in her performance. Jeannie knows the risk in telling the secret to the report yet she has to act in a way that is moral. Munro shows great strength and control in the way she presents Jeannie. McKern is wonderful as the acerbic editor. Caught between his loyalty to his position at the paper and his friendship and admiration of Stenning the character is presented in a far more complex manner than most SciFi flicks. In all the cast works together in a fantastic manner. The performances are ageless.

Val Guest directed The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Best know for other British Sci-Fi like the Quartermass Xperiment he was a master of the genre. Guest does not hit you over the head with the dilemma contained in The Day the Earth Caught Fire; he builds slowly in an organic way. At first the population takes the oppressive heat in stride, going to the beach, public pools and amusement parks. Then, the state has to ration the dwindling water supply until finally water is coveted as more precious than gold. Guest knows how to tell a story so that the audience is drawn in. So many contemporary films are so overt, not trusting the viewers to understand the plot. Guest appreciates his audience and the fact that they can comprehend. This respect for his audience comes across with a building tension rather than the all too familiar ‘this is where…’ going through the audience’s mind. Hitchcock had a similar style, it is more rewarding to build than reveal. While many will feel the special effects lack the quality of today’s CGI effects, remember, it was movies like The Day the Earth Caught Fire that paved the way for the Jurassic Parks and Star Wars. It is films like The Day the Earth Caught Fire that the special effects masters watched as kids, in amazement, striving to improve the craft.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire DVD is well done. Considering The Day the Earth Caught Fire is forty years old, the video is amazingly crisp and clear. This was obviously made by a transfer from a pristine vaulted print. The transfer is 2.35:1 anamorphic and holds up against anything out there. The version of The Day the Earth Caught Fire presented here contains the intercut stock footage not seen since The Day the Earth Caught Fire was released. While in black and white the opening and ending are filmed through an orange gel to help the audiences feel the oppressive heat. The sound track did not hold up as well. It is a bit murky at some points. It was remastered to a Dolby two channel mono which may come over better it you bypass the digital DVD output and filter it through your Prologic circuits in Theater mode. While the features are minimal, a few TV and radio spots, the real gem is the commentary by Val Guest. This commentary was recently made and permits the director a chance to look back at his work. The track comes across like a kindly grand father chatting by a fireplace to his attentive grandchildren. It is halting at times, sometimes a bit out of order but remember this is a 90 year old man looking back four decades. Whether you are a fan of Sci-Fi or general movie history The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a must have to complete your collection.

Movie Review of The Day the Earth Caught Fire
by Doug MacLean of

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