Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

One of the best British science fiction films ever made gets a sparkling Blu-ray transfer on a disc packed with extras in this new release from the BFI.
Bomb tests by the USA and Russia tilt the earth off its orbital axis, altering the climate and causing worldwide disasters. As the situation continues to worsen, it becomes apparent that it is not just the angle of orbit that has been affected, but that the earth is heading towards the sun. A desperate attempt to correct the situation leads to a climax that is both poignant and affecting.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE was directed by Val Guest (who also produced and co-wrote the script with Wolf Mankowitz), and he uses the same kind of style of here as he did in Hammer's classic THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, relying on location shooting and encouraging a gritty acting style that all helps to convey the idea that what you are watching is really happening. There's also some effective use of archival World War II footage that must have been all the more effective in 1961 a scant 16 years after that particular conflict had officially ended.

As Kim Newman notes in one of the new extras on the disc, while the post-apocalypse movie has become a genre all its own, it's somewhat rarer to come across a film that shows the rapid and realistic deterioration of society from absolutely normality to absolute chaos. That this happens in real London locations, with only minimal use of special effects model work and some decent matte paintings, gives it a sense of immediacy that is still surprisingly effective considering the film is now over fifty years old. 

         Guest is, on the whole, well served by his actors as well. Edward Judd does a fine job in the lead as science fiction's very own Angry Young Man. He's not exactly likeable but at heart this is an angry film, and his irascible attitude helps immensely in setting the tone. He's cushioned by pretty Janet Munro on one side and fatherly Leo Mckern on the other, but at no time do we feel they are there to reassure us - indeed, the tone of this entire film is of monumental disquiet, unrest, and disenchantment with Those Who Rule Us. The prime minister's broadcast to the nation has to be one of the most cynical moments in post war cinema of this era, and scientists do not come off much better. Probably the saddest thing about THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is that nowadays it would be almost impossible to believe in journalists working on a popular modern newspaper (in this case the Daily Express) as heroes pursuing the truth at all costs.

The BFI's Blu-ray transfer of THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is superb. The sepia tinting at the beginning and end has been retained, and only in a few scenes is there suggestion of some speckling or blurring. There are plenty of extras, including a new 34 minute documentary, Hot Off the Press, featuring Kim Newman, Marcus Hearne, John Oliver and Jo Botting talking about the movie. You also get an audio commentary with Val Guest & Ted Newsom, a short interview with Leo McKern from 2001, a short audio appreciation by Graham Hobbs, and the usual trailers, TV spots and still galleries. Three short nuclear films from the BFI archive are included (Operation Hurricane, The H-bomb, The Hole in the Ground) and Edward Judd's public safety film Think Bike from 1978. Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is an hour long Guardian Lecture in which David Meeker talks to Val Guest about his career. Those hoping for some gossip from the latter half of Guest's career will be disappointed as the talk concentrates mainly on his earlier work and twenty minutes in his wife Yolande Dolan takes a seat to contribute as well. It's still a nice extra to have and it's a shame the talk doesn't last longer.
THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is a great science fiction film. It's also a great British film. The BFI have done it extremely proud in this new edition and it deserves nothing less. An essential addition to any film library.

The BFI are releasing Val Guest's THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE on Region B Blu-ray and Region 2 DVD on 17th November 2014

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