THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, well-received in 1961, now considered a classic; this thoughtful, indignant British thriller was not the first apocalypse movie, but bids fair to be one of the most eerily prescient, now that we’re in the early throes of our self-inflicted climate catastrophe. Gruff reporter Leo McKern says it plainly: “The stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards! They’ve finally done it!” *
He’s pointedly referring to the governments of the US and the USSR, whose twin polar H-bomb tests have sparked a sudden and rapidly accelerating weather FUBAR, not merely bringing on massive freak storms but skewing the planet’s wobble enough that its new trajectory is toward the Sun. Lying officialdom in general has their feet held to it in the tone affected by others in the cast, as the script (by Wolf Mankiewitz and the director, Val Guest) acidly reflects the growing public contempt for politicians.
In a day when Ban-the-Bomb rallies reflected fear of military madness and political idiocy, the heroes in this film—flawed, flummoxed and fated—are newsmen, adding a whiff of institution-nostalgia to its haywire’d-weather wisdom, as these olden days reporters are actually doing their job as journalists and not serving as photogenic presstitute shills for corporate deep-state swine (“Hurricane on deck, Anderson, check your makeup or we’ll give this one to Legs!”)
No nuclear war is necessary (give ’em time) when you can ruin the climate; there are no radioactivated monsters or zombies rampaging here, just the panicked populace, as London starts to bake and other parts of the globe either wilt, drown or freeze. A modest outlay of £200,000 ($5,694,000 in 2017 bucks) provides enough artfully conceived special effects (via models, matte work, dry ice and sweat) mixed with well-chosen archive footage of fires and floods to convey scope, while the human reactions to the burgeoning boil are sketched with detailed curiosity, concern, alarm and riot. That last is provided when young folks go on a screw-it rampage when it looks like The End is nigh, and Musical Director Stanley Black’s spare soundtrack is given an assist from Monty Norman, credited ” Beatnik music by”. **
The film would be even more enjoyable if either the main character or the leading man possessed appeal, but the character is a snide, alcoholic boor and Edward Judd is likewise off-putting. His back & forth barking with McKern works, but he doesn’t convince as anything other than a jerk with easily the most engaging member of the cast, the bright, inviting and appropriately simmering Janet Munro. At 26, after scoring off a charming innocence for Disney in Third Man On The Mountain, Darby O’Gill and The Little People and Swiss Family Robinson, Munro must have given Walt heartburn while raising a host of temperatures with her daringly sexy un-coverage here. The grown-ups-only content with Munro isn’t a cheap shot, but rather its frankness is another indication that director Guest was aiming his movie in a serious vein and not as fodder for kids: the British Board of Censors gave it their X-designation (no-one under 16). Perspiration-slicked sizzle aside, her smile and honesty gives the movie heart to go with its mostly snarky men. ***
The effective wrap up is shrewdly ambiguous, disdaining a “The End” caption, just fading to black, giving the audience pause to ponder. The excellent b&w cinematography was lensed by Harry Waxman. 99 minutes, with Arthur Christiansen, Bernard Braden, Reginald Beckwith and Michael Goodlife. While the 28-year-old Judd, who’d been in films since 1948, was billed “introducing“, there is an uncredited bit part for his carousing mate, Michael Caine, also 28, still unknown with three dozen paying gigs logged: nine more parts and three years would pass before he was “introduced” in Zulu.
* On Wiki-impedia, considerate doom-minded folk provide a by-decade list of apocalyptic films. We see four prior to 1950 (topped by Things To Come), a dozen in the 50s (War Of The Worlds), 23 in the 60s (Dr. Strangelove), 35 for the 70s (Mad Max), 35 in the 80s (The Day After), yet another 35 in the 90s (Deep Impact), a leap to 63 in the 2000s (The Road), and 69 so far in these troubled teens (Snowpiercer). The array runs into a bit of a sticky-wicket with the 50s, given all the sci-fi threats (where are atom-spawned Godzilla and Them! —get yer facts straight…). We who survived recall that Britain in 1961 also had to contend with the mighty—and mighty-pissed-off—Gorgo, while the tech-fancying Americans busied themselves putting out their own fiery sky via Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea. The superhot air of The Day The Earth Caught Fire was set on boil by the success of 59’s ominous On The Beach, as well as heightened off-screen tension and nuke-brinkmanship over the Berlin Wall, which started going up four months before this was released. Shown in the States in May of ’62, it was followed five months later by the Armageddon countdown of the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy had a special White House screening of this movie for 200 foreign correspondents. Twitter makes everything so much easier….
** Monty Norman’s very next gig was a little affair called Dr.No, where he became co-godfather of “The James Bond Theme”. John Barry did the arrangement: they argued repeatedly in court over who did what & most. Both profited, while the famous guitar riff—-a good candidate for most worldwide-recognizable snatch of music ever played—was courtesy of a gent named Vic Flick, who was paid a one-time fee of £6 ($171 in current dollars). Talk about burned.
*** Rumor has it Judd was one of those considered for James Bond before the big cat called Connery strode into the casting call (game over!): with Judd’s blunt glumness the series would have stalled out the gate. He was markedly better in the delightful First Men In The Moon, but he always seemed irate, another of Britain’s crop of “Angry Young Men”—angry and boring. According to director Guest he was an arse during the shoot, a combo of ego and fondness for drink. He kept working, but stardom evaporated. C’est la career. The fetching Janet Munro’s promising job outlook likewise faded when vexed Disney cut her off and family-shepherding fans rejected her sexiness (talk about a world with lopsided values): beset by health problems and admitted alcohol issues, she died of heart disease in 1972, only 38.