The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest / United Kingdom, 1961):

Losey envisioned the beginning of the end as children with ice water in their veins in The Damned, Val Guest sees the opposite here as the Earth is thrown off its axis by nuclear blasts and pushed toward the sun. The premise lends itself to the inspired pandemonium of a Max Ernst, but Guest runs a very wry ship and structures a droll apocalypse, with an uncanny British version of a crackling American newspaper yarn that should rank with Terry Gillian's contemplation of Spielberg's suburbia in the beginning of Time Bandits. The bracketing images are tinted orange to convey pulverizing heat, the reporter-hero (Edward Judd) ambles into his office but the typewriter has melted, the narrative is dictated fatalistically. The flashback establishes an era of atomic anxiety, filtered through the bustle of the newsroom lorded over by Leo McKern; one wag remembers a "trick film" which showed bombs flying backwards into planes (and surely lodged itself in Kurt Vonnegut's brain), but the film's thrust lies in the protagonist's puff piece about sunspots that snowballs into "one hell of a story" as its Armageddon details are uncovered. ("World Tips Over," goes the headline.) The elements are perturbed -- massive downpours follow into escalating temperatures, there are prophecies of inconvenient truths and also of Amarcord's epiphany of human mortality lost in the mist. Amid disaster, Judd and Janet Munro supply tactile sensuality quite rare for sci-fi: When the sweaty couple embraces in bed with only a thin sheet separating the bodies, the camera tracks back out the window as a cyclone arrives to flatten London. Guest has plenty of documentary views of landscapes in distress at his disposal yet still does noble work with miniatures (a la Hitchcock's Number Seventeen); evangelical zeal and carouse-while-Rome-burns abandon are both given their due, climactic tension is tickled with a gag from Citizen Kane (contrasting headlines hung out to dry) before humanity is left to ponder its blunders. With Michael Goodlife, Bernard Braden, Reginald Beckwith, and Gene Anderson. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home