Tuesday, 15 September 2009

DVD Preview: The Day The Earth Caught Fire

The end of the world has always been fair game for science-fiction cinema. Nowadays when the apocalypse comes, Hollywood takes full advantage of modern movie-making technology and we're given visually-spectacular but emotionally-arid fare like Devlin and Emmerichs' double-whammy of 'The Day After Tomorrow' and the forthcoming '2012' where people and buildings are drowned, buried, burnt or flattened and the audience is expected to 'ooh' and 'aah' as world-famous landmarks crumble or are overwhelmed by Nature. Inevitably we ens up admiring the smart visuals but forgetting the people in the film ten minutes after they've left the theatre or turned off the DVD.

Twas not always thus. Sometimes the end of the world had a bit more depth to it and now and again earlier visions of the End of Days were done with a bit more style, panache and a palpable sense of human drama. Allow me to recommend a stonking 1960 black-and-white British movie called 'The Day The Earth Caught Fire', due for rerelease by Network on 28th September in the UK. You may have come across the movie before on late night TV or on some obscure movie channel and the chances are, if you've seen it, it may well have slipped your mind because, for some inexplicable reason, it isn't lauded as one of the great science-fiction movies even though those who know it love it and appreciate it and it's rightly well-regarded amongt the genre cogonscenti. Now's your chance to catch up with this gripping, enthralling - and above all astonishigly real - movie courtesy of this new vanilla budget DVD.

Apparently coincidentally Russia and America are testing nuclear weapons at opposite ends of the Earth. Slowly and subtly the world's climate begins to change and London, amongst other cities, is plunged into what is perceived to be a freak heatwave. But dogged journalists at the Daily Express (of all places) suspect a Government cover-up when the temperature keeps on rising and freak 'heat mists' envelop the city and bring the capital to a standstill. Scruffy alcoholic journalist Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) and science reporter Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) are ordered to dig for information by their Editor - and when Stenning begins a romance with MET centre secretary Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) he soon discovers the terrifying truth, covered-up by a Government conspiracy. Nuclear testing has shifted the Earth off its axis and the planet is slowly drifting towards the sun. The Government struggles to keep a lid on the news but hysteria breaks out, looting and riots are rampant...and it appears that only an audacious scheme - more nuclear explosions to shunt the Earth back into position - can save the human race. But will Mankind prevail? As the streets clear and the population roasts, humanity waits to find out its ultimate fate...

'The Day The Earth Caught Fire', fifty years later, remains a remarkable piece of movie-making. Written and directed by Val Guest (who directed the 1950s Quatermass movies) the film has a pace and an energy rarely seen in modern genre cinema, let along in the early 1960s. In places the film is more a documentary than a drama, verisimilitude being added by Newsroom scenes filmed on location in and around the then-offices of the Daily Express, Guests's restless direction and uniformly superb performances from the cast. The script is slick, intelligent and erudite and the whole movie is given a sheen of reality with its constant overlapping dialogue and its generally naturalistic, gritty tone andf four-square, utterly believable characterisation. It's risque on occasion too with some fruity language, the odd double-entendre and even a bit of near-nudity. Whereas a similar film made today - and God forbid some bright spark bean-counter should decide this is a movie ripe for reimagining - would pile on the visuals at the expense of character, here Guest uses visual trickery sparingly. Decades before CGI Guest has just a few optical bits'n'pieces at his disposal but the sequences of London covered in 'heat mist' remain hugely atmospheric and effective and the scenes of society starting to panic and lose its veneer of civilisation are brutallty well-realised.

'The Day the Earth Caught Fire' isn't a particularly optimistic film. Kicking off with sequences where a sweat-soaked Stenning, prowls the deserted newsroom waiting for news of something (presented on DVD in their original heat-bleached brown tint) the film takes us back a few weeks as the crisis unfolds and ends where we began - with an anxious humanity waiting to discover if it has a future. The film's ending is a bit ambiguous and whilst we never really find out what happens there's a pretty big indication of how the situation resolves itself and it's hard not to imagine that the ending was forced onto the movie by a studio worried by the prospect of a downbeat ending to what they'd probably imagined would be a cheap and cheerful science-fiction thriller.

In truth 'The Day The Earth caught Fire' is anything but. It's an adult drama first and foremost, a prime example of the eternally-fascinating 'people coping in extreme crisis' school of story-telling and if you've never seen the movie or just dismnissed it as some cheesy bit of 1960s fluff, you really need to invest a few quid in this new DVD release because 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' deserves a prime position on the DVD shelf of any serious afficionado of good science-fiction.

The disc; Network released this title back in 2001 and the original full-price release boasted some decent special features- Leo Mckern revisitng the film's locations, a Val Guest commentary, trailer etc. Disappointingly this new cheaper release has jettisoned all the special stuff leaving just the movie. Even so, you can track this down on line for less than five quid and at that price it's an absolute bargain. Classic cinema and Stuff really can't recommend it highly enough.

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