Between Dimensions: The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)


Between Dimensions is a continuing feature that examines science-fiction on the screen in all of its forms: big or small, good or bad.

Man fumbles the planet… The first in a continuing series

If you want to sample the golden age of science fiction, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a good place to start. Since British director Val Guest made the film in 1961, this apocalypse is a little more cerebral than what we’re used to (e.g. the recent new gold standard of 2012). With limited effects, Guest relies on good actors, disaster news reels, and clever staging to make his story real. Set in London, DECF sharply conveys the nervousness of a world discovering nuclear fission for better or worse. In this case, much worse.

The premise is simple – two simultaneous nuclear explosions (thank you USA and Russia) knock the earth off its axis. England’s weather patterns deteriorate way past their usual abysmal standards – industrial strength fog, windstorms, and blizzards become part of the daily routine. Similar calamities pop up around the globe. The tipping point (so to speak) is a rise in global temperature, which turns Earth’s water from its most plentiful commodity into its most rare. Apparently the two bombs also moved the planet closer to the sun, promising a dehydrated future for all of earth’s inhabitants.

This key plot element is revealed about halfway through the movie. We should be thankful because this potential planet-toasting event injects some much-needed adrenaline into the film’s pacing. To this point, DECF has been mostly about the bad weather and a bad-tempered, cynical newsman – Peter Stenning played by Edward Judd – who has lost his mojo (surprise). Judd portrays the angst-ridden Peter as a cheerleader for cynics. Leo McKern shines in his role of science editor – irascible, wise, quick with a retort, he shows up in his standard persona, believable and engaging. Janet Munro brings a light but personable touch to her part as John’s girl friend and informant.

DECF is also a newspaper movie hiding inside an apocalypse story. From the opening scene when ominous weather clues abound, we follow the newsmen as they try to get a fix on the big picture. With no CGI for the weather spectaculars, the story’s sole dramatic engine is how big city newspaper people connect the dots by extracting information from a devious government. The movie will succeed or fail based on how real it can make this impending sayonara moment. Fortunately, in the early 60s, nuclear paranoia was in plentiful supply.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is not totally without visual charm. There are some captivating shots – in particular, a helicopter lifting out of the London fog to float above the buildings. A stylistic motif of lights – landing lights, torches, emergency lights, and headlamps – introduce the menacing weather scenes and add to the impending doom feeling. And what kind of Armageddon would this be without a few dust-ups between authorities and the average Londoner – particularly in Hyde Park at the newly introduced communal showers. Knowing the English and their genetic aversion to showers, this scene is not surprising.

Although the world may be approaching its final days, the pursuit of the story has been effective therapy for our reporter and moderately appealing to the moviegoer. As the world slowly disintegrates, Peter finds reasons for optimism regardless of whether “the fix” the scientists come up with works or not. Curiously, as there’s been no hint of spirituality at all, ringing church bells and a fade to a cross on a dome reflect this upbeat note. The movie ends with the printing presses ready to roll, perhaps inspiration for the same ending in Superman Returns.

So burn some personal time and rent The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Although the apocalypse has been done better in every decade since, there is still a sort of cool History Channel re-creation to this film that is enjoyable. Although time has made the story elements pretty conventional, the director and his actors bring a commitment to making a serious statement about how things can get screwed up if we don’t watch ourselves. That point-of-view never gets old.