The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962)
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962)
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as Bill Maguire
as Peter Stenning
as Night editor
as News editor
as 2nd Sub Editor
as Sir John Kelly
as Foreign Editor
as Sub Editor
as Miss Evans
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In a decade that was chock full of various science Fiction and fantasy movies, there was this thoroughly all British affair that pretty much stood out from the crowd in terms of realism (bar one or two other classics). On a relatively small budget that was all British financing, virtually no special effects, no action and all dialog, director Val Guest managed to create quite a stir with his bleak dystopian, apocalyptic, disaster movie...where you don't actually see any disasters or anything, much.
This rather simple story follows the events on Earth after the Americans and Russians both test nuclear weapons at the same time, without either knowing...which is both amazing and typically foolish. The whole plot is told as a flashback by the main character of Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), the events in his life leading up to the tests, the discovery of the tests and what came next. Stenning works for the Daily Express in London and is basically having a frustrating time with bad assignments and a marriage gone awry. We meet various other paper employees during this course of time, such as his close colleague Bill Maguire (Leo McKern), his editor boss and of course his future love interest Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro). Life is shown as usual, the daily grind. As the weather starts to get more and more outrageous our protagonists learn of the nuclear testing that occurred and begin to question it. Eventually the truth comes out that the testing did in fact knock the Earth off its axis by 11 degrees, and has pushed its orbit closer to the Sun. What follows from this point onwards is the general reaction by the government and people to this horrific news, how life quickly changes during the ever increasing panic. There is of course a plan by world leaders to try and rectify the problem with more massive nuclear blasts, but will it work?
So like I said, there isn't much excitement in the terms of special effects, mass destruction or monsters and aliens going on here, this is very much a talkie picture. A lot of the runtime features simply life going on, the character of Stenning having a bit of a break down over his marriage, looking after his little boy, having trouble at work and his colleague covering for him. You get a lot of conversation between Stenning and Maguire about his current situation, work assignments, other colleagues and of course his new interest Jeannie Craig. Much of this is integral to the plot of course, but much of it is simply banter between the two and often other workers. Indeed McKern really shows off his acting chops in this with his gruff but kind Maguire character, large on figure, large on nose, but gentle at heart. His quips and natter really make you feel like you're watching a genuine documentary about working in the paper biz. On the flip side you also have a great performance from Judd with his own equal fast talking, cynical and downbeat character of Stenning. All I would say about this guy is Judd actually does too good a job of conveying this character across, and I found myself not liking him. He tries to be likeable and lovable but often comes across more rude, outspoken and far too controlling. None the less both actors are pretty fudging amazing and play off each other effortlessly. It all feels very natural, realistic and you can understand every word spoken, not a single line of dialog is wasted.
The irony is this film actually feels more like a real life look back at the UK during the early 60's, an actual documentary. Its fascinating to watch how life chugged along back then, the way an old fashioned big time paper actually worked with hundreds of men and machines, all finely tuned like the innards of a clock. The film throws up many themes through its story which I'm guessing was merely an accident of the era, not on purpose. The first and most obvious being how men ruled the waves back then (sexism...for all the kids at home), how women were clearly only given secretarial roles and meant to just look pretty in the background. Of course Munro's character isn't completely like that, she starts out that way but slowly transforms into a stronger character, yet she is still the damsel in distress, the weak woman needing a strong man. But you can clearly see the male dominance of all roles throughout the Express company, all smoking merrily I might add.
Another obvious theme is class structure, something mainly observed again within the Express company. Its interesting to see the big editor at the top passing an order down through the ranks of the company, from various chubby, tie wearing, moustachioed suits to another, until we get to the bowels where the skinnier working class men work the prints. I would hazard a guess that this film is actually of historical interest with its footage of the internal workings of a major paper. What's also amusing is the total reliance on old fashioned rotary dial phones, they are everywhere and the main source of communication between the string of departments. Outside its pretty much as you would expect with the British people of the verge of the wild sixties and things like the hippie movement and youth protests etc...You get both worlds, the stiff upper crust of the British Empire set against the slow emergence of a more younger liberal culture (for better or worse though?).
Next to all that there is of course the good old nuclear threat that most American movies drummed into people during the 50's and 60's. An easy way to snag people's interests and fears at the same time; making them aware, educating them (?) and terrifying them...perfect! Guest jumps on that trusty bandwagon with gusto, really elevating those anxieties to the maximum by having a double dose of nuclear bomb testing to contend with. The main difference here with this film was the fact it all looked and felt so realistic, the panic and horror was very authentic, the heat problems, lack of water, spreading illness etc...Most movies around that time usually came across a bit more silly with monsters, mutants or aliens being the outright cause or near enough.
As for the little special effects there are (not much), its serviceable. Lets be honest here, the film had a small budget and it was made in the early 60's, I think you know not to expect anything grand, this ain't Stanley Kubrick. We don't see the nuclear blasts in any way or form so that's that. The extreme heat is simply hinted at by making the performers wet, sweat stains, never seeing any H2O anywhere, simple but effective. Early on in the film and towards the finale the film is tinted yellow/orange to give the devastating impression of Sun's heat as the Earth travels closer towards it, again very simple yet effective. There is a lot of stock footage used to show natural weather disasters occurring across the globe as things go belly up, unfortunately these are obvious but meh. One of the two special effects that were actually created for the film was the swirling mist that rolls into London. Kinda cheesy looking superimposed effect (I'm guessing) that worked better when motionless and with the added misty sets. Then of course you have the ever dependable matte paintings that show us a dried up Thames along with various other hotspots around the world.
So yes this is a very good picture showing how reliable and intelligent British movie making could be. What you have is essentially a science fiction disaster flick that could easily of been utter nonsense, but instead its very suspenseful and penetrating with plenty of clever dialog. Now despite all that I must be completely honest here, and with that I must admit that I did in fact find the film slightly dull (ducks for cover!). Yes the dialog is nippy and witty, yes the acting is superb and yes the story unravels well, but its a slow burner with little to no action, sooo it was a little tough to endure at times. With that, and for the first time, I am going to admit that I will mark this film up for its well crafted content, both historically (a perfect time capsule) and performance wise. I didn't hate the film but it did drag, yet I can fully appreciate what this film achieved for the time, hence I must give kudos.
This movie has an excellent plot, but doesn't have a sufficient amount of excitement or good actors. I liked it for the most part, but I wasn't sure about the ending. Overall, it could have been better.
A great movie..interesting story and solid acting..WHAT SETS THIS MOVIE APART IS THE PACING..I HAVE NEVER SEEN A MOVIE MOVE QUICKER..VERY COOL CONCEPT!
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