Comfortable and Furious

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Directed by Val Guest
Written by Wolf Mankowitz& Val Guest
With: Edward Judd as Peter Stenning, a reporter
Leo McKern as Bill Maguire, a  senior reporter
Janet Munro as Jeannie Craig, Stenning’s love interest. (huba,huba!)

The end of the world according to Fleet Street.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire puts you in mind of one of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novels, The Drowned World or The Burning World.  It opens with clichéd character Peter Stenning, a washed-up alcoholic reporter, in the middle of a desert city, London.  Dust and sand claiming the buildings.

He is on his way to this Fleet Street newspaper office to write what may be the final story of his career.  Is the world on its way to salvation, or his humanity on its way to a well-deserved extinction on a planet spinning out of control, much like Stenning’s life.  Then we dissolved to London three months previously.

It seems the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. were playing with matches from the really big hydrogen bomb match box on the very same day and same time.  Did anyone take them way, slap their hands and tell them “bad superpowers, you’ll burn the world down!”?  Nope.

As if a rash of sunspots isn’t bad enough, the Earth is plagued by global warming, catastrophic weather, floods, droughts, excessive heat, superstorms, tornados in Europe and all the problems we are experiencing at present, except for the Marvel Universe and the Star Wars franchises.

It is left to Stenning, Bill Maguire with the assistance of the plucky Jeannie Craig as the girl friend, to get the story out of those bastards at Whitehall.

OK, OK, lay off.  The Big Booms have caused our pale blue spot in the firmament to shift on its axis, and to spin out of its orbit and take a stroll towards Mr. Sun.  The Big Fireball Himself.  As it stands, we got three months to the roast-off, depending on the breaks.  Reporter Bill Maguire is Watch Mr. Wizard… for the science.

As to be expected, the Beatniks and youthful lay-abouts run amok and play in what little water that has not already evaporated.  I suspect there were pre-hippies in the mix as well. It is important to be hip, as you’ll no doubt agree.

In the tradition of never learning from mistakes, the superpowers decide to fire off four more big booms to set things right.  Tune into to BBC One for results.

A note on the Jeannie/Stenning romance.  They meet cute.  Stenning is a chauvinist horn-dog who acts just short of the howling wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon.  Their relationship comprises a hope for the future you see in similar love stories, unless it’s like, you know, Elvira Madigan.

However:  With all seriousness aside (as Steve Allen would say), The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a prescient, well-written, well-acted movie that stands head and shoulders above the usual run of 50s and 60s anti-nuke hysterical drivel you find in films like The Beginning of the End (Peter Graves v. Giant Grasshoppers). And, maybe even The China Syndrome.

Director Val Guest has a good eye for well composed shots and keeps the snappy dialogue moving in a manner similar to The Front Page.  He manages to do it without close-ups. A movie well worth your time.



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