The British film The Day the Earth Caught Fire came in a tad late in the “anxiety about after-effects of the atom bomb” subset of the apocalyptic genre that was so popular during the 1950s. It was not that enthusiastically received when it was first released. In fact, director Val Guest had so much trouble getting financing for the film he had to use profits from a previous hit film as collateral.
That’s quite remarkable, watching the film now. In spite of some things that inevitably seem dated, it seems more relevant today than ever.
It’s not unusual to have a journalist as a main protagonist of this type of film. In this one, it’s Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), who is practically a walking stereotype: a divorced, alcoholic womanizer who gets to spend precious little time with his only child. He has a loyal friend Bill (Leo McKern), who works the science desk at the newspaper, covering for him.
That’s pretty pat and expected. The unusual part is how the film watches the enfolding catastrophe through the lens of a newspaper office, which is identified as the real-life newspaper, the Daily Express.
(Interesting fact: Arthur Christiansen, who was a former editor for the Daily Express, plays the editor of the paper in the film.)
The film opens with Stenning walking through the empty streets of London. (Depending on which version of the film you see, the opening may or may not be tinted and orangey-red to emphasize the heat.) The world is waiting to see if setting off several nuclear bombs in Siberia will correct a dangerous tilt in Earth’s axis that has also sent it hurtling closer to the Sun. All this was caused by previous nuclear bombs.
The rest of the film is shown in flashback. When his editor becomes fed up with his unreliability, he sends Stenning on minor assignments. One of them is to get a quote from scientists about some meteorological anomalies occurring around the world.
During an attempt to get some quotes, he meets Jeanie (Janet Munro) who works in the typist pool for the scientists he is trying to interview. They run into each other one day at the park when a bizarre fog settles all over London. They soon become close. Jeanie eventually confides in Stenning about what the scientists she works for have discovered. The Earth has had a significant change in the tilt of its axis, causing the now-disastrous weather conditions around the world.
To her dismay, Stenning reports what she tells him. Jeanie is initially treated as a traitor and even taking into custody. Soon, people see her as a heroine, as news also comes out that the Earth is headed for an apocalyptic event.
In spite of her anger at Stenning for not keeping her confidence, she eventually forgives him. The Daily Express gives her a job. Slowly, conditions around the world, including in London, deteriorate. Stenning must say goodbye to his son without ever knowing if he will see him again. Water is rationed and riots soon break out.
Together, Stenning, Jeanie and the rest of the staff of the Daily Express await the news of whether or not the Earth will be saved by the corrective bombs. The have two headlines ready for print: one that the Earth is saved, and the other that the Earth is doomed.
The relevant part of the film should be obvious—though we know by now that detonating nuclear bombs doesn’t result effecting the Earth’s tilt/orbit, the parallels to climate change are stunning, especially the refusal to face the impending disaster until it’s almost too late.
(If anything, I think the film is optimistic in its belief that the entire world would put aside enmities to save itself. One has to wonder if that will really happen.)
As I said, another thing that makes this film a cut above others of is genre is the newsroom setting. How to get the information about this kind of event, and then making the decision whether or not to share it with the world. How to help with the management of the disaster without making it worse.
There’s also a definite Howard Hawks vibe to the newspaper setting (fast, crackling dialogue that occasionally overlaps).
The redemptive love story is just O.K. (at least the British know how to not make it too soppy). Judd, who was slated to become a major star after this movie, unfortunately sabotaged his own career with bad behavior and only did spotty work afterwards. (McKern, of course, went on to fame as Rumpole in the popular Rumpole of the Bailey television series.)
I’m sure the filmmakers did not intend to make a film that would still feel so prescient decades later, and perhaps hoped they were doing something that would go at least a small way to convince us to save us from ourselves. I appreciate the film’s optimism that we will eventually try, even if it leaves it up in the air on whether or not we succeed.