47 FILMS: 39. THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE
In our continuing series of ’47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams’, we look at Val Guest’s British disaster movie: The Day the Earth Caught Fire.
You don’t usually expect a disaster movie to be made in Britain. Strange because H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is probably one of the earliest templates for the disaster film. And other English writers such as John Wyndham and JG Ballard have made entire careers out of imagining the United Kingdom being variously flooded, burned up, taken over by weird children or invaded by killer potted plants. Val Guest’s amazingly stark Hammer channels some of this foreboding. Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) is an angry young man very much in the Albert Finney / Richard Burton mold. A jaded Fleet Street journo with a drink problem, a broken marriage and a complete disinterest in his work. However, when the Russians and the US test two nuclear bombs at the same time the course of the Earth is altered and the world is sent hurtling towards the sun. Of course, this isn’t immediately obvious as the government tries to hush things up, but Stenning with the help of the beautiful Janet Munroe, as a Met Office secretary who might have the secret to what is going on. It isn’t that Stenning discovers himself a crusading reporter. In fact, there’s a glum lack of melodrama and instead a pessimistic drift towards disaster as the unseasonably warm weather becomes something more sinister.
With some amazing scenes of desolation prefiguring 28 Days Later, the thin veneer of civilization is scratched and mad partying takes over. Leo McKern is superb as Peter’s long suffering pal. Less good is the actual editor of the Daily Express who plays himself unconvincingly. For extra points try and spot an extremely early appearance by the young Michael Caine.