The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

When I first pulled this one out of my mailbox, I looked at the title and figured it would be just another of the numerous, stinky sci-fi "The Day the..." movies that are my usual fare (such as 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1958's The Day the Sky Exploded, 1962's The Day of the Triffids, 1979's The Day Time Ended, 1975's The Day that Shook the World, 1979's The Day it Came to Earth, 1959's The Day the Earth Froze, and 1963's The Day the Martians Invaded Earth just to name a few). However, after watching it, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised to find that 1961's The Day the Earth Caught Fire is an excellent movie. It's very nicely shot, in gorgeous black and white, stocked with well-cast actors and pretty girls, and while it does drift a bit into early 1960s technobabble at times, it remains fairly grounded in scientific fact. To their credit, the producers focused on the effects of the "day the earth caught fire" on a small group of men and women who unravel the story in real-time just as we do, forgoing the expedient measure of relying on lame special effects and gratingly annoying voiceovers to keep the audience interested. I strongly suggest that any sci-fi fan find a copy of this one and give it a watch.

Let's get 'er done!

It's 1961 and the Cold War is in full swing, the Americans and the Russians are building nuclear weapons as fast as they can while the rest of the world holds its collective breaths over the possibility of the two great superpowers obliterating the planet in a war of ideologies. In England, still recovering from the horrors of the Second World War, tensions are perpetually high as the British government depends on the Americans (again) to keep their nation from becoming either a subjugated occupied zone or a smoldering atomic wasteland.

You had to be 16 to watch this movie in England.

A huge chunk of this movie takes place in the busy, hectic newsroom of the Daily Express newspaper, London's finest daily paper, dominating news coverage in an era when nearly everyone looked to the sheets for their news and entertainment. In this cluttered room of offices and cubicles, filled with desks and typewriters and stacks of papers, people move about with the urgency of looming deadlines and angry editors (very Lou Grant, if I may say so).

Busy offices.

Though it whittles down to a core few by the end, most of this movie is an ensemble piece with a flow-chart-needing huge cast. There are a dozen or so various newspapermen and editors who have speaking roles at various points in the movie, each passing on important tidbits of information, though hardly any of them stand out enough to warrant special notice in this review. The exception is Bill McGuire, one of the desk editors and the science advisor.

Bill, who looks like the fat guy down at the train station who takes my tickets.

Ten days ago the Americans detonated a massive nuclear bomb in a test "25 miles from the South Pole". Since then, despite denials from the Americans, strange things have been happening to the weather. Floods and funky winds sweep Europe, jets are grounded by magnetic compass problems, radio and television are having problems, monsoons demolish Indonesia, and Spitzbergen reports the largest earthquakes ever recorded. In the beginning a lot of this goes unnoticed or underreported, but as the movie goes on more attention is paid to the changes in the global weather.

Pointing out on a map one of many places where things are going to hell.

Let's meet our film's hero, Daily Express reporter Peter Stenning. Peter is played by 29-year old Edward Judd, a semi-popular television and stage star who slid off the muddy road into lousy b-level science fiction movies before retiring to hang out with Michael Caine. Peter is, in a word, a drunk and everyone knows it. Instead of being portraying as a hackneyed, even comical, alcoholic, Peter comes across as a truly miserable human being, tortured by his addictions and the effects they have on his career and personal life, let alone his health. It's Peter's slow and painful transformation from lush to determined newsman that is the underlying dynamic of this movie.

Peter. He, like nearly everyone else in this movie, smokes like a fiend (he's also mastered the oh-so-cool Sinatra drooping cigarette look).

As the film opens, Peter, soused again and spitting arrogant venom at anyone who gives him static, is soundly thumped by his irate and too-busy boss. "This paper wasn't built to carry passengers", Peter is told, the threat hanging in the air over him. To redeem himself, Peter is given a science desk story about recent abnormal sunspot activity. They suspect a link between the sunspots and the nuke test ten days ago and Peter is sent off to get some information.

Peter smacked down by his boss.

Peter goes down to the "Met Center" (where they do meteorology stuff, I presume) to see the secretary of the Science Minister to get a quote. The secretary is an old reporter friend but he's still not talking, so Peter has to "gatecrash to get a story". Barging in on the Minister and his staff, Peter fails to get a quote before being tossed out, but does get the impression that something very serious is going on here. On a totally unrelated note, Peter crushes his cigarette out on the Berber rug in front of the Minister's office door with typical 1960s unconcern.

Trying to get a quote, Peter is making friends everywhere he goes.

Also at the Met Center, Peter meets by random chance a temporary worker in the press pool named Jeannie Craig. At first they don't get along (he tells her to "jump back in the pool end and drown"), but since they are the leads, you just know this snarky banter will drift into romantic sweet nothings eventually. Jeannie is played by 27-year old Janet Munro, a petite little girl who looks ten years younger with her baby face and Funicello hair. A former Disney child star breaking genre expectations, Munro began her career by starring in the campy classic The Crawling Eye in 1958 before falling under the evil spell of Walt Disney (a typecasting wasteland which she deeply regretted later in life). [Editor Pam: She was cute as a girl disguised as a boy in Swiss Family Robinson, although Disney was too prissy to explain just why the pirate captain was so eager to capture him/her.)


Those collective-loving Commie-bastards the Russians now announce their own test of a bigass nuclear bomb (20% bigger than the imperialist Americans' test!) a week or so ago in Siberia. The newspapermen at the Daily Express figure out that both superpowers tested their bombs on nearly the exact same hour and day (Tuesday morning at 8am), and, realizing how important this is, they send out special daily. "The biggest jolt the earth has taken since the Ice Age", says the head editor with dubious scientific justification. We also get a few minutes of documentary-style footage behind the scenes down on the printing floor in the basement where the papers are printed on big rollers.

Printing press (soon to be replaced by the internet server...).

Peter and Bill go to a pub to talk things over after work. Peter is spiraling, he was late to work again because of his drinking (though he claims his "watch stopped"). Bill is nearing end of his sympathy, tired of having to cover for him, and even write his bylines for him. They talk honestly about why he's taken so hard to the bottle, which is mostly because his wife left him and remarried rich and now his kid doesn't remember him half the time. This is a great character scene and the dialogue is well-written, Peter's tormented soul exposed through some really painful admissions.

Peter and Bill talk in the pub.

The next day there's an anti-nuke rally downtown that Peter goes to see. It's intercepted by some rabble rousers, though everyone stops and stares as a sudden total eclipse of the moon darkens the city. This eclipse is "not on schedule", coming over a week before it was supposed to (clues to the puzzle). The paper's editor wants the story first, he's sure that something very strange is going on.

Stock footage of a sunspot flareup, which isn't exactly an eclipse but it does look cool.

Supersmartyhead scientist Sir John Kelly shows up on TV to offer the voice of reason to the masses. He explains away the early eclipse as nothing more than statistical error, and then spins and whitewashes away everyone's collective fears about all the freaky weather changes. He finishes by saying with confidence that any suggestion of a coincidence with the nuclear bomb tests is "nonsense". With that, he signs off, content in the knowledge that only half the world believes him.

Talking head on TV.

Continuing the trend of unusual weather, a brutal unseasonal heat wave bakes Britain in an oven (Brighton at 95!). People start to worry and murmur about something terrible going on, though they mostly carry on like normal. But it's not all bad as pretty girls in bikinis stroll along the London streets like it's Southern California (though the men all wear suits and coats still).

Babes saunter down the street, surely causing the upper crust elite to adjust their monocles and twirl their mustaches with a renewed vigor not seen since Victoria was queen.

Off now to a carnival where Peter is taking his young son out on rides during his visitation period. They are having strained fun, staying late to piss off his ex-wife, and when it ends it clearly hurts him like hell. Peter's going to be late for work again, and drunk soon you can just tell, he just doesn't have any other way of coping with his internal struggles but the bottle and blustering machismo (men didn't go to therapy in 1961, unless they were French).

With his son Mike in the Ghost Ride.

After leaving the carnival, a rather sloshed (but infinitely happier) Peter is wandering around and sees Jeannie out sunbathing in a park on her day off. Approaching the rather modestly-attired Jeannie, he starts to smooth-talk her with glib one-liners and flirty innuendos. Jeannie is game for some back-and-forth and it's quite a cute scene in the end. Janet Munro died young, and was haunted by terrible demons all her adult life, but you can't help but wonder if she would have turned into an A-list actress had things gone differently for her.

Jeannie sunbathing.

Their chitchat is cut short by the sudden appearance of a dense fog. We go out to the banks of the Thames, where we see this weird fog roll in over the city. London is known for thick fog banks, but this one seems to defy conventional wisdom by appearing when it does, and staying for a very long time. In the choking, blinding, dampness, Londoners wander around, feeling through the fog and asking direction from anyone who seems like they know where they are. People are generally calm, though, it's England and the sun doesn't shine a lot.

Lost in the fog.

While wandering through the fog, Peter and Jeannie find a lost little girl and take her to the police (this little well-shot character moment shows to a smitten Jeannie that Peter is awesome with kids, which is a requirement in a good man, I hear). They ride a ways on a typical London double decker bus (driven by what appears to be the only black man in all of England) and they flirt outrageously with each other all the way. The fog is murder, no one can see anything, the underground subway is closed as fog is coming down tunnels, and eventually they leave the creeping bus and walk the rest of the way. Peter takes Jeannie up to her flat, treating us to a gorgeous tracking shot from the street, up the side of the brownstone building, and into her window. He uses her phone to call his office, and before leaving ticks her off by asking about what she knows about weather problems.

In her flat, these two will end up lovers, of course.

This so-called "heat mist" fog is a weather anomaly, rising four stories high and covering a third of the globe by the time it dissipates. Heathrow is closed, the roads are ordered cleared, and reports come in from all over Europe about the same problems. The newspaper editors are worried a bit, and the head editor wants his paper out an hour early as he thinks this is a growing story of importance. Bill, who is the resident science guy on staff, suggests that the twin bomb tests "wiggled" the earth, upsetting global weather patterns. To the movie's credit, this Big Story is usually just hovering in the background, floating around peripherals of scenes as they concentrate on the meaty, talky stuff (love story, redemption story, regret and loss, friendship and responsibility). I can't say enough how much this movie impressed me with its pacing and script and general lack of b-movie cheesiness.

The other writers listen as Bill tells his frightening story.

Peter is sent to a helicopter rental place to go up and take photos of the fog from the sky. The mix of matte paintings, miniature work, and dry-ice special effects are not exactly convincing, but they are quick enough that we don't notice them that much. There really are very few special effects in this movie, despite the salacious title, and the reliance on character development and dialogue make this an enjoyable b-movie to watch.

Helicopter view.

Later, Peter goes to see Jeannie at her flat. She's getting cleaned up as he calls up from the lobby and in an extremely rare scene in a science fiction movie from the early 1960s, Janet Munro appears topless. They are not exploitive shots, but just in the course of her washing her hair and getting dressed, and no attempt is made to focus or linger on her bare breasts or her back. The American version of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, of course, deleted these scenes to keep the pure virgin eyeballs of our youth from seeing boobies before they were married.

Jeannie's boobies! Well, yes, not technically, but my screen capture program is too damn slow so you'll just have to imagine you see her boobies, ok?

It's late and she offers him a platonic room for the night, though clearly enjoying having a handsome man in her place. Peter and she talk lightly as she gets ready, and he declines a drink (the first instance where his nagging worry about the future overrides his love of the whiskey) and plays with her underwear!

Granny panties...hmmm...

They eventually end up in her room late at night talking about life and such. Jeannie is sultry beyond words, naked under the thin top sheet that clings to her sweaty chest like sexy saran wrap. "I like you sober", she tells him when he admits to drinking way too much. They end up making love, to no one's surprise, he pouring on the Bogart-esque charm and wisely letting down his arrogant shield, and she finally giving in to her own carnal desires and regrettable soft spot for emotionally damaged men.

Seriously, Janet Munro is hot.

A cyclone rages over London that night! The morning brings massive destruction and death, but with characteristic British resolve, it also brings a quick clean up and stiff-upper-lip recovery. A "The End is Nigh" street preacher gathers a group on a corner, though most Londoners just go about their daily routine, if Goering couldn't defeat them, a wind storm surely won't. But Mother Nature is vastly stronger than the largest waves of Heinkels and Junkers and the following "heat wave of the century" drives temperatures up near 100 degrees across England.

Cyclone over London (that fuzzy thing in the center).

Peter goes to his office as the sweat flows and the electric fans fight helplessly against the heat. Tempers are frazzled, Bill gets pissed at Peter about not doing his assignment to be off with Jeannie and they fight it out with harsh words and slammed doors. Peter goes to the head editor and offers his resignation. The editor talks Peter out of it, but also tells him he was great before he started drinking and he shouldn't alienate the few friends he has left (I have several people I need to tell this to in real life, sadly...).

Peter and the head editor talk, he's not in the mood for this petty foolishness.

I should remind you that Jeannie works on the telephone switchboard at the Met Center. Ok, put away your Blackberries and close your facebook page for a second. Back in the 1960s, when you called a business, like the Met Center, you got a switchboard manned by actual people who manually switched your call to where you wanted it to go by moving around wires. These operators could, if they were so inclined, also listen in surreptitiously on calls being made through their switchboard.

Switchboard thingie.

And it's by innocently eavesdropping that Jeannie finds out something desperately important. Her conscience gets the better of her and she decides to confide in Peter what she knows (against her better judgment, clouded by love and fear). She takes him out to a carnival and up on a ferris wheel where they can talk without being overheard. "People at the top are cleverer than we are" she says after explaining, though she doesn't believe her own words. She makes Peter promise to keep her secret, but he doesn't actually say it out loud.

Talking at the carnival.

Now, it's way too much to expect Peter to sit on what is surely the single most important story of the entire history of the planet earth, so it's no surprise that he beelines to his editors with Jeannie's horrifying story. All the writers and editors crowd into the pressroom to talk over how they will get the news out. The crux of Jeannie's story is that the scientists at the MoD say that "the nutation of the earth has changed"! Nutation, google tells me, is a slight irregular motion in the axis of rotation of a largely axially symmetric object, such as a planet" (google further informs me that Tom Jones reportedly insured his chest hair for $7 million). There's an 11 degree variation in the tilt of the earth, east to west, caused most likely by the dual nuclear blasts at opposite poles. [Editor Pam: This seems really unlikely, or should I say impossible, but if you accept that the atomic bomb created a host of giant monsters whose only desire is to stomp Tokyo, I suppose you have to accept this.] This will cause massive changes in the world's climate zones and civilization-altering rises and falls in temperatures. "Stupid crazy irresponsible bastards", says Bill glumly, and we agree.

Showing on a globe what's happening.

The morning headlines scream, "World tips over!" and "Equator moved!". As soon as the newspapers hit the stands in the morning, the world goes nuts with the suddenly realization that things are going to be drastically and painfully difficult for a long time. We might all want to move to Brazil, it's going to be a lot cooler there soon because the planet has wobbled so much.

Headlines freeze the blood of millions.

The firestorm of public outcry matches the furor behind closed doors at the MoD and Whitehall. Guilty of giving away State Secrets, Jeannie is taken into "preventative custody" by the government. Peter comes to see her as she's being packed up, hoping to apologize for the trouble she's in (that he caused). Jeannie is understandably less than willing to listen to him right now and they leave on bad terms. But, again, to be fair, not only would Newspaperman Peter be obligated to break the story of the world dying, but Human Being Peter could also hardly be blamed for trying to warn the planet about its impending doom. Jeannie needs to calm it down. Peter sobers up now as his girlfriend is taken away, driven to his senses by lost love and fear for the future.

Jeannie is pissed.

The Prime Minster speaks from 10 Downing Street on the television and radio. He talks down everyone's fears with a generous whitewash of spin and outright deception, but facts speak for themselves. He says that the world's scientists will find solutions because they are so much smarter than you are. The PM also denies (flippantly blows it off, actually) any insinuation that the nuke tests were the cause of the weather problems, though he does then say that the four major powers have decide to end nuclear weapons production and testing! His speech ends with a flat joke about the English weather.

A bunch of beatniks at a peace rally are not impressed by the speech.

The heat wave causes fires to erupt in bone-dry London. We get a length of stock footage of the Blitz from 1941 (this bombing campaign, which killed 40,000, was recent history to most of the people in English cinemas in 1961). They blend, Forrest Gump-like, in newly shot footage with the old library films, going to great lengths to match clothes and backgrounds and really it's excellently done. I'm surprised you don't see this sort of thing more in b-movies, though I guess it takes some effort to do well.

Fires rage (stock footage).

We also have more stock footage of forest fires blazing and farm animals dying from thirst and exposure (real dying animals seen, call PETA!). Nottingham Forrest is ablaze, as are some parks in London, and the water reservoirs are empty with heat evaporation. Daytime temperatures across England hit 145 degrees (!), and 130s and 40s throughout struggling Europe. Water is severely rationed, with jail time for overusers, and all the worlds' powers are in crisis mode. Suddenly, getting a drink becomes the single most important thing for most people (a bottle of warm Cocoa Cola is two shillings!).

London is aflame and that sells papers, baby!

Jeannie is released from jail, it was pointless to hold her with all that is happening (I suspect that a lot of prisoners were released the same way). She's given a job with Daily Express by a kind-hearted Bill, following through on a promise he made to Peter when she was arrested months ago. Jeannie's happy to be given a chance to work and Bill shows her around, she's working in newspaper's research library department (my dream job!). Bill also tries to get Peter and her back together, but she's reluctant.

Jeannie back at work.

Peter now breaks the alarming story that "community washing centers" are being set up in city parks by the Army and government. A bit of brainstorming determines this means end of private running water, the distribution of all drinking water will soon be controlled by the authorities. This will cause massive civil disruption, of course, despite the fact that it's certainly for the best in the long run if the death toll is to be kept to a minimum. The newspaper, however, runs a sensational headline and stirs up more public outcry. This is Peter's grand return to the page-one writing business, by the way, as he's allowed to run with the story he broke. His redemption is nearly complete and his hair looks better by the day.

Peter tells his eyewitness account.

Foreign correspondent Clive calls from Moscow with more distressing news. Top Russian scientists have announced that there's a shift in the planet's orbit and it's moving towards sun! They claim that "western scientists" have known this for a while but have been working on it before telling the public. Some rough celestial mechanics show that four months is about all they have before they "fall into the sun". The newspaper goes out with the news, but stays positive, perhaps finally realizing that whipping people into a frenzy is often counterproductive. Behind the scenes, however, they are bummed out. "Cancel your life insurance and have an orgy." Peter suggests, and I raise my hand in agreement.

The newspapermen discuss the worst case scenario.

Peter goes to see Jeannie in the library and they have a tense and awkward reunion in the sweltering hallway. "I need you." Peter admits finally, "I need you, too." Jeannie replies immediately and they embrace. It's odd that they use the "L" word so early ("love" you philistines, not "lesbian") considering the relatively short time they actually were together before the schnike hit the proverbial fan. They walked along in the fog for an hour or so, they had one night of sticky sex together in a moment of mutual weakness, and they talked once or twice on the phone. I'd think there was more off-screen, but if you watch the movie, you'll see that it pretty much plays out in "real time" up until the bad news gets out (and Jeannie's in jail by then). Just seems like they rushed into that, but then again, under the circumstances, I'd probably jump at a shot at romance and love if Western Civilization was crumbling around me.

Peter and Jeannie reconnect.

And the world is indeed coming to an end. We go outside to a line of straggly Londoners queuing up for water, ration cards in their sweaty hands. The once mighty Thames is just a muddy trickle through a wide empty watercourse, and in places like Hyde Park and Battery Park there are government washing stations. Riots are common, fights in line break out constantly, and a healthy black market has sprung up in contraband water (and liqueur and soda, anything potable). A Typhus outbreak ravages North London and heat deaths from sun radiation are common.

The river has run dry.

Peter goes to see his son one last time before the boy and his mother go into the country where it might be safer. It's a painfully difficult moment to watch as son wants dad to come along but he has to stay and report the news. Her new husband, who Peter has always despised, suddenly seems less an enemy and more a fellow sufferer and the two men shake hands and wish each other well (a mature conversation, typical of the excellent top-shelf writing throughout this movie).

Peter's ex-wife (he's traded up nicely, I'd say).

An emergency public message by the prime minister comes out. Desperate times have pulled humanity together finally, and all the world's powers agree that "drastic conditions demand drastic measures". All existing thermonuclear bombs will be transported to western Siberia and placed in intervals "100 miles apart". The hope is that this combined blast at a scientifically determined point will shift the planet's orbit back away from the sun. No one has any firm idea if it will work but they have to try something. The moment of decision will happen in just a few days.

Listening to the radio in Trafalgar Square.

Peter goes to see Jeannie down at her apartment building. He's reformed now, sober and dedicated, and wants nothing more than to see the woman he loves again before the end. He drives down to see her, but runs into a swarm of teenagers rioting in the streets. The kids, driven mad by thirst and hopelessness and pop music, decide they might as well party like it's the end of the world (which, it is). They overturn his car and steal his water, and go off dancing and carousing and having unprotected sex and listening to Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco and wearing black eye shadow and canvas skater shoes and skinny jeans and generally causing old folks (the ones who haven't died from radiation exposure, that is) to roll their eyes and wistfully reminisce about flappers and prohibition and The Great War.

I hate emo kids, especially when they tip my car over.

Peter saves Jeannie (and pushes a kid down an open elevator shaft, not for nothing) and they barricade the door against any more shaggy-haired intruders looking for a good time and a player to listen to their My Chemical Romance records on. They talk about life and insanity all that that, and they make love one last time (myself, I'm not sure I'd not be out there in the streets with the kids, at least they are enjoying their last days).

One last time together before the end.

The day of the bombs arrives, greeted by the last gasping desperate hope of the struggling remnants of humanity. The sun is so very close and radiation is pouring down upon the earth (a stark reddish-orange filter over the lens makes these final scenes jump out at the viewer). In the parched and ruined wreckage of London, Peter and Jeannie go down to the newspaper office and meet Bill in the lobby. They end up going down to a local pub to wait it out.

Orange filter.

We hear the somber countdown over the radio, as we see tracking shots of various parts of the desiccated world. Zero passes with just some slight tremors in London, and everyone still alive waits out the results. Down in the basement printing room, what's left of the newspaper's staff is awaiting either the end of the world or the beginning of a new era. They have two headlines pre-printed, "World Doomed" and "World Saved", hedging their bets, Dewey-like, until the very last minute. Peter wanders back to his office alone to write a final story and wax in a voiceover about man's folly of messing with mother nature and stuff.

Alternate headline.

The movie ends here, quite ambiguously with a pan-away and the closing credits. At the last possible moment we hear church bells ringing a (possible) melody of hope, just like the end of War of the Worlds or even Mothra. It has been said that the studio demanded that the director put these bells into the final scene, as to not leave the audience forever wondering if the world ended up a charcoal briquette or not. Sell out, I say! Still, awesome movie, go watch it.

The End.

Written in January 2009 by Nathan Decker.

comments powered by Disqus

Go ahead, steal anything you want from this page,
that's between you and the vengeful wrath of your personal god...