Blu-ray Review: ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’

It’s amazing how in the space of fifty odd years public taste and opinions have changed. Take for instance the classic Science Fiction thriller The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) – newly restored and released on DVD and Blu-ray to coincide with the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season (running from October through to December). Directed by Val Guest, the filmmaker responsible for Hammer’s groundbreaking 1950s Quatermass films, and starring Edward Judd and Janet Munro, The Day the Earth Caught Fire brings a gritty tabloid realism to a terrifying subject that was very much in the public consciousness at the time of its release.

The detonation of atomic weapons by the world’s two superpowers has a catastrophic effect on Earth’s orbit, putting it on a collision course with the sun. As time runs out newspaper reporter Peter Stenning (Judd) and his girlfriend Jeannie Craig (Munro), are forced to make professional and personal decisions that will ultimately result in devastating consequences for them both. It’s unlikely that The Day the Earth Caught Fire could be made today. For one thing its subject. The release of atomic bombs isn’t anywhere near as worrying in a world where the threat of nuclear war has dissipated considerably. It is also a snapshot of how attitudes have evolved, both socially and in the workplace. Frequently the sexist hierarchy of men over women is blatantly shown with no attempt at subtlety.

Misogyny is seen everywhere, in the newspaper environment where the majority of the action plays out, as well as in the private lives of the film’s main protagonists – women are secretaries, telephonists and sexual objects, there principally to service men. On the other hand the film is an entertaining disaster yarn which follows a not totally unbelievable scenario. The effects may not match those of today’s CGI-laden epics, but it makes up for this by focusing on the human drama and interaction of the characters. The film also acts as an insight into the running of a national newspaper – much of the film was shot in the former Fleet Street offices of Daily Express – and with a Bafta award-winning screenplay by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz, the film imparts an authentic realism which partially helps compensate for its other weaknesses. In an age where humanity has suffered every threat on screen that science and nature can dispense, it’s refreshing to watch something from an era where the ‘advancement’ of technology and its effects still had a terrifying and sobering effect.

Cleaver Patterson | @Cleaver68