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Review by
Kelly Parks

The Day the Earth Caught Fire
THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE 1961
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
Rated: NR

Being a stickler for good science in my sci-fi, I didn't think much of the title. The image that comes to mind is the demise of the planet "Basketball" in Hardware Wars. But let's have an open mind, shall we?

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE was directed by Val Guest (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH) and written by Mr. Guest and Wolf Mankowitz (THE TWO FACES OF DR. JECKYLL).

The opening is very promising, because there's no exposition. You just see a deserted city barely recognizable as London. The ground is parched and cracked. At first there's not even any background music. Finally the silence gives way to a distant, slow drumbeat. Very cool! A car with a loudspeaker on top drives into view. The loudspeaker announces, "The time is now 10:41. Nineteen minutes before countdown."

Countdown to what? What happened here? That's the way to start a movie! You're intrigued in the first ten seconds.

A lone man, sweating profusely from the intense heat, makes his way to a newspaper office. He reaches his desk and sits down at the typewriter, but the rubber has melted and the typewriter is useless. The man is Peter Stenning (Edward Judd: ISLAND OF TERROR, THE VAULT OF HORROR), reporter, and he's determined to file a story. He calls downstairs (it's surprising to discover there are people actually working there, given how abandoned the place looks) and dictates his story to a copy boy. We flash back to three months before.

Peter is one of many reporters on a busy London newspaper. His boss and best friend, Bill Maguire (Leo Mckern: LADYHAWKE, THE OMEN), is discussing the possible connection between a torrential London rainstorm that's apparently unlike anything the city has ever seen, and reports of flooding and odd weather from all over the world. Reports also come in of jets being grounded due to navigation trouble. On an unrelated note (ha!), people are also discussing a recent American nuclear test that for some very difficult to understand reason, took place at the South Pole.

The friendship between Peter and Bill extends to Bill covering for Peter being very late for work. We learn that the reason today was the recently divorced Peter was having his weekly visit with his son. We also learn the usual reason is Peter's getting loaded somewhere. His alcoholism cost him his marriage and may soon cost him his job. In spite of that, Peter is a likable guy, even though he's pretty pushy, almost arrogant. The witty British banter between Bill and Peter is funny in a high brow way. Peter calls a government office to get an official comment on the odd weather and is given the run around by the switchboard girl so he insults her and hangs up. Later, when he goes down to try and talk to a government official he runs into the same girl who recognizes his voice and promptly slaps his face. The angry back and forth makes it clear in movie world that these two are fated to get together.

More odd stories come in, now of large earthquakes. We find out that the Soviets recently tested an even bigger nuke in Siberia than the Americans did in Antarctica. (This was before it was discovered you could do more damage with spread out clusters of small nukes than one big nuke). A quick check of the time zones shows that the two tests took place almost simultaneously. Bill is the first to ask the obvious question. Could the nukes have altered the Earth's axial tilt, thus altering the climate everywhere? Answering that will require a science moment, but not just yet.

In pursuit of the story of the century, Peter also manages to pursue the switchboard girl. Her name is Jeannie (Janet Munro: THE TROLLENBERG TERROR) and she and Peter have a well-played battle of wits that leads to romance. They're trapped in her apartment when the strange weather turns stranger still as a dense fog covers London. It's not really fog, it's a heat mist caused by cold water from the melting poles flowing into the unprecedented warmth England is experiencing. At ground level it's very dense but in the upper level of a double decker bus you're above it! In the background of all this are nuclear protests demanding that nuclear testing be stopped and counter protests with signs like "The bomb is strength, strength is peace." This was before the U.S. and the Soviets signed the test ban treaty, which limited nuclear testing to below ground detonations. In spite of the British Isles rapidly becoming desert islands and the whole world going through similar changes, the government steadfastly denies that anything odd is happening and it certainly had nothing to do with any nuclear explosions. But little by little it becomes clear that more than a shift in the Earth's axis has happened. The fact is Earth is getting closer to the Sun.

Oh, man, it made me feel dirty to say that. Now it's definitely time for a

!!!SCIENCE MOMENT!!!:
I understand the real purpose here is to express the fear people felt about nuclear testing. These bombs were huge and scary and still a relatively new thing. Who knew what the consequences would be? Before the first nuclear weapon was detonated in 1945 there was some real fear that the heat of the explosion would ignite the atmosphere, incinerating all life on Earth. (Now THAT would be The Day the Earth Caught Fire!) But could very large nukes actually change the tilt of Earth's axis or even change Earth's orbit and send our home world spiraling into the sun?

No. Not even close. Not even a little tiny bit. On a human scale a nuclear explosion looks like a huge event of immense power, but from the Earth's point of view it's the tiniest of unnoticeable pinpricks. The Earth is a huge body and the amount of energy it would take to alter its axial tilt in a single shove is more than humanity has ever produced in all of its history put together. If we tried to do it on purpose and detonated all of the 10,000 or so nukes the Russians and the U.S. own all at once, it still wouldn't be enough to nudge a body as massive as Earth. And actually changing Earth's orbit so it was heading for the sun would take many orders of magnitude more energy. That being said I will point out that the movie does a good job of showing the kinds of climate shifts you'd get if an event like this did occur. The writers were much better climatologists than physicists. But if the Earth's axis shifted by 11 degrees as they describe it would be immediately obvious to even amateur astronomers, because constellations from the southern hemisphere would suddenly be visible. There would be no denying it.

In spite of the premise being dead wrong I really enjoyed this movie. The characters are just flawed enough to be likable and they struggle valiantly to deal with the steady disintegration of civilization. The DVD includes the original theatrical trailer as well as TV and radio ads for the movie. It also includes a special effect not seen since the original theatrical run. The beginning (before the flashback) and end of this black and white movie are shown through an orange filter, adding to the impression of London turned into a hellish inferno. The ending was considered controversial and is unexpected, but I think it's perfect. I give THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE four shriek girls.


This review copyright 2002 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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