The Day the Earth Caught Fire (UK 1961)

The Day the Earth Caught Fire_header

Sweaty journalists finds himself searching for the truth

I hadn’t seen this classic UK SF film for over 40 years and it actually seems more modern now than during the 1970s when the Cold War had cooled a little. Now, of course, the Earth is catching fire because of global warming and the film’s presentation of authorities as stupid and patronising still holds true as political leaders deny we’re destroying ourselves and the UK government manages to produce, this week, a budget that doesn’t even mention the biggest threat of our time.

In the film nuclear bomb tests, which were commonplace in the late 1950s, have shifted the Earth’s axis and orbit with catastrophic results. It is a slow burner as the protagonist, Edward Judd’s journalist Peter Stenning, slowly discovers the truth. His developing relationship with Janet Munro’s Jeannie is almost equally important. Scriptwriters Val Guest (who directed) and Wolf Mankiewicz parallel Stenning’s alcoholic cynicism with the existential threat of the dying planet. By doing this the abstract idea of extinction can be more readily understood: it matters little whether he loves life or not if we are all doomed. Munro’s character, though politically naive, is wise to Stenning’s initially predatory motives and she shows herself entirely able to look after herself. As I.Q. Hunter says, in an excellent piece in British ScienceFiction(which he also edited), her character is far less misogynist than many in the New Wave films of the time.

The version of the film shown on Talking Pictures is the recently remastered print that looks great though why the channel insists on blurring out nudity eludes me; the showing I saw was after the watershed. It’s the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety prevalent to the time anyway and I remember seeing Mai Zetterling’s bum in Only Two Can Play(UK, 1962) as a teenager on afternoon TV; that too was blurred by Talking Pictures. Clearly it’s a channel aimed at older folk but are we really so prudish? There’s more flesh observable in an ad for a kinky dating service that runs on the channel.

The widescreen compositions work very well in the busy-ness of the newspaper office, giving more than a whiff of authenticity which is enhanced by the casting of Arthur Christiansen, an ex editor of the Daily Express, as the newspaper’s editor. Widescreen also heightens the impact of the apocalyptic montages of London and other parts of the world. As Hunter points out, authenticity informed Guest’s direction in contrast to the staple creature-features that were popular at the time. The CND demonstration in Trafalgar Square features Judd in the crowd and found footage of disasters are interpolated with skill. The only crummy special effect, acknowledged as such by the supervisor Les Bowie, was the fog flowing up the Thames; they didn’t have the budget to reshoot. And the focus on Jeannie’s and Peter’s developing relationship also serves to give a human dimension to the very real threat of nuclear Armageddon. The film’s in black and white except for a sepia tint for the framing of the narrative which is very effective in giving an uncanny atmosphere to the images.

The only false note for me was the portrayal of young people whose ‘beatnik’ music seems to have unhinged them. Though Hunter makes a good case for the film showing that their reaction is reasonable in comparison to the older generation who draw upon the ‘Blitz spirit’ to deal with the events in a low key manner. This spirit is very much part of English (British?) myth making and many Brexiteers refer to it as evidence we can deal with the disastrous economic and social consequences of leaving the EU. No doubt the spirit was very real during the War but why self-harm ourselves so it needs to be used again? Indeed, why self-harm ourselves by continuing the ruinous policies that are destroying the planet?

11 comments

  1. keith1942

    I noted Nick’s point about ‘blurring out’ of nudity; an earlier example blurred out a young girl being bathed by her mother! I think this is a technique that needs comment direct to to the channel.
    Nick also remarks on ‘misogynistic’ representations of women in ‘New Wave’ films of the time. I assume this is the British variety. “Misogyny is the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women or girls.” I think the problem with some usages of the term is that this is about representations. The films could be said to treat woman prejudicially but I think it is more that they objectify women; and that seems to me a rather different concept and treatment.

  2. Nick Lacey

    Hi Keith. I did tweet Talking Pictures about this who, unlike when I tweeted asking for ‘The Lusty Men’, didn’t reply. The broad reference to misogynistic ‘new wave’ films (yes, the British variety but I think the charge sticks to the French one too) isn’t simply about their objectification (which is itself misogynistic) but their role in the narratives (obviously not all of them). This reflected the mores of the time and it was refreshing to see Janet Munro’s character as more than a passive recipient of male attentions.

  3. keith1942

    I checked out I. Q. Hunter. ‘the hapless, misogynistically portrayed women in the New Wave films, of whom a surprising number fall into one of two grim stereotypes: older women who need sex and younger women who need abortions.’ This comment reads like he has read the plot-lines rather than seen the films.
    However, Nick appears to agree with him so I would be interested to read examples from both British and French New Wave films of misogyny.

  4. keith1942

    In fact Nick has not offered any examples. I did post on ‘Talking Pictures’ a commentary with references to British New Wave and to Nouvelle Vague films that I think demonstrate the opposite view.
    Now Ian Hunter responded:
    “You may be right. I was over- simplistic when I wrote the chapter 20 years ago!”
    It is good that Ian Hunter took the time to respond. And I did think that overall his article was a very good discussion of the film and that the book of essays was well worth reading.

  5. nicklacey

    Of course it depends how you define misogyny; does the ‘hatred’ need to be explicit? The problem with the British new wave (and of course it’s a continuing problem) was the lack of women’s voices in the production of the film. Even though the women might be represented as having agency (Julie Christie in ‘Billy Liar’) the films were usually male focused (‘Taste of Honey’ written by Shelagh Delaney being an exception). To be honest I haven’t seen these films for a while and Hunter’s view chimed with my impression. If I see the films again I too may change my mind.

  6. keith1942

    Nick’s comments do not really stand up.
    The few women in key production is sexual discrimination; describing it as ‘misogyny’ devalues language.
    And if Nick shares the view stated by Ian Hunter in his comment then presumably Nick’s own comments were ‘over-simplistic’.
    And ‘A Taste of Honey’ is not an exception though unusual: Tony Richardson worked with Marguerite Duras on two films; ‘Mademoiselle’ and ‘The Sailor From the Sea’.
    Nick does not add any comments regarding the Nouvelle Vague but Marguerite Duras was an important influence there.

    • nicklacey

      Hi Keith,
      Sorry I’ve failed to make myself clear. Sure the lack of women’s voices is discrimination and it is this that leads to skewed representations that place men centrally and reduce women to limited roles such as ‘mother’ and ‘vamp’. It is these limited representations I think qualify as misogyny (but I’m not going to get into an argument over semantics). I won’t know if my comments were ‘overly-simplistic’ unless I see the films again.

      The French ‘new wave’ was also overwhelmingly male (like all ’60s new waves) so my comments apply there too. In addition to Duras, for example, we can see in the films of Agnès Varda and Věra Chytilová qualitatively different representations of gender.

  7. keith1942

    You cannot avoid ‘semantics’; for example, on what basis do ‘skewed representations’ count as misogyny?
    Nick states he has not seen the films for a long time and there is a lack of detail in his comments. If he is not clear on the films he should not label them with a loaded term like ‘misogyny’.
    He refers to ‘limited roles’, i.e. ‘mother’ and vamp’. There are mothers in both sets of New Wave films but it is how motherhood is represented that matters. Rachel Roberts plays a mother in two of the British films, and both are complex representations. As for ‘vamp’, which of the British or French films includes a ‘vamp. Has he watched Godard’s ‘Vivre Sa Vie’ (1962)?
    It would be interesting to critically discuss how the New Wave films handle gender: equally how they handle class, which is another breakthrough for the period. But that needs to be with references to the actual detail of the films.

  8. nicklacey

    Semantics can be avoided if you don’t want to argue. I think I’ve made my point clear; readers will have their own opinions. Cheers.

  9. keith1942

    This is not just a case of ‘semantics’ or ‘argument’. Claiming a body of films are ‘misogynist’ is a serious critical comment. Yet I cannot see any specific reference in Nick’s comments to any of the films included in either the British New Wave or the Nouvelle Vague. I did this for both in the post on ‘Talking Pictures’.
    I do not think unsubstantiated criticisms or generalisations of individual films or a cycle of films are really acceptable.
    Ian Hunter, who was the primary quote in the original post, had the grace to accept that his comment needed reviewing. I am disanointed that Nick fails to follow his example.

    • nicklacey

      I quote from my reply on 1 December:
      “To be honest I haven’t seen these films for a while and Hunter’s view chimed with my impression. If I see the films again I too may change my mind.”

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