Directed by Val Guest
Written by Wolf Mankowitz, Val Guest
Starring Janet Monro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd, Arthur Christiansen
The British always did downbeat science fiction well, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a minor classic in the genre.
It starts out with an abandoned London, where reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) staggers sweaty in the heat. He goes to his office, so hot the typewriter platen* is melting. He then starts to dictate the story.
It’s three months earlier. The newspaper is humming and Bill McGuire (Leo McKern**) is covering for Peter’s absence due to his personal problems. But things are going wrong. There are sunspot and seismic activity that seem to be connected with a nuclear test a few days before. And that’s just the beginning: a solar eclipse happens ten days early and a massive heat wave envelops Britain. And more and more weather anomalies occur. Eventually the news gets out: The explosions have changed the tilt of the Earth – for a start.
The movie is reminiscent of films of the 30s: rapid and witty dialog (especially from McKern). Another nice touch is that the newspaper scenes were shot at an actual newspaper, and the editor of the real Express newspaper (Arthur Christiansen) plays the editor in the film.
The results of the changes are well thought out, and the movie does not have a conventional happy ending, leaving the result ambiguous.
Director/Writer Val Guest got his start in science fiction by writing and directing the movie version of the seminal British SF TV show The Quatermass Experiment.
*For those of you who have never seen a typewriter, the platen was the cylinder, usually made of rubber, where the keys strike the paper.
**Yes, Rumpole. It’s odd seeing him so young. He is one actor who is always a pleasure to watch, and I remember him as the villain in the Beatles’s Help and as Number 2 in The Prisoner.