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The year was 1961; the Cold War was in full swing and the development of bigger and more destructive nuclear weapons was a priority for both America and the Soviet Union. The underlying fears for the future of the world manifested itself in various ways and film was the perfect medium with which to highlight the possible fate that was in store for mankind, and Val Guest's ambitious drama, The Day the Earth Caught Fire presented such a look at the end of the world in a manner not seen in a British feature film.

Source: British Film Institute - not an actual screen-grab, but the quality's fucking great!

A major catastrophe has happened – America and Russia have simultaneously detonated nuclear bombs at either sides of the planet and Earth has been knocked off its axis and is headed towards extinction. As the temperature rises, jaded journalist Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), cynical editor Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) and the rest of the staff at the offices of the Daily Express seek to expose exactly what is going on before Earth faces almost certain doom...

“Torn from today's headlines!” - This sort of melodramatic way of grabbing the attention of cinema-goers was popular in the fifties, where any vaguely social issue could be hyped to hysterical proportions. In the case of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, the events covered were not only relevant to global events at the time, but they also gave and eerie foreshadowing of a presenting problem that would emerge decades later; so prophetic is this film that a hyperbolic headline should read “torn from tomorrow's headlines!”

The premise of the Val Guest's story is not a million miles removed from the sort of thing that Doctor Who would do during the Jon Pertwee/Barry Letts era of the show, presenting an environmental disaster that the human race is responsible for and Leo McKern's classic line, when he realises exactly what has happened to the Earth “those stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards!” is something that Pertwee would have spit out in disgust at either Nicholas Courtney or some guesting civil-servant-type (although the re-filmed version in the trailer, which substitutes the word “bastards” with “bunglers” would have been more appropriate for Doctor Who).

It could be argued that The Day the Earth Caught Fire was the first film to touch upon the now prevalent subject of global warming, even though the reasons given for the events occurring are a more than a ten degree tilt away from the ones said to be causing the real thing now. It's a brave stab at depicted our world as a fragile thing that can be wiped out through the human race's insatiable desire to ravage, plunder and conquer. It's as much a warning about the ultimate direction that the Cold War could have taken, with the need to build bigger and more destructive nuclear weapons. Though Guest had been trying to get his film into production for several years, it was finally made and released in 1961, the year before the world was brought to the brink of nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis – it can only be speculated as to how the film would have been received both critically and commercially had it been released in 1962...

Though the science behind The Day the Earth Caught Fire really doesn't stand up to close scientific examination (even after Val Guest had penned the screenplay, a scientifically-minded friend of his read it and pointed out the factual inaccuracies), the situation, the performances and and direction are all strong enough to withstand the icy touch of cold, scientific scrutiny.

Despite having an “Introducing...” credit, Edward Judd had been acting for a while before this film; whilst not exactly a young, fresh-faced lead, he fits the cynical, hard-drinking, vaguely sexist writer like the proverbial glove. Perter Stenning is an urbane character, seemingly pre-dating the first cinematic depiction of James Bond by a year, but though Stenning is somewhat the masculine womaniser, unlike Sean Connery's Bond, he wouldn't resort to allowing his fist to connect with a woman in a very “know your place” sort of manner. Some of Stenning's character background and his traits are straight from the cliché folder, including drinking too much and having and ex-wife and a son that he hardly sees. Stenning undergoes a gradual transformation during the course of the film, from cynical, borderline apathy at the start, which turns into genuine concern midway, before his final emergence as staunch commentator on the future of the human race and Judd nails this changing persona of his character most impressively.

Though his part in The Day the Earth Caught Fire brought Judd great acclaim, in later years, director Val Guest disclosed that Judd was very difficult to work with and that the long-term contract he signed with Columbia Pictures was effectively a noose around his neck, with the studio giving up on him and loaning him out to other productions before dropping him. Judd's impressive turn here shows an audience what could have been if Judd hadn't been so hard to work with; the scenes with his on-screen son are wonderful, showing a softer side to his character, but with a steely look of resentment in his eye that is aimed at his ex-wife. It's this film and the “think once, think twice, think bike!” public information film for which Judd will be most remembered.

Janet Munro is great as brassy and sassy secretary Jeannie Craig, offering a great foil for Judd's hard-bitten journalist and the two of them bounce off each other in a manner that (again) brings to mind the American screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. Munro had been under contract with Disney and was finally allowed to be smarter and sexier than she had been under the House of Mouse. Munro is cute and at times has a smouldering sensuality about her that really jumps off the screen during certain scenes – it's a real credit to writers Guest and Mankowitz for not wanting to have the lead female character a boring dimwit and Munro really seizes her chance to show the world what she could do with the material. It's tragic that just over a decade after this film, Munro would be dead at the young age of 38 after suffering a heart attack.

Leo McKern's performance is absolutely rock-solid; as Bill Maguire; he effortlessly portrays a hardbitten newsman who has seen pretty much everything that a jaded journalist can see, barring a catastrophic Earth-ending event, of course. The authenticity of his performance is such that you can almost smell the sweat, booze and stale fags (and Benzedrine, if they gave off a noticeable aroma) that would certainly have been whirling around him in a sensory maelstrom and his largely unflappable attitude keeps the fantastic events of the film grounded in reality.

Another aspect that makes The Day the Earth Caught Fire fascinating to watch is the wonderful array of very recognisable supporting cast members who either already were, or were on their way to being household names in film and television; future Carry On regular Peter Butterworth appears as a sub-editor, along with fellow Carry On star (and supporting cinematic powerhouse) Marianne Stone as the Daily Express' editor's secretary. Model and muse of George Harrison Marks, Pamela Green, has a small role as a nurse. John Barron, who would later appear as CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin features here as one of the sub-editors of the Daily Express – doubtless he was thinking “I didn't get where I am today without recognising the chances of global catastrophe that can come about due to two super-powers simultaneously detonating nuclear bombs!”

Oh, and how could we possibly forget to mention the appearance of a young Michael Caine, who plays a law enforcement officer in charge of a checkpoint? Caine is filmed in medium-to-long-shot and had has about three lines of dialogue, which he delivers in a reasonably RP manner that would serve him well in Zulu a handful of years later.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire received praise for it's authentic depiction of life in the offices of a British newspaper, you can't help shake the fact that some of the rapid-fire dialogue between the characters who inhabit this environment owes more to the screwball films of Cary Grant, specifically His Girl Friday, than they do to the real-life hacks of Fleet Street. There's no denying that what Val Guest and Wolf Mankowitz concocted between them on the page is clever, witty and entertaining stuff, but the viewer is conscious that it comes more from the pen of a writer than it does from the mouth of a journalist. This smart, snappy newspaper-speak would be used to great effect over a decade later when Tom Mankiewicz imbued the inhabitants of the Daily Planet with it  in his Richard Donner Superman scripts.

""Things are goingto be rough - we've run out of bog paper and we only have a copy of the Express.  I feel sorry for the shit..." Source: British Film Institute - not an actual screen-grab, but the quality's fucking great!

It's nothing short of remarkable that the Daily Express allowed the film-makers to depict life within their offices – the incredible attention to detail in terms of production design (though the real offices couldn't be used for obvious reasons, the studio-based replica was apparently identical down to the most minute detail. You would certainly not get any newspapers allowing a film company to do that these days; the people at the Daily Express must have been either terrible sure of themselves, or they had a lengthy list of what could or couldn't be shown on screen. Casting real-life former Daily Express editor Arthur Christiansen as the fictional one in this film also probably helped smooth the path of negotiations. To his credit, Christiansen turns in a fairly good performance (particularly when you consider that he was certainly not an actor) and his charisma helps to solidify the premise that what you are seeing within this newspaper office is authentic.

Around this time of this film, the only other depictions of the workings of a British newspaper could be found in some of the programmers or quota-quickies that played as the lower half of a double-bill; the likes of Butchers Film Distributors had films like Impact (which sees Conrad Philips as a reporter who gets framed) and The Black Rider saw Jimmy Hanley as an investigative local reporter who butts heads with his irascible-but-with-a-heart-of-gold editor, Leslie Dwyer. The Day the Earth Caught Fire came between these two examples and blows them both away by sheer attention to detail. By the way, much like Butcher's output, this film has a Canadian-born, mid-Atlantic accented actor in here to beef up the American appeal, although the thesp in question here is Bernard Braden, who also a television journalist, fronting shows like On The Braden Beat, which came about the year after his appearance here.

The use of the Daily Express in this film seems to come at a price; The Day the Earth Caught Fire seems to portray Fleet Street as an unimpeachable source of journalism, the primary place where the general public get their news, with radio and television only being mentioned in passing. With newspapers becoming increasingly outdated in the 21st century, it would be difficult to impress just how central to informing the public of yesterday's news printed on dead trees truly was.

Director Guest manages to present London in ways that arguably hadn't been seen before; aside from the time-consuming location footage in some of the capita's most recognisable places, Guest also makes inventive use of large backdrops of places that would be logistically impossible to shoot some scenes in and has actors, props and various other bits and pieces in front of them – it's a little stagey to begin with, but your brain comes to accept it quickly and doesn't detract from the scenes Guest presents some eerie and haunting location shots of deserted central London; near the climax of the film, Stenning makes his way back to the Daily Express offices in order to report the all-important news of how the efforts to undo the catastrophic damage to the planet have gone – seeing Stennings practically staggering through the orange-yellow-tinted empty streets of London is particularly memorable. At least with motor vehicles on the road, Edward Judd wouldn't have had to have been on the lookout for motorcycles...

Guest also makes good use of footage he filmed from a genuine anti-nuke really that took place in Central London and inter-cutting it with footage for the film some time later. Shooting the protest rally in Cinemascope and with the same film stock as the main part of the film really allows the two separate shoots to be blended seamlessly and the result raises the production values considerably and gives the film a sense of scale that would otherwise not have been possible.

In both writing and directing Val Guest (along with his co-writer Wolf Mankowitz) manage to create a plausible look at how society would break down when faced with what could essentially be the end of the world; there are subtle signs at first, such as the increase in price of a bottle of Coca-Cola, but they become more blatant as water is at first rationed, then turned over to the government entirely with communal showers being erected in the major parks in London. This film is effectively a disaster movie, similar to the ones that Irwin Allen would come to specialise in, but minus the heightened levels of melodrama and ludicrous star-parts that would often unhinge the suspension of disbelief in the Allen opuses. The decision to shoot the film in 2.35:1 Cinemascope is in interesting one; whilst it provides a sense of scale needed to depict global catastrophe that was not easily achievable in 1.66:1 (which was the default non-widescreen aspect ratio at the time), you cannot help but think that the drama would have been better served had the film been shot with the more intimate ratio.

Over the years, some of the special effects have been criticised; accentuating the positive, the practical effects, which see cars being turned over and buildings being battered during torrential rain and strong winds are great, along with the depiction of the aftermath of these adverse weather conditions. Sadly, some of the other types of effects let down the rest, particularly during the arrival of the heat-mist on the Thames, which were fairly poor even by early sixties standards, despite having future Superman The Movie effects-man Les Bowie on-board. It's a pity that Derek Meddings was working for Gerry Anderson at the time of filming – if only he could have helped out a wee bit on some of these effects. There are moments when paintings of London cityscapes are more than a little obvious and the panning, along with the curvature of the Cinemascope lens, make the unconvincing nature of these shots even more obvious. Thankfully, the effects that work outweigh the ones that were less successful by a reasonable margin and really don't detract from the drama too much.

The special effects aren't the only things that have dated in The Day the Earth Caught Fire; whilst there are certain sexist notions that can be argued away and are presented in a light-hearted manner, there is an exchange between Stennings and Jeannie that leaves quite a nasty taste in the mouth of a contemporary viewer; Stennings comments that Jeannie's short haircut makes her look like a boy, to which Jeannie replies, “just remember, you're normal!”; this is obviously a reference to homosexuality, which was still a crime at the time of shooting and implies that to be a homosexual is to be abnormal.

The last evening of Earth's existence (we know that the ending is ambiguous, but let's be a little realistic) sees society going la-la, as marauding groups of beatniks squander the precious remaining water supplies in an orgy of hedonistic, violent revelry; this is really the film's most serious misstep, as Guest and Mankowitz obviously felt the need to have an on-screen personification of society going down the crapper and depicting (what was then) the stone in the shoe of the older generation, the beatniks, as an extension of this really sticks in the throat and having Stenning kill one of them by his own hand makes things even worse, as if the film suddenly proclaims that the younger generation will destroy society if we don't do something – this sequence in the film betrays it's decidedly (to use the parlance of the time) “square” roots. The current youth movements can always be held up as the beginning of the end - imagine if this had been made a few years later and had hippies instead of beatniks, or even punks? Speaking of the beatnik scenes, the jazzy music for this questionable mayhem was composed by none other than Monty Norman, who would be immortalised in cinema history less than twelve months later for penning the James Bond theme.

In terms of inspiration, The Day the Earth Caught Fire seemed to be superficially influenced by Robert Wise's masterful anti-nuclear sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, which saw Michael Rennie directly intervening into Earth's seemingly petty nuclear squabbles; Edward D Wood Jr was also influenced by Wise, resulting in Plan 9 From Outer Space, but Wood seemed to garble his message of peace by having his lantern-jawed hero (played by future Clint Eastwood regular, Greg Walcott) decking the interplanetary messenger. Plan 9 ends with genial narrator Criswell saying “may God help us in the future!” and Val Guest ends The Day the Earth Caught Fire with a similar notion that Earth's fate is in the hands of The Almighty, by panning up from the Daily Express offices across the London skyline and over to the cross on the domed roof of St Paul's Cathedral, with church-bells peeling over the soundtrack – Edward Judd might not have been able to twat an extraterrestrial, but he was at least able to kill a beatnik. The only thing that spoils this impressive final shot is that in a deserted London, there is someone clearly visible on scaffolding outside the newspaper's offices – well, if you're going to see the end of the world, it may as well be through clean windows...

Danny Boyle really wasn't the first to depict a deserted London on such a grand scale, you know...

Video


The Day the Earth Caught Fire has been given the treatment it richly deserves by the restoration team at the BFI National Archive; a 4K restoration has taken place using the original elements which were held in the vaults at StudioCanal. There was some damage to parts of the negative, so a second source was used from which to cherry-pick shots when scratches or other damage to the negative couldn't be digitally fixed properly. The results are nothing short of extraordinary; The average bit-rate of 34mbps showcases the crisp monochrome photography, along with a healthy rendering of grain that results in a freshness to this film that hasn't been seen since the original theatrical release. As if all this wasn't enough, the dyes used to tint the opening and closing minutes of the film an orangey-golden colour have faithfully replicated here, presenting them exactly as they appeared originally, rather than the reddish mess that blighted previous television/home presentations.

It's a lovely touch to have the original British Board of Film Censors certificate at the start of this copy of the film, and seeing the name John Trevelyan really adds a nostalgic kick; though it was rated 'X' back in the early sixties, in terms of content there's really nothing over a PG rating these days (it's probably something the extensive extras that pushed the certificate up to a 12.

Audio


The original audio elements were also available, so the resulting mono 48k/16bit soundtrack is about as good as it gets; the dialogue is crisp and clear, with the scenes that depict the freak weather conditions having a surprising amount of punch to them.

Extras


Hot Off the Press - Revisiting the Day the Earth Caught Fire: Made specially for this dynamite Blu-ray edition of a British cinema classic, respected scribes jockey for position to both extol their love and examine the crowning glory of director Val Guest, which some interpret as pre-dating the 70s revenge-by-nature genre by a good decade. Such trivia is swept aside, as this seizes the meat on the bones and delicately seasons to made a wonderfully tasty meal of everyone on Earth being cooked. It’s all very well done, you know.

Noted genre journalist and Tim McInnerny look-a-like Marcus Hearn, rattles of some great anecdotes, including how Guest sent the finished screenplay to highly regarded science correspondent Chapman Pincer for approval. It was returned with the back-handed complement of: "I think the story's riveting, but it's absolute balls"  It goes without saying that Guest was always proud that his own theory was eventually proven - right to some degree - in the face of such negativity from the experts in the field. He also puts forward that there is more to the movie than just the background environmental angle, with a more sinister message about the things being done without public approval, and the subsequent misinformation put out to cover their tracks.: "The people in authority - the ruling classes - are bungling idiots,” the former Darkside scribe asserts, “…who have driven the Earth to the brink of destruction and are lying to us about what they have done". Use of the word “timely” to express approval of this encapsulation could only be branded a cliché!

Then comes that Edwardian dandy of British film criticism, Mr Kim Newman, who is quick to point out that the film has more up its sleeve than just obviously playing to the Ban-the-Bomb crowd, which many reviewers (both from the time and talkback jockeys) are too quick to conclude. "Here this is used just as a background,” notes the impeccably-dressed critic, “…just to say that this is an issue society is concerned with - torn between the wonders of science and technology gone awry - and the sneaking suspicion that they won't always be used for good ends" Fiction Curator of the BFI National Archive, John Oliver, agrees with the sentiment, putting forward the notion that: "…I think that's why the film is quite in tune with audiences today because... our scepticism has increased since 1961"

There is a lot of contextual information that those not around at the time will revel in, giving more depth, appreciation and understanding of the public feeling at the time. Topics include the how The Day the Earth Caught Fire and the Profumo affair occurred simultaneously, the movie almost channelling the distrust building levels of distrust. Pair this up with the widespread unease about Cold War, that scientists were generally thought of as being walking containers of lies and the time was right for a film to play on such fears, helping casual watchers to understand just why it had the impact it did.

Newman provides the hands-down funniest line found here, and it comes when mentioning that the movie was filmed in the actual working offices of a very popular newspaper: "One thing you have to explain to subsequent generations coming in this movie now is: yes, once upon a time, the Daily Express WAS a newspaper, and it had that crusader on the cover for a reason. It is not what it has become now" We wonder what current deputy-editor Michael Booker would make of such a comment…

BFI Archive Curator Jo Botting breaks up the testosterone with a look at the all-too-brief adult career of female lead Janet Munro, the actress given a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer whilst straitjacketed at the House of Mouse. "Munro had just come out of a long contract for Disney,” says Botting of the starlet’s choice to branch out into adult acting, “…and she'd been very successful, but for her, this was about her growing up on screen". She even asked Guest to help her achieve her aim, gamely throwing herself into the very nude scenes which help garner it an “X“ certificate, not to mention the cheesecake photos taken to legendary smut-peddler Harrison Marks to drum up publicity for the release.

On the thorny subject of nudity, Film Essayist Paul A Green throws a light on just why the crazed romping show wasn‘t as spicy or filthy as it might have been in real life, and it‘s exactly as we would all think. "We end up with not with an orgy, but a kind of water-fight,” says Green with a degree of amusement, “…which at first seems kind of absurd - playground antics at the end of the world - it's bizarre, but I think it was also a metaphor for what Guest really couldn't show in 1961, which is orgiastic, sexual behaviour which you might expect when the world is about to end".

If we had to take issue with a statement made during this superb look at a bona-fide classic, then it would be Newman trumpeting that The Day the Earth Caught Fire is alone in depicting everything before it went to the wall, even citing Mad Max as not showing the normal world before it goes to hell. Even at the start of TDTECF, things are already in motion, and Mad Max starts out at about the same point.

Things round off with a brief look at the restoration, where all the elements were found to be in good condition, and fans will love the nitty-gritty in the 4K process to get it looking as good as possible. Given that the original negatives of Star Wars had to be rescued from the brink of fatal deterioration, it’s amazing that a film like The Day the Earth Caught Fire had been treated with care right from the outset.

Well, what have we learned? Lots! The general opinion that although time hasn't been kind to Wolf Mankowitz's dialogue, where the overlapping style was more in the mould of His Girl Friday, but there is still tremendous love and respect for the film. The ultimate fate of the Earth after the credits roll is discussed, with varying opinions to be found, but we wouldn't want to ruin it for you, so Mum's the collective word on that one. It is worth half an hour of anyone’s time, and no matter how much you love the movie, you’ll come away a little more knowledgeable about it. Excellent.

"Think once...think twice...think I shouldn't have been an arsehole, and maybe I wouldn't be doing public information films." Source: British Film Institute - not an actual screen-grab, but the quality's fucking great!

The H Bomb: For lovers of Public Information Films (like us!) this Civil Defence training film is nothing short of catnip, and few of them come as bleak and practical in the most dire of circumstances as this one. Prepare to have your cockles warmed to approximately 7,000 degrees!

Starting out with a brief look at the progressively destructive power of incendiary devices, going from the kind dropped on London during the Blitz right up to the (then) modern hydrogen bomb, all presented with the stern-faced seriousness seen in Plan 9 from Outer Space, but here everything presented so flatly makes it all the more affecting. We barely have time to recover before horrifyingly blunt animation shows the effects and yield of a nuclear detonation, inter-cutting it with shots of housewives going about their work seconds before being disintegrated by the deadly waves. In case you are wondering about the blast-radius and how to survive it, Octopussy was right - be at least 20 mile away when the bomb goes off. Any closer and you’re fucked.

The very British nature of being prepared for the prospect of atomic war is illustrated by the instruction that you should make sure you have at least two days supply of tea for staying indoors whilst avoiding fallout! This advice is clearly inappropriate in such dire circumstances, and probably shouldn’t have been included. If the bomb  had dropped, did they not realise how many would perish leaving their shelters to look for digestive biscuits to go with it?

There is also grim shots of the clearing away of rubble, and everything is presented in a way so as to hide the unrelentingly grim conditions which would be waiting for those left alive after the blast. This same approach was still being taken by the Central Office of Information for the next number of decades. In spite of the soft-soaping of the more disquieting elements, there is some fascinating titbits thrown in, the most interesting being that of nuclear winds, where the public are warned to be on their guard about them, as they were documented to have caused problems for Japanese fishermen 70 miles away from ground-zero in Hiroshima.

If this was colourised and you played it for kids, it's guaranteed to have them urinating in their beds in fear for weeks afterwards.  Throw in one the closing shots being that of an arm sticking out of a pile of rubble and you have something which might make an No-Nukes protester out of the most right-wing of viewer. Top it all off with sparse music akin to the that found in Herschel Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast, and it we guarantee that this will put a crimp into the day of even the most cheerful of optimists.

Operation Hurricane: All the way back from 1952 comes a look at Britain's first step into the world of atomic warfare,
documenting the test-detonation of a 30 megaton device off the coast of Western Australia. From the lads departing from Pompey docks to the explosion itself, everything is covered in aching detail, with all the precision of a Swiss watch, and all the more unsettling for the matter-of-fact presentation.

Everything anyone has ever wanted to know about rigging such tests can be found here, and is pure gold for military enthusiasts, or just anyone with an interest in pivotal moments in British history.  There are many who are oblivious to the tests carried out by their own country, many of whom probably still rail at the French for their similar experimentation with atomic energy. We challenge you to find a more literal and disturbing example of the expression "the balloon going up" as the final checks are being carried out!

This provides a portal to the past, with many people doubtless agog in disbelief at how such tests could even be sanctioned, and the naivety of how they were conducted. To that end, watching it today also comes as shocking to see the guys going to the site checking for radiation levels go to so much trouble to protect their bodies, but aren't even wearing masks, let alone full headgear.

It's been said before, but the anxious countdown before firing is edited and scored in a manner which wouldn't be out of place in an early Connery Bond film. The building music just screams John Barry, and the shots of machinery threatening to go apeshit and wreak havoc as the tension rises is almost identical to the climax of Goldfinger, and when you bear in mind that what you are watching is factual, the mind is blow as effectively as the atomic device itself.

The proceedings are brought to a close with an ending as vague as those found on John Carpenter movies, as a voice intones…

"How shall this newfound power be used - for good or for evil, for peace or war, for progress or destruction?
The answer doesn't lie with Britain alone, but we may have a greater voice in this decision if we have the strength to defend ourselves and deter aggression"




As almost paraphrased at the end The Day The Earth Caught Fire, you honestly expect Criswell to shamble his way onto the screen and say "God help us in the future".  

The Guardian Lecture: What we have here is a real treat, as the urbane Val Guest is interviewed at by David Meeker, keeper-of-films at the NFT, where he is also joined by actress Yolande Donlan (aka Mrs Guest) for an engrossing look back at the eclectic body of work that was his career.

The director himself is whimsical and witty, still able to recall events clearly, with the exception when things turn to the bowdlerised version of American title of his film London Town, which might have been less due to age and more a cerebral defence mechanism when bringing up lesser work. The participants three have a very nice chemistry, each possessed of differing personalities whilst balancing each other out perfectly, to the point where whenever Donlan threatens to overpower the whole thing, but the two Brits quietly pull on the lead and keep it all on an even keel.

When questions from the audience are taken, he’s asked if it was true that he turned down Dr No, and why he subsequently go it so wrong on the 1967 Casino Royale. Composing himself, he ruefully opens his response with: "Alright, what story shall we start with, then?" His responses are utterly fascinating, including the infamous legal problems with Kevin McClory and how he was pivotal in the casting of Sean Connery in the lead, blithely mentioning that there was a guy at Shepperton in a small role that the girls there were going crazy over. Another inquiry has Guest proving his dry wit was still very much about him, when he’s asked about a song from very old film entitled Sheer Up, where the director was credited with writing one of the songs. Such an odd question coming out of the blue for the urbane film-maker, he quietly replies: "Well, that’s fascinating - I hope I'm getting royalties..."

Donlan recalls her early career as a dancing girl, including the point she quit her job at MGM, citing that her career was going nowhere, but where fate intervened and got a break when flown to London to work with Lawrence Olivier, and even knocked around with the legendary tough-guy character actor Michael Balfour - this is was a gal who really knew some incredible people. Is it any wonder she ended up marrying Guest?

It is really depressing that anyone under 40 will be pretty lost when sitting down to watch this, as it speaks not only of an era of films and names they wouldn't have even heard of, but there was a completely different showbiz culture which would come across as utterly alien to them. Things appropriately round off with mention of Guest just starting work on his autobiography, an endeavour he brought to fulfilment in 2001 entitled So You Want To Be In Pictures, published by none other that nice Mr Hearn.

There is so much to enjoy here, almost being a window to a bygone age, but to hear of the times from those who were a part of it is priceless. Be it the filming of  Expresso Bongo and the compromises made from stage to screen, or discussion of the fate of Eva Bartok (ironically, she did a month after this panel) or just the sheer coolness of the great Roy Ward Baker being in the audience, there is something both engrossing and comforting to spend an hour in their company.

Source: British Film Institute - not an actual screen-grab, but the quality's fucking great!

Audio Commentary with Val Guest and Ted Newsom: Originally recorded for the US Anchor Bay DVD release, this finds the director being chauffeured through the movie by the multi-talented Ted Newsom. Things might not sound too promising from the opening statement of: "Hello, I'm Val Guest, and you are about to see a picture I made many moons ago called The Day the Earth Caught Fire.  I haven't seen it in a long time, so I am sure to be in for a few surprises myself", but things quickly improve in this informative and entertaining endeavour.

It‘s a very pleasant trip down memory lane, with Mr McKern at the top of the desirable Guest list, "Leo had the most incredible photographic memory of any actor I have ever worked with.”, the director marvels, “He could come in in the morning... read the whole days' work... just once, and that's it - he knew it! Not only did he know his lines, but he knew everybody else’s, which infuriated some of them!" Guest also demonstrates his amazing powers to forgive, as he puts the “X” certificate slapped onto the movie when he describes John Trevelyan as "...a very nice man"!

We give the nod for the most socially embarrassing incident brought up as the one where the crew caused a right royal problem, “We had our own fog machine in Battersea Park, making the fog over all the people,” Guest recalls,  “...suddenly in the middle of this, we had all the police in the world arrive, because on the other side - opposite Battersea Park - was the Chelsea Flower Show, and the Queen was opening it... and all our fog machines were blowing over her Majesty, so we had the entire force... throw us out immediately." Only the producer stalling the police with slowly turning off the machines allowed Guest to finish the scene, under considerable pressure and duress, "I must say, my unit did a brilliant job of keeping the police talking while we finished it" he chuckles.

If there is one piece which is awkward, it comes during the footage showing the devastation around the world, where numerous pieces of stock footage are placed among material filmed for the movie. OK, even with the remastering process, the "real" stuff is instantly easy to pick out, but Guest insists on going through identifying which is which, to the point where he tramples over Newsom talking repeatedly in order to do so.

As if to cement his almost oracle-like gift of predicting ecological problems which are threatening to beset the world, Guest points out that he was reading in the paper only the day before recording the commentary that California was experiencing water shortages, uncomfortably foreshadowing events in The Day the Earth Caught Fire; Newsom pithily replies that this isn't really anything for America to be alarmed about, as "...I can tell you what will happen if we have a problem - we will steal it from someone else!" Cue giggling from the director at this insightful retort. More technical aspects are also discussed, including the specific problems of shooting in Cinemascope, where character scenes demanded careful use of space between the actors, and the techniques used to achieve this.

Things are brought to a close when Newsom points out that "...We've got through an entire  movie without once mentioning Wolf Mankowitz," which inspires Guest to quickly eulogise his co-writer, before finishing on some rather touching final thoughts on film which he hadn't seen for decades, and one rather special to him. This is time-capsule stuff, and required listening for anyone with an interest in the history of British film-making, delivering both practical and contextual insight into days fast running out of those truly involved in shaping them.

An Interview with Leo McKern: Clocking in at about ten minutes, a clearly elderly McKern reminisces about the movie, touching on subjects such as how a fast-moving director like Guest was a good choice in a business where time is money: "...just as important now - in fact, more important now than it was even then..." and the fall from grace of Edward Judd: "I thought [that] he thought he was well on the way, but apparently he just vanished and went into limbo. The last thing I saw him do was on telly for that commercial for 'watch out, there may be a bike about...' and of course, he overacts like sin!"

There are loads of wonderful memories here, largely about the actors working in on it, all delivered with the rumbling tones and velvet claw unique to McKern, and we wouldn’t dare go blowing them all for you. It's safe to say that this might be the highlight of the extras, if purely to hear the recollections of an old master in his twilight years. It brings a lump to the throat when he recalls co-star Janet Munro, all too aware that time takes all to stand in its path.  "Yes - excellent actress. She's gone now, too, of course." It’s damned sad to point out that McKern joined her a year after recording this interview.

Audio Appreciation by Graeme Hobbs: Originally made for Moviemail UK, this has been freshly recorded for use herein, and set to a series of stills from the film, this is a passionate, insightful look at a British classic. It’s a movie which demands as many perspectives as possible, and Hobbs’ comes as soothing balm after so many ignorant takes found on the internet. Cleanse your critical palate in the space of nine excellent minutes.

The Hole in the Ground: Opening with Also Sprach Zarathustra (or 2001, to some people) this 1962 COI epic is as appropriately serious as a bomb dropped on Nagasaki, informing the public about the work of the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation. Essentially, when there is a nuclear war breaking out, they were always there to let the public spend their last few minutes on Earth in utter terror by telling them so.

The meticulous processes of verifying information about nuclear attack, estimating the areas of fallout, informing the public and working out what’s going to be left afterwards are laid out here, and is a grim yet fascinating look at how life was so damned fragile during the Cold War. It’s still hard to take in that there is an entire generation which is oblivious to the times where two mighty warrior tribes were always close to touching off a blaze which could engulf the world. Here is the reality of the situation for the historically ignorant.

Unlike most other public information films, there is nothing fun, cool or remotely camp bout this particular public information film, and will certainly sober up anyone whom is watching it after a few beers. This is like trying to get a few drunken laughs out of the movie Threads, the realism and seriousness of the piece cutting far too close to the bone to have “fun” with. The organisation spends its time contemplating the destruction of mankind with the grim studiousness of a turkey spending November speculating and monitoring which axe is being sharpened for Thanksgiving.

Death is upon us all, but we suspect many might not be too sad to see that Colchester is pretty much in the middle of the fallout zone. OK, there might be one unintentional giggle to be had as the fate of mankind is being monitored, found when one scientist asks another: “Everything OK?”, to which the reply is, believe it or not: “Yes, I think so.”  Well, apart from the end of civilisation as we know it, just lovely, thanks. We didn’t know that flares were used as the code for nuclear fallout back in the day, and it did teach us that there would have been precious-little which could have been done if the Ruskies had planned a surprise attack on the fifth of November.

It all closes with a voice-over explaining that the UKWMO is there to help both public and military interests, and protect the western alliance, whilst supporting the “deterrent” to make would-be attackers aiming their missiles at us, thank-you-very-much. It’s at least a comfort to know that the guy heading up the organisation is the scientist whom discovered the alignment of three stars in  The Final Conflict - if he could predict the second coming of Jesus Christ then we’re sure that plotting the course of fallout clouds should be no problem. Uncomfortable but engrossing, and a perfect companion piece to help put The Day the Earth Caught Fire into context.

Original Theatrical Trailer: If you wanted a fine example of setting the tone for a doom-laden movie, this should be played in every film school. It gives you everything you need without spilling the lot, and is just the kind of trailer than leaves us salivating us much as audiences exposed to it at the time. There is atmosphere to spare, giving the more shallow potential patron the idea of orgies breaking out when the world is about to end, leaving the more cerebral attendee taking just how the news will be handled by the populous should it ever happen. It’s all tinted a wonderful yellow (possibly to sell it as colour- who knows) and is a classic of its type.

TV Spots: These US TV adverts are all distillations of the original trailer, but with an overwrought American voiceover who has clearly had too much coffee, sticking his head in bucket whenever he mentions the title. All tinted yellow but the final. The third one ends with the narrator almost pre-empting the Robot from Lost in Space when he exclaims the superlatives of: “Provocative - superb!!!”

Radio Spots: Essentially just the TV spots in audio form, but with some differences and less echo-chamber on the title, we’ve always had a soft-spot for narrator-lead commercials, and whilst they don’t branch into the insane territory of the US Zombie (Zombi 2, Zombie Flesh Eaters, etc.) one, they will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear anyway.

Stills and Collections Gallery: There are production stills galore, including some rather nice tits-over-the-sink pictures of Janet Munro, not to mention weird sight of individual publicity-shoot snaps of the main cast against a cloth backdrop before seeing them crudely composited against a location shot! We also get a look at some of Ms Munro’s photo-shoot by George Harrison Marks, and one look at them leaves you in no doubt as to who was behind the camera - Phwoar!! There are posters, lobby-cards, a reproduction of the press-book, and a wander through a number of pages from both the original draft and the completed script. All are gorgeously reproduced here - we suspect that there will be many screen-savers and printouts made of this wonderful lot, and thanks to the BFI and Marcus Hearn for rummaging through their cupboards to get it all.

Booklet: Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of owning a BFI disc will know that there is always a special treat awaiting them inside the case, and we’re not talking about the disc. We have another lavishly produced, highly insightful tome with articles and critiques from minds immeasurably superior to ours. Beautifully illustrated, with all the minutia you would expect, this will give you the most engrossing trip to the toilet you’ll have this year.  Your legs won’t have gone numb by the time you finish, but merely giddy from your brain absorbing so many things about The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Required reading!

Source: British Film Institute - not an actual screen-grab, but the quality's fucking great!

Overall


Val Guest dipped his fingers into many cinematic pies during his career, but far and away the most classy film he ever directed was The Day the Earth Caught Fire; the taut direction, great performances and stark black and white photography are the main factors which contribute to the one-of-a-kind status that this film has.

The BFI have gone above and beyond the call of duty in restoring this classic film, allowing it to b seen and enjoyed by future generations of cineasts who were too young to remember the era that The Day the Earth Caught Fire depicts. The extras are plentiful, and – as always with the BFI – have a high degree of relevance to the film. The film – and every aspect of this Blu-ray release – gets our highest recommendation.

* Note that the images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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