THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE

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BLU-RAY REVIEW: THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: VAL GUEST / SCREENPLAY:  WOLF MANKOWITZ, VAL GUEST / STARRING: EDWARD JUDD, JANET MUNRO, LEO MCKERN, MICHAEL GOODLIFFE, BERNARD BRADEN / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 17TH

At the start of the ‘60s, the Cold War was pretty hot; the Cuban Missile Crisis was yet to come along and demonstrate the world’s ability to pull back from the actual brink and CND was at the height of its pre-Reagan popularity. In short, we were all convinced the world was about the end. There was also a realisation here in the UK that we weren’t actually big players anymore and that, to our embarrassment, the ‘end’ was unlikely to need British assistance. Oh, the indignity. It’s against this background that Val Guest produced this classic piece of British cinema.

The Americans and the Russians have let off simultaneous nuclear detonations and suddenly we’ve got freak weather conditions and a solar eclipse that turns up ten days early. We all know that’s never a good sign and we’ll assume you’ve already worked out what the stupid buggers have gone and done. The movie tells the story through the eyes of the Daily Express newsroom as the journalists guess at the details of the catastrophe and eventually work out the exact amount of doo-doo mankind is in. It’s this method of storytelling that makes the film such a triumph.

There’s a real feeling of authenticity and the workings of pre-Murdoch Fleet Street are genuinely fascinating to watch. Despite the almost documentary-feel, there’s some good turns in here from Edward Judd as the troubled and off-the-boil ace-hack who serves as the main protagonist as well as Janet Munro as the love interest and inside-girl at the ministry. But it’s Leo McKern who steals the show with one of his career-best performances (and he’s got quite a few to pick from) as the Express’s veteran world-weary science correspondent. The script is pretty sharp and McKern is absolutely in his element with the material as he bemoans the world’s idiocy and the ubiquity of the American Coca-Cola he’s forced to drink as the temperature rises and the water runs out. On the downside, everyone irritatingly uses exactly the same form of witty banter but that’s often the way with ‘60s’ Brit-flicks so we won’t dwell on it. In fact, even Arthur Christiansen, the legendary Daily Express editor, is seemingly brilliant as himself. We say “seemingly” as the commentary reveals that he was actually terrible at delivering or even remembering his lines but they edited what they had to make it work. Actually, he really does come across well so perhaps we can learn too much from these commentaries. Subject of which...

Although the Blu-ray transfer looks good, the film did have some pretty cheap FX, ranging from impressive matte-paintings to the actors just standing in front of large photographs. Blu-ray doesn’t do any of these any favours so when Ted Newsom says to Val Guest on the commentary “hey, this is location-shot, right?”, one can’t help but wonder if he’s trying to be funny. But nit-picking aside, this one’s essential. And we haven’t even mentioned Michael Caine.

Special Features: Audio commentary / Trailer / TV and radio spots / Stills and collections gallery / Three nuclear films from the BFI National Archive / Interview with Leo McKern / Two featurettes / Illustrated booklet
 

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