Tuesday, July 11, 2023 at 7:30pm
Val Guest's The Day the Earth Caught Fire

361 Stagg Street, Suite 407, Brooklyn

Introduced by Dan Fox

The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Val Guest, 1961, 16mm, 98 mins

In 1961, Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire was an A-Bomb B-movie nightmare. Its Cold War plot was frightening. We’re in Britain. Headlines carry news of massive nuclear tests by rival superpowers. Unusual seismic activity is detected across the world. London experiences an unusual heatwave. Canny journalists at the Daily Express newspaper—fortified by booze and gallows humor—suspect a connection. With the help of a government whistleblower, they make a horrifying discovery. Atomic devices detonated at precisely the same moment on opposite sides of the globe have spun the Earth off its axis towards the sun, throwing the planet’s weather systems into chaos.

From today’s perspective, it’s a climate change movie. It may be hobbled by stiff acting and budget effects, but its depiction of the effects of melting ice caps and rising sea levels, of floods and wildfires, of what happens when water becomes a rationed commodity and disease rips through cities, seems prescient.

The movie looked to the near future, but drew on recent horrors. The heat mist that engulfs London in the movie recalls the Great Smog Disaster of 1952. Images of blazing buildings evoke the Blitz. Major cities in the UK were still lined with ruins and pock-marked bomb craters. Rationing had lasted until 1954, just seven years before the film’s release.

Perhaps it’s war trauma that partially accounts for the heavy drinking the film portrays. (Boozing was also a legendary characteristic of British press culture in the 1960s.) Or its willingness to undercut the myths of the Blitz Spirit with scenes of looting and black-marketeering. But, indirectly, The Day the Earth Caught Fire captured Britain on the cusp of change. By 1961, London was becoming a younger, more diverse city. Deference to staid and sclerotic establishment values was starting to erode. Modern jazz, calypso, and rock’n’roll were its new sounds. Major waves of migrants were arriving from the Caribbean and South Asia (though this is barely reflected in the movie).

The principle character, Peter Stenning, is a working-class outsider, talented but embittered. He’s a caring divorced father but struggles with drink and authority. Jeanie, the whistleblower from the Air Ministry, isn’t given the same depth—in that respect, the film hasn’t aged well—but she’s no pushover either. Stenning’s colleague Bill is a science brainbox who hides soft wisdom behind the kind of cynical, world-weary front that every fashionable actor and rock star would wear that decade. You sense he might have had an illustrious academic career if the pub over the road hadn’t been so convivial.

Val Guest was a screenwriter turned comedy director. In 1955, he made the science fiction movie The Quatermass Xperiment for Hammer Films, followed in 1957 with Quatermass 2. He shot verité style in everyday locations, giving the films an unsettling plausibility. Guest brought similar techniques to The Day the Earth Caught Fire which today give it historical value. From the late 1950s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) staged protest marches between London and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, in Berkshire. Guest filmed a real CND demo at Trafalgar Square, intercutting it with staged scenes. (The “trad jazz” that the beatnik rioters in the movie dance to was, along with folk revival songs, the soundtrack to the Aldermaston peace marches, and was scored for The Day the Earth Caught Fire by Monty Norman, who composed the James Bond theme.) The film also used the actual art deco Daily Express offices on the old newspaper row, Fleet Street, along with the printing presses beneath. They no longer exist, dispersed by Rupert Murdoch in the 1980s.

As the traditional British tabloid headline for hot weather puts it: “Phew, What a Scorcher!”

- DF

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker, and musician. He is the author of Limbo and Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, co-director of the film Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle, and co-founder of the label Junior Aspirin Records. We at Light Industry highly recommend his newsletter, Keep All Your Friends.

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Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm. No entry 10 minutes after start of show.