A Newsroom in an Apocalypse: ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’

Val Guest’s newsroom drama approach to an apocalypse, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, is a product of its nuclear war-obsessed times and a prescient commentary on the present day.

The battle between religion and science is perhaps one of the great metaphysical conflicts our existence revolves around. These two great cathedrals have been integral to nurturing and guiding our civilisation’s understanding and each is integral to defining our capacity for rational and irrational thought and action.

It is not uncommon to hear the Bible described as a horror story, and within the realm of film genre or a game of charades, science-fiction would conveniently be cast as horror’s opposite number. So in life and film, we have the two polarising forces, although in both life and film it could be said that their fates are intimately intertwined.

If we were to split science fiction open we would find a pre-occupation with “big” ideas or questions that fuel the genre’s drive to sink its teeth into the most profound aspects of civilisation. From Victor Frankenstein’s pursuit to conquer death to Blade Runner and Moon’s tragic tales of humankind’s botched aspirations within the realm of artificial intelligence, science-fiction has pursued an identity of big ideas. In between these notable works of the genre, ‘50s sci-fi horror starred outward to the stars and dreamed of what might lie within and beyond our gaze, whilst Stanley Kubrick’s epic telling of the cycle of life and death in 2001: A Space Odyssey entrenched the genres preoccupation with big ideas and themes.

Unfortunately for the legacy of the genre, recent films such as Avatar and Gravity have lazily exploited this pursuit through a shallow appreciation of the technical flair of the filmmaking process. Both could be described as experiments gone awry, which have created hideous monsters that have escaped to tarnish contemporary science fiction, shrouding it in pretension and revealing the genre’s lowest aspirations as nothing more than offering an empty experience void of either interaction or thought.

The words on the theatrical poster of The Day the Earth Caught Fire read: “The INCREDIBLE becomes Real! The IMPOSSIBLE becomes Fact! The UNBELIEVABLE becomes True!” In 1961, in the midst of the frequent nuclear test explosions perpetrated by the US and the Soviet Union, it is all too easy to imagine that outside of these three impactful phrases the very title alone would have comprised six haunting beats of apocalyptic doom. The image painted by the book of Revelation of fire falling from the sky is tapped into by this choice of words that, in the ‘60s, would have inferred only one thing: the scorching fire of nuclear war. And if nuclear war was to come, then Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be a precursor to a greater self-imposed fire unleashed upon civilisation.

Director Val Guest sprung his apocalyptic sci-fi film in a timely fashion by playing on the angst that was permeating civilisation as the nuclear age and possibly the greatest of humanmade horrors scarred not only the past but loomed heavy over the future or questionable future.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire remains an intriguing entry within the genre. Whilst the words “apocalyptic science fiction” are apt to describe it, it is more precisely understood as a newspaper room drama on a theme of the apocalypse. The events of Guest’s contemporary vision of humankind’s dance with death – although self-annihilation seems highly fitting – centre upon the reporting of the precursory events followed by the main event. From curiosity to boiling suspense, the film heats up nicely within a meticulously crafted narrative as, “The INCREDIBLE becomes Real! The IMPOSSIBLE becomes Fact! The UNBELIEVABLE becomes True!”

Guest and co-writer Wolf Mankowitz’s script stands as a fine example of writing for the screen in this era. Mankowitz’s writing carries itself with a self-assured air, prone to offering witty phrases that are brimming with insight with an often observed humorous disposition. Of course, such meticulous and fast paced dialogue requires a cast of actors to breathe life into what are otherwise inanimate markings on a page, and Guest’s cast step up to the challenge of a script brimming with sharp writing that would have brought an approving smile to the faces of similarly sharp writers such as Howard Hawkes and Billy Wilder.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a spectacle, but it is equally grounded in the personal, a point which is not missed by the editor of The Express newspaper, who shares the wisdom of age when he tells his troublesome reporter, the film’s lead protagonist, that only when something becomes personal do people then decide that they care. It is a wonderfully cynical yet honest moment; one of many phrases of humour-filled resignation towards the nonsensical nature of humanity that if only for their straightforward honesty offer penetrating humour cut from a cynical cloth.

If Guest’s newspaper room drama on the theme of an apocalypse was a timely piece of cinema, it remains a timely piece of cinema for a different reason. The Day the Earth Caught Fire offers modern audiences an insight into how a contemporary newspaper office was run; a window to look through onto yesteryear.

Stylised with a tinge of yellow lends it an evocative feel, complemented by characters that have a dreamy, cool, suave presence that even amidst disaster offer us escapism; characters capable of making one dream of being a newspaperman and jumping right on into their world. This is the magic of cinema, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire still possesses a magical and seductive touch. But Guest’s simmering apocalyptic drama is closer to theatre, which asks the audience to dare to imagine.

The now limited effects shots may seem dated, but the film casts an impression that it was always happy to live with its limitations. To watch films from this era is to encounter films that had to accept the limitations to imagine reality, and whereas today we try to or have to a degree escaped these limitations it has only served to sever the connection film shares with theatre and opera. One must consider that part of the filmgoing experience is about daring to imagine as a result of limitations. The perfection of an imperfect art form from a certain perspective deprives us of an interaction with a film that contemporary audiences of earlier decades knew and which we, tragically, do not.

If through the use of their titles Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well and E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills stand as two near-perfect endings through the use of their titles, then Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a near-perfect ending that is a result of his mastery of filmic dialects. From the voiceover narration, camera movement and composition of image, it concludes on a note of perfection that is neither optimistic nor cynical, all the while playing on the invisibility of the men behind the news that takes us on a journey into the past and behind the scenes of a previous time.

RATING 8 / 10