June 10, 2022

Cold War Climate Change: The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Poster - The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
Now Playing:
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Pros: A prescient story of superpower miscalculations leading to global catastrophe; Believable, complex characters portrayed by a top-notch cast
Cons: A scene depicting young Londoners rioting over water restrictions is too tame to be believed

This post is part of the Second Disaster Blog-a-thon hosted by the always entertaining Dubsism and Pale Writer. After you’ve sweated it out here at Films From Beyond, head on over to their blogs for more cinematic disasters, catastrophes, fiascos and debacles than you can shake your head at.

Back in the late '50s and early ‘60s, there was no doubt about it -- if we were going to do ourselves in, it would be through nuclear war. The two hyper-powers that emerged from the ashes of WWII were testing the ultimate doomsday weapon, the H-bomb, that made the atomic bombs dropped on Japan look like firecrackers.

Anxious Americans were busy building backyard bomb shelters, practicing duck and cover drills and waiting for the sky to fall in. At the movies, they watched all kinds of rampaging creatures spawned by nuclear testing, or if they were in a particularly masochistic frame of mind, films like On the Beach (1959) or The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) that depicted small groups of survivors dealing with the aftermath of nuclear war.

Somehow, even with all the strategic tensions and the collective pessimism hanging around like a shroud, we managed to stumble through without blowing ourselves up (although the Cuban missile crisis was a terrifyingly close call).

Who would’ve thought that something as prosaic as belching billions of tons of fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere would eventually take the place of the awesome and terrible H-bomb as the source of sleepless nights?

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a film with a unique science fiction premise that presciently bridges the gap between nuclear and climate change nightmares.

Edward Judd stars as Peter Stenning, a newspaper reporter whose life has become a walking disaster area. Stenning recently went through a bitter divorce in which his ex-wife got custody of their 7-year-old son, and as a result he has taken to drinking.

Opening scene of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
Stenning strolls down a deserted London street. In some of the film's original prints, the opening and closing scenes were tinted yellow to convey the extreme heat of a dying world.

As a result, the once star reporter has been reduced to being a glorified gopher and writer of lifestyle puff pieces. Amid the usual newsroom hubbub over beauty pageants and pregnant royals, some unusual news items begin to draw the attention of the staff: sunspot-like interference with TV and radio signals; severe earth tremors in previously quiet zones; and unseasonably high temperatures and monsoon rains.

Stenning is assigned to contact the Met Office (the UK national Meteorological Office) to get background information on sunspots and climate data, but is initially blocked from speaking to the head honcho by a new employee in the office’s phone pool, Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro).

Later, when he visits the office in person on the pretext of picking up a press release, but with the intent of ambushing the Office chief to get a statement, he finds out Jeannie is a very attractive young woman who is not afraid to stick up for herself.

Janet Munro and Edward Judd in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
Jeannie and Stenning take a relaxing bus ride through climate change-generated fog.

Stenning and his colleagues at the Daily Express figure something is seriously amiss when a solar eclipse occurs 10 days before it’s due, and reports come streaming in from around the world on unprecedented flooding.

At an editorial meeting, a staffer brings up the recent tests of the most powerful H-bombs ever, one by the Russians in Siberia, the other by the Americans in Antarctica, that somehow, against all odds, had gone off almost simultaneously. Could the double bombs have anything to do with it? Nahhh….

Stenning tries to strike up a relationship with Jeannie -- he’s very attracted to her, and at the same time she’s a possible source of insider information. At one point he’s forced to camp out with her in her flat due to an unusually heavy fog (described as “heat mist”) that rolls into the city and causes everything to grind to a halt. Things start to heat up, literally and figuratively, for the two.

Soon, fog is the least of London’s worries. Unheard-of tornadoes blow half the city to kingdom come, then brutal heat and a withering drought dry up what’s left.

Tornadoes ravage the heart of London in The Day the Earth Caught Fire
London is treated to Mother Nature's Tilt-A-Whirl ride.

The one good thing in a dust bowl of troubles -- Stenning’s and Jeannie’s budding romance -- is endangered when Jeannie confides to Stenning something she overheard at the ministry. Not only has the tilt of the earth been affected, but its orbit is now taking it dangerously close to the sun. In the heat of the moment (pun intended) Stenning promises Jeannie he won’t say anything, but his reporter’s instincts won’t allow him to be quiet.

The next day’s headlines blare “World Tips Over,” which also says it all for the couple’s relationship. Jeannie is taken into custody as a security risk, while the Daily Express staff grapple with the possible end of the world.

This being a serious treatment of a science fiction subject, Stenning does not come off as your typical sci-fi hero. He’s a complicated mess: at times cocky, at other times pathetically self-pitying, he tries to hide his insecurities behind a veneer of false bravado and cynical quips (example: “Why don’t I do 500 steaming words on how mankind is so full of wind it’s about to outblow nature?”).

His best friend at the paper (and seemingly only friend), veteran newshound Bill Maguire (Leo McKern), can only do so much for the self-destructive journalist. Maguire alternates between gentle chiding and ignoring him altogether when Stenning goes into his petulant teenager mode.

Edward Judd and Leo McKern in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
"I'd like to cancel my steam bath appointment."

Maguire is not only a sounding board and emotional backstop for Stenning, but serves as the conscience of the newspaper and a one-man Greek chorus. It’s Maguire who starts to piece things together as accounts of disparate disasters flood into the newsroom, and he is the one who adds the exclamation point to the hubristic folly that has sent humanity to the brink of extinction: “They’ve shifted the tilt of the earth. The stupid, crazy irresponsible bastards… they’ve finally done it!”

The Daily Express newsroom becomes a sanctuary/citadel for Stenning and Maguire as London turns into the equivalent of an overdone Shepherd's pie. Where once the paper was a busy hub for disseminating celebrity “news” and junk lifestyle pieces (“Thrombosis: How to be the death of the party”), as the crisis takes hold it becomes one of the last bastions of working civilization as the newspapermen grimly bang away on their typewriters. In one scene, Stenning, drenched in sweat and exhausted, sits down at his desk to compose one last story, only to find that the typewriter ribbon has melted.

But the show must go on, and the crusty old editor-in-chief "Jeff" Jefferson (Arthur Christiansen) continues to bark orders to his depleted staff: “Bill, get moving! I want a pictorial panorama of the world as it’s going to be with the new climatic zones and all the rest of it!” (Interesting side note: The Daily Express is a real newspaper that is still being published. Christiansen had been retired just a short time from his position as the paper's chief editor when he was talked into doing the role.)

Arthur Christiansen as "Jeff" Jefferson, Daily Express editor; The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
"And get me a list of all the places in London that are still selling ice lollies!"

The newspaper is even a refuge for Jeannie, who has been released from custody (think of that -- she isn’t hauled off to a secret interrogation site, never to be heard from again!). The editor gives her a job in the newspaper’s library as a small recompense for Stenning’s broken promise. This gives Stenning the opportunity to try to make amends and win her back. Maguire urges him on, just wanting to see his friends happy in the little time that’s left.

There aren’t any heroes per se in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, just typical, flawed human beings who stubbornly and stoically cling to the last shreds of their normal lives as the world collapses around them. There is so much that rings true: government denials, then partial acknowledgements, then “let us pray” when the whole truth gets out. Adding to the misery are secret government plans to ration water, and outbreaks of disease as the depleted water supply gets contaminated. (One unintentionally comic scene is a water riot by juvenile delinquents that plays more like a fun day at the water park; look for Michael Caine in a bit role as a policeman.)

Fans used to disaster movies with epic CGI effects and droves of extras dying in spectacular fashion may be disappointed. There are effects -- the thick “heat mist,” cyclones, earthquakes, etc. -- that are crude by today’s standards, but effective enough for the time (see below). But in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, it’s the characters and their relationships that count. The ending is famously ambiguous, but there is more than a glimmer of hope in the depiction of average people who find deep reservoirs of courage in the face of calamity.

Closing scene at the pub, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961
The survivors from the Daily Express wait for the end of the world at
the ultimate British sanctuary - the local pub.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD/Blu-ray

A Passion Project

In an interview conducted years later, Val Guest, who produced, directed and co-wrote the screenplay, described how the film was a very personal project for him, one that took eight long years to secure funding:

“It was something that had been going around my head for a long time, that gradually we were f*cking up the whole planet. I had always been very interested in what we were liable to do to ourselves without realizing it. … [E]very time I made a movie and the [producers] said, ‘What do you want to do next?”, I’d tell them my idea and they’d say [disdainfully], ‘Oh, Christ! No one wants to know about the Bomb!’” [Tom Weaver, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers, McFarland, 1994, pp. 113-114]

He finally got British Lion films to cough up some money, but only on the condition that he put up one of his money-making films, Expresso Bongo (1960) as collateral. The film was made on a “ludicrously cheap” budget of $500,000.

The Fog of Filmmaking

For that money, Guest was somehow able to build an exact copy of the Daily Express office at Shepperton Studios “right down to the last piece of paper on the floor.” Only a few interior and exterior shots were required at the building itself.

Ironically, the weather was cold for much of the location shooting. At Battersea Park, the actors had to pretend that it was brutally hot: 

“[W]ith everybody sunbathing, it was about fifty-eight, sixty degrees at most. And everybody was freezing -- in bikinis! We told them to keep their coats on until we were ready to shoot. That whole scene of Janet and Eddie Judd on the grass -- it was very cold weather. On the other stuff, Fleet Street and things like that, it wasn't at all cold, but the scene where it was supposed to be the hottest day of the century, it was a very cold day!” [Weaver, p. 119]

To add insult to irony, the day they shot the scene of the heavy fog enveloping London, the crew almost sparked a national incident:

“We had all these [fog] machines going, hundreds of extras -- the whole idea was that this strange mist was coming up the Thames and covering the whole of London. When we were very near the end of the shooting, we were suddenly invaded by about three or four police cars; the cops came up and said, ‘You must stop this immediately!’ What was happening was, just on the other side of the Thames was the Chelsea Flower Show, which the Queen was opening. And they had all this fog, pouring all over Her Majesty [laughs].” [Weaver, p. 119]

Book cover image - Val Guest, So You Want to be in Pictures, 2001

Validation from an unusual source

According to Guest, John F. Kennedy asked for a copy of the film and screened it for a gathering of foreign correspondents in Washington. In the interview, Guest didn’t mention (or perhaps wasn’t aware of) the context of the president’s interest: JFK came into office wanting to finish the work on a nuclear test ban treaty that Eisenhower started. The film may have helped in its small way, but it was the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that finally got the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed the following year.

The British film community also weighed in, awarding Guest and his co-writer Wolf Mankowitz the 1962 BAFTA award (the UK equivalent of the Oscars) for Best British Screenplay.

In his autobiography, Guest marveled at all the attention his “cheap” passion project received from various dignitaries after it came out. It makes a fitting postscript not only for him, but for the characters in the film:

“I mean, come on, for someone still in the throes of struggling to get it [the film] set up this would have all sounded like demented pipe dreams from the opium den. Which merely proves the worth of that sterling British Army advice in World War I: ‘Come what may, we press on regardless.’” [Val Guest, So You Want to be in Pictures, Reynolds & Hearn, 2001, p. 140.]

Banner - Second Disaster Blog-a-thon hosted by Dubsism & Pale Writer

There’s no Diesel in this Roger Corman vehicle: The Fast and the Furious

Poster - The Fast and the Furious, 1954
Now Playing:
The Fast and the Furious (1954)

Pros: Classic hard-boiled dialog; Dorothy Malone as a kidnapped socialite with Stockholm Syndrome is very good.
Cons: The racing action is mostly limited to the last 10 minutes of the movie.

This post is part of the Corman-verse Blogathon hosted by Barry at Cinematic Cartharsis and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. After you finish up your visit here, head on over to their blogs to further explore the multiverse of producer/director/writer/actor Roger Corman. 

I believe I’ve mentioned that I’m old at least a couple of times on this blog (as if the films that I write about weren’t a big tip-off). To give you an idea of how old, I grew up watching TVs with vacuum tubes and rabbit ear antennas, used rotary dial phones to make calls over party lines, and filled up cars that were almost as heavy as army tanks with leaded gas that cost the princely sum of 40 cents a gallon.

I mention this only to put the enduring career of Roger Corman into some kind of context. I am as old as dirt, yet here is a man who produced his first movie before I was even born, and is still working to this very day! I will pause a moment to let that sink in…

Okay, back to business.

The Fast and the Furious was one of Roger Corman’s earliest producing gigs, and was groundbreaking not only for Corman’s career, but for the legendary American International Pictures, which at the time was a fledgling start-up known as American Releasing Corporation. More on that later.

Clocking in at a fast 73 minutes, The Fast and the Furious tells the story of a desperate man, Frank Webster (John Ireland), who has escaped from prison after being convicted of a bum murder rap. The film opens with Frank trying to be inconspicuous while he gets a quick bite to eat at a roadside diner.

A nosy trucker (Bruno VeSota), strikes up a conversation with Webster and ends up offering him a ride. But with news of the escape all over the radio, the trucker quickly becomes suspicious and pulls a gun, hoping to make a citizen’s arrest.

Webster grabs the gun and coldcocks the rotund trucker. With no other way to get out of there fast, he kidnaps attractive socialite Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone), who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and forces her to ride off with him in her expensive Jaguar sports car.

Dorothy Malone, Bruno VeSota and John Ireland, The Fast and the Furious, 1954
This nosy citizen is about to get a knuckle sandwich at the greasy spoon diner.

In theory, it should be a quick run to the Mexican border in the souped-up Jag, but word of the kidnapping has gotten out, and state troopers have set up numerous roadblocks.

To compound Webster’s headaches, Connie is a smart, capable woman who is constantly thinking of ways to escape or attract the attention of the authorities. He alternately threatens her with the gun or ties her up to prevent her from running off. At one point, he even wraps his arms around her in the open-air car as they spend a cold night on a remote mountain road.

The roadblocks seem insurmountable until Webster notices a number of sports cars passing through the police checkpoints. They’re on their way to an event that Connie is very familiar with -- an international race that starts in Southern California and finishes up across the Mexican border.

Webster slickly maneuvers the Jaguar into the line of cars bound for the event and pretends he’s one of the racers, even getting a police motorcycle escort to the event staging area. At this point Connie is very conflicted about Webster. She’s attracted to him in spite of herself, helping her kidnapper register for the race under an assumed name and fending off her wealthy friends who are overly curious about the new man in her life.

Roger Corman in an uncredited role as a state trooper, The Fast and the Furious, 1954
Producer Roger Corman doubles as a clueless state trooper.

During some downtime before the race, Webster tells Connie his tale of woe -- he was an independent trucker who attracted the attention of a mob-run trucking company. When he refused to join up, one of their goons tried to run him off the road, but ended up crashing and killing himself. Another goon testified that Webster was the aggressor, and so he ended up in jail.

Connie completely buys the story, and begs Webster to turn himself in. Understandably leery of the “justice” system, Webster is determined to carry through with his plan to race to the border and freedom, and locks Connie up in a shack near the race staging area so that she won’t be tempted to turn him in.

Anyone expecting even a fraction of the crazy energy and stunt work of the Vin Diesel-led Fast and Furious franchise will be sorely disappointed. The 1954 film was made fast (and cheap) and furiously marketed to drive-in double bills.

There’s a quick pre-titles scene of a truck crashing and burning, there’s the altercation in the diner, and there are shots of sports cars racing over curving mountain roads in the last 10 or so minutes, but by and large the action and suspense boils down to the love-hate relationship between Webster and Connie.

Webster doesn’t do himself any favors, spending a big chunk of the movie manhandling Connie and barking at her. At one point, when they’re stalled at the side of the road, Connie nervously observes that “It’s almost midnight”; Webster counters with a snarky “Do you ride off on a broom?”

Webster (John Ireland) pulls a gun on Connie (Dorothy Malone), The Fast and the Furious, 1954
Webster is beginning to regret his decision to kidnap Connie.

Amazingly, Connie seems to be able to get past the rough exterior (not to mention the death threats) to see the good in Webster. But she swings wildly between hatching escape plans and aiding and abetting his escape. In one scene, she impulsively snatches the key out of the ignition while Webster is driving and throws it into the brush. Then, minutes later, she coquettishly waves a spare key in front of the flummoxed man’s face. You want to reach through the screen, shake her and tell her to make up her mind.

It’s at the shack on the racing grounds, hiding out from the police, that the accidental couple finally declare their love for one another. After spending the night there, Connie thinks that Webster is going to do the right thing and turn himself in, but is shocked when it becomes obvious that he's still going to make a run for it.

It’s a wealthy socialite's innocent trust in the system vs. a working man’s cynicism:

Connie: "You go to Mexico and you’ll give up the only chance you’ve got!"
Webster: "That’s not the way I see it.…"
Connie: "Don’t you want me?"
Webster: "You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever known, but I can’t afford to stay."
Connie: "Oh but you’re innocent!"
Webster: "It isn’t what you are that counts… It’s what you get taken for!"
Connie: "Someday what you really are is going to catch up with you. It’s worth fighting for, I just hope it isn’t too late…"

This being a ‘50s drive-in movie, we’re reasonably sure that trust in the system is ultimately going to prevail, but not before a few more dramatic setbacks. After Webster locks Connie in, promising to alert help once he’s safely in Mexico, she yells her lungs out to no avail. Then, in one of the most boneheaded moves ever, she lights some old rags on fire near the wooden door to … send out smoke signals? Burn the door down? It’s not clear, since she’s far more likely to succumb to smoke before any of those things can happen.

John Ireland and Dorothy Malone in a tense scene, The Fast and the Furious, 1954
Connie tries one last time to convince Webster to give himself up after
spending the night at the Love Shack (apologies to the B52s).


Well, of course she’s rescued in the nick of time so she can fight for her man another day. But please kids, don’t try this at home!

The protagonists’ knuckle-headed moves aside, The Fast and the Furious is a pretty watchable low-budget action-thriller-romance due to the two leads. While John Ireland was never the most expressive of actors, at various points he gets to rattle off classic hard-boiled lines and zingers like a human machine gun.

Dorothy Malone is very sympathetic as the mixed up rich girl, even as the audience is scratching their heads wondering what her character will do next. In the 1940s Malone flirted with stardom working for RKO and Warner Bros., but by the time The Fast and the Furious began shooting, she was not commanding big paychecks. She managed to snag an Oscar for best supporting actress in Douglas Sirk’s lush soap opera Written on the Wind (1956) before transitioning to mostly TV roles. While The Fast and the Furious was a mere road bump in Malone’s career, it was a far more significant milestone for producer Roger Corman and his star John Ireland.

Corman was fresh off the success of his very first film as sole producer, Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954), when he decided to do The Fast and the Furious. For Monster, he received a $60,000 advance against distribution profits on a film that cost him a paltry $10K to make. Not wanting to let the grass grow under his feet, he sunk a significant chunk into his new project. This would become standard operating procedure.

In his memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Corman relates:

“My career took a dramatic turn and picked up velocity with The Fast and the Furious. First, this was a considerably bigger, more intricate production. Second, I used the film to get a three picture deal with a new independent production and distribution company -- eventually called American International Pictures. That deal marked the beginning of a long, prosperous relationship stretching over fifteen years and thirty-plus films. And third, I made the decision after Fast and Furious to direct films, not only for the greater overall control but for the creative challenge.” [Roger Corman and Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1998, p. 23]

Jim Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff were just starting out with American Releasing Corporation, (soon to morph into American International Pictures), and The Fast and the Furious was only the second film to be released under the ARC banner. Roger Corman was just the man to supply the fledgling enterprise with films made furiously fast and cheap. The partnership spawned such legendary quickie classics as The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and the comparatively lush Poe pictures starting with House of Usher (1960).

With just this second producing job, Corman was already a master of economizing. Ireland, who by that point had dozens of films under his belt, initially turned down the Webster role, but came on board at a cut rate when Corman okayed his request to direct the film.

John Ireland in a racing scene, The Fast and the Furious, 1954
John Ireland races to the set of The Fast and the Furious after
getting the word that he can direct.

Much of the racing footage was shot at an actual event, the Jaguar Open Sports Car race in Monterey, CA, obviating the need to rent cars and drivers.

Corman also immersed himself in other aspects of filmmaking, doing second unit directing, appearing uncredited in a small role as a highway cop, and even performing some stunt driving. This latter job brought out the man’s competitive spirit in a humorous way:

“I also went behind the wheel of the lead heavy’s car and raced in the key action sequence. Because I couldn’t afford two stunt drivers, John, who directed the long master shot, put our one driver in his own white Jag. Coming around the final turn neck and neck, knowing the other driver was supposed to surge ahead and win -- I got carried away and beat him, ruining the first take. John ran to the track and said, ‘What the hell are you doing out there?’ I said, ‘He wasn’t going fast enough. I wasn’t exactly going to hit the brakes and let him pass.' … We got it right the second time and the white car overtook me and won. The truth was, I really just wanted to floor it and win. I hated to lose.” [Ibid., pp. 24-5]

Corman kept learning. Compared to his later action-thrillers, The Fast and the Furious is pretty mild and slow-paced. Still, it’s worth watching for the “will they or won’t they?” tug-of-war between Webster and Connie and the hard-as-nails dialog.

Racing sequence, The Fast and the Furious, 1954
Roger finally lets the white car win.

Where to find it: The Fast and the Furious is currently streaming down the internet superhighway here and here.