Friday August 24, 2018
As the summer continues, those of us who are devotes of British cinema recall a film in which Britain is ravaged by a heatwave so intense that water is rationed, beatniks riot and a Morris Minor MM is attacked.
The picture was The Day the Earth Caught Fire and it opens with a police Wolseley 6/90 – always a welcome sight – patrolling an abandoned London, with orders being barked through the tannoy to take cover. ‘The time is now 10.41, 19 minutes before countdown. 19 minutes…’.
The film’s plot is that the earth has been knocked off its axis by nuclear bomb tests of the US and the USSR and there is now going to be final blast to try to rectify matters. The writer-director Val Guest devised the theme of The Day the Earth Caught Fire back in 1954 but the idea was rejected by several studios.
The result was an incredibly accomplished picture, with the special effects of Les Bowie giving the genuine impression of a capital city in the middle of a draught.
As with his best films, Guest made extensive use of genuine locations and one of the many joys of Caught Fire is the footage of Fleet Street and Battersea Fun Fair circa 1961. Another is the cast – Janet Munro, Leo McKern (who gives the best performance in the picture) and Edward Judd who is now best recalled for his public information films - https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-road-safety-think-bike-1978-online - but was then regarded as an up and coming film star.
In the supporting cast are such familiar faces as a pre-Carry On Peter Butterworth in a rare straight role, Michael Goodliffe and Bernard Braden. The police constable who flags down the Morris shortly before the closing scene is indeed a young Michael Caine in one of his many walk-on roles his breakthrough role in Zulu lay two years in the future .
And as for the vehicles on display, the street scenes are replete with the streets of the capital packed with Bedford CA newspaper delivery vans, Leyland Titan RTL buses and Austin FX3 and early FX4 taxis with “Bunny Ear” indicators. Ford enthusiasts will appreciate the two-tone Consul Mk. II Farnham Estate and even a ’55 Fairlaine Sunliner and there are several older cars on display – a Hillman Minx Phase III, a pre-war Morris Eight and a 1936 Ford V8 Shooting Brake.
Devotees of fire engines will enjoy the shots of a Dennis F12 and a Merryweather-bodied AEC Regent III; they will also probably recognise that the shots of the Morris-Commercial CV appliance were borrowed from Guest’s 1955 Hammer film The Quatermass X-Periment.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire is not a picture that was made with a high budget even by the standards of early 1960s British films, but it remains far more watchable than many a Hollywood epic.
Who would rather watch a cleverly crafted black and white feature in which the hero drives a second-hand Morris Minor than yet another display of pyrotechnics and ham acting….