The End is Nigh!

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) & Crack in the World (1965)

During the 1960s, the Bomb, as it was simply known, held very much the same place in public consciousness as global warming does today. The fear of nuclear war was very real and even though the Cuban Missile Crisis had shown that the US and USSR could pull back from the brink, there remained the possibility that a nuclear war could be started by accident. Hollywood’s output reflected this fear with Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy Dr. Strangelove and the documentary-styled Failsafe, both released in 1964.

The possibility that mankind might be placed in peril simply by the testing of nuclear weapons or indeed by an attempt to make benign use of them was less prominent in the public imagination; nevertheless this sub-genre gave rise to two excellent “doomsday” movies: the British-made The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and the US-made Crack in the World (1965).

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is an offbeat but smart piece of movie-making. It was directed and produced by the late Val Guest, who also directed the first two screen-adaptations of the Quatermass series. Screenplay was also by Guest, in conjunction with Wolf Mankowitz. The film starred Janet Monroe, Leo McKern and Edward Judd, and featured former Daily Express editor Arthur Christansen playing himself. It was filmed in black and white, with some orange-tinted sequences.

The tinted opening of the movie shows journalist and reformed alcoholic Peter Stenning (Judd) making his way down a deserted, heat-baked Fleet Street to the Daily Express building, to cover what may well be the last news story ever. Four nuclear devices, the most powerful yet devised, have just been detonated in an attempt to push the Earth back into its proper orbit. It is too early yet to tell if the attempt has been successful.

Reverting to conventional b/w, the main section of the movie then tells the story of the events of the previous 90 days, beginning with near-simultaneous bomb tests by the United States and the Soviet Union. In the days that follow, earthquakes and freak weather conditions occur in many parts of the world, and a total eclipse of the sun is seen in London ten days before it was due. Soon after, the whole world begins to experience heat-wave conditions. London experiences thick fog, followed by violent storms.

These events are seen through the eyes of Stenning and fellow journalist Bill Maguire (McKern). Stenning’s relationships with his ex-wife (who left him for another man), his son and new love Jeannie Craig (Monroe) are skilfully worked into the story, forming an integral part of the narrative drive. Encouraged by Editor Arthur Christiansen (himself), Stenning and Maguire, with assistance from Craig, eventually expose a government cover-up. The bombs have caused an eleven-degree shift in the tilt of the Earth’s axis. The Prime Minister goes on the air to reassure the public that the Earth’s axial tilt has altered in the past without catastrophic effects, and that things will eventually settle down.

But temperatures continue to rise inexorably. Water rationing is brought in and the Thames dries up. Eventually Christiansen learns from a Russian correspondent that that the bomb tests have also affected the Earth’s orbit, and it is moving towards the Sun. With doomsday just four months away, the Prime Minister goes on the air again to inform the public that the heads of governments world-wide have decided that the only hope for mankind is to detonate four very large nuclear bombs, in order to reverse the motion towards the Sun. Meanwhile, law and order is breaking down. People are coming down with typhoid from contaminated bootleg water and bottles of Coca Cola are fetching four pounds (about £80 at today’s prices). A street party held the night before the corrective bombs are detonated gets out of hand and rioting breaks out.

The countdown is broadcast to an anxiously-waiting world by radio, by loudspeakers set up in the streets of cities around the world, and by producer-gas fuelled police cars on the streets of London. Stenning, Maguire and Craig follow events from the Old Bell, Fleet Street [a pub in which I have spent many hours!] and the bombs are detonated, through the only immediate effect is a that cloud of dust is shaken up. Stenning begs Maguire to let him cover the story.

The story returns to the tinted “frame” that began the film. Stenning dictates his copy, his typewriter having seized up. A camera pans between two versions of tomorrow’s front page, ready to go to press. One reads “World Saved”, the other “World Doomed”. Several shots show clocks, both inside and outside the building, each showing a later time than the last, suggesting the passage of time. Church bells ring out across the City of London, implying that the Earth was saved.

It has been suggested that the church bells were added at the insistence of the distributer, and Guest intended a completely open ending. In a director’s commentary to the DVD edition, he does not mention the ending. Val Guest died in 2006, aged 94.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is the definitive “cult movie”, a term that should be reserved for movies that punch above their weight, while delivering what they set out to deliver. This film does just that: in addition to the intelligent screenplay, the special effects belie the small budget, especially the scenes where Thames dries up. Londoners will particularly appreciate the location filming around the capital.

The film is not without some “bad science”, however. Nuclear bombs could not possibly affect the Earth’s orbit. A major meteorite impact, such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, would be many times more powerful than the world’s combined nuclear arsenals, but it would have a negligible effect on the orbit. Indeed, anything powerful enough to affect the Earth’s orbit to the extent implied by the film would almost certainly destroy the planet at the outset.

A solar eclipse can only take place at New Moon and one occurring ten days early would not happen without warning, as it would be apparent for days in advance that something was seriously wrong with the Moon’s phases. Four days before the eclipse, the Moon would have been seen as a waning crescent when it should still have been full. This would be noticed by astronomers and indeed any casual observer in possession of a diary or calendar. The anomaly would certainly have been picked up at a newspaper, where the current phase of the Moon is often published with sunrise and sunset times.

A eleven degree alteration of the Earth’s axial tilt would significantly alter sunrise and sunset times around the world, and postions of constellations in the night sky. Again, this would be widely noticed almost immediately.

Made four years later, Crack in the World is a more orthodox SF/disaster movie. It starred Dana Andrews, Janette Scott, Keiron Moore and Alexander Knox. The screenplay was by John Manchip White and Julian Zimet. The film was shot on location in Spain and its memorable score was composed by Johnny Douglas.

Project Inner Space is an international effort to tap geothermal energy by drilling down to the Earth’s mantle, but attempts are being frustrated by a layer of dense material lying at the boundary between it and the crust above. The project’s director, cancer sufferer Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Andrews) wants to use an atomic bomb to blast through the obstruction, and a government team headed by Sir Charles Eggerston (Knox) travels to the Project’s site, a massive complex two miles underground, to consider Sorenson’s plan. This is supported by nearly all the Project’s scientists, including Sorenson’s wife Dr. Maggie Sorenson (Scott). The one dissenter is Maggie’s former lover Dr. Ted Rampion (Moore), who has developed a “Rampion Theory” that the Earth’s crust has already been seriously weakened by underground nuclear testing, and that Sorenson’s plan would trigger a global catastrophe.

Despite Rampion’s objections, the attempt goes ahead but shortly before it does Sorenson learns that his illness is terminal. However he bravely keeps this knowledge to himself. The bomb does blast through the obstruction, and magma bubbles to the surface. All appears to be well, and Rampion happily concedes that he was wrong.

However a series of earthquakes begin to occur along a (fictitious) geological flaw in the Earth’s crust known as the Macedo Fault. Many of the places affected have no history of seismic disturbance. Rampion and his assistant Steele take a DSV to investigate an underwater portion of the fault and determines that a spreading crack has opened up in the Earth’s crust. If a way of stopping the rupture isn’t found, the Earth will be torn apart.

Sorenson and Rampion put aside their differences and try to come up with a solution. They decide the best hope of averting disaster is to explode a hydrogen bomb in the shaft of an active volcano that lies in the path of the spreading crack. Rampion and Steele volunteer for the difficult assignment of lowering the bomb into the volcanic shaft.

The bomb is successfully placed, though Steele falls to his death in the volcano’s magma chamber, and Rampion is almost barbecued alive. Believing him to be dead, Maggie Sorenson is distraught. Still unaware how seriously ill her husband is, her affections are drifting back to Rampion. However, the latter is only unconscious and rapidly recovers. The bomb goes off and the earthquakes appear to cease.

Relief is short-lived. Soon reports come in that suggest that the crack has simply switched direction, and appears to be doubling back on itself. To make matters worse, it is now moving twice as fast. As Rampion speaks to Sorenson by R/T, the latter collapses – it is finally apparent that he seriously ill. The group returns to the Project, where Maggie learns her husband has just days to live. Despite her renewed feelings for Rampion, she is grief-stricken. However she accompanies Rampion in a jeep on a trip to investigate a second crack that has appeared near the Project complex [where exactly this is located is never revealed]. Meanwhile, Sorenson determines that the two cracks will meet at the original borehole, and that a portion of the Earth will be blasted away into space to form a new moon.

On the surface, Rampion and Maggie Sorenson desperately try to stop a train that is heading straight towards the crack, but the jeep goes into a ditch. The train fails to stop and a bridge it is travelling over collapses. There are no survivors.

After freeing the jeep, the pair return to the Project, which is being evacuated. There is a dramatic shot of two converging cracks. Nobody has seen Sorenson, so Rampion and Maggie take the elevator down into the by-now quake-torn complex to look for him. They find him preparing to record the birth of Earth’s new moon. He points out that the Project is located outside the area that will be blasted into space, locks himself in and refuses to leave. Rampion and Maggie Sorenson head back to the surface, but the elevator becomes jammed by a quake. They manage to climb to the surface and reach safety just as the two cracks meet. A colossal explosion blasts the new moon into space, at the same time acting as a safety valve to prevent any further earthquakes. Calm returns and the old Moon and its new sibling are seen in the sky together for the first time.

The science in Crack in the World is well thought out, but became dated soon after the film’s release as the theory of plate tectonics became widely accepted. There are in fact many “cracks in the world”, corresponding to the tectonic plates that slide over each other to cause continental drift.

The theory that the Moon was spun off from the Earth was first put forward by Sir George Darwin (son of Charles) in the 19th Century and was strongly supported by the American astronomer William Pickering, who suggested that the Atlantic basin had been formed as a result. However the angular momentum of a system so formed would not correspond to that of the actual Earth-Moon system, so the theory had to be abandoned.

Dated though the science is, it is certainly on another level to the ludicrous Core (2003).

For some reason, Crack in the World has never been released on DVD. It is strongly to be hoped that this omission will be rectified in the near future.

In recent years, there has been a trend for remaking classic movies of the 1950s and 1960s, such as the 2005 version of The War of the Worlds. The Day the Earth Caught Fire and Crack in the World would both be excellent candidates for a remake. Although both films are rooted in ‘Sixties fears about the Bomb, they additionally tap into two highly-topical themes – climate change and emission-free energy.

© Christopher Seddon 2008


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author