Monday, 11 January 2010

British Science Fiction Movie Posters of the 1950s and early 1960s Part V

Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), is a science-fiction/disaster movie/newpaper movie hybrid with Edward Judd, Leo McKern and Janet Munro.
Filmed on location in London and Brighton, it concerns a Daily Express journalist’s discovery that nuclear testing by the Russians and the Americans has resulted in the earth shifting from its orbit and moving closer to the sun. Order breaks down and martial law is enforced; cities are evacuated; rationing implemented. Meanwhile, scientists work out that detonating more nuclear devices in the west of Siberia will steady the earth’s orbit!

Two versions of the front page of the Daily Express are prepared: "World Saved" and "World Doomed". The staff of the paper wait to see which headline will be correct. The film ends with Stenning (Edward Judd), whose investiagtion uncovered the story, walking through the empty streets of London.

Director Val Guest had intended the ending to remain ambiguous, but church bells were added to the end of the American version to indicate that the world had been saved. He suggested that this studio intervention had been inspired by the 1953 film version of The War of the Worlds, which closes with the sound of church bells to imply the crisis was over.

This gripping film is blessed with a thoughful plot, some sharp dialogue and excellent naturalistic acting.

Some of the filming took place in the offices of real Daily Express and its former editor, Arthur Christiansen, played himself as the editor of the newspaper. Blink and you’ll miss young Michael Caine as a policeman.

Though the film was photographed in black and white, the original prints were tinted yellow/red in the opening and closing sequences to suggest the intense heat.

Many of the sci-fi films from this period rely on monsters or aliens for shocks, viewing the post-nucelar Cold War world metaphorically; however blacklisted American diector Joseph Losey’s The Damned, based on Children of the Light by H. L. Lawrence, explored many of that era’s fears more directly.

On holiday in Weymouth, an American tourist, Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey, for the American market), meets a young woman, Joan, (Shirley Ann Field), who lures him into a mugging staged by her brother King (Oliver Reed) and his biker gang. They meet later and he forgives her but they are once again threatened by Reed and escape to spend the night in a cliff-top house surrounded by sculptures of twisted human figures (actually made by Elizabeth Frink) but the gang find them again and they head across a military base and are chased by soldiers with dogs. With King in pusuit, they hide in a network of tunnels and bunkers in which they find a group of young boys and girls whose skin is cold to the touch.

The children have been confined to these underground chambers by a scientist, Bernard (Alexnader Knox), who runs the base and who teaches them but limts their knowledge, telling them they’ll know more in good time. They are watched by surveillance cameras and are visited by men in radiation suits.

Wells and Joan manage to stay undetected with the help of the children, but they start to feel unwell but promise to rescue the children with King’s help, but they discover they are radioactive. They escape and see the sun for the first time, but they are recaptured by the military. King flees in a car, but he is chased and he crashes; Wells and Joan escape on a boat but it is followed by a military helicopter which will destroy it when they die of radiation sickness.

Bernard's lover is the sculptress, Neilson (Viveca Lindfors) in whose house Wells and Joan spent the night; she witnesses what happens and he explains the children were bred radioactive and the plan is to release them when nuclear war happens so they will be able to resist the fallout and carry on the human race. When Neilson won’t join Bernard, he kills her. As the film closes, people go about enjoying themselves on the beach unable to hear the desperate cries of the children from the cliffs.

The film was a Hammer productions and perhaps the use of the word ‘Damned’ in the title was to cash in on the success of Village of the Damned, a film the studio had regretted missed out on; the poster, with its blank-eyed children also points towards this. Losey preferred On the Brink – one of several sore points between the director and the studio; another was Columbia’s (the studio’s financial backer) decision to delay the film’s release over Hammer’s objections. In certain quarters of the British Board for Film Classification, the reason behind the making of the film was questioned to the extent that one letter referred to the people behind the project as ‘fellow travellers or paid up members of the Communist party”.

Although it was made in 1961, perhaps due to political considerations and the gang violence (at a time when there was a concern about the rise of youth gangs), the movie was not released in Britain until 1963. Even then it was cut heavily, losing some key speeches, from 96 to 87 minutes in Britain and 77 minutes in America where it was released as These Are the Damned in 1965. A complete print was released in 2007.
One of the children is played by Kit Williams, who later went on to become an author and illustrator, best known for his book, Masquerade.

Perhaps it's fitting that in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis, science is portrayed as wholly harmful to mankind and that Nigel Kneale's thoughtful scientist who battled government indifference and even conspiracy, has been replaced with another Bernard who is preparing for a nuclear holocaust that he sees as inevitable by destroying the life that Quatermass fought so hard to preserve.


  1. Thanks for popping by my blog.

    Yours is really interesting although I must admit, I'm not a massive Sci Fi fan but these posters are great!


  2. Love the blog!