The Day The Earth Caught Fire: the press and global panic in 1962 and now

The small library on the fifth floor of the New York Society for Ethical Culture was filled with several rows of chairs. A microwave in the back popped corn on a table full of little goodies while people guarded quickly disappearing seats. At the front of the room, the projector sat on a small table, showing us the DVD menu for Val Guest’s 1962 sci-fi film The Day The Earth Caught Fire. After a brief introduction, the lights were extinguished and the film began.

In a sepia prologue, a sweaty reporter stumbles through a nearly deserted world to his desk, where he dictates a story, transporting us to fourteen days earlier. In the same – now busy – newsroom, we follow the reporter, Peter Stenning. Bit by bit, we learn that two nuclear tests conducted simultaneously by the Soviets and Americans have altered the earth’s orbit and axis, and the world is moving towards the sun.

Peter aspires to write for the paper, London’s Daily Express, but his wishes are constantly ignored and he is given more menial fact-finding missions. On a day off, he runs into Jeannie Craig, a comely switchboard operator at the paper. His obvious advances are interrupted by a sudden fog that covers London, and the pair focus on making it back to Jeannie’s place safely. As soon as they do, Peter continues his blunt, forceful attempts to bed Jeannie, which she roundly rejects, banishing him to sleep the bathroom. Then, the second he stops trying, she inexplicably changes her mind.

Days later, Jeannie calls Peter to arrange a secret meeting, where she reveals to him off the record that she has overheard confidential phone calls confirming that the earth’s changes are the fault of the scientists testing the bombs. Betraying her trust, Peter reveals the secret and Daily Express prints the news.

The government responds to the crisis with loudspeaker announcements by the Prime Minister. As water supplies disappear, the government enforces rations and many urbanites flee to the countryside. Eventually the scientists decide to orchestrate additional blasts in Siberia in an attempt to return the earth to its natural orbit. The film ends moments after the new blasts occur leaving us to wonder whether they have worked - both versions of the story are at the press, ready to be printed.

While we’re now used to more sophisticated special effects, the winds, temperature surges, fog, melting ice caps, droughts and flooding certainly strike a modern chord. The drastic changes in weather are so close to our current global warming predictions that I don’t feel entirely comfortable calling the film science fiction. (Just last week, I read more frightening reports of droughts happening worldwide.) The film imagines government regulation of water, while in fact we currently have a water crisis essentially regulated by corporations (see documentary films like 2008 Sundance favorite Flow http://www.flowthefilm.com/trailer).

After the film, our host led a discussion about the ethical dilemmas presented by Val Guest, naming freedom of press and confidentiality issues the most important. “Was it right for Peter to print what Jeannie said off the record?” She compared the situation to Deep Throat, the pseudonym given to the anonymous informant in the Watergate investigation. Many people concurred that Peter’s breach of trust was excusable because of the information’s importance: the world was ending. Okay, true. But what if the world wasn’t ending? Would the public deserve that information any less? That black-white line is rarely present in journalism, which is why Peter’s dilemma is so important.

One audience member actually disagreed, but on the grounds that they wouldn’t want to know if the world was ending. “I would be panicked for the rest of my time on Earth,” they explained. So, ignorance is the answer? I have noticed that many people – myself often included – prefer a general sense of doom to specific, identifiable terror. But that attitude is precisely what stops us from mobilizing to correct injustices; apathy and lack of information certainly make me feel ineffectual.

I was glad, then, that the film’s hero is a reporter: Peter and his coworkers represent an ideal public in that they are neither in power nor apathetic. I’ve noticed that many end-of-world films are told from - or heavily feature - the perspective of those in a position of power (Armageddon, for example, is told from the perspective of NASA and its recruits). Instead, we are kept out of this loop and experience the government from the citizen’s perspective: through the Prime Minister’s announcements and governmental regulations. And while those at the Daily Express are not making the decisions, they strive to unearth facts and inform others.

Another key issue brought up by the film lies in its premise. The series of events leading to Earth’s certain destruction is caused not by nuclear warfare, but nuclear testing. Without intending to, the world’s superpowers compromised the entire planet with both their weaponry and their rivalry. This victimized perspective is more strongly felt since the consequences are explored in London, where no tests were being performed. Is it ironic that the solution is to set off another bomb? Maybe. But it doesn’t detract from Guest’s suggestion: the world-saving blasts in the end are organized through international collaboration. The collectivism is driven home through a montage of the countdown occurring throughout the world. The point, then, is that technology can be used for good or bad, and depends on our intentions.

It was strange to see that there was never total chaos. Even after the papers began reporting the story, panic remained relatively contained. There was no protest to the government hiding facts; nobody seriously questioned the water rationing; what little chaos we saw was devoid of politics (young people throwing water around, looting, and looking pretty carefree). But the news reports did have some major impact: the government began speaking directly to the people, and the final blast countdown was broadcast to everyone.

That’s all well and good. What troubled me in the end was the way the newspaper dealt with the situation. As the paper prepares to take the story public, the editor tells the reporters to keep their tone positive. I chuckled, recalling mainstream media’s coverage of our current economic situation in the early fall: It’ll turn around soon, Don’t worry, Keep buying, It’s a fluke, It’s a recession not a depression…

And, more sinister was the ending. Sure, the bombs would work or they wouldn’t. Sure, the paper had to be ready. But how could they already know what they were going to say about it? Obviously the media, even then, had decided what the story was and how it affected the people before it even happened.