This summer, Britain experienced a heatwave. It wouldn’t have been considered a heatwave in most countries of the world, and in some parts of the US it would have counted as pleasantly autumnal. But by our standards,it was a fiery hell.
In the UK, hot weather is so remarkable that we have even been known to make science fiction films about it.
Two British SF films that make a fascinating double bill are Night of the Big Heat (1967) and The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961). Both show what might happen if the British weather ever became so hot that society broke down and anarchy got the better of us.
Night of the Big Heat (known in the States as Island of the Burning Damned and on US TV as Island of the Burning Doomed) was directed for Planet Films by Hammer’s greatest director, Terence Fisher. It was based on a novel by John Lymington – real name John Newton Chance – which had been dramatised for British television in 1960.
The film is set on a small island which is in the grip of a heatwave when the mainland is experiencing a snowy winter. At a pub run by novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson), various islanders congregate in an effort to cool off. The pub has a cantankerous lodger, Hanson (Christopher Lee), who goes around the countryside planting electronic equipment, and who turns out to have spotted that the intense heat is the sign of an impending alien invasion. After various islanders run into something off-screen which burns them to death, Lee samples the scorched soil and announces: “There’s only one place where that kind of heat exists – out there, where the cosmic gases foment and generate a heat far greater than anything we can ever imagine.”
Terence Fisher has been quoted as saying he had no particular interest in science fiction, and in this film it seems as though the invader he’s really interested in is a sexy young woman, Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow). The film begins with her arrival on the island, and pretty much as soon as she shows up, her Austin Healy Sprite sports car blows a gasket – which is more or less the effect she’s about to have on the male islanders. One islander looks at her and says “No wonder the temperature’s way up.”
Peter Cushing, in a small role as the island’s doctor, calls Angela “quite the modern miss” while Callum and his wife respectively call her a “slut” and a “tramp”. It soon emerges that she is Callum’s former lover and has followed him to the island. She brazenly tempts him to resume their affair, while village handyman Tinker (Kenneth Cope) is driven so mad in the heat that he tries to rape her.
None of this adultery plot was in the novel; the screenwriters went out of their way to create a story of a rural community almost torn apart by unbridled sexuality. The alien element of the film is rather feeble by comparison, and the average viewer will remember a sweat-soaked Jane Merrow walking about with her blouse open much longer than they will recall the aliens.
Hanson eventually discovers that the aliens are “composed of high frequency impulses in heat form” and that they are being transmitted to Earth like a TV picture, via the island’s radar station, before taking physical shape. In other words, they beam down. The characters speculate that before long, every transmitter in the world could be a channel for an alien invasion – a potent idea for a great SF movie, but not one that this film has the budget to execute.
The aliens, when finally glimpsed, are a disappointment. “Looking like fried eggs,” Lee wrote in his memoirs, “they ruined the climax.” The film tries for a War of the Worlds-style ending in which the aliens are not defeated by human ingenuity, but by a chance rainstorm which cools everything down – but it comes as a let-down. This is partly due to the unconvincing special effects but also due to the fact that , even at the climax, Fisher devotes more time to the Angela plot than to the extraterrestrials. The rushed conclusion has Callum announcing “The rain – it’s killing them”, after which the credits roll abruptly. We get a hint in the preceding moments that all the personal and sexual tensions are now taken care of, but in the film’s apparent rush to get to the end, nothing is satisfyingly resolved.
The screenwriters of Night of the Big Heat added the infidelity plot, but they dropped the novel’s idea that the Earth’s problems had been triggered by nuclear testing – reportedly because that idea had already been done in The Day the Earth Caught Fire. And while Fisher’s film has its moments, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is that rare thing, a powerful classic of British SF cinema.
Val Guest’s movie opens with stunning widescreen shots of a dried-up River Thames and a deserted London. (The modern viewer will probably be reminded of 28 Days Later.) The black-and-white footage is tinted orange in this sequence, making the city look scorched. News reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) drags himself to his office, gives up on his seized-up typewriter and files his copy by phone – not knowing whether there will be anyone to read it.
In flashback, we learn that Britain – in common with other countries along a diagonal line on the globe – has been getting hotter for weeks, while the polar ice caps have melted. The phenomenon was initially blamed on simultaneous nuclear tests shifting the Earth’s axis by 11 degrees. But, as Stenning discovers, the explosions have done more than that – they have altered the Earth’s orbit and sent it ever closer to the sun. In one of those rare acts of unity that world leaders only manage in science fiction films, it has been decided to detonate four more nuclear weapons in an effort to correct the planet’s orbit.
The film is compelling for several reasons, not the least of which is its depiction of London’s Fleet Street newspaper industry in its heyday, with footage of the real Daily Express and its presses, as well asformer Express editor Arthur Christiansen playing himself. This is an office where Stenning and his best pal Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) converse in wisecracks, and where hard-drinking reporters hammer out brilliant copy under pressure. The newspaper people, flawed as they are, are the heroes in this film; the emergency services are bit-players. (One of those bit-players, famously, is Michael Caine manning a road block.)
More importantly, this is a film that aims to say something about the human condition. Stenning starts the film as a wreck of a man. He has a drink problem, he’s constantly absent from work, his marriage has disintegrated and he has occasional access to his son (who “recognises me after about ten minutes”). But as the heatwave grips the nation and society starts to break down around him, he pulls himself together. He finds passion with government telephonist Jeannie (Janet Munro), he goes back to work and he lands the most important news story ever. As he and Jeannie cling together in the face of annihilation, he says: “A lot of people don’t want to live … They’re tired, they’re frightened, they’d rather it was all over than go on worrying, being frightened, losing a bit more hope every day.” But he’s determined to fight for human life.
The film’s ending is perhaps the most astonishing thing about it. As the “corrective missiles” are launched, the press hall at the Express has two alternative front pages ready to run – “World saved” and “World doomed”. The film doesn’t tell us which one is printed. It just stops. No end credits, no company logos, not even the words “The End” –just a shot of St Paul’s cathedral. (The bells are ringing, in a touch reportedly added as a sop to distributor Universal, who wanted something more optimistic.)
This was a personal movie for Val Guest, who for seven years had been showing producers his treatment for the film, and who eventually provided part of the financing himself. We get the impression his convictions may well lie with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protesters the film depicts rallying in Trafalgar Square. Certainly, the movie seems to be urging us to take a position. Are we going to give up on the future, like so many of the people in the film? Or take refuge in hedonism like the gangs of spaced-out beatniks we’ve seen splashing about in the last of their water? Or will we pull ourselves together like Stenning and Jeannie and treasure life? It’s one of the most audacious unresolved endings in genre cinema – urging us think, not only about how the story should end, but where humanity itself might be heading.