Monday, September 12, 2011
Val Guest: The Day the Earth Caught Fire
One of the pure pleasures of the modern age is being able to communicate with those who might have been out of reach in earlier times. One such occasion was when I tracked down the British film director Val Guest who made one of my favorite science fiction movies of all time--The Day the Earth Caught Fire. I saw the film as a kid--probably at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica on Montana--and was enthralled by the concept of a London plagued by hurricanes followed by scorching heat and the unforgettable heat mist that rose only four stories high and was as thick as the worst London fog. Edward Judd played the lead role with Leo McKern and Janet Munro making great additions to the cast.
At one point in my adult life, I had a desire to see the film again so I visited The Continental Shop on Wilshire in Santa Monica which specializes in British imports--everything from licorice toffee to fine china tea sets. They also offer an extensive collection of British films and, happily, The Day the Earth Caught Fire was among them. The gentleman behind the counter who transacted the sale fell into conversation with me about the film. It was one of his favorites, too. We talked about Val Guest and some of the other films he'd directed including the original Casino Royale on which Val was one of several directors. I made the comment that I would love to meet him. "He lives in Palm Springs, you know," said the gentleman. "He's a customer of ours."
The next day, I found myself speaking on the phone with a very amiable Val Guest who was more than happy to receive my call and discuss The Day the Earth Caught Fire. He had taken special pains with the script to ensure that it was a grown-up, intelligent look at the subject (nuclear testing) and that it wouldn't fall too far into the category of make-believe. I think he did an excellent job and told him so. Val told me he felt that Arthur Christiansen (editor of London's Daily Express who essentially played himself and stood as technical adviser for the newspaper sequences) might have been weak in the acting department. I told Val that I thought Christiansen's performance was the most memorable of all and--like the Dude's rug which really tied the room together--anchored the film in reality making everything else that much more credible. Michael Caine can also be seen in a small role as a policeman directing traffic during the havoc.
It was our habit to hold a quarterly exposition of all the work--film and television--produced by the repertory company in the previous months. It was a way of allowing everyone in the organization to see what others in the company were doing and was an enjoyable form of celebration. In the months where the desert heat relented, we held this convention in Palm Springs at the Ocotillo Lodge. We would gather near the pool in the evening and screen scenes from the many projects outdoors. It was my wish to invite Val to one of these where he might speak to the actors and filmmakers in the company. He seemed delighted by the suggestion and said he would be happy to attend.
The next two "film nights" took place in Los Angeles owing to weather and before a Palm Springs event could be scheduled, the repertory company came to an end. I regret not having made a special trip just to meet Val Guest. We spent a considerable amount of time on the phone and I know that we would have closed whatever restaurant Val would have chosen for our conversation about film. Alas, it was never to be and is a missed opportunity I regret.
Last night, I watched The Day the Earth Caught Fire for the umpteenth time and found it as engrossing as the first time I saw it. I am glad that, at least, I had the chance to tell Val how much I liked his movie.